By Inez Haynes Gillmore
Author of "Phoebe and Ernest," "Phoebe, Ernest, and Cupid," etc.
M. W. P.
It was the morning after the shipwreck. The five men still lay where they had slept. A long time had passed since anybody had spoken. A long time had passed since anybody had moved. Indeed, it, looked almost as if they would never speak or move again. So bruised and bloodless of skin were they, so bleak and sharp of feature, so stark and hollow of eye, so rigid and moveless of limb that they might have been corpses. Mentally, too, they were almost moribund. They stared vacantly, straight out to sea. They stared with the unwinking fixedness of those whose gaze is caught in hypnotic trance.
It was Frank Merrill who broke the silence finally. Merrill still looked like a man of marble and his voice still kept its unnatural tone, level, monotonous, metallic. "If I could only forget the scream that Norton kid gave when he saw the big wave coming. It rings in my head. And the way his mother pressed his head down on her breast—oh, my God!"
His listeners knew that he was going to say this. They knew the very words in which he would put it. All through the night-watches he had said the same thing at intervals. The effect always was of a red-hot wire drawn down the frayed ends of their nerves. But again one by one they themselves fell into line.
"It was that old woman I remember," said Honey Smith. There were bruises, mottled blue and black, all over Honey's body. There was a falsetto whistling to Honey's voice. "That Irish granny! She didn't say a word. Her mouth just opened until her jaw fell. Then the wave struck!" He paused. He tried to control the falsetto whistling. But it got away from him. "God, I bet she was dead before it touched her!"
"That was the awful thing about it," Pete Murphy groaned. "It was as inevitable now as an antiphonal chorus. Pete's little scarred, scratched, bleeding body rocked back and forth. The women and children! But it all came so quick. I was close beside 'the Newlyweds.' She put her arms around his neck and said, 'Your face'll be the last I'll look on in this life, dearest! 'And she stayed there looking into his eyes. It was the last face she saw all right." Pete stopped and his brow blackened. "While she was sick in her stateroom, he'd been looking into a good many faces besides hers, the—"
"I don't seem to remember anything definite about it," Billy Fairfax said. It was strange to hear that beating pulse of horror in Billy's mild tones and to see that look of terror frozen on his mild face. "I had the same feeling that I've had in nightmares lots of times—that it was horrible—and—I didn't think I could stand it another moment—but—of course it would soon end—like all nightmares and I'd wake up."
Without reason, they fell again into silence.
They had passed through two distinct psychological changes since the sea spewed them up. When consciousness returned, they gathered into a little terror-stricken, gibbering group. At first they babbled. At first inarticulate, confused, they dripped strings of mere words; expletives, exclamations, detached phrases, broken clauses, sentences that started with subjects and trailed, unpredicated, to stupid silence; sentences beginning subjectless and hobbling to futile conclusion. It was as though mentally they slavered. But every phrase, however confused and inept, voiced their panic, voiced the long strain of their fearful buffeting and their terrific final struggle. And every clause, whether sentimental, sacrilegious, or profane, breathed their wonder, their pathetic, poignant, horrified wonder, that such things could be. All this was intensified by the anarchy of sea and air and sky, by the incessant explosion of the waves, by the wind which seemed to sweep from end to end of a liquefying universe, by a downpour which threatened to beat their sodden bodies to pulp, by all the connotation of terror that lay in the darkness and in their unguarded condition on a barbarous, semi-tropical coast.
Then came the long, log-like stupor of their exhaustion.
With the day, vocabulary, grammar, logic returned. They still iterated and reiterated their experiences, but with a coherence which gradually grew to consistence. In between, however, came sudden, sinister attacks of dumbness.
"I remember wondering," Billy Fairfax broke their last silence suddenly, "what would become of the ship's cat."
This was typical of the astonishing fatuity which marked their comments. Billy Fairfax had made the remark about the ship's cat a dozen times. And a dozen times, it had elicited from the others a clamor of similar chatter, of insignificant haphazard detail which began anywhere and ended nowhere.
But this time it brought no comment. Perhaps it served to stir faintly an atrophied analytic sense. No one of them had yet lost the shudder and the thrill which lay in his own narrative. But the experiences of the others had begun to bore and irritate.
There came after this one remark another half-hour of stupid and readjusting silence.
The storm, which had seemed to worry the whole universe in its grip, had died finally but it had died hard. On a quieted earth, the sea alone showed signs of revolution. The waves, monstrous, towering, swollen, were still marching on to the beach with a machine-like regularity that was swift and ponderous at the same time. One on one, another on another, they came, not an instant between. When they crested, involuntarily the five men braced themselves as for a shock. When they crashed, involuntarily the five men started as if a bomb had struck. Beyond the wave-line, under a cover of foam, the jaded sea lay feebly palpitant like an old man asleep. Not far off, sucked close to a ragged reef, stretched the black bulk that had once been the Brian Boru. Continually it leaped out of the water, threw itself like a live creature, breast-forward on the rock, clawed furiously at it, retreated a little more shattered, settled back in the trough, brooded an instant, then with the courage of the tortured and the strength of the dying, reared and sprang at the rock again.
Up and down the beach stretched an unbroken line of wreckage. Here and there, things, humanly shaped, lay prone or supine or twisted into crazy attitudes. Some had been flung far up the slope beyond the water-line. Others, rolling back in the torrent of the tide, engaged in a ceaseless, grotesque frolic with the foamy waters. Out of a mass of wood caught between rocks and rising shoulder-high above it, a woman's head, livid, rigid, stared with a fixed gaze out of her dead eyes straight at their group. Her blonde hair had already dried; it hung in stiff, salt-clogged masses that beat wildly about her face. Beyond something rocking between two wedged sea-chests, but concealed by them, constantly kicked a sodden foot into the air. Straight ahead, the naked body of a child flashed to the crest of each wave.
All this destruction ran from north to south between two reefs of black rock. It edged a broad bow-shaped expanse of sand, snowy, powdery, hummocky, netted with wefts of black seaweed that had dried to a rattling stiffness. To the east, this silvery crescent merged finally with a furry band of vegetation which screened the whole foreground of the island.
The day was perfect and the scene beautiful. They had watched the sun come up over the trees at their back. And it was as if they had seen a sunrise for the first time in their life. To them, it was neither beautiful nor familiar; it was sinister and strange. A chill, that was not of the dawn but of death itself, lay over everything. The morning wind was the breath of the tomb, the smells that came to them from the island bore the taint of mortality, the very sunshine seemed icy. They suffered—the five survivors of the night's tragedy—with a scarifying sense of disillusion with Nature. It was as though a beautiful, tender, and fondly loved mother had turned murderously on her children, had wounded them nearly to death, had then tried to woo them to her breast again. The loveliness of her, the mindless, heartless, soulless loveliness, as of a maniac tamed, mocked at their agonies, mocked with her gentle indifference, mocked with her self-satisfied placidity, mocked with her serenity and her peace. For them she was dead—dead like those whom we no longer trust.
The sun was racing up a sky smooth and clear as gray glass. It dropped on the torn green sea a shimmer that was almost dazzling; but ere was something incongruous about that—as though Nature had covered her victim with a spangled scarf. It brought out millions of sparkles in the white sand; and there seemed something calculating about that—as though she were bribing them with jewels to forget.
"Say, let's cut out this business of going, over and over it," said Ralph Addington with a sudden burst of irritability. "I guess I could give up the ship's cat in exchange for a girl or two." Addington's face was livid; a muscular contraction kept pulling his lips away from his white teeth; he had the look of a man who grins satanically at regular intervals.
By a titanic mental effort, the others connected this explosion with Billy Fairfax's last remark. It was the first expression of an emotion so small as ill-humor. It was, moreover, the first excursion out of the beaten path of their egotisms. It cleared the atmosphere a little of that murky cloud of horror which blurred the sunlight. Three of the other four men—Honey Smith, Frank Merrill, Pete Murphy—actually turned and looked at Ralph Addington. Perhaps that movement served to break the hideous, hypnotic spell of the sea.
"Right-o!" Honey Smith agreed weakly. It was audible in his voice, the effort to talk sanely of sane things, and in the slang of every day. "Addington's on. Let's can it! Here we are and here we're likely to stay for a few days. In the meantime we've got to live. How are we going to pull it off?"
Everybody considered his brief harangue; for an instant, it looked as though this consideration was taking them all back into aimless meditation. Then, "That's right," Billy Fairfax took it up heroically. "Say, Merrill," he added in almost a conversational tone, "what are our chances? I mean how soon do we get off?"
This was the first question anybody had asked. It added its infinitesimal weight to the wave of normality which was settling over them all. Everybody visibly concentrated, listening for the answer.
It came after an instant, although Frank Merrill palpably pulled himself together to attack the problem. "I was talking that matter over with Miner just yesterday," he said. "Miner said God, I wonder where he is now—and a dependent blind mother in Nebraska."
"Cut that out," Honey Smith ordered crisply.
"We—we—were trying to figure our chances in case of a wreck," Frank Merrill continued slowly. "You see, we're out of the beaten path—way out. Those days of drifting cooked our goose. You can never tell, of course, what will happen in the Pacific where there are so many tramp craft. On the other hand—" he paused and hesitated. It was evident, now that he had something to expound, that Merrill had himself almost under command, that his hesitation arose from another cause. "Well, we're all men. I guess it's up to me to tell you the truth. The sooner you all know the worst, the sooner you'll pull yourselves together. I shouldn't be surprised if we didn't see a ship for several weeks—perhaps months."
Another of their mute intervals fell upon them. Dozens of waves flashed and crashed their way up the beach; but now they trailed an iridescent network of foam over the lilac-gray sand. The sun raced high; but now it poured a flood of light on the green-gray water. The air grew bright and brighter. The earth grew warm and warmer. Blue came into the sky, deepened—and the sea reflected it, Suddenly the world was one huge glittering bubble, half of which was the brilliant azure sky and half the burnished azure sea. None of the five men looked at the sea and sky now. The other four were considering Frank Merrill's words and he was considering the other four.
"Lord, God!" Ralph Addington exclaimed suddenly. "Think of being in a place like this six months or a year without a woman round! Why, we'll be savages at the end of three months." He snarled his words. It was as if a new aspect of the situation—an aspect more crucially alarming than any other—had just struck him.
"Yes," said Frank Merrill. And for a moment, so much had he recovered himself, he reverted to his academic type. "Aside from the regret and horror and shame that I feel to have survived when every woman drowned, I confess to that feeling too. Women keep up the standards of life. It would have made a great difference with us if there were only one or two women here."
"If there'd been five, you mean," Ralph Addington amended. A feeble, white-toothed smile gleamed out of his dark beard. He, too, had pulled himself together; this smile was not muscular contraction. "One or two, and the fat would be in the fire."
Nobody added anything to this. But now the other three considered Ralph Addington's words with the same effort towards concentration that they had brought to Frank Merrill's. Somehow his smile—that flashing smile which showed so many teeth against a background of dark beard—pointed his words uncomfortably.
Of them all, Ralph Addington was perhaps, the least popular. This was strange; for he was a thorough sport, a man of a wide experience. He was salesman for a business concern that manufactured a white shoe-polish, and he made the rounds of the Oriental countries every year. He was a careful and intelligent observer both of men and things. He was widely if not deeply read. He was an interesting talker. He could, for or instance, meet each of the other four on some point of mental contact. A superficial knowledge of sociology and a practical experience with many races brought him and Frank Merrill into frequent discussion. His interest in all athletic sports and his firsthand information in regard to them made common ground between him and Billy Fairfax. With Honey Smith, he talked business, adventure, and romance; with Pete Murphy, German opera, French literature, American muckraking, and Japanese art. The flaw which made him alien was not of personality but of character.
He presented the anomaly of a man scrupulously honorable in regard to his own sex, and absolutely codeless in regard to the other. He was what modern nomenclature calls a "contemporaneous varietist." He was, in brief, an offensive type of libertine. Woman, first and foremost, was his game. Every woman attracted him. No woman held him. Any new woman, however plain, immediately eclipsed her predecessor, however beautiful. The fact that amorous interests took precedence over all others was quite enough to make him vaguely unpopular with men. But as in addition, he was a physical type which many women find interesting, it is likely that an instinctive sex-jealousy, unformulated but inevitable, biassed their judgment. He was a typical business man; but in appearance he represented the conventional idea of an artist. Tall, muscular, graceful, hair thick and a little wavy, beard pointed and golden-brown, eyes liquid and long-lashed, women called him "interesting." There was, moreover, always a slight touch of the picturesque in his clothes; he was master of the small amatory ruses which delight flirtatious women.
In brief, men were always divided in their own minds in regard to Ralph Addington. They knew that, constantly, he broke every canon of that mysterious flexible, half-developed code which governs their relations with women. But no law of that code compelled them to punish him for ungenerous treatment of somebody's else wife or sister. Had he been dishonorable with them, had he once borrowed without paying, had he once cheated at cards, they would have ostracized him forever. He had done none of these things, of course.
"By jiminy!" exclaimed Honey Smith, "how I hate the unfamiliar air of everything. I'd like to put my lamps on something I know. A ranch and a round-up would look pretty good to me at this moment. Or a New England farmhouse with the cows coming home. That would set me up quicker than a highball."
"The University campus would seem like heaven to me," Frank Merrill confessed drearily, "and I'd got so the very sight of it nearly drove me insane."
"The Great White Way for mine," said Pete Murphy, "at night—all the corset and whisky signs flashing, the streets jammed with benzine-buggies, the sidewalks crowded with boobs, and every lobster palace filled to the roof with chorus girls."
"Say," Billy Fairfax burst out suddenly; and for the first time since the shipwreck a voice among them carried a clear business-like note of curiosity. "You fellows troubled with your eyes? As sure as shooting, I'm seeing things. Out in the west there—black spots—any of the rest of you get them?"
One or two of the group glanced cursorily backwards. A pair of perfunctory "Noes!" greeted Billy's inquiry.
"Well, I'm daffy then," Billy decided. He went on with a sudden abnormal volubility. "Queer thing about it is I've been seeing them the whole morning. I've just got back to that Point where I realized there was something wrong. I've always had a remarkably far sight." He rushed on at the same speed; but now he had the air of one who is trying to reconcile puzzling phenomena with natural laws. "And it seems as if—but there are no birds large enough—wish it would stop, though. Perhaps you get a different angle of vision down in these parts. Did any of you ever hear of that Russian peasant who could see the four moons of Jupiter without a glass? The astronomers tell about him."
Nobody answered his question. But it seemed suddenly to bring them back to the normal.
"See here, boys," Frank Merrill said, an unexpected note of authority in his voice, "we can't sit here all the morning like this. We ought to rig up a signal, in case any ship—. Moreover, we've got to get together and save as much as we can. We'll be hungry in a little while. We can't lie down on that job too long."
Honey Smith jumped to his feet. "Well, Lord knows, I want to get busy. I don't want to do any more thinking, thank you. How I ache! Every muscle in my body is raising particular Hades at this moment."
The others pulled themselves up, groaned, stretched, eased protesting muscles. Suddenly Honey Smith pounded Billy Fairfax on the shoulder, "You're it, Billy," he said and ran down the beach. In another instant they were all playing tag. This changed after five minutes to baseball with a lemon for a ball and a chair-leg for a bat. A mood of wild exhilaration caught them. The inevitable psychological reaction had set in. Their morbid horror of Nature vanished in its vitalizing flood like a cobweb in a flame. Never had sea or sky or earth seemed more lovely, more lusciously, voluptuously lovely. The sparkle of the salt wind tingled through their bodies like an electric current. The warmth in the air lapped them like a hot bath. Joy-in-life flared up in them to such a height that it kept them running and leaping meaninglessly. They shouted wild phrases to each other. They burst into song. At times they yelled scraps of verse.
"We'll come across something to eat soon," said Frank Merrill, breathing hard. "Then we'll be all right."
"I feel—better—for that run—already," panted Billy Fairfax. "Haven't seen a black spot for five minutes."
Nobody paid any attention to him, and in a few minutes he was paying no attention to himself. Their expedition was offering too many shocks of horror and pathos. Fortunately the change in their mood held. It was, indeed, as unnatural as their torpor, and must inevitably bring its own reaction. But after each of these tragic encounters, they recovered buoyancy, recovered it with a resiliency that had something almost light-headed about it.
"We won't touch any of them now," Frank Merrill ordered peremptorily. "We can attend to them later. They'll keep coming back. What we've got to do is to think of the future. Get everything out of the water that looks useful—immediately useful," he corrected himself. "Don't bother about anything above high-water mark—that's there to stay. And work like hell every one of you!"
Work they did for three hours, worked with a kind of frenzied delight in action and pricked on by a ravenous hunger. In and out of the combers they dashed, playing a desperate game of chance with Death. Helter-skelter, hit-or-miss, in a blind orgy of rescue, at first they pulled out everything they could reach. Repeatedly, Frank Merrill stopped to lecture them on the foolish risks they were taking, on the stupidity of such a waste of energy. "Save what we need!" he iterated and reiterated, bellowing to make himself heard. "What we can use now—canned stuff, tools, clothes! This lumber'll come back on the next tide."
He seemed to keep a supervising eye on all of them; for his voice, shouting individual orders, boomed constantly over the crash of the waves. Realizing finally that he was the man of the hour, the others ended by following his instructions blindly.
Merrill, himself, was no shirk. His strength seemed prodigious. When any of the others attempted to land something too big to handle alone, he was always near to help; and yet, unaided, he accomplished twice as much as the busiest.
Frank Merrill, professor of a small university in the Middle West, was the scholar of the group, a sociologist traveling in the Orient to study conditions. He was not especially popular with his companions, although they admired him and deferred to him. On the other hand, he was not unpopular; it was more that they stood a little in awe of him.
On his mental side, he was a typical academic product. Normally his conversation, both in subject-matter and in verbal form, bore towards pedantry. It was one curious effect of this crisis that he had reverted to the crisp Anglo-Saxon of his farm-nurtured youth.
On his moral side, he was a typical reformer, a man of impeccable private character, solitary, a little austere. He had never married; he had never sought the company of women, and in fact he knew nothing about them. Women had had no more bearing on his life than the fourth dimension.
On his physical side he was a wonder.
Six feet four in height, two hundred and fifty pounds in weight, he looked the viking. He had carried to the verge of middle age the habits of an athletic youth. It was said that half his popularity in his university world was due to the respect he commanded from the students because of his extraordinary feats in walking and lifting. He was impressive, almost handsome. For what of his face his ragged, rusty beard left uncovered was regularly if coldly featured. He was ascetic in type. Moreover, the look of the born disciplinarian lay on him. His blue eyes carried a glacial gleam. Even through his thick mustache, the lines of his mouth showed iron.
After a while, Honey Smith came across a water-tight tin of matches. "Great Scott, fellows!" he exclaimed. "I'm hungry enough to drop. Let's knock off for a while and feed our faces. How about mock turtle, chicken livers, and red-headed duck?"
They built a fire, opened cans of soup and vegetables.
"The Waldorf has nothing on that," Pete Murphy said when they stopped, gorged.
"Say, remember to look for smokes, all of you," Ralph Addington admonished them suddenly.
"You betchu!" groaned Honey Smith, and his look became lugubrious. But his instinct to turn to the humorous side of things immediately crumpled his brown face into its attractive smile. "Say, aren't we going to be the immaculate little lads? I can't think of a single bad habit we can acquire in this place. No smokes, no drinks, few if any eats—and not a chorister in sight. Let's organize the Robinson Crusoe Purity League, Parlor Number One."
"Oh, gee!" Pete Murphy burst out. "It's just struck me. The Wilmington 'Blue,' is lost forever—it must have gone down with everything else."
Nobody spoke. It was an interesting indication of how their sense of values had already shifted that the loss to the world of one of its biggest diamonds seemed the least of their minor disasters.
"Perhaps that's what hoodooed us," Pete went on. "You know they say the Wilmington 'Blue' brought bad luck to everybody who owned it. Anyway, battle, murder, adultery, rape, rapine, and sudden death have followed it right along the line down through history. Oh, it's been a busy cake of ice—take it from muh! Hope the mermaids fight shy of it."
"The Wilmington 'Blue' isn't alone in that," Ralph Addington said. "All big diamonds have raised hell. You ought to hear some of the stories they tell in India about the rajahs' treasures. Some of those briolettes—you listen long enough and you come to the conclusion that the sooner all the big stones are cut up, the better."
"I bet this one isn't gone," said Pete. "Anybody take me? That's the contrariety of the beasts—they won't stay lost. We'll find that stone yet—where among our loot. The first thing we know, we'll be all knifing each other to get it."
"Time's up," called Frank Merrill. "Sorry to drive you, but we've got to keep at it as long as the light lasts. After to-day, though, we need work only at high water. Between times, we can explore the island—" He spoke as if he were wheedling a group of boys with the promise of play.
"Select a site for our capital city"—Honey Smith helped him out facetiously—"lay out streets—begin to excavate for the church, town-hall, schoolhouse, and library."
"The first thing to do now," Frank Merrill went on, as usual, ignoring all facetiousness, "is to put up a signal."
Under his direction, they nailed a pair of sheets, one at the southern, the other at the northern reef, to saplings which they stripped of branches. Then they went back to the struggle for salvage.
The fascination of work—and of such novel work—still held them. They labored the rest of the morning, lay off for a brief lunch, went at it again in the afternoon, paused for dinner, and worked far into the evening. Once they stopped long enough to build a huge signal fire on the each. When they turned in, not one of them but nursed torn and blistered hands. Not one of them but fell asleep the instant he lay down.
They slept until long after sunrise.
It was Pete Murphy who waked them. "Say, who was it, yesterday, talked about seeing black spots? I'm hanged if I'm not hipped, too. When I woke just before sunrise, there were black things off there in the west. Of course I was almost dead to the world but—"
"Like great birds?" Billy Fairfax asked with interest.
"Bats from your belfry," commented Ralph Addington. Because of his constant globe-trotting, Addington's slang was often a half-decade behind the times.
"Too much sunlight," Frank Merrill explained. "Lucky thing, we don't any of us have to wear glasses. We'd certainly be up against it in this double glare. Sand and sun both, you see! And you can thank whatever instinct that's kept you all in training. This shipwreck is the most perfect case I've ever seen of the survival of the fittest."
And in fact, they were all, except for Pete Murphy, big men, and all, even he, active, strong-muscled, and in the pink of condition.
The huge tide had not entirely subsided, but there was a perceptible diminution in the height of the waves. Up beyond the water-line lay a fresh installment of jetsam. But, as before, they labored only to save the flotsam. They worked all the morning.
In the afternoon, they dug a huge trench. Frank Merrill presiding, they buried the dead with appropriate ceremony.
"Thank God, that's done," Ralph Addington said with a shudder. "I hate death and everything to do with it."
"Yes, we'll all be more normal now they're gone," Frank Merrill added. "And the sooner everything that reminds us of them is gone the better."
"Say," Honey Smith burst out the next morning. "Funny thing happened to me in the middle the night. I woke out of a sound sleep—don't know why—woke with a start as if somebody'd shaken me—felt something brush me so close—well, it touched me. I was so dead that I had to work like the merry Hades to open my eyes—seemed as if it was a full minute before I could lift my eyelids. When I could make things out—damned if there wasn't a bird—a big bird—the biggest bird I ever saw in my life—three times as big as any eagle—flying over the water."
Nothing could better have indicated Honey's mental turmoil than the fact that he talked in broken phrases rather than in his usual clear, swift-footed curt sentences.
Nobody noticed this. Nobody offered comment. Nobody seemed surprised. In fact, all the psychological areas which explode in surprise and wonder were temporarily deadened.
"As sure as I live," Honey continued indignantly, "that bird's wings must have extended twenty feet above its head."
"Oh, get out!" said Ralph Addington perfunctorily.
"As sure as I'm sitting here," Honey went on earnestly. "I heard a woman's laugh. Any of you others get it?"
The sense of humor, it seemed, was not extinct. Honey's companions burst into roars of laughter. For the rest of the morning, they joked Honey about his hallucination. And Honey, who always responded in kind to any badinage, received this in silence. In fact, wherever he could, a little pointedly, he changed the subject.
Honey Smith was the type of man whom everybody jokes, partly because he received it with such good humor, partly because he turned it back with so ready and so charming a wit. Also it gave his fellow creatures a gratifying sense of equality to pick humorous flaws in one so manifestly a darling of the gods.
Honey Smith possessed not a trace of genius, not a suggestion of what is popularly termed "temperament." He had no mind to speak of, and not more than the usual amount of character. In fact, but for one thing, he was an average person. That one thing was personality—and personality he possessed to an extraordinary degree. Indeed, there seemed to be something mysteriously compelling about this personality of Honey's. The whole world of creatures felt its charm. Dumb beasts fawned on him. Children clung to him. Old people lingered near as though they could light dead fires in the blaze of his radiant youth. Men hob-nobbed with him; his charm brushed off on to the dryest and dullest so that, temporarily, they too bloomed with personality. As for women—His appearance among them was the signal for a noiseless social cataclysm. They slipped and slid in his direction as helplessly as if an inclined plane had opened under their feet. They fluttered in circles about him like birds around a light. If he had been allowed to follow the pull of his inclination, they would have held a subsidiary place in his existence. For he was practical, balanced, sane. He had, moreover, the tendency towards temperance of the born athlete. Besides all this, his main interests were man-interests. But women would not let him alone. He had but to look and the thing was done. Wreaths hung on every balcony for Honey Smith and, always at his approach, the door of the harem swung wide. He was a little lazy, almost discourteously uninterested in his attitude towards, the individual female; for he had never had to exert himself.
It is likely that all this personal popularity would have been the result of that trick of personality. But many good fairies had been summoned to Honey's christening; he had good looks besides. He was really tall, although his broad shoulders seemed to reduce him to medium height. Brown-skinned, brown-eyed, brown-haired, his skin was as smooth as satin, his eyes as clear as crystal, his hair as thick as fur. His expression had tremendous sparkle. But his main physical charm was a smile which crumpled his brown face into an engaging irregularity of contour and lighted it with an expression brilliant with mirth and friendliness.
He was a true soldier of fortune. In the ten years which his business career covered be had engaged in a score of business ventures. He had lost two fortunes. Born in the West, educated in the East, he had flashed from coast to coast so often that he himself would have found it hard to say where he belonged.
He was the admiration and the wonder and the paragon and the criterion of his friend Billy Fairfax, who had trailed his meteoric course through college and who, when the Brian Boru went down, was accompanying him on his most recent adventure—a globe-trotting trip in the interests of a moving-picture company. Socially they made an excellent team. For Billy contributed money, birth, breeding, and position to augment Honey's initiative, enterprise, audacity, and charm. Billy Fairfax offered other contrasts quite as striking. On his physical side, he was shapelessly strong and hopelessly ugly, a big, shock-headed blond. On his personal side "mere mutt-man" was the way one girl put it, "too much of a damned gentleman" Honey Smith said to him regularly.
Billy Fairfax was not, however, without charm of a certain shy, evasive, slow-going kind; and he was not without his own distinction. His huge fortune had permitted him to cultivate many expensive sports and sporting tastes. His studs and kennels and strings of polo ponies were famous. He was a polo-player well above the average and an aviator not far below it.
Pete Murphy, the fifth of the group, was the delight of them all. The carriage of a bantam rooster, the courage of a lion, more brain than he could stagger under; a disposition fiery, mercurial, sanguine, witty; he was made, according to Billy Fairfax's dictum, of "wire and brass tacks," and he possessed what Honey Smith (who himself had no mean gift in that direction) called "the gift of gab." He lived by writing magazine articles. Also he wrote fiction, verse, and drama. Also he was a painter. Also he was a musician. In short, he was an Irishman.
Artistically, he had all the perception of the Celt plus the acquired sapience of the painter's training. If he could have existed in a universe which consisted entirely of sound and color, a universe inhabited only by disembodied spirits, he would have been its ablest citizen; but he was utterly disqualified to live in a human world. He was absolutely incapable of judging people. His tendency was to underestimate men and to overestimate women. His life bore all the scars inevitable to such an instinct. Women, in particular, had played ducks and drakes with his career. Weakly chivalrous, mindlessly gallant, he lacked the faculty of learning by experience—especially where the other sex were concerned. "Predestined to be stung!" was, his first wife's laconic comment on her ex-husband. She, for instance, was undoubtedly the blameworthy one in their marital failure, but she had managed to extract a ruinous alimony from him. Twice married and twice divorced, he was traveled through the Orient to write a series of muck raking articles and, incidentally if possible, to forget his last unhappy matrimonial venture.
Physically, Pete was the black type of Celt. The wild thatch of his scrubbing-brush hair shone purple in the light. Scrape his face as he would, the purple shadow of his beard seemed ingrained in his white white skin. Black-browed and black-lashed, he had the luminous blue-gray-green eyes of the colleen. There was a curious untamable quality in his look that was the mixture of two mad strains, the aloofness of the Celt and the aloofness of the genius.
Three weeks passed. The clear, warm-cool, lucid, sunny weather kept up. The ocean flattened, gradually. Twice every twenty-four hours the tide brought treasure; but it brought less and less every day. Occasionally came a stiffened human reminder of their great disaster. But calloused as they were now to these experiences, the men buried it with hasty ceremony and forgot.
By this time an incongruous collection stretched in parallel lines above the high-water mark. "Something, anything, everything—and then some," remarked Honey Smith. Wood wreckage of all descriptions, acres of furniture, broken, split, blistered, discolored, swollen; piles of carpets, rugs, towels, bed-linen, stained, faded, shrunken, torn; files of swollen mattresses, pillows, cushions, life-preservers; heaps of table-silver and kitchen-ware tarnished and rusty; mounds of china and glass; mountains of tinned goods, barrels boxes, books, suit-cases, leather bags; trunks and trunks and more trunks and still more trunks; for, mainly, the trunks had saved themselves.
Part of the time, in between tides, they tried to separate the grain of this huge collection of lumber from the chaff; part of the time they made exploring trips into the interior. At night they sat about their huge fire and talked.
The island proved to be about twenty miles in length by seven in width. It was uninhabited and there were no large animals on it. It was Frank Merrill's theory that it was the exposed peak of a huge extinct volcano. In the center, filling the crater, was a little fresh-water lake. The island was heavily wooded; but in contour it presented only diminutive contrasts of hill and valley. And except as the semi-tropical foliage offered novelties of leaf and flower, the beauties of unfamiliar shapes and colors, it did not seem particularly interesting. Ralph Addington was the guide of these expeditions. From this tree, he pointed out, the South Sea Islander manufactured the tappa cloth, from that the poeepooee, from yonder the arva. Honey Smith used to say that the only depressing thing about these trips was the utter silence of the gorgeous birds which they saw on every side. On the other hand, they extracted what comfort they could from Merrill's and Addington's assurance that, should the ship's supply give out, they could live comfortably enough on birds' eggs, fruit, and fish.
Sorting what Honey Smith called the "ship-duffle" was one prolonged adventure. At first they made little progress; for all five of them gathered over each important find, chattering like girls. Each man followed the bent of his individual instinct for acquisitiveness. Frank Merrill picked out books, paper, writing materials of every sort. Ralph Addington ran to clothes. The habit of the man with whom it is a business policy to appear well-dressed maintained itself; even in their Eveless Eden, he presented a certain tailored smartness. Billy Fairfax selected kitchen utensils and tools. Later, he came across a box filled with tennis rackets, nets, and balls. The rackets' strings had snapped and the balls were dead. He began immediately to restring the rackets, to make new balls from twine, to lay out a court. Like true soldiers of fortune, Honey Smith and Pete Murphy made no special collection; they looted for mere loot's sake.
One day, in the midst of one of their raids, Honey Smith yelled a surprised and triumphant, "By jiminy!" The others showed no signs, of interest. Honey was an alarmist; the treasure of the moment might prove to be a Japanese print or a corkscrew. But as nobody stirred or spoke, he called, "The Wilmington 'Blue'!"
These words carried their inevitable magic. His companions dropped everything; they swarmed about him.
Honey held on his palm what, in the brilliant sunlight looked like a globe of blue fire, a fire that emitted rainbows instead of sparks.
He passed it from hand to hand. It seemed a miracle that the fingers which touched it did not burst into flame. For a moment the five men might have been five children.
"Well," said Pete Murphy, "according to all fiction precedent, the rest of us ought to get together immediately, if not a little sooner, and murder you, Honey."
"Go as far as you like," said Honey, dropping the stone into the pocket of his flannel shirt. "Only if anybody really gets peeved about this junk of carbon, I'll give it to him."
For a while life flowed wonderful. The men labored with a joy-in-work at which they themselves marveled. Their out-of-doors existence showed its effects in a condition of glowing health. Honey Smith changed first to a brilliant red, then to a uniform coffee brown, and last to a shining bronze which was the mixture of both these colors. Pete Murphy grew one crop of freckles, then another and still another until Honey offered to "excavate" his features. Ralph Addington developed a rich, subcutaneous, golden-umber glow which made him seem, in connection with an occasional unconventionality of costume, more than ever like the schoolgirl's idea of an artist. Billy Fairfax's blond hair bleached to flaxen. His complexion deepened in tone to a permanent pink. This, in contrast with the deep clear blue of his eyes, gave him a kind of out-of-doors comeliness. But Frank Merrill was the surprise of them all. He not only grew handsomer, he grew younger; a magnificent, towering, copper-colored monolith of a man, whose gray eyes were as clear as mountain springs, whose white teeth turned his smile to a flash of light. Constantly they patrolled the beach, pairs of them, studying the ocean for sight of a distant sail, selecting at intervals a new spot on which at night to start fires, or by day to erect signals. They bubbled with spirits. They laughed and talked without cessation. The condition which Ralph Addington had deplored, the absence of women, made first for social relaxation, for psychological rest.
"Lord, I never noticed before—until I got this chance to get off and think of it—what a damned bother women are," Honey Smith said one day. "Of all the sexes that roam the earth, as George Ade says, I like them least. What a mess they make of your time and your work, always requiring so much attention, always having to be waited on, always dropping things, always so much foolish fuss and ceremony, always asking such footless questions and never hearing you when you answer them. Never really knowing anything or saying anything. They're a different kind of critter, that's all there is to it; they're amateurs at life. They're a failure as a sex and an outworn convention anyway. Myself, I'm for sending them to the scrap-heap. Votes for men!"
And with this, according to the divagations of their temperaments and characters, the others strenuously concurred.
Their days, crowded to the brim with work, passed so swiftly that they scarcely noticed their flight. Their nights, filled with a sleep that was twin brother to Death, seemed not to exist at all.
Their evenings were lively with the most brilliant kind of man-talk. To it, Frank Merrill brought his encyclopedic book knowledge, his insatiable curiosity about life; Ralph Addington all the garnered richness of his acute observation; Billy Fairfax his acquaintance with the elect of the society or of the art world, his quiet, deferential attitude of listener. But the events of these conversational orgies were Honey Smith's adventures and Pete Murphy's romances. Honey's narrative was crisp, clear, quick, straight from the shoulder, colloquial, slangy. He dealt often in the first person and the present tense. He told a plain tale from its simple beginning to its simple end. But Pete—. His language had all Honey's simplicity lined terseness and, in addition, he had the literary touch, both the dramatist's instinct and the fictionist's insight. His stories always ran up to a psychological climax; but this was always disguised by the best narratory tricks. He was one of those men of whom people always say, "if he could only write as he talks." In point of fact, he wrote much better than he talked—but he talked better than any one else. The unanalytic never allowed in him for the spell of the spoken word, nor for the fiery quality of his spirit.
As time went on, their talks grew more and ore confidential. Women's faces began to gleam here and there in narrative. They began to indulge in long discussions of the despised sex; at times they ran into fierce controversy. Occasionally Honey Smith re-told a story which, from the introduction of a shadowy girl-figure, became mysteriously more interesting and compelling. Once or twice they nearly went over the border-line of legitimate confidence, so intimate had their talk become—muffled as it was by the velvety, star-sown dark and interrupted only by the unheeded thunders of the surf. They were always pulling themselves up to debate openly whether they should go farther, always, on consideration, turning narrative into a channel much less confidential and much less, interesting, or as openly plugging straight ahead, carefully disguising names and places.
After a week or two, the first fine careless rapture of their escape from death disappeared. The lure of loot evaporated. They did not stop their work on "the ship-duffle," but it became aimless and undirected. Their trips into the island seemed a little purposeless. Frank Merrill had to scourge them to patrol the beach, to keep their signal sheets flying, their signal fires burning. The effect upon their mental condition of this loss of animus was immediate. They became perceptibly more serious. Their first camp—it consisted only of five haphazard piles of bedding—satisfied superficially the shiftless habits of their womanless group; subconsciously, however, they all fell under the depression of its discomfort and disorder. They bathed in the ocean regularly but they did not shave. Their clothes grew ragged and torn, and although there were scores of trunks packed with wearing apparel, they did not bother to change them. Subconsciously they all responded to these irregularities by a sudden change in spirit.
In the place of the gay talk-fests that filled their evenings, they began to hold long pessimistic discussions about their future on the island in case rescue were indefinitely delayed. Taciturn periods fell upon them. Frank Merrill showed only a slight seriousness. Billy Fairfax, however, wore a look permanently sobered. Pete Murphy became subject at regular intervals to wild rhapsodical seizures when he raved, almost in impromptu verse, about the beauty of sea and sky. These were followed by periods of an intense, bitter, black, Celtic melancholy. Ralph Addington degenerated into what Honey described as "the human sourball." He spoke as seldom as possible and then only to snarl. He showed a tendency to disobey the few orders that Frank Merrill, who still held his position of leader, laid upon them. Once or twice he grazed a quarrel with Merrill. Honey Smith developed an abnormality equal to Ralph Addington's, but in the opposite direction. His spirits never flagged; he brimmed with joy-in-life, vitality, and optimism. It was as if he had some secret mental solace.
"Damn you and your sunny-side-up dope!" Ralph Addington growled at him again and again. "Shut up, will you!"
One day Frank Merrill proposed a hike across the island. Billy Fairfax who, at the head, had set a brisk pace for the file, suddenly dropped back to the rear and accosted Honey Smith who had lagged behind. Honey was skipping stones over the lake from a pocketful of flat pebbles.
"Say, Honey," Billy began. The other four men were far ahead, but Billy kept his voice low. Do you remember that dream you had about the big bird—the time we joshed you so?
"Sure do I," Honey said cheerfully. "Only remember one thing, Billy. That wasn't a dream any more than this is."
"All right," Billy exclaimed. "You don't have to show me. A funny thing happened to me last night. I'm not telling the others. They won't believe it and—well, my nerves are all on end. I know I'd get mad if they began to jolly. I was sleeping like the dickens—a sure-for-certain Rip Van Winkle—when all of a sudden—Did you ever have a pet cat, Honey?"
"Well, I've had lots of them. I like cats. I had one once that used to wake me up at two minutes past seven every morning as regularly as two minutes past seven came—not an instant before, not an instant after. He turned the trick by jumping up on the bed and looking steadily into my face. Never touched me, you understand. Well, I waked this morning just after sunrise with a feeling that Kilo was there staring at me. Somebody was—" Billy paused. He swallowed rapidly and wet his lips. "But it wasn't Kilo." Billy paused again.
"I'm listening, bo," said Honey, shying another stone.
"It was a girl looking at me," Billy said, simply as though it were something to be expected. He paused. Then, "Get that? A girl! She was bending over me—pretty close—I could almost touch her. I can see her now as plainly as I see you. She was blonde. One of those pale-gold blondes with hair like honey and features cut with a chisel. You know the type. Some people think it's cold. It's a kind of beauty that's always appealed to me, though." He stopped.
"Well," Honey prodded him with a kind of non-committal calm, "what happened?"
"Nothing. If you can believe me—nothing. I stared—oh, I guess I stared for a quarter of a minute straight up into the most beautiful pair of eyes that I ever saw in my life. I stared straight up into them and I stared straight down into them. They were as deep as a well and as gray as a cloud and as cold as ice. And they had lashes—" For a moment the quiet directness of Billy's narrative was disturbed by a whiff of inner tumult. "Whew! what eyelashes! Honey, did you ever come across a lonely mountain lake with high reeds growing around the edge? You know how pure and unspoiled and virginal it seems. That was her eyes. They sort of hypnotized me. My eyes closed and—when I awoke it was broad daylight. What do you think?"
"Well," said Honey judicially, "I know just how you feel. I could have killed the boys for joshing me the way they did. I was sure. I was certain I heard a woman laugh that night. And, by God, I did hear it. Whenever I contradict myself, something rises up and tells me I lie. But—." His radiant brown smile crumpled his brown face. "Of course, I didn't hear it. I couldn't have heard it. And so I guess you didn't see the peroxide you speak of. And yet if you Punch me in the jaw, I'll know exactly how you feel." His face uncrumpled, smoothed itself out to his rare look of seriousness. "The point of it is that we're all a little touched in the bean. I figure that you and I are alike in some things. That's why we've always hung together. And all this queer stuff takes us two the same way. Remember that psychology dope old Rand used to pump into us at college? Well, our psychologies have got all twisted up by a recent event in nautical circles and we're seeing things that aren't there and not seeing things that are there."
"Honey," said Billy, "that's all right. But I want you to understand me and I don't want you, to make any mistake. I saw a girl."
"And don't forget this," answered Honey. "I heard one."
Billy made no allusion to any of this with the other three men. But for the rest of the day, he had a return of his gentle good humor. Honey's spirits fairly sizzled.
That night Frank Merrill suddenly started out of sleep with a yelled, "What was that?"
"What was what?" everybody demanded, waking immediately to the panic in his voice.
"That cry," he explained breathlessly, "didn't you hear it?" Frank's eyes were brilliant with excitement; he was pale.
Nobody had heard it. And Ralph Addington and Pete Murphy, cursing lustily, turned over and promptly fell asleep again. But Billy Fairfax grew rapidly more and more awake. "What sort of a cry?" he asked. Honey Smith said nothing, but he stirred the fire into a blaze in preparation for a talk.
"The strangest cry I ever heard, long-drawn-out, wild—eerie's the word for it, I guess," Frank Merrill said. As he spoke, he peered off into the darkness. "If it were possible, I should say it was a woman's voice."
The three men walked away from the camp, looked off into every direction of the starlit night. Nowhere was there sign or sound of life.
"It must have been gulls," said Honey Smith.
"It didn't sound like gulls," answered Frank Merrill. For an instant he fell into meditation so deep that he virtually forgot the presence of the other two. "I don't know what it was," he said finally in an exasperated tone. "I'm going to sleep."
They walked back to camp. Frank Merrill rolled himself up in a blanket, lay down. Soon there came from his direction only the sound of regular, deep breathing.
"Well, Honey," Billy Fairfax asked, a note of triumph in his voice, "how about it?"
"Well, Billy," Honey Smith said in a baffled tone, "when you get the answer, give it to me."
Nobody mentioned the night's experience the next day. But a dozen times Frank Merrill stopped his work to gaze out to sea, an expression of perplexity on his face.
The next night, however, they were all waked again, waked twice. It was Ralph Addington who spoke first; a kind of hoarse grunt and a "What the devil was that?"
"What?" the others called.
"Damned if I know," Ralph answered. "If you wouldn't think I was off my conch, I'd say it was a gang of women laughing."
Pete Murphy, who always woke in high spirits, began to joke Ralph Addington. The other three were silent. In fifteen minutes they were all asleep; sixty, they were all awake again.
It was Pete Murphy who sounded the alarm this time. "Say, something spoke to me," he said. "Or else I'm a nut. Or else I have had the most vivid dream I've ever had." Evidently he did not believe that it was a dream. He sat up and listened; the others listened, too. There was no sound in the soft, still night, however. They talked for a little while, a strangely subdued quintette. It was as though they were all trying to comment on these experiences without saying anything about them.
They slept through the next night undisturbed until just before sunrise. Then Honey Smith woke them. It was still dark, but a fine dawn-glow had begun faintly to silver the east. "Say, you fellows," he exclaimed. "Wake up!" His voice vibrated with excitement, although he seemed to try to keep it low. "There are strange critters round here. No mistake this time. Woke with a start, feeling that something had brushed over me—saw a great bird—a gigantic thing—flying off heard one woman's laugh—then another—."
It was significant that nobody joked Honey this time. "Say, this island'll be a nut-house if this keeps up," Pete Murphy said irritably. "Let's go to sleep again."
"No, you don't!" said Honey. "Not one of you is going to sleep. You're all going to sit up with me until the blasted sun comes up."
People always hastened to accommodate Honey. In spite of the hour, they began to rake the fire, to prepare breakfast. The others became preoccupied gradually, but Honey still sat with his face towards the water, watching.
It grew brighter.
"It's time we started to build a camp, boys," Frank Merrill said, withdrawing momentarily from deep reflection. "We'll go crazy doing nothing all the time. We'll—."
"Great God," Honey interrupted. "Look!"
Far out to sea and high in the air, birds were flying. There were five of them and they were enormous. They flew with amazing strength, swiftness, and grace; but for the most part they about a fixed area like bees at a honey-pot. It was a limited area, but within it they dipped, dropped, curved, wove in and out.
"Well, I'll be—."
"They're those black spots we saw the first day, Pete," Billy Fairfax said breathlessly. "We thought it was the sun."
"That's what I heard in the night," Frank Merrill gasped to Ralph Addington.
"But what are they?" asked Honey Smith in a voice that had a falsetto note of wonder. "They laugh like a woman—take it from me."
"Eagles—buzzards—vultures—condors—rocs—phoenixes," Pete Murphy recited his list in an or of imaginative conjecture.
"They're some lost species—something left over from a prehistoric era," Frank Merrill explained, shaking with excitement. "No vulture or eagle or condor could be as big as that at this distance. At least I think so." He paused here, as one studying the problem in the scientific spirit. "Often in the Rockies I've confused a nearby chicken-hawk, at first, with a far eagle. But the human eye has its own system of triangulation. Those are not little birds nearby, but big birds far off. See how heavily they soar. Do you realize what's happened? We've made a discovery that will shake the whole scientific world. There, there, they're going!"
"My God, look at them beat it!" said Honey; and there was awe in his voice.
"Why, they're monster size," Frank Merrill went on, and his voice had grown almost hysterical. "They could carry one of us off. We're not safe. We must take measures at once to protect ourselves. Why, at night—We must make traps. If we can capture one, or, better, a pair, we're famous. We're a part of history now."
They watched the strange birds disappear over the water. For more than an hour, the men sat still, waiting for them to return. They did not come back, however. The men hung about camp all day long, talking of nothing else. Night came at last, but sleep was not in them. The dark seemed to give a fresh impulse to conversation. Conjecture battled with theory and fact jousted with fancy. But one conclusion was as futile as another.
Frank Merrill tried to make them devise some system of defense or concealment, but the others laughed at him. Talk as he would, he could not seem to convince them of their danger. Indeed, their state of mind was entirely different from his. Mentally he seemed to boil with interest and curiosity, but it was the sane, calm, open-minded excitement of the scientist. The others were alert and preoccupied in turn, but there was an element of reserve in their attitude. Their eyes kept going off into space, fixing there until their look became one brooding question. They avoided conversation. They avoided each other's gaze.
Gradually they drew off from the fire, settled themselves to rest, fell into the splendid sleep that followed their long out-of-doors days.
In the middle of the night, Billy Fairfax came out of a dream to the knowledge that somebody was shaking him gently, firmly, furtively. "Don't move!" Honey Smith's voice whispered; "keep quiet till I wake the others."
It was a still and moon-lighted world. Billy Fairfax lay quiet, his wide-open eyes fixed on the luminous sky. The sense of drowse was being brushed out of his brain as though by a mighty whirlwind, and in its place came a vague sensation of confusion, of excitement, of a miraculous abnormality. He heard Honey Smith crawl slowly from man to man, heard him whisper his adjuration once, twice, three times. "Now," Honey called finally.
The men looked seawards. Then, simultaneously they leaped to their feet.
The semi-tropical moon was at its full. Huge, white, embossed, cut out, it did not shine—it glared from the sky. It made a melted moonstone of the atmosphere. It faded the few clouds to a sapphire-gray, just touched here and there with the chalky dot of a star. It slashed a silver trail across a sea jet-black except where the waves rimmed it with snow. Up in the white enchantment, but not far above them, the strange air-creatures were flying. They were not birds; they were winged women!
Darting, diving, glancing, curving, wheeling, they interwove in what seemed the premeditated figures of an aerial dance. If they were conscious of the group of men on the beach, they did not show it; they seemed entirely absorbed in their flying. Their wings, like enormous scimitars, caught the moonlight, flashed it back. For an interval, they played close in a group inextricably intertwined, a revolving ball of vivid color. Then, as if seized by a common impulse, they stretched, hand in hand, in a line across the sky-drifted. The moonlight flooded them full, caught glitter and gleam from wing-sockets, shot shimmer and sheen from wing-tips, sent cataracts of iridescent color pulsing between. Snow-silver one, brilliant green and gold another, dazzling blue the next, luminous orange a fourth, flaming flamingo scarlet the last, their colors seemed half liquid, half light. One moment the whole figure would flare into a splendid blaze, as if an inner mechanism had suddenly turned on all the electricity; the next, the blaze died down to the fairy glisten given by the moonlight.
As if by one impulse, they began finally to fly upward. Higher and higher they rose, still hand in hand. Detail of color and movement vanished. The connotation of the sexed creature, of the human thing, evaporated. One instant, relaxed, they seemed tiny galleons, all sails set, that floated lazily, the sport of an aerial sea; another, supple and sinuous, they seemed monstrous fish whose fins triumphantly clove the air, monarchs of that aerial sea.
A little of this and then came another impulse. The great wings furled close like blades leaping back to scabbard; the flying-girls dropped sheer in a dizzying fall. Half-way to the ground, they stopped simultaneously as if caught by some invisible air plateau. The great feathery fans opened—and this time the men got the whipping whirr of them—spread high, palpitated with color. From this lower level, the girls began to fall again, but gently, like dropping clouds.
Nearer they came to the petrified group on the beach, nearer and nearer. Undoubtedly they had known all the time that an audience was there; undoubtedly they had planned this; they looked down and smiled.
And now the men had every detail of them—the brown seaweeds and green sea-grasses that swathed them, their bodies just short of heroic size, deep-bosomed, broad-waisted, long-limbed; their arms round like a woman's and strong like a man's; their hair that fell, a braid over each ear, twined with brilliant flowers and green vines; their faces super-humanly beautiful, though elvish; the gaminerie in their laughing eyes, which sparkled through half-closed, thick-lashed lids, the gaminerie in their smiling mouths, which showed twin rows of pearl gleaming in tricksy mirth; their big, strong-looking, long-fingered hands; their slimly smooth, exquisitely shaped, too-tiny, transparent feet; their strong wrists; their stem-like, breakable ankles. Closer and closer and closer they came. And now the men could almost touch them. They paused an instant and fluttered—fluttered like a swarm of butterflies undecided where to fly. As though choosing to rest, they hovered-hovered with a gentle, slow, seductive undulation of wings, of hands, of feet.
Then another impulse took them.
They broke handclasps and up they went, like arrows straight up—up—up—up. Then they turned out to sea, streaming through the air in line still, but one behind the other. And for the first time, sound came from them; they threw off peals of girl-laughter that fell like handfuls of diamonds. Their mirth ended in a long, eerie cry. Then straight out to the eastern horizon they went and away and off.
They were dwindling rapidly.
They were spots.
They were specks.
They were nothing.
Silence, profound, portentous, protracted, followed.
Finally, Honey Smith absently stooped and picked up a pebble. He threw it over the silver ring of the flat, foam-edged, low-tide waves. It curved downwards, hissed across a surface of water smooth as jade, skipped four times, and dropped.
The men strained their eyes to follow the progress of this tangible thing.
"Where do you suppose they've gone?" Honey said as unexcitedly as one might inquire directions from a stranger.
"When do you suppose they'll come back?" Billy Fairfax added as casually as one might ask the time.
"Did you notice the red-headed one?" asked Pete Murphy. "My first girl had red hair. I always jump when I see a carrot-top." He made this intimate revelation simply, as if the time for a conventional reticence had passed.
"They were lookers all right," Ralph Addington went on. "I'd pick the golden blonde, the second from the right." He, too, spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, as though he were selecting a favorite from the front row in the chorus.
"It must have happened if we saw it," Frank Merrill said. There was in his voice a note of petulance, almost childish. "But we ought not to have seen it. It has no right to be. It upsets things so."
"What are we all standing up like gawks for?" Pete Murphy demanded with a sudden irritability.
Everybody dropped. They all sat as they fell. They sat motionless. They sat silent.
"The name of this place is 'Angel Island,'" announced Billy Fairfax after a long time. His tone was that of a man whose thoughts, swirling in phantasmagoria, seek anchorage in fact.
They did not sleep that night.
When Frank Merrill arose the next morning, Ralph Addington was just returning from a stroll down the beach. Ralph looked at the same time exhausted and recuperated. He was white, tense, wild-eyed, but recently aroused interior fires glowed through his skin, made up for his lost color and energy. Frank also had a different look. His eyes had kindled, his face had become noticeably more alive. But it was the fire of the intellect that had produced this frigid glow.
"Seen anything?" Frank Merrill inquired.
"Not a thing."
"You don't think they're frightened enough not to come back?"
The gleam in Ralph Addington's eye changed to flame. "I don't think they're frightened at all. They'll come back all right. There's only one thing that you can depend on in women; and that is that you can't lose them."
"I can scarcely wait to see them again," Frank exclaimed eagerly. "Addington, I can write a monograph on those flying-maidens that will make the whole world gasp. This is the greatest discovery of modern times. Man alive, don't you itch to get to paper and pencil?"
"Not so I've noticed it," Ralph replied with contemptuous emphasis. "I shall lie awake nights, just the same though."
"Say, fellers, we didn't dream that, did we?" Billy Fairfax called suddenly, rolling out of the sleep that had followed their all-night talk.
"Well, I reckon if it wasn't for the other four, no one of us would trust his own senses," Frank Merrill said dryly.
"If you'd listened to me in the beginning," Honey Smith remarked in a drowsy voice, not bothering to open his, eyes, "I wouldn't be the I-told-you-so kid now."
"Well, if you'd listened to me and Pete!" said Billy Fairfax; "didn't we think, way back there that first day, that our lamps were on the blink because we saw black spots? Great Scott, what dreams I've had," he went on, "a mixture of 'Arabian Nights,' 'Gulliver's Travels,' 'Peter Wilkins,' 'Peter Pan,' 'Goosie,' Jules, Verne, H. G. Wells, and every dime novel I've ever read. Do you suppose they'll come back?"
"I've just talked that over with Ralph," Frank Merrill answered him. "If we've frightened them away forever, it will be a terrible loss to science."
Ralph Addington emitted one of his cackling, ironic laughs. "I guess I'm not worrying as much about science as I might. But as to their coming back—why, it stands to reason that they'll have just as much curiosity about us as we have about them. Curiosity's a woman's strong point, you know. Oh, they'll come back all right! The only question is, How soon?"
"It made me dream of music—of Siegfried." It was Pete Murphy who spoke and he seemed to plump from sleep straight into the conversation. "What a theme for grand opera. Women with wings! Flying-girls! Will you tell me what the Hippodrome! has on Angel Island?"
"Nothing," said Honey Smith, "except this—you can get acquainted with a Hippodrome girl—how long is it going to take us to get acquainted with these angels?"
"Not any longer than usual," said Ralph Addington with an expressive wink. "Leave that to me. I'm going now to see what I can see." He walked rapidly down the beach, scaled the southern reef, and stood there studying the horizon.
The others remained sitting on the sand. For a while they watched Ralph. Then they talked the whole thing over with as much interest as if they had not yet discussed it. Ralph rejoined them and they went through it again. It was as though by some miracle of mind-transference, they had all dreamed the same dream; as though, by some miracle of sight-transference they had all seen the same vision; as though, by some miracle of space-transference, they had all stepped into the fourth dimension. Their comment was ever of the wonder of their strange adventure, the beauty, the thrill, the romance of it. It had brought out in them every instinct of chivalry and kindness, it had developed in them every tendency towards high-mindedness and idealism. Angel Island would be an Atlantis, an Eden, an Arden, an Arcadia, a Utopia, a Milleamours, a Paradise, the Garden of Hesperides. Into it the Golden Age would come again. They drew glowing pictures of the wonderful friendships that would grow up on Angel Island between them and their beautiful visitors. These poetic considerations gave way finally to a discussion of ways and means. They agreed that they must get to work at once on some sort of shelter for their guests, in case the weather should turn bad. They even discussed at length the best methods of teaching the English language. They talked the whole morning, going over the same things again and again, questioning each other eagerly without listening for an answer, interrupting ruthlessly, and then adding nothing.
The day passed without event. At the slightest sound they all jumped. Their sleeplessness was beginning to tell on them and their nerves were still obsessed by the unnaturalness of their experience. It was a long time before they quieted down, but the night passed without interruption. So did the next day. Another day went by and another, and during this time they did little but sit about and talk.
"See here, boys," Ralph Addington said one morning. "I say we get together and build some cabins. There's no calculating how long this grand weather'll keep up. The first thing we know we'll be up against a rainy season. Isn't that right, Professor?"
On most practical matters Ralph treated Frank Merrill's opinion with a contempt that was offensively obvious to the others. In questions of theory or of abstruse information, he was foolishly deferential. At those times, he always gave Frank his title of Professor.
"I hardly think so," Frank Merrill answered. "I think we'll have an equable, semi-tropical climate all the year round—about like Honolulu."
"Well, anyway," Ralph Addington went on, "it's barbarous living like this. And we want to be prepared for anything." His gaze left Frank Merrill's face and traveled with a growing significance to each of the other three. "Anything," he repeated with emphasis. "We've got enough truck here to make a young Buckingham Palace. And we'll go mad sitting round waiting for those air-queens to pay us a visit. How about it?"
"It's an excellent idea," Frank Merrill said heartily. "I have been on the point of proposing it many times myself."
However, they seemed unable to pull themselves together; they did nothing that day. But the next morning, urged back to work by the harrying monotony of waiting, they began to clear a space among the trees close to the beach. Two of them had a little practical building knowledge: Ralph Addington who had roughed it in many strange countries; Billy Fairfax who, in the San Francisco earthquake, had on a wager built himself a house. They worked with all their initial energy. They worked with the impetus that comes from capable supervision. And they worked as if under the impulse of some unformulated motive. As usual, Honey Smith bubbled with spirits. Billy Fairfax and Pete Murphy hardly spoke, so close was their concentration. Ralph Addington worked longer and harder than anybody, and even Honey was not more gay; he whistled and sang constantly. Frank Merrill showed no real interest in these proceedings. He did his fair share of the work, but obviously without a driving motive. He had reverted utterly to type. He spent his leisure writing a monograph. When inspiration ran low, he occupied himself doctoring books. Eternally, he hunted for the flat stones between which he pressed their swollen bulks back to shape. Eternally he puttered about, mending and patching them. He used to sit for hours at a desk which he had rescued from the ship's furniture. The others never became accustomed to the comic incongruity of this picture—especially when, later, he virtually boxed himself in with a trio of book-cases.
"Wouldn't you think he was sitting in an office?" Ralph Addington said.
"Curious about Merrill," Honey Smith answered, indulging in one of his sudden, off-hand characterizations, bull's-eye shots every one of them. "He's a good man, ruined by culturine. He's the bucko-mate type translated into the language of the academic world. Three centuries ago he'd have been a Drake or a Frobisher. And to-day, even, if he'd followed the lead of his real ability, he'd have made a great financier, a captain of industry or a party boss. But, you see, he was brought up to think that book-education was the whole cheese. The only ambition he knows is to make good in the university world. How I hated that college atmosphere and its insistence on culture! That was what riled me most about it. As a general thing, I detest a professor. Can't help liking old Frank, though."
The four men virtually took no time off from work; or at least the change of work that stood for leisure was all in the line of home-making. Eternally, they joked each other about these womanish occupations; but they all kept steadily to it. Ralph Addington and Honey Smith put the furniture into shape, repairing and polishing it. Billy Fairfax sorted out the glass, china, tools, household utensils of every kind.
Pete Murphy went through the trunks with his art side uppermost. He collected all kinds of Oriental bric-a-brac, pictures and draperies. He actually mended and pressed things; he had all the artist's capability in these various feminine lines. When the others joked him about his exotic and impracticable tastes, he said that, before he left, he intended to establish a museum of fine arts, on Angel Island.
Hard as the men worked, they had always the appearance of those who await the expected. But the expected did not occur; and gradually the sharp edge of anticipation wore dull. Emotionally they calmed. Their nerves settled to a normal condition. The sudden whirr of a bird's flight attracted only a casual glance. In Ralph Addington alone, expectation maintained itself at the boiling point. He trained himself to work with one eye searching the horizon. One afternoon, when they had scattered for a siesta, his hoarse cry brought them running to the beach from all directions.
So suddenly had the girls appeared that they might have materialized from the air. This time they had not come from the sea. When Ralph discovered them, they were hovering back of them above the trees that banded the beach. The sun was setting, blood-red; the whole western sky had broken away. The girls seemed to be floating in a sea of crimson-amber ether. Its light brought lustre to every feather; it turned the edges of their wings to flame; it changed their smoothly piled hair to helmets of burnished metal.
The men tore from the beach to the trees at full speed. For a moment the violence of this action threw the girls into a panic. They fluttered, broke lines, flew high, circled. And all the time, they uttered shrill cries of distress.
"They're frightened," Billy Fairfax said. "Keep quiet, boys."
The men stopped running, stood stock-still.
Gradually the girls calmed, sank, took up the interweaving figures of their air-dance. If at their first appearance they seemed creatures of the sea, this time they were as distinctively of the forest. They looked like spirits of the trees over which they hovered. Indeed, but for their wings they might have been dryads. Wreaths of green encircled their heads and waists. Long leafy streamers trailed from their shoulders. Often in the course of their aerial play, they plunged down into the feathery tree-tops.
Once, the blonde with the blue wings sailed out of the group and balanced herself for a toppling second on a long, outstretching bough.
"Good Lord, what a picture!" Pete Murphy said.
As if she understood, she repeated her performance. She cast a glance over her shoulder at them—unmistakably noting the effect.
"Hates herself, doesn't she?" commented Honey Smith. "They're talking!" he added after an interval of silence. "Some one of them is giving directions—I can tell by the tone of her voice. Can't make out which one it is though. Thank God, they can talk!"
"It's the quiet one—the blonde—the one with the white wings," Billy Fairfax explained. "She's captain. Some bean on her, too; she straightened them out a moment ago when they got so frightened."
"I now officially file my claim," said Ralph Addington, "to that peachy one—the golden blonde—the one with the blue wings, the one who tried to stand on the bough. That girl's a corker. I can tell her kind of pirate craft as far as I see it."
"Me for the thin one!" said Pete Murphy. "She's a pippin, if you please. Quick as a cat! Graceful as they make them. And look at that mop of red hair! Isn't that a holocaust? I bet she's a shrew."
"You win, all right," agreed Ralph Addington. "I'd like nothing better than the job of taming her, too."
"See here, Ralph," bantered Pete, "I've copped Brick-top for myself. You keep off the grass. See!"
"All right," Ralph answered. "Katherine for yours, Petruchio. The golden blonde for mine!" He smiled for the first time in days. In fact, at sight of the flying-girls he had begun to beam with fatuous good nature.
"Two blondes, two brunettes, and a red-top" said Honey Smith, summing them up practically. "One of those brunettes, the brown one, must be a Kanaka. The other's prettier—she looks like a Spanish woman. There's something rather taking about the plain one, though. Pretty snappy—if anybody should fly up in a biplane and ask you!"
"It's curious," Frank Merrill said with his most academic manner, "it has not yet occurred to me to consider those young women from the point of view of their physical pulchritude. I'm interested only in their ability to fly. The one with the silver-white wings, the one Billy calls the 'quiet one,' flies better than any of the others, The dark one on the end, the one who looks like a Spaniard, flies least well. It is rather disturbing, but I can think of them only as birds. I have to keep recalling to myself that they're women. I can't realize it."
"Well, don't worry," Ralph Addington said with the contemptuous accent with which latterly he answered all Frank Merrill's remarks. "You will."
The others laughed, but Frank turned on them a look of severe reproof.
"Oh, hell!" Honey Smith exclaimed in a regretful tone; "they're beating it again. I say, girls," he called at the top of his lungs, "don't go! Stay a little longer and we'll buy you a dinner and a taxicab."
Apparently the flying-girls realized that he was addressing them. For a hair's breadth of a second they paused. Then, with a speed that had a suggestion of panic in it, they flew out to sea. And again a flood of girl-laughter fell in bubbles upon them.
"They distrust muh!" Honey commented. But he smiled with the indolent amusement of the man who has always held the master-hand with women.
"Must have come from the east, this time," he said as they filed soberly back to camp. "But where in thunder do they start from?"
They had, of course, discussed this question as they had discussed a hundred other obvious ones. "I'm wondering now," Frank Merrill answered, "if there are islands both to the east and the west. But, after all, I'm more interested to know if there are any more of these winged women, and if there are any males."
Again they talked far into the night. And as before their comment was of the wonder, the romance, the poetry of their strange situation. And again they drew imaginary pictures of what Honey Smith called "the young Golden Age" that they would soon institute on Angel Island.
"Say," Honey remarked facetiously when at length they started to run down, "what happens to a man if he marries an angel? Does he become angel-consort or one of those seraphim arrangements?"
Ralph Addington laughed. But Billy Fairfax and Pete Murphy frowned. Frank Merrill did not seem to hear him. He was taking notes by the firelight.
The men continued to work at the high rate of speed that, since the appearance of the women, they had set for themselves. But whatever form their labor took, their talk was ever of the flying-girls. They referred to them individually now as the "dark one," the "plain one," the "thin one," the "quiet one," and the "peachy one." They theorized eternally about them. It was a long time, however, before they saw them again, so long that they had begun to get impatient. In Ralph Addington this uneasiness took the form of irritation. "If I'd had a gun," he snarled more than once, "by the Lord Harry, I'd have winged one of them." He sat far into the night and waited. He arose early in the morning and watched. He went for long, slow, solitary, silent, prowling hikes into the interior. His eyes began to look strained from so minute a study of the horizon-line. He grew haggard. His attitude in the matter annoyed Pete Murphy, who maintained that he had no right to spy on women. Argument broke out between them, waxing hot, waned to silence, broke out again and with increased fury. Frank Merrill and Billy Fairfax listened to all this, occasionally smoothing things over between the disputants. But Honey Smith, who seemed more amused than bothered, deftly fed the flame of controversy by agreeing first with one and then with the other.
Late one afternoon, just as the evening star flashed the signal of twilight, the girls came streaming over the sea toward the island.
At the first far-away glimpse, the men dropped their tools and ran to the water's edge. Honey Smith waded out, waist-deep.
"Well, what do you know about that?" he called out. "Pipe the formation!"
They came massed vertically. In the distance they might have been a rainbow torn from its moorings, borne violently forward on a high wind. The rainbow broke in spots, fluttered, and then came together again. It vibrated with color. It pulsed with iridescence.
"How the thunder—" Addington began and stopped. "Well, can you beat it?" he concluded.
The human column was so arranged that the wings of one of the air-girls concealed the body of another just above her.
The "dark one" led, flying low, her scarlet pinions beating slowly back and forth about her head.
Just above, near enough for her body to be concealed by the scarlet wings of the "dark one," but high enough for her pointed brown face to peer between their curves, came the "plain one."
Higher flew the "thin one." Her body was entirely covered by the orange wings of the "plain one," but her copper-colored hair made a gleamy spot in their vase-shaped opening.
Still higher appeared the "peachy one." She seemed to be holding her lustrous blonde head carefully centered in the oval between the "thin one's" green-and-yellow plumage. She looked like a portrait in a frame.
Highest of them all, floating upright, a Winged Victory of the air, her silver wings towering straight above her head, the cameo face of the "quiet one" looked level into the distance.
Their wings moved in rotation, and with machine-like regularity. First one pair flashed up, swept back and down, then another, and another. As they neared, the color seemed the least wonderful detail of the picture. For it changed in effect from a column of glittering wings to a column of girl-faces, a column that floated light as thistle-down, a column that divided, parted, opened, closed again.
The background of all this was a veil of dark gauze at the horizon-line, its foil a golden, virgin moon, dangling a single brilliant star.
"They're talking!" Honey Smith exclaimed. "And they're leaving!"
The girls did not pause once. They flew in a straight line over the island to the west, always maintaining their columnar formation. At first the men thought that they were making for the trees. They ran after them. The speed of their running had no effect this time on their visitors, who continued to sail eastward. The men called on them to stay. They called repeatedly, singly and in chorus. They called in every tone of humble masculine entreaty and of arrogant masculine command. But their cries might have fallen on marble ears. The girls neither turned nor paused. They disappeared.
"Females are certainly alike under their skins, whether they're angels or Hottentots," Ralph Addington commented. "That tableau appearance was all cooked up for us. They must have practised it for hours."
"It has the rose-carnival at Tetaluma, Cal., faded," remarked Honey Smith.
"The 'quiet one' was giving the orders for that wing-movement," said Billy Fairfax. "She whispered them, but I heard her. She engineered the whole thing. She seems to be their leader."
"I got their voices this time," said Pete Murphy. "Beautiful, all of them. Soprano, high and clear. They've got a language, all right, too. What did you think of it, Frank?"
"Most interesting," replied Frank Merrill, "most interesting. A preponderance of consonants. Never guttural in effect, and as you say, beautiful voices, very high and clear."
"I don't see why they don't stop and play," complained Honey. His tone was the petulant one of a spoiled child. It is likely that during the whole course of his woman-petted existence, he had never been so completely ignored. "If I only knew their lingo, I could convince them in five minutes that we wouldn't hurt them."
"If we could only signal," said Billy Fairfax, "that if they'd only come down to earth, we wouldn't go any nearer than they wanted. But the deuce of it is proving to them that we don't bite."