Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

The Trap by Gouverneur Morris

 

     The animals went in two by two.
          Hurrah! Hurrah!

Given Bower for a last name, the boys are bound to call you “Right” or “Left.” They called me “Right” because I usually held it, one way or another. I was shot with luck. No matter what happened, it always worked out to my advantage. All inside of six months, for instance, the mate fell overboard and I got his job; the skipper got drunk after weathering a cyclone and ran the old Boldero aground in “lily-pad” weather—and I got his. Then the owner called me in and said: “Captain Bower, what do you know about Noah's Ark?” And I said: “Only that 'the animals went in two by two. Hurrah! Hurrah!'“ And the owner said: “But how did he feed 'em—specially the meat-eaters?” And I said: “He got hold of a Hindu who had his arm torn off by a black panther and who now looks after the same at the Calcutta Zoo—and he put it up to him.”

“The Bible doesn't say so,” said the owner.

“Everything the Bible says is true,” said I. “But there're heaps of true sayings, you know, that aren't in it at all.”

“Well,” says the owner, “you slip out to yon Zoo and you put it up to yon one-armed Hindu that a white Noah named Bower has been ordered to carry pairs of all the Indian fauna from Singapore to Sydney; and you tell him to shake his black panther and 'come along with.'”

“What will you pay?” I asked.

The owner winked his eye. “What will I promise?” said he. “I leave that to you.”

But I wasn't bluffed. The owner always talked pagan and practised Christian; loved his little joke. They called him “Bond” Hadley on the water-front to remind themselves that his word was just as good.

I settled with Yir Massir in a long confab back of the snake-house, and that night Hadley blew me to Ivy Green's benefit at the opera-house.

Poor little girl! There weren't fifty in the audience. She couldn't act. I mean she couldn't draw. The whole company was on the bum and stone-broke. They'd scraped out of Australia and the Sandwich Islands, but it looked as if they'd stay in Calcutta, doing good works, such as mending roads for the public, to the end of time.

“Ivy Green is a pretty name for a girl,” said the owner.

“And Ivy Green is a pretty girl,” I said; “and I'll bet my horned soul she's a good girl.”

To tell the truth, I was taken with her something terrible at first sight. I'd often seen women that I wanted, but she was the first girl—and the last. It's a different sort of wanting, that. It's the good in you that wants—instead of the bad.

Her little face was like the pansies that used to grow in mother's dooryard; and a dooryard is the place for pansies, not a stage. When her act was over the fifty present did their best; but I knew, when she'd finished bobbing little curtsies and smiling her pretty smile, she'd slip off to her dressing-room and cry like a baby. I couldn't stand it. There were other acts to come, but I couldn't wait.

“If Ivy Green is a pretty name for a girl, Ivy Bower is a prettier name for a woman,” I said. “I'm going behind.”

He looked up, angry. Then he saw that I didn't mean any harm and he looked down. He said nothing. I got behind by having the pull on certain ropes in that opera-house, and I asked a comedian with a face like a walrus which was Miss Green's dressing-room.

“Friend of hers?” he says.

“Yes,” says I, “a friend.”

He showed me which door and I knocked. Her voice was full of worry and tears.

“Who's there?” she said.

“A friend,” said I.

“Pass, friend,” said she.

And I took it to mean “Come in,” but it didn't. Still, she wasn't so dishabilled as to matter. She was crying and rubbing off the last of her paint.

“Miss Green,” I said, “you've made me feel so mean and miserable that I had to come and tell you. My name is Bower. The boys call me 'Right' Bower, meaning that I'm lucky and straight. It was lucky for me that I came to your benefit, and I hope to God that it will be lucky for you.”

“Yes?” she says—none too warm.

“As for you, Miss Green,” I said, “you're up against it, aren't you? The manager's broke. You don't know when you've touched any salary. There's been no balm in your benefit. What are you going to do?”

This time she looked me over before she spoke.

“I don't know,” she said.

“I don't have to ask,” said I, blushing red, “if you're a good girl. It's just naturally obvious. I guess that's what put me up to butting in. I want to help. Will you answer three questions?”

She nodded.

“Where,” said I, “will you get breakfast to-morrow?—lunch to-morrow?—and dinner to-morrow?”

“We disband to-night,” she said, “and I don't know.”

“I suppose you know,” said I, “what happens to most white girls who get stranded in Indian cities?”

“I know,” she said, “that people get up against it so hard that they oughtn't to be blamed for anything they do.”

“They aren't,” I said, “by—Christians; but it's ugly just the same. Now——”

“And you,” she said, flaring up, “think that, as long as it's got to be, it might as well be you! Is that your song and dance, Mr. Smarty?”

I shook my head and smiled.

“Don't be a little goat!” I said; and that seemed to make her take to me and trust me.

“What do you want me to do?” she asked.

“I'll tell you,” I said; and I found that it wasn't easy. “First place,” I said, “I've got some money saved up. That will keep you on Easy Street till I get back from Sydney. If by that time nothing's turned up that you want of your own free heart and will, I'll ask you to pay me back by—by changing your name.”

She didn't quite follow.

“That,” said I, “gives you a chance to look around—gives you one small chance in a million to light on some man you can care for and who'll care for you and take care of you. Failing that, it would be fair enough for you to take me, failing a better. See?”

“You mean,” she said, “that if things don't straighten out, it would be better for me to become Mrs. Bower than walk the streets? Is that it?”

I nodded.

“But I don't see your point of view,” she cried. “Just because you're sorry for a girl don't mean you want to make her your wife.”

“It isn't sorrowing,” I said. “It's wanting. It's the right kind of wanting. It's the wanting that would rather wait than hurt you; that would rather do without you than hurt you.”

“And you'll trust me with all your savings and go away to Australia—and if I find some other man that I like better you'll let me off from marrying you? Is that it?”

“That's about it,” I said.

“And suppose,” says she, “that you don't come back, and nobody shows up, and the money goes?”

That was a new point of view.

“Well,” said I, “we've got to take some chances in this world.”

“We have,” said she. “And now look here—I don't know how much of it's wanting and how much of it's fear—but if you'll take chances I will.”

She turned as red as a beet and looked away.

“In words of two syllables,” said I, “what do you mean?”

“I mean,” she said—and she was still as red as a beet, but this time she looked me in my eyes without a flinch in hers—“that if you're dead sure you want me—are you?—if you're dead sure, why, I'll take chances on my wanting you. I believe every word you've said to me. Is that right?”

“Every word,” I said. “That is right.”

Then we looked at each other for a long time.

“What a lot we'll have to tell each other,” she said, “before we're really acquainted. But you're sure? You're quite sure?”

“Sure that I want you? Yes,” I said; “not sure that you ought not to wait and think me over.”

“You've begun,” she said, “with everything that's noble and generous. I could never look myself in the face again if I felt called upon to begin by being mean.”

“Hadn't you better think it over?” I said. “Hadn't you?”

But she put her hands on my shoulders.

“If an angel with wings had come with gifts,” she said, “would I have thought them over? And just because your wings don't show——”

“It isn't fair,” I mumbled. “I give you a choice between the streets and me and you feel forced to choose me.”

But she pulled my head down and gave me a quick, fierce kiss.

“There,” said she—“was that forced? Did you force me to do that? No,” she said; “you needn't think you're the only person in the world that wants another person.... If you go to Australia I don't wait here. I go too. If you sink by the way, I sink. And don't you go to thinking you've made me a one-sided bargain.... I can cook for you and mend for you and save for you. And if you're sick I can nurse you. And I can black your boots.”

“I thought,” said I, “that you were just a little girl that I wanted, but you turn out to be the whole world that I've got to have. Slip the rest of your canvas on and I'll hook it up for you. Then we'll find some one to marry us—'nless you'd rather wait.”

“Wait?” said she, turning her back and standing still, which most women haven't sense enough to do when a man's ten thumbs are trying to hook them up. “I've been waiting all my life for this—and you!”

“And I,” said I, splitting a thumb-nail, “would go through an eternity of hell if I knew that this was at the end of it—and you!”

“What is your church?” she asked of a sudden.

“Same as yours,” I said, “which is——”

“Does it matter,” said she, “if God is in it? Do you pray?”

“No,” said I; “do you?”

“Always,” she said, “before I go to bed.”

“Then I will,” said I; “always—before we do.”

“Sometimes,” she said, “I've been shaken about God. Was to-night—before you came. But He's made good—hasn't He?”

“He has,” I said. “And now you're hooked up. And I wish it was to do all over again. I loved doing it.”

“Did you?” said she.

Her eyes were bright and brave like two stars. She slipped her hand through my arm and we marched out of the opera-house. Half a dozen young globe-trotters were at the stage-door waiting to take a chance on Miss Green as she came out, but none of them spoke. We headed for the nearest city directory and looked up a minister.

II

I had married April; she cried when she thought she wasn't good enough for me; she smiled like the sun when I swore she was.

I had married June; she was like an armful of roses.

We weren't two; we were one. What alloy does gold make mixed with brass? We were that alloy. I was the brass.

We travelled down to Singapore first-class, with one-armed Yir Massir to look after us—down the old Hoogli with the stubs of half-burned Hindus bobbing alongside, crows sitting on 'em and tearing off strips. We ran aground on all the regular old sand-bars that are never twice in the same place; and one dusk we saw tigers come out of the jungle to drink. We'd both travelled quite some, but you wouldn't have thought it. Ivy Bower and Right Bower had just run away from school for to see the world “so new and all.”

Some honey-moons a man keeps finding out things about his wife that he don't like—little tricks of temper and temperature; but I kept finding out things about mine that I'd never even dared to hope for. I went pretty near crazy with love of her. At first she was a child that had had a wicked, cruel nightmare—and I'd happened to be about to comfort her when she waked and to soothe her. Then she got over her scare and began to play at matrimony, putting on little airs and dignities—just like a child playing grown-up. Then all of a sudden it came to her, that tremendous love that some women have for some of us dogs of men. It was big as a storm, but it wasn't too big for her. Nothing that's noble and generous was too big for her; nor was any way of showing her love too little. Any little mole-hill of thoughtfulness from me was changed—presto!—into a chain o' mountains; but she thought in mountains and made mole-hills of 'em.

We steamed into Singapore and I showed her the old Boldero, that was to be our home, laid against the Copra Wharf, waiting to be turned into an ark. The animals weren't all collected and we had a day or two to chase about and enjoy ourselves; but she wasn't for expensive pleasures.

“Wait,” she said, “till you're a little tired of me; but now, when we're happy just to be together walking in the dust, what's the use of disbursing?”

“If we save till I'm tired of you,” says I, “we'll be rich.”

“Rich it is, then,” said she, “for those who will need it more.”

“But,” says I, “the dictionary says that a skunk is a man that economizes on his honey-moon.”

“If you're bound to blow yourself,” says she, “let's trot down to the Hongkong-Shanghai Bank and buy some shares in something.”

“But,” says I, “you have no engagement ring.”

“And I'm not engaged,” says she. “I'm a married woman.”

“You're a married child.”

“My husband's arm around my waist is my ring,” says she; “his heart is my jewel.”

Even if it had been broad daylight and people looking, I'd have put her ring on her at that. But it was dark, in a park of trees and benches—just like Central Park.

“With this ring,” says I, “I thee guard from all evil.”

“But there is no evil,” said she. “The world's all new; it's been given a fresh start. There's no evil. The apple's back on the tree of knowledge. Eden's come back—and it's spring in Eden.”

“And among other items,” says I, “that we've invoiced for Sydney is a python thirty feet long.”

“Look!” says she.

A girl sat against one of the stems of a banyan, and a Tommy lay on his back with his head in her lap. She was playing with his hair. You could just see them for the dark.

“'And they lived on the square like a true married pair,'“ says I.

“Can't people be naughty and good?” says she.

“No,” says I; “good and naughty only.”

“Suppose,” says she, “you and I felt about each other the way we do, but you were married to a rich widow in Lisbon and I was married to a wicked old Jew in Malta—would that make you Satan and me Jezebel?”

“No,” says I; “only me. Nothing could change you.” She thought a little.

“No,” says she; “I don't think anything could. But there isn't any wicked old Jew. You know that.”

“And you know about the rich widow?”

“What about her?” This said sharp, with a tug at my arm to unwrap it.

“She was born in Singapore,” said I, “of a silly goose by an idle thought. And two minutes later she died.”

“There's nothing that can ever hurt us—is there?—nothing that's happened and gone before?”

Man that is born of woman ought not to have that question put up to him; but she didn't let me answer.

“Because, if there is,” she said, “it's lucky I'm here to look after us.”

“Could I do anything that you wouldn't forgive?”

“If you turned away from me,” she said, “I'd die—but I'd forgive.”

Next daylight she was leaning on the rail of the Boldero watching the animals come over the side and laughing to see them turn their heads to listen to what old Yir Massir said to them in Hindustani. He spoke words of comfort, telling them not to be afraid; and they listened. Even Bahut, the big elephant, as the slings tightened and he swung dizzily heavenward, cocked his moth-eaten ears to listen and refrained from whimpering, though the pit of his stomach was cold with fear; and he worked his toes when there was nothing under them but water.

“The elephant is the strongest of all things,” I said, “and the most gentle.”

Her little fingers pressed my arm, which was like marble in those days.

“No,” said she—“the man!”

III

That voyage was good, so far as it went, but there's no use talking about it, because what came afterward was better. We'd no sooner backed off the Copra Wharf and headed down the straits, leaving a trail of smoke and tiger smell, than Ivy went to house-keeping on the Boldero. There are great house-keepers, just as there are great poets and actors. It takes genius; that's all. And Ivy had that kind of genius. Yir Massir had a Hindu saying that fitted her like a glove. He looked in upon her work of preparing and systematizing for the cramped weeks at sea and said: “The little mem-sahib is a born woman.”

That's just what she is. There are born idiots and born leaders. Some are born male and some female; but a born woman is the rarest thing in the world, the most useful and the most precious. She had never kept house, but there was nothing for her to learn. She worked things so that whenever I could come off duty she was at leisure to give all her care and thought to me.

There was never a millionaire who had more speckless white suits than I had, though it's a matter almost of routine for officers to go dirty on anything but the swell liners. Holes in socks grew together under her fingers, so that you had to look close to see where they'd been. She even kept a kind of dwarf hibiscus, with bright red flowers, alive and flourishing in the thick salt air; and she was always slipping into the galley to give a new, tasty turn to the old sea-standbys.

The crew, engineer, and stokers were all Chinks. Hadley always put his trust in them and they come cheap. We had forty coolies who berthed forward, going out on contract to work on a new government dry-dock at Paiulu. I don't mind a Chink myself, so long as he keeps his habits to himself and doesn't over-smoke; but they're not sociable. Except for Yir Massir and myself, there was no one aboard for Ivy to talk to. Yir Massir's duty kept him busy with the health of the collection for the Sydney Zoo, and Ivy found time to help, to advise, and to learn. They made as much fuss between them over the beasts as if they had been babies; and the donkey-engine was busy most of the day hoisting cages to the main-deck and lowering them again, so that the beasts could have a better look at the sea and a bit of sun and fresh air. As it was, a good many of the beasts and all the birds roomed on the main-deck all the time. Sometimes Yir Massir would take out a chetah—a nasty, snarling, pin-headed piece of long-legged malice—and walk him up and down on a dog-chain, same as a woman walks her King Charlie. He gave the monkeys all the liberty they could use and abuse; it was good sport to see them chase themselves and each other over the masts and upper-works.

The most you can say of going out with a big tonnage of beasts is that, if you're healthy and have no nerves, you can just stand it. Sometimes they'll all howl together for five or six hours at a time; sometimes they'll all be logy and still as death, except one tiger, who can't make his wants understood and who'll whine and rumble about them all round the clock. I don't know which is worse, the chorus or the solo. And then, of course, the smell side to the situation isn't a matter for print. If I say that we had twenty hogsheads of disinfectants and deodorizers along it's all you need know. Anyhow, according to Yir Massir, it was the smell that killed big Bahut's mate. And she'd been brought up in an Indian village and ought to have been used to all the smells, from A to Z.

One elephant more or less doesn't matter to me, especially when it's insured, but Yir Massir's grief and self-reproach were appalling; and Ivy felt badly too. It was as much for her sake as Yir Massir's that I read a part of the burial service out of the prayer-book and committed the body of “this our sister” to the deep. It may have been sacrilegious, but I don't care. It comforted Ivy some and Yir Massir a heap. And it did this to me, that I can't look at a beast now without thinking that—well, that there's not such an awful lot of difference between two legs and four, and that maybe God put Himself out just as much to make one as the other.

We swung her overside by heavy tackle. What with the roll of the ship and the fact that she swung feet down, she looked alive; and the funeral looked more like a drowning than a burial.

We had no weights to sink her; and when I gave the word to cut loose she made a splash like a small tidal wave and then floated.

We could see her for an hour, like a bit of a slate-colored island with white gulls sitting on it.

And that night Yir Massir waited on us looking like some old crazy loon out of the Bible. He'd made himself a prickly shirt of sackcloth and had smeared his black head and brown face with gray ashes. Big Bahut whimpered all night and trumpeted as if his heart were broken.

IV

I've often noticed that when things happen it's in bunches. The tenth day south of the line we had a look at almost all the sea-events that are made into woodcuts for the high-school geographies. For days we'd seen nothing except sapphire-blue sea, big swells rolling under a satin finish without breaking through, and a baby-blue sky. On the morning of the tenth the sea was streaked with broad, oily bands, like State roads, and near and far were whales travelling south at about ten knots an hour, as if they had a long way to go.

We saw heaps of porpoises and heaps of flying-fish; some birds; unhewn timber—a nasty lot of it—and big floats of sea-weed. We saw a whale being pounded to death by a killer; and in the afternoon as perfect an example of a brand-new coral island as was ever seen. It looked like a ring of white snow floating on the water, and inside the ring was a careened two-master—just the ribs and stumps left. There was a water-spout miles off to port, and there was a kind of electric jump and thrill to the baked air that made these things seem important, like omens in ancient times. Besides, the beasts, from Bahut the elephant to little Assam the mongoose, put in the whole day at practising the noises of complaint and uneasiness. Then, directly it was dark, we slipped into a “white sea.” That's a rare sight and it has never been very well explained. The water looks as though it had been mixed with a quantity of milk, but when you dip it up it's just water.

About midnight we ran out of this and Ivy and I turned in. The sky was clear as a bell and even the beasts were quiet. I hadn't been asleep ten minutes and Ivy not at all, when all at once hell broke loose. There was a bump that nearly drove my head through a bulkhead; though only half awake I could feel to the cold marrow of my bones that the old Boldero was down by the head. The beasts knew it and the Chinks. Never since Babel was there such pandemonium on earth or sea. By a struck match I saw Ivy running out of the cabin and slipping on her bath-wrapper as she went. I called to her, but she didn't answer. I didn't want to think of anything but Ivy, but I had to let her go and think of the ship.

There wasn't much use in thinking. The old Boldero was settling by the head and the pumps couldn't hold up the inflood. In fifteen minutes I knew that it was all up with us—or all down, rather—and I ordered the boats over and began to run about like a maniac, looking for Ivy and calling to her. And why do you suppose I couldn't find her? She was hiding—hiding from me!

She'd heard of captains of sinking ships sending off their wives and children and sweethearts and staying behind to drown out of a mistaken notion of duty. She'd got it into her head that I was that kind of captain and she'd hid so that she couldn't be sent away; but it was all my fault really. If I'd hurried her on deck the minute I did find her we'd have been in time to leave with the boats. But I stopped for explanations and to give her a bit of a lecture; so when we got on deck there were the boats swarming with Chinks slipping off to windward—and there at our feet was Yir Massir, lying in his own blood and brains, a wicked, long knife in his hand and the thread outpiece of a Chink's pigtail between his teeth.

I like to think that he'd tried to make them wait for us, but I don't know. Anyhow, there we were, alone on a sinking deck and all through with earthly affairs as I reckoned it. But Ivy reckoned differently.

“Why are they rowing in that direction?” she says. “They won't get anywhere.”

“Why not?” says I.

She jerked her thumb to leeward.

“Don't you feel that it's over there?—the land?” she says. “Just over there.”

“Why, no, bless you!” says I. “I don't have any feeling about it.... Now then, we've got to hustle around and find something that will float us. We want to get out of this before the old Boldero goes and sucks us down after.”

“There's the life-raft,” says she; “they left that.”

“Yes,” says I; “if we can get it overboard. It weighs a ton. You make up a bundle of food on the jump, Ivy, and I'll try to rig a tackle.”

When the raft was floating quietly alongside I felt better. It looked then as if we were to have a little more run for our money.

We worked like a couple of furies loading on food and water, Ivy lowering and I lashing fast.

“There,” says I at last; “she won't take any more. Come along. I can help you down better from here.”

“We've got to let the beasts loose,” says she.

“Why?” says I.

“Oh, just to give 'em a chance,” she says.

So I climbs back to where she was standing.

“It's rot!” I says. “But if you say so——”

“There's loads of time,” says she—“we're not settling so fast. Besides, even if I'm wrong about the land, they'll know. They'll show us which way to go. Big Bahut, he knows.”

“It don't matter,” I says. “We can't work the raft any way but to leeward—not one man can't.”

“If the beasts go the other way,” says she, “one man must try and one woman.”

“Oh, we'll try,” says I, “right enough. We'll try.”

The first beast we loosed was the python. Ivy did the loosing and I stood by with a big rifle to guard against trouble; but, bless you, there was no need. One and all, the beasts knew the old Boldero was doomed, and one and all they cried and begged and made eyes and signs to be turned loose. As for knowing where the nearest land was—well, if you'd seen the python, when he came to the surface, make a couple of loopy turns to get his bearings and his wriggles in order, and then hike off to leeward in a bee-line—you'd have believed that he—well, that he knew what he was talking about.

And the beasts, one and all, big and little, the minute they were loosed, wanted to get overboard—even the cats; and off they went to leeward in the first flush of dawn, horned heads, cat heads, pig heads—the darnedest game of follow-my-leader that ever the skies looked down on. And the birds, white and colored, streaked out over the beasts. There was a kind of wonder to it all that eased the pinch of fear. Ivy clapped her hands and jumped up and down like a child when it sees the grand entry in Buffalo Bill's show for the first time—or the last, for that matter.

There was some talk of taking a tow-line from around Bahut's neck to the raft; but the morning breeze was freshening and with a sail rigged the raft would swim pretty fast herself. Anyway, we couldn't fix it to get big Bahut overboard. The best we could do was to turn him loose, open all the hatches, and trust to his finding a way out when the Boldero settled.

He did, bless him! We weren't two hundred yards clear when the Boldero gave a kind of shudder and went down by the bows, Bahut yelling bloody murder. Then, just when we'd given him up for lost, he shot up from the depths, half-way out of water. After blowing his nose and getting his bearings he came after the raft like a good old tugboat.

We stood up, Ivy and I did, and cheered him as he caught up with us and foamed by.

The worst kind of remembering is remembering what you've forgotten. I got redder and redder. It didn't seem as if I could tell Ivy; but I did. First I says, hopeful:

“Have you forgotten anything?”

She shakes her head.

“I have,” says I. “I've left my rifle, but I've got plenty of cartridges. I've got a box of candles, but I've forgotten to bring matches. A nice, thoughtful husband you've got!”

V

The beasts knew.

There was land just around the first turn of the world—land that had what might be hills when you got to 'em and that was pale gray against the sun, with all the upper-works gilded; but it wasn't big land. You could see the north and south limits; and the trees on the hills could probably see the ocean to the east.

They were funny trees, those; and others just like them had come down to the cove to meet us when we landed. They were a kind of pine and the branches grew in layers, with long spaces between. Since then I've seen trees just like them, but very little, in florists' windows; only the florists' trees have broad scarlet sashes round their waists, by way of decoration, maybe, or out of deference to Anthony Comstock.

The cove had been worked out by a brook that came loafing down a turfy valley, with trees single and in spinneys, for all the world like an English park; and at the upper end of the valley, cutting the island in half lengthwise, as we learned later, the little wooded hills rolled north and south, and low spurs ran out from them, so as to make the valley a valley instead of a plain.

There were flocks of goats in the valley, which was what made the grass so turfy, I suppose; and our own deer and antelopes were browsing near them, friendly as you please. Near at hand big Bahut, who had been the last but us to land, was quietly munching the top of a broad-leafed tree that he'd pulled down; but the cats and riffraff had melted into the landscape. So had the birds, except a pair of jungle-fowl, who'd found seed near the cove and were picking it up as fast as they could and putting it away.

“Well,” says I, “it's an island, sure, Ivy. The first thing to do is to find out who lives on it, owns it, and dispenses its hospitality, and make up to them.”

But she shook her head and said seriously:

“I've a feeling, Right,” she says—“a kind of hunch—that there's nobody on it but us.”

I laughed at her then, but half a day's tramping proved that she was right. I tell you women have ways of knowing things that we men haven't. The fact is, civilization slides off 'em like water off a duck; and at heart and by instinct they are people of the cave-dwelling period—on cut-and-dried terms with ghosts and spirits, all the unseen sources of knowledge that man has grown away from.

I had sure proofs of this in the way Ivy took to the cave we found in a bunch of volcano rock that lifted sheer out of the cove and had bright flowers smiling out of all its pockets. No society lady ever entered her brand-new marble house at Newport with half the happiness.

Ivy was crazy about the cave and never tired of pointing out its advantages. She went to house-keeping without any of the utensils, as keen and eager as she'd gone to it on the poor old Boldero, where at least there were pots and pans and pepper.

We had grub to last a few weeks, a pair of blankets, the clothes we stood in, and an axe. I had, besides, a heavy clasp-knife, a watch, and seven sovereigns. The first thing Ivy insisted on was a change of clothes.

“These we stand in,” says she, “are the only presentable things we've got, and Heaven only knows how long they've got to last us for best.”

“We could throw modesty to the winds,” I suggested.

“Of course you can do as you please,” she said. “I don't care one way or the other about the modesty; but I've got a skin that looks on the sun with distinct aversion, and I don't propose to go through a course of yellow blisters—and then turn black.”

“I've seen islanders weave cloth out of palm fibre—most any kind,” I said. “It's clumsy and airy; but if you think it would do——”

“It sounds scratchy.”

“It is, but it's good for the circulation.”

Well, we made a kind of cloth and cut it into shapes, and knotted the shapes together with more fibre; then we folded up our best and only Sunday-go-to-meeting suits and put the fibre things on; and then we went down to the cove to look at ourselves in the water. And Ivy laughed.

“We're not clothed,” she said; “we're thatched; and yet—and yet—it's accident, of course, but this skirt has got a certain hang that——”

“Whatever that skirt's got,” I said, “these pants haven't; but if you're happy I am.”

Well, there's worse situations than desert-islanding it with the one woman in the world. I even know one man who claims he was cast away with a perfect stranger that he hated the sight of at first—a terribly small-minded, conventional woman—and still he had the time of his life. They got to like each other over a mutual taste for cribbage, which they played for sea-shells, yellow with a pink edge, until the woman went broke and got heavily in debt to the man. He was nice about it and let her off. He says the affair must have ended in matrimony, only she took a month to think it over; during that month they were picked up and carried to Honolulu; then they quarrelled and never saw each other again.

“Ivy,” said I one day, “we'll be picked up by a passing steamer some day, of course, but meanwhile I'd rather be here with you than any place I can name.”

“It's Eden,” she said, “and I'd like to live like this always. But——”

“But what?”

“But people grow old,” she said, “and one dies before another. That's what's wrong with Eden.”

I laughed at her.

“Old! You and I? We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, Ivy Bower.”

“Right Bower,” says she, “you don't understand——”

“How not understand?”

“You don't understand that Right Bower and Ivy Bower aren't the only people on this island.”

She didn't turn a fiery red and bolt—the way young wives do in stories. She looked at me with steady, brave, considering eyes.

“Don't worry, dear,” she says after a time; “everything will be all right. I know it will.”

“I know it too.” I lied.

Know it? I was cold with fright.

“Don't be afraid,” said she. “And—and meanwhile there's dinner to be got ready—and you can have a go at your firesticks.”

It was my ambition to get fire by friction. Now and then I got the sticks to smoke and I hoped that practice would give me the little extra speed and cunning that makes for flame. I'd always been pretty good at games, if a little slow to learn.

VI

You'd think anxiety about Ivy'd have been the hardest thing to bear in the life we were living; and so it would have been if she'd showed any anxiety about herself. Not she. You might have thought she was looking forward to a Christmas-box from home. If she was ever scared it was when I wasn't looking. No—it was the beasts that made us anxious.

At first we'd go for long walks and make explorations up and down the island. The beasts hid from us according to the wild nature that's in them. You could only tell from fresh tracks in damp places that they hadn't utterly disappeared. Now and then we saw deer and antelopes far off; and at night, of course, there was always something doing in the way of a chorus. Beasts that gave our end of the island the go-by daytimes paid us visits nights and sat under the windows, you may say, and sang their songs.

It seemed natural after a time to be cooped up in a big green prison with a lot of loose wild things that could bite and tear you to pieces if they thought of it. We were hard to scare. What scared me first was this: When we got to the island it was alive with goats. Well, these just casually disappeared. Then, one morning, bright and early, I came on the big python in the act of swallowing a baby antelope. It gave me a horrid start and set me thinking. How long could the island support a menagerie? What would the meat-eaters do when they'd killed off all the easy meat—finished up the deer and antelopes and all? Would they fight it out among themselves—big tiger eat little tiger—until only the fittest one survived? And what would that fittest one do if he got good and hungry and began to think that I'd make a square meal for him—or Ivy?

I reached two conclusions—and the cave about the same time. First, I wouldn't tell Ivy I was scared. Second, I'd make fire by friction or otherwise—or bust. Once I got fire, I'd never let it go out. I set to work with the firesticks right off, and Ivy came and stood by and looked on.

“Never saw you put so much elbow-grease into anything,” she said. “What's the matter with you, anyway?”

“It's a game,” I grunted, “and these two fellows will have me beat if I don't look lively.”

“Right Bower,” she says then, slow and deliberate, “I can see you're upside down about something. Tell Ivy.”

“Look,” says I—“smoke! I never got it so quick before.” I spun the pointed stick between the palms of my hands harder than ever and gloated over the wisp of smoke that came from where it was boring into the flat stick.

“Make a bow,” says Ivy. “Loop the bowstring round the hand-piece and you'll get more friction with less work.”

“By gorry!” says I; “you're right. I remember a picture in a geography—'Native Drilling a Conch Shell.' Fool that I am to forget!”

“Guess you and I learned out of the same geography,” said Ivy.

“Only I didn't learn,” said I. “I'm off to cut something tough to make the bow.”

“Don't go far,” she says.

“Why not?” said I—the sporty way a man does when he pretends that he's going to take a night off with the boys and play poker.

“Because,” she says smiling, “I'm afraid the beasts will get me while you're gone.”

“Rats!” says I.

“Tigers!” says she. “Oh, Right, you unplumbable old idiot! Do you think you can come into this cave and hide anything from me under that transparent face of yours? The minute you came in and hemmed and hawed, and said as you had nothing to do you guessed you'd have a go with the firesticks—I knew. What scared you?”

I surrendered and told her.

“... And then,” she said, “you think maybe they'll hurt—us?”

I nodded.

“Why, it's war,” she said. “I've read enough about war to know that there are two safe rules to follow. First, declare war yourself while the other fellow's thinking about it; and then strike him before he's even heard that you have declared it. That sounds mixed, but it's easy enough. We'll declare war on the dangerous beasts while I'm still in the months of hop, skip, and jump.”

“A certain woman,” said I, “wouldn't let the beasts go down in the old Boldero, as would have been beneficial for all parties.”

“This is different,” she said. “This island's got to be a safe place for a little child to play in or Ivy Bower's got to be told the reason why.”

“You're dead right, Ivy dear,” I says, “and always was. But how? I'm cursed if I know how to kill a tiger without a rifle.... Let's get fire first and put the citadel in a state of siege. Then we'll try our hand at traps, snares, and pitfalls. I'm strong, but I'm cursed if I want to fall on a tiger with nothing in my hands but a knife or an axe.”

“All I care about,” said Ivy, “is to get everything settled, so that when the time comes we can be comfortable and plenty domestic.”

She sat in the mouth of the cave and looked over the smooth cove to the rolling ocean beyond; and she had the expression of a little girl playing at being married with a little boy friend in the playhouse that her father had just given her for her birthday.

I got a piece of springy wood to make a bow with, and sat by her shaping it with my knife. That night we got fire. Ivy caught some fish in the cove and we cooked them; and—thanks, O Lord!—how good they were! We sat up very late comparing impressions, each saying how each felt when the smoke began to show sparks and when the tinder pieces finally caught, and how each had felt when the broiled smell of the fish had begun to go abroad in the land. We told each other of all the good things we had eaten in our day, but how this surpassed them all. And later we told each other all our favorite names—boy names in case it should be a boy and girl names in case it shouldn't.

Then, suddenly, something being hunted by something tore by in the dark—not very far off. The sweat came off me in buckets, and I heaped wood on the fire and flung burning brands into the night, this way and that, as far as I could fling them. Ivy said I was like Jupiter trying to hurl thunder-bolts, after the invention of Christianity, and not rightly understanding why they wouldn't explode any more.

VII

The pines of the island were full of pitch and a branch would burn torch-like for a long time. I kept a bundle of such handy, the short ends sharpened so's you could stick 'em round wherever the ground was soft enough and have an effect of altar candles in a draughty church. If there was occasion to leave the cave at night I'd carry one of the torches and feel as safe as if it had been an elephant rifle.

We made a kind of a dooryard in front of the cave's mouth, with a stockade that we borrowed from Robinson Crusoe, driving pointed stakes close-serried and hoping they'd take root and sprout; but they didn't. Between times I made finger-drawings in the sand of plans for tiger traps and pitfalls. I couldn't dig pits, but I knew of two that might have been made to my order, a volcano having taken the contract. They were deep as wells, sheer-sided; anything that fell in would stay in. I made a wattle-work of branches and palm fibre to serve as lids for these nature-made tiger jars. The idea was to toss dead fish out to the middle of the lids for bait; then for one of the big cats to smell the fish, step out to get it, and fall through. Once in, it would be child's work to stone him to death.

Another trap I made was more complicated and was a scheme to drop trees heavy enough to break a camel's back or whatever touched the trigger that kept them from falling. It was the devil's own job to make that trap. First place, I couldn't cut a tree big enough and lift it to a strategic position; so I had to fell trees in such a way that they'd be caught half-way to the ground by other trees. Then I'd have to clear away branches and roots so that when the trees did fall the rest of the way it would be clean, plumb, and sudden. It was a wonderful trap when it was finished and it was the most dangerous work of art I ever saw. If you touched any of a dozen triggers you stood to have a whole grove of trees come banging down on top of you—same as if you went for a walk in the woods and a tornado came along and blew the woods down. If the big cats had known how frightfully dangerous that trap was they'd have jumped overboard and left the island by swimming. I made two other traps something like it—the best contractor in New York wouldn't have undertaken to build one just like it at any price—and then it came around to be the seventh day, so to speak; and, like the six-day bicycle rider, I rested.

“Days,” is only a fashion of speaking. I was months getting my five death-traps into working order. I couldn't work steadily because there was heaps of cavework to do besides, fish to be caught, wood to be cut for the fire, and all; and then, dozens of times, I'd suddenly get scared about Ivy and go running back to the cave to see if she was all right. I might have known better; she was always all right and much better plucked than I was.

Well, sir, my traps wouldn't work. The fish rotted on the wattle-lids of the pitfalls, but the beasts wouldn't try for 'em. They were getting ravenous, too—ready to attack big Bahut even; but they wouldn't step out on those wattles and they wouldn't step under my balanced trees. They'd beat about the neighborhood of the danger and I've found many a padmark within six inches of the edge of things. I even baited with a live kid. It belonged to the Thibet goats and I had a hard time catching it; and after it had bleated all night and done its baby best to be tiger food I turned it loose and it ran off with its mammy. She, poor soul, had gone right into the trap to be with her baby and, owing to the direct intervention of Providence, hadn't sprung the thing.

The next fancy bait I tried was a chetah—dead. I found him just after his accident, not far from the cave. He was still warm; and he was flat—very flat, like a rug made of chetah skin. He had some shreds of elephant-hide tangled in his claws. It looked to me as if he'd gotten desperate with hunger and had pounced on big Bahut—pshaw! the story was in plain print: “Ouch!” says big Bahut. “A flea has bitten me. Here's where I play dead,” and—rolls over. Result: one neat and very flat rug made out of chetah.

I showed the rug to Ivy and then carried it off to the woods and spread it in my first and fanciest trap. Then I allowed I'd have a look at the pitfalls, which I hadn't visited for a couple of days—and I was a fool to do it. I'd told Ivy where I was going to spread the chetah and that after that I'd come straight home. Well, the day seemed young and I thought if I hurried I could go home the roundabout way by the pitfalls in such good time that Ivy wouldn't know the difference. Well, sir, I came to the first pitfall—and, lo and behold! something had been and taken the bait and got away with it without so much as putting a foot through the wattling. I'd woven it too strong. So I thought I'd just weaken it up a little—it wouldn't take five minutes. I tried it with my foot—very gingerly. Yes, it was too strong—much too strong. I put more weight into that foot—and bang, smash, crash—bump! There I was at the bottom of the pit, with half the wattling on top of me.

The depth of that hole was full twenty-five feet; the sides were as smooth as bottle-glass; dusk was turning into dark. But these things weren't the worst of it. I'd told Ivy that I'd do one thing—and I'd gone and done another. I'd lied to her and I'd put her in for a time of anxiety, and then fright, that might kill her.

VIII

I wasted what little daylight was left trying to climb out, using nothing but hands and feet. And then I sat down and cursed myself for a triple-plated, copper-riveted, patent-applied-for fool. Nothing would have been easier, given light, than to take the wattling that had fallen into the pit with me to pieces, build a pole—sort of a split-bamboo fishing-rod on a big scale—shin up and go home. But to turn that trick in the dark wasn't any fun. I did it though—twice. I made the first pole too light and it smashed when I was half-way up. A splinter jabbed into my thigh and drew blood. That complicated matters. The smell of the blood went out of the pit and travelled around the island like a sandwich man saying: “Fine supply of fresh meat about to come out of Right Bower's pet pitfall; second on the left.”

When I'd shinned to the top of the second pole I built and crawled over the rim of the pit—there was a tiger sitting, waiting, very patient. I could just make him out in the starlight. He was mighty lean and looked like a hungry gutter-cat on a big scale. Some people are afraid to be alone in the dark. I'm not. Well, I just knelt there—I'd risen to my knees—and stared at him. And then I began to take in a long breath—I swelled and swelled with it. It's a wonder I didn't use up all the air on the island and create a vacuum—in which case the tiger would have blown up. I remember wondering what that big breath was going to do when it came out. I didn't know. I had no plan. I looked at the tiger and he looked at me and whined—like a spoiled spaniel asking for sugar. That was too much. I thought of Ivy, maybe needing me as she'd never needed any one before—and I looked at that stinking cat that meant to keep me from her. I made one jump at him—'stead of him at me—and at the same time I let out the big breath I'd drawn in a screech that very likely was heard in Jericho.

The tiger just vanished like a Cheshire cat in a book I read once, and I was running through the night for home and Ivy. But the fire at the cave was dying, and Ivy was gone.

Well, of course she'd have gone to look for me.... It was then that I began to whimper and cry. I lit a pine-torch, flung some wood on the embers, and went out to look for her—whimpering all the time. I'd told her that I was going out to bait a certain trap and would then come straight home. So of course she'd have gone straight to that trap—and it was there I found her.

The torch showed her where she sat, right near the dead chetah, in the very centre of the trap—triggers all about her—to touch one of which spelt death; and all around the trap, in a ring—like an audience at a one-ring circus—were the meat-eaters—the tigers—the lions—the leopards—and, worst of all, the pigs. There she sat and there they sat—and no one moved—except me with the torch.

She lifted her great eyes to me and she smiled. All the beasts looked at me and turned away their eyes from the light and blinked and shifted; and the old he-lion coughed. They wouldn't come near me because of the torch—and they wouldn't go near Ivy because of the trap. They knew it was a trap. They always had known it and so had Ivy. That was why she had gone into it when so many deaths looked at her in so many ways—because she knew that in there she'd be safe. All along she'd known that my old traps and pitfalls wouldn't catch anything; but she'd never said so—and she'd never laughed at them or at me. I could find it in my heart to call her a perfect wife—just by that one fact of tact alone; but there are other facts—other reasons—millions of them.

Suddenly from somewhere near Ivy there came a thin, piping sound.

“It's your little son talking to you,” says Ivy, as calm as if she was sitting up in a four-poster.

“My little son!” I says. That was all for a minute. Then I says:

“Are you all right?”

And she says:

“Sure I am—now that I know you are.”

I turned my torch fire-end down and it began to blaze and sputter and presently roar. Then I steps over to the lion and he doesn't move; and I points the torch at his dirty face—and lunges.

Ever see a kitten enjoying a fit? That was what happened to him. Then I ran about, beating and poking and shouting and burning. It was like Ulysses cleaning the house of suitors and handmaids. All the beasts ran; and some of 'em ran a long way, I guess, and climbed trees.

I stuck the torch point-end in the ground, stepped into the trap, and lifted my family out. All the time I prayed aloud, saying: “Lord on high, keep Right Bower from touching his blamed foot against any of these triggers and dropping the forest on top of all he holds in his arms!” Ivy, she rubbed her cheek against mine to show confidence—and then we were safe out and I picked up the torch and carried the whole kit and boodle, family, torch, happiness—much too big to tote—and belief in God's goodness, watchfulness, and mercy, home to our cave.

Right Bower added some uneventful details of the few days following—the ship's boat that put into the island for water and took them off, and so on. Then he asked me if I'd like to meet Mrs. Bower, and I went forward with him and was presented.

She was deep in a steamer-chair, half covered with a somewhat gay assortment of steamer-rugs. I had noticed her before, in passing, and had mistaken her for a child.

Bower beamed over us for a while and then left us and we talked for hours—about Bower, the children, and the home in East Orange to which they were returning after a holiday at Aix; but she wouldn't talk much about the island. “Right,” she said, “was all the time so venturesome that from morning till night I died of worry and anxiety. Right says the Lord does just the right thing for the right people at the right time—always. That's his creed.... Sometimes,” she said, “I wonder what's become of big Bahut. He was such a—white elephant!”

Mrs. Gordon-Colfax took me to task for spending so much of the afternoon with Mrs. Bower.

“Who,” said she, “was that common little person you were flirting with?—and why?”

“She's a Mrs. Bower,” I said. “She has a mission.”

“I could tell that,” said Mrs. Gordon-Colfax, “from the way she turned up her eyes at you.”

“As long as she doesn't turn up her nose at me—” I began; but Mrs. Gordon-Colfax put in:

“The Lord did that for her.”

“And,” I said, “so she was saying. She said the Lord does just the right thing for the right person at the right time.... Now, your nose is beautifully Greek; but, to be honest, it turns up ever so much more than hers does.”

“Oh, well,” said Mrs. Gordon-Colfax, “I hate common people—and I can't help it. Let's have a bite in the grill.”

“Sorry,” I said; “I'm dining with the Bowers.”

“You have a strong stomach,” said she.

“I have,” I said, “but a weak heart—and they are going to strengthen it for me.”

And there arose thenceforth a coolness between Mrs. Gordon-Colfax and me, which proves once more that the Lord does just the right thing for the right people at the right time.

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page