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It was the hottest hour of the day. He had been fishing off the
reef of rocks where he had first seen her, and had taken in his
line and was leisurely pulling for the lighthouse. Suddenly a
little musical cry not unlike a bird's struck his ear. He lay on
his oars and listened. It was repeated; but this time it was
unmistakably recognizable as the voice of the Indian girl, although
he had heard it but once. He turned eagerly to the rock, but it
was empty; he pulled around it, but saw nothing. He looked towards
the shore, and swung his boat in that direction, when again the cry
was repeated with the faintest quaver of a laugh, apparently on the
level of the sea before him. For the first time he looked down,
and there on the crest of a wave not a dozen yards ahead, danced
the yellow hair and laughing eyes of the girl. The frightened
gravity of her look was gone, lost in the flash of her white teeth
and quivering dimples as her dripping face rose above the sea.
When their eyes met she dived again, but quickly reappeared on the
other bow, swimming with lazy, easy strokes, her smiling head
thrown back over her white shoulder, as if luring him to a race.
If her smile was a revelation to him, still more so was this first
touch of feminine coquetry in her attitude. He pulled eagerly
towards her; with a few long overhand strokes she kept her
distance, or, if he approached too near, she dived like a loon,
coming up astern of him with the same childlike, mocking cry. In
vain he pursued her, calling her to stop in her own tongue, and
laughingly protested; she easily avoided his boat at every turn.
Suddenly, when they were nearly abreast of the river estuary, she
rose in the water, and, waving her little hands with a gesture of
farewell, turned, and curving her back like a dolphin, leaped into
the surging swell of the estuary bar and was lost in its foam. It
would have been madness for him to have attempted to follow in his
boat, and he saw that she knew it. He waited until her yellow
crest appeared in the smoother water of the river, and then rowed
back. In his excitement and preoccupation he had quite forgotten
his long exposure to the sun during his active exercise, and that
he was poorly equipped for the cold sea-fog which the heat had
brought in earlier, and which now was quietly obliterating sea and
shore. This made his progress slower and more difficult, and by
the time he had reached the lighthouse he was chilled to the bone.

The next morning he woke with a dull headache and great weariness,
and it was with considerable difficulty that he could attend to his
duties. At nightfall, feeling worse, he determined to transfer the
care of the light to Jim, but was amazed to find that he had
disappeared, and what was more ominous, a bottle of spirits which
Pomfrey had taken from his locker the night before had disappeared
too. Like all Indians, Jim's rudimentary knowledge of civilization
included "fire-water;" he evidently had been tempted, had fallen,
and was too ashamed or too drunk to face his master. Pomfrey,
however, managed to get the light in order and working, and then,
he scarcely knew how, betook himself to bed in a state of high
fever. He turned from side to side racked by pain, with burning
lips and pulses. Strange fancies beset him; he had noticed when he
lit his light that a strange sail was looming off the estuary--a
place where no sail had ever been seen or should be--and was
relieved that the lighting of the tower might show the reckless or
ignorant mariner his real bearings for the "Gate." At times he had
heard voices above the familiar song of the surf, and tried to rise
from his bed, but could not. Sometimes these voices were strange,
outlandish, dissonant, in his own language, yet only partly
intelligible; but through them always rang a single voice, musical,
familiar, yet of a tongue not his own--hers! And then, out of his
delirium--for such it proved afterwards to be--came a strange
vision. He thought that he had just lit the light when, from some
strange and unaccountable reason, it suddenly became dim and defied
all his efforts to revive it. To add to his discomfiture, he could
see quite plainly through the lantern a strange-looking vessel
standing in from the sea. She was so clearly out of her course for
the Gate that he knew she had not seen the light, and his limbs
trembled with shame and terror as he tried in vain to rekindle the
dying light. Yet to his surprise the strange ship kept steadily
on, passing the dangerous reef of rocks, until she was actually in
the waters of the bay. But stranger than all, swimming beneath her
bows was the golden head and laughing face of the Indian girl, even
as he had seen it the day before. A strange revulsion of feeling
overtook him. Believing that she was luring the ship to its
destruction, he ran out on the beach and strove to hail the vessel
and warn it of its impending doom. But he could not speak--no
sound came from his lips. And now his attention was absorbed by
the ship itself. High-bowed and pooped, and curved like the
crescent moon, it was the strangest craft that he had ever seen.
Even as he gazed it glided on nearer and nearer, and at last
beached itself noiselessly on the sands before his own feet. A
score of figures as bizarre and outlandish as the ship itself now
thronged its high forecastle--really a castle in shape and warlike
purpose--and leaped from its ports. The common seamen were nearly
naked to the waist; the officers looked more like soldiers than
sailors. What struck him more strangely was that they were one and
all seemingly unconscious of the existence of the lighthouse,
sauntering up and down carelessly, as if on some uninhabited
strand, and even talking--so far as he could understand their old
bookish dialect--as if in some hitherto undiscovered land. Their
ignorance of the geography of the whole coast, and even of the sea
from which they came, actually aroused his critical indignation;
their coarse and stupid allusions to the fair Indian swimmer as the
"mermaid" that they had seen upon their bow made him more furious
still. Yet he was helpless to express his contemptuous anger, or
even make them conscious of his presence. Then an interval of
incoherency and utter blankness followed. When he again took up
the thread of his fancy the ship seemed to be lying on her beam
ends on the sand; the strange arrangement of her upper deck and
top-hamper, more like a dwelling than any ship he had ever seen,
was fully exposed to view, while the seamen seemed to be at work
with the rudest contrivances, calking and scraping her barnacled
sides. He saw that phantom crew, when not working, at wassail and
festivity; heard the shouts of drunken roisterers; saw the placing
of a guard around some of the most uncontrollable, and later
detected the stealthy escape of half a dozen sailors inland, amidst
the fruitless volley fired upon them from obsolete blunderbusses.
Then his strange vision transported him inland, where he saw these
seamen following some Indian women. Suddenly one of them turned
and ran frenziedly towards him as if seeking succor, closely
pursued by one of the sailors. Pomfrey strove to reach her,
struggled violently with the fearful apathy that seemed to hold his
limbs, and then, as she uttered at last a little musical cry, burst
his bonds and--awoke!

As consciousness slowly struggled back to him, he could see the
bare wooden-like walls of his sleeping-room, the locker, the one
window bright with sunlight, the open door of the tank-room, and
the little staircase to the tower. There was a strange smoky and
herb-like smell in the room. He made an effort to rise, but as he
did so a small sunburnt hand was laid gently yet restrainingly upon
his shoulder, and he heard the same musical cry as before, but this
time modulated to a girlish laugh. He raised his head faintly.
Half squatting, half kneeling by his bed was the yellow-haired
stranger.

With the recollection of his vision still perplexing him, he said
in a weak voice, "Who are you?"

Her blue eyes met his own with quick intelligence and no trace of
her former timidity. A soft, caressing light had taken its place.
Pointing with her finger to her breast in a childlike gesture, she
said, "Me--Olooya."

"Olooya!" He remembered suddenly that Jim had always used that
word in speaking of her, but until then he had always thought it
was some Indian term for her distinct class.

"Olooya," he repeated. Then, with difficulty attempting to use her
own tongue, he asked, "When did you come here?"

"Last night," she answered in the same tongue. "There was no
witch-fire there," she continued, pointing to the tower; "when it
came not, Olooya came! Olooya found white chief sick and alone.
White chief could not get up! Olooya lit witch-fire for him."

"You?" he repeated in astonishment. "I lit it myself."

She looked at him pityingly, as if still recognizing his delirium,
and shook her head. "White chief was sick--how can know? Olooya
made witch-fire."

He cast a hurried glance at his watch hanging on the wall beside
him. It had RUN DOWN, although he had wound it the last thing
before going to bed. He had evidently been lying there helpless
beyond the twenty-four hours!

He groaned and turned to rise, but she gently forced him down
again, and gave him some herbal infusion, in which he recognized
the taste of the Yerba Buena vine which grew by the river. Then
she made him comprehend in her own tongue that Jim had been
decoyed, while drunk, aboard a certain schooner lying off the shore
at a spot where she had seen some men digging in the sands. She
had not gone there, for she was afraid of the bad men, and a slight
return of her former terror came into her changeful eyes. She knew
how to light the witch-light; she reminded him she had been in the
tower before.




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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