Robert Chambers.

The Mystery of Choice



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"Chask?!" he cried.

He heard a voice, dull in the choking mist.

"O beloved, I am here!" he called again.

There was a sound on the shoal, a flicker in the fog, the flare of a torch, a face white, livid, terrible – the face of the dead.

He fell upon his knees; he closed his eyes and opened them. Tully stood beside him with a coil of rope.

Ih?! Behold the end! The earth alone lasts. The sand, the opal wave on the golden beach, the sea of sapphire, the dusted starlight, the wind, and love, shall die. Death also shall die, and lie on the shores of the skies like the bleached skull there on the Key to Grief, polished, empty, with its teeth embedded in the sand.

A MATTER OF INTEREST

A MATTER OF INTEREST
 
He that knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool. Shun him.
He that knows not, and knows that he knows not, is simple. Teach him.
He that knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep. Wake him.
He that knows, and knows that he knows, is wise. Follow him.
 
Arabian Proverb.
I

Much as I dislike it, I am obliged to include this story in a volume devoted to fiction: I have attempted to tell it as an absolutely true story, but until three months ago, when the indisputable proofs were placed before the British Association by Professor James Holroyd, I was regarded as an impostor. Now that the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, the Philadelphia Zo?logical Society, and the Natural History Museum of New York city, are convinced that the story is truthful and accurate in every particular, I prefer to tell it my own way. Professor Holroyd urges me to do this, although Professor Bruce Stoddard, of Columbia College, is now at work upon a pamphlet, to be published the latter part of next month, describing scientifically the extraordinary discovery which, to the shame of the United States, was first accepted and recognised in England.

Now, having no technical ability concerning the affair in question, and having no knowledge of either comparative anatomy or zo?logy, I am perhaps unfitted to tell this story. But the story is true; the episode occurred under my own eyes – here, within a few hours' sail of the Battery. And as I was one of the first persons to verify what has long been a theory among scientists, and, moreover, as the result of Professor Holroyd's discovery is to be placed on exhibition in Madison Square Garden on the twentieth of next month, I have decided to tell, as simply as I am able, exactly what occurred.

I first wrote out the story on April 1, 1896. The North American Review, the Popular Science Monthly, the Scientific American, Nature, Forest and Stream, and the Fossiliferous Magazine in turn rejected it; some curtly informing me that fiction had no place in their columns. When I attempted to explain that it was not fiction, the editors of these periodicals either maintained a contemptuous silence, or bluntly notified me that my literary services and opinions were not desired.

But finally, when several publishers offered to take the story as fiction, I cut short all negotiations and decided to publish it myself. Where I am known at all, it is my misfortune to be known as a writer of fiction. This makes it impossible for me to receive a hearing from a scientific audience. I regret it bitterly, because now, when it is too late, I am prepared to prove certain scientific matters of interest, and to produce the proofs. In this case, however, I am fortunate, for nobody can dispute the existence of a thing when the bodily proof is exhibited as evidence.

This is the story; and if I write it as I write fiction, it is because I do not know how to write it otherwise.

I was walking along the beach below Pine Inlet, on the south shore of Long Island. The railroad and telegraph station is at West Oyster Bay. Everybody who has travelled on the Long Island Railroad knows the station, but few, perhaps, know Pine Inlet. Duck shooters, of course, are familiar with it; but as there are no hotels there, and nothing to see except salt meadow, salt creek, and a strip of dune and sand, the summer-squatting public may probably be unaware of its existence. The local name for the place is Pine Inlet; the maps give its name as Sand Point, I believe, but anybody at West Oyster Bay can direct you to it. Captain McPeek, who keeps the West Oyster Bay House, drives duck shooters there in winter. It lies five miles southeast from West Oyster Bay.

I had walked over that afternoon from Captain McPeek's. There was a reason for my going to Pine Inlet – it embarrasses me to explain it, but the truth is I meditated writing an ode to the ocean. It was out of the question to write it in West Oyster Bay, with the whistle of locomotives in my ears. I knew that Pine Inlet was one of the loneliest places on the Atlantic coast; it is out of sight of everything except leagues of gray ocean. Rarely one might make out fishing smacks drifting across the horizon. Summer squatters never visited it; sportsmen shunned it, except in winter. Therefore, as I was about to do a bit of poetry, I thought that Pine Inlet was the spot for the deed. So I went there.

As I was strolling along the beach, biting my pencil reflectively, tremendously impressed by the solitude and the solemn thunder of the surf, a thought occurred to me: how unpleasant it would be if I suddenly stumbled on a summer boarder. As this joyless impossibility flitted across my mind, I rounded a bleak sand dune.

A summer girl stood directly in my path.

If I jumped, I think the young lady has pardoned me by this time. She ought to, because she also started, and said something in a very faint voice. What she said was "Oh!"

She stared at me as though I had just crawled up out of the sea to bite her. I don't know what my own expression resembled, but I have been given to understand it was idiotic.

Now I perceived, after a few moments, that the young lady was frightened, and I knew I ought to say something civil. So I said, "Are there any mosquitoes here?"

"No," she replied, with a slight quiver in her voice; "I have only seen one, and it was biting somebody else."

I looked foolish; the conversation seemed so futile, and the young lady appeared to be more nervous than before. I had an impulse to say, "Do not run; I have breakfasted," for she seemed to be meditating a plunge into the breakers. What I did say was: "I did not know anybody was here. I do not intend to intrude. I come from Captain McPeek's, and I am writing an ode to the ocean." After I had said this it seemed to ring in my ears like, "I come from Table Mountain, and my name is Truthful James."

I glanced timidly at her.

"She's thinking of the same thing," said I to myself. "What an ass I must appear!"

However, the young lady seemed to be a trifle reassured. I noticed she drew a sigh of relief and looked at my shoes. She looked so long that it made me suspicious, and I also examined my shoes. They seemed to be fairly respectable.

"I – I am sorry," she said, "but would you mind not walking on the beach?"

This was sudden. I had intended to retire and leave the beach to her, but I did not fancy being driven away so abruptly.

"I was about to withdraw, madam," said I, bowing stiffly; "I beg you will pardon any inconvenience – "

"Dear me!" she cried, "you don't understand. I do not – I would not think for a moment of asking you to leave Pine Inlet. I merely ventured to request you to walk on the dunes. I am so afraid that your footprints may obliterate the impressions that my father is studying."

"Oh!" said I, looking about me as though I had been caught in the middle of a flower-bed; "really I did not notice any impressions. Impressions of what – if I may be permitted?"

"I don't know," she said, smiling a little at my awkward pose. "If you step this way in a straight line you can do no damage."

I did as she bade me. I suppose my movements resembled the gait of a wet peacock. Possibly they recalled the delicate man?uvres of the kangaroo. Anyway, she laughed.

This seriously annoyed me. I had been at a disadvantage; I walk well enough when let alone.

"You can scarcely expect," said I, "that a man absorbed in his own ideas could notice impressions on the sand. I trust I have obliterated nothing."

As I said this I looked back at the long line of footprints stretching away in prospective across the sand. They were my own. How large they looked! Was that what she was laughing at?

"I wish to explain," she said gravely, looking at the point of her parasol. "I am very sorry to be obliged to warn you – to ask you to forego the pleasure of strolling on a beach that does not belong to me. Perhaps," she continued, in sudden alarm, "perhaps this beach belongs to you?"

"The beach? Oh, no," I said.

"But – but you were going to write poems about it?"

"Only one – and that does not necessitate owning the beach. I have observed," said I frankly, "that the people who own nothing write many poems about it."

She looked at me seriously.

"I write many poems," I added.

She laughed doubtfully.

"Would you rather I went away?" I asked politely.

"I? Why, no – I mean that you may do as you please – except please do not walk on the beach."

"Then I do not alarm you by my presence?" I inquired. My clothes were a bit ancient. I wore them shooting, sometimes. "My family is respectable," I added; and I told her my name.

"Oh! Then you wrote 'Culled Cowslips' and 'Faded Fig-Leaves,' and you imitate Maeterlinck, and you – Oh, I know lots of people that you know;" she cried with every symptom of relief; "and you know my brother."

"I am the author," said I coldly, "of 'Culled Cowslips,' but 'Faded Fig-Leaves' was an earlier work, which I no longer recognise, and I should be grateful to you if you would be kind enough to deny that I ever imitated Maeterlinck. Possibly," I added, "he imitates me."

"Now, do you know," she said, "I was afraid of you at first? Papa is digging in the salt meadows nearly a mile away."

It was hard to bear.

"Can you not see," said I, "that I am wearing a shooting coat?"

"I do see – now; but it is so – so old," she pleaded.

"It is a shooting coat all the same," I said bitterly.

She was very quiet, and I saw she was sorry.

"Never mind," I said magnanimously, "you probably are not familiar with sporting goods. If I knew your name I should ask permission to present myself."

"Why, I am Daisy Holroyd," she said.

"What! Jack Holroyd's little sister?"

"Little!" she cried.

"I didn't mean that," said I. "You know that your brother and I were great friends in Paris – "

"I know," she said significantly.

"Ahem! Of course," I said, "Jack and I were inseparable – "

"Except when shut in separate cells," said Miss Holroyd coldly.

This unfeeling allusion to the unfortunate termination of a Latin-Quarter celebration hurt me.

"The police," said I, "were too officious."

"So Jack says," replied Miss Holroyd demurely.

We had unconsciously moved on along the sand hills, side by side, as we spoke.

"To think," I repeated, "that I should meet Jack's little – "

"Please," she said, "you are only three years my senior."

She opened the sunshade and tipped it over one shoulder. It was white, and had spots and posies on it.

"Jack sends us every new book you write," she observed. "I do not approve of some things you write."

"Modern school," I mumbled.

"That is no excuse," she said severely; "Anthony Trollope didn't do it."

The foam spume from the breakers was drifting across the dunes, and the little tip-up snipe ran along the beach and teetered and whistled and spread their white-barred wings for a low, straight flight across the shingle, only to tip and skeep and sail on again. The salt sea wind whistled and curled through the crested waves, blowing in perfumed puffs across thickets of sweet bay and cedar. As we passed through the crackling juicy-stemmed marsh weed myriads of fiddler crabs raised their fore-claws in warning and backed away, rustling, through the reeds, aggressive, protesting.

"Like millions of pigmy Ajaxes defying the lightning," I said.

Miss Holroyd laughed.

"Now I never imagined that authors were clever except in print," she said.

She was a most extraordinary girl.

"I suppose," she observed after a moment's silence – "I suppose I am taking you to my father."

"Delighted!" I mumbled. "H'm! I had the honour of meeting Professor Holroyd in Paris."

"Yes; he bailed you and Jack out," said Miss Holroyd serenely.

The silence was too painful to last.

"Captain McPeek is an interesting man," I said. I spoke more loudly than I intended; I may have been nervous.

"Yes," said Daisy Holroyd, "but he has a most singular hotel clerk."

"You mean Mr. Frisby?"

"I do."

"Yes," I admitted, "Mr. Frisby is queer. He was once a bill-poster."

"I know it!" exclaimed Daisy Holroyd, with some heat. "He ruins landscapes whenever he has an opportunity. Do you know that he has a passion for bill-posting? He has; he posts bills for the pure pleasure of it, just as you play golf, or tennis, or billiards."

"But he's a hotel clerk now," I said; "nobody employs him to post bills."

"I know it! He does it all by himself for the pure pleasure of it. Papa has engaged him to come down here for two weeks, and I dread it," said the girl.

What Professor Holroyd might want of Frisby I had not the faintest notion. I suppose Miss Holroyd noticed the bewilderment in my face, for she laughed, and nodded her head twice.

"Not only Mr. Frisby, but Captain McPeek also," she said.

"You don't mean to say that Captain McPeek is going to close his hotel!" I exclaimed.

My trunk was there. It contained guarantees of my respectability.

"Oh, no; his wife will keep it open," replied the girl. "Look! you can see papa now. He's digging."

"Where?" I blurted out.

I remembered Professor Holroyd as a prim, spectacled gentleman, with close-cut, snowy beard and a clerical allure. The man I saw digging wore green goggles, a jersey, a battered sou'wester, and hip-boots of rubber. He was delving in the muck of the salt meadow, his face streaming with perspiration, his boots and jersey splashed with unpleasant-looking mud. He glanced up as we approached, shading his eyes with a sunburnt hand.

"Papa, dear," said Miss Holroyd, "here is Jack's friend, whom you bailed out of Mazas."

The introduction was startling. I turned crimson with mortification. The professor was very decent about it; he called me by name at once.

When he said this he looked at his spade. It was clear that he considered me a nuisance and wished to go on with his digging.

"I suppose," he said, "you are still writing?"

"A little," I replied, trying not to speak sarcastically. My output had rivaled that of "The Duchess" – in quantity, I mean.

"I seldom read – fiction," he said, looking restlessly at the hole in the ground.

Miss Holroyd came to my rescue.

"That was a charming story you wrote last," she said. "Papa should read it – you should, papa; it's all about a fossil."

We both looked narrowly at Miss Holroyd. Her smile was guileless.

"Fossils!" repeated the professor. "Do you care for fossils?"

"Very much," said I.

Now I am not perfectly sure what my object was in lying. I looked at Daisy Holroyd's dark-fringed eyes. They were very grave.

"Fossils," said I, "are my hobby."

I think Miss Holroyd winced a little at this. I did not care. I went on:

"I have seldom had the opportunity to study the subject, but, as a boy, I collected flint arrow-heads – "

"Flint arrow-heads!" said the professor coldly.

"Yes; they were the nearest things to fossils obtainable," I replied, marvelling at my own mendacity.

The professor looked into the hole. I also looked. I could see nothing in it. "He's digging for fossils," thought I to myself.

"Perhaps," said the professor cautiously, "you might wish to aid me in a little research – that is to say, if you have an inclination for fossils." The double-entendre was not lost upon me.

"I have read all your books so eagerly," said I, "that to join you, to be of service to you in any research, however difficult and trying, would be an honour and a privilege that I never dared to hope for."

"That," thought I to myself, "will do its own work."

But the professor was still suspicious. How could he help it, when he remembered Jack's escapades, in which my name was always blended! Doubtless he was satisfied that my influence on Jack was evil. The contrary was the case, too.

"Fossils," he said, worrying the edges of the excavation with his spade, "fossils are not things to be lightly considered."

"No, indeed!" I protested.

"Fossils are the most interesting as well as puzzling things in the world," said he.

"They are!" I cried enthusiastically.

"But I am not looking for fossils," observed the professor mildly.

This was a facer. I looked at Daisy Holroyd. She bit her lip and fixed her eyes on the sea. Her eyes were wonderful eyes.

"Did you think I was digging for fossils in a salt meadow?" queried the professor. "You can have read very little about the subject. I am digging for something quite different."

I was silent. I knew that my face was a trifle flushed. I longed to say, "Well, what the devil are you digging for?" but I only stared into the hole as though hypnotized.

"Captain McPeek and Frisby ought to be here," he said, looking first at Daisy and then across the meadows.

I ached to ask him why he had subp?naed Captain McPeek and Frisby.

"They are coming," said Daisy, shading her eyes. "Do you see the speck on the meadows?"

"It may be a mud hen," said the professor.

"Miss Holroyd is right," I said. "A wagon and team and two men are coming from the north. There is a dog beside the wagon – it's that miserable yellow dog of Frisby's."

"Good gracious!" cried the professor, "you don't mean to tell me that you see all that at such a distance?"

"Why not?" I said.

"I see nothing," he insisted.

"You will see that I'm right, presently," I laughed.

The professor removed his blue goggles and rubbed them, glancing obliquely at me.

"Haven't you heard what extraordinary eyesight duck shooters have?" said his daughter, looking back at her father. "Jack says that they can tell exactly what kind of a duck is flying before most people could see anything at all in the sky."

"It's true," I said; "it comes to anybody, I fancy, who has had practice."

The professor regarded me with a new interest. There was inspiration in his eyes. He turned toward the ocean. For a long time he stared at the tossing waves on the beach, then he looked far out to where the horizon met the sea.

"Are there any ducks out there?" he asked at last.

"Yes," said I, scanning the sea, "there are."

He produced a pair of binoculars from his coat-tail pocket, adjusted them, and raised them to his eyes.

"H'm! What sort of ducks?"

I looked more carefully, holding both hands over my forehead.

"Surf ducks – scoters and widgeon. There is one bufflehead among them – no, two; the rest are coots," I replied.

"This," cried the professor, "is most astonishing. I have good eyes, but I can't see a blessed thing without these binoculars!"

"It's not extraordinary," said I; "the surf ducks and coots any novice might recognise; the widgeon and buffleheads I should not have been able to name unless they had risen from the water. It is easy to tell any duck when it is flying, even though it looks no bigger than a black pin-point."

But the professor insisted that it was marvellous, and he said that I might render him invaluable service if I would consent to come and camp at Pine Inlet for a few weeks.

I looked at his daughter, but she turned her back – not exactly in disdain either. Her back was beautifully moulded. Her gown fitted also.

"Camp out here?" I repeated, pretending to be unpleasantly surprised.

"I do not think he would care to," said Miss Holroyd without turning.

I had not expected that.

"Above all things," said I, in a clear, pleasant voice, "I like to camp out."

She said nothing.

"It is not exactly camping," said the professor. "Come, you shall see our conservatory. Daisy, come, dear! you must put on a heavier frock; it is getting toward sundown."

At that moment, over a near dune, two horses' heads appeared, followed by two human heads, then a wagon, then a yellow dog.

I turned triumphantly to the professor.

"You are the very man I want," he muttered; "the very man – the very man."

I looked at Daisy Holroyd. She returned my glance with a defiant little smile.

"Waal," said Captain McPeek, driving up, "here we be! Git out, Frisby."

Frisby, fat, nervous, and sentimental, hopped out of the cart.

"Come!" said the professor, impatiently moving across the dunes. I walked with Daisy Holroyd. McPeek and Frisby followed. The yellow dog walked by himself.

II

The sun was dipping into the sea as we trudged across the meadows toward a high dome-shaped dune covered with cedars and thickets of sweet bay. I saw no sign of habitation among the sand hills. Far as the eye could reach, nothing broke the gray line of sea and sky save the squat dunes crowned with stunted cedars.

Then, as we rounded the base of the dune, we almost walked into the door of a house. My amazement amused Miss Holroyd, and I noticed also a touch of malice in her pretty eyes. But she said nothing, following her father into the house, with the slightest possible gesture to me. Was it invitation, or was it menace?



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