In Search of The Unknown

Robert W. Chambers


The sun was dipping into the sea as we trudged across the meadows towards a high, dome-shaped dune covered with cedars and thickets of sweet bay. I saw no sign of habitation among the sand-hills. Far as the eye could reach, nothing broke the gray line of sea and sky save the squat dunes crowned with stunted cedars. 
          “Then, as we rounded the base of the dune, we almost walked into the door of a house. My amazement amused Miss Holroyd, and I noticed also a touch of malice in her pretty eyes. But she said nothing, following her father into the house, with the slightest possible gesture to me. Was it invitation or was it menace? 
          “The house was merely a light wooden frame, covered with some waterproof stuff that looked like a mixture of rubber and tar. Over this—in fact, over the whole roof—was pitched an awning of heavy sail-cloth. I noticed that the house was anchored to the sand by chains, already rusted red. But this one-storied house was not the only building nestling in the south shelter of the big dune. A hundred feet away stood another structure—long, low, also built of wood. It had rows on rows of round port-holes on every side. The ports were fitted with heavy glass, hinged to swing open if necessary. A single, big double door occupied the front. 
          “Behind this long, low building was still another, a mere shed. Smoke rose from the sheet-iron chimney. There was somebody moving about inside the open door. 
          “As I stood gaping at this mushroom hamlet the professor appeared at the door and asked me to enter. I stepped in at once. 
          “The house was much larger than I had imagined. A straight hallway ran through the centre from east to west. On either side of this hallway were rooms, the doors swinging wide open. I counted three doors on each side; the three on the south appeared to be bedrooms. 
          “The professor ushered me into a room on the north side, where I found Captain McPeek and Frisby sitting at a table, upon which were drawings and sketches of articulated animals and fishes. 
          “‘You see, McPeek,’ said the professor, ‘we only wanted one more man, and I think I’ve got him—Haven’t I?’ turning eagerly to me. 
          “‘Why, yes,’ I said, laughing; ‘this is delightful. Am I invited to stay here?’ 
          “‘Your bedroom is the third on the south side; everything is ready. McPeek, you can bring his trunk tomorrow, can’t you?’ demanded the professor. 
          “The red-faced captain nodded, and shifted a quid. 
          “‘Then it’s all settled,’ said the professor, and he drew a sigh of satisfaction. ‘You see,’ he said, turning to me, ‘I was at my wit’s end to know whom to trust. I never thought of you. Jack’s out in China, and I didn’t dare trust anybody in my own profession. All you care about is writing verses and stories, isn’t it?’ 
          “‘I like to shoot,’ I replied, mildly. 
          “‘Just the thing!’ he cried, beaming at us all in turn. ‘Now I can see no reason why we should not progress rapidly. McPeek, you and Frisby must get those boxes up here before dark. Dinner will be ready before you have finished unloading. Dick, you will wish to go to your room first.’ 
          “My name isn’t Dick, but he spoke so kindly, and beamed upon me in such a fatherly manner, that I let it go. I had occasion to correct him afterwards, several times, but he always forgot the next minute. He calls me Dick to this day. 
          “It was dark when Professor Holroyd, his daughter, and I sat down to dinner. The room was the same in which I had noticed the drawings of beast and bird, but the round table had been extended into an oval, and neatly spread with dainty linen and silver. 
          “A fresh-cheeked Swedish girl appeared from a farther room, bearing the soup. The professor ladled it out, still beaming. 
          “‘Now, this is very delightful—isn’t it, Daisy?’ he said. 
          “‘Very,’ said Miss Holroyd, with a tinge of irony. 
          “‘Very,’ I repeated, heartily. 
          “‘I suppose,’ said the professor, nodding mysteriously at his daughter, ‘that Dick knows nothing of what we’re about down here?’ 
          “‘I suppose,’ said Miss Holroyd, ‘that he thinks we are digging for fossils.’ 
          “I looked at my plate. She might have spared me that. 
          “‘Well, well,’ said her father, smiling to himself, ‘he shall know everything by morning. You’ll be astonished, Dick, my boy.’ 
          “‘His name isn’t Dick,’ corrected Daisy. 
          “The professor said, ‘Isn’t it?’ in an absent-minded way, and relapsed into contemplation of my necktie. 
          “I asked Miss Holroyd a few questions about Jack, and was informed that he had given up law and entered the consular service—as what, I did not dare ask, for I know what our consular service is. 
          “‘In China,’ said Daisy. 
          “‘Choo Choo is the name of the city,’ added her father, proudly; ‘it’s the terminus of the new trans-Siberian railway.’ 
          “‘It’s on the Pong Ping,’ said Daisy. 
          “‘He’s vice-consul,’ added the professor, triumphantly. 
          “‘He’ll make a good one,’ I observed. I knew Jack. I pitied his consul. 
          “So we chatted on about my old playmate, until Freda, the red-cheeked maid, brought coffee, and the professor lighted a cigar, with a little bow to his daughter. 
          “‘Of course, you don’t smoke,’ she said to me, with a glimmer of malice in her eyes. 
          “‘He mustn’t,’ interposed the professor, hastily; ‘it will make his hand tremble.’ 
          “‘No, it won’t,’ said I, laughing; ‘but my hand will shake if I don’t smoke. Are you going to employ me as a draughtsman?’ 
          “‘You’ll know to-morrow,’ he chuckled, with a mysterious smile at his daughter. ‘Daisy, give him my best cigars—put the box here on the table. We can’t afford to have his hand tremble.’ 
          “Miss Holroyd rose and crossed the hallway to her father’s room, returning presently with a box of promising-looking cigars. 
          “‘I don’t think he knows what is good for him,’ she said. ‘He should smoke only one every day.’ 
          “It was hard to bear. I am not vindictive, but I decided to treasure up a few of Miss Holroyd’s gentle taunts. My intimacy with her brother was certainly a disadvantage to me now. Jack had apparently been talking too much, and his sister appeared to be thoroughly acquainted with my past. It was a disadvantage. I remembered her vaguely as a girl with long braids, who used to come on Sundays with her father and take tea with us in our rooms. Then she went to Germany to school, and Jack and I employed our Sunday evenings otherwise. It is true that I regarded her weekly visits as a species of infliction, but I did not think I ever showed it. 
          “‘It is strange,’ said I, ‘that you did not recognize me at once, Miss Holroyd. Have I changed so greatly in five years?’ 
          “‘You wore a pointed French beard in Paris,’ she said—’a very downy one. And you never stayed to tea but twice, and then you only spoke once.’ 
          “‘Oh!’ said I, blankly. ‘What did I say?’ 
          “‘You asked me if I liked plums,’ said Daisy, bursting into an irresistible ripple of laughter.
          “I saw that I must have made the same sort of an ass of myself that most boys of eighteen do. 
          “It was too bad. I never thought about the future in those days. Who could have imagined that little Daisy Holroyd would have grown up into this bewildering young lady? It was really too bad. Presently the professor retired to his room, carrying with him an armful of drawings, and bidding us not to sit up late. When he closed his door Miss Holroyd turned to me. 
          “‘Papa will work over those drawings until midnight,’ she said, with a despairing smile. 
          “‘It isn’t good for him,’ I said. ‘What are the drawings?’ 
          “‘You may know to-morrow,’ she answered, leaning forward on the table and shading her face with one hand. ‘Tell me about yourself and Jack in Paris.’ 
          “I looked at her suspiciously. 
          “‘What! There isn’t much to tell. We studied. Jack went to the law school, and I attended—er—oh, all sorts of schools.’ 
          “‘Did you? Surely you gave yourself a little recreation occasionally?’ 
          “‘Occasionally,’ I nodded. 
          “‘I am afraid you and Jack studied too hard.’ 
          “‘That may be,’ said I, looking meek. 
          “‘Especially about fossils.’ 
          “I couldn’t stand that. 
          “‘Miss Holroyd,’ I said, ‘I do care for fossils. You may think that I am a humbug, but I have a perfect mania for fossils—now.’ 
          “‘Since when?’ 
          “‘About an hour ago,’ I said, airily. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that she had flushed up. It pleased me. 
          “‘You will soon tire of the experiment,’ she said, with a dangerous smile. 
          “‘Oh, I may,’ I replied, indifferently. 
          “She drew back. The movement was scarcely perceptible, but I noticed it, and she knew I did. 
          “The atmosphere was vaguely hostile. One feels such mental conditions and changes instantly. I picked up a chess-board, opened it, set up the pieces with elaborate care, and began to move, first the white, then the black. Miss Holroyd watched me coldly at first, but after a dozen moves she became interested and leaned a shade nearer. I moved a black pawn forward. 
          “‘Why do you do that?’ said Daisy. 
          “‘Because,’ said I, ‘the white queen threatens the pawn.’ 
          “‘It was an aggressive move,’ she insisted. 
          “‘Purely defensive,’ I said. ‘If her white highness will let the pawn alone, the pawn will let the queen alone.’ 
          “Miss Holroyd rested her chin on her wrist and gazed steadily at the board. She was flushing furiously, but she held her ground. 
          “‘If the white queen doesn’t block that pawn, the pawn may become dangerous,’ she said, coldly. 
          “I laughed, and closed up the board with a snap. 
          “‘True,’ I said, ‘it might even take the queen.’ After a moment’s silence I asked, ‘What would you do in that case, Miss Holroyd?’ 
          “‘I should resign,’ she said, serenely; then, realizing what she had said, she lost her self-possession for a second, and cried: ‘No, indeed! I should fight to the bitter end! I mean—’ 
          “‘What?’ I asked, lingering over my revenge. 
          “‘I mean,’ she said, slowly, ‘that your black pawn would never have the chance—never! I should take it immediately.’ 
          “‘I believe you would,’ said I, smiling; ‘so we’ll call the game yours, and— the pawn captured.’ 
          “‘I don’t want it,’ she exclaimed. ‘A pawn is worthless.’ 
          “‘Except when it’s in the king row.’ 
          “‘Chess is most interesting,’ she observed, sedately. She had completely recovered her self-possession. Still I saw that she now had a certain respect for my defensive powers. It was very soothing to me. 
          “‘You know,’ said I, gravely, ‘that I am fonder of Jack than of anybody. That’s the reason we never write each other, except to borrow things. I am afraid that when I was a young cub in France I was not an attractive personality.’ 
          “‘On the contrary,’ said Daisy, smiling, ‘I thought you were very big and very perfect. I had illusions. I wept often when I went home and remembered that you never took the trouble to speak to me but once.’ 
          “‘I was a cub,’ I said—’not selfish and brutal, but I didn’t understand schoolgirls. I never had any sisters, and I didn’t know what to say to very young girls. If I had imagined that you felt hurt—’ 
          “‘Oh, I did—five years ago. Afterwards I laughed at the whole thing.’ 
          “‘Laughed?’ I repeated, vaguely disappointed. 
          “‘Why, of course. I was very easily hurt when I was a child. I think I have outgrown it.’ 
          “The soft curve of her sensitive mouth contradicted her. 
          “‘Will you forgive me now?’ I asked. 
          “‘Yes. I had forgotten the whole thing until I met you an hour or so ago.’ 
          “There was something that had a ring not entirely genuine in this speech. I noticed it, but forgot it the next moment. 
          “Presently she rose, touched her hair with the tip of one finger, and walked to the door. 
          “‘Good-night,’ she said. 
          “‘Good-night,’ said I, opening the door for her to pass.