THE COMING OF THE MAESTRA
AS the prao, its two wide outriggers spread out on each side like wings, its sail rising above straight and stiff like a backfin, skimmed over the whitecapped crests like a gigantic flying fish, the Maestro, his white suit gleaming in the sun, stood at the peak, erect and tense as a Viking of old. But he was madder than any Viking had ever been.
For three long days he had been on that prao, while it tacked and beat against a monsoon that was southern, although, according to the dictates of the almanac and the Maestro's own ardent desires, it should have been northern. For three days, trying to make Ilo-Ilo, thirty miles across the strait, the little craft, with its crew clinging like monkeys at the ends of the outriggers, had darted right and left like a startled and very dizzy gull, while from the rudimentary rudder, where sat the Maestro, there poured forth a stream of most piratical objurgations. Neither these spiritual pleas, however, nor the mad flurries of the flat-bottomed boat had prevailed against the wind's blustering stubbornness, and at length they had turned tail and run before it, and now the Maestro was looking upon a golden strip of beach and a curtain of coconut palms, behind which peeped the nipa roofs of his own little pueblo. In a few minutes more the prao, balanced upon a white curling swell, had slid its nose up upon the sand, and the Maestro, with a great leap, found himself at the identical spot from which, three days before, his heart a-pound with strange tumult, he had embarked, too impatient to wait for the lazy little steamer which offered regular, if slow, passage once a week.
"Damn!" said the Maestro, as his foot struck the sand. "Damn! a deuce of a bridegroom I make, I do!"
But Tolio, his muchacho, who had stayed behind in guard of the house, was running down the beach toward him, waving a dirty piece of paper. It was a telegram, transmitted by carrier from Bacolod, which was in cable communication with Ilo-Ilo. The Maestro read it quickly; then he re-read it aloud, pausing upon each word as if to sink its dread significance deep into his dazed brain.
"Have missed you in Ilo-Ilo. Am coming on tomorrow's steamer. Girlie."
Behind the Maestro a cast-up log was bleaching in the sun, and he sat down upon it very suddenly and limply, as if his bony carcass had turned to water. "Lordie," he murmured, "and the sky-pilot gone south!"
And truly the situation was a delicate one. For "Girlie" of the telegram was none other than Miss Florence Yeats, come ten thousand miles over the sea to wed him. He should have met her in Ilo-Ilo, where the whole American population had made gleeful preparations for the event; but his uncalculating impatience and the immoral conduct of the winds had foiled him in his attempted crossing of the straits from his own town in Negros; and now she was coming by the day's steamer—with the sky-pilot, otherwise Rev. David Houston, head of the United Protestant Missions of Negroes, who might have afforded a much-needed alternative, far, far away on an inspection tour to the southern stations of the island, and not likely to be back for a month.
So the Maestro remained on his log, inwardly tossed by a cyclone of contradictory feelings. He could but admire the splendid confidence of the girl, coming straight to him without a question after he had failed her, failed her in an appointment to be classed among those, well, of higher importance. At the same time it did seem to him that some kind person in Ilo-Ilo might have warned her of the fact that he was absolutely the only white man in his town, and at that neither a clergyman nor justice of the peace. He did not rise and go home, where he could have spent a very profitable hour changing his bedraggled garments and washing his salt-grimed face. The crisis was too near for that. The little wheezy teapot of a steamer, with its precious and disturbing freight, was due in anywhere from one to four hours; and he would not have missed the sight of its first smoky signal at the horizon for luxuries much more dazzling. So, joyful and unhappy, expectant and horrified, he sat there, while Jack, his little fox terrier, who had come down with Tolio, romped unappreciated between his legs. Out a few hundred yards from shore, planted upon a submerged sand bar, a long bamboo fish-corral screened the horizon; and the Maestro recited metally to himself the approach of the little steamer. The smoke would first appear at the lower end, then slowly would crawl along behind the high paling, slowly, very slowly, till finally the ship itself would burst into view past the upper end, and stand for shore. And then——
But it was a good hour before the Maestro finally rose to his feet. "Ah," he said, "here she comes."
Behind the fish-corral, at its lower end, a thin thread of vapour was mounting toward the sky. The Maestro's heart expanded queerly within his breast. But as he looked, behind the exasperating barrier a big yellow ring, as from some gigantic pipe, rose slowly, then another that broke through the first, and a third that enveloped them all in one ugly smother.
"Good golly," ejaculated the Maestro, "but the little kettle is steaming!"
And the smoke, beginning to crawl along the corral, ceased puffing up in rings; it rose in one dense, funnel-shaped cloud. "It's that soft Japanese coal," murmured the Maestro, "that darned Japanese coal!"
But with eyes staring ahead, as if hypnotised, he was walking down the beach. A ripple washed over his feet, then a curling comber splashed up to his knees; but he took another step, unconscious of the water now about his hips.
Suddenly he turned, and was running back up the beach toward a shed full of drying copra. He climbed one of the thick corner-posts to the roof. The nipa thatch gave beneath his weight, and it was changing ground with fierce plunging stride that he looked out to sea. But he was not high enough. The fish-corral still made inscrutable the mystery behind, and he could see only the smoke, now a sooty black, rising in heavy volutes to the green sky.
He slid down and paced the sand, trying to calm himself. But the smoke, ever more voluminous and threatening, allowed him no peace. He ran back farther up the shore to a coconut palm and tried to climb the lithe, slippery trunk. The notches cut by the monkey-like tuba-men were too far apart; the silvery bark was like a greased pole. Twice he went up some twenty feet, only to slip, fighting and clawing, clear back to the ground again. He tore off his shoes and started up again, cutting his feet, scratching and biting in a frenzy of impotent effort. He went up higher this time, and then the slender, elastic trunk began to sway back and forth gracefully, dizzying him, making it difficult merely to hold on; and with bitterness he realised that the northern monsoon was now on, the wind for which he had prayed in vain for three days. He could go no higher, and still he could not see what was happening behind that stolid barrier of bamboo poles out at sea, only the black threat of the smoke, now drifting south like a great piratical banner, and he slid back to the ground full of a terrible unsatiated curiosity.
He looked down at his feet, torn and bloody, at his disordered clothing, and noticed with strange, objective curiosity that his whole body was trembling as if palsy-stricken. "Oh, shucks," he said, pulling himself together; "I guess it's all right. It's that Japanese coal, that darned Japanese coal." He sat down upon the sand, trying to keep command over himself, but his hands, independently of his will, began wringing each other between his knees. And then he was up and running along the crazy, sagging wharf, his dog barking playfully at his heels. At the end he found a banca, a little, narrow dug-out, steadied with long outriggers. He sprang into it, cast off the rotten piece of rope, seized the only paddle, and shoved off with one big heave. He swirled the boat's nose around till it pointed at the upper end of the corral, then bent down to mad toil, slapping the water in vibrating rhythm. And as he strained, his whole strength in each stroke, his eyes, round with terrible curiosity, followed the smoke as it crawled slowly along the corral, blacker, denser, more significant every moment. For a while he was in the smooth water, in the shelter of the northern cape, but ahead he could see the monsoon tearing the liquid surface into white shreds. He bore up and was soon in the midst of it, the short waves pounding the flanks of the boat, the spray spitting spitefully into his eyes. He added a new frenzy to his efforts, and then he shot past the end of the fish-corral and saw.
Not a quarter of a mile away, the ship was coming toward him, and it was a phantom ship. Of the material thing, of the fabric of wood and iron, there showed nothing; but from what was about the height of the deck a cataract of smoke poured down the sides in opalescent plays of grays and blacks till it met the water and rebounded, banking up in rolling, shifting gauze about the ship-nucleus hidden within, while, above, the monsoon seized the vapour, shaping it with twists and whirls into a huge, flaccid, black hand suspended like a curse in the sky. A sudden great calmness came over the Maestro. Wavering from side to side, as if the craft itself were staggering beneath the horror of the thing, the whole phantasmagoric fabric was coming toward him; and with slow, deliberate stroke he paddled to meet it, his eyes searching for a clew of the conditions, his mind working to meet them. The air became vibrant with a low growl, split with explosive cracklings, and, in the inky smother at the bow, little red tongues flashed up and out. He twisted his canoe around till its nose pointed with the course of the approaching vessel and waited, keyed up to some last possible opportunity that must be met swiftly and unerringly. And then the steamer passed slowly above him. A cataract of smoke poured down upon him, a hot, furnace-breath whelmed him with its fevered exhalation; and he was paddling madly beneath the stern, peering into the trailing smoke. A more furious puff of the monsoon tore the thing to shreds, and then he saw the boat's population. They were clustered at the stern, hanging to poop-rail and rope and moulding and anchor chain and to each other, like a troop of panic-stricken apes at a river crossing, snarling and fighting for the safer positions. But on the deck behind them, apart in the spiritual retirement of higher nature and greater courage, was a slim, blue-garbed form. She was standing straight and proudly, her skirts, gathered in her left hand in a familiar movement, drawn close about her, away from that defiling moral puddle of humanity.
"Girlie!" he shouted, his whole being going out to her.
"Lad!" came back the answer, clear and true. She moved forward a step, her arms stretched gropingly before her.
"Jump! Jump! Jump!" he commanded. "Jump!"
She took another step and with unhesitating confidence leaped out into the void.
She disappeared beneath the water; he sent the banca ahead with two long strokes, and then she rose to the surface alongside. He leaned over and, passing both arms below hers, he let her float back to the stern of the boat. But before raising her he suddenly let go with his right arm, seized the paddle, and hit at the water a blow that struck some slimy, slippery body. Then with a great effort he raised her into the boat and laid her down gently. For a moment he did not look at her, but gazed behind, shuddering, at a sharp fin cutting the water behind in a circle.
When he turned to her she was standing, and the light of their eyes met in a spiritual caress. Slowly his arms spread out in an unconscious movement and with a little choking cry she threw herself upon him, hiding her face on his breast, while his arms closed about her. "I knew you would be there," she murmured. He clasped her a little closer, and they stood there on their crazy little craft, in the clash of waters, wrapped together into one being, the shudder of the past uniting them in the same thrill, the ecstasy of the present stealing through their veins like bubbling wine. A squall had the little boat in its grasp; it passed above in the upper layers of air with great sharp cries; the boat drifted madly down the coast and away from it; but they knew of no danger, knew only that they were in each other's arms, that the past was fading away from them like a gone and impotent nightmare. Vague and faint, a sound like the bursting of a paper bag came to his ears, and toward the shore he saw, with eyes that did not understand, incongruous objects falling from the sky—a twisted smokestack, half of a jolly-boat, a bucket, boards, a multitude of smaller shredded bits, and aperch on the reef was a shell of a ship, undecked, the blackened interior opened to the skies, pouring out a cone of black smoke. He held her closer, her eyes against his breast, and a palm-lined cape drifted past, hiding the thing from view, hiding the last vestige of what had happened, and they slid on into the illimitable sea, into the future of far horizons.
After a while she disengaged herself a bit and, toying with the middle button of her jacket, "You love me a whole lot, don't you?" she asked in a question that was not a question.
"Yes, little girl," he answered obediently.
There was another long silence and the boat drifted another two hundred yards.
"Oh, what a pretty dog!" she exclaimed, for her eyes had been wandering below his arms. "Is it yours?"
And then he became aware of Jack beneath the thwart, whining, with eye apologetic and tail conciliatory, in the warring impulses of friendliness and reserve. She stooped down with inviting gesture, and the pup, with a little yelp, leaped into her arms. The Maestro looked down upon them, a little jealousy in his approving smile. But the interruption had suddenly made him alive to the situation.
"Jehoshaphat!" he exclaimed, looking at the now distant shore, down which and away from which they were drifting at a rapid rate; "it's about time to pull in!"
But this very sane remark was not immediately followed by action. The Maestro was looking blankly at the bottom of the canoe where lay what once had been a paddle, but was now only a handle without blade. The memory of the manner in which this transformation had taken place sent his eyes back over the water behind, and a frown came on his face. Right and left, with a movement regular as that of a sentinel pacing his beat, a black fin like a butcher's cleaver was cutting the water.
"What's the matter, Lad?" asked the young lady, still stooping over the dog, and astonished at the silence. "Can't you find the oars?"
"Well, no; fact is—these boats have no oars."
"Oh," cried the bride, immediately interested by this picturesque fact, and rising to her feet; "don't they have any oars? How do you make them go?"
"Paddle them, usually," answered the groom ruefully.
Her eyes fell upon the lamentable remains of the lone paddle, and suddenly the air was a-thrill with a joyous laughing peal.
"Oh, how jolly!" she exclaimed. "We're shipwrecked, aren't we? We'll go away out in the ocean, won't we? Isn't this a land of adventure, though!"
"Well, rather," said the Maestro dryly.
And, there being nothing else to do, he sat down at the bottom of the boat and drew her to his knees. She, with feminine altruism, completed the chain by taking Jack upon hers, and they drifted on upon the flashing sea. "It's just delicious," murmured the bride, feeling the warm tropical sun drying her clothes upon her. But the groom did not chime in. He was thinking.
There was no immediate danger in the situation, but the prospects for the future were hardly to be termed "delicious." The monsoon that, probably aided by the tide-current, was sweeping them on, had not yet kicked up much of a sea and seemed to be abating in strength; and the little banca, buoyant like a cork upon its outriggers, rode the waves with cheerful alacrity. The spray that now and then dashed upon them was blood-warm and occasioned no discomfort, and their wet clothes were fairly steaming under the rays of the tropical sun. Still they were drifting steadily, with the island of Panay some thirty miles to their right, Negros to their left, its shores, diverging from their course, farther and farther away. They might drift on thus between the islands without touching either of them for days, till out into the China Sea, though the lack of food made even that undelightful alternative but a vague one. As for the chances of meeting a vessel, they were slighter still, only a few lorchas plying between the islands at long intervals. And then there was the grim diagnosis of the being with the fin, swimming back and forth, back and forth, behind the boat, with ominous patience.
"If we're shipwrecked, we ought to be doing something," said the bride suddenly, in the tone of one announcing the concluding clause of a syllogism.
"That's right," acquiesced the Maestro; "we ought to do something."
"We should empanel a jury," said the bride briskly.
"Empanel a jury," repeated the Maestro, somewhat dazed.
"Oh," said the bride, blushing, "I mean a jury-rudder. We should empanel a jury-rudder."
"You mean rig up a jury-rudder," exclaimed the Maestro, a flashing light of understanding in his eyes; "rig is the more nautical term."
"Oh, yes," cried the bride delightedly; "that's it; we must rig up a jury-rudder!"
"Well," said the Maestro, after a moment's thought; "jury-rudders, you know, are rigged up when the real rudder has been carried away. But we never had a real rudder; therefore we can't very well have a jury one."
"Oh," said the bride, disappointed.
She was silent a moment; then inspiration again flamed up.
"We should signal a ship," she said decidedly.
"Signal a ship," repeated the Maestro, looking about him idiotically.
"Yes," said the bride; "put up the flag upside down in sign of distress."
"But we have no flag," said the groom hopelessly.
"Use my kerchief," said the bride resourcefully.
"Upside down?" queried the Maestro. "But there is no mast."
"Put up an oar," she said bravely.
"But there is no oar."
"Oh," she said, again discouraged.
There was another thoughtful silence; but she was not to be overwhelmed.
"We must get food," she said; "we must fish."
"That's right," chimed the Maestro resolutely; "we must fish. Have you any hooks?"
"I have pins," she said.
"I have string," he said.
He fumbled through his pockets and drew two pieces of sorry twine. She turned her back upon him, worked mysteriously at her garments, and handed him five pins. "Bend them into hooks," she said.
He kneeled down and, after pricking his fingers several times, succeeded in bending two pins against the thwart. He passed them through the ends of the twine, and they were the possessors of two fishing lines.
"You fish in front and I'll fish in back," she said; "that way we won't catch the same fish."
"No," said the Maestro, looking behind at the water where the black fin seemed playfully trying to cut its initials; "you fish at the bow and I'll fish at the stern."
They took their respective positions and cast conscientiously. Jack, interested, began to run from one to the other, barking. "S-s-s-h," hissed the Maestro; "you'll scare the fish!" But the warning evidently came too late; the fish refused to bite.
"I'm lonely," finally said a voice at the bow; "come here and talk to me while I fish."
The Maestro dropped his tackle with suspicious alacrity and went forward. The bride continued casting with a gradual diminuendo of enthusiasm.
"I don't think this is much fun, do you?" she pouted. "Let's stop."
So they sat down again, she on his knees, Jack in her arms. The wind was going down, the sun was less scorching, and it was pleasant and quiet. To the left the palm-lined shore showed farther and farther away; and they were still drifting in the grip of some stubborn current. Suddenly she was laughing, a quiet, self-contained peal at some pleasant thought hers only.
"It's dinner time," she said between two musical ripples.
"But you didn't catch any fish," he said.
She laughed again. "Bring me my grip," she ordered. And she pointed to a little dripping satchel, to which, with the tenacity of unconsciousness, she had clung throughout the crisis, and which now lay, unheeded, at the bottom of the boat.
He handed it to her; but when they went to open it, they found it locked, and she had lost the key.
He brought his knife out of his pocket and opened the blade.
"Oh, my poor grip," she exclaimed in dismay. But he slashed at it unsentimentally.
The interior was only slightly wet. Through the gaping hole she took a white lace kerchief and spread it upon the centre thwart. Again her hand went into the grip and successively she drew a little bottle of olives, four figs, three crackers, and a diminutive flask of milk. She arranged them daintily upon the cloth and then, sitting at the bottom of the boat with the table between them, face to face, they gaily dined together.
"Oh, I've eaten so much," she sighed at last as she presented the last fig to Jack, who gulped it down trustingly. "I think I should have a nap, don't you?"
He took her up in his arms as a child and cradled her, but she did not sleep right away. Out in the China Sea ahead, the sun was setting in gloomy splendour. They watched it till it was only a puddle of blood upon the waters; and then darkness dropped like a leaden curtain upon the shimmering sea. From all sides the horizon drew near in black walls across which the heat-lightning wrote in rageful zigzags. The wind had gone down still more and little waves slapped up against the sides of the boat like caresses. A great loneliness, half sweet, half bitter, descended upon them.
"I'm a little afraid, Lad," she murmured. Jack began to whine and she took him up; then, cuddling closer, she went asleep. And the little boat drifted on in the illimitable darkness, the girl and the dog asleep, and the man awake with care and tenderness, while behind a phosphorescence streaked back and forth, back and forth, in ceaseless vigil.
Toward midnight he saw a light far to the left, fixed as if on shore, and he began shouting over the water. This awakened the girl and she joined her melodious halloo to his cries, while Jack barked wildly. But there came no response, and after a while they stopped and went back to their first position. Later, a sudden creaking in the silence startled him, and not a hundred feet away a lorcha was passing like a shadow, all sails set wing-and-wing, the helm lashed, with no man on the watch. Again he shouted and the voice of the girl and the bark of the dog joined him; but again there was no response, and slowly, like some enchanted fabric, the vessel melted into the darkness ahead. Then again the girl went asleep in his arms, the dog upon her knees, while he watched in the night and the silence, a great tenderness at his heart.
Later he must have gone asleep, for, when stirred by a murmur in his ear and a caress on his brow, he looked up into her eyes, the sky above was all green and rose with the dawn, and Jack was yelping madly at the bow. He started to get up but she detained him.
"No, sir; you mustn't look," she said; "I have a surprise for you." She placed her hands over his eyes and turned his head as he rose to his knees. "Now look!" she exclaimed, suddenly freeing him. And his eyes opened upon a line of coconut palms, with a golden thread of beach at their feet, not a hundred feet away.
He sprang out into the shallow water and pulled the boat up on shore. The sun was rising and they lay down on the sand, thawing their limbs, stiffened by the heavy night-dew, while Jack ran up and down the shore, barking at the rippling waves. It was a balmy morning; before them stretched the sea, a smooth shimmering gray sheet, with vague palpitations of darker hues; from behind came the scented exhalation of the land—and the mad barks of the dog, precipitated one upon the other, filled the air with a wild tumult of joy. A sweet lethargy stole through their veins; the problems of their existence, of their whereabouts, of food and shelter, of their return to his town were things for the future, for a far, remote, hazy future; the present had them in its enchantment.
After a while a little brown boy, a net over his shoulder, came singing down the beach. At the sight of the two strangers he turned and ran, but the Maestro was up and after him and had him in his strong arms before he could reach the shelter of the coconuts. A few words in his own patois and the soft voice of the white lady reassured the little savage, and he led them along a trail through the trees to a small barrio of tuba-gatherers. At the door of one of the huts the urchin's mother, an immense fat crone, greeted them. They climbed the rickety bamboo ladder into the dwelling and accepted the seat of honour, a sagging bamboo bench, while with many pitying exclamations at their plight, the rotund lady busied herself and stirred up a most abominable smoke upon her cooking platform. When the repast was ready it was seen to consist of two eggs and a banana swimming in suspicious grease, but the visitors were not fastidious. Meanwhile the boy outside climbed a tall palm, and soon the glade was resounding with the whacks of bolos and the crash of coconuts tumbling to the ground. They drank the milk and ate the white meat and gently refused some atrociously fermented tuba pressed ardently to their lips. All this time the Maestro was busy with his questions and he found that they were on Negros, some thirty miles south of their town, with Bago, a large village, where they would be able to secure a carabao and cart, only a few miles away.
So, as soon as was compatible with the somewhat deliberate Filipino courtesy, they started toward Bago, the whole population of the barrio watching them disappear through the trees. They soon struck the road and swung upon it. The sun, still low, dealt gently with the new arrival, and the country was beautiful. To their left the flashing-green rice-fields sloped toward the sea, and the shimmering waters showed here and there through the curtain of palms. To their right the high sugar cane, serried and plumed, throbbing mysteriously with small animal life, walled the view. They were somewhat dilapidated. The Maestro was barefooted and hatless, and his once-white suit hung lamentably upon his frame; the girl's hair had come loose and fell like a golden cataract down her back; but their hearts were purring with ineffable joy and everything was good. Hand in hand they strode along like children, stopping here and there to pick a flower and gaze into each other's eyes, while Jack raced madly, now in front, now behind them.
After a while a horseman came into view down the golden ribbon of road, riding toward them. As he neared he showed as a white-jacketed cork-helmeted Caucasian upon a diminutive native pony. The Maestro was gazing intently at the approaching figure. Suddenly he stopped short, his mouth open in astonishment.
"Well, I'll be danged," he exclaimed, "if it isn't the sky-pilot!"
"The sky-pilot?" asked the girl, astonished by this strange demonstration.
"Sure," corroborated the Maestro; "that's Huston, the missionary."
"The missionary!" ejaculated the young lady. She turned toward the Maestro; the Maestro turned toward her, and their eyes met. A slight blush rose to her cheeks.
"What luck!" cried the Maestro fervently. "Here, you sit down there," he said, pointing to a little mound by the side of the road. And not waiting to see if his invitation had been accepted, he rushed ahead toward the horseman.
The little pony was pulled up short, and the girl, sitting down with her eyes rigidly ahead, caught snatches of an animated conversation. Finally the missionary dismounted and the two men came toward her.
"Are you willing?" asked the missionary, as he stood, hat off, before her after the introduction. He was a young man, clean-shaven, very different from her preconceived idea of his kind, and there was a little gleam of fun in his blue eyes.
"Well——" she hesitated and looked intently at the tip of her foot, peeping beyond the bottom of her skirt. A cricket in the cane burst out in a shrill laugh. She raised her head and plunged her eyes steadily into those of the amused inquisitioner.
"I'm always willing to do what Lad wishes," she said, placing her hand upon the Maestro's shoulder.
They moved beneath the shade of a bamboo thicket, and the missionary, standing before the boy and the girl, the bridle of his pony passed around his arm, read words out of a little book that he had taken from his saddlebag.
But before he had gone very far, the Maestro began to fumble at his jacket. With some difficulty he drew from some inward recess a little buckskin bag, and when the missionary, hesitating, stopped in the middle of a passage, the Maestro nodded his head encouragingly. "Go on; it's all right," he said, and he passed something that glittered upon the ring-finger of the girl.
"Whom God hath united let no man part," said the missionary. He closed his book, stepped forward, and kissed the girl on the forehead.
"That was well done," said the Maestro. And he also kissed the girl, but not on the forehead.
They stood together for a while, speaking in absent-minded tones, the missionary of his missions, the Maestro of his schools, and then the Maestro and the girl started on again toward Bago. But Huston did not mount right away. He stood looking at them as they walked along the road, side by side, as they were to be through life, the dog frisking gleefully at their heels. They came to a turn in the highway and with a sudden joyous skip they vanished behind the cane, hand in hand like children.
Huston rose slowly into his saddle. "Come on, little horse," he said kindly; "come on; we're not in this."