Robert Chambers.

The Mystery of Choice



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The house was merely a light wooden frame, covered with some waterproof stuff that looked like a mixture of rubber and tar. Over this – in fact, over the whole roof – was pitched an awning of heavy sail-cloth. I noticed that the house was anchored to the sand by chains, already rusted red. But this one-storied house was not the only building nestling in the south shelter of the big dune. A hundred feet away stood another structure – long, low, also built of wood. It had rows on rows of round portholes on every side. The ports were fitted with heavy glass, hinged to swing open if necessary. A single big double door occupied the front.

Behind this long, low building was still another, a mere shed. Smoke rose from the sheet-iron chimney. There was somebody moving about inside the open door.

As I stood gaping at this mushroom hamlet the professor appeared at the door and asked me to enter. I stepped in at once.

The house was much larger than I had imagined. A straight hallway ran through the centre from east to west. On either side of this hallway were rooms, the doors swinging wide open. I counted three doors on each side; the three on the south appeared to be bedrooms.

The professor ushered me into a room on the north side, where I found Captain McPeek and Frisby sitting at a table, upon which were drawings and sketches of articulated animals and fishes.

"You see, McPeek," said the professor, "we only wanted one more man, and I think I've got him. – Haven't I?" turning eagerly to me.

"Why, yes," I said, laughing; "this is delightful. Am I invited to stay here?"

"Your bedroom is the third on the south side; everything is ready. McPeek, you can bring his trunk to-morrow, can't you?" demanded the professor.

The red-faced captain nodded, and shifted a quid.

"Then it's all settled," said the professor, and he drew a sigh of satisfaction. "You see," he said, turning to me, "I was at my wit's end to know whom to trust. I never thought of you. Jack's out in China, and I didn't dare trust anybody in my own profession. All you care about is writing verses and stories, isn't it?"

"I like to shoot," I replied mildly.

"Just the thing!" he cried, beaming at us all in turn. "Now I can see no reason why we should not progress rapidly. McPeek, you and Frisby must get those boxes up here before dark. Dinner will be ready before you have finished unloading. Dick, you will wish to go to your room first."

My name isn't Dick, but he spoke so kindly, and beamed upon me in such a fatherly manner, that I let it go. I had occasion to correct him afterward, several times, but he always forgot the next minute. He calls me Dick to this day.

It was dark when Professor Holroyd, his daughter, and I sat down to dinner. The room was the same in which I had noticed the drawings of beast and bird, but the round table had been extended into an oval, and neatly spread with dainty linen and silver.

A fresh-cheeked Swedish girl appeared from a further room, bearing the soup.

The professor ladled it out, still beaming.

"Now, this is very delightful! – isn't it, Daisy?" he said.

"Very," said Miss Holroyd, with the faintest tinge of irony.

"Very," I repeated heartily; but I looked at my soup when I said it.

"I suppose," said the professor, nodding mysteriously at his daughter, "that Dick knows nothing of what we're about down here?"

"I suppose," said Miss Holroyd, "that he thinks we are digging for fossils."

I looked at my plate. She might have spared me that.

"Well, well," said her father, smiling to himself, "he shall know everything by morning. You'll be astonished, Dick, my boy."

"His name isn't Dick," corrected Daisy.

The professor said, "Isn't it?" in an absent-minded way, and relapsed into contemplation of my necktie.

I asked Miss Holroyd a few questions about Jack, and was informed that he had given up law and entered the diplomatic service – as what, I did not dare ask, for I know what our diplomatic service is.

"In China," said Daisy.

"Choo Choo is the name of the city," added her father proudly; "it's the terminus of the new trans-Siberian railway."

"It's on the Yellow River," said Daisy.

"He's vice-consul," added the professor triumphantly.

"He'll make a good one," I observed. I knew Jack. I pitied his consul.

So we chatted on about my old playmate, until Freda, the red-cheeked maid, brought coffee, and the professor lighted a cigar, with a little bow to his daughter.

"Of course, you don't smoke," she said to me, with a glimmer of malice in her eyes.

"He mustn't," interposed the professor hastily; "it will make his hand tremble."

"No, it doesn't," said I, laughing; "but my hand will shake if I don't smoke. Are you going to employ me as a draughtsman?"

"You'll know to-morrow," he chuckled, with a mysterious smile at his daughter. – "Daisy, give him my best cigars; put the box here on the table. We can't afford to have his hand tremble."

Miss Holroyd rose, and crossed the hallway to her father's room, returning presently with a box of promising-looking cigars.

"I don't think he knows what is good for him," she said. "He should smoke only one every day."

It was hard to bear. I am not vindictive, but I decided to treasure up a few of Miss Holroyd's gentle taunts. My intimacy with her brother was certainly a disadvantage to me now. Jack had apparently been talking too much, and his sister appeared to be thoroughly acquainted with my past. It was a disadvantage. I remembered her vaguely as a girl with long braids, who used to come on Sundays with her father and take tea with us in our rooms. Then she went to Germany to school, and Jack and I employed our Sunday evenings otherwise. It is true that I regarded her weekly visits as a species of infliction, but I did not think I ever showed it.

"It is strange," said I, "that you did not recognise me at once, Miss Holroyd. Have I changed so greatly in five years?"

"You wore a pointed French beard in Paris," she said – "a very downy one. And you never stayed to tea but twice, and then you only spoke once."

"Oh!" said I blankly. "What did I say?"

"You asked me if I liked plums," said Daisy, bursting into an irresistible ripple of laughter.

I saw that I must have made the same sort of an ass of myself that most boys of eighteen do.

It was too bad. I never thought about the future in those days. Who could have imagined that little Daisy Holroyd would have grown up into this bewildering young lady? It was really too bad. Presently the professor retired to his room, carrying with him an armful of drawings, and bidding us not to sit up late. When he closed his door Miss Holroyd turned to me.

"Papa will work over those drawings until midnight," she said, with a despairing smile.

"It isn't good for him," I said. "What are the drawings?"

"You may know to-morrow," she answered, leaning forward on the table and shading her face with one hand. "Tell me about yourself and Jack in Paris."

I looked at her suspiciously.

"What! There isn't much to tell. We studied. Jack went to the law school, and I attended – er – oh, all sorts of schools."

"Did you? Surely you gave yourself a little recreation occasionally?"

"Occasionally," I nodded.

"I am afraid you and Jack studied too hard."

"That may be," said I, looking meek.

"Especially about fossils."

I couldn't stand that.

"Miss Holroyd," I said, "I do care for fossils. You may think that I am a humbug, but I have a perfect mania for fossils – now."

"Since when?"

"About an hour ago," I said airily. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that she had flushed up. It pleased me.

"You will soon tire of the experiment," she said with a dangerous smile.

"Oh, I may," I replied indifferently.

She drew back. The movement was scarcely perceptible, but I noticed it, and she knew I did.

The atmosphere was vaguely hostile. One feels such mental conditions and changes instantly. I picked up a chessboard, opened it, set up the pieces with elaborate care, and began to move, first the white, then the black. Miss Holroyd watched me coldly at first, but after a dozen moves she became interested and leaned a shade nearer. I moved a black pawn forward.

"Why do you do that?" said Daisy.

"Because," said I, "the white queen threatens the pawn."

"It was an aggressive move," she insisted.

"Purely defensive," I said. "If her white highness will let the pawn alone, the pawn will let the queen alone."

Miss Holroyd rested her chin on her wrist and gazed steadily at the board. She was flushing furiously, but she held her ground.

"If the white queen doesn't block that pawn, the pawn may become dangerous," she said coldly.

I laughed, and closed up the board with a snap.

"True," I said, "it might even take the queen." After a moment's silence I asked, "What would you do in that case, Miss Holroyd?"

"I should resign," she said serenely; then realizing what she had said, she lost her self-possession for a second, and cried: "No, indeed! I should fight to the bitter end! I mean – "

"What?" I asked, lingering over my revenge.

"I mean," she said slowly, "that your black pawn would never have the chance – never! I should take it immediately."

"I believe you would," said I, smiling; "so we'll call the game yours, and – the pawn captured."

"I don't want it," she exclaimed. "A pawn is worthless."

"Except when it's in the king row."

"Chess is most interesting," she observed sedately. She had completely recovered her self-control. Still I saw that she now had a certain respect for my defensive powers. It was very soothing to me.

"You know," said I gravely, "that I am fonder of Jack than of anybody. That's the reason we never write each other, except to borrow things. I am afraid that when I was a young cub in France I was not an attractive personality."

"On the contrary," said Daisy, smiling, "I thought you were very big and very perfect. I had illusions. I wept often when I went home and remembered that you never took the trouble to speak to me but once."

"I was a cub," I said; "not selfish and brutal, but I didn't understand schoolgirls. I never had any sisters, and I didn't know what to say to very young girls. If I had imagined that you felt hurt – "

"Oh, I did – five years ago. Afterward I laughed at the whole thing."

"Laughed?" I repeated, vaguely disappointed.

"Why, of course. I was very easily hurt when I was a child. I think I have outgrown it."

The soft curve of her sensitive mouth contradicted her.

"Will you forgive me now?" I asked.

"Yes. I had forgotten the whole thing until I met you an hour or so ago."

There was something that had a ring not entirely genuine in this speech. I noticed it, but forgot it the next moment.

"Tiger cubs have stripes," said I. "Selfishness blossoms in the cradle, and prophecy is not difficult. I hope I am not more selfish than my brothers."

"I hope not," she said, smiling.

Presently she rose, touched her hair with the tip of one finger, and walked to the door.

"Good-night," she said, courtesying very low.

"Good-night," said I, opening the door for her to pass.

III

The sea was a sheet of silver, tinged with pink. The tremendous arch of the sky was all shimmering and glimmering with the promise of the sun. Already the mist above, flecked with clustered clouds, flushed with rose colour and dull gold. I heard the low splash of the waves breaking and curling across the beach. A wandering breeze, fresh and fragrant, blew the curtains of my window. There was the scent of sweet bay in the room, and everywhere the subtile, nameless perfume of the sea.

When at last I stood upon the shore, the air and sea were all aglimmer in a rosy light, deepening to crimson in the zenith. Along the beach I saw a little cove, shelving and all ashine, where shallow waves washed with a mellow sound. Fine as dusted gold the shingle glowed, and the thin film of water rose, receded, crept up again a little higher, and again flowed back, with the low hiss of snowy foam and gilded bubbles breaking.

I stood a little while quiet, my eyes upon the water, the invitation of the ocean in my ears, vague and sweet as the murmur of a shell. Then I looked at my bathing suit and towels.

"In we go!" said I aloud. A second later the prophecy was fulfilled.

I swam far out to sea, and as I swam the waters all around me turned to gold. The sun had risen.

There is a fragrance in the sea at dawn that none can name. Whitethorn abloom in May, sedges asway, and scented rushes rustling in an inland wind recall the sea to me – I can't say why.

Far out at sea I raised myself, swung around, dived, and set out again for shore, striking strong strokes until the flecked foam flew. And when at last I shot through the breakers, I laughed aloud and sprang upon the beach, breathless and happy. Then from the ocean came another cry, clear, joyous, and a white arm rose in the air.

She came drifting in with the waves like a white sea-sprite, laughing at me from her tangled hair, and I plunged into the breakers again to join her.

Side by side we swam along the coast, just outside the breakers, until in the next cove we saw the flutter of her maid's cap strings.

"I will beat you to breakfast!" she cried, as I rested, watching her glide up along the beach.

"Done!" said I – "for a sea-shell!"

"Done!" she called across the water.

I made good speed along the shore, and I was not long in dressing, but when I entered the dining-room she was there, demure, smiling, exquisite in her cool, white frock.

"The sea-shell is yours," said I. "I hope I can find one with a pearl in it."

The professor hurried in before she could reply. He greeted me very cordially, but there was an abstracted air about him, and he called me Dick until I recognised that remonstrance was useless. He was not long over his coffee and rolls.

"McPeek and Frisby will return with the last load, including your trunk, by early afternoon," he said, rising and picking up his bundle of drawings. "I haven't time to explain to you what we are doing, Dick, but Daisy will take you about and instruct you. She will give you the rifle standing in my room – it's a good Winchester. I have sent for an 'Express' for you, big enough to knock over any elephant in India. – Daisy, take him through the sheds and tell him everything. Luncheon is at noon. – Do you usually take luncheon, Dick?"

"When I am permitted," I smiled.

"Well," said the professor doubtfully, "you mustn't come back here for it. Freda can take you what you want. Is your hand unsteady after eating?"

"Why, papa!" said Daisy. "Do you intend to starve him?"

We all laughed.

The professor tucked his drawings into a capacious pocket, pulled his sea boots up to his hips, seized a spade, and left, nodding to us as though he were thinking of something else.

We went to the door and watched him across the salt meadows until a distant sand dune hid him.

"Come," said Daisy Holroyd, "I am going to take you to the shop."

She put on a broad-brimmed straw hat, a distractingly pretty combination of filmy cool stuffs, and led the way to the long low structure that I had noticed the evening before.

The interior was lighted by the numberless little portholes, and I could see everything plainly. I acknowledge I was nonplussed by what I did see.

In the centre of the shed, which must have been at least a hundred feet long, stood what I thought at first was the skeleton of an enormous whale. After a moment's silent contemplation of the thing I saw that it could not be a whale, for the frames of two gigantic bat-like wings rose from each shoulder. Also I noticed that the animal possessed legs – four of them – with most unpleasant-looking webbed claws fully eight feet long. The bony framework of the head, too, resembled something between a crocodile and a monstrous snapping turtle. The walls of the shanty were hung with drawings and blue prints. A man dressed in white linen was tinkering with the vertebr? of the lizardlike tail.

"Where on earth did such a reptile come from?" I asked at length.

"Oh, it's not real!" said Daisy scornfully; "it's papier-mach?."

"I see," said I – "a stage prop."

"A what?" asked Daisy, in hurt astonishment.

"Why, a – a sort of Siegfried dragon – a what's-his-name – er, Pfafner, or Peffer, or – "

"If my father heard you say such things he would dislike you," said Daisy. She looked grieved, and moved toward the door. I apologized – for what, I knew not – and we became reconciled. She ran into her father's room and brought me the rifle, a very good Winchester. She also gave me a cartridge belt, full.

"Now," she smiled, "I shall take you to your observatory, and when we arrive you are to begin your duty at once."

"And that duty?" I ventured, shouldering the rifle.

"That duty is, to watch the ocean. I shall then explain the whole affair – but you mustn't look at me while I speak; you must watch the sea."

"This," said I, "is hardship. I had rather go without the luncheon."

I do not think she was offended at my speech; still she frowned for almost three seconds.

We passed through acres of sweet bay and spear grass, sometimes skirting thickets of twisted cedars, sometimes walking in the full glare of the morning sun, sinking into shifting sand where sun-scorched shells crackled under our feet, and sun-browned seaweed glistened, bronzed and iridescent. Then, as we climbed a little hill, the sea wind freshened in our faces, and lo! the ocean lay below us, far-stretching as the eye could reach, glittering, magnificent.

Daisy sat down flat on the sand. It takes a clever girl to do that and retain the respectful deference due her from men. It takes a graceful girl to accomplish it triumphantly when a man is looking.

"You must sit beside me," she said – as though it would prove irksome to me.

"Now," she continued, "you must watch the water while I am talking."

I nodded.

"Why don't you do it, then?" she asked.

I succeeded in wrenching my head toward the ocean, although I felt sure it would swing gradually round again in spite of me.

"To begin with," said Daisy Holroyd, "there's a thing in that ocean that would astonish you if you saw it. Turn your head!"

"I am," I said meekly.

"Did you hear what I said?"

"Yes – er – a thing in the ocean that's going to astonish me." Visions of mermaids rose before me.

"The thing," said Daisy, "is a Thermosaurus!"

I nodded vaguely, as though anticipating a delightful introduction to a nautical friend.

"You don't seem astonished," she said reproachfully.

"Why should I be?" I asked.

"Please turn your eyes toward the water. Suppose a Thermosaurus should look out of the waves!"

"Well," said I, "in that case the pleasure would be mutual."

She frowned, and bit her upper lip.

"Do you know what a Thermosaurus is?" she asked.

"If I am to guess," said I, "I guess it's a jellyfish."

"It's that big, ugly, horrible creature that I showed you in the shed!" cried Daisy impatiently.

"Eh!" I stammered.

"Not papier-mach? either," she continued excitedly; "it's a real one."

This was pleasant news. I glanced instinctively at my rifle and then at the ocean.

"Well," said I at last, "it strikes me that you and I resemble a pair of Andromedas waiting to be swallowed. This rifle won't stop a beast, a live beast, like that Nibelungen dragon of yours."

"Yes, it will," she said; "it's not an ordinary rifle."

Then, for the first time, I noticed, just below the magazine, a cylindrical attachment that was strange to me.

"Now, if you will watch the sea very carefully, and will promise not to look at me," said Daisy, "I will try to explain."

She did not wait for me to promise, but went on eagerly, a sparkle of excitement in her blue eyes:

"You know, of all the fossil remains of the great bat-like and lizard-like creatures that inhabited the earth ages and ages ago, the bones of the gigantic saurians are the most interesting. I think they used to splash about the water and fly over the land during the Carboniferous period; anyway, it doesn't matter. Of course, you have seen pictures of reconstructed creatures such as the Ichthyosaurus, the Plesiosaurus, the Anthracosaurus, and the Thermosaurus?"

I nodded, trying to keep my eyes from hers.

"And you know that the remains of the Thermosaurus were first discovered and reconstructed by papa?"

"Yes," said I. There was no use in saying no.

"I am glad you do. Now, papa has proved that this creature lived entirely in the Gulf Stream, emerging for occasional flights across an ocean or two. Can you imagine how he proved it?"

"No," said I, resolutely pointing my nose at the ocean.

"He proved it by a minute examination of the microscopical shells found among the ribs of the Thermosaurus. These shells contained little creatures that live only in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. They were the food of the Thermosaurus."

"It was rather slender rations for a thing like that, wasn't it? Did he ever swallow bigger food – er – men?"

"Oh, yes. Tons of fossil bones from prehistoric men are also found in the interior of the Thermosaurus."

"Then," said I, "you, at least, had better go back to Captain McPeek's – "

"Please turn around; don't be so foolish. I didn't say there was a live Thermosaurus in the water, did I?"



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