"No," said Lestrange, "they are dead."
The whale boat and the dinghy lay together, gunnels grinding as they lifted to the swell. Two cable lengths away lay the schooner from which the whale boat had come; beyond and around from sky-line to sky-line the blue Pacific lay desolate beneath the day.
"They are dead."
He was gazing at the forms on the dinghy, the form of a girl with a child embraced in one arm, and a youth. Clasping one another, they seemed asleep.
From where had they drifted? To where were they drifting? God and the sea alone could tell.
A Farallone cormorant, far above, wheeling and slanting on the breeze, had followed the dinghy for hours, held away by the awful and profound knowledge, born of instinct, that one of the castaways was still alive. But it still hung, waiting.
"The child is not dead," said Stanistreet. He had reached forward and, gently separating the forms, had taken the child from the mother's arms. It was warm, it moved, and as he handed it to the steersman, Lestrange, almost upsetting the boat, stood up. He had glimpsed the faces of the dead people. Clasping his head with both hands and staring at the forms before him, mad, distracted by the blow that Fate had suddenly dealt him, his voice rang out across the sea: "My children!"
Stanistreet, the captain of the schooner, Stanistreet, who knew the story of the lost children so well, knelt aghast just in the position in which he had handed the child to the sailor in the stern sheets.
The truth took him by the throat. It must be so. These were no Kanakas drifted to sea; the dinghy alone might have told him that. These were the children they had come in search of, grown, mated and—dead.
His quick sailor's mind reckoned rapidly. The island they were making for in hopes of finding the long-lost ones was close to them; the northward running current would have brought the dinghy; some inexplicable sea chance had drifted them from shore; they were here, come to meet the man who had sought them for years—what a fatality!
Lestrange had sunk as if crushed down by some hand. Taking the girl's arm, he drew it towards him. "Look!" he cried, as if speaking to high heaven. "And my boy—oh, look! Dick—Emmeline—oh, God! My God! Why? Why? Why?"
He dashed his head on the gunnel. Far away above the cormorant watched.
It saw the whale boat making back from the schooner with the dinghy in tow; it saw the forms it hungered for taken on board; it saw the preparations on deck and the bodies of the lost ones committed to the deep. Then, turning with a cry, it drifted on the wind and vanished, like an evil spirit, from the blue.
It was just on daybreak and the Ranatonga , running before an eight-knot breeze, was boosting the star-shot water to snow.
Bowers, the bo'sun, an old British Navy quartermaster, was at the wheel and Stanistreet, the captain, had just come on deck.
"Gentleman goin' on all right, sir?" asked Bowers.
"Mr. Lestrange is still asleep, and thank God for it," said Stanistreet, "and the child's well. It woke and I gave it a pannikin of condensed and water and it's in the starboard after-bunk asleep again."
"I thought the gentleman was dead when you brought him back aboard, sir," said Bowers. "I never did see such a traverse, them pore young things and all; we goin' to hunt for them, as you may say, and them comin' off to meet us like that—why, that dinghy was swep' clean down to the bailer—no oars, nuthin—and what were they doin' with that dinghy? Where'd they get that dinghy from's what I want to know."
"Curse the dinghy," said Stanistreet. "Only for her I wouldn't believe this thing true—but I've got to, there's no getting away from it. I'll tell you about that dinghy. It's just like this. It belonged to a hooker that Mr. Lestrange was coming up to Frisco in long years ago. She got burnt out way down here somewhere, the boats got separated in a fog that came on them and the ship's dinghy, with his two kids and an old sailor man, was never seen again. He never believed them dead; he's been hunting all these years up and down the ports of the world on chance of finding news of them. He had it in his head some chap had picked them up—not a sign; then, a bit ago, a friend of mine, Captain Fountain, struck one of his advertisements, and gave news of indications he'd found on this island we're seeking for; he'd picked up a child's toy box, but he hadn't made a search of the place, being after whales and knowing nothing of the story, so Mr. Lestrange, when he got the news, put the Ranatonga in commission. That's what we started on this voyage for, and now you know."
"How far's that island from here, sir?" asked Bowers.
"When we struck the dinghy yesterday it was a hundred and fifty south; we're not more than sixty from it now. We'll reach it before noon."
"And them pore things came driftin', father, mother and child, a hundred and fifty mile without bite or sup?"
"God knows," said Stanistreet, "what food they had with them. There was nothing in the boat but a bit of tree branch with a red berry on it."
Bowers spun the wheel and shifted the quid in his mouth.
"And the child stood the batter of the business better than them," said he. "I've known that happen before; kids take a lot of killing as long as the cold don't get at them. They weren't both his children, was they, sir?"
"No," said Stanistreet. "The young fellow was his son, the girl was his niece."
The old quartermaster lay silent for a moment, while in the east a line of turbulent and travelling gold marked the horizon of the lonely sea. The slash of the low wash and the creak of block and cordage remained the only sounds in that world of dawn above which Canopus and the Cross were fading.
There was no morning bank; nothing to mar the splendour of the sunburst across the marching swell; far away a gull had caught it and showed wings of rose and gold against the increasing azure.
Bowers saw nothing but the binnacle cord. Without letting her half a point from her course, the mind of this perfect steersman was travelling far afield. He had signed on not knowing and not caring whither the Ranatonga was bound. He thought Lestrange was taking a voyage for the good of his health. He liked the thin, nervous man with grey eyes who always had a good word for every one, and, now that he knew his story, he pitied him. The whole business was plain before him: he could see the burning ship of long years ago, the escape in the boats, the separation in the fog, the children landed on some island, growing up together, mating, and then in some unaccountable manner being drifted out to sea with the child that had been born to them. Maybe they had been fishing and caught in a storm—who could tell? It was easy to be seen that chance had only half a hand in the meeting between the father and his dead children, seeing that Captain Fountain's information had brought him right to the spot. All the same, the thing gripped the battered and sea-stained and case-hardened mind of Bowers as ivy grips an old wall. Bowers was close on seventy, British-born. Sixty years of sea and tossing from ship to ship, from port to port, from hemisphere to hemisphere, had left him just what he was, a man heavy with years, yet in some extraordinary fashion young.
In all his time he had never risen to a command or found himself in the after-guard, he was ignorant as the mainmast of literature and art, politics and history, and he signed the pay sheet with a cross; all the same the fate of the children had perhaps made a deeper impression on this amphibian than it had on the more educated Stanistreet; the sight of the girl and her companion brought on board, so young, beautiful—yet dead, like stricken flowers, had given his simple mind a twist from which it had not recovered.
Down in the fo'c'sle, when the matter had been turned over and turned over and discussed, the dinghy had been talked of as much as its occupants. Where had it come from? To what ship had it belonged, and what ship could have set adrift two people like those with scarcely any clothes on? A rum business, surely.
Bowers had contributed scarcely anything to the discussion. It did not seem to interest him.
Stanistreet snuffed out the binnacle light; the day was now strong, the wind tepid, yet fresh from a thousand miles of ocean, bellying the sails, golden in the level sun blaze.
Before going below he came to the after-rail for a moment and stood looking at the swirl of the wake.
The thought of Lestrange was troubling him. Lestrange, since yesterday, had fallen into a sleep profound as though Nature had chloroformed him. As a matter of fact she had, but the cruelty of Nature lies in the fact that she uses her anÃ¦sthetics after instead of during the operations performed by Fate. When man can endure no more she puts the sponge to his nose, lest he should die and escape more suffering. Stanistreet was thinking somewhat like that. He was a good-hearted man who had seen more than enough of tragic happenings, and this last business seemed to him beyond the limit. He was telling himself it would have been better to have put a revolver to the head of the man below and have shot him as one does a maimed animal. He frankly dreaded Lestrange's awakening. What would he do, what would he say? Would it be a repetition of the terrible scene of yesterday?
Leaning on the rail, he spat at the gold-tinged foam as though to get some bitter taste from his mouth.
Then came the thought, had he done right in holding on south for the island since yesterday? What would be the effect on Lestrange of the traces surely left there by the children?
He was thinking this when from below came a sound, some one was moving about in the saloon, and Stanistreet, taking his courage in both hands, turned to the cabin hatch and went below.
He entered the saloon.
The place was gay with the morning beams shining through the ports and skylight. Lestrange, who had been looking into the starboard after-bunk, turned, and as the two men came face to face, Stanistreet saw at once that his fears were groundless. Lestrange had quite recovered himself. That was the first impression; then came another—the thin, nervous Lestrange, always brooding and dreaming as with the air of one possessed by some pressing anxiety, had become altered. He looked cheerful, younger, no longer anxious.
Stanistreet felt almost shocked for a moment, contrasting the vision of the distraught man of yesterday with the figure before him; but a weight was taken from his mind and the next moment, impulsively, his hand went out to grip the hand of the other.
"We are still keeping south?" said Lestrange.
"Yes," said the captain. "I carried on. I thought it best, but what's your wishes in the matter?"
"South," said Lestrange. "Come up on deck, I want to talk to you."
Stanistreet followed, wondering what was to happen next. There was a contained vivacity in the voice and manner of the other that, to the logical and matter-of-fact mind of the sailor, seemed a portent of troubles to come.
He followed closely, and when Lestrange walked to the port rail and stood with his hands upon it fronting the blazing east, the captain of the Ranatonga came and stood beside him, elbow touching elbow, and ready for any emergency. But his mind was soon put at rest. Lestrange, quite calm and cheerful in manner, stood contemplating the splendour before him and breathing in the fresh sea air with evident delight.
Then he turned and glanced along the deck to where Peterson, one of the hands, had succeeded Bowers at the wheel.
"What is she doing?" asked he.
"Ten knots," replied Stanistreet.
"And the island?"
"Less than sixty miles from here."
"Good," said Lestrange. He turned again to the rail. A land gull passed them flying topmast high, drifted a bit on the wind, lit on the water and rose again, making north.
Lestrange watched it for a moment. Then he spoke.
"Stanistreet, I said down below I had something to tell you. It's difficult, and I would not say it to any other man. It's just this. I am happy—for the first time in twelve years I am happy."
The captain made no reply.
"That sounds strange, does it not?" went on the other; "and maybe you will think my mind has been unhinged by all that has occurred, especially when you hear me out. It has not, and I will just tell you why I am happy. Happy! that is no name for it. I am joyful, jubilant, praising God, who knows all things and does all things right! You believe in God, Stanistreet?"
"Yes, sir," replied the sailor, not at all happy at the turn things were taking. "I believe in God; ought to, anyway, seeing what I've seen."
"Well, then, listen," said the other. "For twelve long years, as you know, I sought for the children I loved, always sure that they were alive, always uncertain as to their fate. It is the uncertainty that kills. I suppose I am more imaginative than most people. I conjured up visions of them falling into the hands of Chinese, falling into the hands of the ruffians that infest these seas, finding sin and misery as their portion in life; but worse than that were the things I could not conjure up. There were times when I said to myself, âThere is surely no God,' but always I was driven back to prayer, which was my only hope. I prayed that I might meet the children again. I prayed and prayed, and searched and sought, and yesterday my prayer was granted.
"My children were handed back to me by a merciful God—but they were dead! What a mockery! What an answer to the humble and heartfelt prayer of one of His poor creatures! Yesterday as I lay broken in the cabin below whilst you were committing them to the deep, I blasphemed His name, whilst He sat smiling in the Infinite—He who knows all things and does all things right.
"Listen. Grief, when it rises to its true stature, is a magician. I fell asleep and grief drove me beyond sleep into a world of visions where I met the children. It was no dream. I saw them as I see you. Dick and Emmeline, just as they were long years ago, pure and sweet and happy and childlike, but knowing all things. Stanistreet, as sure as there is a God in heaven, what I am telling you is no fiction of the imagination. I have seen the children and I am to see them again, for they are about to return."
"Yes, return. They have told me the place, but not the time. I am to go to the island and they will come to me. I am to wait for them and they will come to me."
"But how, sir?" said Stanistreet, for a moment almost believing what the other said, so intense was the conviction in Lestrange's manner and voice.
"How, I do not know, but they will come to me. It is permitted them for my sake and to save my reason, for otherwise I would have gone mad; also for some other purpose they would not say.—Do you not believe me?"
"Yes, yes," said the other soothingly. "It's strange, but there's no telling—no telling." He felt that Providence or Nature had possibly used the dream device to save the poor gentleman from, at all events, violent insanity, but he doubted if he had gained much by the exchange.
"No telling," said Lestrange. "We know as little of this life as our shadows know of us, but there it is, and now you know why I am happy. My mind is free from all care and my loved ones are coming to meet me."
He turned from the rail and went below. Stanistreet saw the steward come along with breakfast things—the Ranatonga had a deck galley—and vanish down the cabin hatch. Then he heard the voice of a child and the voice of the steward as if talking to it.
Then Bowers rose like a sea elephant from the fo'c'sle and came along the deck. Bowers had handed over the wheel to Peterson just before Lestrange came up. He had dodged below to light a pipe, risen to see Lestrange and Stanistreet in confabulation and then lain doggo, waiting.
"How's the gentleman taking it now, sir?" asked Bowers, speaking in a lowered voice. "I popped my head up when you was talkin' and he looked to have got back to his self."
"God help me, I don't know," said Stanistreet; "but if there's any sense in the world he's gone crazy, plain crazy—but he's happy."
"Well, thank the Lord he's gone the laughin', not the howlin' kind," said Bowers. "Happy, is he? Well, it's fortunit for him. That's all I have to say."
"Maybe. Anyhow, dodge down, will you, and bring up that kid. The steward's fooling with it and wasting his time, and I want to see it on deck—after-bunk you'll find it."
A minute later he reappeared with the "kid" wrapped in a bunk blanket and clasped in one huge arm.
Plump, brown as a berry, auburn-haired and laughing, it was a very different child from the child that had come aboard yesterday.
"It pulled me beard," said Bowers. "It's as strong as Ham, b'gosh.—There, out you get and play in the sun, where you used to."
He turned the naked child out of the blanket on to the deck. "Called me Dick as I was comin' up with him," said Bowers, now on his knees beside it, tickling it and rolling it over with his huge hand. "Called me Dick, did you—where's your pants? Eh? Where's your pants, you little devil, sold them, did you?—Hand's a belaying pin, sir, till I knock the brains out of him."
Stanistreet handed the pin.
"Now," said Bowers, putting it in the two hands of the child, "bang the deck and be happy."
He had no need to give directions.
"Well, sir, what do you think of that?" said the sailor, rising to his feet. "Looked like dying of wantin' to go to sleep yesterday afternoon, and hark at it now!"
"It's a fine kid," said Stanistreet, contemplating it. "I'd make it to be getting on for two years, but I'm no judge of children. But I'll tell you what, Bowers; it's my opinion it wasn't so much asleep when we got it aboard as doped. Did you see that sprig of a tree lying in the dinghy? Well, I'll bet my hat that was arita. I've seen the stuff growing in some of the islands and it's more poisonous than oap; a couple of berries will do for any man. I believe those two ate some of the berries, not knowing what they were, maybe, and maybe the child took the poison through the mother's milk. I'm dead sure that's how the thing went, for them two showed no signs of dying of starvation or thirst and they'd come a long way."
"Maybe," said Bowers, his eyes on the child. "Now then, now then, where are you rollin' that pin to?—Come out of it or you'll be tumblin' down the hatch—God's truth, I'll have to hobble you before I've done with you."
He was leading the child away from the companion hatch, when Lestrange reappeared and joined Stanistreet near the wheel. Lestrange glanced at the sailor and his charge but seemed to take little interest in it, or only that benign interest which he seemed, now, to bestow on everything animate and inanimate; it might have been the child of Bowers for all he seemed to care. Stanistreet tried to draw the conversation to it, and the other did not resist, but he let the subject drop as though it was of little account, and then, the steward announcing breakfast, they went below.