Chapter 4 - Rescue and a Promise
For the next three days the weather continued sunny and calm. Sally and Tom had divided up the bananas as best they could among the one hundred and forty men aboard, but the only reason people did not complain of hunger was because of the raging thirst, which was much much worse.
With their last ounce of strength, the crew loaded the cannons and fired off a volley at the sky, to see if they could provoke it to rain; but alas, the sky stayed blue, almost white, and not a cloud formed. The temptation to drink sea-water was almost overwhelming, but all the sailors knew this would lead to madness. It was so hot on deck that the tar had started to melt, and so hot below that the Captain had ordered everyone to remain topside, for fear that the sailors would actually burst into flame if they ventured below-deck, as had happened to him once before. Phlegm had borrowed the Captain’s brand-new belcher to make a kind of tiny tent where Rita, at least, could find some shade, but the rest of them had to endure the dazzling sun as best they could, and hope for rescue.
Sally and Tom could not get over the loss of their precious phrasebook. They would both need to save up their pocket money for a long time to buy new binoculars and waterproofs, and they could begin again with their map of the islands, drawing down as much as possible from memory and consulting Captain Bailfast and the other sailors to fill in the gaps. But there was simply no way to replace Marcopolon Words and Phrases. It was while they were sitting back to back near the edge of the deck one day, contemplating this disastrous loss, that they began to imagine they could hear Marcopolon words and phrases being spoken somewhere nearby; but all the sailors were sprawled out on the deck and the Captain was studying navigation charts in his cabin.
“I think I’m hallucinating,” Sally whispered.
“Me too,” whispered Tom.
“Excuse me! Could I have your attention, please!” squeaked the imaginary voice.
“Except, instead of seeing things, I’m hearing things,” Sally whispered.
“Exactly,” whispered Tom. “Hearing things.”
“Hello there! I’d like a word with you, please!” squeaked the imaginary voice.
There was no way to ignore it. Slowly the children looked from side to side, then up and down, but there was nobody in sight. A single dolphin was swimming alongside the Friendship, its beaked face sticking out of the water, but that was practically the only sign of life.
“Yes! You there! Hello!” squeaked the dolphin, in near-perfect Marcopolon.
“I beg your pardon?” said Sally. “Are you calling us?”
“Indeed I am! Hooray! It works!” the dolphin squealed, and dove beneath the sea for a moment, out of sheer excitement.
“Hang on…” Tom said, “…you can speak…?” He rubbed his eyes, then his ears, then gave his whole head a shake. Sally was leaning far out over the side and clapping her hands together for excitement.
“What a splendid idea to give us that book,” the dolphin said, “splendid! I commend you. But first – goodness me! Where are my manners? Allow me to introduce myself. I am Bluebeak, ambassador to Handkind of the western dolphins.”
“Handkind? What’s Handkind?” Sally asked.
“What’s Hand – ! Why, you are, of course! That is the dolphin name for your species – we call you the ‘Land-Dolphin-With-Hands’. Let me see…in your language you say ‘humans’.”
“Hang on a second,” Tom said. “You read Marcopolon Words and Phrases? You learned to speak Marcopolon, just by reading the book?”
“Well how else?”Sally said, with a hint of exasperation. “Everybody always says how smart dolphins are.”
“And yet, nobody ever threw us a book before,” Bluebeak sighed. “Just fish, fish, fish. I have been ambassador to Handkind for twenty years now, and this is the first real conversation I’ve had!”
“Tom,” Sally said, “we have to get the Captain! It’s the code of the sea! We are a vessel in distress, and they’ve come to our assistance! Quick, go find him!”
“Be careful,” he said, picking up a rope and pushing it into Sally’s hand. “If you fall in, nobody will believe me.”
“Ah, and did you like the chocolate?” he heard Sally asking as he darted away.
“Choc-o-late,” Bluebeak repeated. “Choc-o-late…In all honesty, I cannot say we did. But we were intrigued by the curious drawing…”
“The map?” Sally guessed.
“There you are!” the dolphin exclaimed triumphantly. “It was a map! I thought so, you see, but the others said it couldn’t be, then I said Handkind does not navigate the same way as we do, so their maps are bound to be different – oh, so much to learn – ” He did a sort of splashy twirl, then fell on his back, disappearing under the water for a moment. When he came back he was holding something in his beak. With a neat flick he tossed it onto the deck.
“Thank you so much!” Sally cried. It was their phrasebook, much bedraggled, but Sally was sure that if they spread the pages out carefully they would dry in no time. “Captain!” she called, as she saw Captain Bailfast stepping slowly across the deck, Tom leading him by the hand. “Look! The dolphins brought our book back! And I’m sure they’ll help us out of the doldrums, I’m sure they will!”
Captain Bailfast looked blearily over the side, then his eyes widened and he drew himself up. “What’s this?” he said. “Dolphins?”
“Captain,” said Tom in a serious voice he thought suitable for the occasion, “this is Ambassador Bluebeak of the western dolphins. Ambassador, this is Captain Bailfast, of the Hand of Friendship.”
“At your service,” Bluebeak squeaked. “It’s an honour to meet you.”
“The honour is all mine,” the Captain said, removing his hat and bowing deeply over the side of the ship in Bluebeak’s direction. “I assume you won’t be…that is…I mean…you won’t be coming aboard, I take it?”
“Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to visit you aboard your piece of land,” Bluebeak replied courteously. “However, I fear some modifications would be required…Even so, might I ask a question that has preoccupied many a dolphin for generations?”
“Just why does Handkind need a piece of land to cross the ocean? Why don’t you just swim?”
“A piece of land…oh, I see. You mean the ship,” Captain Bailfast said. “Ah. Well, I fear our skill at swimming does not even begin to approach the…the…mastery of the dolphins. Without a piece of land underfoot, we would simply sink. Drown. Perish.”
“Code of the sea,” Sally prompted in a whisper.
“Eh? Beg your pardon?”
“Ask him for help,” Tom murmured.
“Eh? Oh! Of course! Ambassador,” the Captain said, drawing himself up, and clearing his throat, and pacing the deck as he spoke, “no doubt there is some mysterious fate at work, who brought about our meeting today, and this…why, this break-through in human-dolphin relations…For if we had not been stuck here, I daresay we might never have met, and what a pity that would’ve been! I look forward to many long talks with you in future…But the plain truth is, we are stuck, for you see, our piece of land needs the wind in her sails to get anywhere, and a drop of rain-water wouldn’t go amiss either, as my crew and I are, well, parched, if you see what I mean. So I wonder…”
“You will be pleased to know,” Bluebeak said, “there is a storm approaching that should be here in the next two days.”
“A storm? A storm? Why that’s very good news indeed,” the Captain said, perking up. “Phlegm!” he roared. “Rain-catchers, if you please!” Then he turned to the dolphin again and went on smoothly, “Although two days is two days…and then, of course, she might pass us by…On the other hand, were we to be nudged, if you like, or for that matter towed in the direction of the storm, it would be a great kindness, one that would put the seal on a most remarkable day…”
“But nothing could be easier!” the dolphin cried. “Wait right here,” he said, which strictly speaking was not necessary to say, given the Friendship’s situation, “wait right here, and I’ll consult my school.” With that he dove beneath the waves, and the children cheered and clapped their hands and hugged the Captain extra tight, for it seemed at last as if rescue was at hand. The commotion roused the other sailors, who slouched towards them, and formed a circle round the Captain while he explained what had happened; then they all joined in the cheering and clapping and hugging, and made so much noise that Bluebeak had difficulty making himself heard, when he appeared a few minutes later with ten or twelve other dolphins. But Tom saw him, and called out, “Hush, all of you! Let the Ambassador speak!” and gradually they fell silent. Then Bluebeak said:
“Handkind, you have asked for our help to tow you towards the storm, where you may profit from the wind and the rain to save yourselves and continue your journey. We will gladly help you. However, my school would like to ask for your help in return, on a matter which touches the dolphin-world.”
The mood on deck had changed slightly; everyone was wondering what sort of favour Bluebeak had in mind.
“Our cousins, the river dolphins, are in grave danger,” Bluebeak said. “Troubling reports have reached us about their plight, but we have not been able to learn exactly what the danger is. If we help you, will you promise to go to the river dolphins, and do your utmost to save them?”
The river dolphins! Sally’s heart leapt. The river dolphins lived deep in the rainforest. Some people said they did not really exist; they were creatures of myth and fantasy, like unicorns and gryphons. Sally had never seen one herself and had never been quite sure what to believe; but now she knew. “We promise!” she declared boldly, stepping forward. “We’ll go to the river dolphins, won’t we, Tom? And we’ll save them!”
“Of course we will,” said Tom, and pursed his lips, and said nothing more, for he took promises like that extremely seriously.
“Well spoken!” the Captain cried. “Three cheers for Sally and Tom!” And the dolphins joined in, wagging their heads and twirling in the water. Then the crew threw down the ropes, and the dolphins grouped themselves in teams of three, and each team took hold of one rope and began to swim, pulling hard, and within minutes the crew felt the wind in their hair as the Friendship picked up speed. By nightfall they had left the doldrums behind, and the lookout reported a storm on the horizon; and a few hours after that, cool, blessed rain began to sweep the deck, and the sails lifted and filled, and even Phlegm laughed for joy as they turned their faces to the sky and drank their fill. So the dolphins left them, promising to meet up with Captain Bailfast in a few months’ time, when their paths would cross again. But before they left, Bluebeak swam up close to the side of the ship, and spoke to the children.
“You won’t forget?” he said anxiously. “The river dolphins…?”
Tom said firmly, “We won’t forget.”
“You may send them a message,” Sally called across the water as they sailed away. “You may tell them: Help is on the way…”
Next week: Sally and Tommy enter the forest, and fish up a disturbing tale…