FICTION

Ann Gregory's Luck

JAMES CLIFTON PETERS

November 1 1933
FICTION

Ann Gregory's Luck

JAMES CLIFTON PETERS

November 1 1933

Ann Gregory's Luck

JAMES CLIFTON PETERS

A NN LOOKED DOWN through ten thousand feet of space at

the headwaters of the Sepik River. In the blue distance to the south and east were high mountains, their summits shrouded

with draggled rain clouds. Their flanks were shaggy with jungle; all the great basin below her was choked with jungle. It was like the nap of a green-brown, limitless rug. Sapphire lakes strung on the silver wire of rivers singled the rug with a crude pattern.

There was no sign of human life in all its vast expanse. Not so much as a thin curl of smoke stretching up and up into the windless air, not even a canoe on the silver plaques of the lakes. Yet she knew that beneath that green-brown roof was a ceaseless ferment of life.

For she was Hying above the last stronghold of the primitive. The jungle down there hid strange and unimaginable things; it was a world apart and incredible, dark and evil. A land of cocoanuts and cannibals and weird sorcery; of gorgeous birds of paradise and wattled cassowaries; of swamps that were alive with crocodiles and snakes, giant leeches and mosquitoes.

Back in Port Moresby everyone had warned her of the grave risks attendant upon her propt »sed flight. They sought to dissuade her from it.

“You've got to remember,” they had said, “that New Guinea's mostly unexplored. You’ll be flying over unknown territory with maybe not a white man in a thousand miles. Nothing but cannibals and headhunters. The Sepik’s notorious for them. If anything happens to your machine in there, it's good-by. Your head’ll maybe come down to the coast in a year or two. Traded, you kix»w. White folk’s heads are valuable. Better give up the idea.”

Unmoved. Ann had serenely continued her preparations. Let people think she was obstinate, a reckless, muddling fool. She would not tell them that she had to go. that it was as essential as life itself for her to fly into that barbaric world. They would not understand. How could they when she herself had been sure but a few months? No. let them think it was just another of Ann Gregory’s stunts, an attempt to keep herself in the public eye so that her books and lectures would be in even greater demand. If her quest was successful she would not care what anyone believed. And it would be a success; it had to be! If it were not . . But her mind refused to recognize that possibility. She had yet to know failure in anything which she undertook.

She made discreet enquiries.

"White men in there,” was the invariable, scoffing response. “Don’t make us laugh ! Why, a man’s life wouldn’t be worth sixpence if he went into that country. He’d be ’long pig’ in a week. What’s that? Oh. well, of course there are a few fools who’ve done it. Prospectors mostly and the occasional scientific expedition. They don’t get far. though. And. often, they don’t come back at all. There’s a doctor supposed to be living somewhere up near the headwaters of the Sepik. Studying tropical diseases likely. The more fool he. His head will be coming down to the coast before long. And serve him right. Those natives are treacherous. Do anything for a head or two.”

That was all she could leam. The rest was in her hands and hers alone. But at the time it had seemed enough to goon.

It was only when, at last, she found herself hovering above the vast basin wherein the Sepik arose that she realized the magnitude of the task she had undertaken. The jungle stretched below her so illimitable, so trackless and unbroken. The man she sought might be anywhere within its thousands of square miles, he might not be there at all. She had no means of knowing. Finding him would be the result of blind chance.

The engine of her plane died with a coughing jolt that shook the whole fabric of the machine. Silence hit her like a swift, velvet paw. A little orange tongue of flame leaped up and whipped back over her head. Oily, black smoke belched in her face.

ANN WENT OVER the side of the cockpit in a headlong ^ dive. She fell sickeningly, with the world twisting crazily before her eyes. She counted. At ten she pulled the ring that released her parachute. The jerk of a mighty hand snatched her upright, dangling like a puppet in her harness. The world righted itself.

A long comet of pale flame went past her. It twisted down and down until the jungle swallowed it in a single gulp. There was only a heavy scarf of black smoke coiling greasily about the topmost branches of the trees. There was something symbolic in the calm gusto with which the jungle had devoured her machine, leaving no trace. Not even a ragged gash in its green skin. Nothing. It could do the same thing with a man. He would drop into the miasmic depths and disappear. An eternity of searching might find no trace of him.

The insatiable jungle was reaching out for her now. Hungrily. A thousand mouths gaped at her with a greenish, toothless grin. Looping tentacles of vine writhed up at her feet. Weird flowers were like scarlet gouts of blood dabbling the greenness.

Desperately she hauled at the shroud lines and sought to guide her descent into the reedy shallows of a lake. She would have a chance there. The lake might be alive with crocodiles and ravenous fish, but she would take her chance there in preference to dropping . into that loathsome green pit.

into the shallow, reed-choked lake. She landed in hip-deep water and tore frantically at

into that green pit. Icy sweat drenched her hands as she gauged the rate of her downward drift. She made it. But she had to draw up her feet to escape the last snatch of a spiky vine as she went over the edge of the jungle-cliff and drifted down into the shallow, reed-choked

the straps of her harness as the silk umbrella collapsed around her in a clinging shroud. Free, she scrambled madly through clinging, greasy ooze until her feet were on the more solid earth close under the beetling cliff of forest.

She sat down then on the fallen bole of a tree and drew a long breath. The air which flowed into her lungs was jaded and stale, damply hot. It was thick with the peculiar musty odor of decay that dominates the jungle. There was no refreshment in it. The breathless atmosphere was like a cloak of heat wrapping about her. It had substance and weight. She could feel little trickles of perspiration running down between her shoulders. She threw off her heavy flying coat and drew her vanity case from the pocket of her pongee shirt. Opened it and powdered her nose.

She was in a mess. There was no doubt about that. The chances were a thousand to one against her coming out of it alive. Thirst and starvation, wild beasts and w-ild men -all of them were against her. Luck might or might not be on her side. Always before it had been with her so that Ann Gregory’s luck had become proverbial. It had carried her through a score of impossible difficulties. But this time the Fates might decide that her books needed balancing. In that case the jungle would get her, would play with her with feline cruelty for a while, then strike one swift blow . . .

Her search was a dismal failure. She had counted on swooping down on Trevor like some radiant goddess from the skies, dazzling him and bearing him away with her. That dream was gone, wrapped in a falling scarf of pallid flame. She might never find him now. They might be within a score of miles of each other, but in the tangled jungle a score of miles was as good as a thousand. Trevor might never know thatshe had come seeking him, ready to humble herself and let the past die. He would not know of her discovery that nothing was so strong as her love for him. And that would be a great pity.

It was a calmly thought out conclusion, a solid conviction. After Trevor had left her with the bitter admission that he was sick of being lap dog to a famous woman, that he was fed up with being known as Ann Gregory’s husband, that he had the ability to do good work of his own in his own field, she had begun to think. It took a long while to get over the first rush of anger and bitter hurt wherein she thought Trevor was wholly to blamea jealous, nagging fool—and gain a clear perspective on their life together. In time she came to see that her existence had been built up on a foundation of false values which had collapsed under the weight of age-old problems of marriage. Scrabbling through the ruins, she found that nothing was left save the cornerstone of her love for Trevor.

With infinite patience she began to build afresh. She learned where her husband had gone and followed his trail to the dark island of New Guinea. It seemed to her that life was opening new and fascinating vistas to her gaze. Then, in one swift stroke, the fabric she had newly built crumbled about her. Tragedy reared its ugly head. Ann sighed. Perhaps the closest she and Trevor would ever be again

was when their heads were turning, turning endlessly in the slow smoke of some head-hunter’s devil-devil house. But that, she thought and shook herself angrily, was sheerly morbid. It wouldn’t do to start letting herself go in that way. Have to keep her head, literally and figuratively.

And then Trevor stepped out of the jungle beside her. She whirled at the squelch of his footstep and one hand flew to her throat. Her eyes went wide with startled wonder.

HE STOPPED stock still and stared at her.

“My God ! Ann !” was all he said.

Amazement was a chain that held them motionless. They could only stand there with their eyes fixed one upon the other. Their mouths were dry as sand and their stiff lips could frame no words, their brains could think of no words. Only the electric sparks of emotion streamed back and forth across the gap between them.

It was Ann who moved first. Somehow she found herself across the gap and in her husband’s arms. They were crushing her slim shoulders with an exquisite pain. She could feel the hammering of his heart through the thin drill of his shirt. His hands trembled as they smoothed the raven lustre of her hair.

And then, abruptly, she was thrust away. She looked up in wonder and saw that Trevor’s face had gone hard as carven stone. His eyes scorched like flame.

“What are you doing here?” His voice was the bitter snap of a whip.

Ann made a vague gesture.

“My plane caught fire. A broken feed line or something. It crashed. I came down in a ’chute.”

“I know that. And you’ve raised the very devil. I want to know why you’ve followed me to Papua. I told you I was through, didn’t I?”

She nodded.

“I meant it, you know.” There was a grate of ice in his voice.

Ann’s lips quivered. The vision of reconciliation which had been so bright to her eyes grew distorted, shabby, its colors blurred.

"I’ve done a lot of thinking since you left,” she explained. “I want to start all over.”

She saw him wet his lips.

“I’m through,” he repeated.

"Can’t you forget the past, Trevor?” she pleaded. "I was a fool. Perhaps we both were, a little. But we’ve learned our lesson. Let’s start afresh. I still love you," she said, and her voice was tremulous.

He stabbed at her with a brown forefinger.

“I got out because I was sick and tired of being Ann Gregory’s husband. Is that changed? After all. I’m a bit more than a puppet. There are men in the world -worthwhile men—who value my opinion. I’m a scientist. A microbe hunter, if you will. I’ve done some good work. But does that mean anything to that collection of cheap sensation

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mongers you travel with? Not one blessed thing, I say. They never heard of me — except as your husband.”

“Did that matter so much?” Ann asked gently. "You never wanted to be in the limelight.”

"Of course it didn't matter. But it was interfering w ith my work. I was the husband of a world-famous woman explorer, an authoress and a lecturer. And, God help me,

I loved her. How could 1 work when you were always running off to the ends of the earth to get material for another book to pander to your love of the limelight? You do like to be pointed out as a famous person, you know'. No, I wasn't jealous of that, or of your confounded luck which you seemed to think made you a jxrson a little apart from the rest of mankind, or of anything else. But you were in my thoughts night and day; you came between me and my work. I couldn’t help but think of you in the most frightful dangers, dying perhaps. You didn’t have much consideration for my feelings.”

“I know,” Ann said, and her head drooped.

“And when you were home,” Trevor continued, "it wasn’t much better. You were always working on a book, or lecturing, or out at parties. I didn’t see much of you, didn’t fit into your life at all. And there w’as always some smirking swine making love to you behind my back. Oh, you were always faithful to me, I grant you that. But 1 never knew at what moment someone would come along and sweep you off your feet. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing you. I lived in hell those years. And finally 1 had enough of it. I loved you, but I wasn’t going to let you ruin my life. So I went aw'ay. It was such a wrench and an agony as I hope never to experience again. But it had to be done. And the wound is healed over now. In the last year I’ve done the best work of my life. I’m on the trail of things that will revolutionize medical science. Do you think I’d give that up to go back to the old life? Even with you. Ann?”

And Ann, her eyes steady, answered:

“No.”

"What then?”

"I want you. Nothing else, nothing at all. Just you, Trevor. I’ve wound up all my affairs back home. I’ve dropped right out of the world I’ve always lived in. I’m through with it, 1 tell you. I’ve come to you because you're all that really matters.”

HIS BROWN HANDS went out and tilted her head back. His eyebrows welded into a grey bar as he gazed far down into her eyes.

"I wish I could believe that," he said. "You can!” Her voice was an eager cry. But Trevor shook his head.

"I daren’t risk it," he muttered, dropping his hands to his sides. "My work is too imjx>rtant, it means much to me and the whole of humanity. If I went back to you and we had another break-up, it would finish me. No, it’s too big a chance.”

She snatched at the happiness which, like oiled metal, was slipping through her hands.

“Don't you understand?” she appealed. “Everything's changed. Trevor. Everything. 1 don’t want you to come back with me. I just want to be with you. Here or anywhere you choose.”

But Trevor shook his head.

"I’m afraid it wouldn’t last.” he said. “Lord knows I want to believe that it would, but my judgment tells me that that is the wrong answer. And I daren’t chance it. No, I’ll try to get you down to Ambunti. You can get a trading schooner there and make your way home. I’m sorry, Ann, but that’s the best 1 cando.”

Ann shrugged. She had lost. She knew Trevor, knew when his mind was set. For the rest she didn’t much care. The future opened before her in bleak vista on bleak vista. She had held happiness in her hands and had tossed it away. There was to be no second chance. The Fates were balancing her txxiks with a vengeance.

"We may have a little trouble getting a canoe for you." She became conscious that Trevor was speaking. “Your machine

crashed right outside a native village the one where I’m living, incidentally and killed one or two people. I don’t know just how the bushmen will take your arrival here. You were seen, of course, as you drifted down in your parachute. The natives may think you a goddess of some sort, or they may think you a demon. They may worship you, or they may decide to kill you. And me as well. There’s no telling. They’re a queer lot.”

"They seem to have accepted you all right,” Ann pointed out.

“Yes. I managed to clear up a spot of plague they were having when I got here. Sheer luck on my part, but it made my position with them pretty solid. Yet they can change their whole attitude in a twinkling over the most trivial incident.”

And as he spoke a score of doors seemed to swing silently open in the blank wall of the jungle and a party of brawny bushmen closed about them.

THERE WAS no struggle. The two whites were helpless as children in the grip of their captors. In a dozen seconds they w'ere bound with thin, wire-tough thongs. They were trussed to poles and borne away into the silvery gloom of the forest.

A half-hour of agonizing jolting brought them to the village. Their captors were met there by a jostling throng. The skins of the natives were black as night and smeared with rancid cocoanut oil. The women wore short skirts of grass, the men’s only clothing was a long, attenuated gourd worn as a sort of apron. When astonished, they rapped violently on this gourd with the fingernail of the index finger. The sound was like that of a small marimba. Almost all the men wore full beards and their hair varied from kinky to wavy. Their ornaments were pig-vertebra necklaces and girdles.

The captives were carried past the three great tambarans, the clan houses built of fantastically carved logs and thatched nipa palm and thrown down in a tiny square where grew a huge banyan tree. They were released from the carrying poles and bound firmly in a sitting position to the torus roots of the banyan. For a time the natives crowded curiously about them, whispering,

A view of the Canadian exhibit at the Century of Progress Exhibition. Chicago. This exhibit, which has been highly commended by both American and Canadian business men and members of the Exhibition directorate, was prepared by the Dominion Government, in co-ojxration with the two great railway systems, the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Railways. The exhibition features Canadian national re-

ejaculating, tapping their gourd aprons. Presently the crowd thinned and the whites were left alone with a few bored guards.

"I’ve done it now ! I’ve done it now !” The words were a beating refrain in Ann’s mind. “I’ve wrecked Trevor’s work again. He’ll never forgive me. That fool luck of mine has let me down badly this time.”

In the shadow of that tragedy her present plight seemed vague and unimportant. Whatever these natives did to her could be no worse than what she herself had done. She glanced at her husband. He was sitting motionless, his lips a thin, bitter line, his brown eyes glum. She had seen that look on his face once before. The day when he had left her to come out to this savage land.

She stirred restlessly. The packed earth was hard, there was an irritating trickle of sweat running down her back and her shirt clung damply to her flesh. Her eyes stung with a flux of perspiration which she could not wipe away. Her whole body was beginning to prickle and itch with a thousand tiny irritations.

“Trevor,” she said softly.

"Well?” He said, and his glance scorched and withered.

“What are they going to do to us?”

“Heaven knows. Something unpleasant, you may be sure. And it’ll serve you right !” he burst out.

“I’m sorry,” she said humbly. “Frightfully sorry.”

"Sorry!” The word burned and stung as he repeated it. “That’s a wonderful consolation. You come here and smash up the best work of my life and say you’re sorry. And you think that’s enough. I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my life, but the worst of the lot was when I married you.”

Ann felt a bright seed of anger begin to sprout far down inside her. Trevor was going a bit too far. He had a right to be angry, of course, but there was no excuse for his use of such a tone, of such words. She compressed her lips and fell silent.

Night pounced upon the village. There was a brief flare of crimson sunset against which the jungle stood up like a black, crenulated wall. Then velvet darkness and stars gleaming far up among the leaves of the banyan. There was a shrieking of countless

sources and its rail and steamship facilities, and is proving effective in advertising Canada to the tourist trade. The feature of the exhibition is a great map which appears as its background. This map is the biggest ever produced in Canada. It is 30 feet in heighth by 130 feet in width, and more than 750 pounds of color was used in its painting. A detail of the famous Royal Canadian Police are on duty at all times.

birds as they sought their perches for the night, the rattle of beetles on the trees and the shrill cry of the great fruit bats. In the distance was the hoarse cough of alligators and the whining song of a hungry panther.

A fire sprang up and carved a w ide circle in the dark. The countless roots of the banyan moved in and out of the shadow’s in a noiseless, ponderous dance. In the tambarans the great, slotted drums began a slow rumbling.

Ann felt a sudden thrill of fear. Her stomach w’as a hollow shell holding a ball of ice. She remembered what she had heard back in Port Moresby of these Sepik bushmen and their fiendish cruelties. They would rack and rend her body with horrible torments that would last throughout the w’hole night. Her mind recoiled from such thoughts.

She glanced at Trevor and found his eyes fixed upon her in a savage scrutiny. She managed a wan smile.

“I guess we’re for it,” she said through stiff lips.

He nodded.

“You’ve asked for it, you know. If you’d stayed where you belonged this would never have happened. You’ve tried that luck of yours once too often, my girl.”

The little bright seed of anger inside her was, suddenly, a sturdy plant. Trevor had said too much this time. He seemed to be enjoying her plight. Certainly he was blaming her for the whole mess. Another Adam, she thought. And she had only been trying to do the right thing. He might at least appreciate that and show a little consideration. Instead, he sat there and glowered at her. Probably he w'as waiting for her to break, to grovel wdth fear. Well, she would deny him that satisfaction. She w'ould show him that the metal of her spirit w'as as fine and tempered as his own. She pursed her lips and began to whistle. A little, lilting, mocking tune.

SHE SAW a shadow of puzzlement film his eyes. She w’histled on and on while her gaze ran over the dim circle of squatting savages who crouched just beyond the rim of firelight and watched her with gleaming, inimical eyes.

She broke off suddenly.

“Join in,” she invited. “Let’s have a concert. We’ve nothing else to do -just yet.”

His body stiffened.

"For heaven’s sake, Ann, don’t you realize what we’re up against? When the moon gets up these devils mean to torture us!”

“Well, well.” Her voice was coolly casual. That would make Trevor writhe. “Well, let that take care of itself. Just now I feel frivolous. Let’s whistle a duet.”

“Oh, very well,” he said, after he had regarded her strangely for a long time.

They whistled "In The Good Old Summertime.” Ann chuckled to herself. She could see Trevor watching her anxiously. “Thinks I’m off my chump,” she told herself. “I’ll show him.”

She began to sing in her clear contralto. The melody was a thread of silver weaving among the dark notes of the drums. The crowd of natives swayed and muttered. A witch doctor, his body a ghastly white with smeared chalk, stood stock-still, his head cocked to one side.

A gleam of silver touched the hombill carvings on the roof of the tambarans. The stain seeped down and down. Then the moon cleared the palisade of jungle and rode up into the sky. Ann felt her breath catch in her throat.

But Trevor was singing now. His baritone blended with her contralto in a torrent of sound as clear and silver as the moonlight. Their voices rollicked across the silent night so that one by one the great drums grew muted, as the drummers came oat to look upon this strange pair who faced death with a song on their lips.

Ann laughed hysterically at the picture they must present. She was half-mad already. But Trevor was learning that she had nerves which were as strong as his own;

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They sang on and on. They ran through songs they knew and vamped others but halfremembered. They repeated their repertoire. And the squatting savages, huddled in an enigmatic circle, were hushed and motionless The witch doctors grouped together and muttered in low tones.

They finished a song and fell abruptly silent. Ann felt terribly tired, she was suddenly drained of all vitality, exhausted. Her mind was numb with the desire to sleep. 11er perilous surroundings were vague and dim, all but forgotten.

“I’m sleepy, Trevor,” she muttered. “Don’t want to sing any more. Just sleep. Good night.”

Her head drooped.

“Good night, Ann,” she heard him say softly.

Then she reeled down into nothingness.

stronger maybe, she thought, watching the drawn whiteness of his face. If she could keep it up a while longer, if she could conceal from him her sick fear of torture and death, she would have gained something. Trevor would learn that the woman he had cast aside was fine metal to the very core. He might regret what he had done And that would be a torture more exquisite than any which the bushmen might devise.

The moon towered up into the zenith trailing a blown scarf of stars behind it. A slender rod of light felt its way through the leaves and lit her face, enveloping her head in a shimmering líalo. The man beside her sat motionless, his eyes intent and hungry as they lingered on her pale beauty.

ANN OPENED her eyes on a grey world , of mist. Dawn shot across the sky in a gush of scarlet flame. Monkeys and parrots were stirring and grumbling. A leatherneck screeched.

For a long time she sat motionless, her mind dazed and unable to fully comprehend.

Then, with a swift shock, she saw' Trevor’s dark head close beside hers. Understanding flooded over her. She remembered. And she saw that she was no longer bound, that Trevor was not bound. She came incredulously to her feet.

Trevor’s eyes opened and fixed upon her. He sprang to his feet and caught her in his arms. They kissed.

“But I don’t understand,” Ann said, her glance roving wonderingly about the empty village. “What’s happened? Why are we free?"

“You did it,” he told her. "You were wonderful last night. The way you sang . . . The natives watched you. They saw

that you were without fear, that you behaved as no human facing torture would behave. They could only explain that by the supposition that you were a goddess or a demon whom no hand of man could harm. And when you sang they knew' that you were a goddess. I told you they were a strange folk, superstitious; their minds working in strange ways. When they were sure that you were a goddess they were afraid that you might be offended at the way you had been treated. So, while you slept, they cut our bonds and begged me to intercede with you on their behalf. I promised to do what I could.”

Ann shook her head.

“I can’t understand it yet,” she said. “It seems that singing saved our lives. But 1 only sang to show you that I had just as much nerve as you, that it was a mistake for you to be without me. You were so calm and hard and utterly without fear, while I was in a blue funk. I hated you for it.” “You? In a funk! I never dreamed it. I was scared stiff and I was hating you because you seemed to have so much more courage than I. The male vanity was hurt. I simply couldn’t break down before you.”

Suddenly they both laughed.

"I suppose,” Trevor remarked, “the world would call us very brave.”

Maclean's Magazine, November I, 1933

“Perhaps most bravery is just being afraid to show fear,” Ann said wisely. “I know mine is.”

Trevor pondered that.

“Shall we go to my place and have a bit of breakfast?" he suggested at last. “There are all sorts of gifts there for you. The natives want you to stay with them forever.” Ann’s eyes asked him a question. He nodded. “I couldn’t do without you,” he said. "I’ve only just learned how much I love and want you.” “I’ll stay,” Ann told him. “It’s what I came here for. This time it will last.”

Trevor raised his arm in the air and made

a sweeping gesture.

Instantly the great drums in the tambaran?, burst into a triumphant rolling. The sound went out and out across the trackless miles of fever-haunted jungle. Her old world was very far away, Ann thought, and smiled. But this new world was a place of magic. Her luck had not failed her after all. It had served her well, that proverbial luck. It was her priceless talisman. Through its aid she had attained to her heart’s desire. She paid it a long moment of silent tribute, then turned to her husband.

“I’d like to see our home,” she said softly, and took Trevor’s hand in hers.