US and THE BOTTLE MAN
EDITH BALLINGER PRICE
Author of "SILVER SHOAL LIGHT," "BLUE MAGIC," etc.
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY THE AUTHOR
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
Greg rigged himself up as an Excavator We hoped the Bottle Man would like the letter "Hang on, Chris!" Jerry said. "I can get it" "Ye be Three Poore Mariners"
It began with Jerry's finishing off all the olives that were left, "like a pig would do," as Greg said. His finishing the olives left us the bottle, of course, and there is only one natural thing to do with an empty olive-bottle when you're on a water picnic. That is, to write a message as though you were a shipwrecked mariner, and seal it up in the bottle and chuck it as far out as ever you can.
We'd all gone over to Wecanicut on the ferry,—Mother and Aunt Ailsa and Jerry and Greg and I,—and we were picnicking beside the big fallen-over slab that looks just like the entrance to a pirate cave. We had a fire, of course, and a lot of things to eat, including the olives, which were a fancy addition bought by Aunt Ailsa as we were running for the ferry.
When we asked her if she had any paper, she tore a perfectly nice leaf out of her sketch-book, and gave me her 3 B drawing-pencil to write with. It was very soft, and the paper was the roughish kind that comes in sketch-books, so that the writing was smeary and looked quite as if shipwrecked mariners had written it with charred twigs out of the fire. We'd done lots of messages when we were on other water picnics, but we'd never heard from any of them, although one reason for that was that we never put our address on them. We decided we would this time, because Jerry had just been reading about a fisherman in Newfoundland picking up a message that somebody had chucked from a yacht in the Gulf of Mexico months and months before.
I wrote the date at the top, near the raggedy place where the leaf was torn out of Aunt Ailsa's sketch-book, and then I put, "We be Three Poore Mariners," like the song in "Pan-Pipes."
Jerry and Greg kept telling me things to write, till the page was quite full and went something like this:
"We be Three Poore Mariners, cast away upon the lone and desolate shore of Wecanicut, an island in the Atlantic Ocean, lat. and long. unknown. Our position is very perilous, as we have exhausted all our supplies, including large stores of olives, and are now forced to exist on beach-peas, barnacles, and—and—"
"Eiligugs' eggs," said Greg, dreamily.
Jerry pounced on him and said they only grew on the Irish coast, but I said: "All right! Beach-peas, barnacles, and eiligugs' eggs, of which only a small supply is to be had on this bleak and dismal coast. Our ship, the good ferry-boat Wecanicut, left us marooned, and there is no hope of our being picked up for the next two hours. Any person finding this message, please come to our assistance by dropping us a line," (I must honestly say that this was Jerry's, and much better than usual) "as the surf is too heavy for boats to land on this end of the island. Signed:—"
"Don't sign it 'Christine'," Jerry said. "Put 'Chris,' if we're to be real mariners."
So I put "Chris Holford, aet. 13," which I thought might look more dignified and scholarly than "aged," and Jerry wrote "Gerald M. Holford," and put "aet. 11" after it, but I'm sure he didn't know what it meant until I did it. Then we stuck the paper at Greg, and he stared at it ever so long and finally said:
"Ate eleven! He ate lots more than that; I saw him."
Jerry pounced again,—I was laughing too hard to,—and said:
"It's not olives, silly; it's an abbreviated French way of saying how old we are."
Then I had to pounce on him, and tell him it was Latin, as he might know by the diphthong. By that time Greg had written "Gregory Holford, Ate 8," across the bottom, very large, and Jerry said he might as well have put 88 and had done with it. We folded the paper up in the tinfoil that the chocolate came in and jammed it into the bottle and pounded the cork in tight with a stone. Greg was all for chucking it immediately, but Jerry said it would have a better chance if we dropped it right into the current from the ferry going home. So we cocked the bottle up on a rock and went back to the pirate-cave-entrance place to finish a game of smugglers.
Wecanicut is a nice place to smuggle and do other dark deeds in, and I don't believe we'll ever be too old to think it's fun. This time we cut the rest of the tinfoil into roundish pieces with Jerry's jackknife, and stowed them into a cranny in the cave. They shone rather faintly and looked exactly like double moidores, except that those are gold, I think. We also borrowed Aunt Ailsa's hatpin with the Persian coin on the end. By running the pin down into the sand all the way, you can make it look just like a goldpiece lying on the floor of the cave. She is a very obliging aunt and doesn't mind our doing this sort of thing,—in fact, she plays lots of the games, too, and she can groan more hollowly than any of us, when groans are needed.
This time we didn't ask her to, because she was reading a book by H.G. Wells to Mother, and anyway all our proceedings were supposed to be going on in the most Stealthy and Silent Secrecy. The moidores and the Persian coin were all that was left of an enormous lot of things which the villainous band had buried,—golden chains, and uncut jewels, and pots of louis d'ors, and church chalices (Jerry says chasubles, but I think not). Greg and Jerry had dragged all these things up from the edge of the water in big empty armfuls, and we stamped the sand down over them. It really looked exactly as if the tinfoil moidores were a handful that was left over. Greg was just giving the final stamp, when Jerry crooked his hand over his ear and said:
"Hist, men! What was that?" They were having artillery practice down at the Fort, and just then a terrific volley went sputtering off.
"'Tis a broadside from the English vessel!" Jerry said. "We are pursued!"
We crept out from the cave and made off up the shore as fast as possible. Jerry went ahead and jumped up on a rock to reconnoiter. He did look quite piratical, with my black sailor tie bound tight over his head and two buttons of his shirt undone. Greg had his own necktie wrapped around his head, but several locks of hair had escaped from under it. He always manages to have something not quite right about his costumes. He has very nice hair—curly, and quite amberish colored—but it's not at all like a pirate's. I poked him from behind to make him hurry, for Jerry was pointing at a big schooner that was coming down the harbor. We all lay down flat behind the rock until she had gone slowly around the point. We could see the sun winking on something that might have been a cannon in her waist—that's the place where cannon always are—and of course the captain must have been keeping a sharp lookout landward with his spy-glass.
"Eh, mon," said Jerry, when the schooner had passed, "but yon was a verra close thing!"
That's one of the worst things about Jerry,—the way he mixes up language. We'd been reading "Kidnapped," and I suppose he forgot he wasn't Alan.
"Silence, dog!" I said, to remind him of who we were. "Very like she's but hove to in the offing, and for aught you know she's maybe sending ashore the jolly-boat by now."
"Then let's go to the end of the point and have a look," Greg suggested.
He doesn't often make speeches, because Jerry is apt to pounce on him and tell him he's "too plain American," but I think it isn't fair, because he hasn't read as many books as Jerry and I. So I hurried up and said:
"Bravely spoke, my lad; so we will, my hearty!" And we crawled and clambered along till we came to the end of the point where it's all stones and seaweed and big surf sometimes. The surf was not very high this time,—just waves that went whoosh and then pulled the pebbles back with a nice scrawpy sound. The schooner was half-way down to the Headland, not paying any attention to us.
"Ah ha!" Jerry said, "safe once more from an ignominious death. But, Chris, look at the Sea Monster! What's happened to it?"
The Sea Monster is a bare black rock-island off the end of Wecanicut. We called it that because it looks like one, and it hasn't any other name that we know of. We'd always wanted awfully to go out there and explore it, but the only time we ever asked old Captain Moss, who has boats for hire, he said, "Thunderin' bad landin'. Nothin' to see there but a clutter o' gulls' nests," and went on painting the Jolly Nancy, which is his nicest boat.
But the thing that Jerry was pointing out now was very queer indeed. It was just a little too far away to see clearly what had happened, but it seemed as if a piece of rock had fallen away on the side toward us, leaving a jaggedy opening as black as a hat and high enough for a person to stand upright in.
"The entrance to a subaground tunnel!" Greg shouted, leaping up and down in the edge of a wave.
He will say "subaground," and it really is quite as sensible as some words.
"The entrance to a real pirate cave, you mean!" said Jerry. "Glory, Chris, I really shouldn't wonder if it were. Captain Kidd was up and down the coast here. What if they buried stuff in there and then propped a big chunk of rock up against the hole?"
"I wish we had a telescope," I said, "though I don't suppose we could see into the blackness with it. Mercy, I wish we could get out there! It's more worth exploring than ever."
"Let's tell Mother and Aunt!" said Greg, and started running back down the beach, shouting something all the way.
Mother said, "Nonsense!" and, "Of course it's a natural cave in the rock. You probably only noticed it today."
But she and Aunt Ailsa shut up the H.G. Wells book and came to look. They did think, when they saw it, that it was something new. Aunt Ailsa thought it looked very exciting and mysterious, but she agreed with Mother that it was no sort of place to go to in a boat.
"Just look at the white foam flinging around those rocks," she said; "and there's practically no surf on today."
We had to admit that it wasn't a nice-looking place to land on from a rowboat, but we did wish that we were hardy adventuring men, bold of heart and undeterred by grown-ups. We knew, too, that Captain Moss would say, "Pshaw!" if we told him there might be treasure on the Sea Monster, and he certainly wouldn't risk the Jolly Nancy on those rocks in her nice new green paint.
We were so much excited about the Sea Monster suddenly having a big black hole in it that we almost forgot to take the bottle when we went home. We did forget Aunt Ailsa's hatpin, and Greg had to run back for it, because he can run faster than any of the rest of us, and Captain Lewis held the ferry for him. Everybody leaned out from the rail and peered up the landing, because they thought it must be a fire or the President or something. They all looked awfully disappointed when it was only Greg, with the black necktie still around his head and Aunt's hatpin held very far away from him so that it wouldn't hurt him if he fell down. He tumbled on board just as the nice brown Portuguese man who works the rattley chain thing at the landings was pushing the collapsible gate shut, and Greg gasped:
"I brought—the moidores—too!"
But Jerry collared him and pulled the necktie off his head. Jerry hates to have his relatives look silly in public, but I thought Greg looked very nice.
We chucked the bottle overboard from the upper deck, just when the Wecanicut was halfway over. The nice Portuguese man shouted up, "Hey! You drop something?" but we told him it was just an old bottle we didn't want, and not to mind. We watched it go bob-bobbing along beside an old barrel-head that was floating by, and we wondered how far it would go, and if it would leak and sink. The tide was exactly right to carry it outside, if all went well.
"Perhaps," said Greg, when we were halfway up Luke Street, going home, and had almost forgotten the bottle, "perhaps it will land on the Sea Monster, and the pirates will find it."
"Glory!" said Jerry, "perhaps it will."
Just in the middle of the rainiest week came the thing that made Aunt Ailsa so sad. She read it in the newspaper, in the casualty list. It was the last summer of the war, and there were great long casualty lists every day. This said that Somebody-or-other Westland was "wounded and missing." We didn't know why it made her so sad, because we'd never heard of such a person, but of course it was up to us to cheer her up as much as possible. Picnics being out of the question, it had to be indoor cheering, which is harder. Greg succeeded better than the rest of us, I think. He is still little enough to sit on people's laps (though his legs spill over, quantities). He sat on Aunt Ailsa's lap and told her long stories which she seemed to like much better than the H.G. Wells books. He also dragged her off to join in attic games, and she liked those, too, and laughed sometimes quite like herself.
Attic games aren't so bad, though summer's not the proper time for them, really. There is a long cornery sort of closet full of carpets that runs back under the eaves in our attic, and if you strew handfuls of beads and tin washers among the carpets and then dig for them in the dark with a hockey-stick and a pocket flash-light, it's not poor fun. Unfortunately, my head knocks against the highest part of the roof now, yet I still do think it's fun. But Aunt Ailsa is twenty-six and she likes it, so I suppose I needn't give up.
The day Aunt Ailsa really laughed was when Greg rigged himself up as an Excavator. That is, he said he was an excavator, but I never saw anything before that looked at all like him. He had the round Indian basket from Mother's work-table on his head, and some automobile goggles, and yards and yards of green braid wound over his jumper, and Mother's carriage-boots, which came just below the tops of his socks. In his hand he had what I think was a rake-handle—it was much taller than he—and he had the queerest, glassy, goggling expression under the basket.
He never will learn to fix proper clothes. He might have seen what he should have done by looking at Jerry, who had an old felt hat with a bit of candle-end (not lit) stuck in the ribbon, and a bandana tied askew around his neck. But Aunt Ailsa laughed and laughed, which was what we wanted her to do, so neither of us remonstrated with Greg that time.
Father plays the 'cello,—that is, he does when he has time,—and he found time to play it with Aunt, who does piano. I think she really liked that better than the attic games, and we did, too, in a way. The living-room of our house is quite low-ceilinged, and part of it is under the roof, so that you can hear the rain on it. The boys lay on the floor, and Mother and I sat on the couch, and we listened to the rain on the roof and the sound—something like rain—of the piano, and Father's 'cello booming along with it. They played a thing called "Air Religieux" that I think none of us will ever hear again without thinking of the humming on the roof and the candles all around the room and one big one on the piano beside Aunt Ailsa, making her hair all shiny. Her hair is amberish, too, like Greg's, but her eyes are a very golden kind of brown, while his are dark blue.
We thought she'd forgotten about being sad, but one night when I couldn't sleep because it was so hot I heard her crying, and Mother talking the way she does to us when something makes us unhappy. I felt rather frightened, somehow, and wretched, and I covered up my ears because I didn't think Aunt would want me to hear them talking there.
The next day the sun really came out and stayed out. All of us came out, too, and explored the garden. The grass had grown till it stood up like hay, and there were such tall green weeds in the flowerbeds that Mother couldn't believe they'd grown during the rain and thought they were some phlox she'd overlooked. The phlox itself was staggering with flowers, and all the lupin leaves held round water-drops in the hollows of their five-fingered hands. Greg said that they were fairy wash-basins. He also found a drowned field-mouse and a sparrow. He was frightfully sorry about it, and carried them around wrapped up in a warm flannel till Mother begged him to give them a military funeral. Jerry soaked all the labels off a cigar-box, and then burned a most beautiful inscription on the lid with his pyrography outfit. Part of the inscription was a poem by Greg, which went like this:
"O little sparrow, Perhaps to-morrow You will fly in a blue house. And perhaps you will run In the sun, Little field-mouse."
Jerry didn't see what Greg meant by a "blue house," but I did, and I think it was rather nice. I copied the poem secretly, before the cigar-box was buried at the end of the rose-bed. I think Greg really cried, but he had so much black mosquito netting hanging over the brim of his best hat that I couldn't be sure.
Fourth of July came and went—the very patriotic one, when everybody saved their fireworks-money to buy W.S.S. with. We bought W.S.S. and made very grand fireworks out of joss-sticks. Joss-sticks have wonderful possibilities that most people don't know about. The three of us went down to the foot of the garden after dark and did an exhibition for the others. By whisking the joss-sticks around by their floppy handles you can make all sorts of fiery circles. I made two little ones for eyes, and Greg did a nose in the middle, and Jerry twirled a curvy one underneath for a mouth that could be either smiling or ferocious. A little way off you can't see the people who do it at all, and it looks just like a great fiery face with a changing, wobbly expression.
Then Greg did a fire dance with two sparklers. He dances rather well,—not real one-steps and waltzes, but weird things he makes up himself. This one lasted as long as the sparklers burned, and it was quite gorgeous. After that we had a candle-light procession around the garden, and the grown people said that the candles looked very mysterious bobbing in and out between the trees. We felt more like high priests than patriots, but it was very festive and wonderful, and when we ended by having cakes and lime-juice on the porch at half-past nine, everybody agreed that it had been a real celebration and quite different.
In spite of being up so late the night before, Greg was the first one down to breakfast next morning. Our postman always brings the mail just before the end of breakfast, and we can hear him click the gate as he comes in. This morning Jerry and Greg dashed for the mail together, and Greg squeezed through where Jerry thought he couldn't and got there first. When they came back, Jerry was saying:
"Let me have it, won't you; it'll take you all day!" and dodging his arm over Greg's shoulder.
"Messrs. Christopher, Gerald, and Gregory Holford; 17 Luke Street," Greg read slowly. Then he tripped over the threshold and floundered on to me, flourishing the big envelope and shouting:
"It's funny paper, and it's funny writing, and I know it's from The Bottle!"
"My stars!" said Jerry, with a final snatch.
But I had the envelope, and I looked at it very carefully.
"Boys," I said, "I truly believe that it is."
The envelope was a square, thinnish one, addressed in very small, black handwriting.
"It must be from The Bottle," Jerry said; "otherwise they wouldn't have thought you were a boy and put Christopher."
I had been thinking just the same thing while I was trying to open the envelope. It was one of the very tightly stuck kind that scrumples up when you try to rip it with your finger, and we had to slit it with a fruit-knife before we could get at the letter. There were sheets of thin paper all covered with writing, and when Jerry and Greg saw that, they both fell upon it so that none of us could read it at all. I persuaded them that the quickest thing to do would be to let me read it aloud, and as we'd finished breakfast anyway, we each took our last piece of toast in our hands and went out and sat on the bottom step of the porch. I read:
Fellow Adventurers and Mariners in Distress:
By this time there may be naught left of you but a whitening huddle of bones, surf bleached on the end of Wecanicut,—for I know well what meager fare are eiligugs' eggs and barnacles. However, I take the chance of finding at least one of you alive, and address you fraternally as a companion in distress.
I am myself stranded on a cheerless island where, against my will, I am kept captive—for how long a time I cannot guess. I was brought here at night, only forty-eight hours ago, and landed from a vessel which almost immediately departed whence it had come, into the darkness. My captors left me to go with the vessel, the chief of them threatening to return every week to torment me unless I obeyed his slightest command. I stand in great fear of this man, who is tall and bearded, for he brings with him instruments of torture and bottles containing, without doubt, poison.
Can you imagine my joy when, tottering down the beach this morning, supporting my frame upon two sticks, I beheld your bottle cast up on the sands? Now, thought I, I can unburden myself to these three unfortunate men, obviously in even greater distress than my own, and we can, perhaps, ease each other's monotonous maroonity. Scholars, too, I perceive you to be,—witness the Latin following your signatures. Ah well, Grata superveniet quae non sperabitur hora, as the poet so truly says, and I cannot express to you how eager, how happy I am, in the thought of communicating with some one other than the natives of this desolate isle. These inhabitants, though friendly on the whole, are uncouth and barbaric. They spend their entire time fishing from boats which they build themselves, or squatting beside their huts mending their fishing implements.
The good soul with whom I am lodging is calling me to my scanty repast. In the rude language of the place she tells me that there is "Krabss al ad an dunny." How can I live long, I ask, on such fare?
P.S. My address—mail reaches me from time to time, by aforesaid vessel—is P.O. Box 14, Blue Harbor, Me. ME stands for Mid Equator, but the abbreviation is sufficient. Blue Harbor is my own literal translation of the native Bluar Boor. Box 14 refers to the native system of delivering messages. P.O. has, I think, something to do with the P. & O. steamers, which, however, do not very often touch here.
"I told you it would go around the world!" Greg said, when I had finished, and Jerry and I were staring at each other.
"Well!" Jerry said at last. "What luck!"
"I should rather say so," I said; "suppose a fisherman had found it, or no one at all."
"Bless his old heart," said Jerry, taking the letter.
I wanted to know why "old."
"He must be ancient if he has to totter along on two sticks," Jerry said. "Besides, he has a stately, professorish sort of style. Do you suppose he really does want us to write to him?"
"Of course he does," Greg said; "he tells us to often enough. Think of being alone out there with savages, and that bearded chief coming with poison bottles and all."
"Shut up, Greg," said Jerry; "you don't understand. There's more in this than meets the eye, Chris. I didn't get on to this crab salad business when you read it."
Neither had I; in fact, I hadn't got on to it until Jerry said it in proper English.
"He's a good sort, poor old dear," I said. "Why do you suppose they keep him out there?"
"He's there of his own free will, right enough," Jerry said.
But I didn't think so.
We were still confabbing over the letter, and explaining bits to Greg, who was hopelessly mystified, when Mother came out to transplant some columbine that had wandered into the lawn. We did a quick secret consultation and then decided to let her in on the Castaway. So we bolted after her and took away the trowel and showed her the letter. She read it through twice, and then said:
"Oh, Ailsa must hear this, and Father!" But what we wanted to know was whether or not we might write to the Castaway, because we didn't quite want to without letting her know about it. She laughed some more and said, "yes, we might," and that he was "a dear," which was what we thought.
We decided that we would write immediately, so Jerry dashed off to Father's study and got two sheets of nice thin paper with "17 Luke Street" at the top in humpy green letters, and I borrowed Aunt Ailsa's fountain-pen, which turned out to be empty. I might have known it, for they always are empty when you need them most. Jerry, like a goose, filled it over the clean paper we were going to use for the letter, and it slobbered blue ink all over the top sheet. But the under one wasn't hurt, and we thought one page full would be all we could write, anyway. We took the things out to the porch table, and Greg held down the corner of the paper so it wouldn't flap while I wrote. Jerry sat on the arm of my chair and thought so excitedly that it jiggled me.
But minutes went on, and the fountain pen began to ooze from being too full, and none of us could think of a single thing to say.
"If we just write to him ourselves,—in our own form, I mean," Jerry said, "it'll be stupid. And I don't feel maroonish here on the porch. We'll have to wait till we go to Wecanicut again, and write from there."
I felt somehow the way Jerry did, so we put away the things again and went out under the hemlock tree to talk about the Castaway. Greg didn't come, and we supposed he'd gone to feed a tame toad he had that year, or something. The toad lived under the syringa bush beside the gate, and Greg insisted that it came out when he whistled for it, but it never would perform when we went on purpose to watch it, so I don't know whether it did or not.
Under the hemlock is one of the best places in the garden for councils and such. The branches quite touch the grass, and when you creep under them you are in a dark, golden sort of tent, crackley and sweet-smelling. You can slither pine-needles through your fingers as you discuss, too, and it helps you to think. We thought for quite a long time, and then I got out the letter and spread it down in one of the wavy patches of sunlight, and we read it again.
"Did you really think anybody'd find it?" Jerry asked suddenly, and I told him I hadn't thought so.
"Neither did I," he said; "let alone such a jolly old soul. Why, he'd be better than Aunt on a picnic."
"I do wonder why he has to stay there," I said.
"Perhaps he's a fugitive from justice," Jerry suggested; "or perhaps he's a prisoner and the bearded person comes out with Spanish Inquisition things to make him confess his horrible crime."
"He sounds like a person who'd done a horrible crime, doesn't he!" I said in scorn.
"Well, then," said Jerry, who really has the most inspired ideas for plots, "perhaps he's an innocent old man whose wicked nephews want to frighten him into changing his will, leaving an enormous fortune to them. And they're keeping him on the island till he'll do it."
"Well, whatever it is," I said, "I don't think he's awfully happy somehow, and it's nice of him to write such a gorgeous thing."
So we both decided that whether he was staying on the island of his own free will, or in bondage, in any case it must be frightfully dull for him and that our letter ought to be interesting and cheerful.
Just then the hemlock branches thrashed apart and Greg crawled under with pine-needles in his hair. He sat back on his heels and blinked at us, because he'd just come out of the sunlight.
"I thought somebody ought to write to the Bottle Man," he said, "so I did."
"Well, I never!" Jerry said.
Greg fished up a bent piece of paper from inside his jumper and handed it to me.
"You can see it," he said, "but not Jerry."
"As if I'd want to!" Jerry said; but he did, fearfully.
Greg is the most unexpected person I ever knew. He's always doing things like that, when everyone else has given up.
I spread his paper out on top of the other letter, and he sprawled down beside me, all ready to explain with his finger. What with his dreadfully bad writing and the sunlight moving off the paper all the time as the branches swayed, it took me ever so long to read the thing. This is what it was:
Dear Bottle Man:
To-day we got your leter wich surprised us very much. Although I kept hopeing and hopeing some body would find the bottle. We are not so distresed now because we were picked up and now have toast and other things beter than barnicles. I mesured from here to the equater on the big map and it is an aufuly far way for the bottle to go. Only I thought it would. I am sorry you are so imprisined on the iland and please dont let the cheif with the beard poisen you because we would like to hear from you agan. If there is tresure on that iland I should think you could look for it and it would be exiting. But prehaps there is none. We hope there is some on Wecanicut. But it is hard to know sirtainly. Chris and Jerry are going to do a leter. But I thought I would first. I hope the saviges will be frendly allways.
Your respecfull comrade,
P.S. None of us are Bones yet.
"Will it do?" Greg asked anxiously, when I folded it up. His eyes grow very dark when he's anxious, and they were perfectly inky now. You never would have guessed that they were really blue.
"It'll do splendidly," I said, for I did think the Castaway man would like Greg's letter tremendously.
"Better let me see it, my lad," said Jerry, rolling over among the pine-cones and sitting up.
Greg got his precious letter with a snatch and a squeak, and scurried off with it. I pitched Jerry back on to the pine-needles, because I knew he'd never let the thing go if he saw it.
"Oh, let him send it," I said. "It's perfectly all right, and it will do the Bottle Man heaps of good."
But Jerry growled about "beastly scrawls" and wasn't pleased with me until supper-time.
Somehow we all began calling our island person the "Bottle Man" after Greg did, for it seemed as good a name as any for him, seeing that we didn't know his real one. We read the letter from him after supper to Aunt Ailsa, and she laughed and liked it, and so did Father. We also asked Father what the Latin meant, and he made a funny face and said he'd forgotten such things, but then he looked at it again and told us it meant something like this:
"The happy hour shall come, all the more appreciated because it comes unexpectedly."
So we went to bed thinking about our poor old Bottle Man consoling himself out there on his island with Latin quotations.
We all went to Wecanicut next day, which was a glorious one, and when the food had disappeared we three walked up the point and wrote to the Bottle Man from there. We'd decided that the paper with "17 Luke Street" on it was much too grand for "poore mariners" anyway, so we'd just brought brownish paper that comes in a block. We told the Bottle Man how wonderful we thought it was that he had found our message, and how his letter had cheered our lonely watching for a sail. Also, how we had been picked up and were returned now to Wecanicut of our own will, seeking rich treasure. We described the "Sea Monster" very carefully, and wrote about the black cave-entrance-looking place that had happened, where no boat would dare to venture. Jerry's description of it was quite wild. He dictated it to me above the shrieking of a lot of gulls which were flying over us all the time. It went like this:
"The Sea Monster was quite terrific enough looking before, like the slimy black head of something huge coming out of the water. Now it looks as if it had opened a cavernous maw" (I'm sure he nabbed that from some book) "as black as ink, ready to swallow any unfortunate mariner which came near. Below the base of this fearsome hole roars the cruel surf, ready to engulf a boat which would never be seen more if it was once caught in this deadly eddy."
I thought "deadly eddy" sounded like Illiteration, or something you shouldn't do, in the Rhetoric Books, but Jerry was much excited over his description. He sat on top of a rock, pointing out at the Sea Monster like a prophet. He has quite black hair which blows around wildly, and he looked very strange sitting up there raving about the cavern. The letter was very long by the time we'd put in everything, and we hoped the Bottle Man would like it. Just before we signed it, I said:
"Do you think we'd better tell him I'm really Christine and not Christopher?"
"No," Jerry said; "put Chris, the way you did before. He's writing now as man to man. He might be disgusted if he knew it was just a mere female."
"Oh, thank you," I said; but I did put "Chris," on account of our all being fellow castaways.
When we'd finished the letter we walked a long way down the other shore toward the Fort. The wind was blowing right, and we could hear bits of what the band was playing and now and then peppery sounds from the rifle practice. It's not a very big fort, but it squats on the other side of Wecanicut, watching the bay, and real cannon stick out at loopholes in the wall. The ferry really only goes to Wecanicut on account of the Fort, because there's nothing else there but a few farm houses and some ugly summer cottages near the ferry-slip. The point from which you see the Monster is not near the Fort or the houses at all, and is much the wildest part of Wecanicut. When you're standing on the very end you might think you really were on a deserted island, because you can look straight out to sea.
We cut back cross-country through the bay-bushes and the dry, tickly grass to our usual part of Wecanicut, where the grown-ups were just beginning to collect the baskets and things and to look at their watches. We posted the letter on the way home, and Greg jiggled the flap of the letter-box twice to make sure that it wasn't stuck.
It was that week that Jerry sprained his ankle jumping off the porch-roof and had to sit in the big wicker chair with his foot on a pillow for days. He hated it, but he didn't make any fuss at all, which was decent of him considering that the weather was the best we'd had all summer. We played chess, which he likes because he can always beat me, and also "Pounce," which pulls your eyes out after a little while and burns holes in your brain. It's that frightful card game where you try to get rid of thirteen cards before any one else, and snatch at aces in the middle, on top of everybody. Jerry is horribly clever at it and shouts "Pounce!" first almost every time. Greg always has at least twelve of his thirteen cards left and explains to you very carefully how he had it all planned very far ahead and would have won if Jerry hadn't said "Pounce" so soon.
Also, Father let Jerry play the 'cello, and he made heavenly hideous sounds which he said were exactly like what the Sea Monster's voice would be if it had one. Just when we were all rather despairing, because Dr. Topham said that Jerry mustn't walk for two days more, the very thing happened which we'd been hoping for. Greg came up all the porch steps at once with one bounce, brandishing a square envelope and shouting:
"The Bottle Man!"
It was addressed to all of us, but I turned it over to Jerry to do the honors with, on account of his being a poor invalid and Abused by Fate. He had the envelope open in two shakes, with the complicated knife he always carries, and pulled out any amount of paper. He stared at the top page for a minute, and then said:
"Here, Greg, this is for you. You can be pawing over it while we're reading the proper one."
But I said, "Not so fast," and "Let's hear it all, one at a time."
So I took Greg's and read it aloud, because he takes such an everlasting time over handwriting and this writing was rather queer and hard to read. This is his letter:
Respected Comrade Gregory Holford:
I am writing to you separately because you wrote to me separately, and very much I liked your letter. I cannot tell you how much relieved I am to hear that toast has been substituted for barnacles in your diet. In the long run, toast is far better for a mariner, however hardy he may be.
It is indeed a long way from Wecanicut to the Equator,—but are you sure you measured to ME.—Mid Equator? It is very different, you know. The bearded one is pleased with me and has not brought his poison bottles of late, but thank you for not wanting me to die just now. I do not know of any treasure in Bluar Boor, but I refer you to the enclosed letter which tells something of treasure elsewhere. I hope your search on Wecanicut, my dear sir, will be richly rewarded.
Please note that I refer to natives, not savages. There is a vasty difference; more than you perhaps might suppose.
May I inscribe myself your most humble servant,
THE BOTTLE MAN.
P.S. I'm so glad your Bones are still where they belong.
Greg was counting elaborately on his fingers, and said:
"I believe he answered everything in my letter, but please let me have it, because there are some things I need to work out myself."
"Now for the business," Jerry said. "This must be the whole sad story of his life,—there's pages of it. Coil yourself up comfortably, Chris, and I'll fire away."
So I coiled up beside Greg on the Gloucester hammock, and Jerry began to read.
From my desolate island refuge I salute the Intrepid Trio! Good sirs, what you tell me of the "Sea Monster" makes my flesh creep and my hair stir with terror. A murderous bad place I should call it, and not one to trifle with. Yet it might well be, as you think, that the sudden-appearing cavern is the mouth of a pirate cave fairly bursting with treasure, and only now exposed to the eyes of such daring adventurers as yourselves by a trick of the elements. Strange things there be above and below the waters of the world—which serves to remind me of a tale you might not scorn to hear. You may take it or leave it, as you will, but at least the penning of it will pass some of my hours of banishment in a pleasant fashion.
In the year of grace 18— (I shudder to think how long ago) I was a bold youth of perhaps the age of the valiant Christopher.
Here Jerry paused to give a muffled hoot at me. I chucked a hammock cushion at him, and he went on:
My father's house stood on a rambling street in an old waterside town, and from the windows of my room I could see the topmasts of sailing ships thrusting upward above gray roofs. Small marvel that my head should be filled with the ways of the sea and the wonder of it, or that I should spend long hours dreaming over books that told of adventures thereon. It was over such a book that I was poring one summer's evening as I sat in the library bow-window. The breeze from the harbor came in and stirred the curtains beside my head, and brought with it the last westering ripple of sunlight and a smell of climbing roses. The book had dropped from my hand and I was well-nigh drowsing, when I saw, as plain as day, the queerest figure possible clicking open our garden gate. He looked to be some sort of South American half-breed,—swart face under rough black hair, and striped blanket gathered over dirty white trousers. Now I had seen many a strange man disembark from ships, but, never such a one as this, and when I saw that he was coming straight toward my window, I was half tempted to make an escape.
He leaned on the sill of the open casement with his dark face just below mine and began to pour out, in halting English, a tale which at first I had some trouble in understanding. The most that I made of it was that he, and he alone, knew the whereabouts of a city buried ages since under the sea and filled with treasure of an unbelievable description. But you may imagine that even the hint of such a thing was enough to set me all athrill, and I was not greatly surprised at myself when I found that I was following the queer, slinking figure down our bare little New England street.
He led me to a ship, an old brigantine heavy with age and barnacles and hung about with the sorriest gray rags of canvas that ever did duty for sails. No wonder that nine days out we lost our fore tops'l. But stay; I fear I go too fast! For you must know that I went aboard that brigantine, and once aboard I could not go ashore again, partly because the strange, ill-assorted crew detained me at every turn, and partly because the longing was so strong upon me to see the things I had read of so often. And that night found me still upon the vessel, nosing down to the harbor light, with the lamps of my father's house winking less and less brightly on the dim shore astern.
Well, sirs, it would weary you to tell much of that voyage, and besides, many's the time you yourselves must have weathered the Horn. For it was 'round Cape Stiff we went—no Panama Canal in those days—and I served a bitter apprenticeship on ice-coated yards, clutching numbly at battering sails frozen stiff as iron. It was Peru we were bound for,—Peru where the submarine city lay beneath uncounted fathoms waiting for us. The captain and I were the only ones Acuma, the half-breed, had taken into his confidence; all the others sailed on a blind errand, trusting to the skipper, who was a shrewd man and severe. And the brigantine wallowed around the Cape and toiled on and on up the coast, and every day Acuma grew more restless; every day he cast about the water with eyes that seemed to pierce to the very bottom of the Pacific.
One day of blue sky and little breeze, when we were pushing the brigantine with all sails set, Acuma flung himself at a bound to the quarterdeck, and a moment later the skipper shouted quick orders that the crew could not understand for the life of them. For to heave the ship to, just when we all had been whistling for enough breeze to give her something more than steerage way, seemed nothing short of insane. Acuma climbed to the maintop and looked at the coast of Peru with a telescope, and the captain took bearings with his instruments.
It was Acuma and I who went over the side in diving suits, for no others save the captain knew what we sought, as I have said. Down I went and down, with the weight of water crushing ever more strongly against me, till I stood upon the sea's floor. That in itself was quite wonderful enough—the green whiteness of the sand and the strange, multi-colored forest of weed and coral through which my searchlight bored a single, luminous pathway. But right ahead, looming and wavering, seen for an instant, lost again when a deep vibration stirred and swayed the water, shone the faintly golden shape of a great portal. Acuma I had lost sight of, but I had no need to ask him what lay before me. The wild pounding of my heart told me that I stood at the gateway of the city that had been covered a thousand thousand years ago by the unheeding sea. Leaning at an angle against the tide, I struggled forward till the great gate towered above me, its arch half lost in the green, swimming shadow of the water. But as I flashed my light up across its pillars, it answered with the shifting sparkle of gems crusted thick upon it.
I walked then, breathless, into a street paved with rough silver ingots, each one surely weighing a quintal, between tremulous shapes of buildings which pointed lustrous towers upward through fathoms of green water. It was many minutes before I dared enter one of those great silent halls. Dragging my heavy leaden-soled boots, I pushed through a shapely silver doorway, and a fish darted past me as I entered. Who could imagine the wonder of that vast room! The mosaic that covered the walls and ceilings was of gold and jewels, not porphyry and serpentine, such as delight the wondering visitor to Venice, but precious stones—rubies, sapphires, emeralds, amethysts as richly purple as grape clusters, topaz as clear and mellow as honey.
Behind a traceried grillwork lay heaped a mound of treasures such as no human eye will ever see again. I lifted a little tree fashioned all of gold,—each leaf wrought of the metal—and strung with jewelled fruits on which ruby-eyed golden birds fed. In despairing rapture I clutched after a neck ornament hung with pendulous pearls as large as plums. But as I reached for it, I felt that something was looking at me from the corner. Not Acuma; no human being was in sight. Peering out through the glass visor of my helmet, I saw fixed on me from low down beside the doorway two inky, moveless eyes as large as saucers. They were not human eyes, nor did they belong to any sea creature I had ever beheld or read of. They were round and fixed, pools of bottomless blackness, staring at me through two varas of clear, swaying water. I took an uncertain step backwards, and as I did so I felt something soft and heavy laid slowly and slimily upon my shoulder....
Ah me, here is an interruption! A native child approaches, bearing as an offering a Lol Ipop (one of the native fruits). Just before he reaches me he falls face down, doubtless out of respect for my gray hairs, and, on arising, proffers me the Lol Ipop, now coated with sand. In this state I am expected to eat it, and, being in great awe and fear of the inhabitants, I proceed to do so, which incapacitates me for further epistolatory effort.
So, till I recover from the effects of my enforced meal, believe me your devoted correspondent,
THE BOTTLE MAN.
"Well, of all mean tricks!" Jerry said.
"It's worse than a continued story," I said. "Bother the horrid native child! Do you suppose that's really why he stopped?"
"Probably not; he knew it was the excitingest place to stop. What did I tell you about his being ancient? Now he says he has gray hairs, so that proves it."
"I should think he might," I said, "after such experiences. What do you think it could have been that stared at him?"
"An octopus, most likely," Jerry said. "They have goggly black eyes; I've read it."
"But he said he'd never seen such eyes on any sea beast he knew of, and he's read as much as you have; that's sure."
"That treasure! Oh, my eye!" Jerry sighed. "Do you suppose he brought home hunks of it?"
"Just the same hunks that we dig up on Wecanicut, I suppose," I said.
"You mean you think he's making up the whole yarn?" Jerry asked. "Well, even if he is, it's a mighty good one, and it might have happened to him, at that."
Greg looked up suddenly from beside me, and said:
"I think the thing what stared at him was a mer-person."
"My child," said Jerry, "I believe you're right."
Next day Jerry was well enough to walk around with a cane, and when he'd broken Father's second-best malacca stick by vaulting over the box border with it, we decided that he was quite all right, and the summer went on again as usual. Of course we wrote to the Bottle Man at once, and told him, as respectfully as we could, just what we thought of him for letting the native child interrupt him in such an exciting part. We also begged him to write again as soon as possible, and to choose a place where the inhabitants weren't likely to come with offerings. We kept waiting and waiting, and no letter came, so we settled ourselves to Grim Resignation, as Jerry said. It was worse than waiting for the next number of a serial story, because you're pretty certain when that will come, but we had no idea how long it would be before the Bottle Man wrote to us.
Aunt Ailsa still needed cheering up a good deal, and that kept us busy. The cheering was great fun for us, because it consisted mostly of picnics and long, long walks,—the kind where you take a stick and a kit-bag and eat your lunch under a hedge, like a tinker. We also wrote a story which we used to put in instalments under her plate at breakfast every other day. We took turns writing the story, and Greg's instalments always made Aunt Ailsa the most cheered up of all. The story was much too long to put in here, and rather ridiculous, besides.
By this time it was almost September, and asters were beginning to bloom in the garden and the hollyhocks were almost gone. Wecanicut was turning the dry, russetty color that it does late in the summer, and the harbor seemed bluer every day. Captain Moss took us out in the Jolly Nancy one afternoon just for kindness—we didn't hire her at all. She is a sixteen-footer and quite fast, in spite of being rather broad in the beam. He let each of us steer her and told us a great many names of things on her, which I forgot immediately. Jerry always remembers things like that and can talk about reef-cringles and topping-lift as if he really knew what they were for. We went quite far out and saw the Sea Monster from a different side in the distance, and tacked down to the other end of Wecanicut under the Fort guns.
It was when we got in from the gorgeous sail, with Greg carrying the little basket all made of twisted-up rope Captain Moss had done for him, that we found a big, square envelope lying on the hall table. And, to our despair, supper was just ready and we couldn't read the letter till afterward. Supper was good, I must admit,—baked eggs, all crusty and buttery on top, and muffins, and cherry jam. We ate hugely, because of the Jolly Nancy making us so hungry.
When we'd finished we went into Father's study, where he wasn't, and turned on the desk-light and got at the letter. I read it, while the boys crouched about expectantly. Here it is:
I should have answered your frantic appeals for news of me long since, had I not been slavishly occupied in carrying out the demands of the Man of Torture from whom I am now completely released, praises be. I am even contemplating escape from Bluar Boor by stealth. But no doubt you have no desire for these modern details and are all agog to find out whether or not I met a wretched death at the bottom of the sea. I think you left me—or I left you—with a soft and hideous something resting upon my shoulder.
Sirs, it was a Hand, a webbed hand, and turning, I looked straight down into another pair of flat dark eyes. They belonged to a creature not as tall as I, and certainly not human in shape. Arms and legs it had, of a sort, and scales, also, and finny spines, and a soft slimy body. Then, through the door which led to the silver street, I saw more of the creatures, and more,—a soft, hurrying crowd patting over the ingot blocks which paved the road, peering in at the door, beckoning with webby fingers.
My helmet smothered the cry I gave as I struggled against the horrible resistance of the water toward the door. Out in the street the mer-crowd surrounded me, fingered my arms, looking at me with unfathomable, disc-like eyes, black as ink. With dawning comprehension it came over me that these creatures inhabited the desolate, sea-filled city, lived in the mighty golden halls that once had echoed to the footsteps of Peruvian kings, fared about the rich streets where coral now grew instead of tree and flower.
The things were speechless, with no seeming means of communication, and I saw, too, that they could not leave the sea-bottom, but walked upon it as we do upon earth, and could no more rise than we can leap into the air and swim upon it. I tried to push my difficult way through the clinging swarm, who seemed friendly enough in a weird, inhuman way, but I could not pass through. Dimly through the swinging water I could see others coming from every carven doorway down the silent street. I thought then of the weights attached to me, and I decided to cut them loose at once and rise from the ghostly place, of which I had seen quite enough to suit me. But I determined to take with me at least one thing from the vast mounds of treasure which held me breathless with utter bewilderment.
So I turned and with my long knife began prying from its doorway a ruby as large as my fist. Instantly, without warning, the creature nearest me raised its scaly hand in a flinging gesture, and I felt a hot and rushing pain just above my right elbow. I felt, too, a coldness of water spurting down my arm and clutched wildly at the sleeve of my diving-suit to seal the little hole which I saw in it. Holding it tightly with my left hand, I slashed with my right at the creatures who were now moving upon me menacingly, pressing me close. If they forced me back into the doorway, all hope would be gone. I cut desperately at the fastenings that secured the weights; felt myself rising; felt my legs pull out from the clinging, slimy arms; looked down at them—a sea of bobbing smooth heads, of round, expressionless, black eyes; saw them waving their tentacle-like arms in fury; saw at last the dim, golden crest of the tallest tower below my feet; burst above the blessed sea-level and saw good blue waves slapping the bow of the brigantine drifting lazily down toward me.
I know nothing of the voyage home. I must have been poisoned by the missile, whatever it was, that the sea-creature flung at me. (I bear the scar to this day.) For I have no recollection of much more, until I sat in the library bow-window of my father's house, very tired and stiff and thoroughly thankful that the voyage was over. It was dark, and my mother sat sewing beside a shaded lamp and singing to herself. I fingered the book that lay beside me, on the window-seat, and said:
"Mother, did you keep the book just here all the time I was gone because you were sorry I went and wanted to remember me?"
She laughed, and said: "Yes, all the time while you were sailing to the Port of Stars. Come now to supper, my dear."
So I got up very stiffly, for I felt weak and dizzy still, and went with her. I said:
"I'm sorry, Mother, that after all I couldn't bring you any of the jewels."
Whereupon she laughed again and said something about "Cornelia" which I am too modest to repeat, but which, being scholars, you will know by heart, and said that she was glad enough to have me back at all.
Sirs, you cannot think how beautiful our little dining-room looked to me, with the old brass-handled highboy in the corner and the pots of flowers on the sill—far more beautiful than the fretted golden towers and gem-girdled walls of the City under the Sea.
So take my advice, young sirs, the advice of a man many years older than you bold young blades: don't you ever go listening to a half-breed Peruvian that comes slinking to your window, no matter how enticing may be his tales of treasure.
Your most faithful
"Do you think he dreamed it?" Jerry said.
"Whatever it was, he must have been glad to get back," I said, switching off the light so that we could talk in the dark, which is more creepy and pleasant.
"But the treasure!" Jerry said. "Do you suppose there ever was such treasure in the world? That's something like! Imagine finding gold trees and birds eating jewels on the Sea Monster! By the way, do you know about 'Cornelia'?"
I said I thought she had something to do with sitting on a hill and her children turning to stone one after the other, but Jerry said that was Niobe and that it was she who turned to stone, not the children. He has a fearfully long memory. So we put on the light again and looked it up in "The Reader's Handbook," because we didn't want to bother the grown-ups, and we found, of course, that she was the Roman lady who pointed at her sons and said, "These are my jewels!" when somebody asked her where her gold and ornaments were. So naturally the Bottle Man didn't feel like repeating such a complimentary thing, being an un-stuck-up person, but we did think it was nice of his mother.
We put away the "Handbook" and made the room dark again and were arguing over all the exciting places in the Bottle Man's story, when Greg spoke up suddenly from the corner where we'd almost forgotten him.
"If I found a thing like those mer-persons," he said drowsily, "I wouldn't let it bite me. I'd keep it in the bath-tub and teach it how to do things."
"Like your precious toad, I suppose," said Jerry. "Don't be idiotic."
So we all went to bed, and I, for one, dreamed about all kinds of glittering treasures and heaps of jewels each as big as your hat, and of our nice old Bottle Man, with his long white beard flowing in the wind.
* * * * *
And now comes the perfectly awful part.
I must say at the beginning that it was all my fault. Jerry says that it was just as much his, but it wasn't, because I'm the oldest and I ought to have known better. To begin with, Father had to go to New York to give a talk at the American Architects' League, or something, and Mother decided to go with him. At the last minute Aunt Ailsa got a weekend invitation from somebody she hadn't seen for ages and went away, too, which left us alone with Katy and Lena. Katy has been with us next to forever and took care of Jerry and Greg when they were Infant Babes, so that Mother never imagined, of course, that anything could happen in two days. It wasn't Katy's fault either.
The first day was foggy, and the garden dripped, so we went down to call on Captain Moss, who lives near the ferry-landing. Besides having boats for hire, he sells such things as fishing-tackle and very strong-smelling rope, and sometimes salt herring on a stick. The things he sells are all mixed up with parts of his own boats and pieces of canvas and rope-ends, and curly shavings that skitter across the floor when the wind blows in from the harbor. There is a window at one end of his shop-place that goes all the way to the floor, like a doorway, and it is always open. His shop is half on the ferry-wharf so that the window hangs right over the water, very high above it. It is quite a dizzyish place, but wonderful to look out at. Far away you see boats coming in, and Wecanicut all flat and gray, and then right below is nice sloshy green water with old boxes and straws floating by, and sometimes horrid orange-peels that picnic people throw in.
That afternoon Captain Moss was mending the stern of one of his boats, and when we asked him what he was fitting on, he said: "Rudder-gudgeons."
He grunted it out so funnily that it sounded just like some queer old flounder trying to talk, and we thought he was joking. But he wasn't at all. Sometimes he is very nice and tells us the longest yarns about when he shipped on a whaler, but this time he was busy and the rudder-gudgeons didn't behave right, I think, so he let us do all the talking. We told him a good deal about the bottle, and also something about the city under the sea. He said he shouldn't wonder at it, for there was powerful curious things under the sea. He also said he supposed now we'd be wanting to hire the Jolly Nancy "fer to find submarine cities, sence he wouldn't let us have her to go a-stavin' in her bottom on them rocks off Wecanicut."
We decided that he really didn't want to be bothered, so we went away presently. To soothe him, Jerry bought some of the dry herring things and carried them home in a pasteboard box that said "1/2 doz. galvanized line cleats. Extra quality" on the lid. Lena cooked the herrings for supper, but I don't think she could have done it right, because they were quite horrid.
The second day was the perfectly gorgeous kind that makes you want to go off to seek your fortune or dance on top of a high hill or do anything rather than stay at home, however nice your own garden may be. We agreed about this at breakfast, and I said:
"Let's go to Wecanicut."
We'd never gone to Wecanicut alone, but I couldn't see any reason why we shouldn't. Captain Lewis, on the ferry, always watches over every one on board with a fatherly sort of eye, and Wecanicut itself is a perfectly safe, mild place, without any quicksands or tigers or anything that Mother would object to.
"I tell you what," Jerry said, "let's make it a real adventure and take some costumes along. We never had any proper ones there before."
I thought this was a rather good idea, and after breakfast we went up to select things that wouldn't be too bothersome to carry, from the Property Basket.
"Is it to be pirates or smugglers or what?" Greg asked, poking in the corner where he keeps his own special rigs.
"Explorers, my fine fellow," Jerry said, "exploring after a submerged city."
"Oh!" Greg said, evidently changing his ideas.
Jerry and I went down to ask Katy to make us some lunch.
"Just food; nothing careful," Jerry explained.
"What are ye goin' to do with it?" Katy asked.
Jerry was all ready to say, "Eat it, of course," but I saw what Katy meant and said:
"We're going out; it's such a nice day. We thought we'd take our lunch with us to save Lena trouble."
"Don't get streelin' off too far," Katy said, "Where are ye goin'?"
"Oh, down by the shore," I said, which was not quite the whole truth, because of course it was not our shore, but the shore of Wecanicut I meant. Yes, all of it was my fault.
Just as we were putting the lunch into the kit-bag Greg came staggering downstairs, trailing along the weirdest lot of stuff he'd collected.
"What on earth is all that?" Jerry asked him. "Drop it and get your hat."
"It's—my costume," Greg explained, out of breath from having dragged all the things down from the attic.
"Glory!" Jerry said, "You don't suppose you're going to lug all that rubbish on to the ferry, do you? Not while I'm with you, my boy."
"You couldn't begin to put on half of it, Gregs," I said. "Let's weed it out a little."
"And look sharp about it," Jerry said, jingling the money for the ferry in his pocket.
Greg finally took a Turkish fez thing, and a black-and-orange sash, and a white brocade waistcoat that Father once had for a masque ball ages ago. We hadn't time to tell him that it was no sort of outfit for an explorer, so we bundled the things up with our own and stuffed them all into the kit-bag on top of the lunch.
Luke Street has a turn in it just beyond our house, so neither Katy nor Lena could have seen which way we went; anyhow, I think they were both in the back kitchen, which looks out on the clothes-yard. I thought perhaps we should have told Katy where we were going after all, but Jerry said:
"Fiddlesticks, Chris; we're not babies. I suppose you'd like Katy to take us in a perambulator."
This was horrid of him, but he made up for everything later on.
Our Captain Lewis was not in the pilot-house of the Wecanicut. Instead there was a strange captain, a scraggly, cross-looking person, staring at a little book and not watching the people who came on board, the way Captain Lewis does. Jerry and I sat on campstools on the windy side, and Greg went to watch the walking-beam, which he thinks will some day knock the top off its house. It always stops and plunges down just when he thinks it surely will forget and go smashing on up through the roof. He is quite disappointed that it never does. It behaved perfectly properly this time and paddled the old ferry-boat over to Wecanicut as usual.
We went up the hot little road that goes from the landing, and then ran through a prickly, stony short-cut that leads among wild rose-bushes and sweet fern to our part of the shore. There were tiny little wavelets splashing over the rocks, and you couldn't think which was bluer—the sea or the sky. The first thing we did was to bury our bottle of root-beer in a pool up to its neck and mark the place with two white stones. This is something we have learned by experience, for nothing is nastier than warm root-beer. Then we put on the costumes and capered about a little. I had a tight, striped football jersey, and my gym bloomers, and a black, villainous-looking felt hat; and Jerry had a ruffle pinned on the front of his shirt, and a wide belt with the big tinfoil-covered buckle that Mother made for us once, and a felt hat fastened up on the sides so that it looked like a real three-cornered one. Greg had arrayed himself in his things, and he did look too absurd, with more than a foot of the brocade waistcoat dangling below the sash, the end of which trailed on the ground behind.
It gave us a queer, wild feeling, being there without the grown-ups, and we decided to tell them that as we'd proved we could do it, we might go again. We never did tell them that, as it happens.
We all grew hungry so soon that we had lunch much earlier than the grown-ups would have had it. The food Katy had fixed was wonderful, though rather squashed on account of all the costumes being on top of it in the kit-bag. While we ate we organized the Submerged-City-Seeking-Expedition. Jerry was "Terry Loganshaw," in charge of the party, and I was "Christopher Hole, shipmaster," and Greg was "Baroo, the Madagascar cabin-boy," because we couldn't think of what else he could be, with such clothes.
We tidied up all the picnic things so that there was nothing left, and put the root-beer bottle into the kit-bag, because it was a good one with a patent top. The kit-bag we took with us for duffle, and we set off for the point. We went by the longest way we could think of, to make it seem like a real expedition,—'cross country and back again. Jerry led us through the scratchy, overgrown part of Wecanicut, and we pretended that it was a long, weary trek through the most poisonous jungles to the coast of Peru; and when Greg walked right into a spider's web with a huge yellow spider gloating in the middle of it, he said he'd been bitten by a tarantula. We told him that we should have to leave him there to die, for we must press on to the sea, but he cured himself by eating a magic sweet-fern leaf and came running after us, tripping over his sash. The trekking took a long time, and when we reached the end of the point we were quite exhausted and flung our weary frames down on the tropic sand to rest. All at once Jerry clutched my arm and said:
"Look yonder, Hole! Does not yon strange form appear to you like the topper-most minaret of a sunken tower?"
He was pointing at the Sea Monster, and it really did look much more like a rough sort of dome than a monster's head. There was a lot of haze in the air, which made it look bluish and mysterious instead of rocky.
"It do indeed, sir," I said. "Could it be that city we be seeking?"
"Would that we had a boat!" said Greg, which might have been quite proper if he'd been somebody else, instead of Baroo.
We'd been sprawling on the sand again for quite a while, when Jerry suddenly jumped up and shouted:
"Glory! Look, Chris!" not at all like Terry Loganshaw.
I did look, and saw what he had seen. It was an empty boat, a sort of dinghy, bobbing and butting along beside the rocks a little way down the shore. We all ran helter-skelter, and Jerry pulled off his shoes like a flash and waded out and pulled the boat in.
"It's one of those old tubs from around the ferry-landing," he said. "It must have got adrift and come down with the tide. Oars in it and all."
We stood there silently, Jerry in the water holding the boat, and we were all thinking the same thing. It was Greg who said it first, quite solemnly.
"We could go out to the Sea Monster."
Of course it was then that I ought to have said that we couldn't, but Jerry pulled the boat up the beach and ran back to the end of the point to see how high the waves were before I could say it. It was too late to say it afterwards, because when we saw that there was not even the faintest curl of white foam around the Sea Monster, it did seem as though we could do it.
"It'll only take about five minutes to row out there," Jerry said, "and then we'll have seen it at last. It couldn't be a better time. Why, a newly hatched duckling could swim out there to-day."
It did look very near, and the water was calm and shiny, with just a long, heaving roll now and then, as if something underneath were humping its shoulders.
So I said, "All right; let's," and we climbed into the boat. Jerry rows very well, and he pulled both the oars while I bailed with an old tin can that I found under the stern thwart. The boat didn't leak badly enough to worry about, but I thought it might be just as well to keep it bailed. We talked in a very nautical way, though Jerry kept forgetting he was Terry Loganshaw and mixing up "Treasure Island" and Captain Moss. But I didn't feel so much like being Chris Hole, anyway, even to please the boys, and I didn't say much.
The Sea Monster was much further away than you might suppose. When there was ever so much smooth, swelling water between us and Wecanicut, the Monster's head still seemed almost as far away as before. Somehow the water looked very deep, although you couldn't see down into it, and it humped itself under the boat.
Presently Wecanicut began to drop further away, and then the Sea Monster loomed up suddenly right over us, and Jerry had to fend the boat off with an oar. We had never guessed how big the thing really was,—not big at all for an island, but very large for a bare, off-shore rock. I should say that it was just about the bigness of an ordinary house, and very black and beetling, with not a spear of grass or anything on it. When Jerry said, "My stars, what a weird place!" his voice went booming and rumbling in among the rocks, and a lot of gulls flew up suddenly, flapping and shrieking. He held the boat up against the edge of a rock while Greg and I got out. We took the kit-bag ashore, and Jerry made the boat fast by putting a big piece of stone on top of the rope. There was nothing like a beach or even a shelving rock to pull it up on, so that was the best we could do. The boat backed away as far as it could, but the rope was firmly wedged between the rock and the stone so it couldn't get away.
Of course we went first to look at the black cave-entrance. Sure enough, a great flat slab had fallen down from it and lay half in the water,—we could see scratchy marks and broken places where it had slid. The cave itself was about six feet deep, and very dank and dismal-looking. There was no sign of there ever having been treasure, for nobody could possibly have buried it, unless they'd hewn places in the living rock, like ancient Egyptians. We might have thought of that before, but of course we didn't honestly believe that there was treasure. Somehow the Sea Monster didn't seem nearly so jolly and exciting as it had from Wecanicut. It was so real and big, and whenever a wave came in, it boomed and echoed under the hanging-over rocks. We climbed around to the other side and went up on top of the highest place, which was about three times as high as I am. From there we could see the Headland, very far away and blue, and Wecanicut behind us, safe and green and friendly-looking, but a long way off; and nothing else but a smeary line of smoke from a steamer at sea.
"We named this place well," I said; "it is a Monster."
"Brrrr, hear it roar!" Jerry said. "The waves must be bigger, or something. There weren't any when we came out."
We looked down and saw that the water was behaving differently. Instead of being smooth and rolling, there was a skitter of sharp ripples all over it, and the waves went slap and frothed white when they hit the rock. The sky had changed, too. It was not so blue, and there were switchy mares' tails across it, and the wind was blowing from Wecanicut, instead of toward it.
"We'd better start back," I said. "I'm afraid we'll be late for the next ferry, as it is, and Father and Mother will be home on the six o'clock train."
"Whew!" said Jerry, "I'd forgotten that. It's latish already, judging by the sun. Come along, Greg, and loop up your sash so you won't fall off this beast."
It was latish. The sun was quite low, and we saw that the Sea Monster threw a long, queer shadow on the water, as if the sea had been land. We hurried along to the boat, Jerry ahead.
"She's all right," he shouted, turning around.
When he turned back he made a sort of wild spring that I didn't understand at first. Then I saw the stone we had put over the rope rolling off the rock,—joggled off by the boat's pulling harder when a wave lifted it. The stone rolled in cornery bounces, with a dull noise, and the rope slipped after it slowly. I thought Jerry would be in time. I couldn't believe that I really saw the rope floating its whole length on the water, dry at first, then darkening wetly.
"Hang on, Chris!" Jerry said. "I can get it."
I caught his hand, and he snatched after the rope. But he plunged wildly, nearly pulling me in, and scrambled up at once with one leg wet to the hip.
"There's no bottom at all," he said queerly. "I believe the thing rises straight out of the sea."
By that time the boat was ten feet away from the Monster. It circled once, very quietly, as if it were trying to decide which way to go, and then it drifted gently away toward the sea, with the rope trailing along like a snake swimming beside it.
We stood there looking at the boat until it faded to a hazy speck, and by that time the sun was really low. I don't think Greg altogether realized what had happened. We'd played at being marooned so often that I suppose he didn't quite see that this was different.
I hope that I shall never, never forget, as long as I live, what a brick Jerry was through the whole of that nightmarish thing. I know I never shall.
"Chris," he said, "you stay on this side. I'll go around to the Headland side. Greg, you climb up on top. If any of us sees a boat near enough to do any good, call the others, and we'll all yell and wave things."
I'd never heard his voice so commanding, even in plays. He still had on the cocked hat, and it looked very strange indeed. We scattered as he ordered, and when the others had gone, I remembered that Greg had on slippery-soled shoes instead of sneakers, which we usually wear. I thought of calling after him to be careful, but he never was a falling-down sort of person, even as a baby. I hoped, too, that he would have sense enough to loop up that sash or take it off entirely.
I sat on the Wecanicut side and stared at the shore and the water till my eyes ached. More and more wind was blowing all the time, straight from Wecanicut. It blew so hard in my face that my eyes watered and I couldn't be sure whether or not I did see boats. In books, people think of all their past sins when they're in perilous positions, but all I could think of was that a boat must come before dark. I did think of how much it all was my fault, but that was not far enough in the past to count. Presently Jerry came back and said that if we moved a little toward each other we could see just as much of the bay and consult at the same time. So we did, and sat down not very far apart. I said that I supposed we ought to change off with Greg, because it was horrid lonely up there, but Jerry said:
"Nonsense; he likes to be alone. He's probably pretending he's the King of the Cannibal Isle, or something, and not worrying a bit."
"I was looking us up in the dictionary the other day," I said, trying to forget the Sea Monster for a minute, "and Gregory means 'watchful, vigilant'."
"Now's the first time he's ever lived up to his name, then," said Jerry. "Keep looking, Chris, and don't moon about."
We sat there for quite a long time without saying anything, and the last little golden sliver of sun disappeared behind the point, and the lighthouse on the Headland came out suddenly, though it was still quite light, and began to wink—two long flashes and two short ones.
"Isn't it queer," Jerry said, "to think that people are there and we can't possibly tell them."
"It's worse than queer," I said.
Then we were still again, till presently Jerry said:
"Do you hear that funny noise, Chris?"
I had been listening to it just then, and said "Yes" and that I supposed it was the horrid noise the water made around on the other side. For quite a time we didn't hear it, and then Jerry said:
"There it is again! The water must suck into those echoey hollows. It sounds almost like a person groaning."
"Don't!" I said.
All at once he turned toward me and said in a queer, quick voice:
"Do you suppose it could possibly be Greg?"
I can't describe the way I felt when he said it, but if you've ever felt the same you know what I mean. It was a little as though something heavy dropped from my throat down to my toes, through me, leaving me all empty, with cold, tingly things rushing up again to my head. They were still rushing as we flew around the rock, and I kept saying:
"It can't be Greg.... It can't be...."
But it was.
He was lying doubled up, just below the high place where Jerry had told him to keep watch. We didn't dare to touch him, because we didn't know how badly he was hurt, and he couldn't seem to tell us. But when I tried to put my arm under him, he pushed me a little and said, "No, no," so I stopped. Then I saw that his right arm was twisted under him horridly and that his shoulder looked all wrong. I touched it very gently and asked him if it was that, and he said, "Yes; don't!" We had to get him out somehow from that jaggedy place in the rocks where he was lying. So Jerry got him under the arm that wasn't hurt, and I took his legs, and we hauled him to a flattish part of the rock.
I pulled off the football jersey and put it under him, and Jerry ran back to get my skirt, which I'd put in the kit-bag when we fixed our costumes. Just after Jerry had gone something dreadful happened. Quite suddenly Greg seemed to shrink smaller, and his face grew rather greenish and not at all like his, and his hand was perfectly cold when I snatched it. I suppose he'd fainted from our carrying him so stupidly, but I'd never seen anybody do it before and I didn't know that was the way it looked. I'd never heard of people dying from hurting their arms, but I thought that perhaps he was hurt somewhere else that we didn't know about. But by the time Jerry came back with the skirt Greg had opened his eyes and looked at me a little like himself. There is a book in our medicine cupboard at home called, "Hints on First Aid." Jerry and I used to like to look at it, and Father said:
"Go ahead; you may need it some day." But neither of us could remember anything that was at all useful now. I could plainly see the picture of some queerly-drawn hands doing a "Spanish Windlass," but that wouldn't have done poor Greg any good at all. Jerry did remember that you ought to cut people's clothes and not try to take them off in the ordinary way, so he took out his knife and ripped up the sleeve of Greg's jumper and the shoulder-seam of the white brocaded waistcoat. I don't see how people can stand being Red Cross nurses in France, for I'm sure I never could be one. Greg's shoulder was quite awful,—what we could see, for it was almost dark now. There was nothing at all we dared to do. We couldn't even bathe it, for there was only sea-water, so I just sat and held Greg's other hand and patted it. He didn't cry,—I think the hurting was too bad for that,—but he moaned a little, and sometimes he said, "Hurts, Chris."
I tried to tell him a story, the way I did when we all had the measles and he was so much sicker than the rest of us, but he couldn't listen. So we just sat there in the dark—it was perfectly dark now and we couldn't see one another at all—and I began to count the flashes of the Headland light—two long and two short, two long and two short—till I thought I should scream. Suddenly Jerry said:
"Are you hungry, Chris?"
I said that I wasn't, and asked him if he was. But he said:
"No, not very."
There were real waves on the Wecanicut side of the Monster now, and the wind was still blowing from that direction harder than ever. Now and then a drop of spray would flick my cheek, and I think the sound of the wind around the rock was really more horrid than the noise the water made. It seemed like midnight, but it was really quite early in the evening, when Jerry saw the lights bobbing along the shore of Wecanicut. They were lanterns, two of them, and they stopped quite often, as if the people were looking for something. For a minute I couldn't even move. Then I scrambled and slid after Jerry to the place on the Monster that most nearly faced the Wecanicut point. I don't think Greg really knew we'd left him; at least he didn't make a sound.
The lanterns swung and bobbed nearer till they almost reached the point, and we could hear faint shouts. Jerry and I braced our feet against the slimy rocks and shrieked into the dark, and the wind rushed down our throats and burned them. We could hear the people quite clearly now.
"It's Father's voice," Jerry said. "Oh, Chris, the wind is dead against us. Now for it!"
I'd always thought Jerry could shout louder than any boy I ever heard, but you can't imagine how high and thin both our voices sounded out there on the Sea Monster. We heard Father's voice quite distinctly:
"Chris-ti-ine ... Jer-r-r-y ... ti-in-e!"
We shouted till our chests felt scraped raw, the way you feel when you've run too hard, and the wind tore our voices straight out to sea, away from Wecanicut. The lanterns stood quite still for a minute more, and then they bobbed away. At first I didn't believe that they were really growing smaller and smaller. But they were, and at last they were gone entirely, far down the shore.
"Are you crying, Chris?" Jerry said suddenly, in a queer, wheezy voice. He'd been shouting even harder than I had.
"I think not," I said, and my own voice was very strange indeed.
Jerry whacked me hard on the back, and said:
"Good old Chris! Good old Chris!"
The shore of Wecanicut was so black that we might have dreamed the lanterns, but I still could hear the way Father's own voice had sounded, calling "Chris-ti-ine!" We almost stumbled over Greg when we crawled back to him, and he said: "Can we go home now, Chris?"
The wind gnashed around in a spiteful kind of way, and Jerry touched my hand suddenly and said: "Chris, it's raining."
It was raining,—big cold splashes that came faster and faster. I felt my blouse stick coldly to my shoulder in the places where it was wet.
"We can't let Greg lie there and have it rain on him," I said.
Jerry and I thought of the pirate cave at the same moment, but we didn't see how we could possibly carry Greg to it in the dark. We thought that as it wasn't his legs that were hurt he might be able to walk there, if we helped him. He was very brave and quite willing to try, though a little dazed about why we wanted him to, but when we stood him carefully on his feet, he said, "Chris—no—" and we had to lay him down again. By this time it was really raining, and I put the skirt over Greg, instead of under him, while we tried to think.
"It might work if we made a chair," Jerry suggested.
So we stooped down and clasped each other's wrists criss-cross, the way you do to make a human chair, and got Greg on to it, with the arm that wasn't hurt around my neck. The darkness was perfectly pitchy, and we had to feel for every step to be sure that it was a solid place and not the slippery edge that went straight down into the sea. Greg cried a little and said, "Please—stop." I could feel his hair against my face. It was all wet, and his cheek was wet, too, and cold.
The rain blew a little way into the cave, but not much, and we put Greg as far back as we could. The bottom of the cave was very jaggy and not comfortable to lie on, but we made it as soft as we could with the skirt and the jersey. I tripped and stumbled against Jerry, and when I caught him I felt that he was shivering. His shirt was quite wet. When I asked him if he was cold, he said "Not very," and we crawled into the cave place beside Greg, and sat as close together as possible to keep warm. We couldn't see the Headland light, and I was rather glad, because it had made me almost crazy, flashing and flashing so steadily and not caring a bit.
The rain went plop into the pools, and made a flattish, spattery sound on the rock. I don't know why I thought of the "Air Religieux" just then, but I suppose it was because of the rain. I could see the straight yellow candle-flames all blue around the wick, and Father's head tucked down looking at the 'cello, and his hands, nice and strong, playing it; then I got a little mixed and heard him calling "Christi-ine," fainter and fainter. I think I must have been almost asleep, because I know the real rain surprised me, like something I'd forgotten, and a very sharp, cornery rock was poking into my back.