Robert Chambers.

The Mystery of Choice



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"Don't like the colour?" he asked. "It goes well on them boilers."

"Colour! No, I don't like the colour either. Can't you understand that there are some people in the world who object to seeing patent-medicine advertisements scattered over a landscape?"

"Hey?" he said perplexed.

"Will you kindly remove that advertisement?" I persisted.

"Too late," said Frisby; "it's sot."

I was too disgusted to speak, but my disgust turned to anger when I perceived that, as far as the eye could reach, our boilers, lying from three to four hundred feet apart, were ablaze with yellow and red posters, extolling the "Eureka Liver Pill Company."

"It don't cost 'em nothin'," said Frisby cheerfully; "I done it fur the fun of it. Purty, ain't it?"

"They are Professor Holroyd's boilers," I said, subduing a desire to beat Frisby with my telescope. "Wait until Miss Holroyd sees this work."

"Don't she like yeller and red?" he demanded anxiously.

"You'll find out," said I.

Frisby gaped at his handiwork and then at his yellow dog. After a moment he mechanically spat on a clamshell and requested Davy to "sic" it.

"Can't you comprehend that you have ruined our pleasure in the landscape?" I asked more mildly.

"I've got some green bills," said Frisby; "I kin stick 'em over the yeller ones – "

"Confound it!" said I, "it isn't the colour!"

"Then," observed Frisby, "you don't like them pills. I've got some bills of the 'Cropper Bicycle,' and a few of 'Bagley, the Gents' Tailor – '"

"Frisby," said I, "use them all – paste the whole collection over your dog and yourself – then walk off the cliff."

He sullenly unfolded a green poster, swabbed the boiler with paste, laid the upper section of the bill upon it, and plastered the whole bill down with a thwack of his brush. As I walked away I heard him muttering.

Next day Daisy was so horrified that I promised to give Frisby an ultimatum. I found him with Freda, gazing sentimentally at his work, and I sent him back to the shop in a hurry, telling Freda at the same time that she could spend her leisure in providing Mr. Frisby with sand, soap, and a scrubbing brush. Then I walked on to my post of observation.

I watched until sunset. Daisy came with her father to hear my report, but there was nothing to tell, and we three walked slowly back to the house.

In the evenings the professor worked on his volumes, the click of his type-writer sounding faintly behind his closed door. Daisy and I played chess sometimes; sometimes we played hearts. I don't remember that we ever finished a game of either – we talked too much.

Our discussions covered every topic of interest: we argued upon politics; we skimmed over literature and music; we settled international differences; we spoke vaguely of human brotherhood. I say we slighted no subject of interest – I am wrong; we never spoke of love.

Now, love is a matter of interest to ten people out of ten.

Why it was that it did not appear to interest us is as interesting a question as love itself. We were young, alert, enthusiastic, inquiring. We eagerly absorbed theories concerning any curious phenomena in Nature, as intellectual cocktails to stimulate discussion. And yet we did not discuss love. I do not say that we avoided it. No; the subject was too completely ignored for even that. And yet we found it very difficult to pass an hour separated. The professor noticed this, and laughed at us. We were not even embarrassed.

Sunday passed in pious contemplation of the ocean. Daisy read a little in her prayer-book, and the professor threw a cloth over his typewriter and strolled up and down the sands. He may have been lost in devout abstraction; he may have been looking for footprints. As for me, my mind was very serene, and I was more than happy. Daisy read to me a little for my soul's sake, and the professor came up and said something cheerful. He also examined the magazine of my Winchester.

That night, too, Daisy took her guitar to the sands and sang one or two Armenian hymns. Unlike us, the Armenians do not take their pleasures sadly. One of their pleasures is evidently religion.

The big moon came up over the dunes and stared at the sea until the surface of every wave trembled with radiance. A sudden stillness fell across the world; the wind died out; the foam ran noiselessly across the beach; the cricket's rune was stilled.

I leaned back, dropping one hand upon the sand. It touched another hand, soft and cool.

After a while the other hand moved slightly, and I found that my own had closed above it. Presently one finger stirred a little – only a little – for our fingers were interlocked.

On the shore the foam-froth bubbled and winked and glimmered in the moonlight. A star fell from the zenith, showering the night with incandescent dust.

If our fingers lay interlaced beside us, her eyes were calm and serene as always, wide open, fixed upon the depths of a dark sky. And when her father rose and spoke to us, she did not withdraw her hand.

"Is it late?" she asked dreamily.

"It is midnight, little daughter."

I stood up, still holding her hand, and aided her to rise. And when, at the door, I said good-night, she turned and looked at me for a little while in silence, then passed into her room slowly, with head still turned toward me.

All night long I dreamed of her; and when the east whitened, I sprang up, the thunder of the ocean in my ears, the strong sea wind blowing into the open window.

"She is asleep," I thought, and I leaned from the window and peered out into the east.

The sea called to me, tossing its thousand arms; the soaring gulls, dipping, rising, wheeling above the sand-bar, screamed and clamoured for a playmate. I slipped into my bathing suit, dropped from the window upon the soft sand, and in a moment had plunged head foremost into the surf, swimming beneath the waves toward the open sea.

Under the tossing ocean the voice of the waters was in my ears – a low, sweet voice, intimate, mysterious. Through singing foam and broad, green, glassy depths, by whispering sandy channels atrail with seaweed, and on, on, out into the vague, cool sea, I sped, rising to the top, sinking, gliding. Then at last I flung myself out of water, hands raised, and the clamour of the gulls filled my ears.

As I lay, breathing fast, drifting on the sea, far out beyond the gulls I saw a flash of white, and an arm was lifted, signalling me.

"Daisy!" I called.

A clear hail came across the water, distinct on the sea wind, and at the same instant we raised our hands and moved toward each other.

How we laughed as we met in the sea! The white dawn came up out of the depths, the zenith turned to rose and ashes.

And with the dawn came the wind – a great sea wind, fresh, aromatic, that hurled our voices back into our throats and lifted the sheeted spray above our heads. Every wave, crowned with mist, caught us in a cool embrace, cradled us, and slipped away, only to leave us to another wave, higher, stronger, crested with opalescent glory, breathing incense.

We turned together up the coast, swimming lightly side by side, but our words were caught up by the winds and whirled into the sky.

We looked up at the driving clouds; we looked out upon the pallid waste of waters; but it was into each other's eyes we looked, wondering, wistful, questioning the reason of sky and sea. And there in each other's eyes we read the mystery, and we knew that earth and sky and sea were created for us alone.

Drifting on by distant sands and dunes, her white fingers touching mine, we spoke, keying our tones to the wind's vast harmony. And we spoke of love.

Gray and wide as the limitless span of the sky and the sea, the winds gathered from the world's ends to bear us on; but they were not familiar winds; for now, along the coast, the breakers curled and showed a million fangs, and the ocean stirred to its depths, uneasy, ominous, and the menace of its murmur drew us closer as we moved.

Where the dull thunder and the tossing spray warned us from sunken reefs, we heard the harsh challenges of gulls; where the pallid surf twisted in yellow coils of spume above the bar, the singing sands murmured of treachery and secrets of lost souls agasp in the throes of silent undertows.

But there was a little stretch of beach glimmering through the mountains of water, and toward this we turned, side by side. Around us the water grew warmer; the breath of the following waves moistened our cheeks; the water itself grew gray and strange about us.

"We have come too far," I said; but she only answered: "Faster, faster! I am afraid!" The water was almost hot now; its aromatic odour filled our lungs.

"The Gulf loop!" I muttered. "Daisy, shall I help you?"

"No. Swim – close by me! Oh-h! Dick – "

Her startled cry was echoed by another – a shrill scream, unutterably horrible – and a great bird flapped from the beach, splashing and beating its pinions across the water with a thundering noise.

Out across the waves it blundered, rising little by little from the water, and now, to my horror, I saw another monstrous bird swinging in the air above it, squealing as it turned on its vast wings. Before I could speak we touched the beach, and I half lifted her to the shore.

"Quick!" I repeated. "We must not wait."

Her eyes were dark with fear, but she rested a hand on my shoulder, and we crept up among the dune grasses and sank down by the point of sand where the rough shelter stood, surrounded by the iron-ringed piles.

She lay there, breathing fast and deep, dripping with spray. I had no power of speech left, but when I rose wearily to my knees and looked out upon the water my blood ran cold. Above the ocean, on the breast of the roaring wind, three enormous birds sailed, turning and wheeling among each other; and below, drifting with the gray stream of the Gulf loop, a colossal bulk lay half submerged – a gigantic lizard, floating belly upward.

Then Daisy crept kneeling to my side and touched me, trembling from head to foot.

"I know," I muttered. "I must run back for the rifle."

"And – and leave me?"

I took her by the hand, and we dragged ourselves through the wire grass to the open end of a boiler lying in the sand.

She crept in on her hands and knees, and called to me to follow.

"You are safe now," I cried. "I must go back for the rifle."

"The birds may – may attack you."

"If they do I can get into one of the other boilers," I said. "Daisy, you must not venture out until I come back. You won't, will you?"

"No-o," she whispered doubtfully.

"Then – good-by."

"Good-by," she answered, but her voice was very small and still.

"Good-by," I said again. I was kneeling at the mouth of the big iron tunnel; it was dark inside and I could not see her, but, before I was conscious of it, her arms were around my neck and we had kissed each other.

I don't remember how I went away. When I came to my proper senses I was swimming along the coast at full speed, and over my head wheeled one of the birds, screaming at every turn.

The intoxication of that innocent embrace, the close impress of her arms around my neck, gave me a strength and recklessness that neither fear nor fatigue could subdue. The bird above me did not even frighten me; I watched it over my shoulder, swimming strongly, with the tide now aiding me, now stemming my course; but I saw the shore passing quickly and my strength increased, and I shouted when I came in sight of the house, and scrambled up on the sand, dripping and excited. There was nobody in sight, and I gave a last glance up into the air where the bird wheeled, still screeching, and hastened into the house. Freda stared at me in amazement as I seized the rifle and shouted for the professor.

"He has just gone to town, with Captain McPeek in his wagon," stammered Freda.

"What!" I cried. "Does he know where his daughter is?"

"Miss Holroyd is asleep – not?" gasped Freda.

"Where's Frisby?" I cried impatiently.

"Yimmie?" quavered Freda.

"Yes, Jimmie; isn't there anybody here? Good heavens! where's that man in the shop?"

"He also iss gone," said Freda, shedding tears, "to buy papier-mach?. Yimmie, he iss gone to post bills."

I waited to hear no more, but swung my rifle over my shoulder, and, hanging the cartridge belt across my chest, hurried out and up the beach. The bird was not in sight.

I had been running for perhaps a minute when, far up on the dunes, I saw a yellow dog rush madly through a clump of sweet bay, and at the same moment a bird soared past, rose, and hung hovering just above the thicket. Suddenly the bird swooped; there was a shriek and a yelp from the cur, but the bird gripped it in one claw and beat its wings upon the sand, striving to rise. Then I saw Frisby – paste, bucket, and brush raised – fall upon the bird, yelling lustily. The fierce creature relaxed its talons, and the dog rushed on, squeaking with terror. The bird turned on Frisby and sent him sprawling on his face, a sticky mass of paste and sand. But this did not end the struggle. The bird, croaking wildly, flew at the prostrate billposter, and the sand whirled into a pillar above its terrible wings. Scarcely knowing what I was about, I raised my rifle and fired twice. A horrid scream echoed each shot, and the bird rose heavily in a shower of sand; but two bullets were embedded in that mass of foul feathers, and I saw the wires and scarlet tape uncoiling on the sand at my feet. In an instant I seized them and passed the ends around a cedar tree, hooking the clasps tight. Then I cast one swift glance upward, where the bird wheeled screeching, anchored like a kite to the pallium wires; and I hurried on across the dunes, the shells cutting my feet, and the bushes tearing my wet swimming suit, until I dripped with blood from shoulder to ankle. Out in the ocean the carcass of the Thermosaurus floated, claws outspread, belly glistening in the gray light, and over him circled two birds. As I reached the shelter I knelt and fired into the mass of scales, and at my first shot a horrible thing occurred: the lizardlike head writhed, the slitted yellow eyes sliding open from the film that covered them. A shudder passed across the undulating body, the great scaled belly heaved, and one leg feebly clawed at the air.

The thing was still alive!

Crushing back the horror that almost paralyzed my hands, I planted shot after shot into the quivering reptile, while it writhed and clawed, striving to turn over and dive; and at each shot the black blood spurted in long, slim jets across the water. And now Daisy was at my side, pale and determined, swiftly clasping each tape-marked wire to the iron rings in the circle around us. Twice I filled the magazine from my belt, and twice I poured streams of steel-tipped bullets into the scaled mass, twisting and shuddering on the sea. Suddenly the birds steered toward us. I felt the wind from their vast wings. I saw the feathers erect, vibrating. I saw the spread claws outstretched, and I struck furiously at them, crying to Daisy to run into the iron shelter. Backing, swinging my clubbed rifle, I retreated, but I tripped across one of the taut pallium wires, and in an instant the hideous birds were on me, and the bone in my forearm snapped like a pipestem at a blow from their wings. Twice I struggled to my knees, blinded with blood, confused, almost fainting; then I fell again, rolling into the mouth of the iron boiler.

When I struggled back to consciousness Daisy knelt silently beside me, while Captain McPeek and Professor Holroyd bound up my shattered arm, talking excitedly. The pain made me faint and dizzy. I tried to speak and could not. At last they got me to my feet and into the wagon, and Daisy came, too, and crouched beside me, wrapped in oilskins to her eyes. Fatigue, lack of food, and excitement had combined with wounds and broken bones to extinguish the last atom of strength in my body; but my mind was clear enough to understand that the trouble was over and the Thermosaurus safe.

I heard McPeek say that one of the birds that I had anchored to a cedar tree had torn loose from the bullets and winged its way heavily out to sea. The professor answered: "Yes, the ekaf-bird; the others were ool-ylliks. I'd have given my right arm to have secured them." Then for a time I heard no more; but the jolting of the wagon over the dunes roused me to keenest pain, and I held out my right hand to Daisy. She clasped it in both of hers, and kissed it again and again.

There is little more to add, I think. Professor Bruce Stoddard has edited this story carefully. His own scientific pamphlet will be published soon, to be followed by Professor Holroyd's sixteen volumes. In a few days the stuffed and mounted Thermosaurus will be placed on free public exhibition in the arena of Madison Square Garden, the only building in the city large enough to contain the body of this immense winged reptile.

When my arm came out of splints, Daisy and I – But really that has nothing to do with a detailed scientific description of the Thermosaurus, which, I think, I shall add as an appendix to the book. If you do not find it there it will be because Daisy and I have very little time to write about Thermosaurians.

But what I really want to tell you about is the extraordinary adventures of Captain McPeek and Frisby – how they produced a specimen of Samia Cynthia that dwarfed a hundred of Attacus Atlas, and how the American line steamer St. Louis fouled the thing with her screw.

The more I think of it the more determined I am to tell it to you. It will be difficult to prevent me. And that is not fiction either.

ENVOI

ENVOI
I
 
When shadows pass across the grass
And April breezes stir the sedge,
Along the brimming river's edge
I trail my line for silver trout,
And smoke, and dream of you, my lass,
And wonder why we two fell out,
And how the deuce it came about.
 
II
 
When swallows sheer the meadow-mere
And thickets thrill with thrushes' hymns,
Along the mill-pond's reedy rims
I trail my line for shining dace;
But how can finny fishes cheer
A fellow, if he find no grace
In your sweet eyes and your dear face?
 
III
 
Let thrushes wing their way and sing
Where cresses freshen pebbled nooks;
By silent rills and singing brooks
I pass my way alone, alas!
With your dear name the woodlands ring —
Your name is murmured by the grass,
By earth, by air, all-where I pass.
 
IV
 
The painted bream may swim the stream —
I'll cast no line to-day, pardi!
In vain the river-ripples gleam,
In vain the thrushes' minstrelsy.
Vain is the wind that whispers, "Lo!
Thy fish are waiting – Angler, go!"
 
V
 
Will you forgive if I forgive?
Life is too sad, I think, to live
Alone, and dream and smoke and fish;
I'll say "Forgive" first – if you wish?
 
VI
 
For at that word, the Sorcery
Of Love shall change the earth and sky
To Paradise, with cherubim
Instead of birds on every limb.
 
VII
 
Rivers shall sing our rhapsody;
The vaulted forest, tree by tree,
High hung with tapestry, shall glow
With golden pillars all a-row.
 
VIII
 
And down the gilded forest aisle
Shy throngs of violets shall smile
And kiss your feet from tree to tree
While blue-bells droop in courtesy.
 
IX
 
And if the sun incarnadine
The clouds – green leaves shall be your screen;
And if the clouds with jealousy
Should weep – we'll beg of some kind tree
A moment's hospitality.
 
X
 
Good cheer is here, if you incline;
Moss-hidden springs shall bubble wine
While squirrels chuckle, rank on rank,
And strawberries from every bank
Shall blush to see how deep we drank.
 
XI
 
Winds of the West shall cool our eyes
While every woodland creature tries
His voice a little, so that he
May know his notes more perfectly
When crickets start the symphony.
 
XII
 
Through hazel glade and scented dell
Where brooklets ring a tinkling bell,
The forest orchestra shall swell,
Until the sun-soaked grasses ring
With crickets strumming string on string.
 
XIII
 
Then, with your white hand daintily
Scarce touching mine, we'll leave our tree
And ramble slowly toward the West
Where our high castle's flaming crest,
Towering behind the setting sun,
Flings out its banners, one by one,
Signals of fire, that day is done.
 
XIV
 
Deep in that palace we shall find
How blind we are, how blind! how blind!
And how he'll laugh, who holds the key
To the great portal's mystery!
And how his joyous laugh will ring
When you and I shall bid him fling
The gates ajar for you and me!
 
XV
 
Let shadows flee athwart the lea
When dark December strips the hedge
Along the icy river's edge;
Yet, if you will forgive me, lass,
The world shall bloom like spring to me,
Snow turn to dew upon the grass
And fagots blossom where you pass.
 
XVI
 
Swallows shall sheer the frozen mere,
Dead reeds along the mill-pond's rims
Shall thrill with summer-thrushes' hymns,
While summer breezes blow apace,
If you will but forgive me, dear,
And let me find a moment's grace,
In your sweet eyes and your dear face.
 
R. W. C.
THE END

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