Angel Island

Inez Haynes Gillmore

Preview: Issue 1 of 22


It was the morning after the shipwreck. The five men still lay where they had slept. A long time had passed since anybody had spoken. A long time had passed since anybody had moved. Indeed, it, looked almost as if they would never speak or move again. So bruised and bloodless of skin were they, so bleak and sharp of feature, so stark and hollow of eye, so rigid and moveless of limb that they might have been corpses. Mentally, too, they were almost moribund. They stared vacantly, straight out to sea. They stared with the unwinking fixedness of those whose gaze is caught in hypnotic trance.

It was Frank Merrill who broke the silence finally. Merrill still looked like a man of marble and his voice still kept its unnatural tone, level, monotonous, metallic. "If I could only forget the scream that Norton kid gave when he saw the big wave coming. It rings in my head. And the way his mother pressed his head down on her breast--oh, my God!"

His listeners knew that he was going to say this. They knew the very words in which he would put it. All through the night-watches he had said the same thing at intervals. The effect always was of a red-hot wire drawn down the frayed ends of their nerves. But again one by one they themselves fell into line.

"It was that old woman I remember," said Honey Smith. There were bruises, mottled blue and black, all over Honey's body. There was a falsetto whistling to Honey's voice. "That Irish granny! She didn't say a word. Her mouth just opened until her jaw fell. Then the wave struck!" He paused. He tried to control the falsetto whistling. But it got away from him. "God, I bet she was dead before it touched her!"

"That was the awful thing about it," Pete Murphy groaned. "It was as inevitable now as an antiphonal chorus. Pete's little scarred, scratched, bleeding body rocked back and forth. The women and children! But it all came so quick. I was close beside 'the Newlyweds.' She put her arms around his neck and said, 'Your face'll be the last I'll look on in this life, dearest! 'And she stayed there looking into his eyes. It was the last face she saw all right." Pete stopped and his brow blackened. "While she was sick in her stateroom, he'd been looking into a good many faces besides hers, the--"

"I don't seem to remember anything definite about it," Billy Fairfax said. It was strange to hear that beating pulse of horror in Billy's mild tones and to see that look of terror frozen on his mild face. "I had the same feeling that I've had in nightmares lots of times--that it was horrible--and--I didn't think I could stand it another moment--but--of course it would soon end--like all nightmares and I'd wake up."

Without reason, they fell again into silence.

They had passed through two distinct psychological changes since the sea spewed them up. When consciousness returned, they gathered into a little terror-stricken, gibbering group. At first they babbled. At first inarticulate, confused, they dripped strings of mere words; expletives, exclamations, detached phrases, broken clauses, sentences that started with subjects and trailed, unpredicated, to stupid silence; sentences beginning subjectless and hobbling to futile conclusion. It was as though mentally they slavered. But every phrase, however confused and inept, voiced their panic, voiced the long strain of their fearful buffeting and their terrific final struggle. And every clause, whether sentimental, sacrilegious, or profane, breathed their wonder, their pathetic, poignant, horrified wonder, that such things could be. All this was intensified by the anarchy of sea and air and sky, by the incessant explosion of the waves, by the wind which seemed to sweep from end to end of a liquefying universe, by a downpour which threatened to beat their sodden bodies to pulp, by all the connotation of terror that lay in the darkness and in their unguarded condition on a barbarous, semi-tropical coast.

Then came the long, log-like stupor of their exhaustion.

With the day, vocabulary, grammar, logic returned. They still iterated and reiterated their experiences, but with a coherence which gradually grew to consistence. In between, however, came sudden, sinister attacks of dumbness.

"I remember wondering," Billy Fairfax broke their last silence suddenly, "what would become of the ship's cat."

This was typical of the astonishing fatuity which marked their comments. Billy Fairfax had made the remark about the ship's cat a dozen times. And a dozen times, it had elicited from the others a clamor of similar chatter, of insignificant haphazard detail which began anywhere and ended nowhere.

But this time it brought no comment. Perhaps it served to stir faintly an atrophied analytic sense. No one of them had yet lost the shudder and the thrill which lay in his own narrative. But the experiences of the others had begun to bore and irritate.

There came after this one remark another half-hour of stupid and readjusting silence.

The storm, which had seemed to worry the whole universe in its grip, had died finally but it had died hard. On a quieted earth, the sea alone showed signs of revolution. The waves, monstrous, towering, swollen, were still marching on to the beach with a machine-like regularity that was swift and ponderous at the same time. One on one, another on another, they came, not an instant between. When they crested, involuntarily the five men braced themselves as for a shock. When they crashed, involuntarily the five men started as if a bomb had struck. Beyond the wave-line, under a cover of foam, the jaded sea lay feebly palpitant like an old man asleep. Not far off, sucked close to a ragged reef, stretched the black bulk that had once been the Brian Boru. Continually it leaped out of the water, threw itself like a live creature, breast-forward on the rock, clawed furiously at it, retreated a little more shattered, settled back in the trough, brooded an instant, then with the courage of the tortured and the strength of the dying, reared and sprang at the rock again.

Up and down the beach stretched an unbroken line of wreckage. Here and there, things, humanly shaped, lay prone or supine or twisted into crazy attitudes. Some had been flung far up the slope beyond the water-line. Others, rolling back in the torrent of the tide, engaged in a ceaseless, grotesque frolic with the foamy waters. Out of a mass of wood caught between rocks and rising shoulder-high above it, a woman's head, livid, rigid, stared with a fixed gaze out of her dead eyes straight at their group. Her blonde hair had already dried; it hung in stiff, salt-clogged masses that beat wildly about her face. Beyond something rocking between two wedged sea-chests, but concealed by them, constantly kicked a sodden foot into the air. Straight ahead, the naked body of a child flashed to the crest of each wave.

All this destruction ran from north to south between two reefs of black rock. It edged a broad bow-shaped expanse of sand, snowy, powdery, hummocky, netted with wefts of black seaweed that had dried to a rattling stiffness. To the east, this silvery crescent merged finally with a furry band of vegetation which screened the whole foreground of the island.

The day was perfect and the scene beautiful. They had watched the sun come up over the trees at their back. And it was as if they had seen a sunrise for the first time in their life. To them, it was neither beautiful nor familiar; it was sinister and strange. A chill, that was not of the dawn but of death itself, lay over everything. The morning wind was the breath of the tomb, the smells that came to them from the island bore the taint of mortality, the very sunshine seemed icy. They suffered--the five survivors of the night's tragedy--with a scarifying sense of disillusion with Nature. It was as though a beautiful, tender, and fondly loved mother had turned murderously on her children, had wounded them nearly to death, had then tried to woo them to her breast again. The loveliness of her, the mindless, heartless, soulless loveliness, as of a maniac tamed, mocked at their agonies, mocked with her gentle indifference, mocked with her self-satisfied placidity, mocked with her serenity and her peace. For them she was dead--dead like those whom we no longer trust.

The sun was racing up a sky smooth and clear as gray glass. It dropped on the torn green sea a shimmer that was almost dazzling; but ere was something incongruous about that--as though Nature had covered her victim with a spangled scarf. It brought out millions of sparkles in the white sand; and there seemed something calculating about that--as though she were bribing them with jewels to forget.

"Say, let's cut out this business of going, over and over it," said Ralph Addington with a sudden burst of irritability. "I guess I could give up the ship's cat in exchange for a girl or two." Addington's face was livid; a muscular contraction kept pulling his lips away from his white teeth; he had the look of a man who grins satanically at regular intervals.

By a titanic mental effort, the others connected this explosion with Billy Fairfax's last remark. It was the first expression of an emotion so small as ill-humor. It was, moreover, the first excursion out of the beaten path of their egotisms. It cleared the atmosphere a little of that murky cloud of horror which blurred the sunlight. Three of the other four men--Honey Smith, Frank Merrill, Pete Murphy--actually turned and looked at Ralph Addington. Perhaps that movement served to break the hideous, hypnotic spell of the sea.

"Right-o!" Honey Smith agreed weakly. It was audible in his voice, the effort to talk sanely of sane things, and in the slang of every day. "Addington's on. Let's can it! Here we are and here we're likely to stay for a few days. In the meantime we've got to live. How are we going to pull it off?"

Everybody considered his brief harangue; for an instant, it looked as though this consideration was taking them all back into aimless meditation. Then, "That's right," Billy Fairfax took it up heroically. "Say, Merrill," he added in almost a conversational tone, "what are our chances? I mean how soon do we get off?"

This was the first question anybody had asked. It added its infinitesimal weight to the wave of normality which was settling over them all. Everybody visibly concentrated, listening for the answer.

It came after an instant, although Frank Merrill palpably pulled himself together to attack the problem. "I was talking that matter over with Miner just yesterday," he said. "Miner said God, I wonder where he is now--and a dependent blind mother in Nebraska."

"Cut that out," Honey Smith ordered crisply.

"We--we--were trying to figure our chances in case of a wreck," Frank Merrill continued slowly. "You see, we're out of the beaten path--way out. Those days of drifting cooked our goose. You can never tell, of course, what will happen in the Pacific where there are so many tramp craft. On the other hand--" he paused and hesitated. It was evident, now that he had something to expound, that Merrill had himself almost under command, that his hesitation arose from another cause. "Well, we're all men. I guess it's up to me to tell you the truth. The sooner you all know the worst, the sooner you'll pull yourselves together. I shouldn't be surprised if we didn't see a ship for several weeks--perhaps months."

Another of their mute intervals fell upon them. Dozens of waves flashed and crashed their way up the beach; but now they trailed an iridescent network of foam over the lilac-gray sand. The sun raced high; but now it poured a flood of light on the green-gray water. The air grew bright and brighter. The earth grew warm and warmer. Blue came into the sky, deepened--and the sea reflected it, Suddenly the world was one huge glittering bubble, half of which was the brilliant azure sky and half the burnished azure sea. None of the five men looked at the sea and sky now. The other four were considering Frank Merrill's words and he was considering the other four.

"Lord, God!" Ralph Addington exclaimed suddenly. "Think of being in a place like this six months or a year without a woman round! Why, we'll be savages at the end of three months." He snarled his words. It was as if a new aspect of the situation--an aspect more crucially alarming than any other--had just struck him.

"Yes," said Frank Merrill. And for a moment, so much had he recovered himself, he reverted to his academic type. "Aside from the regret and horror and shame that I feel to have survived when every woman drowned, I confess to that feeling too. Women keep up the standards of life. It would have made a great difference with us if there were only one or two women here."

"If there'd been five, you mean," Ralph Addington amended. A feeble, white-toothed smile gleamed out of his dark beard. He, too, had pulled himself together; this smile was not muscular contraction. "One or two, and the fat would be in the fire."

Nobody added anything to this. But now the other three considered Ralph Addington's words with the same effort towards concentration that they had brought to Frank Merrill's. Somehow his smile--that flashing smile which showed so many teeth against a background of dark beard--pointed his words uncomfortably.

Of them all, Ralph Addington was perhaps, the least popular. This was strange; for he was a thorough sport, a man of a wide experience. He was salesman for a business concern that manufactured a white shoe-polish, and he made the rounds of the Oriental countries every year. He was a careful and intelligent observer both of men and things. He was widely if not deeply read. He was an interesting talker. He could, for or instance, meet each of the other four on some point of mental contact. A superficial knowledge of sociology and a practical experience with many races brought him and Frank Merrill into frequent discussion. His interest in all athletic sports and his firsthand information in regard to them made common ground between him and Billy Fairfax. With Honey Smith, he talked business, adventure, and romance; with Pete Murphy, German opera, French literature, American muckraking, and Japanese art. The flaw which made him alien was not of personality but of character.

He presented the anomaly of a man scrupulously honorable in regard to his own sex, and absolutely codeless in regard to the other. He was what modern nomenclature calls a "contemporaneous varietist." He was, in brief, an offensive type of libertine. Woman, first and foremost, was his game. Every woman attracted him. No woman held him. Any new woman, however plain, immediately eclipsed her predecessor, however beautiful. The fact that amorous interests took precedence over all others was quite enough to make him vaguely unpopular with men. But as in addition, he was a physical type which many women find interesting, it is likely that an instinctive sex-jealousy, unformulated but inevitable, biassed their judgment. He was a typical business man; but in appearance he represented the conventional idea of an artist. Tall, muscular, graceful, hair thick and a little wavy, beard pointed and golden-brown, eyes liquid and long-lashed, women called him "interesting." There was, moreover, always a slight touch of the picturesque in his clothes; he was master of the small amatory ruses which delight flirtatious women.

In brief, men were always divided in their own minds in regard to Ralph Addington. They knew that, constantly, he broke every canon of that mysterious flexible, half-developed code which governs their relations with women. But no law of that code compelled them to punish him for ungenerous treatment of somebody's else wife or sister. Had he been dishonorable with them, had he once borrowed without paying, had he once cheated at cards, they would have ostracized him forever. He had done none of these things, of course.

"By jiminy!" exclaimed Honey Smith, "how I hate the unfamiliar air of everything. I'd like to put my lamps on something I know. A ranch and a round-up would look pretty good to me at this moment. Or a New England farmhouse with the cows coming home. That would set me up quicker than a highball."

"The University campus would seem like heaven to me," Frank Merrill confessed drearily, "and I'd got so the very sight of it nearly drove me insane."

"The Great White Way for mine," said Pete Murphy, "at night--all the corset and whisky signs flashing, the streets jammed with benzine-buggies, the sidewalks crowded with boobs, and every lobster palace filled to the roof with chorus girls."

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