The Mystery of Choice

A Matter of Interest

by Robert W. Chambers

The sea was a sheet of silver, tinged with pink. The tremendous arch of the sky was all shimmering and glimmering with the promise of the sun. Already the mist above, flecked with clustered clouds, flushed with rose colour and dull gold. I heard the low splash of the waves breaking and curling across the beach. A wandering breeze, fresh and fragrant, blew the curtains of my window. There was the scent of sweet bay in the room, and everywhere the subtle, nameless perfume of the sea.
         When at last I stood upon the shore, the air and sea were all aglimmer in a rosy light, deepening to crimson in the zenith. Along the beach I saw a little cove, shelving and all ashine, where shallow waves washed with a mellow sound. Fine as dusted gold the shingle glowed, and the thin film of water rose, receded, crept up again a little higher, and again flowed back, with the Low hiss of snowy foam and gilded bubbles breaking.
          I stood a little while quiet, my eyes upon the water, the invitation of the ocean in my ears, vague and sweet as the murmur of a shell. Then I looked at my bathing suit and towels.
          “In we go!” said I aloud. A second later the prophecy was fulfilled.
          I swam far out to sea, and as I swam the waters all around me turned to gold. The sun had risen.
          There is a fragrance in the sea at dawn that none can name. Whitethorn abloom in May, sedges asway, and scented rushes rustling in an inland wind recall the sea to me—I can’t say why.
          Far out at sea I raised myself; swung around, dived, and set out again for shore, striking strong strokes until the flecked foam flew. And when at last I shot through the breakers, I laughed aloud and sprang upon the beach, breathless and happy. Then from the ocean came another cry, clear, joyous, and a white arm rose in the air.
          She came drifting in with the waves like a white sea-sprite, laughing at me from her tangled hair, and I plunged into the breakers again to join her.
          Side by side we swam along the coast, just outside the breakers, until in the next cove we saw the flutter of her maid’s cap strings.
          “I will beat you to breakfast!” she cried, as I rested, watching her glide up along the beach.
          “Done!” said I—”for a sea-shell!”
          “Done!” she called across the water.
          I made good speed along the shore, and I was not long in dressing, but when I entered the dining-room she was there, demure, smiling, exquisite in her cool, white frock.
          “The sea-shell is yours,” said I. “I hope I can find one with a pearl in it.”
          The professor hurried in before she could reply. He greeted me very cordially, but there was an abstracted air about him, and he called rue Dick until I recognised that remonstrance was useless. He was not long over his coffee and rolls.
          “McPeek and Frisby will return with the last load, including your trunk, by early afternoon,” he said, rising and picking up his bundle of drawings. “I haven’t time to explain to you what we are doing, Dick, but Daisy will take you about and instruct you. She will give you the rifle standing in my room—it’s a good Winchester. I have sent for an ‘Express’ for you, big enough to knock over any elephant in India.—Daisy, take him through the sheds and tell him everything. Luncheon is at noon.—Do you usually take luncheon, Dick?”
          “When I am permitted,” I smiled.
          “Well,” said the professor doubtfully, “you mustn’t come back here for it. Freda can take you what you want. Is your hand unsteady after eating?”
          “Why, papa!” said Daisy. “Do you intend to starve him?” We all laughed.
          The professor tucked his drawings into a capacious pocket, pulled his sea boots up to his hips, seized a spade, and left, nodding to us as though he were thinking of something else.
          We went to the door and watched him across the salt meadows until a distant sand dune hid him.
          “Come,” said Daisy Holroyd, “I am going to take you to the shop.”
          She put on a broad-brimmed straw hat, a distractingly pretty combination of filmy cool stuffs, and led the way to the long low structure that I bad noticed the evening before.
          The interior was lighted by the numberless little portholes, and I could see everything plainly. I acknowledge I was nonplussed by what I did see.
          In the centre of the shed, which must have been at least a hundred feet long, stood what I thought at first was the skeleton of an enormous whale. After a moment’s silent contemplation of the thing I saw that it could not be a whale, for the frames of two gigantic bat-like wings rose from each shoulder. Also I noticed that the animal possessed legs—four of them—with most unpleasant-looking webbed claws fully eight feet long. The bony framework of the head, too, resembled something between a crocodile and a monstrous snapping turtle. The walls of the shanty were hung with drawings and blue prints. A man dressed in white linen was tinkering with the vertebrae of the lizard-like tail.
          “Where on earth did such a reptile come from?” I asked at length.
          “Oh, it’s not real!” said Daisy scornfully; “it’s papier-mache.”
          “I see,” said I—”a stage prop.”
          “A what?” asked Daisy, in hurt astonishment.
          “Why, a—a sort of Siegfried dragon— a what’ s-his-name—————er, Pfafner, or Peffer, or—”
          “If my father heard you say such things he would dislike you,” said Daisy. She looked grieved, and moved toward the door. I apologized—for what, I knew not—and we became reconciled. She ran into her father’s room and brought me the rifle, a very good Winchester. She also gave me a cartridge belt, full.
          “Now,” she smiled, “I shall take you to your observatory, and when we arrive you are to begin your duty at once.”
          “And that duty?” I ventured, shouldering the rifle.
          “That duty is, to watch the ocean. I shall then explain the whole affair—but you mustn’t look at me while I speak; you must watch the sea.”
          “This,” said I, “is hardship. I had rather go without the luncheon.”
          I do not think she was offended at my speech; still she frowned for almost three seconds.
          We passed through acres of sweet bay and spear grass, sometimes skirting thickets of twisted cedars, sometimes walking in the full glare of the morning sun, sinking into shifting sand where sun-scorched shells crackled under our feet, and sun-browned seaweed glistened, bronzed and iridescent. Then, as we climbed a little hill, the sea wind freshened in our faces, and lo! the ocean lay below us, far-stretching as the eye could reach, glittering, magnificent.
          Daisy sat down flat on the sand. It takes a clever girl to do that and retain the respectful deference due her from men. It takes a graceful girl to accomplish it triumphantly when a man is looking.
          “You must sit beside me,” she said—as though it would prove irksome to me.
          “Now,” she continued, “you must watch the water while I am talking.”
          I nodded.
          “Why don’t you do it, then?” she asked.
          I succeeded in wrenching my head toward the ocean, although I felt sure it would swing gradually round again in spite of me.
          “To begin with,” said Daisy Holroyd, “there’s a thing in that ocean that would astonish you if you saw it. Turn your head!”
          “I am,” I said meekly.
          “Did you hear what I said?”
          “Yes—er—a thing in the ocean that’s going to astonish me.” Visions of mermaids rose before me.
          “The thing,” said Daisy, “is a Thermosaurus!
          I nodded vaguely, as though anticipating a delightful introduction to a nautical friend.
          “You don’t seem astonished,” she said reproachfully.
          “Why should I be?” I asked.
          “Please turn your eyes toward the water. Suppose a Thermosaurus should look out of the waves!”
          “Well,” said I, “in that case the pleasure would be mutual.” She frowned, and bit her upper lip.
          “Do you know what a Thermosaurus is?” she asked.
          “If I am to guess,” said I, “I guess it’s a jellyfish.”
          “It’s that big, ugly, horrible creature that I showed you in the shed!” cried Daisy impatiently. “Eh!” I stammered.
          “Not papier-mache either,” she continued excitedly; “it’s a real one.”
          This was pleasant news. I glanced instinctively at my rifle and then at the ocean.
          “Well,” said I at last, “it strikes me that you and I resemble a pair of Andromedas waiting to be swallowed. This rifle won’t stop a beast, a live beast, like that Nibelungen dragon of yours.”
          “Yes, it will,” she said; “it’s not an ordinary rifle.”
          Then, for the first time, I noticed, just below the magazine, a cylindrical attachment that was strange to me.
          “Now, if you will watch the sea very carefully, and will promise not to look at me,” said Daisy, “I will try to explain.”
          She did not wait for me to promise, but went on eagerly, a sparkle of excitement in her blue eyes:
          “You know, of all the fossil remains of the great bat-like and lizard-like creatures that inhabited the earth ages and ages ago, the bones of the gigantic saurians are the most interesting. I think they used to splash about the water and fly over the land during the Carboniferous period; anyway, it doesn’t matter. Of course, you have seen pictures of reconstructed creatures such as the Ichthyosaurus, the Plesiosaurus, the Anthracosaurus, and the Thermosaurus?”
          I nodded, trying to keep my eyes from hers.
          “And you know that the remains of the Thermosaurus were first discovered and reconstructed by papa?”
          “Yes,” said I. There was no use in saying no.
          “I am glad you do. Now, papa has proved that this creature lived entirely in the Gulf Stream, emerging for occasional flights across an ocean or two. Can you imagine how fe proved it?”
          “No,” said I, resolutely pointing my nose at the ocean.
          “He proved it by a minute examination of the microscopical shells found among the ribs of the Thermosaurus These shells contained little creatures that live only in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. They were the food of the Thermosaurus”
          “It was rather slender rations for a thing like that, wasn’t it? Did he ever swallow bigger food—er—men?”
          “Oh, yes. Tons of fossil bones from prehistoric men are also found in the interior of the Thermosaurus”
          “Then,” said I, “you, at least, had better go back to Captain McPeek’s”
          “Please turn around; don’t be so foolish. I didn’t say there was a live Thermosaurus in the water, did I?”
          “Isn’t there?”
          “Why, no!”
          My relief was genuine, but I thought of the rifle and looked suspiciously out to sea.
          “What’s the Winchester for?” I asked.
          “Listen, and I will explain. Papa has found out—how, I do not exactly understand—that there is in the waters of the Gulf Stream the body of a Tliermosaurus. The creature must have been alive within a year or so. The impenetrable scale armour that covers its body has, as far as papa knows, prevented its disintegration. We know that it is there still, or was there within a few months. Papa has reports and sworn depositions from steamer captains and seamen from a dozen different vessels, all corroborating each other in essential details. These stories, of course, get into the newspapers—sea-serpent stories—but papa knows that they confirm his theory that the huge body of this reptile is swinging along somewhere on the Gulf Stream.”
          She opened her sunshade and held it over her. I noticed that she deigned to give me the benefit of about one eighth of it.
          “Your duty with that rifle is this: If we are fortunate enough to see the body of the Thermosaurus come floating by, you are to take good aim and fire—fire rapidly every bullet in the magazine; then reload and lire again, and reload and fire as long as you have any cartridges left.”
          “A sell-feeding Maxim is what I should have,” I said with gentle sarcasm. “Well, and suppose I make a sieve of this big lizard?”
          “Do you see these rings in the sand?” she asked.
          Sure enough, somebody had driven heavy piles deep into the sand all around us, and to the tops of these piles were attached steel rings, half buried under the spear grass. We sat almost exactly in the centre of a circle of these rings.
          “The reason is this,” said Daisy: “every bullet in your cartridges is steel-tipped and armourpiercing. To the base of each bullet is attached a thin wire of pallium. Pallium is that new metal, a thread of which, drawn out into finest wire, will hold a ton of iron suspended. Every bullet is fitted with minute coils of miles of this wire. When the bullet leaves the rifle it spins out this wire as a shot from a life-saver’s mortar spins out and carries the life line to a wrecked ship. The end of each coil of wire is attached to that cylinder under the magazine of your rifle. As soon as the shell is automatically ejected this wire flies out also. A bit of scarlet tape is fixed to the end, so that it will be easy to pick up. There is also a snap clasp on the end, and this clasp fits those rings that you see in the sand. Now, when you begin firing, it is my duty to run and pick up the wire ends and attach them to the rings. Then, you see, we have the body of the Thermosaurus full of bullets, every bullet anchored to the shore by tiny wires, each of which could easily bold a ton’s strain.
          I looked at her in amazement.
          “Then,” she added calmly, “we have captured the Thermosaurus.”
          “Your father,” said I at length, “must have spent years of labour over this preparation.”
          “It is the work of a lifetime,” she said simply.
          My face, I suppose, showed my misgivings.
          “It must not fail,” she added.
          “But—but we are nowhere near the Gulf Stream,” I ventured.
          Her face brightened, and she frankly held the sunshade over us both.
          “Ala, you don’t know,” she said, “what else papa has discovered. Would you believe that he has found a loop in the Gulf Stream—a genuine loop that swings in here just outside of the breakers below? It is true! Everybody on Long Island knows that there is a warm current off the coast, but nobody imagined it was merely a sort of backwater from the Gulf Stream that formed a great circular millrace around the cone of a subterranean volcano, and rejoined the Gulf Stream oft Cape Albatross. But it is! That is why papa bought a yacht three years ago and sailed about for two years so mysteriously. Oh, I did want to go with him so much!”
          ‘‘This,’‘ said I, ‘‘is most astonishing.”
          She leaned enthusiastically toward me, her lovely face aglow.
          “Isn’t it?” she said; “and to think that you and papa and I are the only people in the whole world who know this!”
          To be included in such a triology was very delightful.
          “Papa is writing the whole thing—I mean about the currents. He also has in preparation sixteen volumes on the Thermosaurus. He said this morning that he was going to ask you to write the story first for some scientific magazine. He is certain that Professor Bruce Stoddard, of Columbia, will write the pamphlets necessary. This will give papa time to attend to the sixteen-volume work, which he expects to finish in three years.”
          “Let us first,” said I, laughing, “catch our Thermosaurus.”
          “We must not fail,” she said wistfully.
          “We shall not fail,” I said, “for I promise to sit on this sand hill as long as I live—until a Thermosaurus appears—if that is your wish, Miss Holroyd.”
          Our eyes met for an instant. She did not chide me, either, for not looking at the ocean. Her eyes were bluer, anyway.
          “I suppose,” she said, bending her head and absently pouring sand between her fingers—”I suppose you think me a blue-stocking, or something odious?”
          “Not exactly,” I said. There was an emphasis in my voice that made her colour. After a moment she laid the sunshade down, still open.
          “May I hold it?” I asked.
          She nodded almost imperceptibly.
          The ocean had turned a deep marine blue, verging on purple, that heralded a scorching afternoon. The wind died away; the odour of cedar and sweet bay hung heavy in the air.
          In the sand at our feet an iridescent flower beetle crawled, its metallic green and blue wings burning like a spark. Great gnats, with filmy, glittering wings, danced aimlessly above the young golden-rod; burnished crickets, inquisitive, timid, ran from under chips of driftwood, waved their antennae at us, and ran back again, One by one the marbled tiger beetles tumbled at our feet, dazed from the exertion of an aerial flight, then scrambled and tan a little way, or darted into the wire grass, where great brilliant spiders eyed them askance from their gossamer hammocks.
          Far out at sea the white gulls floated and drifted on the water, or sailed up into the air to flap lazily for a moment and settle back among the waves. Strings of black surf ducks passed, their strong wings tipping the surface of the water; single wandering coots whirled from the breakers into lonely flight toward the horizon.
          We lay and watched the little ring-necks running along the water’s edge, now backing away from the incoming tide, now boldly wading after the undertow. The harmony of silence, the deep perfume, the mystery of waiting for that something that all await—what is it? love? death? or only the miracle of another morrow?—troubled me with vague restfulness. As sunlight casts shadows, happiness, too, throws a shadow, and the shadow is sadness.
          And so the morning wore away until Freda came with a cool-looking hamper. Then delicious cold fowl and lettuce sandwiches and champagne cup set our tongues wagging as only very young tongues can wag. Daisy went back with Freda after luncheon, leaving me a case of cigars, with a bantering smile. I dozed, half awake, keeping a partly closed eye on the ocean, where a faint gray streak showed plainly amid the azure water all around. That was the Gulf Stream loop.
          About four o’clock Frisby appeared with a bamboo shelter tent, for which I was unaffectedly grateful.
          After he had erected it over me he stopped to chat a bit, but the conversation bored me, for he could talk of nothing but bill-posting.
          “You wouldn’t ruin the landscape here, would you?” I asked.
          “Ruin it!” repeated Frisby nervously. “It’s ruined now; there ain’t a place to stick a bill.”
          “The snipe stick bills—in the sand,” I said flippantly.
          There was no humour about Frisby. “Do they?” he asked.
          I moved with a certain impatience.
          “Bills,” said Frisby, “give spice an variety to Nature. They break the monotony of the everlastin’ green and what-you-may call-its.”
          I glared at him.
          “Bills,” he continued, “are not easy to stick, lemme tell you, sir. Sign paintin’s a soft snap when it comes to bill-stickin’. Now, I guess I’ve stuck more bills in New York State than ennybody.”
          “Have you?” I said angrily.
          “Yes, siree! I always pick out the purtiest spots—kinder filled chuck full of woods and brooks and things; then I h’ist ray paste-pot onto a rock, and I slather that rock with gum, and whoop she goes!”
          “Whoop what goes?”
          “The bill. I paste her onto the rock, with one swipe of the brush for the edges and a backhanded swipe for the finish—except when a bill is folded in two halves.”
          “And what do you do then?” I asked, disgusted.
          “Swipe twice,” said Frisby with enthusiasm.
          “And you don’t think it injures the landscape?”
          “Injures it!” he exclaimed, convinced that I was attempting to joke.
          I looked wearily out to sea. lie also looked at the water and sighed sentimentally.
          “Floatin’ buoys with bills onto ‘em is a idea of mine,” he observed. “That damn ocean is monotonous, ain’t it?”
          I don’t know what I might have done to Frisby—the rifle was so convenient if his mean yellow dog had not waddled up at this juncture.
          “Hi, Davy, sic ‘em!” said Frisby, expectorating upon a clamshell and hurling it seaward. The cur watched the flight of the shell apathetically, then squatted in the sand and looked at his master.
          “Kinder lost his spirit,” said Frisby, “ain’t lie? I once stuck a bill onto Davy, an’ it come off an’ the paste sorter sickened him. He was hell on rats—once!”
          After a moment or two Frisby took himself off; whistling cheerfully to Davy, who followed him when he was ready. The rifle burned in my fingers.
          It was nearly six o’clock when the professor appeared, spade on shoulder, boots smeared with mud.
          “Well,” he said, “nothing to report, Dick, my boy?”
          “Nothing, professor.”
          He wiped his shining face with his handkerchief and stared at the water.
          “My calculations lead me to believe,” he said, “that our prize may be due any day now. This theory I base upon the result of the report from the last sea captain I saw. I can not understand why some of these captains did not take the carcass in tow. They all say that they tried, but that the body sank before they could come within half a mile. The truth is, probably, that they did not stir a foot from their course to examine the thing.”
          “Have you ever cruised about for it?” I ventured.
          “For two years,” he said grimly. “It’s no use; it’s accident when a ship falls in with it. One captain reports it a thousand miles from where the last skipper spoke it, and always in the Gulf Stream. They think it is a different specimen every time, and the papers are teeming with sea-serpent fol-de-rol.”
          “Are you sure,” I asked, “that it will swing in to the coast on this Gulf Stream loop?”
          “I think I may say that it is certain to do so. I experimented with a dead right whale. You may have heard of its coming ashore here last summer.”
          “I think I did,” said I with a faint smile. The thing had poisoned the air for miles around.
          “But,” I continued, “suppose it comes in the night?”
          He laughed.
          “There I am lucky. Every night this month, and every day, too, the current of the loop runs inland so far that even a porpoise would strand for at least twelve hours. Longer than that I have not experimented with, but I know that the shore trend of the loop runs across a long spur of the submerged volcanic mountain, and that anything heavier than a porpoise would scrape the bottom and be carried so slowly that at least twelve hours must elapse before the carcass could float again into deep water. There are chances of its stranding indefinitely, too, but I don’t care to take those chances. That is why I have stationed you here, Dick, my boy.”
          He glanced again at the water, smiling to himself.
          “There is another question I want to ask,” I said, “if you don’t mind.”
          “Of course not!” he said warmly.
          “What are you digging for?”
          “Why, simply for exercise. The doctor told me I was killing myself with my sedentary habits, so I decided to dig. I don’t know a better exercise. Do you?”
          “I suppose not,” I murmured, rather red in the face. I wondered whether he’d mention fossils.
          “Did Daisy tell you why we are making our papier-mache Thermosautus?” he asked.
          I shook my head.
          “We constructed that from measurements I took from the fossil remains of the Thermosaurus in the Metropolitan Museum. Professor Bruce Stoddard made the drawings. We set it up here, all ready to receive the skin of the carcass that I am expecting.”
          We had started toward home, walking slowly across the darkening dunes, shoulder to shoulder. The sand was deep, and walking was not easy.
          “I wish,” said I at last, “that I knew why Miss Holroyd asked me not to walk on the beach. It’s much less fatiguing.”
          “That,” said the professor, “is a matter that I intend to discuss with you to-night.” He spoke gravely, almost sadly. I felt that something of unparalleled importance was soon to be revealed. So I kept very quiet, watching the ocean out of the corners of my eyes.


End of PART THREE..... GO TO PART FOUR..... 

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