In order effectively to lull suspicion, after the first few weeks on the island, Beekman had made no attempt at all to approach the forbidden building, not even by day. He rightly judged that the listless people of the island would presently tire of their unwonted night duty and the watch would be abandoned eventually. Nevertheless, he neglected no precaution on that particular night as he stole out of his house. The tropic moon filled the sky with splendor and the island with light. It was easy for him, however, to keep in the dark shadow of the palm trees.
Walking with the utmost circumspection and care and looking about him constantly for any possible watcher, he at last reached the platform whence he had been so violently thrust on the day of his arrival. The building was placed in such a way that the platform was in deep shadow. He stepped up on it and tried the door. It did not give to his pressure, and although he finally thrust against it with all his strength, which was considerable now that he was completely restored to health and bodily vigor, it remained immovable.
He had examined the door carefully as he had passed it many times, and he now decided that it must be secured inside by bars of wood in slots. There was no latch or lock outside of it. Only old Kobo knew its secret.
Balked there, he stole around the building, taking care to keep on the side away from the moon. He hoped that there might be another entrance at the back. If he could find one it would be better for him to get in that way, rather than by climbing through one of the windows, which were much higher from the ground than those of the ordinary houses of the settlement. That method of entrance indeed presented no difficulty to an active man, especially as he would be aided by the creepers, but to attempt it was apt to attract attention and, therefore, it must only be resorted to in default of any better plan.
He followed the wall carefully, turned the rear corner of the building and discovered, what he had half suspected, beneath a screen of vines and leafage an opening set low down near the ground. He parted the vines and peered into the thick darkness within. There was, of course, absolutely nothing to be seen. He had no means of making a light. For a moment he had an idea of going back to the oven, a Dutch oven, he called it now, where a fire was constantly kept burning, to kindle a torch. He decided that would be too risky and had just made up his mind to venture into the black pit that yawned before him, not a single detail of which was visible, when a hand fell lightly on his shoulder.
He turned, clenched his fist and then let his hands fall as he saw in the shadow the familiar face and figure of Truda. She laid her finger upon her lips, turned, took a few steps away from him, looked back and beckoned to him. He followed her instantly. There was something so emphatic and suggestive in her gesture and bearing that he could do nothing else. Besides, he was never so happy as when in her presence, and she had never looked so beautiful to him as then in the shadow, seen wraithlike, against the bright moonlight beyond. The exploration of the building could wait.
One remarkable thing he had noticed about Truda was the soundlessness with which she moved. She never seemed to break a twig or rustle a leaf as she passed. There was something fairylike in her motions. It gave him an eery feeling to see her wavering in the moonlight before him like the shadows of wind-blown leaves. He followed after, using the same caution as before. He wondered whither she would lead him and what would be the end of this adventure. He had become measurably familiar with the island paths during his sojourn of several months upon it and he soon realized that she was leading him to that point of vantage whence every morning it was her duty to watch the sea. It seemed to him an appropriate and beautiful place for a midnight tryst, and he followed her with a beating heart, gladder for every step he took. He did not attempt to overtake her. Indeed, he had tested her before, and for short distances she was fleeter than he; besides, although they were now far from the settlement, the spell of the night was upon them with all its mystery. They must make no noise on any account. He did not possess her power of silent motion. She put her feet down by instinct, he by calculation. This handicapped him. Besides, he was quite content to follow.
Meanwhile, he redoubled his care. One never knew, he thought, when Hano might appear, and old Kobo had a habit of presenting himself suddenly at unexpected moments. So they went on and on. He felt like the fabled knight of old, who pursued fleeting Fortune.
They came at last out from the shadow of the trees, left the embrace of the jungle, and mounted the rocky, narrow path, which led to the crest of wall, and it was not until that crest was reached that he joined her. The wall was broad, smooth, and level where they stood. It was a sort of little amphitheater, and there were blocks of stone, which made convenient resting places. When he had seen them before he almost come to the conclusion that it had been artificially arranged. At any rate, it was admirably adapted, both as a place from which to watch the sea and as a place for lovers' meeting in a midnight-moonlight hour.
She did not offer to sit down and the two stood side by side gazing seaward. Beneath them the cliffs fell sheer into the cuplike bay, its bottom stygian in its blackness. The descending walls of the great cylinder were lost in that darkness. Their upper edges cut a sharp silhouette against the light sky. He had tried several times to get to the points of the walls on one side or the other of the rift, but there was no passing. The place where they stood was not only the best, but the only place from which to survey the cup itself and through the rift the great sea beyond. The moonlight streamed in a broad bar through the upper part of the opening and threw the upper wall on one side into high relief. He noticed that, were the moon in a certain position, which it was now rapidly approaching, it would flood the whole cup with light as the morning sun did, but it had not yet reached that place in the heavens, and save for that one portion of the opposite wall the Egyptian darkness still prevailed.
The effect of the light beyond the rift was tremendous. They could see clearly a stretch of the barrier reef through the opening. Mighty waves broke over it. Huge rollers fell upon it. They could hear faintly in the silence of the tropic night the crash of the tumultuous silver seas rushing through the jagged needles of the barrier. That was the only sound that came to them, unless they could hear the beat of their own hearts.
They stood and stared at the enchanting picture in silence. The communion of equal appreciation, of sympathy, of love, was the tie that bound. The same throb of passion filled the breasts of the man and the woman. It was she who spoke.
"I cannot remember," she whispered, attuning her voice to the soft silence of the night, "a morning on which I have not stood here, but this is the first time that I have ever come at night."
"The first time," whispered the man, passionately, "and with me!"
He had made little secret, none at all, indeed, of his admiration for her, but this time there was a new note of rapturous admiration in his low whisper, to which her soul vibrated. She looked at him quickly, shrinking away a little. His arm went swiftly toward her and caught her slender wrist. He drew her to his breast. In his arms she felt the heart throb, which she had before inferred. She struggled a moment and then yielded to the quick passion with which he drew her to him. She upturned her face and for the first time he kissed her. They had lost the habit of kissing, these forgotten people, and no one had ever pressed her lips before.
"What is that? What is it that you do?" she whispered when she could command speech.
"I kiss you," he answered.
"I know not that word. What does it mean?"
"It means that I love you, that I am yours and you are mine."
"It is very sweet," said the girl, artlessly. "Once more."
She lifted her lips to his in innocent invitation, which indeed he did not need.
"It was not for this," she murmured at last, "that I brought you here, although it makes me very happy, and I am glad we came."
"I, too, am glad," said the man, a little unsteadily; "but why did you bring me here?"
"It was death for you to go in that house."
"Death? Whence would it come?"
"The spirits. None goes there but the oldest man, except on the day of the full moon, when we all come in, but we stay near the door, while only Kobo goes to the further end."
"What does he there?"
"I know not. The spirits speak to him. Our faces are hidden. No one goes into the building except then. It is taboo, death. I do not know what they would do to you if they caught you there," she went on, switching from the spirits to the living with wondrous facility.
"Truda," said the man, "I have no desire to anger your gods, but I must go there. You do not know how you came here."
"Kobo says that many, many, many moons ago, so great in number that no one can count them, our ancestors came from across the sea. That is all."
"I want to find out why they came and all about them and I feel that I can find out there. The great God I worship, who has preserved me from all the perils of the deep, will watch over me. I must go there."
"But not tonight. It is the one night when Kobo sleeps within. The spirits obey him. I know not what they might do."
"Tonight," answered Beekman, "I have better occupation."
"And what is that?"
"To be here with you, to love you with none by to look or listen." He pointed to a low, broad shelf of rock. "Sit there," he said, "and I will sit here at your feet." Throwing himself down, he leaned his elbow on her knee and looked up at her. "Do you know," he continued, "there is a land far across the sea, a land of brave men and beautiful women? They speak your language. Your fathers must have come from there as mine did. I want to find out. Some day we shall get back to the world and that land, you and I. I want to know all about you."
"That you are here, that I love you, is enough for me to know," whispered the woman, caressing his head with her hand.
He kissed the pretty palm and smiled up at her as he answered.
"But that is not enough for me."
"You say there are other women in that land?"
"How is it called?"
"Holland. It is a low country that borders the sea."
"And those women, they are beautiful?"
"Many of them."
"Would you love me if you should see others here?"
The man laughed.
"You are the most beautiful woman on this island."
"Yes," said the girl, simply.
"And in the world," he whispered. "But no matter how others might look, they would be nothing to me."
And again he gave no thought to Stephanie Maynard nor to any other woman in the lands far away beyond the seas. She smiled down at him.
"It is good to hear you say that."
"It is my turn now," he went on. "There are other men there, bigger, stronger, wiser, handsomer men than I. When you shall see them-"
"I shall never see any one but you anywhere all my life," answered the girl, simply.
"I was to marry him only because he was the best."
"And if you found one better than I?"
"There could be none."
"I shall do my best to keep you in that belief," answered Beekman. "Oh, Truda, beautiful, innocent little Truda, when I lay starving, dying on that barrier yonder, my hands red with the blood of men, parted apparently forever from all that made life worth while to me, I cursed my fortune and would fain have died, but now-"
"But now?" whispered the girl.
"Now I have passed from death unto life, for you are worth it all. I am glad to tell you so on this very spot. Here where I saw you first. Look," he said, rising and drawing her up close to him. They stepped to the very brink of the cliff.
The whole great cup was now brilliantly illuminated by the moonlight, which streamed straight through the rift and turned the black water far beneath them into a still mirror of polished silver.
"I lay there on the sand, half-fainting, half-dead, staring upward at these grim, forbidding walls, when, as the sunlight broke through the rift, I saw you for the first time. I never had seen anything so beautiful, so dazzling to the eye. I was doubtful whether you were a human being even. I thought you might be some vision, some spirit of the air, some messenger from the sun."
"Do the men in that world whence you came all talk like you, Beek-man?" queried Truda, using the only name she knew him by.
"None," answered the man, "because none of them have ever seen you."
In such sweet and passionate converse the night hours drew on unmarked until the gray light on the horizon bespoke the coming of dawn.
"We must go back," said the girl, withdrawing herself for the last time from the sweet embrace. "I would not have any one find us here. In the morning I shall tell Kobo that I will have no other man but you."
"Let us wait," said the man, "until I have visited that building and wrested from it the secrets that must be there, then we shall tell him and you shall be my wife."
"I know not that English word yet, but you will be my man, and I will be your woman when Kobo, without whom these things cannot rightly be, shall have worshipped the spirits and said the words."
"It is well. You say Kobo only sleeps in the building this one night?"
"That is all."
"Tomorrow we shall try it again."
"I will come with you," said the girl, "although I am very fearful."
"And those spirits?" smiled the man.
"If they hurt you they must hurt me, too; for without you," she went on frankly, "I cannot live upon this island."
Now, Truda was terribly afraid to visit the mysterious house-one doesn't get rid of a taboo inherited through two hundred years in a night-but her timidity had been somewhat modified by the indifference with which the man she loved and whom, she revered as a god, viewed the whole situation, at least from a supernatural standpoint, and, as of old, knowledge was power.
Her intercourse with Beekman had been immensely enlightening. Latent reserves of quality, inherited capacities long dormant, had been summoned to the surface and quickened into action by his converse, and by their association so intimate and so sweet. Although the period of their intimacy had not been long, yet it was not alone in matters of the heart that Beekman had devoted himself to her enlightenment. At first he had tried to teach her everything, but, realizing the bewilderment that must follow such a process, he had striven to systematize his instruction in order that she might grow in wisdom if not in stature, and that he might introduce her gradually to the heritage of the present. The results of the process had been wonderful.
The progressive degeneration, resultant of close inbreeding, which had brought most of the islanders to so low a point physically and mentally, seemed to have been reversed in her by some curiously interesting and delightful freak of nature. It was easy to see that she possessed an unusual mind, and that, given a chance, she could take her place in the front rank of intelligence and capacity. Rarely had so fascinating a task of writing what one would upon an unmarred slate been presented to any one, and Beekman entered upon it eagerly and pursued it with zest. He was very human; he was a man, this woman was clearly his in any way he wished her to be. There was temptation in the knowledge. He realized it, fought it down, wondering if he could or would strive against it always. He could foresee that it would grow stronger as the intimacy deepened. He feared that in the end-
To create is the supremest joy of humanity, in that effort he comes nearest to realizing the measure of the divinity that is in him. There are no people so happy as those who achieve things in art, science, literature, government, business, what you will. The loveliest of playthings, the most promising subject for experiment had been put in Beekman's hands. She was his to make what he would. Naturally, he fell in love with her, and not alone with her beauty of face and figure, her transparent purity and the sweetness of her childlike innocence, although these were enough to have bewitched any man, but with the other qualities that he saw budding and blossoming under his touch.
So while Truda could not shake off the inherited fears of so many decades in a moment, yet two things materially modified them; her growing consciousness of a self in her other than the mere animal, and her great trust and devotion to the man for whom she had conceived and entertained an instant passion even greater than that he lavished upon her. These made her the more willing to brave the mysterious terrors of the tabooed hut. She had been in the building a number of times on ceremonial occasions, and her curiosity had been sufficient to enable her by furtive glances to master many details, which she told him frankly, and which he declared would be of great help to them in their investigations.
By agreement the two met early in the evening, for the people of the island were accustomed to go to sleep with the dark, and, as a rule, an hour after sunset the place was as quiet as at midnight. The moon had not yet risen, which contributed to their desire for concealment. Warned by his experience of the night before, Beekman made no effort at the door, but, followed by his timid yet confiding companion, he boldly entered the opening at the rear. Light, of course, was out of the question. A torch from the fire was possible, but the risk of getting that was too great for the attempt to be made. He had provided himself with a long, slender staff and with this he felt about until he satisfied himself that he was in a small, unpaved enclosure, or room. Having assured himself that no pitfall or gulf was in the floor by means of his staff, he laid his hand upon the wall and walked cautiously along it.
Truda, of course, had never entered this end of the building. She had never even peeped in as she passed by, and she could aid him not at all. Indeed, she clung to him with terror, which, in spite of her efforts, grew with every silent, slow-passing moment. Beekman had an idea there must be some connection between this chamber and the main floor of the building. He could tell that he had descended below the level of the floor in entering and on lifting his staff he discovered that the ceiling was just above his head.
His anticipations were realized, for at the far end he found an opening just wide enough to admit a man. He felt the walls on either side of the opening, and with his staff discovered steps beneath his feet, leading upward. He stepped into the opening, cast his eyes upward and discovered a faint light above his head. Assured, he mounted boldly, Truda still following, and, after a short ascent, he stood on the floor of the building at the end opposite the main door.
The moon had just risen. Indeed, he had timed his entrance with that in mind, and although the unglazed window openings were covered with a thick overgrowth of vines, enough light filtered through to enable him to see sufficiently clearly.
He found himself in a stone-paved room, about twenty by forty feet. About ten feet from where he stood a low wall, or balustrade, of the soft, easily cut stone, with which the island abounded, ran across the narrower axis. There was an opening in the middle of this wall. The floor on his side of the balustrade was raised several steps above the main floor. In the center of the end to his right, as he looked toward the entrance door, was a pile of stones, roughly squared with a flat top. On this pile of stones lay two dark objects, one on either end. Between the two dark objects on the central pile something rose above the stone table. On the further side of it blocks of stone were piled against the wall in rude semblance of a seat.
Now, there was apparently nothing in the building to alarm any one, yet Beekman found his heart beating rapidly as he stood there, the shrinking girl by his side, clasping his arm with a fierce and passionate grasp that bespoke her trepidation. It was absolutely silent within. The gentle night wind outside slightly stirred the long palm leaves, but no breeze penetrated within and no sound of their rustling was heard. It was slightly cold in the building, although the night was warm, with all the languorous, drowsy heat of tropic midsummer.
Truda was obviously in a state of panic and Beekman might have been infected therewith, but he shook himself together, deciding that action was the best remedy for the situation. He made a step toward the pile of stones. Truda clutched him more tenaciously than ever. She even threw her arms about him.
"Oh, don't go," she whispered. "It is taboo."
"Nonsense," answered Beekman, sinking his voice to meet hers, "there's nothing here to hurt us. Have I not told you of the power of my God?"
"Yes, yes, but He is far away in the sky; our God is here."
"Wherever He is He can protect me and you," he said as one may humor a child. He unclasped her arms and slipped his own arm about her waist, whereat she took some comfort. "Come, we shall see," he added.
He half led, half carried the girl toward the pile of stone until he stopped before it. The light from the moon came stronger. He saw the tall object, the top of which had been in the shadow now fully revealed.
"Why, it is a cross!" he exclaimed, under his breath, greatly surprised at this sacred emblem of religion.
"What is a cross?"
"The sign of my God. This is His house."
"Then your God and my God are the same," whispered the girl.
"I believe so. You see," he continued, "nothing has happened to us." He laid his hand on the altar, "this must have been a place where your people who came from beyond the sea worshipped God."
It was, indeed, obvious that this was the primitive church of those first settlers upon the island where they had performed their simple rites, the simulacrum of which in uncomprehended words of prayer had alone survived the centuries of isolation and separation from their kind.
Beekman marveled that he had not thought of it before; but who could have expected to find a Christian church on an unvisited island in the South Seas, even though it was obvious that some, at least, of the present denizens thereof were white people, or had white blood in their veins? That ruined tower-like structure topping the front gable, at which he had wondered, had evidently been a belfry, and perhaps it too had carried a cross. Well, that cross-like tower had fallen away, but here, on what was surely a rude altar, in a fair state of preservation, stood the rudely fashioned symbol of the faith, even though it was made of frailer, more perishable wood.
Beekman was not a religious man, but even an atheist might have succumbed to the influences of such a place. He felt the cross reverently with a tender touch, confirming his eyesight; and then, where old Kobo knelt uncomprehendingly, following the customs of the past, he reverently knelt down. He rested his hands on that altar and bowed his head to it. After a moment, awe-struck Truda followed his example and knelt by his side.
What did he pray knowingly? What did the woman pray ignorantly? The man, that he might have strength to be a clean man, still to cherish and be faithful to high ideals in a land of no ideals; to observe the laws of God in this place where there were no laws of man, to act honorably toward this sweet and trusting child by his side; to take no advantage of her ignorance, her innocence, her devotion. Yes, he prayed for strength, and he prayed for deliverance from the island, that he might take her back to her own kind, that he might add to the graces she naturally enjoyed the refinements and good things of a civilization which he alone, ragged, tattered castaway that he was, had enjoyed and knew the meaning of. And he did not forget to pray that his hands might be cleansed of the blood of man that was upon them.
The woman had not been taught to pray, that is, not meaningly. She knew of few material things for which to ask in that island so bountifully provided by nature, and the spiritual was still vague and voiceless in her heart; but for one thing she could petition whatever power there was above her, who somehow to her untutored mind seemed present and about her. She prayed that the man she loved might love her and use her well-the natural prayer of woman!
After a little time Beekman rose in better heart than he had been since he had been cast upon the island. He drew Truda to her feet, and there before the altar, confronting the cross, he kissed her, not with the passion and fire of the night before, or of the warm, languorous afternoons when they wandered amid flowers and blossoms 'neath groves of palm. There was something sacramental in the touch of his lips. There, that night, at that hour, in that temple so sacred to her, the girl became a woman. With quick apprehension she felt the difference which she could not explain.
"Your God is a very great God,", she whispered, breaking the seal of that kiss. "He shall be my God." She laid his hand upon her heart under the soft, sweet round of her immature, innocent breast. "I feel here that He has spoken."
"May His blessing be upon you, and may He deal with me as I with you," said Beekman, deeply moved.
"We must go," said the girl at last, her heart voicing the "amen" she knew not how to speak.
"Wait, I must examine these," returned the man, releasing her.
He bent toward the dark objects on the altar. The first touch of his hand told him what they were-books! The light was too dim for him to make out what books, yet as he lifted the cover and turned the leaves of the one on the right he decided that it was a printed volume. He examined the one on the left in the same way and decided that it was a manuscript volume. One would be the Bible, of course; the other, longer and thinner, less bulky, the manuscript volume that would tell the story.
He picked them both up and tucked them under his arm. Truda had told him that the church would not be entered until another month had passed and the full moon came again. He could replace them in good time. He must examine them at his leisure.
"Do you think it well to take those things from your God?" whispered the girl.
"One," said the man, "is His story. In it He tells us of Himself."
"And do those things speak?" she asked, wonderingly.
"To him who understands, yes."
"And do you understand?"
"But I cannot."
"I shall teach you. Come."
Quietly as they had come, they descended to the chamber of entrance and made their way without. They separated in the shadow of the church, and this time Beekman did not offer to kiss her; but the maiden took no discomfort or grief from that. She understood. He pressed her hand in farewell, and the warm splendid vigor of his clasp she carried away with her. Indeed, she lifted the hand that he had grasped to her cheek. She laid her head upon that hand when she gained her hut, where she soon fell asleep to dream of him.
He had got the precious books. He was consumed with curiosity and interest, but there was no light by which he could read them. He would not dare to stand out in the moonlight, which was bright enough at least to enable him to identify the books. Someone might see him. He must wait until the morning. He hid the books in a heap of dry fern and rushes that made his bed, and lay awake for a long time longing for the day.