It is not that some things are unexplainable; it is that the explanations for some things are cognitively unacceptable.
⁓The Voice before the Void
The sun was high in the heavens when my companion woke me from a heavy sleep and announced that the porridge was cooked and there was just time to bathe. The grateful smell of frizzling bacon entered the tent door.
“River still rising,” he said, “and several islands out in midstream have disappeared altogether. Our own island’s much smaller.”
“Any wood left?” I asked sleepily.
“The wood and the island will finish to-morrow in a dead heat,” he laughed, “but there’s enough to last us till then.”
I plunged in from the point of the island, which had indeed altered a lot in size and shape during the night, and was swept down in a moment to the landing place opposite the tent. The water was icy, and the banks flew by like the country from an express train. Bathing under such conditions was an exhilarating operation, and the terror of the night seemed cleansed out of me by a process of evaporation in the brain. The sun was blazing hot; not a cloud showed itself anywhere; the wind, however, had not abated one little jot.
Quite suddenly then the implied meaning of the Swede’s words flashed across me, showing that he no longer wished to leave posthaste, and had changed his mind. “Enough to last till to-morrow”—he assumed we should stay on the island another night. It struck me as odd. The night before he was so positive the other way. How had the change come about?
Great crumblings of the banks occurred at breakfast, with heavy splashings and clouds of spray which the wind brought into our frying-pan, and my fellow-traveler talked incessantly about the difficulty the Vienna-Pesth steamers must have to find the channel in flood. But the state of his mind interested and impressed me far more than the state of the river or the difficulties of the steamers. He had changed somehow since the evening before. His manner was different—a trifle excited, a trifle shy, with a sort of suspicion about his voice and gestures. I hardly know how to describe it now in cold blood, but at the time I remember being quite certain of one thing, viz., that he had become frightened!
He ate very little breakfast, and for once omitted to smoke his pipe. He had the map spread open beside him, and kept studying its markings.
“We’d better get off sharp in an hour,” I said presently, feeling for an opening that must bring him indirectly to a partial confession at any rate. And his answer puzzled me uncomfortably: “Rather! If they’ll let us.”
“Who’ll let us? The elements?” I asked quickly, with affected indifference.
“The powers of this awful place, whoever they are,” he replied, keeping his eyes on the map. “The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world.”
“The elements are always the true immortals,” I replied, laughing as naturally as I could manage, yet knowing quite well that my face reflected my true feelings when he looked up gravely at me and spoke across the smoke:
“We shall be fortunate if we get away without further disaster.”
This was exactly what I had dreaded, and I screwed myself up to the point of the direct question. It was like agreeing to allow the dentist to extract the tooth; it had to come anyhow in the long run, and the rest was all pretense.
“Further disaster! Why, what’s happened?”
“For one thing—the steering paddle’s gone,” he said quietly.
“The steering paddle gone!” I repeated, greatly excited, for this was our rudder, and the Danube in flood without a rudder was suicide.
“And there’s a tear in the bottom of the canoe,” he added, with a genuine little tremor in his voice.
I continued staring at him, able only to repeat the words in his face somewhat foolishly. There, in the heat of the sun, and on this burning sand, I was aware of a freezing atmosphere descending round us. I got up to follow him, for he merely nodded his head gravely and led the way towards the tent a few yards on the other side of the fireplace. The canoe still lay there as I had last seen her in the night, ribs uppermost, the paddles, or rather, the paddle, on the sand beside her.
“There’s only one,” he said, stooping to pick it up. “And here’s the rent in the base-board.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him that I had clearly noticed two paddles a few hours before, but a second impulse made me think better of it, and I said nothing. I approached to see.
There was a long, finely made tear in the bottom of the canoe where a little slither of wood had been neatly taken clean out; it looked as if the tooth of a sharp rock or snag had eaten down her length, and investigation showed that the hole went through. Had we launched out in her without observing it we must inevitably have foundered. At first the water would have made the wood swell so as to close the hole, but once out in midstream the water must have poured in, and the canoe, never more than two inches above the surface, would have filled and sunk very rapidly.
“There, you see, an attempt to prepare a victim for the sacrifice,” I heard him saying, more to himself than to me, “two victims rather,” he added as he bent over and ran his fingers along the slit.
I began to whistle—a thing I always do unconsciously when utterly nonplused—and purposely paid no attention to his words. I was determined to consider them foolish.
“It wasn’t there last night,” he said presently, straightening up from his examination and looking anywhere but at me.
“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 was conceivable 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 skill and address, 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.
“I did rather wonder, if you want to know,” he said slowly, “what that thing in the boat was. I remember thinking at the time it was not a man. The whole business seemed to rise quite suddenly out of the water.”
I laughed again boisterously in his face, but this time there was impatience and a strain of anger too, in my feeling.
“Look here now,” I cried, “this place is quite queer enough without going out of our way to imagine things! That boat was an ordinary boat, and the man in it was an ordinary man, and they were both going downstream as fast as they could lick. And that otter was an otter, so don’t let’s play the fool about it!”
He looked steadily at me with the same grave expression. He was not in the least annoyed. I took courage from his silence.
“And for heaven’s sake,” I went on, “don’t keep pretending you hear things, because it only gives me the jumps, and there’s nothing to hear but the river and this cursed old thundering wind.”
“You fool!” he answered in a low, shocked voice, “you utter fool. That’s just the way all victims talk. As if you didn’t understand just as well as I do!” he sneered with scorn in his voice, and a sort of resignation. “The best thing you can do is to keep quiet and try to hold your mind as firm as possible. This feeble attempt at self-deception only makes the truth harder when you’re forced to meet it.”
My little effort was over, and I found nothing more to say, for I knew quite well his words were true, and that I was the fool, not he. Up to a certain stage in the adventure he kept ahead of me easily, and I think I felt annoyed to be out of it, to be thus proved less psychic, less sensitive than himself to these extraordinary happenings, and half ignorant all the time of what was going on under my very nose. He knew from the very beginning, apparently. But at the moment I wholly missed the point of his words about the necessity of there being a victim, and that we ourselves were destined to satisfy the want. I dropped all pretense thenceforward, but thenceforward likewise my fear increased steadily to the climax.
Continued in part 6.