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The Madness of Whistling Wings by Will Lillibridge

 

CHAPTER I—SANDFORD THE EXEMPLARY

Ordinarily Sandford is sane—undeniably so. Barring the seventh, upon any other day of the week, fifty-one weeks in the year, from nine o'clock in the morning until six at night—omitting again a scant half-hour at noon for lunch—he may be found in his tight little box of an office on the fifth floor of the Exchange Building, at the corner of Main Avenue and Thirteenth Street, where the elevated makes its loop.

No dog chained beside his kennel is more invariably present, no caged songster more incontestably anchored. If you need his services, you have but to seek his address between the hours mentioned. You may do so with the same assurance of finding him on duty that you would feel, if you left a jug of water out of doors over night in a blizzard, that the jug, as a jug, would be no longer of value in the morning. He was, and is, routine impersonate, exponent of sound business personified; a living sermon against sloth and improvidence, and easy derelictions of the flesh.

That is to say, he is such fifty-one weeks out of the fifty-two. All through the frigid winter season, despite the lure of California limiteds or Havana liners, he holds hard in that den of his, with its floor and walls of sanitary tiling and its ceiling of white enamel, and hews—or grinds rather, for Sandford is a dental surgeon—close to the line.

All through the heat of summer, doggedly superior to the call of Colorado or the Adirondacks or the Thousand Islands, he comes and departs by the tick of the clock. Base-ball fans find him adamant; turf devotees, marble; golf enthusiasts, cold as the tiles beneath his feet.

Even in early June, when Dalton, whose suburban home is next door, returns, tanned and clear-eyed from a week-end at the lake—there is but one lake to Dalton—and calls him mysteriously back to the rear of the house, where, with a flourish, the cover is removed from a box the expressman has just delivered, to disclose a shining five-pound bass reposing upon its bed of packed ice—even then, hands in pockets, Sandford merely surveys and expresses polite congratulation. Certainly it is a fine fish, a noble fish, even; but for the sake of one like it—or, yes, granted a dozen such—to leave the office, the sanitary-tiled office, deserted for four whole days (especially when Dr. Corliss on the floor below is watching like a hawk)—such a crazy proceeding is not to be thought of.

Certainly he will not go along the next week end—or the next, either. The suggestion simply is unthinkable. Such digressions may be all right for the leisure class or for invalids; but for adults, live ones, strong and playing the game? A shrug and a tolerant smile end the discussion, as, hands still in his pockets, an after-dinner cigar firm between his teeth, Sandford saunters back across the dozen feet of sod separating his own domicile from that of his fallen and misguided neighbor.

“Dalton's got the fever again, bad,” he comments to the little woman upon his own domain, whom he calls “Polly,” or “Mrs. Sandford,” as occasion dictates. She has been watching the preceding incident with inscrutable eyes.

“Yes?” Polly acknowledges, with the air of harkening to a familiar harangue while casting ahead, in anticipation of what was to come next.

“Curious about Dalton; peculiar twist to his mental machinery somewhere.” Sandford blows a cloud of smoke and eyes it meditatively. “Leaving business that way, chopping it all to pieces in fact; and just for a fish! Curious!”

“Harry's got something back there that'll probably interest you,” he calls out to me as I chug by in my last year's motor; “better stop and see.”

“Yes,” I acknowledge simply; and though Polly's eyes and mine meet we never smile, or twitch an eyelid, or turn a hair; for Sandford is observing—and this is only June.

So much for Dr. Jekyll Sandford, the Sandford of fifty-one weeks in the year.

Then, as inevitably as time rolls by, comes that final week; period of mania, of abandon; and in the mere sorcerous passage of a pair of whirring wings, Dr. Jekyll, the exemplary, is no more. In his place, wearing his shoes, audaciously signing his name even to checks, is that other being, Hyde: one absolutely the reverse of the reputable Jekyll; repudiating with scorn that gentleman's engagements; with brazen effrontery denying him utterly, and all the sane conventionality for which the name has become a synonyme.

Worst of all, rank blasphemy, he not only refuses to set foot in that modern sanitary office of enamel and tiling, at the corner of Thirteenth and Main, below which, by day and by night, the “L” trains go thundering, but deliberately holds it up to ridicule and derision and insult.

CHAPTER II—THE PRESAGE OF THE WINGS

And I, the observer—worse, the accessory—know, in advance, when the metamorphosis will transpire.

When, on my desk-pad calendar the month recorded is October, and the day begins with a twenty, there comes the first premonition of winter; not the reality, but a premonition; when, at noon the sun is burning hot, and, in the morning, frost glistens on the pavements; when the leaves are falling steadily in the parks, and not a bird save the ubiquitous sparrow is seen, I begin to suspect.

But when at last, of an afternoon, the wind switches with a great flurry from south to dead north, and on the flag-pole atop of the government building there goes up this signal: [Transcriber's Note: signal flag image here]; and when later, just before retiring, I surreptitiously slip out of doors, and, listening breathlessly, hear after a moment despite the clatter of the wind, high up in the darkness overhead that muffled honk! honk! honk! of the Canada-goose winging on its southern journey in advance of the coming storm—then I know.

So well do I know, that I do not retire—not just yet. Instead, on a pretext, any pretext, I knock out the ashes from my old pipe, fill it afresh, and wait. I wait patiently, because, inevitable as Fate, inevitable as that call from out the dark void of the sky, I know there will come a trill of the telephone on the desk at my elbow; my own Polly—whose name happens to be Mary—is watching as I take down the receiver to reply.

CHAPTER III—THE OTHER MAN

It is useless to dissimulate longer, then. I am discovered, and I know I am discovered. “Hello, Sandford,” I greet without preface.

“Sandford!” (I am repeating in whispers what he says for my Polly's benefit.) “Sandford! How the deuce did you know?”

“Know?” With the Hyde-like change comes another, and I feel positively facetious. “Why I know your ring of course, the same as I know your handwriting on a telegram. What is it? I'm busy.”

“I'm busy, too. Don't swell up.” (Imagine “swell up” from Sandford, the repressed and decorous!) “I just wanted to tell you that the honkers are coming.”

“No! You're imagining, or you dreamed it!... Anyway, what of it? I tell you I'm busy.”

“Cut it out!” I'm almost scared myself, the voice is positively ferocious. “I heard them not five minutes ago, and besides, the storm signal is up. I'm getting my traps together now. Our train goes at three-ten in the morning, you know.”

“Our-train-goes-at-three-ten—in-the-morning!”

“I said so.”

Our train?”

“Our train: the one which is to take us out to Rush Lake. Am I clear? I'll wire Johnson to meet us with the buckboard.”

“Clear, yes; but go in the morning—Why, man, you're crazy! I have engagements for all day to-morrow.”

“So have I.”

“And the next day.”

“Yes.”

“And the next.”

“A whole week with me. What of it?”

“What of it! Why, business—”

“Confound business! I tell you they're coming; I heard them. I haven't any more time to waste talking, either. I've got to get ready. Meet you at three-ten, remember.”

“But—”

“Number, please,” requests Central, wearily.

CHAPTER IV—CAPITULATION

Thus it comes to pass that I go; as I know from the first I shall go, and Sandford knows that I will go; and, most of all, as Mary knows that I will go.

In fact, she is packing for me already; not saying a word, but simply packing; and I—I go out-doors again, sidling into a jog beside the bow-window, to diminish the din of the wind in my ears, listening open-mouthed until—

Yes, there it sounds again; faint, but distinct; mellow, sonorous, vibrant. Honk! honk! honk! and again honk! honk! honk! It wafts downward from some place, up above where the stars should be and are not; up above the artificial illumination of the city; up where there are freedom, and space infinite, and abandon absolute.

With an effort, I force myself back into the house. I take down and oil my old double-barrel, lovingly, and try the locks to see that all is in order. I lay out my wrinkled and battered duck suit handy for the morning, after carefully storing away in an inner pocket, where they will keep dry, the bundle of postcards Mary brings me—first exacting a promise to report on one each day, when I know I shall be five miles from the nearest postoffice, and that I shall bring them all back unused.

And, last of all, I slip to bed, and to dreams of gigantic honkers serene in the blue above; of whirring, whistling wings that cut the air like myriad knife blades; until I wake up with a start at the rattle of the telephone beside my bed, and I know that, though dark as a pit of pitch, it is morning, and that Sandford is already astir.

CHAPTER V—ANTICIPATION

In the smoking-car forward I find Sandford. He is a most disreputable-looking specimen. Garbed in weather-stained corduroys, and dried-grass sweater, and great calfskin boots, he sprawls among gun-cases and shell-carriers—no sportsman will entrust these essentials to the questionable ministrations of a baggage-man—and the air about him is blue from the big cigar he is puffing so ecstatically. He nods and proffers me its mate.

“Going to be a great day,” he announces succinctly, and despite a rigorous censorship there is a suggestion of excitement in the voice. “The wind's dead north, and it's cloudy and damp. Rain, maybe, about daylight.”

“Yes.” I am lighting up stolidly, although my nerves are atingle.

“We're going to hit it right, just right. The flight's on. I heard them going over all night. The lake will be black with the big fellows, the Canada boys.”

“Yes,” I repeat; then conscience gives a last dig. “I ought not to do it, though. I didn't have time to break a single engagement”—I'm a dental surgeon, too, by the way, with likewise an office of tile and enamel—“or explain at all. And the muss there'll be at the shop when—”

“Forget it, you confounded old dollar-grubber!” A fresh torrent of smoke belches forth, so that I see Sandford's face but dimly through the haze. “If you mention teeth again, until we're back—merely mention them—I'll throttle you!”

The train is in motion now, and the arc-lights at the corners, enshrouded each by a zone of mist, are flitting by.

“Yes,” he repeats, and again his voice has that minor strain of suppressed excitement, “we're hitting it just right. There'll be rain, or a flurry of snow, maybe, and the paddle feet will be down in the clouds.”

CHAPTER VI—“MARK THE RIGHT, SANDFORD!”

And they are. Almost before we have stumbled off at the deserted station into the surrounding darkness, Johnson's familiar bass is heralding the fact.

“Millions of 'em, boys,” he assures us, “billions! Couldn't sleep last night for the racket they made on the lake. Never saw anything like it in the twenty years I've lived on the bank. You sure have struck it this time. Right this way,” he is staggering under the load of our paraphernalia; “rig's all ready and Molly's got the kettle on at home, waiting breakfast for you.... Just as fat as you were last year, ain't ye?” a time-proven joke, for I weigh one hundred and eight pounds. “Try to pull you out, though; try to.” And his great laugh drowns the roar of the retreating train.

At another time, that five-mile drive in the denser darkness, just preceding dawn, would have been long perhaps, the springs of that antiquated buckboard inadequate, the chill of that damp October air piercing; but now—we notice nothing, feel nothing uncomfortable. My teeth chatter a bit now and then, when I am off guard, to be sure; but it is not from cold, and the vehicle might be a Pullman coach for aught I am conscious.

For we have reached the border of the marsh, now, and are skirting its edge, and—Yes, those are ducks, really; that black mass, packed into the cove at the lee of those clustering rushes, protected from the wind, the whole just distinguishable from the lighter shadow of the water: ducks and brant; dots of white, like the first scattered snowflakes on a sooty city roof!

“Mark the right, Sandford,” I whisper in oblivion. “Mark the right!”

And, breaking the spell, Johnson laughs.

CHAPTER VII—THE BACON WHAT AM!

When is bacon bacon, and eggs eggs? When is coffee coffee, and the despised pickerel, fresh from the cold water of the shaded lake, a glorious brown food, fit for the gods?

Answer, while Molly (whose real name is Aunt Martha) serves them to us, forty-five minutes later.

Oh, if we only had time to eat, as that breakfast deserves to be eaten! If we only had time!

But we haven't; no; Sandford says so, in a voice that leaves no room for argument. The sky is beginning to redden in the east; the surface of the water reflects the glow, like a mirror; and, seen through the tiny-paned windows, black specks, singly and in groups, appear and disappear, in shifting patterns, against the lightening background.

“No more now, Aunt Martha—no. Wait until noon; just wait—and then watch us! Ready, Ed?”

“Waiting for you, Sam.” It's been a year since I called him by his Christian name; but I never notice, nor does he. “All ready.”

“Better try the point this morning; don't you think, Johnson?”

“Yes, if you've your eye with ye. Won't wait while y' sprinkle salt on their tails, them red-heads and canvas boys. No, sir-ree.”

CHAPTER VIII—FEATHERED BULLETS

The breath of us is whistling through our nostrils, like the muffled exhaust of a gasoline engine, and our hearts are thumping two-steps on our ribs from the exertion, when we reach the end of the rock-bestrewn point which, like a long index finger, is thrust out into the bosom of the lake. The wind, still dead north, and laden with tiny drops of moisture, like spray from a giant atomizer, buffets us steadily; but thereof we are sublimely unconscious.

For at last we are there, there; precisely where we were yesterday—no, a year ago—and the light is strong enough now, so that when our gun-barrels stand out against the sky, we can see the sights, and—

Down! Down, behind the nearest stunted willow tree; behind anything—quick!—for they're coming: a great dim wedge, with the apex toward us, coming swiftly on wings that propel two miles to the minute, when backed by a wind that makes a mile in one.

Coming—no; arrived. Fair overhead are the white of breasts, of plump bodies flashing through the mist, the swishing hiss of many wings cutting the air, the rhythmic pat, pat—“Bang! Bang!

Was it Sandford's gun, or was it mine? Who knows? The reports were simultaneous.

And then—splash! and a second later,—splash! as two dots leave the hurtling wedge and, with folded wings, pitch at an angle, following their own momentum, against the dull brown surface of the rippling water.

Through the intervening branches and dead sunflower stalks, I look at Sandford—to find that Sandford is looking at me.

“Good work, old man!” I say, and notice that my voice is a little higher than normal.

“Good work, yourself,”—generously. “I missed clean, both barrels. Do better next time, though, perhaps.... Down! Mark north! Take the leader, you.”

From out the mist, dead ahead, just skimming the surface of the water, and coming straight at us, like a mathematically arranged triangle of cannon balls, taking definite form and magnitude oh, so swiftly, unbelievably swift; coming—yes—directly overhead, as before, the pulsing, echoing din in our ears.

Ready!

Again the four reports that sounded as two; and they are past; no longer a regular formation, but scattered erratically by the alarm, individual vanishing and dissolving dots, speedily swallowed up by the gray of the mist.

But this time there was no echoing splash, as a hurtling body struck the water, nor tense spoken word of congratulation following—nothing. For ten seconds, which is long under the circumstances, not a word is spoken; only the metallic click of opened locks, as they spring home, breaks the steady purr of the wind; then:

“Safe from me when they come like that,” admits Sandford, “unless I have a ten-foot pole, and they happen to run into it.”

“And from me,” I echo.

“Lord, how they come! They just simply materialize before your eyes, like an impression by flash-light; and then—vanish.”

“Yes.”

“Seems as though they'd take fire, like meteorites, from the friction.”

“I'm looking for the smoke, myself—Down! Mark your left!”

Pat! pat! pat! Swifter than spoken words, swift as the strokes of an electric fan, the wings beat the air. Swish-h-h! long-drawn out, crescendo, yet crescendo as, razor-keen, irresistible, those same invisible wings cut it through and through; while, answering the primitive challenge, responding to the stimulus of the game, the hot tingle of excitement speeds up and down our spines. Nearer, nearer, mounting, perpendicular—

The third battalion of that seemingly inexhaustible army has come and gone; and, mechanically, we are thrusting fresh shells into the faintly smoking gun-barrels.

“Got mine that time, both of them.” No repression, nor polite self-abnegation from Sandford this time; just plain, frank exultation and pride of achievement. “Led 'em a yard—two, maybe; but I got 'em clean. Did you see?”

“Yes, good work,” I echo in the formula.

“Canvas-backs, every one; nothing but canvas-backs.” Again the old marvel, the old palliation that makes the seemingly unequal game fair. “But, Lord, how they do go; how anything alive can go so—and be stopped!”

“Mark to windward! Straight ahead! Down!

CHAPTER IX—OBLIVION

This, the morning. Then, almost before we mark the change, swift-passing time has moved on; the lowering mist has lifted; the occasional pattering rain-drops have ceased; the wind, in sympathy, is diminished. And of a sudden, arousing us to a consciousness of time and place, the sun peeps forth through a rift in the scattering clouds, and at a point a bit south of the zenith.

“Noon!” comments Sandford, intensely surprised. Somehow, we are always astonished that noon should follow so swiftly upon sunrise. “Well, who would have thought it!”

That instant I am conscious, for the first time, of a certain violent aching void making insistent demand.

“I wouldn't have done so before, but now that you mention it, I do think it emphatically.” This is a pitiful effort at a jest, but it passes unpunished. “There comes Johnson to bring in the birds.”

After dinner—and oh, what a dinner! for, having adequate time to do it justice, we drag it on and on, until even Aunt Martha is satisfied—we curl up in the sunshine, undimmed and gloriously warm; we light our briers, and, too lazily, nervelessly content to even talk, lay looking out over the blue water that melts and merges in the distance with the bluer sky above. After a bit, our pipes burn dead and our eyelids drop, and with a last memory of sunlight dancing on a myriad tiny wavelets, and a blessed peace and abandon soaking into our very souls we doze, then sleep, sleep as we never sleep in the city; as we had fancied a short day before never to sleep again; dreamlessly, childishly, as Mother Nature intended her children to sleep.

Then, from without the pale of utter oblivion, a familiar voice breaks slowly upon our consciousness: the voice of Johnson, the vigilant.

“Got your blind all built, boys, and the decoys is out—four dozen of them,” he admonishes, sympathetically. “Days are getting short, now, so you'd better move lively, if you get your limit before dark.”

CHAPTER X—UPON “WIPING THE EYE”

“To poets and epicures, perhaps, the lordly canvas-back—though brown from the oven, I challenge the supercilious gourmet to distinguish between his favorite, and a fat American coot. But for me the loud-voiced mallard, with his bottle-green head and audaciously curling tail; for he will decoy.”

I am quoting Sandford. Be that as it may, we are there, amid frost-browned rushes that rustle softly in the wind: a patch of shallow open water, perhaps an acre in extent, to the leeward of us, where the decoys, heading all to windward, bob gently with the slight swell.

“Now this is something like sport,” adds my companion, settling back comfortably in the slough-grass blind, built high to the north to cut out the wind, and low to the south to let in the sun. “On the point, there, this morning you scored on me, I admit it; but this is where I shine: real shooting; one, or a pair at most, at a time; no scratches; no excuses. Lead on, MacDuff, and if you miss, all's fair to the second gun.”

“All right, Sam.”

“No small birds, either, understand: no teal, or widgeon, or shovellers. This is a mallard hole. Nothing but mallards goes.”

“All right, Sam.”

“Now is your chance, then.... Now!

He's right. Now is my chance, indeed.

Over the sea of rushes, straight toward us, is coming a pair, a single pair; and, yes, they are unmistakably mallards. It is feeding time, or resting time, and they are flying lazily, long necks extended, searching here and there for the promised lands. Our guns indubitably cover it; and though I freeze still and motionless, my nerves stretch tight in anticipation, until they tingle all but painfully.

On the great birds come; on and still on, until in another second—

That instant they see the decoys, and, warned simultaneously by an ancestral suspicion, they swing outward in a great circle, without apparent effort on their part, to reconnoitre.

Though I do not stir, I hear the pat! pat! of their wings, as they pass by at the side, just out of gunshot. Then, pat! pat! back of me, then, pat! pat! on the other side, until once again I see them, from the tail of my eye, merge into view ahead.

All is well—very well—and, suspicions wholly allayed at last, they whirl for the second oncoming; just above the rushes, now; wings spread wide and motionless; sailing nearer, nearer—

Now!” whispers Sandford, “now!

Out of our nest suddenly peeps my gun barrel; and, simultaneously, the wings, a second before motionless, begin to beat the air in frantic retreat.

But it is too late.

Bang! What! not a feather drops?... Bang! Quack! Quack! Bang! Bang!... Splash!... Quack! Quack! Quack!

That is the story—all except for Sandford's derisive laugh.

“What'd I tell you?” he exults. “Wiped your eye for you that time, didn't I?”

“How in the world I missed—” It is all that I can say. “They looked as big as—as suspended tubs.”

“Buck-fever,” explains Sandford, laconically.

“That's all right.” I feel my fighting-blood rising, and I swear with a mighty wordless oath that I'll be avenged for that laugh. “The day is young yet. If, before night, I don't wipe both your eyes, and wipe them good—”

“I know you will, old man.” Sandford is smiling understandingly, and in a flash I return the smile with equal understanding. “And when you do, laugh at me, laugh long and loud.”

CHAPTER XI—THE COLD GRAY DAWN

At a quarter of twelve o'clock a week later, I slip out of my office sheepishly, and, walking a half-block, take the elevator to the fifth floor of the Exchange Building, on the corner. The white enamel of Sandford's tiny box of an office glistens, as I enter the door, and the tiling looks fresh and clean, as though scrubbed an hour before.

“Doctor's back in the laboratory,” smiles the white-uniformed attendant, as she grasps my identity.

On a tall stool, beside the laboratory lathe, sits Sandford, hard at work. He acknowledges my presence with a nod—and that is all.

“Noon, Sandford,” I announce.

“Is it?” laconically.

“Thought I'd drop over to the club for lunch, and a little smoke afterward. Want to go along?”

“Can't.” The whirr of the electric lathe never ceases. “Got to finish this bridge before one o'clock. Sorry, old man.”

“Harry just 'phoned and asked me to come and bring you.” I throw the bait with studied nicety. “He's getting up a party to go out to Johnson's, and wants to talk things over a bit in advance.”

“Harry!” Irony fairly drips from the voice. “He's always going somewhere. Mustn't have much else to do. Anyway, can't possibly meet him this noon.”

“To-night, then.” I suggest tentatively. “He can wait until then, I'm sure.”

“Got to work to-night, too. Things are all piled up on me.” Sandford applies a fresh layer of pumice to the swiftly moving polishing wheel, with practised accuracy. “Tell Harry I'm sorry; but business is business, you know.”

Purr-r-r!” drones on the lathe, “purr-r-r!” I hear it as I silently slip away.

Yes, Sandford is sane; and will be for fifty-one weeks.

 
 
 

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