“We must have scratched her in landing, of course,” I stopped whistling to say, “The stones are very sharp——”
I stopped abruptly, for at that moment he turned round and met my eye squarely. I knew just as well as he did how impossible my explanation was. There were no stones, to begin with.
“And then there’s this to explain too,” he added quietly, handing me the paddle and pointing to the blade.
A new and curious emotion spread freezingly over me as I took and examined it. The blade was scraped down all over, beautifully scraped, as though someone had sand-papered it with care, making it so thin that the first vigorous stroke must have snapped it off at the elbow.
“One of us walked in his sleep and did this thing,” I said feebly, “or—or it has been filed by the constant stream of sand particles blown against it by the wind, perhaps.”
“Ah,” said the Swede, turning away, laughing a little, “you can explain everything!”
“The same wind that caught the steering paddle and flung it so near the bank that it fell in with the next lump that crumbled,” I called out after him, absolutely determined to find an explanation for everything he showed me.
“I see,” he shouted back, turning his head to look at me before disappearing among the willow bushes.
Once alone with these perplexing evidences of personal agency, I think my first thought took the form of “One of us must have done this thing, and it certainly was not I.” But my second thought decided how impossible it was to suppose, under all the circumstances, that either of us had done it. That my companion, the trusted friend of a dozen similar expeditions, could have knowingly had a hand in it, was a suggestion not to be entertained for a moment. Equally absurd seemed the explanation that this imperturbable and densely practical nature had suddenly become insane and was busied with insane purposes.
Yet the fact remained that what disturbed me most, and kept my fear actively alive even in this blaze of sunshine and wild beauty, was the clear certainty that some curious alteration had come about in his mind—that he was nervous, timid, suspicious, aware of goings on he did not speak about, watching a series of secret and hitherto unmentionable events—waiting, in a word, for a climax that he expected, and, I thought, expected very soon. This grew up in my mind intuitively—I hardly knew how.
I made a hurried examination of the tent and its surroundings, but the measurements of the night remained the same. There were deep hollows formed in the sand, I now noticed for the first time, basin-shaped and of various depths and sizes, varying from that of a teacup to a large bowl. The wind, no doubt, was responsible for these miniature craters, just as it was for lifting the paddle and tossing it towards the water. The rent in the canoe was the only thing that seemed quite inexplicable; and, after all, it wasconceivable that a sharp point had caught it when we landed. The examination I made of the shore did not assist this theory, but all the same I clung to it with that diminishing portion of my intelligence which I called my “reason.” An explanation of some kind was an absolute necessity, just as some working explanation of the universe is necessary—however absurd—to the happiness of every individual who seeks to do his duty in the world and face the problems of life. The simile seemed to me at the time an exact parallel.
I at once set the pitch melting, and presently the Swede joined me at the work, though under the best conditions in the world the canoe could not be safe for traveling till the following day. I drew his attention casually to the hollows in the sand.
“Yes,” he said, “I know. They’re all over the island. But you can explain them, no doubt!”
“Wind, of course,” I answered without hesitation. “Have you never watched those little whirlwinds in the street that twist and twirl everything into a circle? This sand’s loose enough to yield, that’s all.”
He made no reply, and we worked on in silence for a bit. I watched him surreptitiously all the time, and I had an idea he was watching me. He seemed, too, to be always listening attentively to something I could not hear, or perhaps for something that he expected to hear, for he kept turning about and staring into the bushes, and up into the sky, and out across the water where it was visible through the openings among the willows. Sometimes he even put his hand to his ear and held it there for several minutes. He said nothing to me, however, about it, and I asked no questions. And meanwhile, as he mended that torn canoe with the skill and address of a red Indian, I was glad to notice his absorption in the work, for there was a vague dread in my heart that he would speak of the changed aspect of the willows. And, if he had noticed that, my imagination could no longer be held a sufficient explanation of it.
At length, after a long pause, he began to talk.
“Queer thing,” he added in a hurried sort of voice, as though he wanted to say something and get it over. “Queer thing, I mean, about that otter last night.”
I had expected something so totally different that he caught me with surprise, and I looked up sharply.
“Shows how lonely this place is. Otters are awfully shy things—”
“I don’t mean that, of course,” he interrupted. “I mean—do you think—did you think it really was an otter?”
“What else, in the name of Heaven, what else?”
“You know, I saw it before you did, and at first it seemed—so much bigger than an otter.”
“The sunset as you looked upstream magnified it, or something,” I replied.
He looked at me absently a moment, as though his mind were busy with other thoughts.
“It had such extraordinary yellow eyes,” he went on half to himself.
“That was the sun too,” I laughed, a trifle boisterously. “I suppose you’ll wonder next if that fellow in the boat——”
I suddenly decided not to finish the sentence. He was in the act again of listening, turning his head to the wind, and something in the expression of his face made me halt. The subject dropped, and we went on with our caulking. Apparently he had not noticed my unfinished sentence. Five minutes later, however, he looked at me across the canoe, the smoking pitch in his hand, his face exceedingly grave.