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by Frank Lillie Pollock

IN ALL the seas there are few more beautiful spots, none more lonely, than Trinity Island. It lies in the high longitudes and the low latitudes, and is a mere horseshoe of coral rising out of fathomless black water, overgrown with plume-like cocoanut palms, and a hundred long Pacific leagues from other land and from the beaten roads of ocean traffic. Beyond the occasional smoke-trail on the sky of a distant war-ship or a misguided tramp steamer, navigation never comes near Trinity Island; nevertheless, years ago, a great naval Power saw fit to seize upon the spot for a coaling-station.

Perhaps the excellent anchorage in the lagoon tempted to this step; at any rate a flagstaff was planted, sheds were put up for the good Australian anthracite, and provision was made for a resident keeper. Most of the coal is still there: the flag still flies, and the keeper is visited by a gunboat once in four or five months; but the same keeper seldom sees many visits of the ship.

Coulson accepted the berth because he had played the prodigal son in Melbourne and Sydney and had come to the end of even his husks. He knew it would be lonely, but he did not think he would mind. He would have time for meditation and for reading. He had always had a great idea of improving his mind, and he packed in his chest a "History of Europe," in seventeen volumes, green cloth, gilt, which he had got from a man who owed him thirty pounds.

It was a ten days' run from Sydney. They set down his chest in the galvanized-iron house on the beach, and Coulson saw the steamer evaporate into a smudge of smoke on the glittering horizon. Turning to look round, he could see almost the whole extent of his domain. The clustered palms rustled unceasingly in the wind, with the flagstaff standing bare among them, and the ugly heaps of coal below. The surf circled him rhythmically with its monotonous "s-sh—crash! s-sh—crash!" Sky and sea were as empty and shining as twin silver mirrors, and between the double immensities the island seemed like a speck under the glaring lens of a great microscope.

Thus began the strangest period of Coulson's life. At first he found it as peaceful and pleasant as he had anticipated. He bathed in the surf; he fished from a canoe; he looked for pearls; he read his "History of Europe" to the middle of the first volume, and then marked the place in case he should ever want to come back to it. The atmosphere of the island was not favorable to hard reading, but he discovered that there was a mild amusement to be derived from solitaire games of euchre and seven-up, his right hand against his left. He played checkers in the same way, and tried chess, but gave it up; it was too much like trying to lift oneself by one's boot-straps.

It was a foregone conclusion that this could not last. Only a saint or an idiot can endure solitude, it is said, and Coulson was neither. He had been there about a month when the sudden sense of his hideous isolation struck him like a thunderbolt from a clear sky. A vivid picture flashed through his mind of the roaring streets of Sydney; of the theaters, the cafes, the bars where he met a friend at every turn; and as he looked over the cloudless circle of untroubled sea a sick horror of the place came upon him, an overpowering terror of the sky and the water, of everything that was so beautiful and so unhuman, so that he crept back trembling into his little bungalow with the sweat streaming down his face.

For a time—he could never have told how long—Coulson scarcely ate or slept. He tramped the beaches, he paddled far out to sea, trying mechanically to find relief in fatigue, and finding none. All day the great blue circles glared at him unwinkingly, mockingly; he hated them; at night the blues were merely three shades darker and fired with incandescent planets, and he loathed them. And day and night the merciless pulse of the surf beat like a swinging pendulum in his brain. He could never get beyond hearing of that sound. It was the very voice of the solitude. At moments it seemed that he could endure no more, and he would fling himself down and sob and curse in rage and loneliness.

BUT this period of torment wore itself out. His nerves became dulled, and Coulson regained a little of his old equanimity. It was not the same, however. The almost narcotic peace of the first days was gone, and he found himself sinking into a black melancholia. Never had he been so conscious, with a strange terror, of the omnipotent forces around him. The wind in the palms seemed to murmur threats or warnings. Sky and sea were full of menace, and he watched the revolution of the days with suspicion. He felt certain that disastrous events of some sort were about to take place, and his heart was filled with a sullen bitterness against the men who had exiled him on this reef to be the plaything of these invisible powers.

This state of nervous expectancy lasted for weeks, but nothing happened. Now and again, to relieve the strain, he resumed his games of cards, his right hand against his left, and it was through this amusement that he came to his great discovery.

In these highly introspective games he always identified himself with his left hand; the cards he dealt to the right he considered as those of his opponent, and he could not help being struck by the regularity with which he beat himself. He tried checkers, with the same result. Luck and skill greater than his own seemed to direct the fall of the cards and the movement of the men against him, and so it was that Coulson came by degrees to realize that he was not alone on Trinity Island.

Who his invisible opponent was on the other side of the table he could not guess, but he understood clearly that there was nothing supernatural about him. It was a man very like himself—indeed, he always thought of him simply as the Man—and Coulson recognized rather vaguely that it was in some way his own fault that he could not enter into closer relations with him. But the mere intangible presence of the Man afforded Coulson extraordinary pleasure. He knew by some instinct when he was present and when absent; he talked to him, and though he received no audible answers, he felt that he was understood.

At last the greatly-desired consummation took place—he was able to see him. What he looked like, Coulson could hardly have said, for he did not pay much attention to either the Man's appearance or dress. In fact, he had a confused idea that if he had met him anywhere but on this dreary island he would not have been able to see him at all. But this did not matter; it was with the mind of the Man that Coulson was chiefly concerned, and he no longer wondered that he had been beaten in every game when such a brain was against him.

They talked together at length, or, rather, the stranger talked and Coulson listened with growing admiration of the commanding forces of intellect and will that the Man displayed. As yet he knew nothing of the newcomer's history, but he detected in his friend a bitterness against the world equal to his own; and he divined the existence of a vendetta that must end in a day of terrible reckoning. The Man was not a man to sit down tamely under injustice.

The supply gunboat arrived, and its captain was apparently surprised to find Coulson healthy and moderately cheerful, though disinclined to talk much. During the vessel's brief stay in the harbor the Man disappeared; Coulson easily understood that he preferred to remain for the present unseen, and he said nothing to the crew of the gunboat on the subject.

The steamer went back to the world again; the Man returned from his hiding-place, and after this the relations of the two prisoners became more confidential. The stranger had been in every part of the world where Coulson had been, and he seemed to know everything that Coulson had particularly wished to know. A curious fact was that all this information was communicated in a way that made Coulson feel that he had learned it all at some previous time and afterward forgotten it. But their conversation turned continually back to one subject—to the undeserved sufferings endured by both of them, and to the idea of retaliation. By degrees he learned his companion's history. Like himself, the Man had endured ill-fortune in the southern seas. He had been persecuted by cabals and cliques of powerful enemies; he had been kidnapped, he had been imprisoned, and, finally escaping, he had fled to this loneliest part of the Pacific to mature his schemes for a triumphant return to the world.

Reflecting with indignation upon this tale, Coulson recognized its similarity to his own experience. He, too, he seemed to remember, had been persecuted all his life; he, too, had been imprisoned upon Trinity Island, surely by no will of his own. He, too, had suffered injustice of every sort; he was the world's creditor and, as he meditated, his bitterness grew to a quiet but fiercely burning heat of anger against the powers that had cut him off from all the desirable things of life and marooned him upon this ghastly rock in the deep seas. The two men discussed these things and revolved plans of action. It would have suited Coulson's spirit to return to London or Sydney and strew the streets with dynamite, or poison the water-mains; but these places were far away. So the outer world reposed in quiet, unconscious that an island in the central Pacific was fizzing and hissing with vengeance like a lighted bomb.

Then came a novel disturbance. Across the water from the west boomed a sound as of distant thunder out of the spotless horizon. It was the war-ships of the Australian squadron at target-practise under the skyline, and a little later a faint haze of smoke arose like a far-away sea-fight.

Coulson listened to the noise, and hated it. There, out of sight, was the enemy, strong with his brutal ironclads, every one of which Coulson would gladly have seen at the bottom of the Pacific. All day long the sound came at intervals; that night he saw search-lights flashing across the skylike a northern aurora; and early in the morning there was a long streak of smoke in the south which the fleet left as it steamed down toward Auckland.

This interruption of his quiet strangely disturbed Coulson, but an odd chance turned it to his advantage. On the following day he went out in his canoe to fish, going farther out to sea than usual. He espied a great reddish object floating awash with the waves. It looked very like a sea-serpent, and he paddled toward it. On a nearer inspection he recognized it at once. It was a Whitehead torpedo, undoubtedly lost from a battle-ship during torpedo-practise, and drifting dead and derelict with its propelling gear run down. Being without its "war head," it was temporarily as harmless as a log, and Coulson took a hitch of a line a around it and towed it to the island.

The discovery of this torpedo raised in him a multitude of excited imaginings. From that day he had a deadly weapon at hand, and the Man suggested to him many plans for its use. He might sail far out to sea, signal some passing steamer with a flare by night, and contrive to attach the torpedo to her side. Or he might wait for the very unlikely event of a ship approaching the island. But in the end it seemed best to commence his operations by waiting for the supply-ship and sending her to the bottom of the lagoon with celerity and precision.

In the absence of the percussion apparatus there would be some difficulty about exploding the torpedo, but Coulson with much labor drilled a hole into the powder chamber and attached a fuse enclosed in a rubber tube to protect it from wet. Then there was nothing to do but wait.

It was nearly a month before the gunboat was due, and there had been no ships in sight since the departure of the ironclads, when late one afternoon a trail of smoke appeared on the sky in the east. It grew and approached, though slowly, and in time the hull rose above the water. An hour later Coulson made her out distinctly with his glass. She was one of those jerry-built ocean tramps, constructed by the mile and cut off in suitable lengths, and by her painfully slow movements she was having trouble in her engine-room.

She passed the island within a mile, and had begun to increase the distance a little when she suddenly stopped, a cloud of steam escaping from her waste-pipe.

Coulson had watched her with intense interest from the moment she came into view. And the Man was at his shoulder. When she stopped, Coulson put down his glass calmly; he knew that his enemy had been delivered into his hands.

The equatorial darkness shut down like a sudden curtain, and the steamer's lights twinkled like smoky stars across the water. An hour after sunset they went down to the beach where the canoe lay, attached the torpedo to a towline, and the Man got into the little craft and paddled out of the lagoon with the great red cigar in his wake. Coulson remained ashore; he understood that his companion wras the right person to carry the business through.

But though he stood on the beach, he seemed to follow the progress of the canoe as if he had been aboard her. He could even feel the shock of the waves and the successive impulses of the paddle-strokes as the Man, grim and silent in the stern, forced the craft forward. He could see the steamer's lights growing brighter; he heard presently the sound of voices and the clinking of hammers, and then he saw the tall black sides just ahead, towering up through the blue gloom.

Slowly the canoe approached the ship's overhanging stern. She was high in the water, so that a great part of her rudder showed above the surface, and the Man drew in the torpedo and made it fast. Coulson watched him with agonized suspense as he fumbled for matches to light the fuse and at that moment there was a sharp jingle of bells from the vessel's interior.

A tremor shook her, and the water boiled suddenly underneath. The canoe collapsed, and Coulson found himself unexpectedly, incomprehensibly precipitated into cool water, struggling to grasp the canoe in the midst of foam and a horrible suction that was drawing him irresistibly downward.

A moment later there was nothing to be seen above the water but a dozen crimson threads drifting up through the froth, and there was an irregular note in the pulsation of the propeller.

The mate, leaning over the stern, signaled to the bridge.

"Stop her!" he called. "Something has fouled the screw."