Forty-Nine Days to Boston
How many birds does that make altogether?’ asked Mother.
‘ I figure eighty-seven in forty-two cages,’ I replied.
We were on the wharf in Surabaya, the biggest port in Java. Alongside loomed the eight-thousand-ton bulk of the Talisse. She looked big, which was comforting, for it might be rough round the Cape of Good Hope.
The Customs men came along. They wore starched white suits with high collars, white topees, and there were huge gold watch chains looped from buttonholes to breast pockets. Their faces changed as t hey saw our pile of boxes.
‘Name, please? Ah, Mr. Ripley, you are the zoölogist from New Guinea. And now you wish to return to America? Fine,’ and the Customs men smiled cold, fishy smiles. ‘You have permits?’
I had reams of permits.
‘Ah yes, you have permission to export birds of paradise, crowned pigeons, parrots, pheasants, and marabou storks. But how about all these other birds? Surely there arc other kinds?’
‘But I don’t need permits for the others.’
Much shaking of heads and many dubious glances followed. Finally, grudgingly, ‘And now you also have many specimens in trunks for your Museum in America?’
‘Yes, yes’ — and all the bird specimens had to be examined.
‘These live birds, are they the property of the Museum also?’
‘No, no — these are mine.’
‘But how is that?’ The Customs men looked bewildered.
I sat down. First I had to point out that my Museum work was finished; then that I was keen about live birds; that birds from the Dutch East Indies were rare at home; finally, that I had been urged by the Museum to import a few in order to eke out my modest salary. After several painful hours there seemed to be nothing more to be said. The Customs men — looking visibly disappointed, I thought — allowed us to proceed on board.
Mother bravely anticipated the worst on the Talisse. After all, she had come halfway round the world to meet me after my job was over in New Guinea, and we had had visions of returning as quickly as possible. But the number of live birds had increased by leaps and bounds. The few I had captured in New Guinea became many as I bought more all along the way, until in Java we had to face the fact that not one of the big steamers would take eighty-seven birds in forty-two cages. And so our tickets on a fast boat were exchanged for two passages on a freighter going round South Africa — forty-nine days to the United States from the tip end of the Dutch East. Indies.
The Talisse was much like any other ten-year-old freighter. Aft of the forecastle came a long deck with hatches, then the abrupt white cliff of the bridge, with cabins beneath it. Between the bridge and the cluster of engineers’ quarters amidships surrounding the squat black and buff funnel was a small deck with one hatch, No. 3. Astern came more deck and more hatches, and finally on the very stem, like a little wart, rose the sailors’ and petty officers’ quarters.
Our cabins were below the bridge. Mother’s was labeled ‘Doktor’ and was made colorful by being wedged between the stewards’ office or ‘bar’ and the dining saloon. The Javanese boys who served as stewards spent most of their time squatting in a row outside her door, with the result that her shoes received better attention than they would have had on the Queen Mary.
My cabin was labeled ‘4th Officier.’ At one of the first meals I asked the captain why.
‘Oh yes, this boat was designed for a big staff, you know. She used to do the Mecca run.’
‘The Mecca run?’
‘Yes, taking Mohammedan pilgrims from Java to Mecca. Ran twice a year. Could ship at least six hundred between decks. That is why No. 3 hatch deck is one deck higher than the others. The others go right through under us, making one common deck. That gives shelter, and then we rigged canvas over the open part as well, and so we had space for all of them down there.’
We sailed about five. The mass of coolies, shouting and arrogant, who had taken over the ship in port were gone. Quiet hung over the harbor, glowing dully in the haze of late afternoon. Now a few sleepy-looking Dutch sailors tumbled out of their lairs where they had been lying up during the day. There were bell noises and rumblings below, orders rang out overhead, and, to the tune of a few rich round Rotterdam oaths, we were off, threading our way through the varied mass of shipping.
A last cup of tea, and now to the birds.
‘Boosman,’ I called.
‘Ja, mein Heer.’ The boatswain, short, squat, with red face and grizzled hair, looked as if he had just stepped out of a Bowery bar. Captain Scholl had produced him with the broad hint that maybe he could be tempted to lend a hand with the endless business of the birds, scraping out cages and washing them, lugging cages here and there, piling them on top of each other, or lashing them down before a storm.
‘Could you help me now?’
‘Now?’ The boatswain looked surprised.
‘No now,’ he said and moved off. I gathered that this hour was sacred to the anchor chain. I did succeed in finding out where the food storeroom was, and extracted a promise from him to help clean out the cages in the morning.
The birds were all in a covered gangway that ran from No. 3 hatch deck aft along the wall of the engine room. It was a quiet place for them. Only the deserted cabins of the hospital ward opened off it, spotless now since the departure of the last redolent pilgrim.
I found the head steward, who led me to the storeroom, jangling his keys with conscious authority like the prim chatelain that he was. I got out a big papaya melon, some bananas and fish, all under his eagle eye. I had only enough to last to Singapore, as he had told me that that was the cheapest place to lay in my supplies. I was to make out a list and give it to him and he would buy my perishables along with his. It was good of him to unbend like that, I thought, wondering how much his rake-off would be.
Even this first time as I started down the long line of piled-up cages, I began to wonder about the food. In the dim light of the gangway, the wired fronts of the cages, all sizes and shapes, packed in at all angles, looked like so many gaping mouths down which food must be poured. Would that two-by-four storeroom hold all the bananas, bunches of them, that I should need? Cutting up the fish for the storks and herons, chopping bananas and melons for the paradise birds, parrots, and fruit-eating pigeons, pouring out the grain for the ducks, pheasants, peacocks, and jungle fowl, I was nagged by my thoughts. I almost grudged the birds the food as I gave it to them.
Some of the cages had sliding doors which had to be lifted ever so little in order to feed or water the birds. At one of these there was a whirr, and a junglefowl hen flew out and up to a beam, to teeter there looking down at me. A jungle-fowl hen looks like nothing so much as a barnyard bantam, but by nature she is as shy and unapproachable as the wildest pheasant. Focusing my flashlight on her eyes, I was able to dazzle her just long enough to make a wild jump for her legs as she took wing for the open door. With the jungle fowl back in her box and the birds all fed, I staggered up to change for supper. I was late, of course, but fortunately Captain Scholl had chosen to eat on the bridge that evening.
In the two days of sailing towards Singapore we were able to settle down into a sort of routine with the birds. The boatswain appeared miraculously each morning to wash out the cages for me. The head steward graciously condescended to put my food out for me, for of course the keys were sacrosanct. Mother and I found that we could divide up the chore of feeding twice a day quite easily. Mother, brisk and efficient in her work gloves, would chop reënforcements for me as I moved from cage to cage. We hardly had time to survey the calm island-bordered seas before we were at anchor again early one morning far out in the Singapore roads. During breakfast the boatswain appeared.
‘Dat dommte bird, she fly overboard!’
On the deck the Javanese boys goggled over the rail, chattering like monkeys, while below the defiant little jungle fowl paddled about among the sampans gathered at the ship’s stairs.
Panting, the boatswain sputtered that he had already been out in a sampan with a boathook, but she swam too well.
‘Boathook indeed!’ I shouted, and swarmed down the stairs and into a sampan. At close range the little hen looked waterlogged as she bobbed up and down in the clear yellowish-green water. Maybe she was tired or the boathook hadn’t agreed with her, for she was soon caught and whisked back on board.
At last I must surrender my food list to the head steward. I felt as diffident about it as a relief commission. I know now what it is to feed starving Armenians. After all, forty-nine days is an awfully long time. Even the steward was slightly staggered.
‘Two thousand bananas. Two thousand bananas?’ he repeated.
I nodded firmly.
‘One hundred and fifty large melons, two crates of lettuce, eight hundred pounds of assorted grain, two hundred pounds of meat, two hundred of fish, one five-gallon tin of almonds,’ and he looked up. ‘Is that all?’
‘I can get the rest myself.’
The steward raised his hands in resignation, and Mother and I hailed a sampan. We felt spruced-up and slightly uncomfortable in our store clothes. Already life on the Talisse was beginning to make us feel relaxed. As we moved away from her she looked rather squat and comfortable sitting there ringed round with a swarm of barges and small boats — like a mother hen trying to brood an impossibly large number of chicks, I thought, picking up the first birdy metaphor that came to mind.
Singapore harbor is very large and full of traffic. The sun shone and the waves danced as we slipped by Dutch K. P. M. boats from Batavia, British coasters running to Penang, a French Messageries Maritimes, the Scharnhorst from Bremen, the Akuno Maru from Yokohama, and the Ong Soang from Hongkong. Most of them were anchored with surrounding swarms of barges, but one or two, like the Scharnhorst and a P. & O. liner, the Chitral, were passing on their lordly way to the docks. On their decks passengers lolled, staring at us from the rail. A band was blaring out a march.
‘I feel like Tugboat Annie,’ Mother said.
At the dock we parted, Mother into one rickshaw to look for a hat to wear ashore at Boston, I to search the bird shops. We were to meet at Raffles Hotel at eleven.
The Singapore bird stores are all in one street, a narrow arcaded place filled with huge red and gold signs and drifting crowds of people. Food venders patrol up and down, with large decorated food wagons stocked with, not ice cream, but rather eels, and varnished, very naked ducks, and hundred-year-old eggs. At intervals in their bargaining the birdstore men and their customers rush out and feast on a curried egg or two.
The stores are narrow corridor-like places lined with cages and crates full of tame chickens and ducks and pigeons. In the first one I bought several quarts of ants’ eggs for my insect-eating birds, and some wild ducks that I saw in a corner because they seemed half starved. In another, crowded and smelly, I was led up a filthy flight of broken stairs to be shown a whole room full of peacocks. Several gibbons, great white mournfuleyed monkeys, crowded together in the corners and looked at me reproachfully. I turned away deliberately, realizing that I had no place for them In my menagerie.
The last store, innocent-looking outside, was nearly my undoing. The proprietor, a little bald pot-bellied man in a pair of floppy cotton drawers, ushered me into his emporium. Pigeons to the left, chickens and ducks to the right, and an old cockatoo snarling overhead, were the main inhabitants. But he promised more birds in back and led me there with many nods and winks and grimaces. Behind was a sun-filled yard, glaring and hot, leading to a tumble-down shed.
‘I have a fine fellow in here,’ he said, opening a door and ushering me in. After the brightness of the yard I could see nothing. Then there was an earsplitting roar, and a full-grown tiger appeared hurtling through the air. I waited paralyzed until he came up against some heavy wire netting with a crash that rocked the shed from end to end. But by this time I was in the air, leaping backward to land miraculously on my feet on a long wooden crate. As I landed, there was a rending noise and the top gave way. Looking down, I found myself standing on the back of an enormous python which was coiled in the box. All of this was too much for a bird man. I parted hastily with my pothellied friend, and retreated to Raffles in a shaken condition for some much-needed stimulus. Mother returned with Singapore’s finest in headgear, and we recuperated through lunch.
In the afternoon, somewhat recovered, we went in search of more birds. This time we visited a very grand establishment, run as a zoo, although everything was for sale. The proprietor, a haughty chocolate-colored gentleman, condescended sufficiently to show us his birds. It was ‘all very much of a hobby, you know.’ This seemed only too true, for it was common gossip in Singapore that the gentleman in question really made his money supplying European ‘governesses’ — or so they were called — to the various local sultans.
Whatever his trade, I was able to relieve him of a king bird of paradise, a brilliant little crimson gem ox a bird, and a pair of Palawan peacock pheasants arrayed in miniature peacock tails and pointed metallic crests. Such treasures as these are still almost unknown in America.
Laden down with our new possessions, we returned to the Talisse. She had drawn in to one of the docks in the meantime, and as our taxi bumped on to the pier we saw huge rubber pipes running over her decks and down on to the ground. I shuddered to think of my python, but it was only palm oil, 2700 tons of it being piped aboard for a soap company in Boston.
There were other things going aboard too. Astern the after hatch, No. 6, was open and great bundles of bamboo fishing poles were being loaded on. There were also some small heavy packages which proved to be twenty-two tons of tin. All this, together with what had come on in Java, rice, bales of rubber, and boxes of birds, plus two people, made up our cargo. We were too tired to do more than put the new cages in anyhow and stumble through the corridor briefly to make sure that all the birds were fed and contented. At last I was able to drowse off to the squeaky accompaniment of the deck winches and the occasional hum of the coolies far down the deck.
The motion of the boat woke me. I walked out on the lower bridge. There was a pale moon between strings of yellowish-tinted clouds. Little yellow waves lapped at the sides of the boat. An arm of the outer jetty moved past with a winking light on it and that was the last of Singapore, the great roadstead behind us lit up with ten thousand lights. A fresh breeze slapped playfully along the ship. Its salt smell drove over us, sweeping out the stale harbor odors. In forty-nine days, God willing, we should be entering Boston harbor,
Mother and I relaxed into our routine on shipboard as easily as if we had never been off a freighter. We never got bored, although perhaps it was the birds that saved us. Day in, day out, life went on, punctuated only by meals which were hardly a social function. The captain and a few of the officers would file in with stiff smiles to sit silently through mounds of soup, fish, and meat, interspersed with boiled potatoes. We finally decided that we were spoken to so little because it was taken for granted that we were just part of the cargo.
From 8.30 till 10 every morning the birds were fed. Their cages had been cleaned by the boatswain before breakfast, as a rule. At 3.45 the second feeding came. This lasted till teatime. We had tea, the same as morning coffee, on what we had come to consider our own deck, No. 3 hatch amidships. Here were our cane chairs under an awning. The cages of birds were put out to sun all about us, and often a favored parrot or perhaps one of the young cassowaries, grotesque ostrich-like birds, would be allowed to have tea with us. The cassowaries would squat down between our chairs and solemnly consume quantities of biscuits.
Many of the birds had grown very tame and were allowed out of their cages to walk about and preen under our watchful eyes. There was Augustus, a young hornbill, a rumpled tawdry bird as big as a small turkey, with an enormous bill and great staring pale eyes. He used to follow us about everywhere on the deck, grunting companionably. He moved in a series of hops carefully timed to coincide with every fourth step of whomever he was following. In this way he kept at just the right distance unless you stopped suddenly, when he would catch up and bump into you, only to retire a demi-hop, ruffle his feathers, and look disgruntled. Augustus’s favorite food was banana, of which he devoured as much as he could until he had completely filled a pelican-like sac under his bilk At this point he could always be counted on to subside into a gentle doze.
He never liked the cassowaries, who would occasionally peck at him inquiringly, wondering perhaps if he was edible. He was jealous also of my pet cockatoo, who was continually being surprised and disgusted by Augustus’s appearance.
The wilder birds, of course, could never be let out. Once in a while there were accidents. A Bornean crested fireback, a magnificent pheasant with brilliant metallic purple plumage, simply bolted the cage one day while the boatswain and I were putting water in its cup. The bird went overboard and headed astern with a burst of tremendously strong winging flight. The boosman let out a mighty string of ‘Got verdammers’ and was inconsolable until a bottle of beer was suggested. It was a day’s sail west of Sumatra, and I silently prayed that the bird might reach the coast.
Usually after tea there was a wellearned interval for reading or writing. We had brought along a hodgepodge of books and read enormously, everything from the latest James Hilton to Boswell’s Tour to the Hebrides. Mother also caught up on her tapestry, something that she was always too busy to do ashore. I used to watch her on the hatch in her deck chair, so perfectly at home while all around hung and swayed parrots, screaming and chattering on their perches, with ducks quacking contentedly in their box in the sun, and Augustus, stuffed to repletion, squatting at her feet. Now and then she would interrupt her work to give more banana to one or a spray of water over the plumage of another.
The food question was becoming more and more insistent. Fruit began to rot. Some of the bananas that were green to begin with simply turned black and squashy instead of ripening. The melons went mouldy after a time. The last went overboard two weeks out from Singapore. As our supply began to dwindle, we were filled with the haunting fear that we might run short.
By dinnertime the birds had been shut up for the night. After dinner there was often bridge. The captain and Mother were the enthusiasts, the chief engineer and I the passive partners. If our two opponents were any criterion, the Dutch are the most cautious players in the world. Even my slow game was apparently too daring for them. One memorable evening as I was being urged to get a move on by Mother, the captain leaned towards her and said gravely, ‘No, no — don’t hurry him,’ and then deliberated with himself a full two minutes before he made his play, a two-spot.
All this lasted until ten, although we seldom finished a full rubber. Then came a final look at the birds and a stroll about the ship if the moon was out.
One night we saw a moon-bow. It was rather hot and we had walked up forward to watch the phosphorescence in the water as the waves curled away in two even tumbling masses from the knifelike prow. The moon was up, very full and bright, lighting a swaying path across the water. Somewhere off abeam of us there had been a squall, for we suddenly saw the moon-bow, a perfect arc of light reaching across the sky to bury itself in the waves. One edge was distinctly green, the other dark, perhaps purple, and the centre paler than all the rest.
Thirteen days out, and we were nearing Madagascar. We knew it because we woke one morning to hear the hatches all being heavily battened down with wooden wedges and extra lengths of line.
‘Oh yes,’ the chief said at breakfast, ‘we are off Madagascar, you know. It usually blows here.’ And blow it did.
The wind came in gusts from the southwest. The sea was lashed into an angry scries of great gray waves that hurtled at us continually. Water was everywhere, even in the closed-off passage, where it sloshed back and forth drearily among the bird cages. After two days of this there was a change among the birds. They lost their appetites and sat crouched miserably, heads tucked under wings. It was much colder also, for as we went south in June we were coming into the Southern Hemisphere winter. Fortunately, however, the palm oil, the all-important part of the cargo, had to be kept liquid by heating, so that the ‘auxiliary freight’ was able to benefit from warm radiators. In spite of this, a parrot and two pheasants developed pneumonia, an invariably fatal disease among birds. We seemed to spend most of our lime now hovering over the others, giving them frequent doses of cod-liver oil.
During the rough weather I saw my first albatross. It was great fun to stand awhile at the stern, clinging for dear life to the rail. As the bow plunged head on into a wave, the stern would be lifted far up above the water until the propeller itself was free and the whole boat vibrated with its racing. Then down with a crash the stern would go, pancaking into a boiling mass of foam which flooded the deck. At one of these moments an enormous wandering albatross came whirling down the trough of a wave. It saw us, lifted effortlessly, and hung there for a time without a visible motion. Its survey completed, the bird planed off in a vertical bank to disappear as we smashed down into the next wave.
Fortunately the third day was calmer. The sun came out briefly and we aired the birds. They seemed to breathe anew, and that night the paradise birds were actively calling for food. Mother had evolved for them a banana sandwich, a strip of fruit covered with a layer of ants’ eggs. For the last two days they had hardly touched this tempting affair, but now as Mother fastidiously buttered the fruit (as if with pâté) the birds eyed her greedily and gobbled up the whole mess, banana and all. Even the strange fierce blue-black cockatoos from New Guinea, who ate only almonds, stamped up and down in their cages raising their long crests and calling with rusty-pulley voices for more. The marabou storks, whose long bills were a constant menace to passers-by, jabbed at us through the slats of their cage more fiercely that evening, hoping possibly for a little variation from their fish diet.
Luckily there was plenty of fish and almonds, but the constant drain of rotten. bananas was quickly lowering our fruit reserve.
The following day was wonderfully calm. In fact, if we had been able to foresee the rest of the trip, we could have taken off the rope lashings which fastened the cages to the walls then and there. Our progression round the Cape and through the length of the Atlantic was attended with millpond weather. It was just two weeks after losing sight of the Dutch East Indies that we had our first glimpse of the South African coast. We were glad then especially for the weather. We sat out wrapped in blankets and watched the sea birds and Africa, a thin bleak line of sandy cliffs dotted with occasional lighthouses.
Birds were everywhere around the boat. The biggest were the albatrosses. They would sail by calmly on outstretched pinions, twisting their heads to watch us as they passed. There were petrels too, and gannets, shearwaters, terns, and even a few gulls diving and swooping in our wake. The commonest of all the birds, however, were the skuas, great brown pirate gulls, whose habit is never to catch fish for themselves, always to steal it from weaker birds.
In the middle of this sudden excitement of birds everywhere, the motor stopped. It was just before lunch. Captain Scholl said that it might be several hours before we got started again. This gave me an inspiration. I remembered the boatswain’s telling about fishing for albatrosses from a sailing boat when it was becalmed.
He proved to be very enthusiastic, as was one of the cooks who had an extra supply of fishing line. Soon the three of us were trolling off the stern, our hooks baited with meat from the galley. I was rather dubious about the hook, but my companions waxed voluble on the subject.
‘If de bird svallow de hook, joost cut de line,’ the boosman said solemnly. ‘Acid in stomach eats up de hook. I know it,’ and he nodded his head vigorously. ‘De acid vill eat a hole in a carpet.’
The scene was wild and strange. There was a clear blue sky which melted imperceptibly into the clear blue sea. The surface of the water was a polished mirror which heaved in long even undulations, gently, so that the motion of the boat was like a slow-rocking cradle. Lines of dazzling white gannets flew by with military precision. There were a few seals asleep on their backs, their flippers stuck up in the air at an uncomfortable angle. Masses of gulls and terns wheeled about us, so clean-looking, so incongruously waiting for garbage. None of these birds, however, not even the albatrosses, paid any attention to our bait. For this I was secretly glad.
Later, perhaps because there seemed to be no garbage forthcoming, two skuas dipped down to the water, alighted, and came swimming up to inspect our bait. All at once we were on edge. I didn’t mind the thought of catching these fierce creatures. One of them mouthed my bait a little and then suddenly began to shake his head. I pulled tentatively and he swam along. I pulled harder, the cook cheered, and up he came, struggling and shrieking his disapproval. Donning gloves, we seized him, letting him bite one hand so that his head could be held. His wings buffeted us fiercely and with amazing power. Fortunately the hook was only lightly caught in the corner of his bill. The cook in the meantime had turned back to his line. Now we heard him shout. The other skua had caught one of his feet in the long straggling line. He too was hauled up, and so in a twinkling I had two ferocious skuas in a pair of empty cages alongside No. 3 hatch.
In a day or so they calmed down and began to eat quantities of my iced fish. Today these wild Antarctic birds can be seen trotting about calmly in a grassed enclosure in the New York Zoo. They are the first of their kind ever to reach the United States alive.
The skuas had timed their appearence well. We had barely put them in their boxes when the engine started and the Talisse was off once more, leaving behind forever that strange calm spot of ocean with its curious assortment of birds.
Next day we were off the Cape. We could see Table Mountain and the bay where Capetown was. Leaning over the rail, Mother and I found ourselves thinking about bananas rather than the view, wondering if they had good ones in South Africa, but the boat churned on steadily, turning into the South Atlantic, and we never found out.
As the weather became warmer again, our former routine, interrupted since Madagascar, was renewed. Every day there was the same airing; Augustus would sit in the sun stretching his wings, the cassowaries would gambol awkwardly about, us, and the cockatoo perched on my chair would whisper his new word ‘hello’ over and over into my ear. But every day there were fewer bananas. At last I tried out some canned pears that I had bought in case of emergency. Unfortunately, though, none of the birds except Augustus, the omnivorous, would touch them. It became more important, than ever that the bananas should hold out. For a while there was a chance that we might put in at Dakar on the West African coast for water, but as the days passed and we ploughed steadily northwards we realized that there was nothing for it but to make our dwindling supplies last out.
On we went, past St. Helena with its stark red cliffs, Ascension, a blur on the horizon, and finally a small freighter, wallowing across our wake on the BrazilDakar route. We were really getting north. The next evening, for the first, time in nearly two years, I saw the Big Dipper right side up, and at that the trip seemed nearly over. But there were a few more excitements in store.
One morning there came a great knocking at my cabin door. It was the boatswain. Again a ‘verdommte’ bird had escaped, this time an argus pheasant, one of my most valuable birds.
We rushed headlong down the companionway and then to the forward deck. There among the winches and the tackle stood my argus, as unconcerned as if he were in the jungles of Sumatra, carefully preening his gorgeous four-foot feathers. He saw us and started forward, carefully picking his way over coils of wire cable. Would he fly? He had all the wide expanse of the Atlantic to choose from. Apparently not. Some fortunate instinct urged him into the inviting black hole of the ship’s brig which stood open under the forecastle head. We closed in on him then and seized him in a corner. In his struggles he let off a great shower of feathers, some of the best of which Mother carefully preserved and later had made into a hat for herself.
And now as we neared America we were filled with conflicting thoughts. Looking about us as we had tea on No. 3 hatch, watching Susie, the red lory, taking her bath so vigorously in a tin basin, looking on as the male twelve-wired bird of paradise fed his mate ants’ eggs through the bars of her adjoining cage, we began to dread going ashore, and yet we longed for fresh bananas. And now it would be tomorrow.
Near sunset we sighted Cape Cod. There was a cool offshore breeze blowing, through which we distinctly smelled pine trees. The sun set in a red haze which lit up all the clouds in the sky with a suffused pinkness. And then a curious thing happened. As the light on the clouds became dimmer, we saw great shafts of paler light streaking down from the farther side like giant searchlights. A few more minutes and, as the afterglow died at last, the moon broke through the clouds. It was a stranger sunset by far than any I had ever seen in the Dutch East Indies.
The next day we were in Boston. It was July the fourteenth, and cold and drizzly. The steward handed me the last bunch of bananas sitting forlornly in a basin. They were black and squashy. I returned them with thanks and went up on deck. Twanging familiar voices issued from the dining saloon. Yes, there were the Quarantine men. They looked at us with surprise and amazement as if wondering how we could travel all this way on a ‘furrin’ freighter, particularly Mother, now very smart in her going-ashore clothes.
‘How are the bananas in Boston this season?’ she asked. The Quarantine men looked mutely at each other. Evidently they realized now that we were quite mad.
It was the little jungle fowl’s turn to celebrate our arrival at the dock in Boston by flying overboard for the third and last time. One of the ship’s apprentices from the engine room volunteered to jump in after her out of sheer gallantry, and so she was rescued and wrapped in a blanket and fed brandy until she stopped shivering and staggered to her feet again. Now she lives safely in a roomy pen in Florida, busied, I suppose, about her domestic affairs and quite oblivious of her dips in three oceans.
‘Bananas!’ we cried to the chubby Greek propriet or of a near-by fruit store, and a whole taxicab full of bright yellow firm luscious fruit was loaded back on the Talisse. We were as ecstatic about those bananas as the most ardent advertising man, and so, we noticed, were the birds. They must have smelt Boston and the land at last, for the chorus of voices had reached the proportions of an uproar as we entered the gangway. As we slit open the fruit for the last time on the boat, the parrots did aerial evolutions on their perches, the little bright crimson king bird of paradise leapt from bar to bar of his cage with the speed of a winking light, the ducks pattered up and down in their box, the storks jabbed, the herons stabbed, and even Augustus began croaking happily. We were home at last, and the long perilous trip was over.
‘Except for the bananas, you know,’ Mother said slowly, ‘I shouldn’t mind at all just turning around and sailing somewhere else all over again.’