A Boy and a Girl
A Boy and a Girl
BY JAMES HOPPER
WHEN the boy and the girl heard that before leaving Manila they must be quarantined upon the little teakettle that was to take them to their stations, it was without great consternation. Of late a very pleasant philosophy had come into their lives.
"It won't be so bad, will it?" she asked.
She had very soft brown eyes; they looked up at him, liquid with questioning. There was a sudden glint in them that came and went will-o'-the-wisp fashion. He lost himself in a contemplation of this phenomenon, and his answer lacked precision.
"You will be there," he murmured.
"Of course," she said, and her head turned a little so that the brown and gold went out of his life. "That is why I wish to know if it will be bad."
But the turn of her head had now brought into view the white and rose tip of a little ear peeping beneath the undulating flow of brushed-back hair. A monstrous idea came into his brain. He thought that he would like to place his lips, very gently, not in a kiss (that would be desecration), but in a light flitting caress, like the touch of a wing, upon the glossy strand. He saw the correct place with an intensity of precise vision—just upon the crest of the long swell that passed above the rosy-white tip.
She stamped her foot mutinously, and her lips puckered in a pout. "You won't tell me anything," she complained.
"It will be great," he said, drawing a long breath; "it's cool out there on the bay."
"Yes, I know"—her enthusiasm, waiting only for a little encouragement, flamed up—"and the waters are just like liquid skies."
"At night the sun sets red behind Mariveles," he said.
"And the stars come down and play in the phosphorescence," she said.
They looked at each other a moment, astonished at this sudden burst of lyricism.
"I saw the little steamer this morning," he went on. "There's a wide main-deck, but that 'll be full of people. But up above, behind the pilot-house, is a little space. There's a long wicker chair, and close to it a skylight upon which one can sit. It will be moonlight. Do you mind smoking?"
"The blue haze of a cigar, and the blue light of the moon," she murmured, the vision in her eyes.
"You are a darling!" he said.
"I must go pack my trunk," she said.
They were young pedagogues, come with a thousand like them across the seas upon a transport cargoed with romance. They were to teach their Malay brothers to work and be strong, and to govern themselves like Americans, wisely and without graft. But during that languid month passed upon the Pacific, their mission, in some way, had sunk back to secondary importance.
The quarantine passed much as they had surmised. There were rose sunrises, red sunsets, and golden days. The waters were as blue as liquefied skies; at night the fish cut them in flaming phosphorescent streaks, and about the bows of passing launches stars played, enmeshed in silver veils. He smoked; the blue haze of his cigar blended with the blue rays of the moon, and the murmur of their voices harmonized caressingly with the whisper of wavelets along the boat's dark flanks. Then, one white and gold dawn, there was a running clang of anchor, a long roaring blast of the siren; the quarantine launch steamed back toward the Pasig as if in panic, and the little steamer began to glide. It crossed the bay, passed Corregidor, and turned south. For two days and two nights they slid upon a lacquer sea, past golden-beached islands, beneath a turquoise sky, and at broad noon of the third day they came to anchor before a palm-lined city, shimmering- white beneath the torrential sun. They transboarded to a lorcha and sailed off toward the round rising moon. Half-way across the strait they were becalmed, and all night they watched the golden orb glide imperceptibly through the blazing stars. A wind sprang up and swelled the ragged sails, and at dawn the boat ran its nose languidly upon a yellow beach lined with lithe palms, behind which a church spire peeped. "Bacolod," said the arraiz of the lorcha.
When, an hour later, they stood side by side before the division superintendent, he had the sensation that they should be hand in hand and he white-surpliced. He contented himself, however, with assigning them to towns in the south, pony distance apart; and they settled down in the patient wait for transportation.
Then, during that three weeks' wait in Bacolod, something very terrible must have happened. For when the quarter-master's launch at length lay at anchor on the edge of the reef, seeking to create forgetfulness of her sloth in coming by a wonderful trepidating show of hurry to depart, voiced in a rageful whining of her tin whistle, the girl went aboard in a banca foaming to the heave of twenty paddles; not with the boy, but with Lieutenant White of the constabulary—a long, red-headed young man of dashing decision of manner. The boy came later. His boarding lacked the piratical efficiency of the flaming-haired lieutenant. He wore, in the first place, an air of exaggerated mournfulness that gave him a vague appearance of being wet. Then, in his despairing indifference to life details, he had hired a paddler who was drunk and a banca that was cranky and leaked. At first, as he wished to die, he let it leak; but when the water had reached almost to his knees, a realization of the fact that they were still in the shallows of the reef, and that drowning in water reaching only to the lower vest button is at best a performance both difficult and lacking in grace, forced him to a precipitous bailing with his new Lukban sombrero. About that time the joyous hombre at the paddle began to see Q. M. launches at all points of the horizon, and to his conscientious effort to board them all, the banca began to spin on its cranky bottom like a top. So there the boy stuck, between shore and boat, diligently bailing water out of a craft that was chasing its own tail, his body all atingle with the hundred pin-points of garrulous eyes. Of these eyes, of course, only two mattered. In point of fact, they were at that very moment luminous with something that was far from joy; but whizzing as he was, and bent at his treadmill toil, he had no chance for careful inspection, and his heated imagination presented them to him full of unholy laughter. Meanwhile the fussy launch was blowing its little tin lungs out as if he only were delaying it (while really the beach was still strewn with the paraphernalia of the constabulary detachment which Lieutenant White was to establish at Sibalay, down south), so that when finally a rope, flung from the launch, fell across the boy's knees, he clutched it as a line from heaven. Immediately his arms were pulled almost out of their sockets. He held on. The banca ceased its merry-go-round. He pulled hand over hand, the banca sizzled through the water, the shadow of the launch fell upon him, he gave another tug, the banca's nose bumped the flanks of the launch—and he looked up into the smiling eyes of the red-headed lieutenant. The red-headed lieutenant held the fixed end of the rope. "Thanks," said the boy; but there were no thanks in his heart.
With an air of sauntering indifference, he made his way aft and sat down upon a box near the rudder-post. From there he had a very good view of the girl, who was talking to the red-headed lieutenant, scandalously close to him, the boy thought, and with smiles and tosses of the head and arching glances and exuberant gestures that from the distance seemed to express an unwarranted understanding between them. As a matter of fact, she was saying: "It's a fine day. I like the Philippines. I love teaching. Isn't the water blue? I wish I could swim. Swimming is a good exercise, isn't it? I can't swim. I knew a boy once who could swim. He is dead now. His sister is a dear girl." Really, she was thinking of something else. She was thinking that it is very exasperating when, after a little quarrel, you meet a boy at the gangway of a launch, with eyes liquid with reproach and big with contrition, and that boy does not look into these eyes at all, but rudely turns his back and goes off by his lone, perverse self. And the gestures, the arch glances, the animated and confidential demeanor, were a spectacle calculated for the boy—to have him think that she didn't care for him a whit, and hence make him sorry.
But the boy didn't know this. Or, rather, if within him he really knew it, he pretended to himself that he didn't; he pretended that he thought that she was hollow and coquettish and false. For he wanted to be angry, and he wanted to have somebody to pity, which was himself.
So, after bitterly feasting his eyes upon the scene for a long moment, he turned, and pulling upon a painter tied to the stern, drew the jolly-boat that was at the other end of it till it was beneath the counter, and sprang into it. Immediately he was much alone. Above him curved the steamer's stern; a murmur of voices, crashes of loading merchandise, came to him—but he could see no one, and no one could see him. He lay at the bottom, a thwart across his shoulders, and, with his wet, flapping brimmed straw hat drawn down over his face, he thought.
He reflected on the vanity of life and the tragedy of clothes; he brooded upon the perverse doom that pursued him. He had made, that morning, a monumental mistake. He had not put on his new yellow leather puttees. He had put on a white suit, which, what with the leaky banca and the absurd boarding, was now not white. He should have put on his khaki suit—with the yellow leather puttees. Leather leggings, he reflected, made the man; they gave him a certain dash unnoticeable in baggy white trousers dripping and turned up at the bottom. And khaki, buttoned tight, produced an air of efficiency most pleasing. The red-headed lieutenant wore a tight khaki jacket and yellow leather puttees. But then, the boy thought with increasing gloom, even these things wouldn't do him any good. He would still lack the brass buttons. The brass buttons—that was it. And the belt—the belt that tightens the waist and makes the whole body elastic. And the revolver, the big Colt's hanging along the hip—
Pride began to mingle with gloom in the boy's mind, a certain satisfaction at the sudden, deep-cutting insight of life—now his, through the bitter lesson of disillusion. And after a while a frivolous impulse began to frolic with the severity of his contemplation. He thought that he would like to stand up on the thwart, peer over the counter, and see if the girl was still speaking to the red-headed lieutenant. Pride immediately knocked the suggestion into a cocked hat, and it was not till he had persuaded himself that what he wanted to see was not the girl, but the progress of the loading, that he did it. He tugged at the painter till he was beneath the overhang of the stern, then, catching above with both hands, chinned himself till his nose was over the bulwark. The loading was going on famously. Already the little steamer disappeared beneath layers and layers of camphor-wood boxes and matting-wrapped bales, over which women, old crones and chiquitas, squatted, betel-chewing and chattering—the wives of the constabulary privates on the way to Sibalay. But really the boy had no time to notice all this. For as his blue eyes, with their dark brows, rose above the rail, followed by a nose curious as a squirrel's, they looked up into two big brown orbs with golden glints. The girl was there, very near, poised one foot forward in a pretty posture of surreptitious searching. The sudden apparition of a top of head, two eyes, and a slightly uptilted nose she was not prepared for. "Oh!" she said with a little scream—"oh, you scared me!"
She had dropped back one step, and stood now with her right foot behind, her weight back, both hands tight against her heart. Her eyes were luminous with a suggestion of tears, and her whole form palpitated with a most adorable excitement. The boy would have liked to spring up and reassure her with the comfort of his strong right arm. But he was a bad boy. The cud of his wrongs was still bitter in his mouth.
"Didn't intend to," he said, and his hands let go the rail, so that like a flash the top of head, the eyes, the nose, were out of the girl's sight again, and the boy once more sat in his boat, miserably triumphant.
He sat there long, too, this time. Thumps of bales, crashes of boxes, the grating of lighters against the launch's sides, a babel of voices, came to him, but he had no curiosity. The rhythmic clanking of the anchor-chain, hoisted up link by link through hawser, shook him at last out of his despairing torpor. He clambered aboard and squatted by the rudder-post. The boat was gathering headway. It glided as upon azure ice; palm-lined promontories were floating back slowly one by. one—but what the boy saw was the girl. She was sitting forward with the lieutenant at an improvised table, and they were lunching.
The lieutenant spied the boy. "Come on, have something," he shouted with the vulgar generosity of the rival who feels sure of his place. The boy shook his head negatively, with a smile that was seasickish. "What's the matter with him, anyhow?" he imagined the lieutenant to ask the girl over a bottle of pickles—and the girl shrugged her shoulders. Some day, the boy decided, the lieutenant, at the moment of his doom, would be able to trace back the catastrophe to that indiscreet question he had asked of the girl.
Meanwhile the couple lunched gayly—a most absurd proceeding, the boy decided, for by the dark power of inner reading so lately his, he could tell that the expedition was sentenced to end in disaster. In the west the sun had set in bloody splendor—and now a curtain of clouds, heavy as if of bronze, was rushing over the world like the sliding lid of a box, so low that instinctively the boy dodged as it swept over the boat. The last crescent of blue to the east disappeared. The sliding lid struck the confines of the horizon, shut the world up hermetically and made it black. A wind arose that seemed to come from nowhere, and the launch began to plunge. Then the black vault ripped in jagged blue rents of lightning, and the thunder rolled dully within the heavy confines.
The girl was now lying in her long wicker chair forward, bundled in her blankets, a tarpaulin, placed by the lieutenant, protecting her from the spray which was springing upon the deck with little self-announcing hisses. The lieutenant had gone to see to his men. The boat-length of darkness lay between the boy and the girl, but by the vacillating light of the binnacle he could see her face, marble white, with her eyes closed in an expression of vague suffering. The boy anchored himself with both hands to the rail upon which he sat, for an impulse had almost dashed him off toward the binnacle, to step a-tiptoe till his eyes looked down upon the drooping eyelids. He fully mastered himself, and then, very methodically, filled his pipe and lit it. So that now, through her long lashes, the girl could see the glow in the night, a beacon turned false.
To the thunder's battering the leaden vault of the heavens had cracked; the rain was falling, perpendicular, windless, with mournful violence, falling black out of a black sky, upon a black sea; and through it the little boat chugged steadfastly, with the persistence and some of the dogmatic assurance of a righteous soul making its way through spiritual dangers. At the bow the Tagal piloto was peering ahead, immovable as a mahogany statue. Suddenly both his arms shot out horizontally, and his voice rang out in the night: "Tras! Tras todo!"
The helmsman behind pulled ragefully at a bell, the deck began to boil with a churning movement beneath, and the boy felt his body incline forward. In the black smother ahead a more solid blackness delineated itself—a peaked island rising sheer. The launch stopped, turned to port, and chugged away in the direction from which it had come.
But not five minutes later again the piloto's arms shot out in arresting movement, again to his "tras todo!" the screw churned backward and the boat stopped, almost upon a headland at the head of which a hissing of breakers could be heard.
This time the little boat went off to the right, and very slowly, too. "Chug," she said, wagging her nose distrustfully from side to side, and paused; then "chug," with another pause, during which she seemed saying, "I wonder where that fool pilot is taking me?" "Chug," she said again—"Oh!"
For she had bumped her distrustful nose against a coral reef rising sheer from a five-fathom bottom. A gigantic hand took the boy by the nape of the neck and bent him down till he sprawled flat upon the deck (which served him right); bales, trunks, and betel-chewing ladies rolled forward in indiscriminate avalanche; there was one long feminine shriek—and then a great silence.
"Tras," said the pilot, chokingly; "tras."
"Chug-chug-chug; chug-chug-chug," went the launch most willingly. There was a long grating. It was the keel sliding off, but every individual on that boat felt convinced that it was his own spine which was being scraped.
The boy picked himself up, full of the sense of golden chance. But he was too slow and too far away. He had taken but a few steps when he saw the tall, pliable form of the red-headed lieutenant bending over the long chair at the bow. By this time, also, the pilot having in his three excursions definitely ascertained the points of the compass, the launch was gliding serenely over a calming sea.
The boy went back to his place, bitter with the sense of lost opportunity, and, as all those in his situation, he began to pray for its return. He wished the miserable little craft would go kerplunk against some kind obstacle at full speed, blow up into kindling, and disappear into a surging black sea, on the top of which would miraculously float two beings (the only two beings, evidently, of any importance on the boat).
But the remarkable ill luck that had pursued him was still with him. Bocks stepped politely out of the way of the little steamer. The sea smoothed its wrinkles before it. The very heavens entered into the conspiracy. The rain ceased, the clouds dissolved—and finally the moon appeared, full-orbed, and poured her enchantment upon the world. The boy swore.
And now, upon a luminous sea, beneath a luminous sky, through an air balm vibrating with bluish beauty, the little launch chug-chugged, glistening like a glowworm. The waters were as phosphorescent milk. Far to the left the coast showed its silver-sculptured palms; its scented exhalation was about the boat like a caress, a tender assurance of safety, of maternal solicitude. At the bow the girl opened her eyes, drew a deep, ecstatic breath. And the boy swore.
After a time he began again to hope. From the milky shimmer of the sea strange vapory forms were rising, to flit about in silent madness, like distracted dream-spirits. They slid over the milky surface with inconceivable swiftness; their unsubstantial bodies twisted, bent, concentrated, expanded; their inchoate arms threw themselves to heaven, lengthened immeasurably, twisted themselves about each other, wrung in grotesque grief. It was as if the sea, become god, were creating—creating malevolently, with weird malice of imagination. By tens, by hundreds, by thousands they sprang from the waters; soon the entire horizon-hemmed ring was filled with their insane vapory coursing. And then, as if at the hand-clap of their creator, they suddenly coalesced, and the whole world disappeared in the embrace of the fog.
It was the fog of the tropical seas—rare and precious. It clung with insistence, soft and warm as the protecting breast of a bird to its nestling. The rays of the invisible moon pulsed in it in liquid opalescence. It was as if the world had been enshrined within a gigantic pearl, or rather as if the pearls of this sea of pearls had vaporized, and now hung, a luminous haze, about the boat. Along the flanks of the launch a bare three feet of streaming water was visible. Beyond, in front, to the left, to the right, the fog shut off everything with its luminous but impenetrable curtain. The boy began to hope.
And his hope was to have its fulfilment. Suddenly the mystic charm of the night was broken most hideously. There was a shock forward, the launch came almost to a dead stop, then churned on again; there was another shock, then shock after shock, the boat recoiling to each and charging on again. A ringing tattoo, as if some giant forward with a hundred arms were beating with clubs the bow of the boat, resounded, then a fusillade of crackling wood. Things scraped along the flanks, like the tentacles of a devil-fish. The boy peered out to the right, and in the luminous smother he made out a long line of bamboo poles sticking out of the sea. "A fish-corral," he cried.
It was a fish-corral, one of those bamboo labyrinths which the Visayan fishermen erect upon the reefs to lure the fish; and the launch, with its happy-go-lucky piloto, was crashing right through it. It was not a dangerous act, in point of fact, but certainly a most terrible performance in point of noise. The boy moved toward the girl.
But he took one step only, and stopped paralyzed. For she was coming to him, the girl of his longings, coming to him most extraordinarily. She lay in her chair, wrapped in her rugs, and along the narrow alley against the starboard rail she was gliding to him, chair and all, in a smooth, silent, irresistible sweep. A dryness came into the boy's mouth, and his heart gave a big thump. He was in the presence of some wonderful psychic manifestation of the power of love, and his hair rose upon his head in reverence. At the same time he was aware of a decided desire within him to have the affair brought back to a more earthy plane. But the miracle continued. On came the chair, with its precious burden, in weird certainty of motion. Amidships the girl half rose, her arms stretched forward and up, half to God, half to the boy, and smoothly she glided on, her arms imploring, her eyes dilated, her lips parted in most adorable fashion, the opalescent haze ringing her loosened hair in a halo.
The boy flattened himself against the skylight, and leaning over as the chair passed, he whisked the girl up into his arms. The chair pivoted; then, keeping on, smacked against the stern bulwark and was still.
As many other psychic phenomena, this one had a material basis. One of the bamboo poles of the corral traversed by the launch, happening to lean inboard a few inches, had caught the back of the chair. As the pole, sunk in the bottom, held, and the launch was going forward, the chair, with its burden, had been rapidly whisked from bow to stern. In fact, it was the boy, upon the moving launch, who had gone to the girl in the motionless chair, and not the girl who had come to the boy, as was his egotistical impression.
The boy worked out the problem in his mind. It took him some time; and when he was through, the girl was still in his arms, palpitating like a little bird jerked rudely out of its nest. Then the boy seemed to enter upon another course of cogitation, still in gentle self-abstraction keeping his arms around his prey. And when he had reached his conclusion, he stated it aloud. "Enough of this rot," he said.
And supporting the girl about the waist, he stepped to the stern, pulled upon the painter taut there, and with tender vigor heaved her over the rail and into the jolly-boat trailing behind. Then with the end of the rope in his hand he sprang down after her.
For a moment the counter was above them and a milk-white churning beneath—then smoothly the steamer faded into the haze. The little boat yawed from side to side, cutting the water in two diminutive green wave- lets, which gradually disappeared as they came to a stop. And they were alone, upon the sea, in the mysterious privacy of the fog.
When he had assured himself of the fact, the boy looked at the girl. She was in the stern-sheets; her shawl was wrapped about her shoulders and over her head in a hood, and she was motionless as a statue of severity. The boy's throat tightened a bit, but he sat upon the centre thwart, very calmly picked up the oars lying at the bottom, and slid them out between the holes.
In another second there came what he expected. Somewhere in the depths of the fog arose the hysterical shriek of the little launch. "Toot—toot—toot," she cried; "toot—toot—toot, toot—toot—toot!" The boy listened attentively, his head bent to one side. "It's there," he whispered to himself, pointing with the bow of the boat; "right over there."
He dug his right oar deep into the water and took two strokes with the left. The little craft pivoted in a quarter-circle. Then very deliberately he pulled straight ahead, at right angles to the approaching screams of the launch. "Toot—toot—toot," came the launch. The boy bent back and forth with a will. Suddenly he shipped his oars and sat still, peering tensely into the smother. Behind the boat a vague shadow cut the fog from left to right; it disappeared, and the scared tooting died off in a gradual diminuendo.
"Fooled!" whispered the boy.
He pulled a while longer, then once more shipped his oars. They were in a great silence. At intervals a little wave smacked up against the side as in playful invitation to a game of tag. The girl still sat motionless, the haze as a halo around her hooded head.
Quietly the boy rose, stepped across, and sat down by her; gently he drew back the hood, and with stupor he saw glistening at the trembling tips of her eyelashes two little globules like dew-drops.
"You are mean to me," she said.
Then an opaque curtain seemed to drop away from before the boy's eyes. A moment before he had thought himself deeply wronged, his heart trampled to hash, and was firm in a determination to wring out an explanation. And suddenly he saw that his conduct had been atrocious and that she was a saint.
"You poor little girl," he said, and he drew her head to his shoulder. "You poor little girl," he murmured again, drawling on the "poor."
"You won't do it again, will you, dear?" she asked, with an appealing little pout of her lips.
The boy groaned, speechless before the vision of the enormity of his offence.
"Never mind, dear," she said, reassuringly; "you won't—any more."
He seized her, and she lay in his arms like a child, her eyes gravely up into his. They were all alone, in a little boat, upon a big sea, enwrapped in fog. At times the fog drew closer. And then they were two souls in space and eternity, and the only thing that existed in space and eternity was the ineffable attraction that drew these two souls together.
She fell asleep toward dawn, and he, watching over her, a great swelling softness in his heart, must have at length slept too. For suddenly he awoke, a screech in his ears. The fog had gone with the night and the moon, and upon the green resplendent sea, beneath the joyous sun, they floated embraced, in sight of the whole world.
"Damn!" said the boy. Not a quarter of a mile away the launch was steaming toward them, shrieking its little lungs out in garrulous salutation. At the bow, leaning far over, a coiled rope in his hand, was the red-headed lieutenant.
"Throw out the life-line," said the boy, resignedly.