The Isle of Skulls by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
The good priests of Santa Barbara sat in grave conference on the long corridor of their mission. It was a winter's day, and they basked in the sun. The hoods of their brown habits peaked above faces lean and ascetic, fat and good-tempered, stern, intelligent, weak, commanding. One face alone was young.
But for the subject under discussion they would have been at peace with themselves and with Nature. In the great square of the mission the Indians they had Christianized worked at many trades. The great aqueduct along the brow of one of the lower hills, the wheat and corn fields on the slopes, the trim orchards and vegetable gardens in the canons of the great bare mountains curving about the valley, were eloquent evidence of their cleverness and industry. From the open door of the church came the sound of lively and solemn tunes: the choir was practising for mass. The day was as peaceful as only those long drowsy shimmering days before the Americans came could be. And yet there was dissent among the padres.
Several had been speaking together, when one of the older men raised his hand with cold impatience.
"There is only one argument," he said. "We came here, came to the wilderness out of civilization, for one object only--to lead the heathen to God. We have met with a fair success. Shall we leave these miserable islanders to perish, when we have it in our power to save?"
"But no one knows exactly where this island is, Father Jimeno," replied the young priest. "And we know little of navigation, and may perish before we find it. Our lives are more precious than those of savages."
"In the sight of God one soul is of precisely the same value as another, Father Carillo."
The young priest scowled. "We can save. They cannot."
"If we refuse to save when the power is ours, then the savage in his extremest beastiality has more hope of heaven than we have."
Father Carillo looked up at the golden sun riding high in the dark blue sky, down over the stately oaks and massive boulders of the valley where quail flocked like tame geese. He had no wish to leave his paradise, and as the youngest and hardiest of the priests, he knew that he would be ordered to take charge of the expedition.
"It is said also," continued the older man, "that once a ship from the Continent of Europe was wrecked among those islands--"
"No? No?" interrupted several of the priests.
"It is more than probable that there were survivors, and that their descendants live on this very island to-day. Think of it, my brother! Men and women of our own blood, perhaps, living like beasts of the field! Worshipping idols! Destitute of morality! Can we sit here in hope of everlasting life while our brethren perish?"
"No!" The possibility of rescuing men of European blood had quenched dissent. Even Carillo spoke as spontaneously as the others.
As he had anticipated, the expedition was put in his charge. Don Guillermo Iturbi y Moncada, the magnate of the South, owned a small schooner, and placed it at the disposal of the priests.
Through the wide portals of the mission church, two weeks later, rolled the solemn music of high mass. The church was decorated as for a festival. The aristocrats of the town knelt near the altar, the people and Indians behind.
Father Carillo knelt and took communion, the music hushing suddenly to rise in more sonorous volume. Then Father Jimeno, bearing a cross and chanting the rosary, descended the altar steps and walked toward the doors. On either side of him a page swung a censer. Four women neophytes rose from among the worshippers, and shouldering a litter on which rested a square box containing an upright figure of the Holy Virgin followed with bent heads. The Virgin's gown was of yellow satin, covered with costly Spanish lace; strands of Baja Californian pearls bedecked the front of her gown. Behind this resplendent image came the other priests, two and two, wearing their white satin embroidered robes, chanting the sacred mysteries. Father Carillo walked last and alone. His thin clever face wore an expression of nervous exaltation.
As the procession descended the steps of the church, the bells rang out a wild inspiring peal. The worshippers rose, and forming in line followed the priests down the valley.
When they reached the water's edge, Father Jimeno raised the cross above his head, stepped with the other priests into a boat, and was rowed to the schooner. He sprinkled holy water upon the little craft; then Father Carillo knelt and received the blessing of each of his brethren. When he rose all kissed him solemnly, then returned to the shore, where the whole town knelt. The boat brought back the six Indians who were to give greeting and confidence to their kinsmen on the island, and the schooner was ready to sail. As she weighed anchor, the priests knelt in a row before the people, Father Jimeno alone standing and holding the cross aloft with rigid arms.
Father Carillo stood on deck and watched the white mission under the mountain narrow to a thread, the kneeling priests become dots of reflected light. His exaltation vanished. He was no longer the chief figure in a picturesque panorama. He set his lips and his teeth behind them. He was a very ambitious man. His dreams leapt beyond California to the capital of Spain. If he returned with his savages, he might make success serve as half the ladder. But would he return?
Wind and weather favoured him. Three days after leaving Santa Barbara he sighted a long narrow mountainous island. He had passed another of different proportions in the morning, and before night sighted still another, small and oval. But the lofty irregular mass, some ten miles long and four miles wide, which he approached at sundown, was the one he sought. The night world was alight under the white blaze of the moon; the captain rode into a small harbour at the extreme end of the island and cast anchor, avoiding reefs and shoals as facilely as by midday. Father Carillo gave his Indians orders to be ready to march at dawn.
The next morning the priest arrayed himself in his white satin garments, embroidered about the skirt with gold and on the chest with a purple cross pointed with gold. The brown woollen habit of his voyage was left behind. None knew better than he the value of theatric effect upon the benighted mind. His Indians wore gayly striped blankets of their own manufacture, and carried baskets containing presents and civilized food.
Bearing a large gilt cross, Father Carillo stepped on shore, waved farewell to the captain, and directed his Indians to keep faithfully in the line of march: they might come upon the savages at any moment. They toiled painfully through a long stretch of white sand, then passed into a grove of banana trees, dark, cold, noiseless, but for the rumble of the ocean. When they reached the edge of the grove, Father Carillo raised his cross and commanded the men to kneel. Rumour had told him what to expect, and he feared the effect on his simple and superstitious companions. He recited a chaplet, then, before giving them permission to rise, made a short address.
"My children, be not afraid at what meets your eyes. The ways of all men are not our ways. These people have seen fit to leave their dead unburied on the surface of the earth. But these poor bones can do you no more harm than do those you have placed beneath the ground in Santa Barbara. Now rise and follow me, nor turn back as you fear the wrath of God."
He turned and strode forward, with the air of one to whom fear had no meaning; but even he closed his eyes for a moment in horror. The poor creatures behind mumbled and crossed themselves and clung to each other. The plain was a vast charnel-house. The sun, looking over the brow of an eastern hill, threw its pale rays upon thousands of crumbling skeletons, bleached by unnumbered suns, picked bare by dead and gone generations of carrion, white, rigid, sinister. Detached skulls lay in heaps, grinning derisively. Stark digits pointed threateningly, as if the old warriors still guarded their domain. Other frames lay face downward, as though the broken teeth had bitten the dust in battle. Slender forms lay prone, their arms encircling cooking utensils, beautiful in form and colour. Great bowls and urns, toy canoes, mortars and pestles, of serpentine, sandstone, and steatite, wrought with a lost art,--if, indeed, the art had ever been known beyond this island,--and baked to richest dyes, were placed at the head and feet of skeletons more lofty in stature than their fellows.
Father Carillo sprinkled holy water right and left, bidding his Indians chant a rosary for the souls which once had inhabited these appalling tenements. The Indians obeyed with clattering teeth, keeping their eyes fixed stonily upon the ground lest they stumble and fall amid yawning ribs.
The ghastly tramp lasted two hours. The sun spurned the hill-top and cast a flood of light upon the ugly scene. The white bones grew whiter, dazzling the eyes of the living. They reached the foot of a mountain and began a toilsome ascent through a dark forest. Here new terrors awaited them. Skeletons sat propped against trees, grinning out of the dusk, gleaming in horrid relief against the mass of shadow. Father Carillo, with one eye over his shoulder, managed by dint of command, threats, and soothing words to get his little band to the top of the hill. Once, when revolt seemed imminent, he asked them scathingly if they wished to retrace their steps over the plain unprotected by the cross, and they clung to his skirts thereafter. When they reached the summit, they lay down to rest and eat their luncheon, Father Carillo reclining carefully on a large mat: his fine raiment was a source of no little anxiety. No skeletons kept them company here. They had left the last many yards below.
"Anacleto," commanded the priest, at the end of an hour, "crawl forward on thy hands and knees and peer over the brow of the mountain. Then come back and tell me if men like thyself are below."
Anacleto obeyed, and returned in a few moments with bulging eyes and a broad smile of satisfaction. People were in the valley--a small band. They wore feathers like birds, and came and went from the base of the hill. There were no wigwams, no huts.
Father Carillo rose at once. Bidding his Indians keep in the background, he walked to the jutting brow of the hill, and throwing a rapid glance downward came to a sudden halt. With one hand he held the cross well away from him and high above his head. The sun blazed down on the burnished cross; on the white shining robes of the priest; on his calm benignant face thrown into fine relief by the white of the falling sleeve.
In a moment a low murmur arose from the valley, then a sudden silence. Father Carillo, glancing downward, saw that the people had prostrated themselves.
He began the descent, holding the cross aloft, chanting solemnly; his Indians, to whom he had given a swift signal, following and lifting up their voices likewise. The mountain on this side was bare, as if from fire, the incline shorter and steeper. The priest noted all things, although he never forgot his lines.
Below was a little band of men and women. A broad plain swept from the mountain's foot, a forest broke its sweep, and the ocean thundered near. The people were clad in garments made from the feathered skins of birds, and were all past middle age. The foot of the mountain was perforated with caves.
When he stood before the trembling awe-struck savages, he spoke to them kindly and bade them rise. They did not understand, but lifted their heads and stared appealingly. He raised each in turn. As they once more looked upon his full magnificence, they were about to prostrate themselves again when they caught sight of the Indians. Those dark stolid faces, even that gay attire, they could understand. Glancing askance at the priest, they drew near to their fellow-beings, touched their hands to the strangers' breasts, and finally kissed them.
Father Carillo was a man of tact.
"My children," he said to his flock, "do you explain as best you-can to these our new friends what it is we have come to do. I will go into the forest and rest."
He walked swiftly across the plain, and parting the clinging branches of two gigantic ferns, entered the dim wood. He laid the heavy cross beneath a tree, and strolled idly. It was a forest of fronds. Lofty fern trees waved above wide-leaved palms. Here and there a little marsh with crowding plant life held the riotous groves apart. Down the mountain up which the forest spread tumbled a creek over coloured rocks, then wound its way through avenues, dark in the shadows, sparkling where the sunlight glinted through the tall tree-tops. Red lilies were everywhere. The aisles were vocal with whispering sound.
The priest threw himself down on a bed of dry leaves by the creek. After a time his eyes closed. He was weary, and slept.
He awoke suddenly, the power of a steadfast gaze dragging his brain from its rest. A girl sat on a log in the middle of the creek. Father Carillo stared incredulously, believing himself to be dreaming. The girl's appearance was unlike anything he had ever seen. Like the other members of her tribe, she wore a garment of feathers, and her dark face was cast in the same careless and gentle mould; but her black eyes had a certain intelligence, unusual to the Indians of California, and the hair that fell to her knees was the colour of flame. Apparently she was not more than eighteen years old.
Father Carillo, belonging to a period when bleached brunettes were unknown, hastily crossed himself.
"Who are you?" he asked.
His voice was deep and musical. It had charmed many a woman's heart, despite the fact that he had led a life of austerity and sought no woman's smiles. But this girl at the sound of it gave a loud cry and bounded up the mountain, leaping through the brush like a deer.
The priest rose, drank of the bubbles in the stream, and retraced his steps. He took up the burden of the cross again and returned to the village. There he found the savage and the Christianized sitting together in brotherly love. The islanders were decked with the rosaries presented to them, and the women in their blankets were swollen with pride. All had eaten of bread and roast fowl, and made the strangers offerings of strange concoctions in magnificent earthen dishes. As the priest appeared the heathen bowed low, then gathered about him. Their awe had been dispelled, and they responded to the magnetism of his voice and smile. He knew many varieties of the Indian language, and succeeded in making them understand that he wished them to return with him, and that he would make them comfortable and happy. They nodded their heads vigorously as he spoke, but pointed to their venerable chief, who sat at the entrance of his cave eating of a turkey's drumstick. Father Carillo went over to the old man and saluted him respectfully. The chief nodded, waved his hand at a large flat stone, and continued his repast, his strong white teeth crunching bone as well as flesh. The priest spread his handkerchief on the stone, seated himself, and stated the purpose of his visit. He dwelt at length upon the glories of civilization. The chief dropped his bone after a time and listened attentively. When the priest finished, he uttered a volley of short sentences.
"Good. We go. Great sickness come. All die but us. Many, many, many. We are strong no more. No children come. We are old--all. One young girl not die. The young men die. The young women die. The children die. No more will come. Yes, we go."
"And this young girl with the hair--" The priest looked upward. The sun had gone. He touched the gold of the cross, then his own hair.
"Dorthe," grunted the old man, regarding his bare drumstick regretfully.
"Who is she? Where did she get such a name? Why has she that hair?"
Out of another set of expletives Father Carillo gathered that Dorthe was the granddaughter of a man who had been washed ashore after a storm, and who had dwelt on the island until he died. He had married a woman of the tribe, and to his daughter had given the name of Dorthe--or so the Indians had interpreted it--and his hair, which was like the yellow fire. This girl had inherited both. He had been very brave and much beloved, but had died while still young. Their ways were not his ways, Father Carillo inferred, and barbarism had killed him.
The priest did not see Dorthe again that day. When night came, he was given a cave to himself. He hung up his robes on a jutting point of rock, and slept the sleep of the weary. At the first shaft of dawn he rose, intending to stroll down to the beach in search of a bay where he could bathe; but as he stepped across the prostrate Californians, asleep at the entrance of his cave, he paused abruptly, and changed his plans.
On the far edge of the ocean the rising diadem of the sun sent great bubbles of colour up through a low bank of pale green cloud to the gray night sky and the sulky stars. And, under the shadow of the cacti and palms, in rapt mute worship, knelt the men and women the priest had come to save, their faces and clasped hands uplifted to the waking sun.
Father Carillo awoke his Indians summarily.
"Gather a dozen large stones and build an altar--quick!" he commanded.
The sleepy Indians stumbled to their feet, obeyed orders, and in a few moments a rude altar was erected. The priest propped the cross on the apex, and, kneeling with his Indians, slowly chanted a mass. The savages gathered about curiously; then, impressed by the solemnity of the priest's voice and manner, sank to their knees once more, although directing to the sun an occasional glance of anxiety. When the priest rose, he gave them to understand that he was deeply gratified by their response to the religion of civilization, and pointed to the sun, now full-orbed, amiably swimming in a jewelled mist. Again they prostrated themselves, first to him, then to their deity, and he knew that the conquest was begun.
After breakfast they were ready to follow him. They had cast their feathered robes into a heap, and wore the blankets, one and all. Still Dorthe had not appeared. The chief sent a man in search of her, and when, after some delay, she entered his presence, commanded her to make herself ready to go with the tribe. For a time she protested angrily. But when she found that she must go or remain alone, she reluctantly joined the forming procession, although refusing to doff her bird garment, and keeping well in the rear that she might not again look upon that terrible presence in white and gold, that face with its strange pallor and piercing eyes. Father Carillo, who was very much bored, would have been glad to talk to her, but recognized that he must keep his distance if he wished to include her among his trophies.
The natives knew of a shorter trail to the harbour, and one of them led the way, Father Carillo urging his footsteps, for the green cloud of dawn was now high and black and full. A swift wind was rustling the tree-tops and tossing the ocean white. As they skirted the plain of the dead, the priest saw a strange sight. The wind had become a gale. It caught up great armfuls of sand from the low dunes, and hurled them upon the skeletons, covering them from sight. Sometimes a gust would snatch the blanket from one to bury another more deeply; and for a moment the old bones would gleam again, to be enveloped in the on-rushing pillar of whirling sand. Through the storm leaped the wild dogs, yelping dismally.
When the party reached the stretch beyond the banana grove, they saw the schooner tossing and pulling at her anchor. The captain shouted to them to hurry. The boat awaiting them at the beach was obliged to make three trips. Father Carillo went in the first boat; Dorthe remained for the last. She was the last, also, to ascend the ladder at the ship's side. As she put her foot on deck, and confronted again the pale face and shining robes of the young priest, she screamed, and leapt from the vessel into the waves. The chief and his tribe shouted their entreaties to return. But she had disappeared, and the sky was black. The captain refused to lower the boat again. He had already weighed anchor, and he hurriedly represented that to remain longer in the little bay, with its reefs and rocks, its chopping waves, would mean death to all. The priest was obliged to sacrifice the girl to the many lives in his keep.
Dorthe darted through the hissing waves, undismayed by the darkness or the screaming wind; she and the ocean had been friends since her baby days. When a breaker finally tossed her on the shore, she scrambled to the bank, then stood long endeavouring to pierce the rain for sight of the vessel. But it was far out in the dark. Dorthe was alone on the island. For a time she howled in dismal fashion. She was wholly without fear, but she had human needs and was lonesome. Then reason told her that when the storm was over the ship would return to seek her; and she fled and hid in the banana grove. The next morning the storm had passed; but the ship was nowhere to be seen, and she started for home.
The wind still blew, but it had veered. This time it caught the sand from the skeletons, and bore it rapidly back to the dunes. Dorthe watched the old bones start into view. Sometimes a skull would thrust itself suddenly forth, sometimes a pair of polished knees; and once a long finger seemed to beckon. But it was an old story to Dorthe, and she pursued her journey undisturbed.
She climbed the mountain, and went down into the valley and lived alone. Her people had left their cooking utensils. She caught fish in the creek, and shot birds with her bow and arrow. Wild fruits and nuts were abundant. Of creature comforts she lacked nothing. But the days were long and the island was very still. For a while she talked aloud in the limited vocabulary of her tribe. After a time she entered into companionship with the frogs and birds, imitating their speech. Restlessness vanished, and she existed contentedly enough.
Two years passed. The moon flooded the valley one midnight. Dorthe lay on the bank of the creek in the fern forest. She and the frogs had held long converse, and she was staring up through the feathery branches, waving in the night wind, at the calm silver face which had ignored her overtures. Upon this scene entered a man. He was attenuated and ragged. Hair and beard fell nearly to his waist. He leaned on a staff, and tottered like an old man.
He stared about him sullenly. "Curse them!" he said aloud. "Why could they not have died and rotted before we heard of them?"
Dorthe, at the sound of a human voice, sprang to her feet with a cry. The man, too, gave a cry--the ecstatic cry of the unwilling hermit who looks again upon the human face.
"Dorthe! Thou? I thought thou wast dead--drowned in the sea."
Dorthe had forgotten the meaning of words, but her name came to her familiarly. Then something stirred within her, filling her eyes with tears. She went forward and touched the stranger, drawing her hand over his trembling arms.
"Do you not remember me, Dorthe?" asked the man, softly. "I am the priest--was, for I am not fit for the priesthood now. I have forgotten how to pray."
She shook her head, but smiling, the instinct of gregariousness awakening.
He remembered his needs, and made a gesture which she understood. She took his hand, and led him from the forest to her cave. She struck fire from flint into a heap of fagots beneath a swinging pot. In a little time she set before him a savoury mess of birds. He ate of it ravenously. Dorthe watched him with deep curiosity. She had never seen hunger before. She offered him a gourd of water, and he drank thirstily. When he raised his face his cheeks were flushed, his eyes brighter.
He took her hand and drew her down beside him.
"I must talk," he said. "Even if you cannot understand, I must talk to a human being. I must tell some one the story of these awful years. The very thought intoxicates me. We were shipwrecked, Dorthe. The wind drove us out of our course, and we went to pieces on the rocks at the foot of this island. Until to-night I did not know that it was this island. I alone was washed on shore. In the days that came I grew to wish that I, too, had perished. You know nothing of what solitude and savagery mean to the man of civilization--and to the man of ambition. Oh, my God! I dared not leave the shore lest I miss the chance to signal a passing vessel. There was scarcely anything to maintain life on that rocky coast. Now and again I caught a seagull or a fish. Sometimes I ventured inland and found fruit, running back lest a ship should pass. There I stayed through God knows how many months and years. I fell ill many times. My limbs are cramped and twisted with rheumatism. Finally, I grew to hate the place beyond endurance. I determined to walk to the other end of the island. It was only when I passed, now and again, the unburied dead and the pottery that I suspected I might be on your island. Oh, that ghastly company! When night came, they seemed to rise and walk before me. I cried aloud and cursed them. My manhood has gone, I fear. I cannot tell how long that terrible journey lasted,--months and months, for my feet are bare and my legs twisted. What kind fate guided me to you?"
He gazed upon her, not as man looks at woman, but as mortal looks adoringly upon the face of mortal long withheld.
Dorthe smiled sympathetically. His speech and general appearance struck a long-dormant chord; but in her mind was no recognition of him.
He fell asleep suddenly and profoundly. As Dorthe watched, she gradually recalled the appearance of the old who had lain screaming on the ground drawing up their cramped limbs. She also recalled the remedy. Not far from the edge of the forest was a line of temascals, excavations covered with mud huts, into which her people had gone for every ill. She ran to one, and made a large fire within; the smoke escaped through an aperture in the roof. Then she returned, and, taking the emaciated figure in her arms, bore him to the hut and placed him in the corner farthest from the fire. She went out and closed the door, but thrust her head in from time to time. He did not awaken for an hour. When he did, he thought he had entered upon the fiery sequel of unfaith. The sweat was pouring from his body. The atmosphere could only be that of the nether world. As his brain cleared he understood, and made no effort to escape: he knew the virtues of the temascal. As the intense heat sapped his remaining vitality he sank into lethargy. He was aroused by the shock of cold water, and opened his eyes to find himself struggling in the creek, Dorthe holding him down with firm arms. After a moment she carried him back to the plain and laid him in the sun to dry. His rags still clung to him. She regarded them with disfavour, and fetched the Chief's discarded plumage. As soon as he could summon strength he tottered into the forest and made his toilet. As he was a foot and a half taller than the Chief had been, he determined to add a flounce as soon as his health would permit. Dorthe, however, looked approval when he emerged, and set a bowl of steaming soup before him.
He took the temascal twice again, and at the end of a week the drastic cure had routed his rheumatism. Although far from strong, he felt twenty years younger. His manhood returned, and with it his man's vanity. He did not like the appearance of his reflected image in the still pools of the wood. The long beard and head locks smote him sorely. He disliked the idea of being a fright, even though Dorthe had no standards of comparison; but his razors were at the bottom of the sea.
After much excogitation he arrived at a solution. One day, when Dorthe was on the other side of the mountain shooting birds,--she would kill none of her friends in the fern forest,--he tore dried palm leaves into strips, and setting fire to them singed his hair and beard to the roots. It was a long and tedious task. When it was finished the pool told him that his chin and head were like unto a stubbled field. But he was young and well-looking once more.
He went out and confronted Dorthe. She dropped her birds, her bow and arrow, and stared at him. Then he saw recognition leap to her eyes; but this time no fear. He was far from being the gorgeous apparition of many moons ago. And, so quickly does solitude forge its links, she smiled brightly, approvingly, and he experienced a glow of content.
The next day he taught her the verbal synonym of many things, and she spoke the words after him with rapt attention. When he finished the lesson, she pounded, in a wondrous mortar, the dried flour of the banana with the eggs of wild fowl, then fried the paste over the fire he had built. She brought a dish of nuts and showed him gravely how to crack them with a stone, smiling patronizingly at his ready skill. When the dinner was cooked, she offered him one end of the dish as usual, but he thought it was time for another lesson. He laid a flat stone with palm leaves, and set two smaller dishes at opposite ends. Then with a flat stick he lifted the cakes from the fry-pan, and placed an equal number on each plate. Dorthe watched these proceedings with expanded eyes, but many gestures of impatience. She was hungry. He took her hand and led her ceremoniously to the head of the table, motioning to her to be seated. She promptly went down on her knees, and dived at the cakes with both hands. But again he restrained her. He had employed a part of his large leisure fashioning rude wood forks with his ragged pocket-knife. There were plenty of bone knives on the island. He sat himself opposite, and gave her a practical illustration of the use of the knife and fork. She watched attentively, surreptitiously whisking morsels of cake into her mouth. Finally, she seized the implements of civilization beside her plate, and made an awkward attempt to use them. The priest tactfully devoted himself to his own dinner. Suddenly he heard a cry of rage, and simultaneously the knife and fork flew in different directions. Dorthe seized a cake in each hand, and stuffed them into her mouth, her eyes flashing defiance. The priest looked at her reproachfully, then lowered his eyes. Presently she got up, found the knife and fork, and made a patient effort to guide the food to its proper place by the new and trying method This time the attempt resulted in tears--a wild thunder shower. The priest went over, knelt beside her, and guided the knife through the cake, the fork to her mouth. Dorthe finished the meal, then put her head on his shoulder and wept bitterly. The priest soothed her, and made her understand that she had acquitted herself with credit; and the sun shone once more.
An hour later she took his hand, and led him to the creek in the forest.
"C--c--ruck! C--c--ruck!" she cried.
"C--c--ruck! C--c--ruck!" came promptly from the rushes. She looked at him triumphantly.
"Curruck," he said, acknowledging the introduction.
She laughed outright at his poor attempt, startling even him with the discordant sound. She sprang to his side, her eyes rolling with terror. But he laughed himself, and in a few moments she was attempting to imitate him. Awhile later she introduced him to the birds; but he forbore to trill, having a saving sense of humour.
The comrades of her solitude were deserted. She made rapid progress in human speech. Gradually her voice lost its cross between a croak and a trill and acquired a feminine resemblance to her instructor's. At the end of a month they could speak together after a fashion. When she made her first sentence, haltingly but surely, she leaped to her feet and executed a wild war dance. They were on the plain of the dead. She flung her supple legs among the skeletons, sending the bones flying, her bright hair tossing about her like waves of fire. The priest watched her with bated breath, half expecting to see the outraged warriors arise in wrath. The gaunt dogs that were always prowling about the plain fled in dismay.
The month had passed very agreeably to the priest. After the horrors of his earlier experience it seemed for a time that he had little more to ask of life. Dorthe knew nothing of love; but he knew that if no ship came, she would learn, and he would teach her. He had loved no woman, but he felt that in this vast solitude he could love Dorthe and be happy with her. In the languor of convalescence he dreamed of the hour when he should take her in his arms and see the frank regard in her eyes for the last time. The tranquil air was heavy with the perfumes of spring. The palms were rigid. The blue butterflies sat with folded wings. The birds hung their drowsy heads.
But with returning strength came the desire for civilization, the awakening of his ambitions, the desire for intellectual activity. He stood on the beach for hours at a time, straining his eyes for passing ships. He kept a fire on the cliffs constantly burning. Dorthe's instincts were awakening, and she was vaguely troubled. The common inheritance was close upon her.
The priest now put all thoughts of love sternly from him. Love meant a lifetime on the island, for he would not desert her, and to take her to Santa Barbara would mean the death of all his hopes. And yet in his way he loved her, and there were nights when he sat by the watch-fire and shed bitter tears. He had read the story of Juan and Haidee, by no means without sympathy, and he wished more than once that he had the mind and nature of the poet; but to violate his own would be productive of misery to both. He was no amorous youth, but a man with a purpose, and that, for him, was the end of it. But he spent many hours with her, talking to her of life beyond the island, a story to which she listened with eager interest.
One night as he was about to leave her, she dropped her face into her hands and cried heavily. Instinctively he put his arms about her, and she as instinctively clung to him, terrified and appealing. He kissed her, not once, but many times, intoxicated and happy. She broke from him suddenly and ran to her cave; and he, chilled and angry, went to his camp-fire.
It was a very brilliant night. An hour later he saw something skim the horizon. Later still he saw that the object was closer, and that it was steering for the harbour. He ran to meet it.
Twice he stopped. The magnetism of the only woman that had ever awakened his love drew him back. He thought of her despair, her utter and, this time, unsupportable loneliness; the careless girl with the risen sun would be a broken-hearted woman.
But he ran on.
Spain beckoned. The highest dignities of the Church were his. He saw his political influence a byword in Europe. He felt Dorthe's arms about him, her soft breath on his cheek, and uttered a short savage scream; but he went on.
When he reached the harbour three men had already landed. They recognized him, and fell at his feet. And when he told them that he was alone on the island, they reembarked without question. And he lived, and forgot, and realized his great ambitions.
Thirty years later a sloop put into the harbour of the island for repairs. Several of the men went on shore. They discovered footprints in the sand. Wondering, for they had sailed the length of the island and seen no sign of habitation, they followed the steps. They came upon a curious creature which was scraping with a bone knife the blubber from a seal. At first they thought it was a bird of some unknown species, so sharp was its beak, so brilliant its plumage. But when they spoke to it and it sprang aside and confronted them, they saw that the creature was an aged woman. Her face was like an old black apple, within whose skin the pulp had shrunk and withered as it lay forgotten on the ground. Her tawny hair hung along her back like a ragged mat. There was no light in the dim vacuous eyes. She wore a garment made of the unplucked skins of birds. They spoke to her. She uttered a gibberish unknown to them with a voice that croaked like a frog's, then went down on her creaking knees and lifted her hands to the sun.