The Mystery by S. E. White and S. H. Adams - HTML preview

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The Island


I came on deck one morning at about four bells to find the entire ship's company afoot. Even the doctor was there. Everybody was gazing eagerly at a narrow, mountainous island lying slate-coloured across the early morning.

We were as yet some twenty miles distant from it, and could make out nothing but its general outline. The latter was sharply defined, rising and falling to a highest point one side of the middle. Over the island, and raggedly clasping its sides, hung a cloud, the only one visible in the sky.

 I joined the afterguard.

 "You see?" the doctor was exclaiming.

"It iss as I haf said. The island iss there. Everything iss as it should be!" He was quite excited.

 Percy Darrow, too, was shaken out of his ordinary calm.

 "The volcano is active," was his only comment, but it explained the ragged cloud.

 "You say there's a harbour?" inquired Captain Selover.

 "It should be on the west end," said Dr. Schermerhorn.

 Captain Selover drew me one side. He, too was a little aroused.

"Now wouldn't that get you?" he squeaked.

"Doctor runs up against a Norwegian bum who tells him about a volcanic island, and gives its bearings. The island ain't on the map at all. Doctor believes it, and makes me lay my course for those bearings. And here's the island! So the bum's story was true! I'd like to know what the rest of it was!" His eyes were shining.

 "Do we anchor or stand off and on?" I asked.

 Captain Selover turned to grip me by the shoulder.

 "I have orders from Darrow to get to a good berth, to land, to build shore quarters, and to snug down for a stay of a year at least!"

 We stared at each other.

 "Joyous prospect," I muttered.

"Hope there's something to do there."

The morning wore, and we rapidly approached the island. It proved to be utterly precipitous. The high rounded hills sloped easily to within a hundred feet or so of the water and then fell away abruptly. Where the earth ended was a fantastic filigree border, like the fancy paper with which our mothers used to line the pantry shelves. Below, the white surges flung themselves against the cliffs with a wild abandon. Thousands of sea birds wheeled in the eddies of the wind, thousands of ravens perched on the slopes. With our glasses we could make out the heads of seals fishing outside the surf, and a ragged belt of kelp.

When within a mile we put the helm up, and ran for the west end. A bold point we avoided far out, lest there should be outlying ledges. Then we came in sight of a broad beach and pounding surf.

I was ordered to take a surf boat and investigate for a landing and an anchorage. The swell was running high. We rowed back and forth, puzzled as to how to get ashore with all the freight it would be necessary to land. The ship would lie well enough, for the only open exposure was broken by a long reef over which we could make out the seas tumbling. But inshore the great waves rolled smoothly, swiftly-- then suddenly fell forward as over a ledge, and spread with a roar across the yellow sands. The fresh winds blew the spume back to us. We conversed in shouts.

 "We can surf the boat," yelled Thrackles, "but we can't land a load."

That was my opinion. We rowed slowly along, parallel to the shore, and just outside the line of breakers. I don't know exactly how to tell you the manner in which we became aware of the cove. It was as nearly the instantaneous as can be imagined. One minute I looked ahead on a cliff as unbroken as the side of a cabin; the very next I peered down the length of a cove fifty fathoms long by about ten wide, at the end of which was a gravel beach. I cried out sharply to the men. They were quite as much astonished as I. We backed water, watching closely. At a given point the cove and all trace of its entrance disappeared. We could only just make out the line where the headlands dissolved into the background of the cliffs, and that merely because we knew of its existence. The blending was perfect.

We rowed in. The water was still. A faint ebb and flow whispered against the tiny gravel beach at the end. I noted a practicable way from it to the top of the cliff, and from the cliff down again to the sand beach. Everything was perfect. The water was a beautiful light green, like semi-opaque glass, and from the indistinctness of its depths waved and beckoned, rose and disappeared with indescribable grace and deliberation long feathery sea growths. In a moment the bottom abruptly shallowed. The motion of the boat toward the beach permitted us to catch a hasty glimpse of little fish darting, of big fish turning, of yellow sand and some vivid colour. Then came the grate of gravel and the scraping of the boat's bottom on the beach. We jumped ashore eagerly. I left the men, very reluctant, and ascended a natural trail to a high sloping down over which blew the great Trades. Grass sprung knee-high. A low hill rose at the back. From below the fall of the cliff came the pounding of surf.

I walked to the edge. Various ledges, sloping toward me, ran down to the sea. Against one of them was a wreck, not so very old, head on, her afterworks gone. I recognised the name Golden Horn, and was vastly astonished to find her here against this unknown island. Far up the coast I could see--with the surges dashing up like the explosion of shells, and the cliffs, and the rampart of hills grown with grass and cactus. A bold promontory terminated the coast view to the north, and behind it I could glimpse a more fertile and wooded country. The sky was partly overcast by the volcanic murk. It fled before the Trades, and the red sun alternately blazed and clouded through it.

 As there was nothing more to be seen here, I turned above the hollow of our cove, skirted the base of the hill, and so down to the beach.

It occupied a wide semicircle where the hills drew back. The flat was dry and grown with thick, coarse grass. A stream emerged from a sort of canon on its landward side. I tasted it, found it sulphurous, and a trifle worse than lukewarm. A little nearer the cliff, however, was a clear, cold spring from the rock, and of this I had a satisfying drink. When I arose from my knees, I made out an animal on the hill crest looking at me, but before I could distinguish its characteristics it had disappeared.

I returned along the tide sands. The surf dashed and roared, lifting seaweeds of a blood red, so that in places the water looked pink. Seals innumerable watched me from just outside the breakers. As the waves lifted to a semi-transparence, I could make out others playing, darting back and forth, up and down like disturbed tadpoles, clinging to the wave until the very instant of its fall, then disappearing as though blotted out. The salt smell of seaweed was in my nostrils: I found the place pleasant--

With these few and scattered impressions we returned to the ship. It had been warped to a secure anchorage, and snugged down. Dr. Schermerhorn and Darrow were on deck waiting to go ashore.

I made my report. The two passengers disappeared. They carried lunch and would not be back until night-fall. We had orders to pitch a large tent at a suitable spot and to lighten ship of the doctor's personal and scientific effects. By the time this was accomplished, the two had returned.

 "It's all right," Darrow volunteered to Captain Selover, as he came over the side.

"We've found what we want."

 Their clothes were picked by brush and their boots muddy. Next morning Captain Selover detailed me to especial work.

 "You'll take two of the men and go ashore under Darrow's orders," said he.

Darrow told us to take clothes for a week, an axe apiece, and a block and tackle. We made up our ditty bags, stepped into one of the surf boats, and were rowed ashore. There Darrow at once took the lead.

 Our way proceeded across the grass flat, through the opening of the narrow cañon, and so on back into the interior by way of the bed through which flowed the sulphur stream. The country was badly eroded. Most of the time we marched between perpendicular clay banks about forty feet high. These were occasionally broken by smaller tributary arroyos of the same sort. It would have been impossible to reach the level of the upper country. The bed of the main arroyo was flat, and grown with grasses and herbage of an extraordinary vividness, due, I supposed, to the sulphur water. The stream itself meandered aimlessly through the broader bed. It steadily grew warmer and the sulphur smell more noticeable. Above us we could see the sky and the sharp clay edge of the arroyo. I noticed the tracks of Darrow and Dr. Schermerhorn made the day before.

 After a mile of this, the bottom ran up nearly to the level of the sides, and we stepped out on the floor of a little valley almost surrounded by more hills.

 It was an extraordinary place, and since much happened there, I must give you an idea of it.

It was round and nearly encircled by naked painted hills. From its floor came steam and a roaring sound. The steam blew here and there among the pines on the floor; rose to eddy about the naked painted hills. At one end we saw intermittently a broad ascending cañon -deep red and blue-black--ending in the cone of a smoking volcano. The other seemed quite closed by the sheer hills; in fact the only exit was the route by which we had come.

For the hills were utterly precipitous. I suppose a man might have made his way up the various knobs, ledges, and inequalities, but it would have required long study and a careful head. I, myself, later worked my way a short distance, merely to examine the texture of their marvellous colour.

This was at once varied and of great body--not at all like the smooth, glossed colour of most rock, but soft and rich. You've seen painters' palettes--it was just like that, pasty and fat. There were reds of all shades, from a veritable scarlet to a red umber; greens, from sea-green to emerald; several kinds of blue, and an indeterminate purple-mauve. The whole effect was splendid and barbaric. We stopped and gasped as it hit our eyes. Darrow alone was unmoved. He led the way forward and in an instant had disappeared behind the veil of steam. Thrackles and Perdosa hung back murmuring, but at a sharp word from me gathered their courage in their two hands and proceeded.

We found that the first veil of steam, and a fearful stench of gases, proceeded from a miniature crater whose edge was heavily encrusted with a white salt. Beyond, close under the rise of the hill, was another. Between the two Percy Darrow had stopped and was waiting.

 He eyed us with his lazy, half-quizzical glance as we approached.

 "Think the place is going to blow up?" he inquired, with a tinge of irony.

"Well, it isn't."

He turned to me.

"Here's where we shall stay for a while. You and the men are to cut a number of these pine trees for a house. Better pick out the little ones, about three or four inches through: they're easier handled. I'll be back by noon."

We set to work then in the roaring, steaming valley with the vapour swirling about us, sometimes concealing us, sometimes half revealing us gigantic, again in the utterness of exposure showing us dwindled pigmies against the magnitudes about us. The labour was not difficult. By the time Darrow returned we had a pile of the saplings ready for his next direction.

He was accompanied by the Nigger, very much terrified, very much burdened with food and cooking utensils. The assistant was lazily relating tales of voodoos, a glimmer of mischief in his eyes.