Robert Chambers.

The Mystery of Choice



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"Isn't there?"

"Why, no!"

My relief was genuine, but I thought of the rifle and looked suspiciously out to sea.

"What's the Winchester for?" I asked.

"Listen, and I will explain. Papa has found out – how, I do not exactly understand – that there is in the waters of the Gulf Stream the body of a Thermosaurus. The creature must have been alive within a year or so. The impenetrable scale armour that covers its body has, as far as papa knows, prevented its disintegration. We know that it is there still, or was there within a few months. Papa has reports and sworn depositions from steamer captains and seamen from a dozen different vessels, all corroborating each other in essential details. These stories, of course, get into the newspapers – sea-serpent stories – but papa knows that they confirm his theory that the huge body of this reptile is swinging along somewhere on the Gulf Stream."

She opened her sunshade and held it over her. I noticed that she deigned to give me the benefit of about one eighth of it.

"Your duty with that rifle is this: If we are fortunate enough to see the body of the Thermosaurus come floating by, you are to take good aim and fire – fire rapidly every bullet in the magazine; then reload and fire again, and reload and fire as long as you have any cartridges left."

"A self-feeding Maxim is what I should have," I said with gentle sarcasm. "Well, and suppose I make a sieve of this big lizard?"

"Do you see these rings in the sand?" she asked.

Sure enough, somebody had driven heavy piles deep into the sand all around us, and to the tops of these piles were attached steel rings, half buried under the spear grass. We sat almost exactly in the centre of a circle of these rings.

"The reason is this," said Daisy: "every bullet in your cartridges is steel-tipped and armour-piercing. To the base of each bullet is attached a thin wire of pallium. Pallium is that new metal, a thread of which, drawn out into finest wire, will hold a ton of iron suspended. Every bullet is fitted with minute coils of miles of this wire. When the bullet leaves the rifle it spins out this wire as a shot from a life-saver's mortar spins out and carries the life line to a wrecked ship. The end of each coil of wire is attached to that cylinder under the magazine of your rifle. As soon as the shell is automatically ejected this wire flies out also. A bit of scarlet tape is fixed to the end, so that it will be easy to pick up. There is also a snap clasp on the end, and this clasp fits those rings that you see in the sand. Now, when you begin firing, it is my duty to run and pick up the wire ends and attach them to the rings. Then, you see, we have the body of the Thermosaurus full of bullets, every bullet anchored to the shore by tiny wires, each of which could easily hold a ton's strain."

I looked at her in amazement.

"Then," she added calmly, "we have captured the Thermosaurus."

"Your father," said I at length, "must have spent years of labour over this preparation."

"It is the work of a lifetime," she said simply.

My face, I suppose, showed my misgivings.

"It must not fail," she added.

"But – but we are nowhere near the Gulf Stream," I ventured.

Her face brightened, and she frankly held the sunshade over us both.

"Ah, you don't know," she said, "what else papa has discovered.

Would you believe that he has found a loop in the Gulf Stream – a genuine loop – that swings in here just outside of the breakers below? It is true! Everybody on Long Island knows that there is a warm current off the coast, but nobody imagined it was merely a sort of backwater from the Gulf Stream that formed a great circular mill-race around the cone of a subterranean volcano, and rejoined the Gulf Stream off Cape Albatross. But it is! That is why papa bought a yacht three years ago and sailed about for two years so mysteriously. Oh, I did want to go with him so much!"

"This," said I, "is most astonishing."

She leaned enthusiastically toward me, her lovely face aglow.

"Isn't it?" she said; "and to think that you and papa and I are the only people in the whole world who know this!"

To be included in such a triology was very delightful.

"Papa is writing the whole thing – I mean about the currents. He also has in preparation sixteen volumes on the Thermosaurus. He said this morning that he was going to ask you to write the story first for some scientific magazine. He is certain that Professor Bruce Stoddard, of Columbia, will write the pamphlets necessary. This will give papa time to attend to the sixteen-volume work, which he expects to finish in three years."

"Let us first," said I, laughing, "catch our Thermosaurus."

"We must not fail," she said wistfully.

"We shall not fail," I said, "for I promise to sit on this sand hill as long as I live – until a Thermosaurus appears – if that is your wish, Miss Holroyd."

Our eyes met for an instant. She did not chide me, either, for not looking at the ocean. Her eyes were bluer, anyway.

"I suppose," she said, bending her head and absently pouring sand between her fingers – "I suppose you think me a blue-stocking, or something odious?"

"Not exactly," I said. There was an emphasis in my voice that made her colour. After a moment she laid the sunshade down, still open.

"May I hold it?" I asked.

She nodded almost imperceptibly.

The ocean had turned a deep marine blue, verging on purple, that heralded a scorching afternoon. The wind died away; the odour of cedar and sweet bay hung heavy in the air.

In the sand at our feet an iridescent flower beetle crawled, its metallic green and blue wings burning like a spark. Great gnats, with filmy, glittering wings, danced aimlessly above the young golden-rod; burnished crickets, inquisitive, timid, ran from under chips of driftwood, waved their antenn? at us, and ran back again. One by one the marbled tiger beetles tumbled at our feet, dazed from the exertion of an a?rial flight, then scrambled and ran a little way, or darted into the wire grass, where great brilliant spiders eyed them askance from their gossamer hammocks.

Far out at sea the white gulls floated and drifted on the water, or sailed up into the air to flap lazily for a moment and settle back among the waves. Strings of black surf ducks passed, their strong wings tipping the surface of the water; single wandering coots whirled from the breakers into lonely flight toward the horizon.

We lay and watched the little ring-necks running along the water's edge, now backing away from the incoming tide, now boldly wading after the undertow. The harmony of silence, the deep perfume, the mystery of waiting for that something that all await – what is it? love? death? or only the miracle of another morrow? – troubled me with vague restfulness. As sunlight casts shadows, happiness, too, throws a shadow, and the shadow is sadness.

And so the morning wore away until Freda came with a cool-looking hamper. Then delicious cold fowl and lettuce sandwiches and champagne cup set our tongues wagging as only very young tongues can wag. Daisy went back with Freda after luncheon, leaving me a case of cigars, with a bantering smile. I dozed, half awake, keeping a partly closed eye on the ocean, where a faint gray streak showed plainly amid the azure water all around. That was the Gulf Stream loop.

About four o'clock Frisby appeared with a bamboo shelter tent, for which I was unaffectedly grateful.

After he had erected it over me he stopped to chat a bit, but the conversation bored me, for he could talk of nothing but bill-posting.

"You wouldn't ruin the landscape here, would you?" I asked.

"Ruin it!" repeated Frisby nervously. "It's ruined now; there ain't a place to stick a bill."

"The snipe stick bills – in the sand," I said flippantly.

There was no humour about Frisby. "Do they?" he asked.

I moved with a certain impatience.

"Bills," said Frisby, "give spice an' variety to Nature. They break the monotony of the everlastin' green and what-you-may-call-its."

I glared at him.

"Bills," he continued, "are not easy to stick, lemme tell you, sir. Sign paintin's a soft snap when it comes to bill-stickin'. Now, I guess I've stuck more bills in New York State than ennybody."

"Have you?" I said angrily.

"Yes, siree! I always pick out the purtiest spots – kinder filled chuck full of woods and brooks and things; then I h'ist my paste-pot onto a rock, and I slather that rock with gum, and whoop she goes!"

"Whoop what goes?"

"The bill. I paste her onto the rock, with one swipe of the brush for the edges and a back-handed swipe for the finish – except when a bill is folded in two halves."

"And what do you do then?" I asked, disgusted.

"Swipe twice," said Frisby with enthusiasm.

"And you don't think it injures the landscape?"

"Injures it!" he exclaimed, convinced that I was attempting to joke.

I looked wearily out to sea. He also looked at the water and sighed sentimentally.

"Floatin' buoys with bills onto 'em is a idea of mine," he observed. "That damn ocean is monotonous, ain't it?"

I don't know what I might have done to Frisby – the rifle was so convenient – if his mean yellow dog had not waddled up at this juncture.

"Hi, Davy, sic 'em!" said Frisby, expectorating upon a clamshell and hurling it seaward. The cur watched the flight of the shell apathetically, then squatted in the sand and looked at his master.

"Kinder lost his spirit," said Frisby, "ain't he? I once stuck a bill onto Davy, an' it come off, an' the paste sorter sickened him. He was hell on rats – once!"

After a moment or two Frisby took himself off, whistling cheerfully to Davy, who followed him when he was ready. The rifle burned in my fingers.

It was nearly six o'clock when the professor appeared, spade on shoulder, boots smeared with mud.

"Well," he said, "nothing to report, Dick, my boy?"

"Nothing, professor."

He wiped his shining face with his handkerchief and stared at the water.

"My calculations lead me to believe," he said, "that our prize may be due any day now. This theory I base upon the result of the report from the last sea captain I saw. I can not understand why some of these captains did not take the carcass in tow. They all say that they tried, but that the body sank before they could come within half a mile. The truth is, probably, that they did not stir a foot from their course to examine the thing."

"Have you ever cruised about for it?" I ventured.

"For two years," he said grimly. "It's no use; it's accident when a ship falls in with it. One captain reports it a thousand miles from where the last skipper spoke it, and always in the Gulf Stream. They think it is a different specimen every time, and the papers are teeming with sea-serpent fol-de-rol."

"Are you sure," I asked, "that it will swing in to the coast on this Gulf Stream loop?"

"I think I may say that it is certain to do so. I experimented with a dead right whale. You may have heard of its coming ashore here last summer."

"I think I did," said I with a faint smile. The thing had poisoned the air for miles around.

"But," I continued, "suppose it comes in the night?"

He laughed.

"There I am lucky. Every night this month, and every day, too, the current of the loop runs inland so far that even a porpoise would strand for at least twelve hours. Longer than that I have not experimented with, but I know that the shore trend of the loop runs across a long spur of the submerged volcanic mountain, and that anything heavier than a porpoise would scrape the bottom and be carried so slowly that at least twelve hours must elapse before the carcass could float again into deep water. There are chances of its stranding indefinitely, too, but I don't care to take those chances. That is why I have stationed you here, Dick, my boy."

He glanced again at the water, smiling to himself.

"There is another question I want to ask," I said, "if you don't mind."

"Of course not!" he said warmly.

"What are you digging for?"

"Why, simply for exercise. The doctor told me I was killing myself with my sedentary habits, so I decided to dig. I don't know a better exercise. Do you?"

"I suppose not," I murmured, rather red in the face. I wondered whether he'd mention fossils.

"Did Daisy tell you why we are making our papier-mach? Thermosaurus?" he asked.

I shook my head.

"We constructed that from measurements I took from the fossil remains of the Thermosaurus in the Metropolitan Museum. Professor Bruce Stoddard made the drawings. We set it up here, all ready to receive the skin of the carcass that I am expecting."

We had started toward home, walking slowly across the darkening dunes, shoulder to shoulder. The sand was deep, and walking was not easy.

"I wish," said I at last, "that I knew why Miss Holroyd asked me not to walk on the beach. It's much less fatiguing."

"That," said the professor, "is a matter that I intend to discuss with you to-night." He spoke gravely, almost sadly. I felt that something of unparalleled importance was soon to be revealed. So I kept very quiet, watching the ocean out of the corners of my eyes.

IV

Dinner was ended. Daisy Holroyd lighted her father's pipe for him, and insisted on my smoking as much as I pleased. Then she sat down, and folded her hands like a good little girl, waiting for her father to make the revelation which I felt in my bones must be something out of the ordinary.

The professor smoked for a while, gazing meditatively at his daughter; then, fixing his gray eyes on me, he said:

"Have you ever heard of the kree – that Australian bird, half parrot, half hawk, that destroys so many sheep in New South Wales?"

I nodded.

"The kree kills a sheep by alighting on its back and tearing away the flesh with its hooked beak until a vital part is reached. You know that? Well, it has been discovered that the kree had prehistoric prototypes. These birds were enormous creatures, who preyed upon mammoths and mastodons, and even upon the great saurians. It has been conclusively proved that a few saurians have been killed by the ancestors of the kree, but the favourite food of these birds was undoubtedly the Thermosaurus. It is believed that the birds attacked the eyes of the Thermosaurus, and when, as was its habit, the mammoth creature turned on its back to claw them, they fell upon the thinner scales of its stomach armour and finally killed it. This, of course, is a theory, but we have almost absolute proofs of its correctness. Now, these two birds are known among scientists as the ekaf-bird and the ool-yllik. The names are Australian, in which country most of their remains have been unearthed. They lived during the Carboniferous period. Now it is not generally known, but the fact is, that in 1801 Captain Ransom, of the British exploring vessel Gull, purchased from the natives of Tasmania the skin of an ekaf-bird that could not have been killed more than twenty-four hours previous to its sale. I saw this skin in the British Museum. It was labelled "unknown bird, probably extinct." It took me exactly a week to satisfy myself that it was actually the skin of an ekaf-bird. But that is not all, Dick, my boy," continued the professor excitedly. "In 1854, Admiral Stuart, of our own navy, saw the carcass of a strange gigantic bird floating along the southern coast of Australia. Sharks were after it, and, before a boat could be lowered, these miserable fish got it. But the good old admiral secured a few feathers and sent them to the Smithsonian. I saw them. They were not even labelled, but I knew that they were feathers from the ekaf-bird or its near relative, the ool-yllik."

I had grown so interested that I had leaned far across the table. Daisy, too, bent forward. It was only when the professor paused for a moment that I noticed how close together our heads were – Daisy's and mine. I don't think she realized it. She did not move.

"Now comes the important part of this long discourse," said the professor, smiling at our eagerness. "Ever since the carcass of our derelict Thermosaurus was first noticed, every captain who has seen it has also reported the presence of one or more gigantic birds in the neighbourhood. These birds, at a great distance, appeared to be hovering over the carcass, but on the approach of a vessel they disappeared. Even in midocean they were observed. When I heard about it I was puzzled. A month later I was satisfied that neither the ekaf-bird nor the ool-yllik was extinct. Last Monday I knew that I was right. I found forty-eight distinct impressions of the huge seven-toed claw of the ekaf-bird on the beach here at Pine Inlet. You may imagine my excitement. I succeeded in digging up enough wet sand around one of these impressions to preserve its form. I managed to get it into a soap box, and now it is there in my shop. The tide rose too rapidly for me to save the other footprints."

I shuddered at the possibility of a clumsy misstep on my part obliterating the impression of an ool-yllik.

"That is the reason that my daughter warned you off the beach," he said mildly.

"Hanging would have been too good for the vandal who destroyed such priceless prizes!" I cried out in self-reproach.

Daisy Holroyd turned a flushed face to mine, and impulsively laid her hand on my sleeve.

"How could you know?" she said.

"It's all right now," said her father, emphasizing each word with a gentle tap of his pipe-bowl on the table edge; "don't be hard on yourself, Dick, my boy. You'll do yeoman's service yet."

It was nearly midnight, and still we chatted on about the Thermosaurus, the ekaf-bird, and the ool-yllik, eagerly discussing the probability of the great reptile's carcass being in the vicinity. That alone seemed to explain the presence of these prehistoric birds at Pine Inlet.

"Do they ever attack human beings?" I asked.

The professor looked startled.

"Gracious!" he exclaimed, "I never thought of that. And Daisy running about out of doors! Dear me! it takes a scientist to be an unnatural parent!"

His alarm was half real, half assumed; but all the same, he glanced gravely at us both, shaking his handsome head, absorbed in thought. Daisy herself looked a little doubtful. As for me, my sensations were distinctly queer.

"It is true," said the professor, frowning at the wall, "that human remains have been found associated with the bones of the ekaf-bird – I don't know how intimately. It is a matter to be taken into most serious consideration."

"The problem can be solved," said I, "in several ways. One is, to keep Miss Holroyd in the house – "

"I shall not stay in!" cried Daisy indignantly.

We all laughed, and her father assured her that she should not be abused.

"Even if I did stay in," she said, "one of these birds might alight on Master Dick."

She looked saucily at me as she spoke, but turned crimson when her father observed quietly, "You don't seem to think of me, Daisy."

"Of course I do," she said, getting up and putting both arms around her father's neck; "but Dick – as – as you call him – is so helpless and timid."

My blissful smile froze on my lips.

"Timid!" I repeated.

She came back to the table, making me a mocking reverence.

"Do you think I am to be laughed at with impunity?" she said.

"What are your other plans, Dick, my boy?" asked the professor. – "Daisy, let him alone, you little tease!"

"One is, to haul a lot of cast-iron boilers along the dunes," I said. "If these birds come when the carcass floats in, and if they seem disposed to trouble us, we could crawl into the boilers and be safe."

"Why, that is really brilliant!" cried Daisy.

"Be quiet, my child! Dick, the plan is sound and sensible and perfectly practical. McPeek and Frisby shall go for a dozen loads of boilers to-morrow."

"It will spoil the beauty of the landscape," said Daisy, with a taunting nod to me.

"And Frisby will probably attempt to cover them with bill-posters," I added, laughing.

"That," said Daisy, "I shall prevent, even at the cost of my life." And she stood up, looking very determined.

"Children, children," protested the professor, "go to bed – you bother me."

Then I turned deliberately to Miss Holroyd.

"Good-night, Daisy," I said.

"Good-night, Dick," she said, very gently.

V

The week passed quickly for me, leaving but few definite impressions. As I look back to it now I can see the long stretch of beach burning in the fierce sunlight, the endless meadows, with the glimmer of water in the distance, the dunes, the twisted cedars, the leagues of scintillating ocean, rocking, rocking, always rocking. In the starlit nights the curlew came in from the sand-bars by twos and threes; I could hear their faint call as I lay in bed thinking. All day long the little ring-necks whistled from the shore. The plover answered them from distant lonely inland pools. The great white gulls drifted like feathers upon the sea.

One morning, toward the end of the week, I, strolling along the dunes, came upon Frisby. He was bill-posting. I caught him red-handed.

"This," said I, "must stop. Do you understand, Mr. Frisby?"

He stepped back from his work, laying his head on one side, considering first me, then the bill that he had pasted on one of our big boilers.



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