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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWest Wind Drift - Book 2 - Chapter 12
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West Wind Drift - Book 2 - Chapter 12 Post by :cshawl Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :1078

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West Wind Drift - Book 2 - Chapter 12

BOOK II CHAPTER XII

Sailors, sniffing the gale that night, shook their heads and said there was snow on the tail of it. Morning found the ground mottled with splashes of white and a fine, frost-like sleet blowing fitfully across the plain. The ridge of trees over against the shore became vague and shapeless beneath the filmy veil, while the sea out beyond the breakers was clothed in a grey shroud, bleak and impenetrable.

Knapendyke was positive and reassuring in his contention that no great amount of snow ever fell upon the island. While much of the vegetation was of a character indigenous to the temperate zone, there was, he pointed out, another type peculiar to tropical climates,--and although the latter was of a singularly hardy nature, it was not calculated to survive the rigours of a harsh, protracted winter.

"We'll have spells like this, off and on, just as they occasionally do in Florida or Southern California, is the way I figure it out," he said to the group of uneasy men who contemplated the embryonic blizzard with alarm and misgiving. "Moreover, I believe the wet, cold season is a short one here. The birds are content to stick it out. The fact there is no migration is proof enough for me that the winter is never severe. As the weather prognosticators say, look out for squalls, unsettled weather, frost tonight, rising temperature tomorrow, rain the next day, doctors' bills the end of the month. Avoid crowded street-cars, passenger elevators and places of amusement. Take plenty of out-door exercise and don't eat too many strawberries."

Children, on their way to school in the town hall, shouted with glee as they romped in the snow-laden gale. It had no terrors for them. They were not concerned with the dour prospect that brought anxiety to the hearts of their elders.

"It's fine to be a kid," said Percival, watching the antics of a crowd of boys. "Why do we have to grow up?"

"So that we can appreciate what it was to be a kid," said Randolph Fitts.

Ruth Clinton was one of the teachers. There were, all told, about thirty children in the school, their ages ranging from five to fourteen. Most of them were youngsters from the steerage, bright-eyed little Latins who had picked up with lively avidity no small store of English. They were being taught in English.

The council, spurred by the far-seeing Percival, recognized the perils of a period of inactivity following the harvest and the flailing days. The majority of the men and women would be comparatively idle. Preparations for the building of a small ship occupied the time and interest of a few engineers and ship-carpenters, but as some weeks were bound to pass before the work could be begun in earnest, an interim of impatience would have to be bridged. Work, and plenty of it, was the only prescription for despair.

Already symptoms of increasing moodiness marked the mien of the less resourceful among the castaways. While it was not generally known, two men had attempted suicide, and one of the Brazilian ladies,--a beautiful young married woman,--was in a pitiful state of collapse. She had a husband and two small children in Rio Janeiro. The separation was driving her mad. There were others,--both men and women,--whose minds were never free from the thought of loved ones far across the waters and whose hearts ached with a great pain that could not be subdued by philosophy, but they were strong and they were cheerful. In their souls burnt an unquenchable fire, the fire of hope; they stirred it night and day with the song of the unvanquished.

Improvements in the hastily constructed cabins provided not only occupation but interest for the able-bodied men and women. There was no little rivalry in the matter of interior embellishments; those skilled in the use of implements took great pride in hewing out and adding more or less elaborate ornamentation to the facades of their habitations,--such as casements, door-posts and capitals, awnings, porches, and so forth. A shell road was in process of construction from one end of the village to the other, while over in Dismal Forest woodsmen were even now cutting down the towering Norfolk pines and hewing out the staunch timbers for the ship that was to sail out one day in quest of the world they had left behind them. But these enterprises provided work for men only. The women, in the main, were without occupation. With the approach of winter the men in active control of the camp's affairs realized that something would have to be done to relieve the strain,--at least, to lighten it until spring came to the rescue with toil in the fields and gardens.

A system of exchange was being worked out. As has been mentioned before in this chronicle, the people of the steerage were the plutocrats. Their hoardings represented real money, the savings of years. When it came to an actual "show-down,"--to use Percival's expression,--these people who were poor in the accepted sense, now were rich. They could "buy and sell" the "plutocrats" of another day and another world.

The theory that one good turn deserves another was an insufficient foundation upon which to construct a substantial system of exchange. It is all very well to talk about brotherly love, said Percival. The trouble is that certain brothers are for ever imposing upon other brothers, and the good turn does not always find its recompense. Socialism, he argued, is a fine thing until you discover that you are not alone in the world. Brotherly love began with Cain and Abel, and socialism is best exemplified by a parlour aquarium. Nothing happens to disturb the serene existence of the goldfish until somebody forgets to feed them, and then they begin nibbling at each other.

"You mend my fence, I'll mend yours," is an ideal arrangement until you find it is "our fence" and doesn't need mending.

To Landover, Block and other financial experts was delegated the power and authority to perfect a fair, impartial monetary system. First of all, they arbitrarily declared the dollar, the peso and the shilling to be without value. "Time" script was to be issued by the governing board, and as this substitute would automatically become useless on the day the castaways, were discovered and taken off the island, no citizen was to be allowed to reduce or dissipate his hoard of real money.

Landover's proposal that a central depository be established for the purpose of holding and safe-guarding the possessions of each and every person was primarily intended to prevent the surreptitious use of real money. This project met with almost universal opposition. The "rich" preferred to hang onto their money, thereby running true to form. While professing the utmost confidence in the present integrity of the banker and his friends they ingenuously wanted to know what chance they would have of getting their money back when these masters of finance were ready to leave the island! So they elected to hide their gold and silver where it would be safe from unscrupulous financiers! And nothing could shake them in this resolve.

"Time" was the basic principle on which the value of the script was to be determined, and as "time," in this instance, meant hours and nothing else, a citizen's income depended entirely on his readiness to work. Ten hours represented a full day's work. The hand-press on board the Doraine was used to print the "hours," as the little slips made from the stock of menu card-board were called. They were divided into five denominations, viz.: One Hour, Three Hours, Five Hours, Seven Hours and Ten Hours. Each of these checks bore the signature of Abel T. Landover and a seal devised by Peter Snipe, who besides being an author was something of a draughtsman,--indeed, his enemies said he was a far better artist than he was an author, which annoyed him tremendously in view of the fact that he had stopped drawing when he was fifteen because eminent cartoonists and illustrators had told him he had no talent at all. The printing and stamping was done on board the Doraine and the script was shortly to be put into circulation. Landover was slated to become treasurer of Trigger Island at the general election.

As an illustration, this sort of dialogue was soon to become more or less common:

"What's the price of this hat, Madame Obosky?"

"Twenty-seven hours, Mrs. Block."

Or:

"Gimme an hour's worth of 'smoke,' Andy," meaning, of course, the substitute for tobacco.

Or:

"You blamed robber, what do you mean charging six hours for half-soling them shoes? If you was any good, you could ha' done it in half the time."

Every individual in camp over the age of thirteen was obliged to have an occupation. To a certain extent, this occupation was selective, but in the main it was to be determined by a board whose business it was to see that the man-power was directed to the best advantage for all concerned. A camp tax was ordered. At the end of the week, every citizen was required to pay into the common treasury two "hours." He could not "work out" this tax. It had to be paid in "cash." Out of the taxes so received, the school, the church, the "hospital" and the "government" were to be supported.

The "governor" of Trigger Island and the humblest workingman were to receive exactly the same pay: "hour" for hour. Thirty thousand "hours" represented the total issue, or, approximately fifty units for each individual over the age of thirteen.

As no man's hours was worth more than another's, and as every transaction was to be based on time, rather than on money, there was no small likelihood that any one man or group of men could ever obtain a commanding grip on the finances of the Island.

And so it came to pass that all manner of enterprises sprang into existence. Competition was not allowed. There could be but one millinery shop, one dress-making establishment, one shoe and sandal factory, and so on. Everything was conducted on a strictly cash basis; there were no "charge accounts."

Olga Obosky, as the proprietress of the millinery shop, earned no more than any one of her half-dozen assistants,--and they were all paid by the "government." The same could be said of Madame Careni-Amori, who conducted a school of music, and the great Joseppi who graciously,--even gladly,--went into the tailoring business. Andrew Mott, one time First Officer on the Doraine, opened a "smoke" store and dispensed cured weed that Flattner authorized him to call "tobacco." The austere Mrs. Spofford decided to open a dress-making shop!

It was all very simple, this man-to-man system of traffic, but no one took it lightly or in the spirit of jest. They were serious, they were sober-minded. Interest, incentive, grim determination centred in the seemingly childish arrangement. Greed was lacking, for there was no chance to hoard; confidence was paramount, for there was no chance to lose.

The "hours" travelled in a circle, from the "government" to people, from people to "government"; when all was said and done, it was the product of soil and sea that formed the backbone of the system.

With the adoption of the plan, it was to become a punishable offence,--indeed, it was to be classified as treason,--for any resident of Trigger Island to "forage" for necessities. He could do what he pleased in respect to the non-essentials, but when it came to foodstuffs of any kind or description, he was guilty of a felony if he failed to turn all that he produced or secured into the general stores.

"Strikes me," said Randolph Fitts in council meet-ing, "that we are arriving at the most exquisite state of socialism. This comes pretty close to being the essence of that historic American dream, 'of the people, by the people, for the people.' Up to date, that has been the rarest socialistic doctrine ever promulgated, but we are going it a long sight better. 'From the people, by the people, to the people.' What do you call that but socialism?"

"Are you speaking to me?" demanded Percival.

"In a general way, yes."

"Well, it's not my idea of socialism. So far as I've been able to discover, socialism is a game in which you are supposed to take something out of your pocket and put it into the other fellow's whether he wants it or not. This scheme of ours is quite another thing. We're not planning to split even on what we've got in our pockets so much as we're planning to divide what we've got in our hands, and there's a lot of difference between a hand and a pocket, old top. You can see what's in one and you can't see what's in the other. And, by the way, Fitts, if we let the socialists in this camp suspect that we're trying to introduce socialism here, there'll be a revolution before you can say Jack Robinson. They won't stand for it. They'd let out the blamedest roar on record if they thought we were trying to deprive them of the right to feel sorry for themselves."

Ruth hurried over to the town-hall bright and early on this snowy, gusty morning. The forenoon session of the school began punctually at 8:30 o'clock. She was there half an hour ahead of time to see that there was a roaring fire in the huge fire-place, and that the benches for the scholars were drawn up close to it. There were two teachers besides herself,--and both of them were experienced "school marms." She taught the "infant class," comprising about a dozen tots. The three teachers took turns about in building the fires, arranging the benches and cleaning the crude blackboard.

There had been church-services the night before, and the benches were all in use, arranged so that they faced the combination pulpit-rostrum-stage at the far end of the room. Tonight there was to be a general committee meeting to discuss the prospective financial scheme and the general election that was to take place the following week.

The structure was not blessed with a paucity of names. If there was to be a council-meeting or a camp assembly, it was called the "Meeting-house." On Sundays it became the "tabernacle." Week-days it was known as the "schoolhouse," and at odd times it was spoken of as the "theatre," the "concert-hall," and the "Trigger Island court-house." In one corner stood the grand piano from the Doraine, regularly and laboriously tuned by the great Joseppi. Madame Careni-Amori gave vocal and instrumental lessons here every afternoon in the week, from three to six. Among the older children there were a number who had voices that seemed worth developing, and the famous soprano put her heart and soul into the bewildering task of stuffing the rudiments of music down their throats.

Ruth stopped just inside the door and looked about her in astonishment. The benches had been drawn up in an orderly semi-circle about the fire-place. Beyond them she observed the figure of a man kneeling before the fire, using a bellows with great effect. The big logs were snapping, and cracking, and spitting before the furious blasts.

She closed the door and started across the room in his direction. Suddenly she recognized the broad back and the familiar but very unseasonable panama hat. Panic seized her. She turned quickly, bent on making her escape. Her heart was beating like a triphammer,--she felt strangely weak in the knees. As abruptly, she checked the impulse to flee. Why should she run away, now that the moment she had wished for so ardently the night before was at hand? Chance had answered her call with amazing swiftness. She was alone with him,--she could go to him and lay her weapons at his feet and say,--as she had said a hundred times in the night,--"I can fight no more. I am beaten."

But now that the time had come for bravery, she found herself sorely afraid. A chill swept through her,--a weakening chill that took away her strength and left her trembling from head to foot. The crisis was at hand,--the great, surpassing crisis. She found herself hazily, tremulously wondering what the next minute in her life would be like? What would be said in it, what would happen to her? Would she be in his arms, would his lips be upon hers,--all in the minute to come? Was the whole of her life to be altered in the brief space of a minute's time?

A warm glow suddenly drove off the chill. It came with the realization that he was building the fire for her,--that his thoughts were of her,--that he had stolen into the building to make it warm and comfortable long before she was due to arrive,--and that he would steal away again as soon as the "chores" were done.

He arose to his feet and stood over the fire for a moment or two, watching its lively progress. Apparently satisfied with his efforts, he turned and started toward the door. She was standing in his path, a shy, wavering smile on her lips.

He halted, and after an instant's hesitation, stammered:

"I--I never dreamed you'd be around so early. I thought I'd run in as I was passing and build a fire for--for the kiddies. Get the place warmed up a bit before--"

"Will you let me say something, Mr. Percival?" she broke in, hurrying the words.

He fumbled for his hat. "I am sorry if you are annoyed, Miss Clinton. Please believe me when I tell you I hoped to get out before you came. I came early so that you would not find me--"

"You are not letting me say what I want to say."

She came toward him, her hand extended. "Oh, I don't want to thank you for lighting the fire and putting the room in order. I want to tell you that I surrender."

"Surrender?" he exclaimed, staring.

"I cannot fight you any longer," she said breathlessly.

He looked dumbly first at her hand and then into her eyes. She was an arm's length away.

"Fight me?" he mumbled, uncomprehending.

"You--you said we could not be friends. I knew what you meant. If--if you love me,--oh, if you do love me, we need not be friends. But I know you love me. If I did not know it I could not have come to you like this and--"

"Do I love you?" he cried out. "My God, I--I worship you."

She held out both arms to him. "Then, we will try no more to be friends," she murmured very softly. "Here are my arms. I surrender."

A long time after he said to her as they sat before the jubilant, applauding fire,--the only witness to their ecstasy:

"Now I understand why we have never really been friends. It wasn't what God intended. Even in the beginning we were not friends. We thought we were,--but we weren't. We were lovers, Ruth,--from the start."

"I tried very hard to hate you," she sighed, drawing a little closer in the crook of his encircled arm. "How wonderful it all is,--how wonderful!"

"I never believed it could come true. I hoped, God, how I hoped,--but it didn't seem possible that this could ever happen. I've wanted to hold you in my arms, to kiss your dear lips, to kiss your eyes, to touch your hair, to press you tight against my heart. And here I am awake, not dreaming, not longing,--and I have done all these things. Lord! I wonder if I can possibly be dreaming all this for the thousandth time."

"I was thinking of you when I came into this room,--not ten minutes ago,--and suddenly I saw you. I was terrified. I knew then that my dreams were coming true,--I knew it, and I don't know why I did not run away. Any self-respecting, modest girl would have done so. But what did I do? I, a supposedly sensible, well-brought-up--"

"You caught me trying to run away," he broke in. "I give you my word, my heart was in my throat all the time I was working over that fire,--scared stiff with the fear that you would come in and bayonet me with one of those icicle looks of yours. And see what really happened!"

They were silent for some time, staring into the fire. Suddenly his arm tightened; he drew a sharp breath. She looked up quickly.

"Why are you frowning?"

"I was just thinking," he replied after a moment's hesitation.

He gave a queer little jerk of his head, as if casting off something that bothered him. Into his paradise had slipped the memory of a night not long since when he held the yielding, responsive form of another woman in his arms, and felt the thrill of an ignoble passion surging through his veins. The kiss of the sensualist had burned on his lips for days; even to this hour it had clung to them; he was never free from the fire it had started in his imagination. And always on Olga's red, alluring lips lurked the reminder that she had not forgotten; in her eyes lay the light of expectancy.

"Of whom?" asked Ruth, not coyly, but with a directness that startled him. She seemed to have divined that his thoughts were not of her in that brief, flitting instant.

"Of myself," he answered, quite truthfully.

She laid her hand on his. "I forbid you to think of any one but me," she said.

He was silent for a moment. "I shall never think of any one but you, Ruth Clinton," he said earnestly. "You have nothing to fear."

"I believe you," she said, and pressed his hand tightly. After a slight pause, she went on, looking straight into his eyes: "I might have lost you, dear,--and I could have blamed no one but myself. She--she is very alluring."

He shook his head. "I've always been of the opinion that Samson's hair needed trimming. His mother probably brought him up with Fauntleroy curls, poor chap. If he'd had his hair cut regularly, he wouldn't have looked such an ass when Delilah got through with him."

"I don't quite follow the parable."

"In other words, it's what a man's got in his head and not so much what he's got on it that makes him strong," he explained, still more or less cryptically.

"I am beginning to see. You made good use of what you have in your head, is that it?"

"I made use of what you put into it a good many months ago, dear heart. You have been in my head and in my heart all these months, and so it was you who made me strong. Without you in there, I might have been as weak as Samson was before he had his hair cut. No sensible man blames Delilah. In fact, men are rather strong for her. When you stop to think how long old Samson got away with it, and what a shock it must have been to her after she trimmed him and found there wasn't anything left to speak of, you've just got to feel sorry for her. She took one good look at his head and understood why he let his hair grow. He was like the fellow who wears long whiskers to develop his chin. If Samson had had room enough in his head for a thought of anything except himself, Delilah wouldn't have been able to catch him napping."

She could not help laughing. "You take a most original way of evading the point. Still, I am satisfied. You did not have room in your head for any one else but me,--and that's all there is to it. I can't help feeling tremendously complimented, however. She is quite capable of turning any man's head."

"She plays fair, Ruth," he said seriously. "She keeps the danger signal up all the time. That's more than you can say for most women."

"Yes," said she; "she plays fair. She is a strange woman. She has given me a lot of advice,--and I am just beginning to take it."

"If I had believed what she told me three months ago," said he, "this glorious hour would have been advanced just that length of time."

Ruth stiffened. "What did she tell you?"

"She told me I was a fool and a coward; that all I had to do was to walk up to you and say 'Here, I want you,' and that would have been the end of my suspense. She told me something I didn't know and couldn't believe."

"Indeed! I like her impudence! She--"

"She told me you were as much in love with me as I was with you. Honest,--was she right?"

Ruth sighed. "I suppose she was right."

"And would you have come to me if I had said 'I want you '?"

"If you had said it as you say it now, I--listen! Good gracious! There are the children!"

She sprang to her feet, blushing furiously. The door opened and three small children were fairly blown into the room,--three swarthy, black-eyed urchins who stared in some doubt at the "boss" and the adored "teacher."

"Good morning, children," she cried out jerkily, and then glanced at each of the windows in quick succession. "You don't suppose,--" she began under her breath, turning to Percival with a distressed look in her eyes.

"I wouldn't put it above 'em," said he, cheerfully.

"We should have thought of the windows."

"Thank God, we didn't," he cried.

He went out into the storm with the song of the lark in his heart.

"God, what a beautiful place the world is!" he was saying to himself, and all the while the sleet was stinging his radiant face with the relentlessness of angry bees.

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