Orpheus in Mayfair and Other Short Stories by Maurice Baring - HTML preview
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"Perhaps we had better not land after all," said Lewis as he was stepping into the boat; "we can explore this island on our way home."
"We had much better land now," said Stewart; "we shall get to Teneriffe tomorrow in any case. Besides, an island that's not on the chart is too exciting a thing to wait for."
Lewis gave in to his younger companion, and the two ornithologists, who were on their way to the Canary Islands in search of eggs, were rowed to shore. "They had better fetch us at sunset," said Lewis as they landed.
"Perhaps we shall stay the night," responded Stewart.
"I don't think so," said Lewis; but after a pause he told the sailors that if they should be more than half an hour late they were not to wait, but to come back in the morning at ten. Lewis and Stewart walked from the sandy bay up a steep basaltic cliff which sloped right down to the beach.
"The island is volcanic," said Stewart.
"All the islands about here are volcanic," said Lewis. "We shan't be able to climb much in this heat," he added.
"It will be all right when we get to the trees," said Stewart. Presently they reached the top of the cliff. The basaltic rock ceased and an open grassy incline was before them covered with myrtle and cactus bushes; and further off a thick wood, to the east of which rose a hill sparsely dotted with olive trees. They sat down on the grass, panting. The sun beat down on the dry rock; there was not a cloud in the sky nor a ripple on the emerald sea. In the air there was a strange aromatic scent; and the stillness was heavy.
"I don't think it can be inhabited," said Lewis.
"Perhaps it's merely a volcanic island cast up by a sea disturbance," suggested Stewart.
"Look at those trees," said Lewis, pointing to the wood in the distance. "What about them?" asked Stewart.
"They are oak trees," said Lewis. "Do you know why I didn't want to land?" he asked abruptly. "I am not superstitious, you know, but as I got into the boat I distinctly heard a voice calling out: 'Don't land!' "
Stewart laughed. "I think it was a good thing to land," he said. "Let's go on now." They walked towards the wood, and the nearer they got to it the more their surprise increased. It was a thick wood of large oak trees which must certainly have been a hundred years old. When they had got quite close to it they paused. "Before we explore the wood," said Lewis, "let us climb the hill and see if we can get a general view of the island."
Stewart agreed, and they climbed the hill in silence. When they reached the top they found it was not the highest point of the island, but only one of several hills, so that they obtained only a limited view. The valleys seemed to be densely wooded, and the oak wood was larger than they had imagined. They laid down and rested and lit their pipes.
"No birds," remarked Lewis gloomily.
"I haven't seen one--the island is extraordinarily still," said Stewart. The further they had penetrated inland the more oppressive and sultry the air had become; and the pungent aroma they had noticed directly was stronger. It was like that of mint, and yet it was not mint; and although sweet it was not agreeable. The heat seemed to weigh even on Stewart's buoyant spirits, for he sat smoking in silence, and no longer urged Lewis to continue their exploration.
"I think the island is inhabited," said Lewis, "and that the houses are on the other side. There are some sheep and some goats on that hill opposite. Do you see?" "Yes," said Stewart, "I think they are mouflon, but I don't think the island is inhabited all the same." No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he started, and rising to his feet, cried: "Look there!" and he pointed to a thin wreath of smoke which was rising from the wood. Their languor seemed to leave them, and they ran down the hill and reached the wood once more. Just as they were about to enter it Lewis stooped and pointed to a small plant with white flowers and three oval-shaped leaves rising from the root.
"What's that?" he asked Stewart, who was the better botanist of the two. The flowers were quite white, and each had six pointed petals.
"It's a kind of garlic, I think," said Stewart. Lewis bent down over it. "It doesn't smell," he said. "It's not unlike moly (Allium flavum), only it's white instead of yellow, and the flowers are larger. I'm going to take it with me." He began scooping away the earth with a knife so as to take out the plant by the roots. After he had been working for some minutes he exclaimed: "This is the toughest plant I've ever seen; I can't get it out." He was at last successful, but as he pulled the root he gave a cry of surprise.
"There's no bulb," he said. "Look! Only a black root."
Stewart examined the plant. "I can't make it out," he said.
Lewis wrapped the plant in his handkerchief and put it in his pocket. They entered the wood. The air was still more sultry here than outside, and the stillness even more oppressive. There were no birds and not a vestige of bird life. "This exploration is evidently a waste of time as far as birds are concerned," remarked Lewis. At that moment there was a rustle in the undergrowth, and five pigs crossed their path and disappeared, grunting. Lewis started, and for some reason he could not account for, shuddered; he looked at Stewart, who appeared unconcerned.
"They are not wild," said Stewart. They walked on in silence. The place and its heavy atmosphere had again affected their spirits. When they spoke it was almost in a whisper. Lewis wished they had not landed, but he could give no reason to himself for his wish. After they had been walking for about twenty minutes they suddenly came on an open space and a low white house. They stopped and looked at each other.
"It's got no chimney!" cried Lewis, who was the first to speak. It was a onestoreyed building, with large windows (which had no glass in them) reaching to the ground, wider at the bottom than at the top. The house was overgrown with creepers; the roof was flat. They entered in silence by the large open doorway and found themselves in a low hall. There was no furniture and the floor was mossy.
"It's rather like an Egyptian tomb," said Stewart, and he shivered. The hall led into a further room, which was open in the centre to the sky, like the impluvium of a Roman house. It also contained a square basin of water, which was filled by water bubbling from a lion's mouth carved in stone. Beyond the impluvium there were two smaller rooms, in one of which there was a kind of raised stone platform. The house was completely deserted and empty. Lewis and Stewart said little; they examined the house in silent amazement.
"Look," said Lewis, pointing to one of the walls. Stewart examined the wall and noticed that there were traces on it of a faded painted decoration. "It's like the wall paintings at Pompeii," he said.
"I think the house is modern," remarked Lewis. "It was probably built by some eccentric at the beginning of the nineteenth century, who did it up in Empire style."
"Do you know what time it is?" said Stewart, suddenly. "The sun has set and it's growing dark."
"We must go at once," said Lewis, "we'll come back here to-morrow." They walked on in silence. The wood was dim in the twilight, a fitful breeze made the trees rustle now and again, but the air was just as sultry as ever. The shapes of the trees seemed fantastic and almost threatening in the dimness, and the rustle of the leaves was like a human moan. Once or twice they seemed to hear the grunting of pigs in the undergrowth and to catch sight of bristly backs. "We don't seem to be getting any nearer the end," said Stewart after a time. "I think we've taken the wrong path. They stopped. "I remember that tree," said Stewart, pointing to a twisted oak; "we must go straight on from there to the left." They walked on and in ten minutes' time found themselves once more at the back of the house. It was now quite dark.
"We shall never find the way now," said Lewis. "We had better sleep in the house." They walked through the house into one of the furthest rooms and settled themselves on the mossy platform. The night was warm and starry, the house deathly still except for the splashing of the water in the basin. "We shan't get any food," Lewis said.
"I'm not hungry," said Stewart, and Lewis knew that he could not have eaten anything to save his life. He felt utterly exhausted and yet not at all sleepy. Stewart, on the other hand, was overcome with drowsiness. He lay down on the mossy platform and fell asleep almost instantly. Lewis lit a pipe; the vague forebodings he had felt in the morning had returned to him, only increased tenfold. He felt an unaccountable physical discomfort, an inexplicable sensation of uneasiness. Then he realised what it was. He felt there was someone in the house besides themselves, someone or something that was always behind him, moving when he moved and watching him. He walked into the impluvium, but heard nothing and saw nothing. There were none of the thousand little sounds, such as the barking of a dog, or the hoot of a night-bird, which generally complete the silence of a summer night. Everything was uncannily still. He returned to the room. He would have given anything to be back on the yacht, for besides the physical sensation of discomfort and of the something watching him he also felt the unmistakable feeling of impending danger that had been with him nearly all day.
He lay down and at last fell into a doze. As he dozed he heard a subdued noise, a kind of buzzing, such as is made by a spinning wheel or a shuttle on a loom, and more strongly than ever he felt that he was being watched. Then all at once his body seemed to grow stiff with fright. He saw someone enter the room from the impluvium. It was a dim, veiled figure, the figure of a woman. He could not distinguish her features, but he had the impression that she was strangely beautiful; she was bearing a cup in her hands, and she walked towards Stewart and bent over him, offering him the cup.
Something in Lewis prompted him to cry out with all his might: "Don't drink! Don't drink!" He heard the words echoing in the air, just as he had heard the voice in the boat; he felt that it was imperative to call out, and yet he could not: he was paralysed; the words would not come. He formed them with his lips, but no sound came. He tried with all his might to rise and scream, and he could not move. Then a sudden cold faintness came upon him, and he remembered no more till he woke and found the sun shining brightly. Stewart was lying with his eyes closed, moaning loudly in his sleep.
Lewis tried to wake him. He opened his eyes and stared with a fixed, meaningless stare. Lewis tried to lift him from the platform, and then a horrible thing happened. Stewart struggled violently and made a snarling noise, which froze the blood in Lewis's veins. He ran out of the house with cold beads of sweat on his forehead. He ran through the wood to the shore, and there he found the boat. He rowed back to the yacht and fetched some quinine. Then, together with the skipper, the steward, and some other sailors, he returned to the ominous house. They found it empty. There was no trace of Stewart. They shouted in the wood till they were hoarse, but no answer broke the heavy stillness. Then sending for the rest of the crew, Lewis organised a regular search over the whole island. This lasted till sunset, and they returned in the evening without having found any trace of Stewart or of any other human being. In the night a high wind rose, which soon became a gale; they were obliged to weigh anchor so as not to be dashed against the island, and for twenty-four hours they underwent a terrific tossing. Then the storm subsided as quickly as it had come. They made for the island once more and reached the spot where they had anchored three days before. There was no trace of the island. It had completely disappeared.
When they reached Teneriffe the next day they found that everybody was talking of the great tidal wave which had caused such great damage and destruction in the islands.