Read CHAPTER X - Rita of the Spanish Song of My Brave and Gallant Gentleman, free online book, by Robert Watson, on ReadCentral.com.

Next morning I was awakened bright and early by the singing of birds. For a few moments I imagined myself back in England; but the ceaseless beat of the sea and the sustained, woody-toned, chattering, chirruping squeak of an angry squirrel on my roof gave me my proper location.

I had heard once, in a London drawing-room, that there were no singing birds in British Columbia; that the songsters of the East were unable to get across the high, eternal cold and snow of the Rockies. What a fallacy! They were everywhere around me, and in thousands. How they got there was of little moment to me. They were there, much to my joy; and the forests at my back door were alive with the sweetness of their melodies.

Early as I was, I could see a thin column of smoke rising from the cove where Jake was. When I went to the woodpile at the rear of my bungalow, I found more evidence of his early morning diligence. A heap of dry, freshly cut kindling was set out, while the chickens had already been fed and let out to wander at their own sweet wills.

For the first time in my very ordinary life, I investigated the eccentricities of a cook stove, overcame them and cooked myself a rousing breakfast of porridge and bacon and eggs with toast. How proud I felt of my achievement and how delicious the food tasted! Never had woman cooked porridge and bacon and eggs to such a delightful turn.

I laughed joyously, for I felt sure I had stumbled across an important truth that woman had religiously kept from the average man throughout all the bygone ages: the truth that any man, if he only sets his mind to it, can cook a meal perfectly satisfactory to himself.

After washing up the breakfast dishes without smashing any, sweeping the kitchen floor and shovelling up nothing; there was nothing left for me to do, for the north-going steamer was not due until early in the afternoon. When she should arrive and give me delivery of the freight which she was bringing, I knew I should have enough to occupy my attention for some days to come, getting the cases opened up and the goods checked over, priced and set out in the store; but, meantime, my time was my own.

It was a glorious morning. The sun was shining and the air was balmy as a midsummer’s day at home. I opened the front door and gazed on the loveliness; I stretched my arms and felt vigour running to my finger-tips. Then I longed, how I longed, for a swim!

And why not! I slipped out of my shirt and trousers and got into my bathing suit. I ran down to the end of the wharf and out on to the rocks.

The water was calm, and deep, and of a pale green hue. I could see the rock cod and little shiners down there, darting about on a breakfast hunt.

Filling my lungs, I took a header in, coming up fifteen yards out and shaking my head with a gurgling cry of pleasure. I struck out, overhand, growing stronger and more vigorous each succeeding moment, as the refreshing sea played over my body. On, on I went, turning upon my breast sometimes, sometimes on my back, lashing the water into foam with my feet and blowing it far into the air from my mouth.

Half a mile out and I was as near to the island, in the middle of the Bay, as I was to the wharf. I knew I could make it, although I had not been in the water for several weeks. I had an abundance of time, the sea was warm, the island looked pretty, so on I went.

I reached it at last, a trifle blown, but in good condition.

It had not been by any means a record swim for me. I had not intended that it should. All the way, it had been a pleasure trip.

I made for a sandy beach, between two rocky headlands. Soon, I got my footing and waded ashore. After a short rest, I set out to survey the island.

All the childhood visions I had stored in my memory of “Coral Island,” “Crusoe’s Island,” and “Treasure Island” became visualised and merged into one, the island I was exploring.

It was of fairy concept; only some four hundred yards long and about a hundred yards in breadth, with rugged rocks and sandy beaches; secret caves and strange caverns; fertile over all with small fir and arbutus trees, shrubs, ferns and turfy patches of grass of the softest velvet pile. In the most unlikely places, I stumbled across bubbling springs of fresh water forcing its way through the rocks. How they originated, was a mystery to me, for the island was separated from the mainland by a mile, at least, of salt water.

What an ideal spot, I thought, for a picnic! Would not some of my eccentric acquaintances at home, the Duke of Athlane, for instance, dearly love to take the whole thing up by the roots and transplant it in the centre of some of the artificial lakes they had schemed and contrived, in wild attempts to make more beautiful the natural beauties of their estates?

By this time, the warm air had dried my body. I climbed to the highest point of the island, a small plateau, covered with short turf; a glorious place for the enjoyment of a sun bath. I lay down and stretched myself.

My only regret then was that I did not have a book with me to complete my Paradise.

Pillowed on a slight incline, I dreamily watched the scudding clouds, then my eyes travelled across to the mainland. I could see the smoke curl upward from my kitchen fire. I saw old Jake get into his boat, followed by the drunken rascal of a dog, Mike. All was still and quiet but for the seethe and shuffle of the sea.

Suddenly, on the other side of the water somewhere, but evidently far away, a voice, untrained, but of peculiar sweetness, broke into my drowsing. I listened for a time, trying to catch the refrain. As it grew clearer, I tried to pick up the words, but they were in a tongue foreign to me. They were not French, nor were they Italian. At last, it struck me that they were Spanish words; the words of a Spanish dancing song, which, when I was a gadding-about college boy, had been popular among us. I recalled having heard that it was sung by the chorus of a famous Spanish dancer, who, at one time, had been the rage of London and the Provinces, but who had mysteriously vanished from the footlights with the same suddenness as she had appeared there.

It was a haunting little melody, catchy and childishly simple; and it had remained in my memory all these years, as is so often the case with choruses that we hear in our babyhood.

Naturally, I was more than curious to see the singer, so I crept to the top of the grassy knoll and peered over, searching the far side of the island and over the water.

Away out, I discerned a small boat making in the direction of the island. The oars were being plied by a woman, or a girl, I could not tell which, as her back was toward me and she was still a good way off. She handled her oars as if she were a part of the boat itself and the boat were a living thing.

She stopped every now and then, rose from her seat and busied herself with something. I wondered what she was doing. I saw her haul something into the boat. As she examined it in her hand, the sun flashed upon it. I could hear her laugh happily as she tossed it into the bottom of the boat.

She was trolling for fish and, evidently, getting a plentiful supply.

She rowed in as if intent upon fishing round the island. But, all at once, she changed her mind, turned the boat, pulled in her fishing line and shot into a sandy beach, springing out and pulling the boat clear of the tide.

She straightened herself as she turned and faced the plateau on the far incline of which I lay hidden. I saw at a glance that, though a mere girl in years, somewhere between sixteen and eighteen, yet she was a woman, maturing as a June rose, as a butterfly stretching its pretty wings for the first time in the ecstasy of its new birth. Of medium height; her hair was the darkest shade of brown and hung in two long, thick braids down to her neat waist. She seemed not at all of the countrified type I might have expected to encounter so far in the wilds.

She was dressed in a spotless white blouse, the sleeves of which were rolled back almost to her shoulders; with a dark-coloured, serviceable skirt, the hem of which hung high above a pair of small, bare feet and neat, supple-looking ankles. I could see her shoes and stockings, brown in colour, lying in the bow of the boat. She reached over, picked them up, then sat on a rock by the water’s edge and pulled them on her feet.

But, after all, it was not her dress that held my attention; although in the main this was pleasing to the eye, nor yet was it the girl’s features, for she was still rather far off for me to observe these distinctly. What riveted me was the light, agile rapidity of her every action; and her evident abandonment of everything else for what, for the moment, absorbed her.

As I watched, I became filled with conflicting thoughts. Should I remain where I was, or should I at once betray my presence?

I decided that the island was large enough for both of us. She was not interested in me, so why should I interrupt her in her lonely enjoyment?

I was perplexed more than a little in trying to place where she rightfully belonged. Naturally, I took her to be the daughter of one of the settlers on the far side of Golden Crescent. But there was a something in her entire appearance that seemed to place her on a different plane from that, a plane all by herself; while, again, there was the Spanish song which I had heard her lilt out on the water.

She brought my conjecturing to rather an abrupt conclusion, for, without any warning, she darted up over the rocks and through the ferns to where I lay, and she had almost trodden upon me before I had time to get out of her way.

She stepped back with an exclamation of surprise, but gave no sign to indicate that she was afraid.

I sprang to my feet.

“I am very sorry, miss,” I said sincerely.

“Oh! there ain’t much to be sorry over. This ain’t my island. Still, girls don’t much care about men watching them from behind places,” she replied, with a tone of displeasure.

“And I am sorry, again,” I answered. “Please forgive me, for I could hardly help it. I was lying here when I heard you sing. I became curious. When you landed, I intended making my presence known, but I said to myself just what you have said now: ’It is not my island.’ However, I shall go now and leave you in possession.”

“Where is your boat?”

“Didn’t bring one with me.”

“How did you get here then?”

Her blunt questioning was rather disconcerting.

“Oh! I walked it,” I answered lightly, with a grin.

Her voice changed. “You’re trying to be smart,” she reprimanded.

“Sorry,” I said, in a tone of contrition, “for I am not a bit smart in spite of my trying. Well, I swam across from the wharf over there.”

She looked up. “Being smart some more.”

“No! it is true.”

She measured the distance from the island to the wharf with her eye.

I remarked, some time ago, that her hair was of the darkest shade of brown. I was wrong; there was a darker hue still, and that was in her eyes; while her skin was of that attractive combination, olive and pink.

“Gee! that was some swim.

“How are you going to get back?” she continued, in open friendliness.

“Swim!”

“Ain’t you tired?”

“I was winded a bit when I got here, but I am all right again,” I answered.

“You’re an Englishman?”

“How did you guess it?” I asked, as if I were giving her credit for unearthing a great mystery.

Before answering, she sat down on the grass, clasping her hands over her knees. I squatted a short distance from her.

“Only Englishmen go swimming hereabouts in the morning.”

“Do you often stumble across stray, swimming Englishmen?” I asked in banter.

“No! but three summers ago there were some English people staying in that house at the wharf that’s now closed up: the one next Horsfal’s, and they were in the water so much, they hardly gave the fish a chance. It was the worst year we ever had for fishing.”

I laughed, and she looked up in surprise.

“Then we had an English surveyor staying with us for a month last year. He was crazy for the water. He went in for half an hour every morning and before his breakfast, too. You don’t find the loggers or any of the settlers doing silly stunts like that. No, siree.

“Guess you’re a surveyor?”

“No!”

“Or maybe a gentleman up for shooting and fishing? Can’t be though, for there ain’t any launches in the Bay. Yes, you are, too, for I saw a launch in yesterday.”

“I hope I am always a gentleman,” I said, “but I am not the kind of gentleman you mean. I have no launch and no money but what I can earn. I am the new man who is to look after Mr. Horsfal’s Golden Crescent property. I shall be more or less of a common country storekeeper after to-day.”

“Heard about that store from old Jake. Granddad over home was talking about it, too. It’ll be convenient for the Camps and a fine thing for the settlers up here.”

She jumped up. “Well, I guess I got to beat it, Mister ”

“George Bremner,” I put in.

“My name’s Rita; Rita Clark. I stay over at the ranch there, the one with the red-roofed houses. This island’s named Rita, too.”

“After you?”

“Ya! guess so!”

She did not venture any more.

“Been here long?” I asked.

“Long’s I can remember,” she answered.

“Like it?”

“I love it. It’s all I got. Never been away from it more’n three times in my life.”

There was something akin to longing in her voice.

“I love it all the same, all but that over there.”

As she spoke, she shivered and pointed away out to the great perpendicular rock, with its jagged, devilish, shark-like teeth, which rose sheer out of the water and stood black, forbidding and snarling, even in the sunshine, to the right, at the entrance to the Bay, a quarter of a mile or so from the far horn of Golden Crescent.

“You don’t like rocks?”

“Some rocks,” she whispered, “but not ‘The Ghoul.’”

“The Ghoul,” I repeated with a shudder. “Ugh! what a name. Who on earth saddled it with such a horrible name?”

“Nobody on earth. Guess it must have been the devil in hell, for it’s a friend of his.”

Her face grew pale and a nameless horror crept into her eyes.

“It ain’t nice to look on now, is it?”

“No!” I granted.

“You want to see it in the winter, when there’s a storm tearing in, with the sea crashing over it in a white foam and, and, people trying to hang on to it. Oh! I tell you what it is, it’s hellish, that’s all. It’s well named The Ghoul, it’s a robber of the dead.”

“Robber of the dead! what do you mean?”

“Everybody but a stranger knows: it robs them of a decent burial. Heaps of men, and women too, have been wrecked out there, but only one was ever known to come off alive. Never a body has ever been found afterwards.” She shivered and turned her head away.

For a while, I gazed at the horrible rock in fascination. What a reminder it was to the poor human that there is storm as well as calm; evil as well as good; that turmoil follows in the wake of quiet; that sorrow tumbles over joy; and savagery and death run riot among life and happiness and love!

At last, I also turned my eyes away from The Ghoul, with a strong feeling of anger and resentment toward it. Already I loathed and hated the thing as I hated nothing else.

I stood alongside the girl and we remained silent until the mood passed.

Then she raised her eyes to mine and smiled. In an endeavour to forget, which, after all, was easy amid so much sunshine and beauty, I reverted to our former conversation.

“You said you were seldom away from here. Don’t you ever take a trip to Vancouver?”

“Been twice. We’re not strong on trips up here. Grand-dad goes to Vancouver and Victoria once in a while. Grandmother’s been here twenty years and never been five miles from the ranch, ’cept once, and she’s sorry now for that once.

“Joe’s the one that gets all the trips. You ain’t met Joe. Guess when you do you and him won’t hit it. He always fights with men of your size and build.”

“Who is this Joe?” I asked. “He must be quite a man-eater.”

“I ain’t going to tell you any more. You’ll know him when you see him.

“I’m going now. Would you like some fish? The trout were biting good this morning. I’ve got more’n we need.”

We went down to the shore together. There were between thirty and forty beauties of sea-trout in the bottom of her boat. She handed me out a dozen.

“Guess that’ll make a square meal for you and Jake.”

Then she looked at me and laughed, showing her teeth. “Clean forgot,” she said. “A swimming man ain’t no good at carrying fish.”

“Why not?” I asked.

I picked up some loose cord from her boat, strung the trout by the gills and tied them securely round my waist.

She watched me archly and a thought went flashing through my mind that it did not need the education of the city to school a woman in the art of using her eyes.

“Guess I’ll see you off the premises first, before I go.”

“All right!” said I.

We crossed the Island once more, and I got on to a rock which dipped sheer and deep into the sea.

She held out her hand and smiled in such a bewitching way that, had I not been a well-seasoned bachelor of almost twenty-five years’ standing, I should have lost my heart to her completely.

“Good-bye! Mister, Mister Bremner. Safe home.”

“Good-bye! Miss Rita.”

“Sure you can make it?” she asked earnestly.

“Yes!” I cried, and plunged in.

As I came up, I turned and waved my hand. She waved in answer, and when I looked again she was gone.

I struck swiftly for the wharf, allowing for the incoming tide.

When I was half-way across, I heard the sound of oars and, on taking a backward glance, I saw Rita making toward me.

“Hello!” I cried, when she drew near. “What’s the matter?”

A little shame-faced, she bent over. “I got scared,” she said timidly, “scared you mightn’t make it. Sure you don’t want me to row you in?”

The boat was alluring, but my pride was touched.

“Quite sure,” I answered. “I’m as fresh as the trout round my waist. Thanks all the same.”

“All right! Guess I was foolish. You ain’t a man; you’re a porpoise.”

With this half-annoyed sally, she swung the bow of the boat and rowed away.