Chapter 79


My summer was uneventful. Such adventures as I had were pleasant variations from routine. I must tell one tale from its interest to amateurs of coincidence and philosophers whose favourite subject of meditation is “What a small world we live in!”

To ascend the Hudson in a sailing canoe is not so simple as it sounds. No great effort is required to come to grief. It had taken me all I knew to get round a certain rectangular bend against a gusty wind of uncertain temper. The river was white with foam, and what with cross currents and sudden squalls I had wondered more than once how matters would turn out. In case of capsizing it might have been no joke to scramble up the perpendicular cliffs which hemmed in the stream in many places. Once or twice, while trying to use my sail, I had just shaved upsetting. The bend once past, the breeze had steadied, and I was able to lounge luxuriously in the stern and watch the shores stream past. The only question was where to sleep. The hours passed and no sign of human habitation. In the end I submitted to fate and spent the night in the open on a stony slope.

The next day, after lunching gloriously on a convenient islet, I came to Newborough Bay, where the river widens out to something like three times its average. There is a town on either bank connected by a steam ferry. I was merrily sailing along, when a squall struck the canoe without warning. I found myself rushing recklessly through the water, with the spray shooting from beneath my bows high into space. I was then aware that I was being driven helpless between the two steamers. My sail refused to come down. At infinite risk, I crawled forward and unshipped the mast, thus managing to pull up before reaching the point of danger.

I looked south. The weather threatened to worsen. It might be nasty. I was more than a mile from the shore. My best chance was to reach safety before the storm came to its full powers. I therefore put the tackle in order, reshipped the mast, and half-hoisted the sail, ready to lower again if things got bad. I flew upstream at a terrific pace for over an hour. The threatened tempest passed clear to the south. It was now dark and once again I bethought me of a bivouac. Exhausted by my struggle, I paddled wearily, the wind having dropped entirely, past a wharf. Having no money to waste on a bed — my two dollars, twenty-five of original capital not having noticeable increased — I shook my head and shouted a genial refusal to a stripling who hailed me from the quay and suggested my sleeping in the village. But an {783} older man came forward and offered to let me doss it in a boathouse. I was really all in and decided to accept.

He hailed some boatmen who carried my canoe on shore, while I walked with the kind old captain to the boat club. We had settled on where I was to sleep, when in came a man, obviously a gentleman and obviously English. He made the same observation about me, though what with my inch of beard, deep sunburn and general air of ruffianism. I presented an aspect rarely to be found in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. He insisted on taking me to his house for supper and putting me up for the night. I gratefully accepted. Five minutes later we had found out that he had at one time been a master in King Henry VIII's School in Coventry, and had known my Aunt Annie and her family who honoured that town with their residence since their childhood. The next morning after breakfast I resumed my journey. He took me in his launch with the canoe in tow as far as Poughkeepsie where we parted.

I promised to write and tell him where my permanent camps was, in the hope that he would allow me to share his hospitality by bringing his family to lunch. The sequel has one more amusing coincidence. There was, of course, no way by which he could warn me of his visit. One morning there came to me a quite irrational wish. I found myself thinking, “How I wish I had prawns for lunch!” The thought recurred despite indignant attempts to banish it. An hour or so later, I heard my name shouted. I jumped up and found no trace of the shouter. I knew the voice must come from a boat, and ran up and down the island furiously. Still nothing in sight. It must have been half an hour before we found each other, though looking everywhere, and the island being quite small. Whitehead had brought his wife and her sister with various luxuries to mitigate the austerity of the fare traditionally proper to hermits, and one of these was — prawns!

On August 19th, I was obliged to go to New York for two days on O.T.O. business. The result was amusing. I called on my old friend Tony Sarg, the artist, and gave him an enthusiastic description of my holiday. “There is only one fly,” I said, “in the apothecary's ointment. Like Adam in Eden, I lack an Eve.” He laughed. “Don't worry! I know a girl game for any adventure. She has wonderful hair — orange-red curls, calculated to produce delirium tremens at a moment's notice. Here's her name and address.” At that moment a small crowd called and for the next half hour we rocked with laughter at the astounding imitation which Tony gave of me wooing a woman. I left a note for the girl — Madeleine was her name — at her hotel, asking her to drop in to lunch any day she felt like it. I didn't expect her to come and once more I was wrong.

I went back to Oesopus the following day, supplied with several large cans of red paint. On both the east and west shores of the island are wide {784} steep cliffs of smooth rock, obviously provided by Providence for my convenience in proclaiming the Law. I devoted a couple of days to painting “Do that thou wilt” on both banks for the benefit of passing steamers. The little paint left over was dedicated to Madeleine. I barked a tree in front of my tent for the name of the beloved, and again on a convenient rock hard by. No sooner was this done than a man came off from the mainland in a boat with a telegram from Madeleine to meet her at Hyde Park Station, a few miles below the island. I went down. As I paced the platform I noticed a tall, distinguished, military-looking man, who seemed to be eyeing me strangely. He finally made up his mind to speak. “Are you Mr Crowley?” he said. In my surprise I nearly forgot to say, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” We then got into conversation.

It appeared that he was in charge of the “Intelligence” of Dachers County, New York; whereupon I confided to him that the Department of Justice had instructed me to keep my eyes open for any suspicious incidents. He requested me to to report anything of the sort also to him, to which, of course, I gladly agreed. He then confided that my own behaviour had turned the country upside down. The mysterious stranger, the fact of my having no companion, had aroused suspicion, as also my habit of sitting for hours in an apparently uncomfortable attitude and absolutely motionless. Reports had been made to him. He had set inquiries on foot. The mystery only grew deeper. Nobody seemed to know anything definite. He had had all Staatsburg “on the grill”. He had found it impossible to identify me, until at last one of the girls in the post office, evidently in a class by herself in the matter of intelligence, supplied a clue. She knew me by the scarlet tassels of my golf stockings. He had had me watched, and of course found nothing wrong, but on asking New York City if they could supplement the information, he learned to his intense amazement that I was myself working for the Department of Justice. He told me of various sinister rumours about spies. “Hang it,” said I, “what could a spy possibly do in a section like this?” “Well,” said he, “there are rumours of flashes of light on the west shore at night which suggest signalling. It might mean serious mischief. We are sending the troops to New York by night train. A spy might easily estimate our numbers, send the news east by a chain of flashed signals and have it wirelessed to Berlin!”

I promised to keep watch, and then the train came in. There was no difficulty in recognizing Madeleine in that background of barbarism. She stood out like a strawberry among a heap of hips and haws; a short sturdy figure trimly tailored, with a round smiling face, and an ivory complexion framed in that pyrotechnic display of hair. Sarg's eloquence had failed to do her justice. She had brought a huge trunk. My face dropped. What would the canoe say? We managed to get it aboard and started upstream, reaching camp without incident bar a narrow squeak of being swamped by the wash of a {785} passing steamboat. We had a great lunch with the burgundy and absinthe and old brandy, which I had brought back from New York.

But some people are never satisfied. She apparently expected to find a young palace with livery lackeys by the dozen, so she explained that she had merely dropped in for lunch, as per invitation, on her way to visit her brother, the incumbent of the parish of Staatsburg. She gave so many details so ingenuously that I might have believed her if I had not happened to know that the amenities of Staatsburg did not include any such person as she described. I politely professed to credit her and promised to take her ashore in time to reach him by dinner. To pass the afternoon we went for a paddle round the island. Near the northern point I noticed that my feet were wet. I knew that the canoe leaked slightly and forgot it. A hundred yards or so further on I found my ankles immersed. It was evident within the next minute that the leak was serious. We were opposite the cliffs, landing was impossible. The water gained. Nothing remained but to bale and paddle for dear life and reach the south inlet before sinking. She thought the opportunity unequalled for a display of hysterics. But I spoke so sharply and sternly that she postponed the performance and began to bale. We just did it and only just, thanks to the help of two boys who had come to camp close to the landing place a couple of days earlier.

They rushed in waist deep and pulled us in. By that time the water-logged wreck hardly answered the paddle. We dragged the canoe up the beach. The water poured from the stern through a gap six inches across.

We sat and smoked and swapped stories, while Madeleine had her hysterics. When she tired of being not noticed, I took her back to the tent and made tea. “And that”, I remarked, is good night to the visit to the vicarage. If we can mend that bundle of firewood at all, which I doubt, we can't even begin till we've got materials from Staatsburg, which means tomorrow morning!“ “But I must get to my brother's!” she persisted petulantly.

I gave a short, but instructive lecture on the physical geography of islands, especially insisting on the definition as a piece of land wholly surrounded by water. She began to howl like a hyena. (I knew, of course, that she had not the slightest intention of going, had Neptune himself arrived to conduct her.) “But I must go!” she wailed, and then put up a big bluff about her virtue and her reputation. I said I would ask the boys to row her ashore in their boat. They of course agreed, but when I came back with the good news, she had bethought herself of the privilege of her sex, and declared that here she was and here she would stay. Again I acquiesced.

She spent some time trying to think up some excuse for a fresh fuss, but the best she could do was to say that she must have a bath. “Make your mind easy,” said I, and quoted statistics about the area of the Hudson river. It took her quite a long time to convince herself that I was really one of those inhuman {786} monsters who cannot be dislodged from the fortress of patient smiling politeness and imperturbable good temper. But after dinner she gave it up with a sigh.

“Oh well,” she thought, “if I can't have my holiest joy of keeping a man on the jump, I suppose I may as well make shift with the next best thing, my famous imitation of a grand passion.” She suited the action to the thought, and swooned into my embrace.

Having mended the canoe as well as I could — it was old and rotten beyond permanent repair — I took her to Central Park on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, her stay had been otherwise exciting. I spent my nights watching for signals on the west shore, and sure enough, from time to time the dark mass of the woods was lit up, now here, now there, by shafts of momentary brilliance at irregular intervals. I noted the exact time of each and compared them. They showed a periodic function. Further analysis convinced me of the cause. Whenever a train passed, the light from the funnel became visible whenever the trees thinned out. I explored the woods, and found the gaps corresponded to these calculations. That ghost was laid. I could see only a narrow section of the river close to the shore. At 10:07 on the second night this section was traversed by a rowing boat manned by two men and a shapeless heap in the stern, which might have been a third or a cargo – it was too dark to make sure. They rowed in dead silence with muffled oars. They were clearly about some secret business.

The next morning, looking for something under my pillows, I found my revolver was missing. I did not like it. The evening before, both the boys and I thought we saw a strange man on the island just after dark. We gave chase and thought we saw him slipping through the trees, but failed to report him.

I decided to call on my friend the colonel and report. He was very pleased with my solution of the mystery of the alleged signals, and agreed that the incident of the boat looked bad. On his part, he had a new yarn. An old boatman, as steady and sober as one could wish, swore to having seen an object of the size and shape of a football surmounting a stick about two feet out of the water, and moving against the current at a regular rate. The word “submarine” was whispered by the pallid lips of patriots. Every day the new type of submarine chaser might be seen steaming downstream, to be fitted with its armament, five or six a day. No one knew the limits of German genius. The Deutschland had crossed safely with her supplies of 606, America's most urgent need. It was perfectly possibly that they had built a new type of submarine capable of raising hell in the Hudson.

When I got back to the island, one of the boys brought me my gun. Madeleine, expecting me to bring back a squad of secret service men, had owned up that she had found it in my pillows, got scared and thrown it into the brushwood.


The climax of the joke came after my return to New York. The secret service, unaware of my relation with the colonel, got wind of the rumours about the mysterious hermit and sent two men to investigate. They found the island desolate and no more illuminating clues to crime than the words “Madeleine” and “Do what thou wilt” on the rocks.


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