The Crocodile's Half-sister
THE CROCODILE'S HALF-SISTER
BY PHILIP CURTISS
TAKE a man—any man," said Mullin, "and take a girl—any girl—and put them off alone on a desert island—"
We were sitting in front of the fire at the Forrest Club in Gramercy Park, Mullin and Bingham and I, discussing something or other, probably love. Mullin was doing the talking. It was his turn. His turn always came last. After the rest of the bunch had had their say, there would come a moment of silence during which Mullin would look courteously around, as if to ask, "Are there any more remarks on this subject?" There being none, Mullin would settle down, nod his head, and proceed to state the real truth of the matter.
That was what he was doing now—telling us what was what.
"Take a man—any man," said Mullin, "and take a girl—any girl—and put them off alone on a desert island, and inside of twenty-four hours—"
"Don't you believe it!" broke in a sudden voice from behind Mullin's back. Mullin jumped while Bingham and I turned in amazement, wondering who had dared to interrupt Mullin.
It must have been a stranger. It was. He had been sitting all the time on the big lounge which faced the fireplace. In fact, he had been there when we had come in, but, being three to his one, we had firmly drawn our chairs between him and the fire, turned our backs to him, and ignored him. Nice, clubby places, aren't they, clubs?
Did you ever let any one put you up at a club in a strange town and leave you there? Well, don't let them do it. That's all I've got to say. Go to the railroad station and wait. You'll have twice the fun. If you want to sit for days, ignored and alone; if you find it exciting to read obsolete notices on a bulletin-board; if you like to watch strangers play pool, badly; if you find any interest in reading books which are only there because some member forgot to take them home in the fall of 1894; if you rejoice in seeing others gay and happy while you are miserable, by all means spend three or four days in a club where you don't know a soul.
Now that he spoke I realized that I had seen the stranger hanging around the club for three or four days, apparently in the last stages of being a guest. That is to say he was reading the books that no one else had opened for years. He was a youngish man with a friendly, humorous face, and I had half meant to speak to him but I had put it off.
Now, however, in a sudden pang of remorse, we spread our chairs to include him in our circle.
"I am afraid," he said, hesitating, "that I have intruded. My name is Bracken."
We hastened to reassure him and introduced ourselves, at which, nevertheless, conversation died for a moment. Naturally, we three waited for him to go on, but, alone among us, Mullin wore an expression slightly frigid.
Bingham it was who seemed to scent the possibilities of the moment. Bingham always welcomed a chance to bait the omniscient Mullin via a third party.
"We were speaking," he suggested, "about the old proposition of putting a man—any man—and a girl—any girl—alone on a desert island."
The stranger looked thoughtfully into the fire and his eyes sparkled as if with some suddenly awakened reminiscence.
"I never hear that proposition," he said, "without thinking of a curious experience." He turned to Mullin. "You were going to say that a man and a girl in such a fix would have to fall in love with each other simply because there was no competition."
Mullin did not warm to the newcomer much. "Well, do you mean to deny it?" he asked, a bit stiffly.
"In a very instructive life," replied Bracken, speaking very slowly and still looking at the fire, "I have learned to deny nothing. All that I can say is that it doesn't happen always." He looked up suddenly from one to the other of us. "Have any of you ever happened to be on the Oil Rivers?"
Safe to say none of us ever had. Mullin had never really been outside of Gramercy Park, but neither Bingham nor I spoke for a moment, each hoping that the other might have had an uncle on the Oil Rivers. Bracken tried to assist us.
"It is more commonly known," he suggested, "as the Niger Coast Protectorate, but the oldtimers all call it the Oil Rivers."
That placed him. We really felt rather meek at not being oldtimers. Bracken tried us again.
"Well," he suggested, "have you ever run down to Fernando Po?"
Nary Fernando Poet among us. Bingham and I shook our heads frankly enough while Mullin still sat, hostile and rather ill-tempered. Bracken was obviously casting around in his mind for some simple place within the reach of our childish experience.
"Well," he suggested, "you know where Accra is? Or the old Calabar River? Or Sierra Leone?"
That sounded something like. I was just about to take a flier and say, "Oh! You mean that island off the coast of Brazil," but I was glad that I didn't, for, after one more look at our faces, Bracken laughed apologetically.
"I thought," he said, "that everybody knew those places along the Gold Coast and the Ivory Coast, and even as far as the Cameroons."
The speaker's voice grew wistful as he named over the ports. He seemed to picture their surf and sand and palm-trees there in the coals of Gramercy Park.
"Assini River," he mused, "with the old Dutch fort out on the point, and Cape Coast Castle and Accra and Lagos and Akassa and the Bight of Benin, clear down to the mouth of the Congo—why, all those places are almost tourist points now." He paused and shook his head a little bit sadly. "But, of course, it wasn't like that in the old days."
A potent silence hung over the group. Bingham and I were suddenly rather depressed about the old days. Those dear, dead days at Lagos and the Bight of Benin, we had never realized before how we should miss them!
From the other side of our little group, however, I had been conscious for some time of troubled noises. Mullin was not accustomed to being left out of a conversation like this. He had been persistently clearing his throat, trying to get in a word edgewise. At last he succeeded.
"Just let me ask you—" he began, but luck was against him. Before he could finish a bell-boy challenged the party at large.
"Did any gentleman call Chicago?"
Bracken nodded and, in silent contempt, the boy held out the slip which he had neglected to sign. As the boy turned to go Bracken called after him:
"Get me a taxi to go to Grand Central at nine-thirty, sharp."
I looked at my watch. It was twenty minutes to nine, but the interruption had given Mullin his chance.
"And so," he said, tartly, "it was in the Niger Protectorate that you had this—this experience?"
"Oh no, indeed," replied Bracken. "It was on the Gold Coast. You see," he explained, turning to me and Bingham, "the Gold Coast proper only extends from the Assini River to the borders of Dahomey."
That made it perfectly plain to Bingham and me. We were quite ready to go on from there, but I heard Mullin clearing his throat again so I hastened to put in a word.
"Now for the story."
Bracken laughed deprecatingly. "It wasn't much," he began. He gazed thoughtfully at the fire. "Now that I come to think of it," he went on, "it really did begin down in the Rivers, because it was there that I first met her."
Bracken looked up with a twinkle in his eye. "As I have already suggested, there was a lady in the story, but—" he waved his hand—"you know the rule—a lady's name in a club. Besides, I might as well say at once that she was the daughter of some one rather important. I won't say that she was the daughter of a resident governor, and then again I won't say that she wasn't."
We drew our chairs closer at that, and Bingham and I grew rather sobered. There was no telling what might leak out there in Gramercy Park and trickle back to cause trouble along the Ivory Coast and the lower Niger.
"I shall have to call her something," continued Bracken, "and so I will call her Lady Mary. As I say, she was the daughter of—well, of an important official. When I first met her, her father was making a tour of inspection down by the Niger delta while I was doing some work along the coast."
"What sort of work?" broke in Mullin, so sharply that Bingham looked at him in reproof, but Bracken did not seem to notice the hostile tone.
"I was taking a survey of the bottomless pit," he replied.
Mullin straightened angrily and Bracken laughed.
"I must explain," he said. "You know, of course, that the whole ocean bottom of the Gulf of Guinea is a shelving bank, caused partly by the silt from the muddy rivers and partly by the immense earth wash from the shore induced by the tropical rains. There is only one exception and that is about fifteen miles east of the French colony at Grand Bassam. At that point there is a big V, a cleft in the bottom which is about two thousand feet deep near shore and grows steadily deeper and wider for several miles out. That is known on the Mercator charts as the Bottomless Pit. The danger is that that part of the coast is studded with uncharted rocks, so occasionally ships try to anchor for the night. Then along comes a west wind; the ship drags her anchor, over the anchor drops into the Bottomless Pit, and, not having several miles of cable, the ship drives on the shore. Nothing can save her."
"I see," said Mullin, convinced in spite of himself, but I looked anxiously at my watch. Bracken noticed the motion and laughed.
"Well," he continued, "you must remember that the point of this whole story is this gentleman's remark to the effect that if you take any man and any girl and put them on a desert island they will fall in love with each other. Mind you, we didn't say a man and a girl who were rather inclined to look at each other in the first place. You wouldn't have to put them on a desert island. In fact, the best thing you could do in that case would be to keep them off it. Really to prove the argument you have got to take a man and a girl who were rather hostile to each other to begin with."
"Not at—" interrupted Mullin, hotly, but Bingham stopped him.
"Oh, shut up, Mullin," he said. "That's what you did say. We all heard you."
Bracken waited for the atmosphere to clear. "I am afraid you will have to grant that one point because the truth was that Lady Mary and I were not exactly lovers. In fact, Lady Mary had been heard to drop some remark about 'one of those surveyor people, a typical American, a man of no breeding.'
"However, down in the Rivers I had managed to keep out of her way. My real station was Accra on the Gold Coast. I went back there and forgot all about my bad breeding until one day, when we were coming in from survey, we saw a man-of-war, one of the little river gunboats, in the harbor, or, rather, the roadstead, for of course there is no real harbor at Accra. We went on shore and I went up to the bungalow where I was living with a Waff."
It was Bingham who interrupted this time. "What's a Waff?"
"A Waff?" explained Bracken. "W.A.F.F. That stands for 'West African Field Force.' It took the place of the old native constabulary about 1899. This was one of the young English officers. We occupied a bungalow together with a nigger to take care of us."
"A negro?" corrected Mullin, piously.
"No indeed," answered Bracken. "This was a Bantu from East Africa. The true negro is the Kruboy who is found north of the Cameroons."
"Now look here," I commanded, sharply. "Our time is getting short. After the lecture is over I have no doubt that the speaker will be pleased to answer any questions which the audience may wish to ask him on the flora and fauna of the Gulf of Guinea, but personally I am all worked up about Lady Mary."
Bracken looked at his watch. "I'm afraid that I shall have to make it brief," he agreed. "Well, anyway, when I got to the bungalow there was Hepplethwaite, my chum, doing a war-dance all over the screened veranda with a great, long, cold whisky-and-soda in his hand."
Bingham groaned, but he said nothing and Bracken went on:
"When I got there he pressed the whisky-and-soda to my lips and murmured: 'Here, old Egg, drink this. You'll need it. You are about to receive a blow, not to say earthquake.'
" 'What's up?' I asked him.
"For answer he went and mixed another whisky-and-soda, double strength."
"Look here," broke in Bingham, bursting the bonds of silence, "you've got to cut that out." He waved his hand toward Mullin and me. "I'll try to restrain myself if you draw such word pictures, but I can't answer for my men."
Bracken laughed. "Well, the long and the short of it was that Hepplethwaite turned at last and said: 'Steady now, Bracken. Pull yourself together. "Slops" is here! He's been transferred as resident gov—as an official of Accra!'
"You see, " explained Bracken, " 'Slops' was the name that we had given to Lady Mary's father because he was always messing around with specimens of sea-urchins. In addition to being gov—to being an official, he was a great student of natural history and submarine growths,
"Now, as nobody had had to tell me," he continued, "that I had been reckoned among the undesirable element at the residency down on the Rivers, you can imagine how I felt at having Slops with his family invade my privacy on the Gold Coast. I looked at Hepplethwaite, fearing the worst. 'Is—?' I asked him, 'Is—?'
" 'She is!' replied Hepplethwaite, dancing around and going over to mix himself another— I beg your pardon, Mr. Bingham—going over to kick the Bantu. 'Not only is Lady Mary with him, but he's brought Tony. I saw him carried ashore on a litter by some twenty or thirty Kruboys.'
" 'Oh, good heavens!' I groaned. I sat down and ordered the Bantu to—to fan me, but Hepplethwaite was not through, not half.
" 'And I'll tell you a juicy little bit of scandal,' he said. 'Tony has a half-sister—here in Accra!'
"I looked at him aghast. 'Not Louise?' I murmured.
Louise,' he affirmed. 'Our Louise.' "
Bracken looked quietly from Bingham to me. He had stopped looking at Mullin.
"I must explain," he said, "that Tony was a crocodile, and the most damnable disagreeable, evil-minded crocodile you ever saw. When I think that Lady Mary couldn't stand me and yet could stand that crocodile—well, it"—he tapped his heart—"it hurts.
"You see," continued Bracken, "Slops had been out in Africa for thirty or forty years—ever since the big Ashanti war in '73. He was related by marriage to all the best West Coast families governors and collectors and constabulary officers from Bathurst clear down to the French Congo. And all the time he had been collecting specimens and writing books about them. At one time, early in his career, he had been vice—I mean a less important official right there in Accra, and while there he had hatched out a crocodile egg."
Bracken suddenly lowered his voice and leaned forward, looking from right to left.
"I don't want to say anything that might get me into trouble back there," he said, "but, you see, a crocodile egg is hatched by the heat of the sun. Now while the Niger country is swarming with crocodiles, you never see one wild on the Gold Coast. The traders and all the rival scientists said that they couldn't live there, couldn't be hatched there. They said that the sun was not hot enough. Slops said that was all nonsense. Said the sun on the Gold Coast was just as hot as it was on the Rivers. So he had a basket of eggs sent up from Oil Rivers to prove his theory, which he did—eventually.
"In short, the rumor was that, when he found that the sun was on the side of the rival scientists, he resorted to artifice and hatched out the egg in a fireless cooker. Then he published a book which made a tremendous sensation among students of the crocodile, but he never mentioned his guilty secret."
Bracken straightened up and went on in a normal voice:
"So that was who Tony was. The gov—Slops had kept him with him ever since egghood, taking him on all his travels and to all the meetings of the scientific societies. As Tony was the living proof of Slops's supposed discovery, Slops hardly dared to let him out of his sight. He couldn't have been more fussy about him if Tony had been his own son, which, in a manner of speaking, he was.
"When Tony was little, Slops used to travel with him in the scabbard of his court saber, then later in a riding-boot until finally they had to haul him on board the official yacht with a steam winch. Tony had even gone to England, where Slops had kept him in the Regent's Park zoo. Hepplethwaite used to say that it was a blooming wonder that Slops hadn't tried to send him to Eton or Harrow.
"So now, when a fresh breath of scandal had begun to blow over Tony it was almost as if it had touched some one high up in official circles.
"As Hepplethwaite told me the latest version it appears that, years before, when Slops had begun the experiment which had resulted in Tony, he had had a house-boy, an educated mission black from up in Liberia. That was just another instance of a little education being a dangerous thing. When the mission boy had found what the gov—what Slops was doing, he had got another egg from the same basket and tried it, too. He had succeeded just as well as Slops had—better, in fact, for he had not even used a fireless cooker. He had simply taken the egg to bed with him.
"Before Tony was much larger than a rolling-pin, Slops had been promoted and transferred down the coast and taken Tony with him. At least he thought it was Tony, for until that day the real truth of the story had not been known to the white population. It had merely been whispered at dusk around the native villages.
"It seems that, shortly after both crocodiles were born, the mission boy had slipped into Slops's quarters one day to compare his crocodile with the other. He had seen to his shame that Slops's crocodile was much more slender and graceful than his, so, moved by some jungle instinct, he had secretly changed the two. Then, terrified at the white man's anger, he had kept it a secret that there were two crocodiles in Accra at all. Being a native, he had guessed that 'Tony' would have been a silly name for Slops's crocodile, anyway, so he had left his own, which really fitted the name of Tony, and taken away Slops's crocodile, which he had renamed 'Louise,' after one of his old teachers at the mission.
"At a safe interval after Slops had left the Gold Coast the mission boy had brought Louise forth in public with the story that she had been put in his care by an aunt in Dahomey. There now being no other crocodile in Accra, Louise speedily became the pet of the station, for she grew up to be as sweet and as lovable a reptile as Tony had been a snobbish and disagreeable one.
"So there," continued Bracken, "you had the old, old story—those two crocodiles growing into maturity hundreds of miles apart and neither one of them suspecting the secret of his birth—his or hers."
"But how did you know—?" began Mullin, suspiciously.
"Oh, that was easy," replied Bracken. "Louise laid eggs in time. You found them in all sorts of odd, pathetic places where she had left them, hoping that the sun would prove to be as fine a father as Slops and the mission boy had proved to be. But, poor girl, that side of her life was a sad one. All the eggs were ever good for was to serve as ornamental borders when they laid out the new street from the harbor-master's house up to the old constabulary barracks. It saddened Louise, but at the same time it seemed to make her character sweeter. You used to see her going around the village with a basket of locusts and driver-ants in her mouth, carrying little dainties to rheumatic old snakes and horned toads that had lost their horns.
"But now," exclaimed Bracken, "after twenty years, had come the time for the reckoning! Slops was returning to Accra as—as a very lofty official, but there was no longer any reason for keeping dark the secret of Louise's birth. The mission boy had also become a powerful personage and bowed his head to nobody. He had what you might call the traffic concession for the roadstead. He was a sort of taxi-starter for all the lighters and canoes that went out to unload the incoming ships. Every passenger and every ounce of freight that went in or out of Accra paid toll to him. He was a typical transportation magnate—still vulgar, of course, but enormously rich. What made the situation more delicate, from the political standpoint, was the fact that his word had become law for the savage chiefs up in the hinterland. At a nod of his head the toms would have begun to beat on a thousand hillsides. From the way that things were shaping, both the white and the native colonies saw that Louise was in a fair way to come into her own. The officers of the W.A.F.F. were betting their pay for months ahead on whether or not Louise would be recognized at Government House."
As Bracken reached this crucial point I looked at my watch anxiously. It was fourteen minutes past nine.
"Well, did she?" I asked. "Did she come into her own?"
"Yes," said Bracken, "she did, but not in the way that the world expected. It was no paltry social recognition that she obtained. It was something more splendid—more spiritual."
Bracken had noticed my glancing at my watch and he now looked at his own.
"I see that I must tell it very briefly," he said. "Before I had been in my bungalow ten minutes on that day of which I am telling you, a Kruboy came up with a note from my chief. It seems that the new—the new high official, Slops, had decided that he wanted to inspect the Bottomless Pit. He had heard that some French scientists from Grand Bassam had trawled up some coral from the bottom of it and, like the true scientist that he was, he had denied it offhand. He wanted to prove that they were lying. The party was going out on the survey boat at nine the following morning and of course Slops took Lady Mary along with him.
"If I didn't have to make that beastly train to-night," said Bracken, "I should love to tell you about that trip out to the reefs, for it was the coldest thing that ever happened south of Madeira. Of course Lady Mary remembered me in an instant; but did she give a sign of it? She did not. At our first meeting she calmly looked me through and through, then, walking over to her father, not ten feet away, she remarked, 'Father, what a peculiar variety of people one runs across in official life.'
"Well, about noon of the second day, while we were just at the edge of the Bottomless Pit and were preparing to make soundings, Slops came up to my chief, who was playing setback with me in the pilot-house.
" 'Captain,' he says, 'my daughter is a bit of a botanist in her own way and she has decided that she would like to look over the plants and other growths on one of these small islands. If you will kindly have her put ashore for an hour or so in charge of some capable person, I will try to remember it when making up my despatches.'
" 'Why, certainly, your Excellency,' says my chief. 'Mr. Bracken will go himself.'
"Of course," explained Bracken, "my chief had never heard of the misunderstanding between Lady Mary and me on the Oil Rivers. He thought that he was giving me the chance of a lifetime to get my name before the colonial office, while, naturally, I could not refuse, either as a subordinate or as a gentleman, even though Lady Mary did not consider me one.
"The upshot was that, as all the tenders and whaleboats were being used on the survey, I gave orders to lower a little portable canvas boat that we kept stowed on deck for use on the rivers. All that part of the Gulf of Guinea, around the edges of the Bottomless Pit is a checkerboard of rocks and islands, some no bigger than a pocket handkerchief, some several acres in extent. This island that Lady Mary had picked out was about a hundred yards square, densely covered with tropical vegetation. It lay only a dozen rods from the side of the ship and the sea was calm, so I rowed Lady Mary over myself. You can imagine her expression when she saw who was to be her sole escort, but it lasted only a minute. She considered me too unimportant even to snub. She simply ignored me. The understanding was that the ship was to work out over the Bottomless Pit, fish for coral, and then return for us in an hour.
Bracken glanced at his watch but saw that he still had a few minutes.
"Well, we landed and Lady Mary started right up into the bush with her collector's case and her magnifying-glass. Naturally, I started after her, but she turned and lifted her lorgnette. From the way she looked at me she might better have lifted the magnifying-glass.
" 'Mr—er Mr. Heather,' she said, 'I prefer to be left alone.'
" 'Oh, all right, then,' I said to myself, and sat down on the beach to smoke. I knew that nothing could happen to her on that island. She was not likely to meet any one with whom she would not care to associate.
"I must have fallen asleep, for, when I awoke, I was conscious of a change in the air. Jumping up and looking to the southeast, I saw, 'way off in the sky, a great arch of clouds. I stood looking a moment longer and saw that, inside the arch, were patches of white. Every West-African sailor knows what that means. When you see an arch in the Gulf of Guinea it means a tornado. When the arch has white clouds inside it, it means a typhoon.
" 'Way out on the horizon I could see the survey ship. I could imagine the hustle there must be on her, for they were in more danger than we were. Even while I watched, the air grew steel-gray and the cold wind began to bend the tops of the palm-trees. I turned to rush into the bush, but, before I reached it, Lady Mary came out on the beach. She was as cool and calm as ever, but she remembered my name this time.
" 'Mr. Bracken,' she said, 'do you think it is going to rain?'
" 'No, Lady Mary,' I said. 'The people at home would never recognize what's coming as rain. They would think it Niagara Falls.'
" 'Really!' she said. 'How unique!'
"Well," said Bracken, "I have to grant it to Lady Mary. The typhoon came and it was a record-breaker, even for that coast. The rain was all that I had said it would be and more, but we found a sort of cave up in the middle of the island, and there Lady Mary sat at the doorway, looking out as calmly as if she were watching the crowds in Hyde Park. She never moved. She seemed to realize that if she ignored the rain it would see its own folly in time. Of course the ship had been blotted from sight before we had left the beach, but she was not even worried about that. If it had been a merchant ship she might have worried; but it was a government boat and had a high British official on board. The typhoon surely would not forget that.
"In an hour or two the storm was gone and the sun came out bright and hot, but I knew that we should not see the ship that day and that we should be lucky if we saw it the next. By the way it was flying before the wind the last time I saw it, I judged it must be in the English Channel by that time. I broke the news to Lady Mary as gently as I could, but it did not upset her. She fished down into the bottom of her collector's box and set about making tea.
"I started to help her, getting sticks for the fire, but she put a quick end to that.
" 'Mr. Heather,' she said, 'you are not a servant.'
"Even so I intended to tell her that I was a gentleman, but then I decided not to raise an issue on that old point. She gave me a cup of tea and then I left her to herself, returning at nightfall.
"You know," continued Bracken, "what a tropical twilight is like. In fact, there isn't any. It was pitch dark before Lady Mary realized that it was sunset. She let me help her make some more tea for supper. About nine o'clock the island was flooded with soft, tropical moonlight and then she let me just sit around. That is to say, she did not actually send me away."
At this confession Mullin sat up triumphantly and smiled to himself, but Bracken saw him and understood his implication.
"At the same time," he added, "she did not throw me one single word. She did not even answer my attempts to be pleasant.
"I confess," continued Bracken, "that after an hour or two of that sort of thing I began to get rather huffy. Finally I could stand it no more.
" 'Now look here, Lady Mary,' I said. 'I don't want to intrude, but it does seem to me—'
"But at that very moment I heard a sort of low grunt right behind me and, very quietly, Lady Mary said, 'Mr. Heather, if you value your life, I suggest that you climb a tree.'
"I looked behind me and there, within an inch of my heels and also my neck and all that came in between, I saw six feet of great, gaping jaws and two yards of white, gleaming teeth. Did I jump? I broke records, but Lady Mary never moved.
" 'It is only Tony,' she said. 'I recognized him by his collar as he was creeping up behind you in the moonlight. At first I thought that it was a strange crocodile. This is rather interesting. I had heard that crocodiles could swim hundreds of miles and now I have proved it. He has actually come after the ship. I must write this down.'
"I, however, was not following her very closely. Neither was Tony. He was following me, giving playful little snaps and shaking the rings on his collar. Lady Mary continued:
" 'I still cling to my original suggestion that you climb a tree. Tony is like a member of the family to us, but he is thoughtless with strangers. He seems to make queer distinctions between different classes of persons.'
"And so he did. Another of Lady Mary's theories was being proved on the spot. Suddenly getting tired of his hoydenish play, Tony made a rush and I went up a big thorn-tree, roosting in the bottom branches. Tony lay down at the foot. He closed one eye, but kept the other turned up at me. I swear I could feel a dotted line coming right up from that eye and hitting the second button of my tunic. Lady Mary watched us a minute and then she said, in her low, cultured voice:
" 'Mr. Heather, I regret beyond words that this should have occurred with any crocodile of ours, but since you have taken advantage of our unfortunate isolation to force your attentions on me—'
"I interrupted her. 'Lady Mary,' I said, with a voice as detached as her own, 'I am very sorry to be obliged to annoy you still further, but if you will kindly glance over your shoulder, you may see the wisdom of climbing a tree yourself.'
"Lady Mary turned, and in ten seconds she was up a thorn-tree across the clearing from mine. Into the patch of moonlight which she had just been occupying sauntered another crocodile. As soon as Lady Mary was fairly composed in her thorn-tree, I reassured her.
" 'It is only Louise. I recognized her at once by the ribbon around her neck. She is perfectly harmless to those whom she knows, but, by the cruel social distinctions of this world, she has never had her rightful opportunity to become acquainted in government circles.'
"While this had been going on, however, we had not been the only ones who had been exchanging compliments. As Louise had walked into the moonlight of the clearing I had seen that she had taken in the situation at a glance. Silently, stealthily, she stalked toward the recumbent figure at the foot of my tree. A dozen paces away she stopped. She stood motionless, her accusing eye fixed on Tony. I heard his scales rattling against my tree and, looking over a bough, I saw that his malignant eye, which had been fastened on me, had grown sick and slimy with fear. Louise just stood and fixed him with her gaze. If ever a crocodile said, 'Ha! ha! Jack Dalton!' Louise was saying it at that moment.
"You should have seen her. I had always been fond of Louise, in a negligent, older-brotherly sort of way, but now I positively loved her. She was magnificent! As she stood silently, accusingly, in the tropical moonlight, glaring at Tony, I could see all the fire of her lost birthright, all the passion of her thwarted motherhood concentrated in the set of her jaws.
"The tension was too great to bear. Tony's nerve snapped like a violin string. Suddenly the silence was broken by a low, sharp snarl, and Louise stepped forward to meet the crocodile who had wronged her.
"Prehistoric forests," said Bracken, "jungles peopled by mammoths and mastodons and dinosaurs and horse-lizards may have seen fights like that which followed, but no forest since that time ever saw one. Tony was strong, but over-feeding and luxury at the big coast stations had undermined him, while Louise had the strength of virtue and clean living.
"Swashing, swirling, tearing, and snarling, those two giant saurians went threshing around the clearing until the very trees shook and bent as if they were seized by another typhoon. One minute Tony would seem to have the advantage and then Louise. Whenever the tide of battle carried the contestants near Lady Mary's tree she would cry shrilly to Tony to remember that England was watching him. Whenever they came near mine I would seize a lemon from a near-by lemon-tree and squeeze it down into Louise's uplifted jaws. Her eyes thanked me.
"The issue was not long in doubt. Might had met right. Feebler and feebler grew Tony's attacks. Inch by inch Louise was forcing him back toward the eastern end of the island. Regardless of personal safety, I slid down my thorn-tree and cried out to Lady Mary:
" 'Come on, Lady Mary, if you want to see the last of your crocodile.'
"Wringing her hands with impotent defeat, she joined me, and, step by step, we followed the struggling animals. All was easy for Louise now. Her opponent's struggles were weaker and weaker. She seemed to be raising herself for a hoarse grunt of triumph when suddenly I gave a cry of alarm.
" 'Louise!' I cried, 'Louise!'
"On that side the island was bounded by a perpendicular cliff which dropped sheer down for hundreds of feet to the Bottomless Pit. I knew it well from my surveys, but Louise did not know it. A clump of pepper-bushes masked it from sight. My warning cry was too late. Squarely into the bushes the tide of battle carried the fighters. Out of the tumult I heard a sudden groan. It was as I feared. The pepper had blinded Louise. Momentarily in her sudden pain she loosened her hold, and, with a grunt of triumph, Tony sprang away—in my direction. But only for a moment. Blinded and anguished as she was, Louise summoned her last ounce of strength. Gripping him in her teeth, she gave one last despairing surge of her once beautiful body. It was enough. Out into space they hurtled. Locked in each other's jaws, down they plunged to the Bottomless Pit."
Bracken paused and the bell-boy came into the room.
"Mr. Bracken," he panted, "your cab's been waiting for fifteen minutes. You'll have to run for that train!"
Bracken looked at his watch. "Excuse me, gentlemen," he gasped.
He made a dash for the stairs. We heard the doorman rushing around for his baggage. Then followed a silence—a long one. We looked at one another, and finally Bingham summed it all up.
"But, still," he argued, as if to himself, "the chap must have been there."
Mullin rose ponderously and without a smile. His lips were set tight. We heard him call for his hat and stick. A moment later my old friend Simmons came into the room evidently from a journey. He nodded to me, then rang for a bell-boy.
"Find out, please, whether a guest of mine named Mr. Bracken is still in the house."
The bell-boy told him. "He left not fifteen minutes ago to catch the Chicago train."
"How long has he been here?"
"Four or five days."
I decided that the time had come for me to speak. "By the way, Simmons, who is this Bracken? What is his business?"
"His business?" repeated Simmons. "He is a bond broker. He is the manager of my Chicago office."
"Well, has he—has he ever been to Africa?"
Simmons gave me a curious look. "I don't know that he has. In fact I know that he hasn't. Why?"
"Oh, nothing," I answered.
Simmons went out and Bingham with him, but I could not leave the spot. In spite of all, I could still see the palms and the surf and the white, tropical moonlight. I stretched myself languidly on the lounge where Bracken had been sitting for the larger part of the past four days. I rose up suddenly. I had sat on something hard. It was a book, one of those dusty old books which had been lying around the club for years and years, but I looked at it curiously now.
TWENTY YEARS IN WEST AFRICA
With Three Appendices,
Ten Maps and Trade
Reports for the Years
I smiled as I turned the pages. Accra, Lagos, the Bight of Benin—yes, they were all there.
Yet aren't people funny? In spite of it all, in spite of what Simmons had said, to this day I sometimes lie awake in the stilly night and wonder whatever became of Lady Mary.