THE LAST OF THE WRECK

That night, as they sat by the camp fire they noticed a great confusion
among the gulls.

They seemed quarreling all along the western side of the reef. The
voice of the gulls was one of the familiar sounds of the island, but
not after dark. To-night they were clamorous.

They broke out again before dawn, and Floyd, listening, noticed a new
note in their voices. They seemed not quarreling one with another, but
against some common enemy. Then the sound died away little by little,
and when he came out of the tent there was not a gull to be seen near
the reef opening, where as a rule they congregated in numbers.

The sunrise was clouded, and the sun did not strike the sea till half
an hour later than his ordinary time. The wind that had been blowing so
strongly yesterday had died away, yet the boom of the surf on the reef
was louder than on the day before.

Floyd crossed the reef close to the wreck and looked seaward.

A glacial calm held the sea, a calm underrun by a tremendous swell. A
long, tremendous swell, an infinite heaving of the very depths of the
ocean finding expression here in acre-wide undulations, solemn, slow
to the eye, rhythmical and sonorous.

The beating of the breakers seemed ruled by a metronome.

There was no little wave and big wave, no hesitation of the sea. The
breakers were equidistant and equal in volume, and their pace was set
to the same funeral march.

Schumer came out of the tent, and, catching sight of Floyd, walked
toward him.

“There must be a lot of damp or electricity or something in the air,”
said he. “I feel like a rag.”

“Look at the sea,” said Floyd; “there has been a big storm somewhere,
if I am not greatly mistaken.”

Schumer stood looking at the sea.

The sun seemed bright as ever, yet the water did not respond to his
light; it had at once a surface brilliancy and a dullness in its
depths. Toward the shore it was bottle green, and even the blue far out
had a trace of tourmaline.

Schumer said nothing, and turned away to the camping place, where Isbel
was making the fire.

“Shall we go on with the diving to-day?” asked Floyd, as they
breakfasted.

“I don’t feel like work,” said Schumer; “besides, I doubt if it would
be any use. There’s a huge, big storm coming, if I am not mistaken.
I feel it in my skin, and I feel it in my nerves. I suppose it’s the
electricity in the air, but I believe I’d spark if you touched me with
a bit of metal. Listen! There go the gulls again.”

Away on the reef beyond the fishing ground, so far away that their
voices came indistinctly on the windless air, the gulls were crying
again, and, standing up, Floyd could see them in wild flight about the
reef like scraps of blown white paper.

Then they rose higher, continued their argument, and began to recede.

“They are off,” said Floyd; “going out seaward, the whole lot of them.
By Jove, that looks like business!”

“They know what’s coming,” said Schumer, “and they are clearing out of
the track. Wonder what tells them. Instinct, I suppose.”

He set off to examine the cache, taking Floyd with him. He had covered
the perishable stuff with sailcloth, and he now set to make the
lashings more secure. They worked an hour, and when they came out again
the sun had lost his brilliancy–a vague mist hid the horizon on every
side.

In the northwest this thickness seemed more dense, and the sea, still
glassing in and breaking in rhythmical thunder on the reef, had turned
to the color of lead.

But for the noise of the surf the silence was now absolute and complete.

It held so till noon, when a wind began to stir the palm tops; a wind
that seemed to come from nowhere, rocking them and tossing them hither
and thither, making cat’s-paws on the lagoon, and flicking at the tent
canvas like a worrying hand.

Schumer took down the tent.

He had already placed the valuables in a place of safety. He had dug
out a hole beneath one of the trees and buried the cash box containing
the money and pearls.

“You never know,” he said, “if it’s a cyclone that’s coming. Nothing is
safe above ground. A cyclone would lift an anvil; anyhow, this will be
safe enough.”

An hour after noon the great storm showed itself.

Away above the northwestern horizon a black line appeared, hard and
distinct as the outline of a country.

It did not seem to advance–it rose. Till now it assumed the appearance
of a wall. As it rose, it lightened to a dark copper color, and as it
rose it lengthened, so that now it occupied the whole horizon from east
to west.

The rapidity of this development was appalling, and the sun, as if
shrinking before the coming attack, paled still more, dimmed as by a
partial eclipse.

Now the wind came steady and strong, whipping the lagoon and bending
the foliage, and then all at once dying away again into absolute
stillness.

It was in this great pause that they heard a sound never to be
forgotten; less a sound than a vibration–deep and almost musical, like
the vibration of a great glass rubbed by a wet finger.

Isbel, who had remained on the reef near the wreck while the two men
had gone for a moment toward the lagoon edge, called out suddenly, and
they turned and came toward her.

Even as they turned, the first blast of the wind struck them, and,
battling against it, they reached where the girl was crouching,
pointing to the sea.

The sea beyond the limit of a mile or so was flat as a board, beaten to
a dead level by the coming wind and white as frosted silver.

They did not wait to see more; turning, crouching, running as swiftly
as possible, and nearly lifted from their feet, they made for the
shelter of the grove. They heard the coconuts torn from the palms
striking the sand, and Floyd had a momentary vision of nuts hitting the
lagoon like round shot fired by artillery, and then the whole solid
world seemed to smash like a ball of glass, as the blaze of lightning
and the concussion of the first peal of thunder shook the island as a
drum skin is shaken by the stroke of the stick.

Floyd felt Isbel nestling close to him like a frightened animal, and
he put his arm round her to protect her. He heard Schumer calling out
something, but what he could not tell. The wind had now followed on the
thunder in its fullest force, and it yelled.

No earthly sound could be compared to that ceaseless, mad, devilish
yell that seemed the expression of all the ferocity of all the
ferocious things that had ever inhabited the earth.

It was enmity made vocal. The enmity of the infinite and eternal.

And there was no rain. For a moment Floyd thought that there was no
rain; then, lying on his stomach and crawling a bit forward, he saw the
rain. It was not falling, it was driving across the lagoon in a great
sheet upheld by the wind, and the lightning when it struck again showed
through a roof of water.

Then, the first rush of the wind slackening, the rain, upheld no
longer, came down with a roar.

“It’s not a cyclone,” Schumer shouted to Floyd; “it’s just a storm–the
grandfather of all storms!”

His voice was cut off by the voice of the sea, that had now added
itself to the wind and the thunder.

The sea, no longer beaten flat, had risen in its might, and was raiding
the reef. The sound was like the roar of a railway train in a tunnel.
Something of the vibration reached them through the ground they were
lying on.

They were wet through, but safe. The grove had weathered many a storm;
the position of the trees and their relationship to the reef rendered
this spot an impregnable stronghold.

Away on the opposite side of the lagoon breadfruit trees were being
broken down, but here not a tree went, though the palms were bending
like tandem whips and the leaves being torn from the artus.

As time passed, the sea began to rise more and more, while the face of
the wind lost its first edge.

Toward evening the waves were making a clean breach of the reef by
the wreck, and when dark set in, though the wind had lessened still
more, the sea had risen in an inverse proportion, and they guessed the
reason. The tide was flooding.

Then came new sounds. The wreck was going. The bones of the _Tonga_
were being crunched by the wolves of the sea. They heard the noise of
the tearing of timber from timber, the roll and rumble of balks awash
on the coral, and then, worn out and huddled together under a piece of
canvas which they dragged from the cache covering, they fell asleep,
sure that the worst of the business was over.

When they awoke, the sun was shining, but the wind was still blowing
half a gale. The fury of the storm had been in its first impact, but
the fury of the sea was now even greater than during the night.

The waves were mountainous, and the reef where the wreck had lain was
unapproachable, but the sun made up for everything.

They crawled out and sat on the sand, drying themselves in the
sunshine, stiff and chill from the damp, and feeling like people
recovering from an illness.

“That storm has been traveling a great distance,” said Schumer, “and
we got only the butt end of it That’s what made it blow out so soon.
A storm is like a man–it has only a certain length of life, and the
farther it travels the more it loses in size. It doesn’t seem to lose
in force, only in _size_.

“This big sea shows that a big track of the Pacific has been stirred
up. This sea will travel right down to the Horn, and it will last for
days here. Look at the lagoon!”

The lagoon was strewn with wreckage, spars and planking and ribs
floated near the shore, moving as if gently stirred by some giant’s
finger in the wind-whipped water; the reef, as far as they could see,
was washed free of any trace of the wreck that had lain there the day
before.

“It’s a good business we salved the stuff out of her,” said Floyd.
“Your business, too, that was, for if I had been left to myself I
wouldn’t have troubled.”

“I’ll go and look at the stuff presently,” said Schumer. “I believe it
won’t have been hurt by the rain–at least, the perishable stuff–I was
too careful about the packing; and the drainage is all right–people
rarely think of that. It doesn’t do stuff any harm to be rained on if
it is properly covered; what does matter is soaking. Yes, it’s just as
well we moved in time. Now let us get to work.”

A fire was impossible, as there was not a dry stick to be found
anywhere, so they breakfasted on canned meat and biscuit, and then set
to work to examine the cache.

There was two feet of water in the cache, all the rest had run off to
the lagoon by the drainage afforded at the two ends. Schumer had packed
the perishable goods on top–they were quite unharmed. Having satisfied
themselves on this point, they returned to the beach and the sea.

The wind had fallen still more, but the sea was still furious.

“It will be less over there on the reef by the fishing ground,” said
Schumer, “and we can begin again with the diving work to-morrow!”