The Lucky Number/Natural Causes
AN ISLAND COMEDY
Miss Phyllis Etherington, conscious of a sudden chilliness in her toes, crossly drew those extremities into a less adventurous position and endeavoured to recompose herself to slumber. But she was aware, even in the semi-stupor in which she lay, of a certain element of disturbance in her surroundings. Her pillow felt extremely hard, and the sun appeared to be streaming through her cabin skylight with unusual ferocity. Had she overslept herself, she wondered. How about breakfast? She must have lain long. Had she been called? Certainly she was beginning to feel thoroughly restless. Something rigid and unyielding was pressing against her ribs. A book, perhaps: she was in the habit of reading late in bed and dropping off to sleep, the volume under perusal usually being retrieved somewhere in the neighbour hood of the hot-water bottle in the morning. Should she make an effort now, or—the sluggard's inevitable alternative—give herself just five minutes longer?
The question was settled for her. Her toes were once again sending up signals for help, and their appeal was backed ten seconds later by a sudden splash of water, which broke over the sleeper's feet and deluged her to the knees.
Miss Etherington sat up suddenly, to realize that she had mistaken her whereabouts. It was a dream reversed. Instead of tumbling out of fairyland to wake up in bed, she had tumbled out of bed to wake up in fairyland.
She was sitting upon a sunny shore—a concave arc of shelving yellow sand, with blue and white wavelets lazily rolling up and down the declivity. One of these broke gently over her bare feet for the third time.
Woman-like, she took a lightning inventory of her costume—and gave a little gasp of dismay. Her toilet presented the appearance of having been begun in haste and not finished at all. Her long hair, dank but luxurious, flowed down to her waist. A saxe-blue serge skirt fluttered round her bare ankles. Her most adequate article of attire was a cork life-belt, fastened round her quilted dressing-gown. She was stiff and aching in every limb.
She remembered all now. The yacht—the tropical hurricane—the grinding crash in the dead of night—the trampling of feet overhead and the hoarse shouting of men—the heeling decks and flapping ropes—a pair of hands which had hurried her along the sloping alleyways and passed her down into a heaving cockleshell—finally, the great green wave which had swung up out of the darkness and fallen upon them all and carried her down, down, down, until she lost consciousness. And here she was, cast up and alive upon a warm sandy beach. The life-belt was responsible for that, she supposed. She had no recollection of having put it on, though. Probably the hands which hurried her on deck had attended to that. There was a number on it: S.Y.Island Queen, R.Y.S.—Stateroom No. 3. The number of her stateroom was seven, so this could not be the belt which she had noticed rolled up in a rack above her berth, lazily wondering if she would ever need it.
Then, as her senses adjusted themselves, came the inevitable inquiry: “Where were the others? Her host, that cheerful, kindly old nobleman, was he gone? What a death for a man reputed to know the Pacific as most amateurs know the Solent! And the Arthur Denholms? And Colonel Shell? And Margaret Alderson? And—” Miss Etherington's exquisite features hardened for a moment—“Leslie Gale?”
Then her face softened again. Death closes all accounts. Leslie Gale, lying peacefully in twenty fathoms of blue water, could never again do anything to increase or diminish the sum total of his account with her—an account opened, run up, audited, and found incorrect in every possible way within a brief but extremely stormy period of three weeks. That vendetta was at an end, anyway.
Why had she come to dislike him so intensely? she wondered. Was it because he had asked her to marry him? Apparently not; for in that case she should at this moment be cherishing the bitterest feelings towards some seventeen other gentlemen, mostly of blameless character and antecedents, who had at various periods mooted the same proposition. Was it because he had proposed to her after an acquaintance of three days? No; one man had done so after one ball, and she had felt rather flattered. She had disliked Leslie Gale from the moment of their first meeting. He had not treated her with the respect—not to say the servility—to which she was accustomed. She objected also to the manner in which he had treated his dismissal. True, he had not behaved violently or idiotically, like most of the others. On the contrary, he had exhibited most exasperating detachment of mind about it, and had talked—no, chatted to her about herself in a manner which she resented very much. He had appeared almost sorry for her.
“You are in a difficult position,” he said musingly, at that point in their interview at which a right-minded lover would have departed, with drawn features, into the night. “You are a girl with brains and character—and a bit of a spoiled child into the bargain. You cannot love a man who is your mental and moral inferior, and you are too opinionated and conceited to give in to your superior. So you fall between two stools.”
At this she had been unable to resist the temptation of a crushing retort.
“Are you my superior?” she rapped out.
Joy! He had fallen into the trap.
“Then”—maliciously—“why don't you subdue me?”
On paper, there was no answer to this question; but this bumptious young man had replied without hesitation—
“Because you won't stand your ground. You will run away.”
“Why should I run away—from you?” inquired Miss Etherington icily.
“Because,” replied Mr.Gale,“you are afraid of me.”
“Then you think you will subdue me?”
“No,” he said frankly—“I don’t. You won't give me the chance. Modern civilization deprives man of many of his weapons. If we were shut up together on a desert island, or if we had lived in the cave-dwelling period—”
“You would have subdued me with a flint axe, I suppose,” said Miss Etherington scornfully.
“No, not at all. There would have been no need. If I had wanted you, I should have used the flint axe to settle the pretensions of your other suitors, and then picked you up and carried you off.”
“It is possible,” said Miss Etherington gently, “that I might not have come.”
“Yes, you would. You would have come gladly, knowing that the best man had got you; and that is all a woman really cares about.”
“If you honestly believe that,” replied Miss Etherington almost compassionately, “all I can say is that your intelligence is even more unformed than I suspected. When you have seen a little more of the world you will realize that mankind has progressed beyond the schoolboy attitude towards life. Women are now free agents.”
“Yes. And I’m not sure,” remarked the experienced Mr. Gale, “that there are as many happy marriages under the new system as the old. Women are notoriously bad judges of a man. I shall watch your future career with interest, Miss Etherington—interest and apprehension. In matters of the heart I mistrust your judgment.”
“Now,” he said, “if you would like to have the last word, you had better say it at once; because it is getting late, and the rest of the party may be wondering what you and I are discussing under the lee of the chart-house.”
At this Miss Etherington had risen from her seat and sailed silently and majestically aft.
That was a fortnight ago. Since then, in the constricted space of a yacht, friction had been inevitable. Miss Etherington at first made an attempt to avoid Mr. Gale's society, but relinquished this on being taunted with “running away.” So she changed her tactics, and treated Mr. Gale with excessive sprightliness in public and cold disdain in private. Gale's flippant and philosophical detachment did not wear well. He maintained a careless and semi-humorous pose for about a week, and then one evening, under the baneful influence of a full round moon, suddenly crumpled up and descended to sentimental entreaty. Miss Etherington, perceiving that he had delivered himself into her hands, let him run on for nearly ten minutes, and then gave free rein to a rather exceptional talent for biting sarcasm. Gale's amorous expansiveness collapsed like a punctured balloon at the first stab; and, feeling hot and foolish, and being a man, he lost his temper, and said things which should not be said to a lady, however provoking
Then followed seven days of open hostility. Finally one night, when the indefatigable Mrs. Arthur Denholm organized a dance on the deck under the awning, Leslie Gale, who hated feuds, summoned his entire stock of common sense and courage, and asked Miss Etherington for a waltz.
He met with a flat refusal, for which he was fully prepared. He persisted.
“Nonsense!” he said. “Come on! Just a little turn! It will do us both good,” he added meaningly.
Without further entreaty he placed an arm round Miss Etherington's slim waist, and trundled her unresisting but unresponsive form twice round the deck. Then, a little blown by the considerable exertion involved, he paused, and remarked cheerfully—
“That was splendid!”
Miss Etherington swiftly released her waist from his arm, and crossed the deck to where one Ommaney, a callow and cublike member of the company, was lolling against a stanchion.
“Billy dear,” she said, with an entrancing smile, “will you dance with me?”
Billy, much flattered, complied.
An hour later, Miss Etherington, on her way to bed, found her path barred by Mr. Leslie Gale, who was standing at the foot of the companion. His face was white, and his teeth chattered gently—but not with cold or fear.
“Let me pass, please,” said Miss Etherington, rather nervously.
“I only wanted to say,” answered Mr. Gale in a voice which Miss Etherington had never heard before, “that I think you are the most ill-bred and detestable girl I have ever met. You may pass now.”
That was last night—say twelve hours ago. And now Leslie Gale was dead, lying with the wreck of the yacht deep down beside the coral reef that had wrecked them. Dead! And so were the others, to all seeming. She gazed round—at the horseshoe curve of the little bay; at the palm-covered slopes behind her; at the boiling surge outside the bar. Was she utterly alone? She was a plucky young woman, and declined to be frightened until she was sure.
She sprang resolutely to her feet and set out inland. Not far off uprose a little hill. From the summit of this she could survey her kingdom and take an inventory of its possibilities. She was not defeated yet. Her pulse beat high. Her small bare toes resolutely crimped the sand.
Meanwhile, behind an adjacent sandhill, following the movements of his beloved with breathless interest, lay Mr. Leslie Gale. He chuckled gently. His chief asset in life—some people considered it a liability—was a strong if somewhat untimely sense of humour. Not even a recent escape from a watery grave could damp his enjoyment of the situation. He sat up in his rapidly drying pyjamas, and slapped himself feebly.
“My sainted aunt!” he murmured brokenly. “I shall have to get a flint axe!
Miss Etherington, white-lipped and struggling gamely with the terrors of utter loneliness, lay face downward upon a patch of coral sand. She had completed her survey of the island, which was not much larger than a couple of full-sized golf courses; and lo! it was her exclusive property. There were no habitations, and no inhabitants. She lay very still, holding herself in. Once or twice her shoulders heaved.
Suddenly, like music from heaven, the sound of a discreet and thoroughly British cough fell upon her ears, and in a moment the cobweb of terror which was beginning to enshroud her senses was swept away. Hardly believing her good fortune, she sprang up, tossed back her hair from her eyes–and found herself face to face with Mr. Leslie Gale.
“Oh!” she gasped. “You?”
“Yes—just me!” he replied. “There is nobody else.”
“And are all the others—?” She pointed to the tumbling seas outside the bar.
“I don’t know,” replied Gale, interpreting the question. “Very likely most of them got away in the lifeboat. You were in the cutter, you know.”
“If they escaped, would n’t they have landed here?” said the girl doubtfully.
“I’m not so sure. That squall which struck us was the tail-end of a cyclone. They may have been swept out to sea. In fact,” he added, covertly regarding Miss Etherington's white face and troubled eyes, “I am sure they were. I saw them get clear away myself. Anyhow, they are not here. I have been all over the island to see.”
“Are there any traces?”
“Yes, but not of human beings. Chiefly spars and gratings. I collected all I could: they may be useful for—domestic purposes.”
I t was not, perhaps, a very happy way of putting it. Miss Etherington flushed and demanded—
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what I say. We may have to stay here for months. Are you an expert at household management? Can you tend the fireside, while I labour to keep the home together?”
“I can't live here alone with you for months,” cried the girl desperately.
“I am afraid it can’t be helped,” said Mr. Gale. “We may get taken off by some passing vessel, but for the present you must be content to live the life of a cave woman.”
Miss Etherington caught the allusion, and her spirit responded instantaneously to the implied challenge.
“First find your cave!” she replied disdainfully.
“By the greatest luck in the world,” announced Mr. Gale calmly, “I have already done so. Come and see.”
He led the way along the seashore, eager to exhibit his discovery, Miss Etherington rebelliously following. Already, she reflected, primitive man was asserting himself: in a procession of two she walked in the rear.
“Presently he will expect me to fetch and carry,” she said to herself. “Let him dare!”
The cave lay close to the water's edge, in a tiny cove facing south. It ran back some fifteen feet into the heart of a lofty rock, and was floored with white coral sand, warm and dry beneath the rays of the noonday sun which streamed in through the door way.
“Somewhere to sleep, at any rate,” commented Mr. Gale cheerfully. “But what chiefly concerns me at present is the discovery of something to eat. Come and find cocoanuts.”
Once more the procession moved off, its order unaltered. A cocoanut palm was speedily found, and Mr. Gale embarked upon a brief gymnastic display which presently furnished them with a supply of solid and liquid refreshment of which both our islanders stood in considerable need.
“This landscape,” said Gale, as he sat contentedly sunning himself after the fashion of man when fed, “reminds me of North Berwick Links, with a few palms dotted about and no tourists. There is Point Garry.” He indicated the little promontory in which their cave was situated.
“Have you climbed to the top yet, partner?” he continued.
“No,” said Miss Etherington shortly; “I have not.”
“Well, you shall,” said Mr. Gale kindly. “We may see things from there which have hitherto escaped our notice. No good sitting here moping!”
With great energy he led the way to Point Garry and scaled the heights, assisting his companion from time to time.
“We will now scan the horizon,” he announced, when they reached the top. “I think that is what Robinson Crusoe would have done under the circumstances. No—nothing! Nothing to be seen but those big rocks jutting up out of the water over there. I noticed them this morning. They look like a row of teeth, don’t they?” he inquired chattily.
“I fail to observe any resemblance,” replied Miss Etherington.
“No? Well, I was always quick at noticing things from a child,” said Mr. Gale, with unimpaired bonhomie. “We are not all blessed with good imagin—Hallo! what's that?” He seized the girl's arm in unaffected excitement, and pointed.
“You are holding my arm,” said Miss Etherington coldly. “Let go, please!”
Mr. Gale had already done so, in order to make a pair of binoculars of his hands.
“Do you see something projecting up between the two middle teeth?” he asked. “I think—I think—yes, it is—the bow of a ship! It must be the yacht. It is the yacht! I can see the top of her funnel. She must have grounded there. I was right. It was a cyclone. The wind has been playing a perfect game of rounders with itself.”
“Do you think there is any one on board?” asked Miss Etherington, suddenly hopeful. After all, a steward or a coal-trimmer would be something with which to dilute Mr. Gale. Another woman seemed too much to expect.
“I doubt it, but I will see,” said Mr. Gale.
“I am going to swim out.”
“All that way?”
“Yes; not more than half a mile, I fancy.”
“Supposing there are—”
Miss Etherington paused, suddenly remembering that the man beside her was unworthy of solicitude.
“Sharks—eh? Perhaps, but I must risk it. If I meet one, I will make a noise like a company promoter, and he'll merely bow respectfully. Do you know what that old hull means to us? Blankets, tools, food! Perhaps they have left a boat on board.”
“Can you swim half a mile?” inquired Miss Etherington.
“It is just about my limit,” confessed Mr. Gale frankly, “but I can try.”
“Would you”—Miss Etherington wavered between common humanity and a feminine desire not to offer anything which could be construed into encouragement—“care to have my cork jacket?”
“If you are quite sure you won’t catch a chill without it,” replied Mr. Gale tenderly.
He proceeded to buckle on the jacket, apparently oblivious of a look which to a thinner-skinned man would have made drowning seem an easy death, and scrambled over the rocks to the water's edge. He poised himself upon a convenient taking-off place.
“Back to tea!” he cried, and disappeared with a splash. It is not easy to dive cleanly in a cork jacket.
Presently he reappeared, and struck out boldly in the direction of Double-Tooth Islet. Miss Etherington, seated upon the summit of Point Garry, her round chin resting on her hands, followed the course of his black head as it slowly forged its way across the limpid channel. Many thoughts passed through her mind. On the one hand, she hated Mr. Leslie Gale to the fullest extent of a nature more than usually well endowed for the purpose. On the other, she knew that there were sharks in these seas—she had seen them. Even now she could descry in the wake of Mr. Gale a tiny black dot which might or might not be the dreaded triangular fin. She closed her eyes, and kept them tightly shut for more than half an hour.
When she opened them, a figure, silhouetted against the skyline upon the summit of Double Tooth Islet, was triumphantly semaphoring safe arrival. Miss Etherington did not reply. Instead, she rolled gently over on to her side in a dead faint.
After all, as she argued to herself when she came to, she had had a most exhausting twenty-four hours, and her sole diet had been a portion of cocoanut.
Mr. Gale returned more expeditiously than he had set out, adequately clothed and propelling the yacht's dinghy, which was loaded to the water's edge with miscellaneous stores.
“Help me to unload these things, quickly,” he called to Miss Etherington, “and carry them up to the cave. I must go out to the yacht again before she slips off.”
“Will you take me with you this time?” asked Miss Etherington.
“I want some things out of my cabin,” was the prim reply.
“I’m afraid you have n’t got a cabin any more,” said Gale. “The stern half of the ship is under water, and I’m salving all I can from the forward part. However, I will select a wardrobe for you from what is available. I always had great natural taste.”
He paddled away so quickly that Miss Etherington had no time effectively to ignore this last pleasantry. When Mr. Gale returned an hour later, he found her still sitting beside the heap of stores on the shore.
“The yacht is lifting with the swell,” he announced. “She is just hanging on by her eyebrows now. Rolled over fifteen degrees a minute ago. Gave me a nasty turn,I can tell you, down in the lazarette grubbing for tinned sardines—for you. They are rather a favourite delicacy of yours, are n't they? Hallo! Why have n’t you carried up some of these stores? Tired?”
Miss Etherington, who had been rehearsing her part for this scene for the past hour, replied icily–
“I am not accustomed to be ordered about.”
Gale, who was lifting a heavy box out of the boat—the carpenter's tool-chest—laid down his burden and sat on it.
“Insubordination? H’m—a serious matter!” he observed. “We must hold a court martial this evening.” He rose, and continued: “As you don’t appear inclined to assist me to furnish the Home, perhaps you will kindly repair to the Home itself. I will carry this case up for you, and you shall unpack it. Then you can make the place snug with a few deft feminine touches. When I have finished my day's work, I shall expect to find my slippers toasting at the fender. That is always done, I believe. Do not butter them, though, or Darby will have a few words to address to Joan. You will find me a fearful domestic tyrant.”
Miss Etherington, dimly wondering whether this excursion into the realms of humour masked a threat or merely indicated mental vacuity of the hollowest type, rose from her seat and departed in the direction of the cave. But she did not halt there. Instead, she climbed to the summit of Point Garry, and there sat for a full hour surveying the sunset with an expression upon her features for which a competent under-nurse would have prescribed just one remedy.
The red-hot coppery ball of the sun dropped into the sea so suddenly that one almost expected to hear it sizzle, and the warm darkness of a tropical night rushed down from the heavens. Stars sprang out upon the velvety sky.
“Partner!” called a voice from below.
“I won't—I won't!” muttered the girl to herself between her clenched teeth.
There was a pause, and then she heard the feet of Mr. Gale climbing the rocky path which led to her eyrie. Presently his head appeared above the edge.
“Shall I bring your supper up to you, or will you come down to it?” he inquired. “I may mention that there is an extra charge for serving meals above-stairs. Your food will cost you more, so to speak.”
Miss Etherington was in no mood for badinage of this kind.
“I will come,” she said stonily.
A bright fire was burning at the mouth of the cave, and a stew of a primitive but inviting character was bubbling in an iron pot hung over the blaze. Crates and cases had been piled into a neat rampart round their demesne. Over the cave mouth itself Mr. Gale had hung a stout curtain of sailcloth.
“Be seated, Miss Etherington,” said Mr. Gale. “That is your place.”
He pointed to a seat upon the sand, fashioned out of boat cushions propped against the base of the rock.
Miss Etherington obeyed.
“This is a one-course dinner,” continued Mr. Gale in deprecating tones, “but I have no doubt that when you take matters in hand you will be able to turn out something more pretentious. What will you drink? I have a bottle of brandy, which had better be reserved for medicinal purposes, and a dozen stone ginger, which I have retrieved from the wreck at great personal risk, knowing it to be a weakness of yours. We must not be reckless about it. An occasional bottle on special occasions—birthdays and Christmases. I think to-night comes under the head of special occasions. Say when!”
Babbling in this light-hearted strain, Mr. Gale proceeded to do the honours of the feast, incidentally making a hearty meal himself. Miss Etherington ate nothing to speak of.
When he had finished, Leslie Gale punctiliously asked for permission to smoke, and lit his pipe.
“I wonder how long half a pound of tobacco will last me?” he mused, puffing comfortably. “A month, perhaps, with care. How ripping the moon looks on the water!”
Miss Etherington did not reply. Her eyes were set. Gale stood up.
“Bedtime,” he announced. “You are tired. Come and see your room.”
He lit a candle and screwed it into the neck of a bottle. The flame hardly flickered in the soft air.
“Please walk in,” he said, holding back the sail cloth flap.
Miss Etherington obeyed, mechanically.
In one corner of the cave Gale had constructed a sleeping-place of blankets and boat cushions. On a convenient ledge lay a tin basin; beside it stood a bucket of fair water. Even soap was there. A deal chest served for chair and wardrobe.
Leslie Gale held the candle aloft.
“What do you think of me as an upholsterer?” he asked with pride. “I will see about electric bells and a hot-water tap in the morning.”
Miss Etherington made no reply.
Gale set down the candle on the ledge.
“Is there anything else I can do for you in here?” he asked.
“No, thank you.”
“Quite sure? It is the last time of asking.”
Struck by a curious note in his voice, the girl looked up suddenly.
“Why?” she said.
Their eyes met. Mr. Gale's, which were usually remarkable only for a self-satisfied twinkle, were grey and steely.
“Because,” he said slowly, “I do not intend to invade your privacy again. Hereafter this cave is yours–utterly and absolutely—to withdraw to whenever again you feel inclined, as you did to-day, to doubt my ability to behave like a gentleman. Good-night!”
He turned towards the curtained doorway.
“Where—where are you going to shelter?” inquired a low voice behind him.
“On the beach—between a couple of oyster shells!” he replied. “Good-night!”
A childish and flippant rejoinder, the reader will admit, utterly spoiling what might have been a dignified—nay, heroic—exit from the cave. But Leslie Gale was never one to let the sun go down upon his wrath, or, at any rate, to let the moon rise upon it.
Miss Etherington awoke next morning to find the sun beating upon the sailcloth curtain. Half-dazed, and failing for a moment to realize her surroundings, she uttered a stifled cry.
A shadow fell upon the curtain.
“Shriek once for the Boots, twice for the chambermaid, three times for the waiter,” advised a cheerful voice. “Breakfast is served.
Ten minutes later, Miss Etherington found herself, subdued but hungry, partaking of fresh fish fried in oatmeal.
“Any amount of nourishment to be had for the asking over there by those rocks,” said the chef. “It’s lucky. We have enough tinned stuff to last us for months; but tinned turkey and tinned plum-pudding both taste very much alike after a few weeks; so these little fellows”—he helped himself to an other fish–“will serve to drive away monotony. Have some cocoa?”
“I hate cocoa,” replied Miss Etherington, with a return of her old petulance. Gale's assumption that they were settled upon the island for life angered her, as usual.
“Members,” gabbled the incorrigible Mr. Gale, “are requested not to chastise the club servants personally, but to enter all complaints upon the backs of their bills, which will be considered by the Committee at its next session. But I am sorry you don’t like cocoa. I will try and find some coffee for you. I am going to make a final trip to the yacht after breakfast.”
“Is she still there, then?”
“Yes, I have been out already this morning. I don’t think the old thing will hang on much longer, though. There is a heavy swell outside. By the way, do you know why Robinson Crusoe was not alone when he landed on his island? Give it up? Because he found a heavy swell on the beach and a little cove running up the sand. … No?”—as Miss Etherington remained quite impervious to this outrage—“Well, perhaps not! It might go better with a larger audience. It used to be received with rapture in the schoolroom at home. I thought, perhaps— However, to resume. Is there anything else you require before the yacht goes under?”
“Yes—hairpins,” said Miss Etherington unexpectedly.
“I’m afraid not,” said Gale. “The only cabins not under water by this time are the engineers', and engineers always have their hair bobbed, as you know. But really”—he respectfully scrutinized his companion's tumbled mane–“it looks very nice as it is.”
Miss Etherington, upon whom last night's lesson had not been wasted, smiled, for the first time since their landing; and Mr. Gale was conscious deep down in his heart, which possibly was not so light as his tongue, of a tiny thrill of satisfaction and relief. Was this peace—or merely an armistice?
“I must go now,” he said. “After that we will formally annex our kingdom and draw up a constitution.”
“You are sure it is quite safe on the yacht?” asked Miss Etherington rather anxiously, staring under hand at the lazy swell beyond the rocks.
“I will take great care of myself,” said Mr. Gale in soothing tones. “Don’t be anxious.”
“But I am,” said Miss Etherington warmly.
“This is most gratifying,” murmured Mr. Gale.
“If you were drowned,” explained Miss Etherington, “I should probably starve; and in any case I should have to do all the cooking and washing-up myself.
Apparently it was only an armistice.
Still, when Mr. Gale returned half an hour later with a boatload of what he described as “comforts,” he found that his companion had cleared away the breakfast and made their encampment tidy.
He made no comment, but summoned a council of two to discuss the situation. He pointed out their probable position upon the chart.
“We seem to be a long way from anywhere,” said the girl dismally.
“We are,” said the Job's Comforter beside her; “and, what is more, we are a long way from any steamer route. Still, you never know. Luckily we have a spring of water and plenty of tinned food, not to mention fish and products of the soil. We might catch a turtle, with luck, and perhaps I shall find something to shoot. Now, supposing I do the hunting and fishing and general hew-wood-and-draw-water business, will you undertake the cooking and general housekeeping?”
Miss Etherington nodded.
“We must build a little wooden hut,” continued Gale, with all the enthusiasm of a small boy playing at Red Indians. “I can sleep in one half and keep the stores in the other. A sort of lean-to. We will regularly organize this island before we have done with it! I wonder, now, about clothes. What we have on won't last forever. It's a pity your cabin was under water, or I might have salved a regular wardrobe for you. Number Seven, was n’t it?”
Miss Etherington nodded.
“By the way,” she asked, “what was yours?”
“Number Three. Why?”
“Well, as for clothes,” continued the indefatigable Mr. Gale, “if we have n’t got them, we must make them. Can you cut out?” he inquired sternly, regarding his companion with the austere air of a Dorcas Society secretary.
“Don’t you think,” interposed Miss Etherington drily, “that you are taking rather too much thought for the morrow—not to speak of the day after to-morrow? May I make a suggestion?”
“By all means,” said Mr. Gale indulgently.
“Let us go and look round for passing ships,” said Miss Etherington.
The organizer, a trifle dashed, rose and meekly followed practical Eve to the summit of the rock. But there were no ships.
Mr. Leslie Gale turned severely upon his companion.
“You see?” he said. “Twenty minutes wasted! And life is so short. Let us return and make plans.”
Miss Etherington calmly followed him down again.
Still, her suggestion was not without effect. A clause was inserted in the constitution of their kingdom to the effect that Gale should climb Point Garry (as they agreed to call the headland) twice daily, at dawn and sundown, and search the horizon for passing vessels, Miss Etherington performing the same duty at other times throughout the day, during her companion's absence at the chase.
The rest of that morning was occupied with what is usually known as “settling in,” a process which appears to be as inevitable to castaways in the South Pacific as to semi-detached suburbanites much nearer home. At midday Miss Etherington dished up her first meal, at which, pleasantly tired, they lay side by side upon the warm sand and conversed quite amicably. Both realized simultaneously that there is something very uniting in working to retrieve a joint disaster. With a single impulse Mr. Gale edged a little nearer to Miss Etherington, and Miss Etherington edged a little farther away from Mr. Gale.
Thus Nature, who sets the dockleaf beside the nettle, adjusts the fine balance of sex deportment.
When they had eaten, Leslie Gale hauled the dinghy into a shady patch of sand and proceeded to invert it over a blanket.
“What are you doing?” inquired Miss Etherington, wiping a plate.
“I propose to take a siesta,” said Mr. Gale. “I have been working like a coolie since four o'clock this morning. I made two trips before you were up, and I am done to the world. I advise you to retire to your cave of harmony and do likewise. We must keep ourselves fit, you know, and—and—be merry and bright. I only wish,” he added awkwardly, “that you could have found yourself in more congenial company.”
Then he crawled hurriedly under the dinghy's protecting shade, and rolled himself up in the blanket.
Left to her own devices, Miss Etherington, in obedience to an idea which had been obtruding itself upon her all morning, entered the cave and inspected her cork jacket, which lay neatly rolled up up a ledge. Upon its outer surface, as already related, was neatly stencilled the legend, S.Y.Island Queen, R.Y.S.—Stateroom No. 3.
Very slowly and reflectively Miss Etherington rolled up the jacket and put it back upon its ledge. Then, quitting the cave, she climbed up upon Point Garry and listlessly scanned the horizon.
She returned an hour later. The expression upon her features would have been ascribed by an expert in physiognomy to the workings of a guilty but unrepentant spirit.
Presently she awoke Mr. Leslie Gale, and set before him an evening meal whose excellence she did her best to discount by a display of cold aloofness which would have blighted the appetite of a less determined optimist.
“My hole, I think,” said Mr. Gale.
“Well,” remarked Miss Etherington with asperity, “if lizards are going to lie across the line of my put, on every green, I don't see how you can help winning a hole occasionally.”
“These things will happen on sporting courses,” said Mr. Gale sympathetically. “Still, you could have taken advantage of the by-law which says that lizards may be lifted or swept aside (but not pressed down) without penalty. Now for Point Garry! You get a stroke here. All square and one to play.”
They stood upon the seventeenth green of the island golf course. Their clubs were two home-made instruments of the hockey-stick variety, their equipment being completed by a couple of solid but well gnawed india-rubber balls, which had been employed upon the yacht to afford recreation and exercise to their hostess's terriers. It was five o’clock in the afternoon. Supply, as represented by Mr. Gale, the purveyor, having temporarily satisfied Demand, as represented by Miss Etherington, the housekeeper, with sufficient comestibles and combustibles for the next twenty-four hours, the pair were indulging in a little exercise before proceeding from labour to refreshment.
The golf course was an abiding joy. It had been opened with much ceremony a fortnight ago, Miss Etherington driving off the first ball from the first tee, and Mr. Gale gallantly retrieving the same from the Pacific Ocean. There were eighteen holes, ranging from five to seventy yards in length, and the course abounded in natural hazards of the most diverse description. There were no caddies, but, as Mr. Gale remarked, a caddy when you possess only one club looks ostentatious.
The golf course is a characteristic product of British occupation of alien territory. John Bull, we all know, has a weakness for descending casually upon the unappropriated spaces of the earth, the fact that they do not strictly belong to him being, in his view, fully balanced by the fact that he causes them to prosper as they have never prospered before. If you make a desert, he argues, blossom like the rose, what does it matter whose desert it was previously? His methods of procedure seldom vary, whether he be an official man-in-possession or a younger son in search of a career. Having adjusted the local constitution to his satisfaction, he sets to work to assist the slightly flustered inhabitants to make the place pay. After that he lays out a golf course.
There being no inhabitants upon the island, and consequently no laws to adjust, our friends had been able to get to work on the golf course at once. Their new life had altered them surprisingly little. After three months of a semi-savage existence, so far from reverting to the service of primitive Nature, they had adapted Nature to the requirements of modern society and turned the island into a very fair imitation of a fashionable health resort. Had they been of another caste—say, the mechanical—they would have impressed their mark in another fashion none the less indelible. There would have been water wheels, mills, and sluices. Being of the class called leisured, accustomed to extract as much enjoyment from life as possible and on no account ever to worry about anything, they had settled down in one of Nature's most typical strongholds to the nearest approach they could compass to the careless artificial life that they were accustomed to live. And so powerful are use and wont that these two unruffled Britons bade fair to expel Nature from her own stronghold. Cave man and cave woman they certainly were not yet. They were members of a class which has always been carelessly indifferent to outside influences, and does not easily change its habits or mode of speech. Consequently the island had not barbarized them. They were gently denaturalizing the island.
Mr. Gale took the eighteenth hole in a perfect nine, Miss Etherington's ball overrunning the green and taking refuge in a lie with which only a corkscrew could have coped. The victor having offered to the vanquished the insincere condolences usual upon such occasions, the pair sat down to enjoy the afternoon breeze.
“What is for dinner to-night?” inquired Mr. Gale.
“Turtles’ eggs, fried sardines, biscuits, and bananas,” replied Miss Etherington. “It’s the last tin of sardines but one.”
“Oh! How are the stores in general lasting out?”
“There seems to be plenty of most things. We were rather extravagant at first, but since you developed into such a mighty hunter—”
“And you into such a nailing housekeeper—”
“We have become almost self-supporting.”
At this fulsome interchange of compliments the pair turned and smiled upon one another.
“And we seem to thrive on it,” said Mr. Gale complacently. “I must have gone up a stone in weight, and I feel as skittish as a young unicorn. You look pretty fit, too.”
He turned and surveyed his companion. She was wearing the smart blue skirt in which she had landed on the island, sadly frayed and bleached, but still bearing the imprimatur of Hanover Square, together with a flannel cricket shirt. Round her neck was knotted a coloured handkerchief. Her feet were bare. The hairpin difficulty had been overcome, and Miss Etherington usually kept her rippling mane plaited into a convenient pigtail. That appendage having developed a habit at the end of a full swing of dealing its owner a severe buffet in the face, it was Miss Etherington's custom when playing golf to gather her locks into a heap upon the top of her head, and confine the same within a coloured headband, after the fashion of the stage brigand. Just now she was unfastening the knot of this contrivance.
Mr. Gale, discoursing at ease upon diet and hygiene, suddenly tripped in his speech, for without warning a soft wavy cascade fell about the girl's shoulders. Through the glistening veil he could descry the droop of her lashes and the curve of her cheek. His tongue began to frame silent phrases about the tangles of Neara's hair, and his heart beat foolishly. Of late he had become increasingly conscious of this weakness—nay, vice. Common decency seemed to forbid such sentiments towards an unprotected female. But—
“Thank you,” said Miss Etherington frigidly, “I am glad you think I am putting on flesh; but you need not look at me like that. This is not Smithfield Market.”
Mr. Gale's attack of sentimentality passed hastily.
“Do you know,” he said, “that we have been on this island for three months?”
“Have we?” replied Miss Etherington. “It seems longer,” she added untruthfully.
“And I don’t think,” pursued Mr. Gale, “that we have made the most of our opportunities.”
Miss Etherington scented danger, but could not forbear to inquire—
“In what way?”
“Well,” replied Mr. Gale, “look at the things Robinson Crusoe did. He built a boat—”
“We have a boat already,” remarked matter-of-fact Miss Etherington.
“Yes, that is a bit of a hardship,” agreed Mr. Gale. “Then, did n’t he teach a parrot to talk? Could n’t we—”
“There are no parrots on this island,” replied Miss Etherington gently.
“Quite true, but you have n’t grasped the principle of what I am driving at. Here we are, living on a desert island, and so far we have n’t done anything that two people could n’t have accomplished by going for a picnic up the Thames. I even shave. We eat food out of tins; we do a little bathing and fishing in the morning, and play golf in the afternoon, and sit about in the evening and say how jolly it must be in Town just now. It seems to me that we are out of the picture somehow. We ought to be a little more primitive—barbaric. Do you follow me?”
“No,” said Miss Etherington. “In my opinion really nice people continue to behave just as nicely on a desert island as on a yacht.”
“But don't you think,” continued Mr. Gale perseveringly, “that we might train two goats to play bridge with us, or teach a turtle to sing, or something? Then we should feel that we were getting back to Nature—quite Biblical, in fact. ‘The voice of the turtle is heard in the land,’ and so forth.”
“If you are going to talk nonsense,” said Miss Etherington, “I will go and get dinner ready.”
“When we get away from here,” continued the imaginative Mr. Gale, “we could take the little troupe with us, and earn an honest living on the music-hall stage. I once saw some performing seals at the Palace. I should think performing turtles would get quite as big a salary; and then, when the public got tired of them, we could sell them to the Lord Mayor for soup. That is what is known in commercial circles as a by-product.”
He ran on, and Miss Etherington watched him stealthily through her lashes. A man and woman, however antipathetic, cannot consort together upon an uninhabited island for three months without gaining some insight into one another's characters and motives. Miss Etherington knew the meaning of this performance. Mr. Gale suspected her of low spirits, and was endeavouring to cheer her up. He was not doing it very well; but, after all, good intentions count for something, and Miss Etherington felt grateful, despite herself. She continued to watch him furtively. He was a presentable youth. He sat beside her, healthy, clean-cut, and bronzed, wearing a ragged flannel shirt and an old pair of duck trousers. His hands were clasped about his knees; his eyes were fixed on vacancy; and his tongue wagged unceasingly. A hare-brained and occasionally bumptious young man, but a man for all that.
Suddenly Gale inquired—
“I say, what do you think of me now? Has your opinion of me altered at all, after three months of me neat?”
The next moment he repented of his inquiry. He had firmly resolved never to embarrass the girl in this fashion so long as they remained on the island together. Now he had broken his word to himself. Miss Etherington's rippling mane had been a little too much for his fortitude.
But the girl did not appear offended. She replied quite simply—
“Yes, I have. I think you have behaved very courageously in the face of all our difficulties—”
“Self-preservation is the first—” began Gale awkwardly.
“—And I have to thank you for a good deal as well,” continued Miss Etherington, with slightly heightened colour. “Besides saving my life—you did, you know: that was your life-jacket I was wearing that morning—you have behaved very courteously and honourably to me ever since we found our selves here, and I am grateful.”
This was well spoken. Mr. Gale was silent for a moment. Then he inquired—
“You did not expect such behaviour from me?”
“I—I never doubted you after the first few hours,” said Miss Etherington in a low voice. “I was not quite myself then. Do you forgive me? You will, won't you?”
Their eyes met. Mr. Gale's suddenly blazed.
“When you look at me and talk to me like that,” he almost shouted, “I could—Ahem! Ha! H'm! Quite so! My error!”
Miss Etherington's cheeks were crimson.
“I think I will take a sedative scramble up Point Garry,” he concluded lamely.
“Perhaps it would be as well,” agreed Miss Etherington. “Don’t be late for dinner.”
Mr. Gale turned to go, and then paused.
“You don't ask me,” he remarked in a slightly injured voice, “whether my opinion of you has changed at all.”
“No,” replied Miss Etherington. “There is no need.”
“I wonder what in thunder she meant by that,” mused the harassed Mr. Gale, as he scrambled up Point Garry. “Heaven help a man left alone on a desert island with a girl! And I actually thought it would make things easier! Flint axe, and all that. Why don't I—Hallo, hallo, hallo! Steady, my boy! Is wisions about?”
He had reached the summit of the bluff. There, two miles to the northward, slipping gently over the rollers under easy sail, he beheld a ship—a three-masted Schooner.
For a castaway, hungering for a reëntry into civilization, Mr. Gale's subsequent behaviour was peculiar.
He began by staring stockishly at the passing vehicle of deliverance, evidently the prey of conflicting impulses. Beside him lay a neatly piled heap of firewood, collected for such emergencies as this. His eye fell thereon. He regarded it absently, and then raised his eyes to the schooner, which went about and began to slant towards the island.
Mr. Gale, instead of shouting or semaphoring, dropped suddenly to his knees and crept furtively back whence he came, until he arrived at the edge of the little plateau, to a position which commanded their cave and encampment. Miss Etherington, from whose eyes the schooner was screened by the intervening bulk of Point Garry, was diligently preparing dinner. Mr. Gale gazed down upon her long and intently. Her sleeves were rolled up for culinary duties, and her arms looked very round and white. Snatches of a song she was singing floated upwards to his ears. Mr. Gale's pulse quickened; his purpose hardened; his conscience died within him.
“I can't do it,” he muttered—“I can't!” A box of matches dropped from his nerveless fingers. …
Presently he crawled upon his hands and knees—he would not even risk the exposure of his figure against the skyline now—to a position from which he could see the schooner. The breeze had freshened; she had gone about again, and was bowling away from the island.
An hour later they met for their evening meal. With characteristic fidelity to the customs of their order, they invariably dressed for dinner—that is to say, Miss Etherington put on shoes and stockings and changed from her cricket shirt to a silk jumper, while Mr. Gale attired himself in a suit of comparatively white drill which had once been the property of the chief steward of the yacht.
They were very silent that night. Mr. Gale's conscience was coming to life again. It was true that he loved Miss Etherington—far more, indeed, than that usually astute maiden could have gathered from the somewhat flippant and informal manner in which he had declared his passion—but this fact, urged his conscience, did not give him the sole right to her society. He had robbed her of her birthright that afternoon: he had deliberately cut her off from a return to the great world and all it held for her. He had behaved like a cad, he felt, and being an honourable young man, he was filled with a desire to make confession.
“You are not very amusing to-night,” remarked Miss Etherington suddenly.
For purposes of playful badinage, there was a tacit understanding between them that everything which went wrong on the island—from cyclones to a fit of the dumps—was Leslie Gale's fault; and that long suffering young man was growing accustomed to being treated as something between a sinful little schoolboy and a rather incompetent court jester.
“Am I to sparkle?” he inquired meekly.
“I don’t feel quite up to it.”
“Well, flicker, anyhow!” urged Miss Etherington.
Mr. Gale reflected, and replied—
“I can’t do it to-night. That moon makes me humpy. Look at it! What a whopper!”
Both sat silently surveying the great silvery disc which hung above them, turning their little cove, with its yellow sand and green-clad rocks, into an etching in black and white. There was a long silence, broken by a tremulous sigh from Miss Etherington. Evidently the moon was beginning to exercise its usual pernicious influence.
“To-night's Great Thought—what is it?” inquired Mr. Gale encouragingly.
“I was thinking,” said Miss Etherington dreamily, “what a good thing it would be if all the people who disliked one another for no reason at all could be dropped down together upon an island like this for a month or two.”
Mr. Gale, knowing full well that a woman never embarks upon a general statement without intending it to have a personal application, carefully turned this sentiment over in his mind.
Then suddenly he glowed duskily.
“You mean,” he said unsteadily, “that most people improve on acquaintance.”
“Yes,” said Miss Etherington deliberately—“I do.”
There was a pause. Then Gale continued—
“Even—people like me?”
Miss Etherington nodded.
“Even people like you,” she said. “And,” she added unexpectedly, “even people like me.”
Mr. Gale glanced at her, then stirred in his seat and took a mighty breath of resolution.
“You could never be improved upon by an acquaintance, however long.”
Then he heaved a great sigh of relief. An Englishman does not say these things easily—that is, when he means them.
Miss Etherington subjected her companion to a fleeting but adequate scrutiny, and saw that he was once more at her mercy. But she felt no desire to wither him up—to annihilate the flank thus rashly exposed. Three months of life in the open had entirely cured her of conceit and petty meanness. Still, they had not eradicated in her the natural predilection of a woman for dallying with the fish upon the hook.
“I wonder if you mean that,” she remarked in a voice which, though in form severe, in substance invited further folly on the part of Mr. Gale.
“Yes, I do mean it,” he replied, without heat or passion. “But I am not going to pursue the subject, because I have no right. I have just done you a serious wrong. I want to make confession.”
He turned to her, like a penitent to a shrine.
“This evening,” he said, “when I climbed to Point Garry on my usual excursion, I saw a ship.”
Miss Etherington started, but made no further sign.
“She was quite close,” continued Gale, “and I could have caught her attention by signalling. But—I did n't! I let her go! There!”
He stood motionless at her feet, waiting sentence.
Miss Etherington raised her clear grey eyes to his.
“Why did you let the ship go?” she asked.
“Because I love you so,” said Gale simply. “I could not bear to be parted from you, as I knew I should be. It seemed too cruel to bring this life to an end, just as—”
“Just as what?” asked the girl quickly.
“Just as you were beginning to get used to—it,” concluded Leslie Gale, coward.
Miss Etherington was silent for a little time. Then she said—
“You made no attempt to signal?”
“Concealed yourself, perhaps?”
Gale nodded miserably, and waited.
Miss Etherington dropped her eyes again, and began to scrutinize the tips of her shoes.
“I would n’t worry about it too much if I were you,” she said.
“I saw the ship too,” said the girl demurely.
They sat on in the moonlight—and on, and on, and on. About half-past ten Mr. Gale had respectfully but firmly taken Miss Etherington's hand. Miss Etherington had made a half-hearted attempt to withdraw it. Mr. Gale had apologetically but pertinaciously held on. After that they began to talk, and, although they had not been out of one another's company for the best part of three months, not one of the many topics with which they had whiled away that lengthy period intruded itself into the conversation. They seemed to have turned over a new page in the book of life together. Under their eyes it lay, fair, blank, and gleaming with blessed possibilities beneath the rays of a tropical moon. And for the moment they were well content to leave it so. There would never be another hour like this. Let to-morrow, with its prosaic meticulous pen and inkhorn, stand far off and wait!
At last Miss Etherington rose.
“I am sleepy,” she said. “Let me go now.”
Gale held her to him for a moment longer, caressing her loosely knotted, shimmering hair.
“Phyllis!” he murmured reverently, and raised his face skyward, as if to give thanks. From the neighbourhood of his right shoulder there arose a muffled observation. For a moment he failed to take note of it, for he was gaping dumbly over Miss Etherington's head at the moonlit waters of their bay. Miss Etherington accordingly spoke again.
“I wish,” she murmured—“I wish there were a lot of people to tell.”
“To tell what? That we are”—he coughed nervously—“engaged?”
“Yes. Engaged sounds queer on a desert island, does n’t it? But when a girl gets engaged, she wants to tell everybody.”
“That's strange. When I get engaged, I feel that the secret is too precious to pass on to anybody. It's mine! mine! Ours! ours! ‘Ours’—how wonderful that sounds, after years of just ‘mine’ But”—he brought his gaze back seaward again–“do you really want a crowd of people to tell your news to?”
“Yes, please,” said Miss Etherington meekly.
“Well, shut your eyes, and don't open them until I tell you.”
Miss Etherington obeyed. Mr. Gale rotated her carefully until she faced the calm, glittering ocean.
“Abracadabra! Likewise, What ho! Open your eyes!” he commanded.
Miss Etherington obeyed. There, before her in the moonlight, half a mile from the shore, like a misty sea-wraith, floated a great white yacht, drifting to an anchorage. Even as they gazed there was a luminous splash, and the cable rattled out.
They were taken home next day on board the Morning Star, brought out to search for them by their host and the other survivors of the wreck.
For many years Mr. Leslie Gale never ceased to bless the three-masted schooner whose passing had been fraught with such uniting consequences. In fact, he exalted that nameless vessel into a fetish, ascribing to it match-making properties bordering upon the supernatural. It was Mrs. Gale who pricked the bubble.
“I wonder, dearest,” observed her husband one day, “if you would have ever found out that you really cared for me if you had n’t seen that old hooker go sailing by—what?”
“I wonder,” said Mrs. Gale patiently.
“It was lucky,” continued the fatuous Leslie, “that no ship turned up earlier, before you had acquired a taste for me, so to speak. That would have put me in the cart, would n’t it?”
“Yes. Supposing that it had happened sooner? Supposing, for instance, that after we had been together for a matter of a few hours, instead of a few months, you had climbed Point Garry and seen a ship go sailing by? What, then?”
Mrs. Gale arose, and began to put away her work.
“I did,” she said briefly.