"I lied, Percival, to Ruth Clinton about the encounter in my stateroom on the Doraine. Believe me or not as you see fit, but I think that was the only deliberate lie I have ever told in my life. I have done a great many high-handed things, I have been inconsiderate of others, I have crushed opposition in my own way, I have never allowed myself to acknowledge defeat. My hand has been against you since the day you appeared on the decks of the Doraine. It was not in my nature to see good in you. To me, you were a good-for-nothing—Well, I'm glad to see you smile! That is the devil with you,—your confounded smile. I ask you to overlook what I have said, and done—and been, Percival,—and shake hands. You have nothing to apologize for. There never has been a time in all these months that I have not felt you to be a real man, an honest one, and a gentleman. I think I know an honest man when I see one,—indeed, it is my business to read men,—and I rarely make a mistake."
As the two men shook hands, Randolph Fitts remarked drily:
"Seems to me I remember your saying something of the sort the first day you ever laid eyes on A. A., Abel."
"The trouble is," put in Soapy Shay sarcastically, "you don't know a dishonest one when you see him, Bill."
"Veil, let's get down to business," said Moses Block nervously. "Ve must go slow and careful-like. If we show our hands too soon, they will uprise and—veil, I don't know vat!"
"Mr. Mott, what would you do if you got wind of a plot like this aboard ship?" inquired Percival, his eyes narrowing.
"I would have the whole gang in chains before morning. Then I'd give 'em a taste of the 'cat' at daybreak, and before noon I'd have the ringleaders hanging from a yard-arm," said Andrew Mott, succinctly.
"Oh, my gracious!" gulped Mr. Block.
"Now, I'll tell you what would happen up in Copperhead Camp," said Percival, darkly. "They would get a beautiful cow-hiding and then sentenced to wear a ball and chain, day and night, for anywhere from six months to two years,—depending largely on the process of regeneration. My experience has been that six months is enough."
"We wouldn't dare do that, A. A.," said Fitts. "You must not forget public sentiment,—and public pity. I've got a better plan. How far out is that little island off New Gibraltar, Platt?"
"A quarter of a mile, I should say."
"Well, if they're not satisfied with life and conditions here, let's make 'em a present of a nice little island of their own. That's what I've always advocated as the proper way to treat anarchists. Stick 'em away on an island completely surrounded by sharks and let 'em run it to suit themselves."
"But there are no sharks in these waters," said Flattner. "They'd swim over here some night and slit all our throats."
"Not a chance. They hate water too much to have ever learned how to swim. Now, here's the scheme. Round up as many of them as we're dead sure about, row 'em out to the island, dump 'em with enough food and water to last a week, supply them with tents and beds and tools, and let 'em build their own penitentiary. They'll have to do it or freeze next winter. Once a week send food and drink out to them. The water is a hundred fathoms deep between Trigger Island and that little green wart out there on the face of the ocean. It will look like a million miles to them. How does it strike you, gentlemen?"
Off the precipitous western extremity of Trigger Island lies a tiny scrap of tree-covered land. It is perhaps one hundred yards wide and thrice as long. An exploring party had visited it shortly after the wreck of the Doraine, but since then no one had set foot upon its shores. Its steep slopes, densely wooded, viewed from afar, suggested a mountain top sticking up out of the sea. By boat, skirting the coast, it was a good ten miles distant from the town.
Three men were seized that night and put through a rigid examination. Early the next morning twelve more were taken, Manuel Crust among them. Half of them, in their terror, "squealed." Crust himself was one of these. Almost before the people of the town knew what was afoot, the fifteen had been tried, convicted, and were on their way to the landing where boats were waiting to take them and their belongings off into exile. As for the conspirators themselves, the blow was so swift, so sudden, that they were dazed. It was like a bolt out of a clear sky.
Judge Malone sent them to "the Island" for indeterminate periods. At stated intervals they were to be released, one by one, and restored to citizenship. The shortest term of exile, however, was one year. The releases were to be decided by lot, except in the case of three men: Crust, Fernandez and an Irish sailor named Clark. They were the ringleaders and they were to remain on "the Island" until the time came for them to go aboard the relief ship with all the other citizens of Trigger. At the end of the first year, and once a month thereafter for twelve months, drawings were to be held, and the man whose name was drawn would be released.
"You are prisoners of state," said Judge Malone, in passing sentence. "The state is obliged to feed you, and clothe you, and sustain you if you fall ill, no matter how bitterly it goes against the grain. You will not be obliged to work, or wash, or observe a single law. You may rob each other to your hearts' content, you may murder each other with perfect impunity, you may do just as you like. We started out to conduct the affairs of this island along lines laid down by the Golden Rule. I have come to the conclusion that the Golden Rule would be all right if it were not for the human race. I am beginning to believe that the Rule of Iron is the only one for the people of this earth to live under,—and that is a pretty hard thing for an Irishman to say. You men ought to be lined up against a wall and shot. We do not feel that we have the right to take your lives. It is not in our hearts to destroy you, as you would have destroyed us. But you may not dwell among us."
Fernandez, wild with fury, shrieked vengeance upon the head of Olga Obosky. Out of his ravings, the unsavoury crew gleaned enough to convince them that he was responsible for their present unhappy plight.
"You will pay for this, you snake!" he yelled, foaming at the mouth and shaking his fist at her. "I will drink your heart's blood! Remember what Joe Fernandez says. I will come back here and get you,—Oh, I will get you,—and when I am through with you your dog of a lover may have what is left. I will cut you to pieces! I swear it—I swear it! Hear my oath! You double-crossed me! You squealed on me! I will come back, and I will drink your heart's blood! I swear it!"
He spat in her direction as he was dragged away with the rest of the gang. Through his glittering, bloodshot eyes he saw the cool, derisive sneer on her red lips. He had failed, however, to note the keen, appraising look with which she searched the faces of his baffled, glowering companions. In that long, tense look she had seen dawning comprehension change to conviction; she had read his doom, so she could, in perfect security, give him that scoffing, heartless smile to take with him on the journey from which he was never to return.
Fifteen men went out to "the Island" that afternoon. From that day, the authorities provided weekly rations for that number of men. To this day they are ignorant of the fact that there are but fourteen mouths to feed.
In the cool of a balmy January evening, following what had been the hottest day the castaways had experienced since coming to Trigger Island, a group of men and women sat upon the Governor's porch. There was no moon, but the sky was speckled with millions of stars.
Olga Obosky, sitting on the squared log that served as a step, leaned back against the awning post, her legs stretched out in luxurious abandon. She was fanning herself, and her breath came rapidly, pantingly. Now and then she patted her moist face with a handkerchief.
"How warm you are, Olga," said Ruth, who sat beside her. "And you must be dreadfully tired."
"I am hot, but I am not tired," replied the other. "I could dance all night, my dear, without tiring. Did you really like the children, Ruth?"
"They were lovely. You have done wonders with them."
"Regular Isadora Duncan stuff," sighed Peter Snipe, drawing lazily at his pipe. "Woodland nymphs, phantom pixies floating on the wind, zephyrs in the guise of fairies, dreams come true,—my dear Olga, you are a sorceress. You change clods into moonbeams, you turn human beings into vapours, you cast the mantle of enchantment over the midsummer night, and we see Oberon, Titania and all the rest of them disporting on the breeze. And to think that only this afternoon I saw all of those gawky girls working in the fields, their legs the colour of tan bark, with sandals that looked like canal-boats, skirts made of hemp,—just regular kids. And you transform them tonight into gleaming cloudlets to float upon the ambient atmosphere—"
"For heaven's sake, Pete, stop being an author and talk like a real man," interrupted Fitts. "Can't you say, 'Gee, they was great, Olger'?"
It was "Twelfth Night," and Olga's pupils had given a fairy dance on the Green. To conclude the almost mystic entertainment, the great Obosky herself had appeared in one of her most marvellous creations,—the "Dance of the Caliph's Dream,"—the sensational, never-to-be-forgotten dance that had been the talk of three continents. There was no spotlight to follow her sinuous, scantily clad figure as it spun and leaped and glided about the dim, starlit Green; there was no blare of brass and cymbals, nor the haunting wail of flageolets,—only the tinkle of mandolins and Spanish guitars to guide her bewildering feet,—and yet she had never been so alluring.
When it was all over,—when the charmed circle of faces had vanished into the byways of the night,—she came and flung herself down upon the steps of the Governor's mansion. She had wrapped her warm body in a sheath of yellow velvet; the tips of her bare feet were exposed to the grateful night air. Her uplifted eyes shone like the stars that looked down into them; her lips were parted in a smile; her flesh quivered with the physical ecstasy that comes only with supreme lassitude.
"You never danced so beautifully in your life, Olga," said Careni-Amori. "And after two years, too. I cannot understand. I shall never sing again as I sang two years ago. But you,—ah, you dance even better. I take courage from you. Perhaps my voice has not gone to seed as Joseppi's has,—poor man. Not that it had very far to go,—but still it was second only to Caruso's, and that is something. How can it be that you improve with idleness, while I—while we go the other way?"
"I shall never dance like zat again," replied Olga, her eyes clouding.
"You speak as if it were your swan dance," cried Michael Malone.
"Oh, I shall dance for ever," said she, "but never again like zat. You would ask why not. I cannot tell you. I do not know. Only can I say I shall never dance like zat again,—never."
Ruth turned her head quickly to look at the woman beside her. Olga's face gleamed white in the starlight. Her eyes were still searching the speckled dome, and the smile had left her lips.
"Don't say that, Olga," she whispered softly. "You will delight great audiences again,—you will charm—"
"Possibly," interrupted the other, lowering her voice, turning her eyes upon Ruth, and smiling mysteriously. "Great audiences, yes,—but what are they? I appeared tonight before an audience of one. I danced as I have never danced before,—all for zat audience of one. Your husband, my dear. He one time informs me he has never seen me dance. Well,—tonight I dance for him. Now, he can say he have seen Obosky dance. He will never forget zat he have seen Obosky dance."
Ruth laughed, but it was a strained effort. "He was positively enchanted, Olga," she said. Then she added: "But for goodness' sake, don't ever let him know that you did it all for him. He will be so proud and important that—"
"Oh, he knows I danced for him," broke in the Russian calmly, in a most matter-of-fact tone.
"You—you told him?"
"I did not have to tell him. He knew, without being told. La la, my dear! Do not look so shocked. It is a habit I have. Always I dance for one person in my audience. I pick him out,—sometimes it is a she,—and zen I try only to please zat one person. I make him to feel he is the one I am dancing for, zat he is all alone in the great big hall,—all alone with me. Maybe he is in the gallery, looking down; maybe he is in a box, or standing up at the back of the house,—no matter where he is, I pick him out and so I think of no one else all ze time I dance."
"And, by the same token, he is powerless to think of any one else. I see. No wonder you charm them out of their boots."
"And all the rest of his life he will remember that I danced for him alone, zat man. As for me,—poof! I would not recognize him again if he came to see me a thousand nights in succession. Once I saw a very tiny boy in the stalls. He was with his mother and father. I danced for zat child of six. When he is a very, very old man he will look back over the years and see me dancing still,—always the same whirling, dazzling thing that filled his little eyes and soul with wonder. So! Percivail has seen me at my best. He will tell his grandchildren how wonderful Obosky was,—and he will think of her to his dying day as something beautiful, not something vile."
"You see, my dear," said the other, composedly, "I wanted to make a good impression on zat virtuous husband of jours. Now he will think of me as the artist, not as the woman. It is much better so, is it not?"
"Sometimes you say things that cause me to wonder why I don't hate you, Olga Obosky," cried Ruth under her breath.
Olga laughed softly. "I repeat zat Golden Rule to myself every night and every morning, Ruthkin," said she, somewhat cryptically. Then they were silent.
Conversation on the porch behind them lagged and finally ceased altogether. The soft swish of fans was the only sound to disturb the tranquil stillness.
"Nineteen-twenty," fell dreamily from the lips of Randolph Fitts's wife. "I used to think of Nineteen-twenty as being so far in the future that I would be an old, old woman when I came to it. And here it is,—I am living in it,—and I am not old."
"Presidential year," said Michael Malone, as he struck a match to relight the pipe that had gone out. "Doesn't take them long to slip around, does it? Seems only last week that I voted for Wilson. I wonder if he'll be running again."
"Sure! And if he can keep us in the war as long as he kept us out of it," said Peter Snipe, "we'll have to elect him again."
"I'd give a lot to know whether we've got the Germans licked or not," mused Fitts. "We've had nearly three years to do it in."
"Depends entirely on the navy," said Platt, Minister of Marine, late of the U. S. Navy.
"What can the navy do if the Germans will not come out?" demanded Landover.
"Why, confound it all, the navy can go in, can't it?"
"The British Navy hasn't," was Landover's reply.
"What's the use of speculating about the war?" said Percival, as he threw himself on the grass at Ruth's feet. "Either it's over or it isn't, and here we sit absolutely in the dark. They might as well be fighting on Mars as over in Europe, so far as we are concerned. For God's sake, let's not even think about the war. We'll all go crazy if we do."
"You're right," said Fitts, gloomily.
"In any case," said Malone, "Trigger Island has done all that any self-respecting government can do. She has declared war on Germany. We have nothing to be ashamed of. Still, I'd feel better if we could fire a few shots at the dirty blackguards."
"The war is over," said Olga, staring up at the stars. "The Germans are beaten. I have said so for many months, have I not?"
"You have," agreed Malone. "But I don't see that you have anything on the Kaiser. He said it was over in 1914."
"'Don't argue with him, Olga," said young Mrs. Malone. "He's Irish."
"Like all Irishers he's longing for something he'll never get," said Fitts, drily.
"And what is that?" inquired Mrs. Malone.
"Home-rule," said Fitts.
Olga Obosky yawned luxuriously. "I am so sleepy. My sandals, Governor Percivail. I am going home."
He picked up the sandals lying on the grass beside him and held them out to her. She coolly extended one of her feet.
"It cannot bite you. Put zem on for me, your Excellency."
WEST WIND DRIFT
He knelt and, slipping the sandals on one after the other, fastened the straps over her bare insteps.
"So," she sighed. "Thank you. Good night, Ruthkin. No! I shall go home alone. There is nothing to be afraid of now on zis island, my dear. The ardent Fernandez is playing—what you call it?—pea-knuckles?—he is playing pea-knuckles away off yonder on zat prison island, as he has been playing for nearly a year."
Little she knew of Fernandez!
Ruth and Percival walked around the corner of the porch with her, out of sight of the others.
"It was a perfectly ravishing dance, Olga," said he. "If I live a thousand years I shall never forget how beautiful it was."
"You see?" cried Olga softly, pressing Ruth's hand. "Was I not right?"
"Men are very queer things," said Ruth, with a curious sidelong glance at her husband. Then she squeezed his arm tightly and went on with a little thrill in her voice: "Good night, Olga. Thank you for the lesson."
"What's all this?" inquired Percival.
"Nothing you would be interested in, my friend," said Olga, with a little laugh. She waved her hand airily as she moved swiftly away in the gloom.
They watched her yellow figure fade into the starlit shadows. As they turned to rejoin the others, Ruth said:
"I think you might have told her how beautiful she was, dear." So much for the native perversity of woman, even when she is most content.
He raised her hand to his lips and pressed a kiss upon the soft, warm palm. It was a habit of his,—and she never failed to shiver in response to the exquisite thrill. She drew a deep breath, and leaned a little closer to him.
"Look up yonder, sweetheart," he whispered. "Do you see the one star in all the heavens that shines the brightest? It is the only one I see when I raise my eyes. The big, full star in the Southern Cross. The others are dim, feeble little things preening themselves in reflected glory. That great, beautiful star at the foot of the Cross is all that I can see. It's no use for me to look elsewhere. That star fills my vision. Its splendour fascinates me."
She waited for him to go on. Her eyes were shining. But the analogy was complete. She laid her cheek against his and sighed tremulously. After a moment, they turned their heads and their lips met in a long, passionate kiss.
"I should be content to stay on this dear little island for ever, sweetheart," she murmured. "My whole world is here."
He stroked her hair lovingly, and was silent for a long time. Then he smiled his whimsical smile.
"It's all right for you and me, dear,—but how about the future President of the United States sleeping up there in his crib?"
She smiled up into his eyes. "It's a nuisance, isn't it?—having to stop and consider that we are parents as well as lovers."
They rejoined the group on the porch.
"I had a horrible dream last night," said Peter Snipe, getting up and stretching himself. "That's why I'm staying up so late tonight. I hate to go to bed."
"What was your dream, Peter?" asked Ruth.
"Do you believe in 'em?"
"Only in day-dreams."
"Well, I dreamed our little old ship was finished and had sailed at last and for once our wireless plant up there began to get messages from the sea. I dreamed I was sitting up there with the operator. It was a dark, stormy night. The wireless began to crackle. He jumped up to see what was coming. He was getting messages from our own ship, away out there on the ocean. She was calling for help. 'Sinking fast,—sinking fast,—sinking fast.' Over and over again,—just those two words. 'Gad,—it was so real, so terribly real, that the first thing I did this morning was to walk down to see if the boat was still on the stocks. She was there, a long way from being finished, and—and, by gad, I had hard work to keep from blubbering, I was so relieved."
"It will take more than a dream to knock that ship to pieces," said Percival. "When she's ready for the water, there will not be a sturdier craft afloat. Andrew Mott says she'll weather anything outside of the China Sea. Don't look so distressed, Amy. Pete's a novelist. They never do anything but dream horrible dreams. Generally they go so far as to put them into print, and people read 'em and say they are wildly improbable,—especially if they have a happy ending. It's always the happy ending that makes them improbable,—but popular. Isn't that so, Pete?"
"If we didn't give them a happy ending, they would refuse to recognize us the next time they saw us on a bookseller's counter," said Peter. "Well, I guess I'll be on my way. I've got a busy day tomorrow, setting up the Trigger Island Pioneer,—and as I belong to that almost extinct species known as the bachelor, I am forced to be my own alarm clock. Going my way, Abel?"
"Good night, Ruth," said Landover. "Give the Lieutenant Governor a good smack for me,—and tell him he is still in my will."
"Umph!" grunted Fitts. "I'd like to know what you've got to leave the little beggar. Your letter of credit?"
"Certainly not," replied Landover. "Something worth while, Fittsy, my boy. I am making it now. It's going to be a hobby-horse, if I live long enough to finish it. Good night, Perce. 'Night, everybody."
When the last of the company had departed, Ruth and Percival stood for a long time in silence, listening to the far-off thrumming of a Spanish guitar, their tranquil gaze fixed on the murky shadow that marked the line of trees along the shore, her head resting lightly against his shoulder, his arm about her waist.
"What are you thinking of, dear?" she asked at last.
"Peter's dream," he replied. "It has put an idea into my head. The day that ship down there sails out to sea with her courageous little crew, I shall start laying the keel for another just like her."
Neither spoke for many seconds. Then she said, a deep, solemn note in her voice: "I understand, Perce."
They went into the house. Later they stole tiptoe to the side of the crib where slept the sturdy, sun-kissed babe. The two middle fingers of a chubby hand were in his mouth. With one hand Percival shaded the pitch candle he had brought from the kitchen. She leaned over and gently touched the smooth, warm cheek.
"I—I can't believe he is real, Perce," she whispered.
"He isn't," whispered he. "He is something out of a fairy story. Nothing as wonderful as he is can possibly be real."