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- West Wind Drift - 20/60 -
flapping, swirling; on high, far above the hills, soared two or three huge birds with wings outspread and rigid, monarchs of all that they surveyed. The stowaway leaned on the port rail and fixed his gaze upon the crest of the severed hill, apparently the tallest of the half dozen or so that were visible from his position.
With powerful glasses he studied the wooded slope. This hill was probably twelve or fourteen hundred feet high. He thought of it as a hill, for he had lived long in the heart of the towering Andes. Behind him lay the belt of woodland that separated the basin from the open sea, a scant league away. The cleft through the hill lay almost directly ahead. It's walls apparently were perpendicular; a hundred feet or less from the pinnacle, the opening spread out considerably, indicating landslides at some remote period, the natural sloughing off of earth and stone in the formation of this narrow, unnatural passage through the very centre of the little mountain. For at least a thousand feet, however, the sides of the passage rose as straight as a wall. That the mountain was of solid rock could not be doubted after a single glance at those sturdy, unflinching walls, black and sheer.
"Well, what do you make of it?" inquired a voice at his elbow. He turned to find Mr. Mott standing beside him.
"Earthquake," he replied. "Thousands of years ago, of course. Split the island completely in two."
"Sounds plausible," mused the First Officer. "But if that is the case, how do you account for the shallowness of the water in the passage and out here in the basin? An earthquake violent enough to split that hill would make a crack in the earth a thousand fathoms deep."
"I have an idea that if we took soundings in this basin we'd find a section twenty or thirty feet wide in the centre of it where we couldn't touch bottom. The same would be true of the passage if we plumbed the middle. When we came through it the ship scraped bottom time and again. As a matter of fact,--the way I figure it out,--she was simply bumping against the upper edges of a crevice that reaches down God knows how far. We took no soundings, you will remember, until we swung out into this pool. I'll bet my head that that cut through the hill yonder is a mile deep. Earthquake fissures seldom go deeper than that, I've heard. Generally they are mere surface cracks, a hundred feet deep at the outside. But this one,--My God, it gives me the creeps, that crack in the earth does."
"Umph!" said Mr. Mott, his elbows on the rail beside the young man, his chin in his hands. He was looking down at the water. "Captain Trigger is planning to send a couple of boats outside to survey the coast. I dare say he'll be asking you to go out in one of them. You're a civil engineer and so he feels--"
"Excuse me, Mr. Mott, but what's the sense of sending boats out to explore the coast before we find out how big the island is?"
"What's the sense? Why, how are we to find out how big the island is unless we make the circuit of it? And how in thunder are we to find out that there isn't a village or some sort of trading port on it--What are you pointing up there for?"
Percival's finger was levelled at the top of the higher half of the bisected mountain.
"See that hill, Mr. Mott? Well, unless we're on a darned sight bigger island than I think we are, we can see from one end of it to the other from the top of that hill. It isn't much of a climb. A few huskies with axes to cut a path through the underbrush, and we might get up there in a few hours. I've been figuring it out. That's why I got up so early. Had it on my mind all night. The sensible thing to do is to send a gang of us up there to have a look around. Strange Captain Trigger never thought of it. I suppose it's because he's an old sea-dog and not a landlubber."
Mr. Mott coughed. "I fancy he would have thought of it in good time."
"Well, in case he doesn't think of it in time, you might suggest it to him, Mr. Mott."
The result of this conversation was the formation of a party of explorers to ascend the mountain. They were sent ashore soon after breakfast, well-armed, equipped with axes and other implements, boat-hooks, surveying instruments, and the most powerful glasses on board. Percival was in command. The party was made up of a dozen men, half of them from the gun crew, with an additional complement of laborers from the steerage.
Ruth Clinton, as soon as she learned of the proposed expedition, sought out Percival and insisted upon re-bandaging his hands.
"You must not go into all that tangle of brushwood with your hands unprotected," she declared, obstinately shaking her head in response to his objections. "Don't be foolish, Mr. Percival. It won't take me five minutes to wrap them up. Sit down,--I insist. You are still one of my patients. Hold out your hand!"
"They are ever so much better," he protested, but he obeyed her.
"Of course they are," she agreed, in a matter-of-fact tone. "You did not give me a chance last night to tell you how splendid you were in tackling that crazy mob. I witnessed it all, you know. Madame Obosky and I."
"Then, you didn't beat it when I told you to, eh?"
"Certainly not. What are you going to do about it?"
"What can I do? I can only say this: I'm glad Captain Trigger's opinion of me is based on my ability to reason with an ignorant mob and not on my power to intimidate a couple of very intelligent young women."
"I wouldn't have missed it for worlds," she said coolly. She looked up into his eyes, a slight frown puckering her brow. "Do you know, Madame Obosky had the impertinence to say that you would have turned tail and fled if those people had shown fight."
He grinned. "She's an amazing person, isn't she? Wonderful faculty for sizing the most of us up."
"You would have run?"
"Like a rabbit," he answered, unabashed. "That's a little too tight, I think, Miss Clinton. Would you mind loosening it up a bit?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. Is that better? Now the other one, please."
"Yes, I'm an awful coward," he said, after a long silence.
She looked up quickly. Something in his eyes brought a faint flush to her cheek. For a second or two she met his gaze steadily and then her eyes fell, but not before he had caught the shy, wondering expression that suddenly filled them. He experienced an almost uncontrollable desire to lay his clumsy hand upon the soft, smooth brown hair. Through his mind flashed a queer rush of comparison. He recalled the dark, knowing eyes of the Russian dancer, mysterious and seductive,--man-reading eyes from which nothing was concealed,--and contrasted them with the clear, honest, blue-grey orbs that still could fall in sweet confusion. His heart began to pound furiously, he felt a queer tightening of the throat. He was afraid to trust his voice. How white and soft and gentle were her hands,--and how beautiful they were.
Suddenly she stroked the bandaged hand,--as an amiable manicurist might have done--and arose.
"There!" she said, composedly. Her cheek was cool and unflushed, her eyes serene and smiling. "Now you may go, Mr. Percival. Good luck! Bring back good news to us. I dreamed last night that we were marooned, that we would have to stay here for ever."
"All of us?" he asked, a trifle thickly.
"Certainly," she replied, after the moment required for comprehension. Her eyes were suddenly cold and uncompromising.
"If I never come back," he began, somewhat dashed, "I'd like you to remember always, Miss Clinton, that I--well, that I am the most grateful dog alive. You've been corking."
"But it isn't possible you won't come back," she cried, and he was happy to see a flicker of alarm in her eyes. "What--what could happen to you? It isn't--"
"Oh, all sorts of things," he broke in, much in the same spirit as that which dominates the boy who wishes he could die in order to punish his parents for correcting him.
"Are--are you really in earnest?"
"Would you care--very much?"
She hesitated. "Haven't I wished you good luck, Mr. Percival?"
"Would you mind answering my question?"
"Of course I should care,--very much indeed," she replied calmly. "I am sure that everybody would be terribly grieved if anything were to happen to you out there."
"Well,--good-bye, Miss Clinton. I guess they're waiting for me."
"Good-bye! Oh, how I wish I were in your place! Just to put my foot on the blessed, green earth once more. Good-bye! And--and good luck, again."
"If you will take a pair of glasses and watch the top of that hill,--there is a bare knob up there, you see,--you will know long before we come back whether this island is inhabited or not. I am taking an American flag with me. If we do not see another flag floating anywhere on this island, I intend to plant the Stars and Stripes on that hill,--just for luck!"
She walked a few steps at his side, their bodies aslant against the slope of the deck.
"And if you do not raise the flag, we shall know at once that--that there are other people here?" she said, her voice eager with suppressed excitement. "It will mean that ships--" Her voice failed her.
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