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The Island Mystery/Chapter 10


THE peculiarity of Smith’s proceedings highly stimulated the curiosity of Mr. Phillips. The envelope in his pocket helped him to the belief that he held the clue of an exciting mystery. He pondered the matter while he shaved. He was dull company at breakfast because he could not get it out of his head. He made up his mind at last to confide his vague suspicions to Mr. Donovan. This was a difficult decision to arrive at. He would have much preferred to unravel his mystery himself, to go to the Queen with evidence completely sufficient to condemn a whole band of conspirators. But he saw no chance of getting any further in his investigations. Smith’s morning expedition remained obstinately unconnected with the torn envelope. A sense of loyalty to his employers combined with devotion to the Queen decided him to tell Mr. Donovan all he knew.

The work of unloading the Ida went on briskly all the morning. Mr. Donovan sat, remote from the turmoil, on his balcony. Mr. Phillips, seeking a moment when Smith was busy elsewhere, climbed to the balcony. Mr. Donovan welcomed him.

“Sit right down,” he said. “There’s another chair knocking about somewhere. Take a cigar.”

Mr. Phillips hauled a deck chair from the sunshine into the shade and stood leaning over the back of it.

“This island,” said Mr. Donovan, “seems likely to be restful. Once we’re through with the job of landing our trunks we shall be able to settle down and just stay put. I don’t say but it’s pleasant for a man like me who’s worked some in his time to sit here and watch other people sweating——

He waved his hand towards the islanders, who staggered up the steps under their loads. He included with a sweeping gesture two boats which had just left the ship’s side. The day was exceedingly hot. All these men were certainly sweating. The clanking and rattling of the donkey engines were plainly audible across the water. The engineman was probably sweating too. Captain Wilson, standing erect in the full blaze of the sun on the steamer’s fore-deck, cannot possibly have been cool. Mr. Donovan sighed with satisfaction.

“I don’t deny that it’s pleasant,” he said, “kind of aggravates the sense of restfulness; but for real calm give me a country where nobody works at all. That’s what I am looking forward to. That’s why I reckon this island is going to suit me.”

“Mr. Donovan,” said Phillips, “there’s a matter I want to speak to you about. I daresay there’s nothing in it; but I can’t help feeling——

Mr. Phillips’ hand went to his breast pocket. He clutched the torn envelope.

“Here’s something I picked up the day before yesterday,” he said.

Smith stepped suddenly between him and Mr. Donovan. Smith was a hard worker, and a loud shouter when shouting was desirable. He was also, as Phillips knew, a quiet mover when he chose. He held a tray in his hand with two glasses on it. He handed one to Mr. Donovan and the other to Phillips.

“Beg pardon, sir,” he said, “but there’s some cases of books come ashore, sir. I thought you’d like to arrange about them yourself, sir, seeing as how I don’t understand libraries.”

He spoke to Phillips. He did not expect Mr. Donovan to arrange anything.

“You’re young, Phillips,” said Mr. Donovan. “According to the prophets and other wise men it’s a good thing to be young. I’m getting on for sixty, but there are compensations. I don’t feel called on to see after things. I don’t have to toil any. Smith!”

“Yes, sir.”

“There exist in the U. S. A. more than two hundred formulæ for the compounding of cocktails. They vary from the simple dry Martini to the more poetic Angel’s Smile. How many of them do you know, Smith?”

“About eight, sir, eight or ten.”

“Few men, except professional bar-tenders, know more,” said Mr. Donovan. “But you can learn. I see before you, Smith, years of artistic endeavour. Eight from two hundred leave a hundred and ninety-two. I think I have a book containing the formulæ. It was compiled by one of our leading citizens after a term of residence in a dry State. I shall give you the book, Smith. My digestion remains unimpaired up to date. I shall sample the results of your labours.”

Mr. Phillips swallowed his cocktail and went away without saying any more about the torn envelope. He had no intention of telling his story in the presence of Smith.

He tried again an hour later. He calculated on not being interrupted this time. Smith had gone off to the steamer. From time to time he had to go to the steamer to act as interpreter there. Captain Wilson seemed curiously incapable of making himself understood by the islanders.

“That you again, Mr. Phillips,” said Donovan. “Sit down. Take a cigar and sit down.”

“There’s something I want to speak to you about, sir,” said Phillips.

“If you must speak,” said Donovan, “I hope you’ll sort of murmur. That engine has stopped clanking for a moment and Smith isn’t shouting any at those poor devils of islanders. ‘Silence,’ says the poet, Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘like a poultice came to heal the wound of sound.’ It’s a kind of advanced sample of what this island’s going to be.”

This was not encouraging to Mr. Phillips. He hesitated. Far away, under the shadow of the cliffs, a small boat moved slowly. In it was the Queen, seated in the stern with a huge box of chocolates in her lap. Kalliope rowed, her mouth full of chocolates. Phillips could not see the box or Kalliope’s mouth. The boat was too far away for that. But he knew the chocolates were there. Early in the day the Queen had come to him and demanded candies. She had come at a fortunate moment. He was in the act of opening a large case, sent out, so the label declared, by Fuller, and Kalliope had carried down to the boat a huge box of chocolates. It was the sight of that boat—perhaps, too, the thought of the chocolates—which spurred Mr. Phillips to tell his tale in spite of all discouragement. Is there anything which is more eloquent of innocent helplessness, anything which makes a stronger appeal to the protective instinct of a man, than the vision of two girls eating chocolates?

“The day I first landed, sir,” he said, “I found this.”

He handed the torn envelope to Mr. Donovan.

“The postmark, sir,” he said, “is London, December 15, 1913. Now how do you think it got here?”

Donovan looked at the envelope curiously. He turned it over, felt the texture of it with his fingers. At last he spoke.

“Mr. Phillips,” he said, “I may be wrong in my interpretation of facts. I don’t know that any recognized minister of religion would support me; but it’s my belief that if Eve hadn’t stirred that serpent up, kind of annoyed him by poking round, the creature would have lain quiet enough and there’d have been no trouble about the apple. That’s the nature of snakes. I’ve seen quite a few and I know. Now this island is about the nearest thing to a real restful paradise that I’ve bumped into since I first started my pilgrimage through this vale of tears. I don’t say there’s no snakes in it. There may be. But my notion is to let those snakes lie unless they start in molesting me.”

“But,” said Mr. Phillips, “there must have been somebody in the house here, somebody who had no right to be in it. Otherwise how would that envelope with the London postmark——

“The British nation,” said Donovan, “is at the present moment exciting itself quite a bit about the effect of the Movies—what you call cinemas your side—on the minds of the young. What your leading reformers say is that it upsets the budding intellect of the rising generation to present life to it as life is not. As a general rule I’m not much taken up with eminent reformers. They’re a class of citizens I don’t admire, though I admit they have their uses in supplying loftiness of view and generally keeping up the more serious kinds of charm practised by the female sex. But in the matter of the effect of movies on the young mind those reformers may be right. It seems to me you’ve gathered in some foolish notions about life, Mr. Phillips. Desperate villains dropping envelopes and generally scattering clues along their tracks would be interesting things, a darned sight more interesting than eminent reformers. Only there aren’t any. They don’t exist outside of novels and picture houses.”

Mr. Donovan held out the torn envelope. Phillips took it and stuffed it into his pocket again. He was unconvinced. Cinema exhibitions are responsible for many vain imaginings, no doubt; but his envelope was a fact. He had found it. The postmark was plain and clear. He moved over to the edge of the balcony and gazed out across the sunlit bay. It seemed impossible then and there to tell the story of Smith’s morning expedition. Mr. Donovan’s logical rationalism was invincible.

“If you happen to come on that book about cocktails,” said Donovan, “just give it to Smith. It’s somewhere. In giving the order for the library for this island, I specially mentioned that book along with complete illustrated editions of all standard American and European authors.”

Phillips turned and left the balcony. It was, after all, absurd to worry and puzzle over his envelope. It could have no meaning. Some stray tourist perhaps, sight-seeing far from all beaten tracks, had made his way into the house. Tourists are notorious for leaving paper behind them. As for Smith and his boating at dawn—could Smith possibly have gone to search for breakfast eggs in a sea cave?

He glanced once more at the bay before he returned to his work. The Queen’s boat was no longer in sight. The girls had landed perhaps in some quiet creek, or the Queen had taken a fancy to cross the bay and explore the village where her subjects lived.

Kalliope rowed easily and was well content to go on rowing all day. She was almost perfectly happy. Fuller’s sweets were a revelation of unimagined delight to her, and she could gaze without interruption at the Queen. There was little in the world left for her heart to desire.

The girls rowed round the shore of the bay. The shadow of the white cliffs was grateful. The Queen delighted to drag her hands through the cool water. The sound of its lapping against the steep rocks soothed her. She liked to peer into the blue depths. When she looked up it was pleasant to meet Kalliope’s soft brown eyes and to see the ready smile broaden on the girl’s lips. Now and then, laughing, she leaned forward and pressed a chocolate into Kalliope’s mouth. The Queen’s fingers were often wet with salt water, but that did not spoil the flavour of the sweets for Kalliope.

The boat slipped past high sheer cliffs, past little coves, on whose sand men’s feet had surely never trodden, past the mouths of great caves, gloomy, mysterious, from the depths of which came a hollow murmuring of water. The caves had a strange fascination for the Queen. Her eyes followed their steep walls up to the arches of their high dripping roofs, tried to pierce the dim and darkening shades within, gazed down through the water at round boulders and flat shelves of rock, seen magnified and strangely blue in the depths. At first she was half fearful and would not allow the boat to be taken near the mouths of the caves she passed. At the mouth of one cave Kalliope shouted suddenly. Echoes answered her from within, repeating her shout and repeating it till the cries seemed to come from far off, from the very centre of the island. Opposite another cave Kalliope shouted again and banged her oars against the gunwhale of the boat. A flock of grey birds, some kind of rock pigeons, flew out, making a sound of rushing with their wings. The Queen became, little by little, less fearful and more curious.

They came at last to a cavern with a wide entrance. The daylight shone far inside. The water was blue far into the depths, not purple or black as it seemed to be just inside the narrower caves. The Queen signed to Kalliope. The boat turned, slipped into the wide entrance, rose and fell upon the swelling water under the high roof. Kalliope rowed on. For awhile she rowed with her oars full stretch on their rowlocks. Then the walls narrowed more and more till she must ship her oars. The boat glided on slowly from the impulse of her last stroke. The walls narrowed still. Kalliope stood up. Pushing against one wall and then the other with an oar grasped midway in her hands she drove the boat forward. Suddenly the space widened. The roof was higher, almost out of sight. The boat passed into a huge cavern very dimly lit. The Queen gasped, sat open-mouthed in breathless silence for a moment; then looking round she saw that the cavern was lit by several thin shafts of pale-blue light. More than one of the caves whose entrance the boat had passed led into this great cavern. Kalliope, laughing, plunged an oar into the waters. It shone silver like some long fish. The Queen gazed at it. She plunged her own arm in and saw it turn silver too.

The water was still deep and seemed scarcely to shallow at all as the boat moved forward into the depths of the cavern. Suddenly the Queen saw before her a steep beach covered with large, round stones. The boat grounded. Kalliope leaped on shore. She held her hand out to the Queen. The two girls stood together on the beach. Kalliope, still holding her Queen’s hand, led the way upwards, away from the boat and the water. Her bare feet moved lightly over the stones which shifted and rolled under the Queen’s shoes, making a hollow sound. Echoes multiplied the sound until the air was full of hollow mutterings, like the smothered reports of very distant guns. Kalliope led on. To her the way was familiar. The dim light and hollow noises were commonplace. At last she stopped and with a little cry pointed forward.

The Queen looked. Her eyes were well accustomed now to the dim light. She saw.

There in the depths of the mysterious cavern, it would not have surprised the girl to see strange things. She would scarcely have been astonished if Kalliope had pointed to a group of mermaids combing damp hair with long curved shells. Old Triton with his wreathed horn would have been in place, almost an expected vision, if he had sat on a throne of rock, sea carved, with panting dolphins at his feet. The Queen saw no such beings. What she did see called from her a little cry of surprise, made her cling suddenly to Kalliope’s arm.

“Oh!” she said. “Oh, Kalliope, what are they?”

“Damn boxes,” said Kalliope.

Before the eyes of the Queen, stretching along the back of the cave, was a long row of large galvanized iron tanks, strongly made, with heavily studded seams, each with a great copper tap. They were ranged in a most orderly line, like some grey monsters carefully drilled. They were all exactly the same width, the same height, and the copper spouts exactly matched each other.

“Damned boxes,” said Kalliope cheerfully.

Any one looking at them might almost have agreed with her. They were not precisely boxes. They were cisterns, tanks, but they gave the impression of being damnable and damned.

“But,” said the Queen, “what are they for? What’s the meaning of them? How did they get here? Who brought them?”

Kalliope did not understand the questions, but guessed at what her mistress asked. She had been learning English for three days only. She had been quick to pick up certain words from the Queen, words in frequent use between them. But in face of questionings like these the vocabulary of millinery and hair dressing failed her hopelessly. She fell back on what she had picked up from the sailors’ lips and from her brothers who were already enriching the island language with English slang.

“Blighters,” she said, “mucky ship—go row, go row—damn boxes.”

In spite of the pale light and the sinister mystery of the tanks in front of her the Queen laughed aloud. The pursuing echoes made Kalliope’s English irresistibly absurd. Then she pondered. Men—whether “blighters” in Kalliope’s mouth conveyed reproach or were simply a synonym for men she did not know—men in a ship—“mucky” described the ship as little probably as “damn boxes” described the packing-cases of furniture or “bloody” her trunks of clothes. Men in a ship had brought the tanks, had rowed them—“go row” was plain enough—ashore in boats.

“But who,” said the Queen, “and why?”

Kalliope was beaten. Who and why were too much for her, as indeed they have been for people far wiser than she. Are not all theology and all philosophy attempts, and for the most part vain attempts, to deal with just those two words, who and why?

“Blighters,” said Kalliope, and the echoes repeated her words with emphasis, “blighters, blighters, blighters,” till the Queen came to believe it.

Then Kalliope, memory wakened in her, grew suddenly hopeful. She began to hum a tune, very softly at first, making more than one false start; but getting it nearly right at last. The Queen recognized it. She had heard it a hundred times in old days at prayers in the chapel of her college. It was a hymn tune. The words came back to her at once. “Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God.” She took Kalliope by the arm and led her back to the boat.

“Come away,” she said, “quick, quick. I’m going mad.”

Kalliope entered into the spirit of a new game. She ran down across the rolling pebbles.

“Go row,” she said. “Quick, quick.”

The boat, Kalliope pushing, dragging, rowing, burst from the cavern, fled beyond the shadow of the cliffs, glided into the blaze of sunshine and the sparkling water of the outer bay. The Queen lay back in the stern and laughed. Kalliope, resting on her oars, laughed too. The Queen’s laughter passed into an uncontrollable fit. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Her sides were sore. She gasped for breath. The thought of that row of portentously solemn grey tanks was irresistibly comic. They looked like stranded codfish with their tongues out. They looked like a series of caricatures of an American politician, a square-headed ponderous man, who had once dined with her father. He had the same appearance of imbecile gravity, the same enormous pomposity. The copper spouts were so many exaggerated versions of his nose.

Her imagination flew to a vision of the men who had brought the tanks and cisterns there in a “mucky ship.” She seemed to see them, thin scarecrows of men, crawling over the rusty sides of some battered tramp steamer; mournful men with brown faces and skinny arms, singing their hymn with sharp cracked voices while they laboured at their utterly preposterous task. Laughter conquered the Queen. She lay back helpless in the merciless grip of uncontrollable merriment. Kalliope could not laugh so much. The joke was beyond her. She sat with a wavering half-smile on her lips watching the Queen. The box of chocolates lay in the bottom of the boat. Kalliope stretched her foot out, touched the box, pushed it gently towards the Queen. It seemed to her waste of a golden opportunity to leave the box, no more than half empty, at their feet. The movement broke the spell of the Queen’s laughter. She picked up the box, pushed chocolates into Kalliope’s mouth, filled her own with them.