Towards sunset I came out on a sheer granite cliff where
the sea-birds were whirling and clamoring, and the great breakers dashed,
rolling in doublethundered reverberations on the sun-dyed, crimson sands
below the rock.
Across the half-moon of beach towered another cliff, and,
behind this, I saw a column of smoke rising in the still air. It
certainly came from Halyard’s chimney, although the opposite cliff prevented
me from seeing the house itself.
I rested a moment to refill my pipe, then resumed rifle
and pack, and cautiously started to skirt the cliffs. I had descended
half-way towards the beech, and was examining the cliff opposite, when
something on the very top of the rock arrested my attention—a man darkly
outlined against the sky. The next moment, however, I knew it could
not be a man, for the object suddenly glided over the face of the cliff
and slid down the sheer, smooth lace like a lizard. Before I could
get a square look at it, the thing crawled into the surf— or, at least,
it seemed to—but the whole episode occurred so suddenly, so unexpectedly,
that I was not sure I had seen anything at all.
However, I was curious enough to climb the cliff on the
land side and make my way towards the spot where I imagined I saw the man.
Of course, there was nothing there—not a trace of a human being, I mean.
Something had been there—a sea-otter, possibly—for the remains of a freshly
killed fish lay on the rock, eaten to the back-bone and tail.
The next moment, below me, I saw the house, a freshly
painted, trim, flimsy structure, modern, and very much out of harmony with
the splendid savagery surrounding it. It struck a nasty, cheap note in
the noble, gray monotony of headland and sea.
The descent was easy enough. I crossed the crescent beach,
hard as pink marble, and found a little trodden path among the rocks, that
led to the front porch of the house.
There were two people on the porch—I heard their voices
before I saw them—and when I set my foot upon the wooden steps, I saw one
of them, a woman, rise from her chair and step hastily towards me.
“Come back!” cried the other, a man with a smooth-shaven,
deeply lined face, and a pair of angry, blue eyes; and the woman stepped
back quietly, acknowledging my lifted hat with a silent inclination.
The man, who was reclining in an invalid’s rolling-chair,
clapped both large, pale hands to the wheels and pushed himself out along
the porch. He had shawls pinned about him, an untidy, drab-colored
hat on his head, and, when he looked down at me, he scowled.
“I know who you are,” he said, in his acid voice; “you’re
one of the Zoological men from Bronx Park. You look like it, anyway.”
“It is easy to recognize you from your reputation,” I
replied, irritated at his discourtesy.
“Really,” he replied, with something between a sneer and
a laugh, “I’m obliged for your frankness. You’re after my great auks, are
“Nothing else would have tempted me into this place,”
I replied, sincerely.
“Thank Heaven for that,” he said. “Sit down a moment;
you’ve interrupted us.” Then, turning to the young woman, who wore the
neat gown and tiny cap of a professional nurse, he bade her resume what
she had been saying. She did so, with deprecating glance at me, which
made the old man sneer again.
“It happened so suddenly,” she said, in her low voice,
“that I had no chance to get back. The boat was drifting in the cove;
I sat in the stern, reading, both oars shipped, and the tiller swinging.
Then I heard a scratching under the boat, but thought it might be seaweed—and,
next moment, came those soft thumpings, like the sound of a big fish rubbing
its nose against a float.”
Halyard clutched the wheels of his chair and stared at
the girl in grim displeasure.
“Didn’t you know enough to be frightened?” he demanded.
“No—not then,” she said, coloring faintly; “but when,
after a few moments, I looked up and saw the harbormaster running up and
down the beach, I was horribly frightened.”
“Really?” said Halyard, sarcastically; “it was about time.”
Then, turning to me, he rasped out: “And that young lady was obliged to
row all the way to Port-of-Waves and call to Lee’s quarrymen to take her
Completely mystified, I looked from Halyard to the girl,
not in the least comprehending what all this meant.
“That will do,” said Halyard, ungraciously, which curt
phrase was apparently the usual dismissal for the nurse.
She rose, and I rose, and she passed me with an inclination,
stepping noiselessly into the house.
“I want beef-tea!” bawled Halyard after her; then he gave
me an unamiable glance.
“I was a well-bred man,” he sneered; “I’m a Harvard graduate,
too, but I live as I like, and I do what I like, and I say what I like.”
“You certainly are not reticent,” I said, disgusted.
“Why should I be?” he rasped; “I pay that young woman
for my irritability; it’s a bargain between us.”
“In your domestic affairs,” I said, “there is nothing
that interests me. I came to see those auks.”
“You probably believe them to be razor-billed auks,” he
said, contemptuously. “But they’re not; they’re great auks.”
I suggested that he permit me to examine them, and he
replied, indifferently, that they were in a pen in his backyard, and that
I was free to step around the house when I cared to.
I laid my rifle and pack on the veranda, and hastened
off with mixed emotions, among which hope no longer predominated.
No man in his senses would keep two such precious prizes in a pen in his
backyard, I argued, and I was perfectly prepared to find anything from
a puffin to a penguin in that pen.
I shall never forget, as long as I live, my stupor of
amazement when I came to the wire-covered enclosure. Not only were
there two great auks in the pen, alive, breathing, squatting in bulky majesty
on their seaweed bed, but one of them was gravely contemplating two newly
hatched chicks, all hill and feet, which nestled sedately at the edge of
a puddle of salt-water, where some small fish were swimming.
For a while excitement blinded, nay, deafened me. I tried
to realize that I was gazing upon the last individuals of an all but extinct
race—the sole survivors of the gigantic auk, which, for thirty years, has
been accounted an extinct creature.
I believe that I did not move muscle nor limb until the
sun had gone down and the crowding darkness blurred my straining eyes and
blotted the great, silent, bright-eyed birds from sight.
Even then I could not tear myself away from the enclosure;
I listened to the strange, drowsy note of the male bird, the fainter responses
of the female, the thin plaints of the chicks, huddling under her breast;
I heard their flipper-like, embryotic wings beating sleepily as the birds
stretched and yawned their beaks and clacked them, preparing for slumber.
“If you please,” came a soft voice from the door, “Mr.
Halyard awaits your company to dinner.”