The old man, the young girl, and the young man alone remained with him. They spoke to one another now and then, but conversation with him was impossible. They could only express their interest by eager and intense staring. The old man finally came close to him and examined him. He felt of the cloth of his shirt and trousers, looked critically at his stout leather shoes, expressed great interest in the sheath knife, broad-bladed and sharp, which he handed to the young man, who also examined it and who was also much taken with the bright, brass-headed boat hook. Beekman wished that he had some trinket or jewel, something which he could have given to the girl, but, alas, he had nothing; not even a finger ring.
While they were examining him, his eyes were roving about the settlement. In the first place, he noticed that instead of being houses of wood, the dwellings were built of stone, obviously the volcanic rock of the island. There were more houses than such a number of people would require. He counted a score of huts placed in an irregular way under the trees. They were different from any South Sea island houses he had ever seen or heard of, their only point of resemblance being the roofs thatched with palm leaves. One house in the center of the settlement was much larger than any of the rest. Its gable of stone was surmounted by what appeared to him to be the remains of a tower. It was a perfect parallelogram. He recalled, as he looked at it lazily, that it was like the Noah's Ark toys of his childhood. In the front was a doorway, closed by a worm-eaten wooden door. This building, like many of the others, was overgrown with vines, creepers of which he did not know the name, some of them brilliant with gorgeous blossoms. The doorways of all the other buildings held no doors. Woven-grass curtains depended from some of them, but even they were generally drawn back. Each house was provided with a small, roofless, stone porch, a stoop, he called it, in default of a better name, and there was a singular European look about them, but a European look of the past.
Refreshed by his meal and his smoke, and tired of sitting, he rose to his feet and, followed by the trio, he strolled off in the direction of the nearest house. When he would have entered it, the old man interposed, shook his head gently, took him by the hand and led him through the village to a house exactly like the others, but on the outskirts of the settlement. He pointed inward, and Beekman divined that here was the place allotted to him. He entered. Plenty of light came through the windows on either side, although, they were screened with creepers. The place was stone floored, the flooring covered with sand. It was absolutely bare of furniture and spotlessly clean. There was nothing to be seen, and so he tarried not at all therein.
He turned and, no one opposing, retraced his steps, the others still following until he reached the little platform in front of the largest house with the wooden door. They were all watching him keenly, and when he stepped up on the platform and laid his hand on the door, the old man, with astonishing agility, climbed up beside him, thrust himself between Beekman and the door, and with rapid speech and almost fierce gesticulation barred the way. The young man joined him also, and, frowning angrily, in spite of a cry of protest from the girl, who watched them with alarm, he thrust Beekman back rather violently. The American could have handled them both without difficulty; indeed, given back his strength and vigor, he almost felt he could handle the whole village, but he had no desire to incur the animosity of his kindly hosts, and so he stepped back at once, smiling and bowing as if to apologize for the mistake.
The little outbreak or struggle was over almost as soon as it had begun. The only person who seemed very much annoyed by it was the girl. Obviously, to the surprise of the young man, she appeared to be scolding him vehemently, and in her reprehension the old man was also included. Of course, Beekman decided that he would get into that building as soon as possible. He was growing more intensely curious as to the whole situation with every moment, and it flashed upon him that perhaps the solution of the mystery was to be found therein.
In the course of the day, during which he was left entirely to his own devices by the rest of the people, although vigilantly accompanied everywhere by the three, he tried his smattering of South Sea lingua franca, but without making himself understood at all. At noon he was fed again, and in the afternoon he was glad to go to his own house to take a siesta, where he now found grass and leaves piled in the corner with native cloth robes thrown over them. He slept until he was awakened by a touch.
The girl bending over him in the faint light of the evening seemed like an angel or vision. He rose and followed her without, discovering that the sun had set and that the community was about to partake of its evening meal, which apparently they had in common. They were standing around platters of food when he came, and what was his surprise to see the old man straighten up, stretch out his hands, and say something which sounded like an appeal to God, or the gods, while the rest stood with bowed heads.
In the old man's words there was something more familiar than in any others which had been employed, and as he stared at the strange scene, the clue to the speech of the people flashed into his mind. Among other things in which old Derrick Beekman had caused his son to be well instructed had been the language of his forebears. He had been thoroughly taught to read and speak Dutch, and, although it was an accomplishment of which he had made little use, he had been too well grounded to have lost much of his acquired facility in the years since he had left college.
The old man was certainly saying some sort of grace-before-meat in a language which sounded like Dutch, or as Dutch might have sounded two hundred years ago, and which bore the same relation to the modern language that English of that period might have borne to current speech. No, it bore less relation, because it was debased by an admixture of some other language which he did not know, but he was certain that Dutch was at the basis of the speech. Never imagining such a thing, he had not made the discovery until that prayer. He at once sought to avail himself of his new discovery. Carefully choosing his words, he turned to the girl, who hovered very near him, to the growing disquiet of the young man, and thus addressed her:
"I know your speech. It is that my fathers spoke long ago."
He spoke slowly and with the utmost precision. At the first word the girl clapped her hands, broke into a smile that was as beautiful as the features that formed it. He saw the flash of her white teeth behind her red lips in the twilight and her eyes shone brighter than ever. She clasped his hand and drew it to her breast in her rapture.
"It is wonderful," she cried. "You speak as I."
As his hand touched her, as he felt the quickened beat of her heart, he was thrilled as he had never been thrilled before. It needed but the rough gesture of the jealous young man who tore his hand from hers to complete a thralldom and an enchantment which had begun, although he knew it not, when he had seen her poised upon the cliff above him in the light of the morning.
Conversation between the islanders and their visitor was practicable and possible, but at first neither easy nor fluent. It would not have been such, even to a Hollander, but when on the one side there was a certain unfamiliarity with a language not native to the user, unfamiliarity added to by the time that had elapsed since he had made use of it, and on the other side a language which had been largely forgotten in its nicer usages, and which had been materially changed by a large admixture of Polynesian, the interchange of ideas was at first hard. Still, communication was possible and not too difficult; indeed, it became increasingly easy with practice.
The islanders, the monotony of whose sequestered lives could scarcely be imagined, welcomed the new arrival with the greatest satisfaction. However they came there and whatever the length of their stay, and to neither of these questions could they give him the slightest answer, Beekman soon discovered that they had completely forgotten even such civilization as the world had attained to when they had left it. The only traditions they possessed were first of all a vague and indefinite knowledge of God, whom they regarded as a species of Great Spirit or Deity, who looked after them and to whom they must render a certain amount of respect. They had no idea of the meaning of the jargon into which their prayers had degenerated. Only the idea of some Spirit as a power to be prayed to and propitiated remained. This spirit they called Tangaroa-a purely Polynesian name.
The only religious observance he noted was that strange performance before the evening meal. The sunrise visits of the girl to the cliff opposite the rift in the harbor whence she had a view of the sea through the opening for miles, and in which she never failed, perhaps had some religious significance, although the girl could not tell him why she did it or what was meant by it. Nevertheless, so strangely had the necessity for the routine been impressed upon the consciousness of these people that she, being appointed to the task, followed it without rhyme or reason. Beekman suspected that originally it had been a fruitless watch for some rescuing ship, the meaning of which, like the hope, had faded out of recollection with the passing years.
The second tradition that remained was that many, many years ago-how many they could not express-their forebears had landed on that island. Where they had come from, why they had elected that place, why they had never departed from it, they knew not.
The island and everything on it, with one exception, was free to Beekman, who wandered whither he would without let or hindrance. There was but one spot that was tabooed to him. Indeed, they used the Polynesian word "taboo" when he sought to enter it, and that was the largest building with the worm-eaten door.
Several times Beekman had left his hut in the night, intending to gain an entrance to that building surreptitiously, in the hope of solving the mystery, but at first, to his great surprise, he had found that his own hut was under observation of one of the older men or women, who, indeed, could not have prevented him from doing what he pleased, but who served as a bar to action, nevertheless, because Beekman did not want to involve himself in difficulties or to wound the sensibilities of those who had received him so hospitably and entreated him so kindly. Thereupon after the exchange of a few words, he had invariably returned to his house, deferring the attempt to some more convenient season.
The mystery of the dwelling houses was, of course, explained just as soon as he got the clue to the language of the people. They were Dutch houses. He could reconstruct some of the story with reasonable certainty. A party of Hollanders, accompanied by the natives, had landed on that island in some long distant period. The time of their landing had to be removed far back to account for the present degeneration through continuous intermarriage.
So far as he could tell, there was no evidence of Polynesian blood in two of the inhabitants of the island; old Kobo, the patriarch, and Truda, the young girl. These were the names they bore, and Beekman made no difficulty about identifying them with Jacobus and Gertrude. As far as he could tell, they were pure-blooded Dutch. Kobo, the chief, was the grandfather of Truda. There was less Polynesian blood in Hano, the young man who was destined to be the husband of Truda, than in any of the rest, but that there was some was obvious.
There was character, personality, individuality about these three in varying degrees. The rest of the islanders simply filled in and made, as it were, a fading human background. They counted for little or nothing. They were industrious people in the fashion of the tropics. They had evidently brought with them the products of Holland, even including tulips; and such of them as would grow in the tropics they had cultivated and continued to cultivate. They had not failed to perpetuate all that had ministered to their human daily needs, even as they had not altogether forgotten God and things spiritual and mental.
They would not allow Beekman to do any work. He more than paid for his board by the wonderful stories he told them, gathered after the evening meal, when men and women alike smoked their curious pipes. There were no books on the island. They had completely forgotten how to read. They had lost all memory of the outside world. They were circumscribed, shut in, by the towering walls of the crater, and their lives had grown correspondingly narrow and monotonous. Beekman had to adapt his remarks as if he were talking to children, and backward children, at that; yet two at least of his auditors manifested a quick comprehension and one far surpassed the rest. The old man and the young man easily understood, the girl even anticipated.
Kobo was too old to move about much. Hano had his work to do with the rest, but by a sort of universal consent Truda was a free agent. She and Derrick, at the latter's suggestion, thoroughly explored the island. It was due to him that certain things were rediscovered that had been forgotten, or, if remembered, considered of no moment.
With the girl as his guide and attendant he made a careful survey of the vast cup in which they lived. He was not much of a geologist, but it was easy to decide that here was the crest of a volcano, with a double cone, one being the great cylinder that formed the harbor; this, the smaller, the narrower, possibly the deeper entrance to the subterranean fires of long ago, had been filled with water from the sea through the rift. Into the other, the greater and shallower orifice, the earth had come, birds had dropped seeds, vegetation had sprung up and the oasis resulted.
There was but one source of fresh water on the island, the great spring that bubbled from a low cone in front of the palm-covered hillock where the houses were placed. The water was fresh, slightly mineral, slightly effervescent at its exit. It ran through tortuous channels until it pierced the encircling wall of rock through a rift, finally falling over the high cliff to the gulf beneath. So near as he could determine, that spring had never failed them.
The surrounding rock walls of the oasis were unsurmountable, both outside and in, in most places, like the walls of the harbor. There were two or three exceptions, however. There was an easy and practicable path to the place where he had first seen the girl performing that strange and mysterious ceremony of greeting, as it were, to the rising sun. There had been some objection to his going there. It seemed to be the custom that she and she alone should make that trip, but he had insisted and had soon acquired the habit of going with her every morning.
Through the rift a vast expanse of sea could be seen to the south and eastward. They could peer down into the gulf and mark the white water breaking on the barriers and the stretch of tossing sea beyond.
"Have you ever seen anything there?" he asked Truda.
"A few times, yes."
"What was it?"
"Smoke as from afar."
"And did you never think what it might mean?"
"How should I?"
"Have you never wanted to get away from this island?"
"What is there beyond?"
"What is the world?"
"Love and hate, victory and defeat, failure and success-life is there!"
"I know not what you mean."
"Yet you are going to marry Hano?"
The girl looked at him curiously.
"When I am ready I must go to his house. Grandfather will join our hands. I shall be his woman."
"Do you like the idea?"
"He was the best before you came. What else was there for me?"
"But now that I have come?"
"It is different here," said the girl, laying her hand upon her heart.
"That is love," said the man.
"And do you feel it?"
This was a question indeed, which, had she been a modern woman, he might have answered lightly. There was something different about this girl. He hesitated. He was not quite sure. They had retraced their steps and were returning to the settlement. In the path suddenly appeared Hano, his face was black with jealous rage. He did not lack courage, for he stopped the two and faced the man.
"I will not have you go with her," he cried.
"I am not yours yet," said the girl, pushing forward and waving him aside. "You shall not speak so to my friend."
Beekman had said and done nothing. With a low, passionate cry Hano turned and fled. His time was not yet.
"That is hate," said the man; "jealousy."
"I understand. He likes you not because I like you and you like me."
The maiden walked along silent and thoughtful.
"It is a pity that you came," she said at last.
"I was content before."
"It is trouble here," she answered, laying her hand on her heart again.
"That is life," said the man, but this time she could not quite comprehend.
She appealed to him as a wild bird might have appealed to its destined mate in the forest glade ere the nest was builded. Indeed, she appealed to him as no woman on earth ever had appealed to him. Stephanie Maynard was not a girl to be disdained by any one, but there, in that idyllic oasis of the sea, his remembrance of her was as of an artificial creature, subject to conventions, hampered with clothes, fettered by circumstances. And her dark beauty faded into insignificance compared to the radiant gold of this child of nature, of innocence, of freedom.
Beekman had no idea where that island lay. That it had been unvisited, indeed avoided, by ships was obvious, and the reason was easy to discover. From the decks of a ship, if one by chance passed near it, nothing but arid rock, surrounded by dangerous reefs, could be seen. He had climbed, attended by the faithful Truda, the few other points whereby one could reach the top of the wall. There was no gulf or harbor on any other side. The walls ran down sharply to the sea, sloping here and there, but never practicable, and about all was flung the great encircling barrier reef upon which assaulting waves ever surrounded the desolate looking peak of rock with a ring of white foam and spray, as marked and as beautiful in the cobalt sea as it was dangerous to a ship. He doubted if even a great beacon fire upon the wall would attract a ship. If it were seen it might be deemed only a recrudescence of volcanic fires. It seemed to him that he might perhaps pass the rest of his life there. Certainly he would, unless he could devise some way to get off unaided. He did not reflect that perhaps he might eventually be sought if the boatswain ever got word to New York. Even if a ship were sent to find him, the chances of success would be so faint as to be negligible. The prospect was appalling, would have been insupportable but for Truda.
Why should he not take her for his own, willing or unwilling though the islanders might be, pleased or displeased though Hano might show himself? Although she could not describe it, the girl had grown passionately devoted to him in that brief but most familiar intercourse and intimacy, that was as close as could obtain. He felt sorry for Hano in a way, the only man on the island who might have aspired to this beautiful maiden, when he found himself suddenly thrust back, his place taken by this stranger; for Hano life, which had been so fair, became horrible.
With fiery energy Hano paid more direct court to Truda. He protested vehemently to Kobo. He sought to enlist the sympathies of the other men and women on the island and perhaps succeeded to some extent, but not to the point of open resistance. The islanders looked up to Hano, but they looked up much more to Truda herself, whose beauty and purity of blood particularly appealed to them, and they were mightily afraid of stern old Kobo, who seemed to have the determination of matters in hand, and who was much attracted to this new inhabitant cast up by the sea upon their shores.
As the days slipped by, as his association with the maiden revealed more and more a simplicity of mind, a tractability of soul, a brightness of spirit, a quickness of intellect, that accorded with her absolute physical perfection, Beekman became more and more in love with her. He set himself to teach her to speak English, and she learned with the facility of a child. He could not teach her to read or write. He had no material for either, but he opened to her his well-stored mind. There was little else to do, in fact, and the two sat together for hours, the woman receiving, the man giving. The fact that she soon learned to speak in English added to the awe in which most of the islanders held the girl, increased the hatred of Hano, and at last aroused the suspicion of the patriarch.
Beekman was careful of the feelings of his new friends, but when it came to a question between their feelings and the woman he loved it was not difficult to see that everything else must give way. In all these idyllic days the American had held fast to his purpose of getting into that building, which was the only spot from which he was barred, in order that he might solve the mystery of the presence of this people on the island, the key to which he was sure would be found there.
One circumstance whetted his curiosity more than any other thing. On the night of the full moon every month old Kobo disappeared. Questioning Truda, he discovered that always at that period in the month old Kobo spent the day alone in the tabooed building. Truda did not know why. She could not tell what he did there, but it was the custom, and when Kobo died the next oldest man would do the same. The rest of the people were not allowed in the building during the day, but before nightfall the door was thrown open. Kobo stood in the doorway and beckoned. The people had been waiting and they all, down to the smallest child, walked in. Truda came last, but when Beekman would have followed, Hano shut the door in his face. Whatever the rite that was being observed, it was evidently not meet that he, a stranger, should see it, much less participate in it.
They stayed in the building a long time, long after nightfall, and their supper that night was something in the nature of a feast. It was late when they retired. It seemed to Beekman that they would be heavy with sleep and that perhaps such a night would afford him an opportunity to get into that building. He bided his time. He was careful to say nothing whatever which would arouse any suspicions. He did not even ask the meaning of the strange ceremony when he bade Truda good night and went into his own house some months after his arrival at the island.