The Whimpus can be found in




ISFDB.org Magazine Entry





The Whimpus

BY TOD ROBBINS

If you are a militant materialist, with no belief in anything but that which you see with your eyes or touch with your own hands, this story is not for you. But, "There are more strange things hidden away in the sea than ever man heard tell of."


CHAPTER I

THE BOX ON THE BEACH

"THERE'S things out there, Miss Bessie, that you never heard tell of. I know you're school-learned and all, but the old sea's got more secrets hid away than there are shells on this beach."

Elizabeth Wilkinson smiled down on the garrulous old fisherman, who sat cross-legged on the sand patiently mending the broken strands of a net. He had been in her father's employ since she could first remember and had always had that quality, so endearing to the very young, of being able to lie prodigiously and convincingly. Even now she enjoyed his wild tales. The savor of the sea was in them. While listening to them, she felt very childlike and very frightened. It was just as though she were swept off her feet and carried away in a heavy surf.

"Now, own up, Captain Ben," she said, attempting to make his watery blue eyes drop before her steady brown ones, "you just thought of that on the spur of the moment. There never was such a creature as a whimpus."

The old man's underlip shot out as it always did when his word was doubted. He assumed a grieved and disgusted expression. His thick, blunt fingers once more busied themselves with their task.

"What's the use of tellin' you anythin', Miss Bessie?" he mumbled. "You're get-tin' to be just like your pop, with no belief in nothin' but what you sees with your own eyes. If all folks was like you there wouldn't be no religion, even. It ain't what we see what makes life interestin', it's what's just around the corner. There's things happenin' right now that ain't never been writ up in books, and there's creatures crawlin' about what would make Ringling Brothers' head animal-trainer take to his heels if he ever suddenly happened to catch sight of 'em."

"But a whimpus, Captain Ben! You say it has a tail and fins like a fish?"

"It has so, Miss Bessie; and big blue eyes, most like a gal's. Leastwise, so Dick Jamieson told me—him who was wrecked in the China Sea. And Dick was a truthful man when not in liquor."

"How long are they, Captain Ben?"

"About the length of my arm, missy, with pointed teeth which can give a man a cruel bite if they catched him in the calf of the leg."

"And hair, Captain Ben? I believe you said they had long, curly hair?"

"So Dick told me, missy. With a flash to it like gold in the sunlight. He leaned down and put his hand on one of 'em, thinkin' he had found a treasure or somethin'. It was nothin' more or less than a whimpus sleepin', her hair slung over her like a net; and she wakes up, fightin'-mad, and bites a piece off his little finger for his boldness. Then she gives a flip to her tail and away she sails as saucy as you please -leavin' Dick on the bank, jumpin' with pain."

For a long moment there was silence. The girl had half turned away from the old fisherman and was looking out to sea. It was a day in late August. Above the gray tumbling waste of waters, a pale opalescent curtain of fog was slowly descending. The Adventurer—Mr. Wilkinson's yacht—rode at anchor barely two hundred yards from shore. Already she was swathed in drifting tides of vapor. Like a fantom ship, she appeared and disappeared. At one moment she seemed to be scarcely a stone's throw from the beach; at the next, a mile or so offshore. It had been blowing hard on the preceding night. The waves were like an army coming home with victory on their shields. They thundered out their deep-throated war song on the beach. Far out in the impenetrable mist, like a voice from another world, the melancholy call of a seagull rose for a moment above the tumult of tumbling waters.

"No, Miss Bessie," Captain Ben continued with a shake of his head, "there's more things hid away in the sea than ever man heard tell of. But the fog's gettin' precious thick. I think you'd best be off to the house or you'll get wet to the skin."

But Elizabeth had caught sight of something in the surf which held her undivided attention. It was a large box which, at that moment, was riding the snowy crest of a wave. On it came smoothly, like a miniature ship, sinking at last into a milky chasm as the billow tripped on the beach with its treasure and fell sprawling. For an instant the box was left high and dry.

Moved by a sudden impulse which she was soon to regret, Elizabeth ran forward across the wet, quivering sand and bent over the box.

"Come back, missy!" Captain Ben called in a shrill, quavering voice. "What ever are ye thinkin' of? Come back this instant afore one of them big waves catches yer!"

Elizabeth raised the box. Holding it tight to her breast, she hurried back just as another huge wave charged down on her with a threatening roar. Lowering her prize to the sand beyond the reach of its many long arms, she surveyed Captain Ben triumphantly.

"This belongs to me now, doesn't it?" she asked, indicating the box with a slender, moist finger.

"Aye, aye, missy," Captain Ben said solemnly. "What a man fishes out of the sea belongs to him, no matter who it belonged to afore. The King of England's crown jewels might be in this here box and they wouldn't be no more his now than Mike Rafferty's pig." He paused and scratched his grizzled chin. "But I guess these ain't crown jewels," he added rather sorrowfully. "They're more like to be lemons."

"Why lemons?"

"'Cause a tramp steamer run aground in the fog last night off Wishbone Point. They had to lighten her cargo afore they got her off; and they do say she was loaded down with crates of lemons. Some of the boys in the village was fishin' for 'em all mornin'."

"I don't believe it is a crate of lemons," Elizabeth said with a shake of her head. Once more she bent down and turned the box over on its side. At the next moment, with a stifled cry, she stepped back so hurriedly that she nearly tripped over the old man's outstretched legs.

"Why, what's the matter, missy?" Captain Ben asked, looking up from the net in surprise. "You looks as if somethin' had bit yer!"

"There's something alive in that box," she said in a rather unsteady voice. "I heard it move. Do you suppose it could be a baby, Captain Ben?"

The old fisherman's mouth extended from ear to ear. A glimpse of his gums could be seen, with here and there a single discolored tooth rising from them like so many weatherbeaten tombstones. He was laughing silently.

"Don't laugh at me!" Elizabeth cried angrily: "I tell you there is something alive in that box! I heard it rattling about when I moved it!"

Captain Ben rose stiffly to his feet and bent over the box. "I misdoubt it's a baby, Miss Bessie," he mumbled. "A baby wouldn't have much chance of weatherin' through such a sea in this old craft. Mebbe the lemons ain't packed very tight. Let's see."

He put one of his gnarled hands on the box and turned it over. On the instant a strange flapping sound could be heard issuing from the interior, followed almost immediately by a loud scratching as though long, sharp nails were at work.

Captain Ben uttered an ejaculation of amazement. "That's mighty strange!" he muttered. "There must be fish and crabs in this box. But who ever heard tell of—" He paused and scratched the top of his weatherbeaten hat. "Shall I open it?"

"No," Elizabeth murmured. "I don't want to see what's in it. T here's something horrible, I know. I wish I hadn't taken that box out of the water."

"Why, what's the matter, missy? You look all upset. It's only fish and crabs thrown in higgledy-piggedly in an old chest. It ain't like you to get worked' up over nothin'."

Elizabeth bit her lip. What made her feel this way about a harmless old box? It was ridiculous! And yet, try as she would, she could not even look at it now. When she had bent over it and put her hand on its cold, wet surface, when she had heard those strange flapping and scratching sounds within, a wave of intense, if unaccountable, fear and repulsion had passed through her. Now trembling little patches of gooseflesh stood out on her brown arms. This was absurd. She must have caught cold. Or perhaps she just had a touch of malaria.

"I think I'll go back to the house, Captain Ben," she said at last. "I feel cold." "You don't look very hearty today, missy, and that's a fact. You'd better change yer shoes and stockin's, I reckon. But what will I do with the box?" "Bring it up to the house, Captain Ben. You can leave it on the back stoop."

"Aye aye, missy. I'll tote it up in a wheelbarrow. Mebbe there's some likely sized fish in this here chest. They seem lively enough. And a good crab ain't to be sneezed at, neither, if it's cooked proper."


CHAPTER II

A CLAIMANT FOR THE CHEST

MR. WILKINSON greeted his daughter as she mounted the veranda. He was a stout, middle-aged man with a sallow complexion, dull, prominent eyes and a predilection for a quiet, uneventful life. The one excitement which he allowed himself was an occasional flyer in Wall Street. He was proverbially lucky in such speculations. The considerable fortune, which his father had left him, had never taken wings—on the contrary, like a snowball rolling down-hill, it had gathered to if-self many lesser fortunes. But this success without effort had given him no flicker of joy.

Each year his complexion had grown sallower, his eyes duller, his muscles flabbier. The boredom which must necessarily attend a smooth existence, was smothering the manhood in the financier. Beneath a mountain of down, he was snoring his life away.

Now he rose ponderously, and laid a plump, moist hand on his daughter's shoulder. "I've got a surprise for you, Bessie," he said in a slow, heavy voice.

"A surprise, dad! What is it?"

Mr. Wilkinson smiled sleepily. He had intended teasing her, but now lacked the vitality. "The surprise is upstairs, shaving," he said, sinking back into the easy-chair like a large stuffed doll.

Elizabeth flushed. In an instant she forgot all about the wooden box and her dread of its flapping, scratching contents. "You don't mean that the surprise is Jay, dad, do you?"

Mr. Wilkinson nodded and smiled, "Yes," he murmured. "Dropped into my office just after he got o? the boat. Didn't wire—wanted to make it a surprise. But here he is to tell you about it himself."

At this moment a tall, athletic young man opened the screened door, and, seeing Elizabeth, hurried forward and took her in a bearlike hug. Jay had never been a gentle lover, but she liked him all the better for that.

"Well, old girl," he said at last, holding her off at arm's length and regarding her attentively with his steady gray eyes, "you're looking pretty ?t. You didn't expect me home so soon, eh?"

"No, I didn't," she murmured. "You wrote me that you intended doing Europe with the rest of the team."

He smiled a trifle shamefacedly. "I intended to," he said. "I thought that you'd think all the more of me if I stayed away a little longer. After we beat the Englishmen that deciding game, the team broke up. Larry and Martin dropped in on Paris; Henry and I were going to do Scotland and Ireland, but at the last moment I quit. I had to do some explaining. Henry was as sore as a boil." He paused and stroked the cleft in his prominent chin meditatively. "Well, here I am," he finished, "and willing to step up to the altar most any time."

"Wait till somebody asks you, sir," she said with a sudden flash of color. "Do you still think that polo is the most important thing in life?"

The young man shook his head. "No, but it's exciting; and I crave excitement."

Elizabeth experienced the disquieting sensation at her fiancé's words which is common enough to most girls when they are brought face to face with their great enemy —that priestess of adventure which beckons the swift and the strong. It is the instinct of feminine love to be everything, and it must content itself with so little.

After a moment she said a trifle bitterly: "At one moment, Jay, you talk of settling down, of becoming thoroughly domesticated; at the next, you sigh for speed and thrills. Which side of you am I to believe? I like excitement, but I don't put it above everything else in the world."

"You're a girl," her fiancé answered calmly, "and with a girl it's different. But a fellow has to be doing strenuous things or else—" He paused and shrugged.

"Haskin' pardon, lady and gentlemen," said a strange, husky voice which sounded like the scraping together of two rusty iron bars, "a chap down at the beach says as 'ow you 'ad picked up a old chest."

All three turned their heads in surprise. There, standing on the lower step of the veranda, swinging a mildewed, canvas cap between finger and thumb, was one of the strangest figures Elizabeth had ever seen.

Above medium height, but so bent that his back rounded out like a drawn bow; his long legs wide apart as though balancing himself against the shock of the sea; his head, with its great bulbous nose and close-set black eyes, cocked on one side shrewdly like a bird about to take flight—he resembled some scarecrow posturing in a cornfield. And yet, on the second glance, one felt the humanness of the man. It was in his crafty, thin-lipped mouth, in the swing of his lantern jaws, in the twitching of his corded, brown fists, which resembled two sea-spiders. All in all, from his tangle of straw-colored hair to his shining boots, he looked as out of place on Mr. Wilkinson's broad, sun-swept veranda as one of the pirates in "Treasure Island."

"The chap as I spoke to," the man continued, "said as 'ow 'e 'ad brought the chest up 'ere a few minutes back. Now could l once lay my eyes on it, lady and gentlemen, I'd know it fast enough by some 'oles I drilled in its side."

"I think he must mean the box I picked out of the surf," Elizabeth said, turning toward her father. "There was some holes in that, I remember."

"Was there, lady, was there?" cried the man in evident excitement. "T...

This is only a preview of this story. The site administrator is evaluating methods to bring it to you.