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A short story by Lloyd Osbourne

Forty Years Between

Title:     Forty Years Between
Author: Lloyd Osbourne [More Titles by Osbourne]

"What am I to enter in the log, sir?" asked Mr. Francis, the first lieutenant.

"There's an old-fashioned word for it," said Captain Hadow grimly.

"Had it been my brother it couldn't have hurt me more," said Mr. Francis.

"Everybody loved that boy."

"It will break his father's heart, sir."

"A deserter, by God!"

"He had everything in the world," said Francis, in the tone of a man who himself had fought hard for every step. "He had influence, money of his own, brains, a splendid professional future, everything!"

"All thrown away like that," said Captain Hadow, with a gesture of his hand.

"And the handsomest fellow I believe I ever saw," said Mr. Francis.

"The pick of the basket," agreed Hadow.

"And to think," continued Mr. Francis, "that I must sit down at my desk and write: 'Past Midshipman John de Vigne Garrard, Deserter.'"

The pair were pacing the quarter-deck of H.M.S. Dauntless as she lay at anchor within the reef. It was at Borabora, one of the Society Islands, and the time forty years ago. The wonderful old rock, rising sheer naked and frowning from the bluest water in the world, seemed to those at its foot as though it were holding up the very sky itself. Precipice upon precipice dizzily scaled the basaltic heights, giving here and there, on little shelves and crannies, a foothold for a vivid vegetation. The peak itself, a landmark at sea for ninety miles around, was half-hidden in the gloom of squalls and scud, and sometimes, for a moment, it would be altogether lost to view in the fierce murkiness of driving rain. Below the mountain, on the flat shore of the lagoon, an uninterrupted belt of palms concealed the little villages of the islanders. Here, in idyllic peace, a population of extraordinary attractiveness, gentleness, and beauty led their life of secluded ease. Money was all but unknown; food could be had in abundance for the most trifling labor; clothes could be stripped from the bark of trees. Nature, giving with both hands, was repaid with an usury of poetry and song; and these happy people, children forever at heart, well mannered, gay, and instinct with an untamed nobility, bore themselves with the grace of those whom the gods loved.

"As like as not he is watching us now from somewhere up there," said the captain, sweeping the summits with his glass.

"I doubt it, sir," returned Mr. Francis. "It's my conviction he isn't a cable's length behind the village."

"Did you offer the reward?" asked the captain.

The first lieutenant looked embarrassed.

"I told you to offer fifty pounds," said the captain tartly.

"I ventured to raise it to a hundred, sir," said Mr. Francis. "We talked it over in the wardroom, and we thought we wouldn't risk the boy for a matter of a few pounds between us."

"I wonder if the mess would have done the same for me?" observed the captain.

"We hardly look forward to your putting yourself in that position, sir," said Mr. Francis.

"No, by God!" said the captain. "When I quit her Majesty's service it will be neither for pique nor for love."

"No, indeed, sir," agreed the first lieutenant.

"I've had my follies, too, Mr. Francis," said the captain. "Every man who is worth anything has some time or other made a fool of himself about a woman. I don't pretend to be better than my neighbors. I can't forget I was once young myself."

"I'm afraid even a hundred pounds isn't going to fetch him," said Mr. Francis. "I could see it in the king's eyes he meant to keep the boy."

"The lady in the case is the king's sister, I suppose--" said the captain, "that tall slip of a girl who was always making such sheep's-eyes at Jack. Gad! I don't wonder he preferred a bower in Eden with her to the steerage of a man-of-war and a pack of young devils incarnate! Who knows what might not have happened if she had made sheep's-eyes at me, Mr. Francis!"

"Very true, sir, very true," returned Mr. Francis, who had no sense of humor.

"She's about the sweetest thing I ever saw," went on the captain.

The two men laughed.

"I hope to goodness he'll be the only one," said Mr. Francis. "The fact is, the whole ship's in love; even the lower deck is off its feed; the boatswain says they're messing up the rigging with true-lovers' knots, and I'm told the marines are writing poetry."

"Ah, if it had been anyone but him!" exclaimed the captain.

"It's horrible to call him a deserter," said Francis.

"Don't let's do it," said the captain.

"We have to say something, sir," returned the first lieutenant helplessly.

"One can always lie, I suppose," said Hadow.

"There's nothing I wouldn't do myself for Jack Garrard," volunteered Mr. Francis.

"Why not say he was kidnapped here by the hill tribes?" said Hadow. "We aren't certain sure he wasn't, and no one can deny but what he might have been."

"But the admiral would be bound to inquire into it," said Mr. Francis. "Sooner or later he'd send a ship."

"Trust Jack to do his own lying when she gets here," said Hadow. "Besides, he'll be sick of the whole thing by that time and only too glad to step aboard."

"But won't we be asked why we didn't rescue him?" asked Francis.

"No, no--I have it!" cried the captain.

"It's certainly a case for stretching a point, sir," said Mr. Francis.

"Enter in the log," said the captain, speaking slowly and thoughtfully, "that Passed Midshipman John de Vigne Garrard, failing to report himself at the expiration of his leave, was afterwards discovered to have been kidnapped by the hill tribes of Borabora Island. On my threatening to land a party to recover him, I was dissuaded by King George, who cleared himself of any personal responsibility in the matter, and who promised, if only I would give him time, to recover the man without bloodshed or any cost to her Majesty's Government. The king urged that the use of force would imperil the officer's life, which otherwise he had every confidence would be spared."

"Very good, sir," said Mr. Francis.

"You'll give old George a flaming character," added Hadow.

"Very good, sir," said Mr. Francis.

"Pile it on about his reverence for the Queen, and the way he gave beef to the ship," said Hadow.

"And what then, sir?" inquired Mr. Francis.

"Well, you know," went on Hadow, "my orders down here leave me a pretty wide latitude. You can't tie down a surveying ship in wild waters the way you can a simple patrol. By God, sir, I'll put the ship back here in nine months and retake Master Johnny Garrard."

"If he has any realization of his position he will then go down on his knees and thank you, sir," said Mr. Francis.

"He's more likely to come aboard whistling!" exclaimed the captain.

"Of course, it will involve a little--insincerity," said Mr. Francis.

"You mean we'll have to lie like hell!" said the captain.

"Well, yes," observed Mr. Francis.

"I hope that's understood," said the captain. "But I can't bear to see a fine lad ruined for a bit of squeamishness. Were he thirty he might go hang; but nineteen--Good Lord! one must have a little mercy."

"Where would any of us be now, sir," said Mr. Francis, "if we had each of us received full measure for a boyish error?"

"I know I was a rotten bad egg myself," said Captain Hadow.

"If I may say it without offense, sir," said Mr. Francis, "I think you are taking a very noble course in respect to this unfortunate lad."

"Of course, I don't want you to think I justify desertion," said Hadow quickly, not ill pleased at the compliment. "Gad, sir, it's a shocking thing; bar actual cowardice, I positively know nothing worse. Were Jack my son, I'd rather see him stretched dead at my feet. I tell you, Mr. Francis, that when I first heard the news I was stunned; I felt myself trembling; the dishonor, the infamy of it struck me here." Captain Hadow laid his hand on his heart.

Mr. Francis nodded a silent assent.

"But we'll save him!" cried the captain. "We won't permit this ugly business to blast his life."

"You may count, Captain Hadow, on our most loyal and hearty support," said Mr. Francis.

"Thank you," said the captain; "and you will pass the word along that the subject is one not to be discussed."

"Quite so, sir," said the first lieutenant.

"Not a word!" exclaimed the captain; "and of course you will cancel the reward before we sail. You might even coach old George a bit about the hill tribes. But, of course, not a whisper that we're ever coming back."

"No, sir," said Mr. Francis.

"That must go no farther than you and me," said Hadow.

"It shall not, sir," returned the first lieutenant.

"We shall sail to-night at the turn of the tide," said the captain.

"Very good, sir," said Mr. Francis.

It was not nine months--it was fifteen, and some days to spare--before the Dauntless again raised the peak of Borabora and backed her mainyard off the settlement. In the course of that eventful year and a quarter she had zigzagged the whole chart of the eastern Pacific; and from French Frigate Shoals to Pitcairn, from Diamond Head to Little Rapa, she had sounded and plotted reefs innumerable, and had covered, with a searching persistency, vast areas of blue water dotted with e. d.'s and p. d.'s.[1] She had twice taken the ground, once so hard and fast that she had shifted her guns and lightered a hundred tons of stores among the gulls and mews of a half-sunken reef; she had had an affair with the unruly natives of the Walker Group, and had blown a village to fragments, and not a few of the Walkers themselves into a land as uncharted as their own; she had tried a beach-comber for murder, and had dangled him at the main yardarm, giving him later on a Church of England service, a hammock, and the use of a cannon ball at his feet; she had poked her nose into cannibal bays, where women of wild beauty and wilder license swam off to the ship in hundreds until the marines drove them back with muskets, and fired at their own comrades, who in their madness leaped into the water and were floated ashore in the arms of naked girls; she had lain for weeks in enormous atolls, where the only life was that of birds, and the silence was unbroken save for the long roll of the surf, and at night the ghostly scurrying of turtles over the sand; she had been everywhere in those labyrinthine seas, those haunts of romance and mystery, with love, danger, and death always close aboard.

It was morning when Hadow raised the island, a fleecy speck of cloud against the sky line, and he shortened sail at once and lingered out the day so as to bring him up to it by dark. After supper every light on board was doused, and the great hull, gliding through the glass-smooth water, merged her steep sides and towering yards and canvas into the universal shadow. With whispering keel and a wind so fair and soft that one wondered to see the sails stiffen in the bolt ropes, the man-of-war stole steadily to leeward, with no sound but the occasional creak of cordage, or the hoarse murmur of voices from the lower deck. Hadow himself, pacing the quarter-deck in his boat cloak, was lost in reverie, while the wardroom and the steerage in unredeemed darkness held nothing but dozing men.

By ten the ship was hove to close ashore, and the lights of the little settlement glimmered through the palms. The warm night, laden with exotic fragrance and strangely exciting in the intensity of its stillness and beauty, hid beneath its far-reaching pall the various actors of an extraordinary drama. With pistols buckled to their hips, Brady, Winterslea, Hotham, and Stanbury-Jones, four officers of the ship, together with Hatch, a flinty-faced old seaman who could be trusted, all slipped down the ladder into the captain's gig and pulled with muffled oars for the break in the reef. Picking their way through the pass, with the surf on either hand roaring in their ears, they slowly penetrated the lagoon and headed for the king's house. The shelving beach brought them to a stop, and all jumping out to lighten the boat, they drew her over the shingle and made her painter fast to a pandanus tree. Then, acting in accordance with a preconcerted plan, Winterslea was sent forward to track down their prey, while the rest huddled together to await his return.

Ten minutes, twenty minutes passed in palpitating suspense. A girl drew by wreathed in flowers; she looked out to sea, then up at the stars, and shrank again into the shadow. From the neighboring houses there came the sound of mellow voices and of laughter. A pig rooted and rustled among a heap of cocoanut shells. Half an hour passed, and from far across the water, as faint and silvery as some elfin signal, the ship sent her message of the time: six bells.

Panting and crouching, Winterslea groped his way among them.

"Come," he said.

They followed him in silence, unloosing their holsters and grimly ready. A pair of handcuffs clinked in Hatch's jumper. They inhaled the deep breath of tried and resolute men inured to danger, and accustomed to give and to receive an unflinching loyalty.

Winterslea, with keen perception, led the way like a bloodhound, skirting lighted houses and following devious inland paths. The comparative openness of the village began to give way to the ranker undergrowth of the plantations behind it. The path sank into a choking vegetation that stood on either side and brushed their faces as they followed in single file. A fallen tree gave them the passage of a stream.

"There!" said Winterslea.

The path opened out on a little clearing among the trees, and showed them, set on high, the out-lines of a native house. Like all Tahitian houses, it was on the model of a bird cage, and the oval wall of bamboos, set side by side, let through vertical streaks of light from the lamp or fire within. As the whole party drew nearer, they heard, deep below them on the other side, the pleasant sound of falling water, and realized the cliff they were mounting overlooked a little river at its foot. Here, in exquisite seclusion, Jack Garrard had chosen the spot for his moral suicide.

Creeping up to the house and looking through the cracks of the bamboos, his comrades had view of him within. Dressed like a native in tapa cloth, with bare chest, and flowers in his tawny hair, the handsome boy was seated in a hammock. With her head against his knee, a beautiful girl was looking up into his face, one hand locked in his. In that land of pretty women she was the one that outshone them all--Tehea, the sister of the king, for whose sweet favor every man on board had sought in vain. And here she was, with her long hair loosened and her eyes swimming with love, looking up at the lad who had given name and honor to win her heart. The pair were hardly more than children; and Brady, a sentimentalist of forty, with red hair, sighed as he peeped through the eaves and thought of his own dear girl at home.

Garrard laid down the pipe he had been smoking, and, in happy unconsciousness of any audience but the woman at his feet, began to sing. His voice had always been his greatest charm, and the means of gaining him the friendship of men much older than himself. It had won Hadow; it had won Francis. There was not a blue-jacket on board the Dauntless but whose eyes had moistened under the spell of Jack's clear tenor. No one could render with such delicacy, purity, and sentiment those ballads, now so old-fashioned, that used to solace our seafaring fathers in the fifties.

Jack lay back in the hammock, and with wonderful tenderness and feeling sang "Afton Water," repeating the last verse several times over. It was plain that something in it, some phrase or line, had deeply moved him, for he suddenly bent over and laid his face in his hands, shaking with a strange emotion. Tehea rose, and throwing her arms round his neck and forcing away his hands, pressed her lips to his wet eyes. Even as she did so Brady gave the signal for the whole party to move round to the entrance. He passed through first, the others close behind him. Jack leaped to his feet, white and speechless, his wide-open eyes those of an animal at bay. Brady, Winterslea, Stanbury-Jones, Hotham, Hatch, the familiar faces, daunted him like the sight of ghosts. Friends no longer, they were now avengers, with the right to track him down and kill him.

[Illustration: "Jack leaped to his feet, white and speechless."]

"Jack!" cried Brady in a stifled voice.

The lad took a step back. The girl moaned, and tried to run between Hatch and Stanbury-Jones. The old seaman caught and shook her like a dog, tearing away the whistle she put to her lips and dashing it on the floor. Jack put up his hand and snatched a pistol hidden in the thatch of the roof. Brady, on the instant, leveled his own and thundered out:

"Drop it, or I'll shoot!"

"Shoot, and be damned!" returned Jack, and with that he turned his pistol on himself, and, placing the muzzle against his forehead, pulled the trigger.

It missed fire.

Before he could try again Brady had caught him round the neck, while Hatch, resigning the girl to Stanbury-Jones, ran in and snapped the handcuffs on his wrists.

"Jack," cried Brady, "we aren't going to hurt you. We're rescuing you from the hill tribes. Man, you're saved!"

"You never was no deserter," said Hatch.

"Mind you back us up, old fellow," said Winterslea.

"Give us your fin, boy," said Hotham.

It was some time before Jack could pull himself together. When at last he did so, and began to appreciate the generosity of his captain and shipmates and their astounding concern to save him from the penalty of his crime, he underwent one of those reactions when despair gives way to the maddest gayety. He swore at Hatch, and made him take off the irons; he got out a bottle of white rum and forced them all to drink his health; he kept them in a roar with the story of his adventures, and laughed and cried in turn as he described his life ashore.

"What does she want?" demanded Brady, as Tehea insistently repeated some words in native.

"She says," said Jack, calmly picking up the whistle from the floor and touching it to his lips, "she says I've only to blow this and you will all be dead in five minutes."

A hush fell upon the company.

Jack, with an oath, flung the whistle from him.

"Gentlemen," he said, "I am grateful. I am damned grateful! If I live I shall try and repay each one of you. I shall try and be a better man. I shall try to be worthy of your kindness."

He went round and shook hands solemnly with every one of them. "Damned grateful!" he repeated.

"Let's be off," said Brady.

"Now, lad, your word of honor," said Winterslea. Jack looked about him helplessly.

"I suppose I've no right to ask such a thing," he said. "I know how good you've been to me already, and all that. But--but, gentlemen, she's my wife. I love her. I shall never see her again. May I not entreat a minute to myself?"

"No," said Brady.

Jack went over to Tehea and took her hand. He put his arms about her, and, unashamed before them all, pressed her comely head against his breast. He tried to explain the inexorable fate he was so powerless to resist; in incoherent whispers he told her he would break his chains and return to her, free in the years to come to devote his life to the woman he loved. He called her the dearest names, and begged her not to forget him. But she, with a perception greater than his own, swept away these despairing protestations with disdain. The daughter of one king, the sister of another, could she not meet force by force? These fierce intruders, with their rough voices and drawn pistols, who were they, to threaten a princess of the royal blood and carry away her lover before her eyes? If they were strong, she was stronger; and what ship cannon, she asked, however murderous or far-ranging, could penetrate those mountain recesses whither she would carry him before the morning? Ah, she said, it was for him to choose between her and them; between Britain and the island; between love and the service of the white Queen beyond the seas.

"I have chosen," he said.

Her eyes flashed as she freed herself from his arms.

"I am hateful in my own sight for having loved you," she said.

"Will you not even wish me well, Tehea?" he asked.

"No," she cried, "I hope you will die!" He turned away.

"Siati!" she cried after him in agony.

He turned back to her, downcast and silent.

"Remember," she said with sweet relenting, "that wherever thou goest, however many the years that may divide us, however wide the waters or the land, I shall be here waiting for thee, here in this house of our happiness; and if I die before thou comest here thou wilt find my grave."

"Tehea," he said, "as God sees me, some day I shall return!"

She took his hands and looked up into his face with such poignant longing and tenderness, that Jack's comrades, already uncomfortable enough, were quite overborne by the scene. Tough old Hatch snuffled audibly, and Brady could hardly speak.

"Come, come, lad," he cried huskily, "you mustn't keep us longer!"

Jack unclasped the girl's hands and suffered himself to be led away by his comrades. Stumbling and falling against one another in the dark, they made shift to find the uncertain path, Winterslea, in the lead, coo-eeing like a bushfellow for them to follow. Little by little they gained the sleeping village, and pressed on to the beach beyond, where their boat was already afloat on the incoming tide. They took their places without a word and pulled out in the direction of the ship. In the pass, rising and falling in the heavy swell, they burned a blue light, which the Dauntless answered with another, and ran up a masthead lantern to guide them. A few minutes later they clambered up the ladder, the boat was hoisted in, and the boatswain's whistle was rousing the watch on deck:

"Mainsail haul!"

By morning the island had sunk behind them, and standing on the dizzy main-royal yard with one arm round the mast, Jack could make out nothing but a little cloud on the horizon.

At sixty, John Garrard was a post captain, a Knight Commander of the Bath, and within a year of receiving flag rank and the command of a fleet. His career had been more than distinguished, and he had won his way to the front as much by his fine personal qualities as by his invariable good judgment and high professional attainments. He had earned the character of a man who could be trusted in situations involving tact, temper, and diplomatic skill; and no captain in the navy was more confidently ordered to those scenes of international tension, which, in spite of statesmen, so often arise in some distant place to menace the peace of the world.

He had never married, and when rallied on the subject was wont to say with a laugh that the sea was his only mistress. No one had ever ventured to question him much further, though his friends were often piqued, especially the women, as to an implied romance in the captain's earlier life. It was known he supported two old-maid sisters, the Misses Hadow, the impoverished daughters of his first commander; but in view of his considerable private fortune this drain on his resources seemed scarcely the reason of his renunciation. Nor did it seem to his admirers that any woman could have had the heart to refuse him, for even at sixty he was a noticeably handsome man, and was endowed, besides, with more than the advantage of good looks, a charm of manner, a distinction, a captivating gallantry that made him everywhere a favorite.

He was in command of the Inflexible battleship, one of the Australian squadron, when she developed some defects in her hydraulic turning gear and was ordered home to England by Admiral Lord George Howard for overhaul. The captain's heart beat a little faster as he realized his course would take him south of the Societies. He spread out the chart on his cabin table and sighed as he laid his finger on Borabora. He shut his eyes, and saw the basaltic cliffs, the white and foaming reefs, the green, still forests of that unforgotten island. He was a boy once more, with flowers in his hair, wandering beneath the palms with Tehea. How often had he thought of her during all these years; the years that had left him gray and old; the years that had carried him unscathed through so many dangers in every quarter of the world! For him she was still in her adorable girlhood, untouched by time, a radiant princess in her radiant isle, waiting by the shore for his return. It shocked him to remember she was not far short of sixty--a fat old woman, perhaps, married to some strapping chief, and, more than likely, with grown children of her own! How incredible it seemed!

But a word, and he might land and see her. But a word, and the questions of forty years might yet be answered--answered, yes, to shatter, as like as not, with pitiless realities the tender figment of a dream. No, he said, he dared not expose himself to a possible disillusion, to play into the hands of sardonic nature, ever mocking at man. No; but he would carry his ship close inshore and watch from the bridge the unfolding bays and tiny settlements of that lost paradise, and then, dipping his flag to his vanished youth, he would sink over the horizon, his memory thrilled and his sentiment unimpaired, to set his face for England.

Dawn was breaking as he slowed down to leeward of the island and watched the shadows melt away. It was Sunday, a day of heavenly calm, fresh yet windless, with a sea so smooth that the barrier reefs for once were silent, and one could hear, far across the hushed and shining water, the coo of pigeons in the forest. Under bare steerage way, with the leadsman droning in the fore chains, the ship hugged the shore and steamed at a snail's pace round the island. On the lofty bridge, high above the wondering faces of his command, the white-haired captain, impassive, supreme, and solitary, gave no sign of those inner emotions that were devouring him. Along the shore the sight of the battleship brought out here and there a startled figure or a group; a couple of laughing girls, astride on ponies, raced the Inflexible for a mile, and then, their road ending in a precipice, threw kisses with their saucy hands; little children ran out into the lagoon, shouting with joy; old men, in Sunday parius and with black Bibles under their arms, turned their solemn eyes to seaward and forgot for a moment the road to church. A white man, in striped pajamas, was surprised at morning coffee on the veranda of his little house. He darted inside, and reappeared with a magazine rifle which he emptied in the air, and followed up his courtesies by raising and lowering a Union Jack the size of a handkerchief. The battleship dipped her stately white ensign in acknowledgment, as a swan might salute a fly, and swept on with majesty.

With every mile the bays and wooded promontories grew increasingly familiar as Sir John was borne toward Lihua, the scene of his boyish folly. He looked ashore in wonder, surprised at the vividness and exactness of his recollection. He might have landed anywhere and found his way through those tangled, scented paths with no other guide but memory. There was Papaloloa with its roaring falls; there, the ti'a a Peau where he had shot his first goat; yonder, the misty heights of Tiarapu, where Tehea and he had camped a night in the clouds in an air of English cold. It was like a home-coming to see all these familiar scenes spreading out before him. He looked at his hands, his thin, veined, wrinkled hands, and it came over him with a sort of wonder that he was an old man.

"That was forty years ago," he said to himself. "Forty years ago!"

And yet, by God! it all seemed like yesterday.

As Lihua opened out and he perceived, with an inexpressible pang, the thatched houses set deep in the shade of palms and breadfruit trees, he felt himself in the throes of a strange and painful indecision. He paced up and down the bridge; he lit a cigar and threw it away again; he twice approached Captain Stillwell as though to give an order, and then, still in doubt, turned shamefacedly on his heel.

"By the deep nine!" came the hoarse murmur of the leadsman.

It lay with him to stop the ship or not; a word, and she would come shivering to a standstill; a word, and the boatswain would pipe away his gig and the crew would be running to their places. His heart ached with the desire to land, but something, he knew not what, withheld the order on his lips. Let him remain silent, and the opportunity would pass away forever; it was passing now with every turn of the propeller. Had he not told her he would return? Had he not whispered it that night when they were torn apart? Did he not owe it to her to keep the promise of forty years, a promise given in the flush of youth and hope, and sealed with scalding tears?

His resolution was taken. He ordered Captain Stillwell to stop the ship and lower a boat.

"I am going to treat myself to a run ashore," he said by way of explanation.

The vessel slowly stopped. The covers were whipped off the gig. She was hoisted out and lowered, the crew dropping down the ladder into their places at the peep-peep-peep of the whistle.

"I leave the ship," said Sir John, not to convey a fact patently obvious, but in obedience to a naval formula.

He was landed at a little cove where in bygone days he had often whiled away an hour waiting in charge of Hadow's boat. It gave him a singular sensation to feel the keel grate against the shingle, and to find himself once more setting foot in Lihua. He drew a deep breath as he looked about and noticed how unchanged it all was. There were some new houses in new places, and grass on the sites of others that were endeared to him in recollection; but it was Lihua, after all, the Lihua of his boyhood, the Lihua of his dreams. For a while he strolled about at random, walking with the phantoms of the past, hearing their laughter, seeing their faces, recalling a thousand things he had forgotten.

It came over him with a start that the village was empty. Then he remembered it was Sunday, and they were all in church. Thank God, there was none to watch him; no prying, curious eyes to disturb his thoughts. But they would soon be out again, and it behooved him to make the best use of his solitude while he might. He struck inland, his heart beating with a curious expectancy; at every sound he held his breath, and he would turn quickly and look back with a haunting sense that Tehea was near him; that perhaps she was gazing at him through the trees. He approached his old home through overgrown plantations. It awed him to part the branches and to feel himself drawing nearer at every step to the only house he had ever called his own. As he heard the splashing waterfall he stopped, not daring for the moment to go on. When at last he did so, and mounted the little hill, he found no house at all; nothing but ferns and weeds, man-high. He moved about here and there, up to the armpits in verdure, in a sort of consternation at discovering it gone.

His foot struck against a boulder.

He had forgotten there were any rocks on the hill. He moved along, and his foot struck again. He pressed the weeds back and looked down. He saw a tomb of crumbling cement, green with age and buried out of sight under the tangle.

It had never occurred to him before that Tehea might be dead.

He held back the undergrowth again and peered into the depths. Yes, it was the grave of a chief, or of a woman of rank, one of those artless mounds of cement and rock that the natives, with poetic fancy, used to call falelauasi, houses of sandalwood; oliolisanga, or the place where birds sing; or, in vulgar speech, simply tuungamau, or tombs. These words, unspoken, unthought of for forty years, lost, overlaid, and forgotten in some recess of his brain, now returned to him with tormenting recollection. He laid both hands on the thick stem of a shrub and tore it out of the ground. He seized another and dragged it out with the same ferocity. It was intolerable that she should suffocate under all this warm, wet jungle; he would give her air and sunshine, she that had loved them both; he would uncover the poor stones that marked her last resting place; he would lay bare the earth that wrapped her dead beauty.

He worked with desperation until his hands were bleeding, until his eyes were stung and blinded with the streaming sweat. Dizzy with the heat, parched with thirst, and sick with the steam that rose from the damp ground, he was forced again and again to desist and rest. He cut his waistcoat into slips and bound them round his bloody hands; he broke the blades of his penknife on recalcitrant roots that defied the strength of his arms; he labored with fury to complete the task he had set before him. Here he stood, within four walls of vegetation, the sky above him, the cracked and rotted tomb below, satisfied at last by the accomplishment of his duty. The gold on his sleeves was dirty and disordered; one of his shoulder-straps dangled loose from his sodden coat; his trousers were splashed with earth. But for the moment the post captain was forgotten in the man, as he mused on the tragedy of human life, on the mysteries of love and death and destiny, on his own irrevocable youth now so far behind him, when he had forfeited his honor for the dead woman at his feet. He called her aloud by name. He bent down and kissed her mossy bed. He whispered, with a strange conviction that she could hear him, that he had kept his promise to return.

Then, rising to his feet, he turned toward the sea and retraced his steps. The people were still in church, and the village was deserted as before. He walked swiftly lest they might come flocking out before he could reach his boat, to torture him with recognition, with the questions they would ask, with their story of Tehea's death. Then he laughed at his own fears, remembering his white hair and the intervening generation. Time had passed over Borabora, too. The world, he remembered, was older by forty years--older and sadder and emptier.

* * * * *

He swung himself up the ladder, mounted the bridge, and put the vessel on her course. The telegraph rang, the engineers repeated back the signal, and the great battleship, vibrating with her mighty engines, resumed once more her ponderous way.


[Footnote 1: "Existence doubtful; position doubtful," familiar contractions still on any Pacific chart.]

[The end]
Lloyd Osbourne's short story: Forty Years Between