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DECORATION DAY IN THE CANNIBAL ISLANDS
"Uncle Munch," said Diavolo as he clambered up into the old warrior's lap, "I don't suppose you could tell us a story about Decoration Day could you?"
"I think I might try," said Mr. Munchausen, puffing thoughtfully upon his cigar and making a ring with the smoke for Angelica to catch upon her little thumb. "I might try — but it will all depend upon whether you want me to tell you about Decoration Day as it is celebrated in the United States, or the way a band of missionaries I once knew in the Cannibal Islands observed it for twenty years or more."
"Why can't we have both stories?" said Angelica. "I think that would be the nicest way. Two stories is twice as good as one."
"Well, I don't know," returned Mr. Munchausen. "You see the trouble is that in the first instance I could tell you only what a beautiful thing it is that every year the people have a day set apart upon which they especially honour the memory of the noble fellows who lost their lives in defence of their country. I'm not much of a poet and it takes a poet to be able to express how beautiful and grand it all is, and so I should be afraid to try it. Besides it might sadden your little hearts to have me dwell upon the almost countless number of heroes who let themselves be killed so that their fellow-citizens might live in peace and happiness. I'd have to tell you about hundreds and hundreds of graves scattered over the battle fields that no one knows about, and which, because no one knows of them, are not decorated at all, unless Nature herself is kind enough to let a little dandelion or a daisy patch into the secret, so that they may grow on the green grass above these forgotten, unknown heroes who left their homes, were shot down and never heard of afterwards."
"Does all heroes get killed?" asked Angelica.
"No," said Mr. Munchausen. "I and a great many others lived through the wars and are living yet."
"Well, how about the missionaries?" said Diavolo. "I didn't know they had Decoration Day in the Cannibal Islands."
"I didn't either until I got there," returned the Baron. "But they have and they have it in July instead of May. It was one of the most curious things I ever saw and the natives, the men who used to be cannibals, like it so much that if the missionaries were to forget it they'd either remind them of it or have a celebration of their own. I don't know whether I ever told you about my first experience with the cannibals — did I?"
"I don't remember it, but if you had I would have," said Diavolo.
"So would I," said Angelica. "I remember most everything you say, except when I want you to say it over again, and even then I haven't forgotten it."
"Well, it happened this way," said the Baron. "It was when I was nineteen years old. I sort of thought at that time I'd like to be a sailor, and as my father believed in letting me try whatever I wanted to do I took a position as first mate of a steam brig that plied between San Francisco and Nepaul, taking San Francisco canned tomatoes to Nepaul and bringing Nepaul pepper back to San Francisco, making several dollars both ways. Perhaps I ought to explain to you that Nepaul pepper is red, and hot; not as hot as a furnace fire, but hot enough for your papa and myself when we order oysters at a club and have them served so cold that we think they need a little more warmth to make them palatable and digestible. You are not yet old enough to know the meaning of such words as palatable and digestible, but some day you will be and then you'll know what your Uncle means. At any rate it was on the return voyage from Nepaul that the water tank on the Betsy S. went stale and we had to stop at the first place we could to fill it up with fresh water. So we sailed along until we came in sight of an Island and the Captain appointed me and two sailors a committee of three to go ashore and see if there was a spring anywhere about. We went, and the first thing we knew we were in the midst of a lot of howling, hungry savages, who were crazy to eat us. My companions were eaten, but when it came to my turn I tried to reason with the chief. 'Now see here, my friend,' said I, 'I'm perfectly willing to be served up at your breakfast, if I can only be convinced that you will enjoy eating me. What I don't want is to have my life wasted!' 'That's reasonable enough,' said he. 'Have you got a sample of yourself along for me to taste?' 'I have,' I replied, taking out a bottle of Nepaul pepper, that by rare good luck I happened to have in my pocket. 'That is a portion of my left foot powdered. It will give you some idea of what I taste like,' I added. 'If you like that, you'll like me. If you don't, you won't.'"
"That was fine," said Diavolo. "You told pretty near the truth, too, Uncle Munch, because you are hot stuff yourself, ain't you?"
"I am so considered, my boy," said Mr. Munchausen. "The chief took a teaspoonful of the pepper down at a gulp, and let me go when he recovered. He said he guessed I wasn't quite his style, and he thought I'd better depart before I set fire to the town. So I filled up the water bag, got into the row-boat, and started back to the ship, but the Betsy S. had gone and I was forced to row all the way to San Francisco, one thousand, five hundred and sixty-two miles distant. The captain and crew had given us all up for lost. I covered the distance in six weeks, living on water and Nepaul pepper, and when I finally reached home, I told my father that, after all, I was not so sure that I liked a sailor's life. But I never forgot those cannibals or their island, as you may well imagine. They and their home always interested me hugely and I resolved if the fates ever drove me that way again, I would go ashore and see how the people were getting on. The fates, however, were a long time in drawing me that way again, for it was not until July, ten years ago that I reached there the second time. I was off on a yachting trip, with an English friend, when one afternoon we dropped anchor off that Cannibal Island.
"'Let's go ashore,' said I. 'What for?' said my host; and then I told him the story and we went, and it was well we did so, for it was then and there that I discovered the new way the missionaries had of celebrating Decoration Day.
"No sooner had we landed than we noticed that the Island had become civilised. There were churches, and instead of tents and mud-hovels, beautiful residences appeared here and there, through the trees. 'I fancy this isn't the island,' said my host. 'There aren't any cannibals about here.' I was about to reply indignantly, for I was afraid he was doubting the truth of my story, when from the top of a hill, not far distant, we heard strains of music. We went to see whence it came, and what do you suppose we saw? Five hundred villainous looking cannibals marching ten abreast along a fine street, and, cheering them from the balconies of the houses that fronted on the highway, were the missionaries and their friends and their children and their wives.
"'This can't be the place, after all,' said my host again.
"'Yes it is,' said I, 'only it has been converted. They must be celebrating some native festival.' Then as I spoke the procession stopped and the head missionary followed by a band of beautiful girls, came down from a platform and placed garlands of flowers and beautiful wreaths on the shoulders and heads of those reformed cannibals. In less than an hour every one of the huge black fellows was covered with roses and pinks and fragrant flowers of all kinds, and then they started on parade again. It was a fine sight, but I couldn't understand what it was all done for until that night, when I dined with the head missionary — and what do you suppose it was?"
"I give it up," said Diavolo, "maybe the missionaries thought the cannibals didn't have enough clothes on."
"I guess I can't guess," said Angelica.
"They were celebrating Decoration Day," said Mr. Munchausen. "They were strewing flowers on the graves of departed missionaries."
"You didn't tell us about any graves," said Diavolo.
"Why certainly I did," said the Baron. "The cannibals themselves were the only graves those poor departed missionaries ever had. Every one of those five hundred savages was the grave of a missionary, my dears, and having been converted, and taught that it was not good to eat their fellow-men, they did all in their power afterwards to show their repentance, keeping alive the memory of the men they had treated so badly by decorating themselves on memorial day — and one old fellow, the savagest looking, but now the kindest-hearted being in the world, used always to wear about his neck a huge sign, upon which he had painted in great black letters:
HERE LIES JOHN THOMAS WILKINS, SAILOR. DEPARTED THIS LIFE, MAY
JOHN THOMAS WILKINS,
DEPARTED THIS LIFE, MAY 24TH, 1861.HE WAS A MAN OF SPLENDID TASTE.
Here Mr. Munchausen paused for breath, and the twins went out into the garden to try to imagine with the aid of a few practical experiments how a cannibal would look with a hundred potted plants adorning his person.