No. 5.—The Lost Axe, concluded
(continued from Part 1).
THE REST OF the voyage toward the Horn was uneventful; a light typhoon off Madagascar did not dampen our spirits, and the few pirates we encountered treated us with the utmost deference, apparently under the impression that we were the Ghost Galleon of the Maldives, a legendary apparition noted for its extraordinarily colorful sails. We reached the port of Cor Anglais in better time than we had expected, and we immediately made contact with a man who, we had been told, was the best guide in the French Horn.
Our only difficulty was in communicating with the gentleman. He did not speak our language, so I tried a few words of French, describing in the simplest possible language the monastery we hoped to find. His face lit up with recognition, and he immediately informed us, with perfect French pronunciation, that his aunt’s pen was on his uncle’s table. This, however, was not the information we had been looking for, and it seemed to be useless to attempt any other form of conversation with him.
Fortunately, however, we were able to secure the services of an interpreter, whose only detriment was that he suffered immoderately from agoraphobia. He had no difficulty in performing the functions for which we had engaged him in the small rooms we had hired in Cor Anglais, but as soon as he came out into the outside world, even in the narrow streets of this ancient port, he was overcome by terror and flung his cloak over his head. For our journey, we had to construct a portable tent; and whenever we had need of his interpretive services, we retreated to the dark interior of the tent, where our interpreter felt secure enough to perform his duties. This made our progress rather slow, as we had to set up the tent whenever we needed to communicate with our guide. The rest of the time, our interpreter kept his cloak over his head, and my junior officers carried him.
I shall not weary you with the details of our progress overland. We settled into a tedious routine of stopping at every fork in the trail, setting up our tent, posing our questions to the interpreter, waiting for him to pose them to the guide and receive his responses, listening to his translation, and then folding the tent and following the directions we had received until the next time we needed guidance.
At last we came within sight of a curious flat-topped mountain, on the top of which we could see a few ancient constructions and one tall spire.
“Voilà!” our guide shouted excitedly, without waiting for our interpreter. “Voilà la Plume de ma tante!” He pointed toward the top of the mountain. “C’est vraiment comme je vous ai dit! La Plume de ma tante est sur la Table de mon oncle!”
Here we made a rather embarrassing discovery. Our guide indeed spoke perfect French; we had simply misunderstood him the first time we spoke to him. The mountain, from its extraordinary flat top and sheer sides, was called “My Uncle’s Table” by the locals, and the monastery at the top of it was known as “My Aunt’s Feather.” (The words for “feather” and “pen” are the same in French—a fact I had not considered back in Cor Anglais.) I must admit that I felt rather silly about all the effort we had put into maintaining our interpreter; but what’s done is done, and the important thing was that we had reached our destination.
That is to say, we had nearly reached our destination; but there still remained the nearly insurmountable problem of climbing the sheer rock face of the mountain. We agreed that it could not be done without a rope. I therefore went up to the top and tied our rope to a stout stump, and then came down, letting out the rope as I came. Once I had returned to the base, we began our laborious ascent, clinging to the rope; and indeed I was grateful that we had thought to bring it, since without our rope the climb would have been clearly impossible.
At the top we were greeted by the abbot, who made us welcome with signs and gestures, and shared with us the simple fare that was the monks’ daily sustenance. We were grateful enough to get it, and once our stomachs were full I made signs that I should like to see the interior of the church. The abbot was glad to show me, and once my eyes adjusted to the dim light in the cavernous nave, I saw, hanging behind the altar, the very reliquary that had been described to me in Admiral Blanderson’s chambers.
This was the thing I had sought; but how to get my hands on it? I was a determined young man, but I was not a monster; nothing could induce me even to show disrespect for the holy monks who were the relic’s keepers, let alone to turn my strength against them in a contest over the relic.
I decided at length to make a simple honest appeal to the abbot’s better nature. By elaborate signs I indicated how much better and more virtuous we were than the Spanish, and that the power of the relic behind the altar might do much good in the world if it were placed in the custody of a nation so strictly moral as our own; and, on the other hand, that it might be the cause of much evil if it fell into the hands of the perfidious Spaniards. Needless to say, the effort of communicating all these ideas by gestures was exceedingly fatiguing. I was disappointed, therefore, to discover that the abbot seemed not to understand anything I had attempted to convey to him. He only understood that I wanted to take the reliquary, and he did not want to give it to me. I had no choice but to call on the services of our interpreter once more.
The interpreter was brought into the church; but having briefly glanced out from under his cloak and seen the vast dim space within the church, he let out an unearthly howl and flung the cloak over his head again.
This howl caught the attention of the abbot. He turned, and, in the dim light, beheld the spectral figure of our interpreter stumbling toward him, his cloak over his head, looking very much like a shapeless spirit from the other world. The abbot gave voice to an unearthly howl of his own, and immediately took down the reliquary and gave it to me, pleading with me by animated gestures to depart as quickly as practicable and take the horrible specter with me.
This was as good an outcome as could be expected under the circumstances, and I gladly accepted his gift of the reliquary.
The journey back to Cor Anglais was a good bit easier than the journey thence had been, as we were now able to communicate with our guide directly; and the long sea voyage was interrupted by few incidents, the only one of any note being our meeting with the real Ghost Galleon of the Maldives, whose spectral crew merely congratulated us on our taste in fabric.
Thus I was in good spirits when I returned home, and it was with a jaunty step that I entered Admiral Blanderson’s chambers to present him with the Axe of the Apostles. He received me warmly and congratulated me on my success; then, very carefully, he set the ancient reliquary on his capacious desk and delicately pulled the pins out of the latches. Slowly he opened the lid of the reliquary to reveal, nestled amongst the costliest jewels and gold filigree, a four-string banjo.
This was not quite what we had anticipated, but we decided to make the best of it. I suggested that we could give the banjo as a goodwill gift to the Spanish ambassador. And so we did; the ambassador was much pleased, and soon taught himself to play “I’ve Been Floating Down the Old Green River” on the instrument in a rather aggressive ragtime style. This ambassador later became his country’s foreign minister; and I flatter myself that the good relations we established with this gift were in no small measure responsible for the cordial understanding that currently obtains between our nation and the Spanish. I consider, therefore, that my mission was on the whole a success.