The Eternal Lover

Part I

Chapter II

The Earthquake

Edgar Rice Burroughs

TO HAVE looked at her, merely, you would never have thought Victoria Custer, of Beatrice, Nebraska, at all the sort of girl she really was. Her large dreamy eyes, and the graceful lines of her slender figure gave one an impression of that physical cowardice which we have grown to take for granted as an inherent characteristic of the truly womanly woman. And yet I dare say there were only two things on God’s green earth that Victoria Custer feared, or beneath it or above it, for that matter—mice and earthquakes.

She readily admitted the deadly terror which the former aroused within her; but of earthquakes she seldom if ever would speak. To her brother Barney, her chum and confidant, she had on one or two occasions unburdened her soul.

The two were guests now of Lord and Lady Greystoke upon the Englishman’s vast estate in equatorial Africa, in the country of the Waziri, to which Barney Custer had come to hunt big game—and forget. But all that has nothing to do with this story; nor has John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, who was, once upon a time, Tarzan of the Apes, except that my having chanced to be a guest of his at the same time as the Custers makes it possible for me to give you a story that otherwise might never have been told.

South of Uziri, the country of the Waziri, lies a chain of rugged mountains at the foot of which stretches a broad plain where antelope, zebra, giraffe, rhinos and elephant abound, and here are lion and leopard and hyena preying, each after his own fashion, upon the sleek, fat herds of antelope, zebra and giraffe. Here, too, are buffalo—irritable, savage beasts, more formidable than the lion himself Clayton says.

It is indeed a hunter’s paradise, and scarce a day passed that did not find a party absent from the low, rambling bungalow of the Greystokes in search of game and adventure, nor seldom was it that Victoria Custer failed to be of the party.

Already she had bagged two leopards, in addition to numerous antelope and zebra, and on foot had faced a bull buffalo’s charge, bringing him down with a perfect shot within ten paces of where she stood.

At first she had kept her brother in a state bordering on nervous collapse, for the risks she took were such as few men would care to undertake; but after he had discovered that she possessed perfect coolness in the face of danger, and that the accuracy of her aim was so almost uncanny as to wring unstinted praise from the oldest hunters among them, he commenced to lean a trifle too far in the other direction, so that Victoria was often in positions where she found herself entirely separated from the other members of the party—a compliment to her prowess which she greatly prized, since women and beginners were usually surrounded by precautions and guards through which it was difficult to get within firing distance of any sort of game.

As they were riding homeward one evening after a hunt in the foothills Barney noticed that his sister was unusually quiet, and apparently depressed.

“What’s the matter, Vic?” he asked. “Dead tired, eh?”

The girl looked up with a bright smile, which was immediately followed by an expression of puzzled bewilderment.

“Barney,” she said, after a moment of silence, “there is something about those hills back there that fills me with the strangest sensation of terror imaginable. Today I passed an outcropping of volcanic rock that gave evidence of a frightful convulsion of nature in some bygone age. At sight of it I commenced to tremble from head to foot, a cold perspiration breaking out all over me. But that part is not so strange—you know I have always been subject to these same silly attacks of unreasoning terror at sight of any evidence of the mighty forces that have wrought changes in the earth’s crust, or of the slightest tremor of an earthquake; but today the feeling of unutterable personal loss which overwhelmed me was almost unbearable—it was as though one whom I loved above all others had been taken from me.

“And yet,” she continued, “through all my inexplicable sorrow there shone a ray of brilliant hope as remarkable and unfathomable as the deeper and depressing emotion which still stirred me.”

For some time neither spoke, but rode silently stirrup to stirrup as their ponies picked their ways daintily through the knee high grass. The girl was thinking—trying to puzzle out an explanation of the rather weird sensations which had so recently claimed her. Barney Custer was one of those unusual and delightful people who do not scoff at whatever they cannot understand; the reason, doubtless, that his sister as well as others chose him as the recipient of their confidences. Not understanding her emotion he had nothing to offer, and so remained silent. He was, however, not a little puzzled, as he had always been at each new manifestation of Victoria’s uncanny reaction to every indication of the great upheavals which marked the physical changes in the conformation of the earth’s crust.

He recalled former occasions upon which his sister had confided in him something of similar terrors. Once in The Garden of the Gods, and again during a trip through The Grand Canyon in Arizona, and very vivid indeed was the recollection of Victoria’s nervous collapse following the reading of the press despatches describing the San Francisco earthquake. In all other respects his sister was an exceptionally normal well-balanced young American woman—which fact, doubtless, rendered her one weakness the more apparent.

But Victoria Custer’s terror of earthquakes was not her only peculiarity. The other was her strange contempt for the men who had sued for her hand—and these had been many. Her brother had thought several of them the salt of the earth, and Victoria had liked them, too, but as for loving them? Perish the thought!

Oddly enough recollection of this other phase of her character obtruded itself upon Barney’s memory as the two rode on toward the Clayton bungalow, and with it he recalled a persistent dream which Victoria had said recurred after each reminder of a great convulsion of nature. At the thought he broke the silence.

“Has your-ah-avatar made his customary appearance?” he asked, smiling.

The girl extended her hand toward her brother and laid it on his where it rested upon his thigh as he rode, looking up at him with half frightened, half longing eyes.

“Oh, Barney,” she cried, “you are such a dear never to have laughed at my silly dreams. I’m sure I should go quite mad did I not have you in whom to confide; but lately I have hesitated to speak of it even to you—he has been coming so often! Every night since we first hunted in the vicinity of the hills I have walked hand in hand with him beneath a great equatorial moon beside a restless sea, and more clearly than ever in the past have I seen his form and features. He is very handsome, Barney, and very tall and strong, and clean limbed—I wish that I might meet such a man in real life. I know it is a ridiculous thing to say, but I can never love any of the pusillanimous weaklings who are forever falling in love with me—not after having walked hand in hand with such as he and read the love in his clear eyes. And yet, Barney, I am afraid of him. Is it not odd?”

At this juncture they were joined by other members of the party, so that no further reference to the subject was made by either. At the Claytons they found that an addition had been made to the number of guests by the unheralded advent of two khaki clad young men, one of whom rose and came forward to meet the returning hunters while they were yet a hundred yards away.

He was a tall, athletic appearing man. As Victoria Custer recognized his features she did not know whether to be pleased or angry. Here was the one man she had ever met who came nearest to the realization of her dream-man, and this one of all the others had never spoken a word of love to her. His companion who had now risen from the cool shade of the low veranda was also coming forward, but more slowly, the set of his shoulders and the swing of his stride betokening his military vocation.

“Mr. Curtiss!” exclaimed Victoria, and looking past him, “and Lieutenant Butzow! Where in the world did you come from?”

“The world left us,” replied the officer, smiling, “and we have followed her to the wilds of Equatorial Africa.”

“We found Nebraska a very tame place after you and Barney left,” explained Mr. Curtiss, “and when I discovered that Butzow would accompany me we lost no time in following you, and here we are throwing ourselves upon the mercy and hospitality of Lady Greystoke.”

“I have been trying to convince them,” said that lady, who had now joined the party at the foot of the veranda steps, “that the obligation is all upon our side. It taxes our ingenuity and the generosity of our friends to keep the house even half full of congenial companions.”

It was not until after dinner that night that Mr. William Curtiss had an opportunity to draw Miss Victoria Custer away from the others upon some more or less hazy pretext that he might explain for her ears alone just why he had suddenly found Beatrice, Nebraska, such a desolate place and had realized that it was imperative to the salvation of his life and happiness that he travel half way around the world in search of a certain slender bit of femininity.

This usually self-possessed young man stammered and hesitated like a bashful school boy speaking his Friday afternoon piece; but finally he managed to expel from his system, more or less coherently, the fact that he was very much in love with Victoria Custer, and that he should never again eat or sleep until she had promised to be his wife.

There was a strong appeal to the girl in the masterful thing the man had done in searching her out in the wilds of Africa to tell her of his love, for it seemed that he and Butzow had forced their way with but a handful of carriers through a very savage section of the savage jungle because it was the shortest route from the coast to the Greystoke ranch.

Then there was that about him which appealed to the same attribute of her nature to which the young giant of her dreams appealed—a primitive strength and masterfulness that left her both frightened and happily helpless in the presence of both these strong loves, for the love of her dream man was to Victoria Custer a real and living love.

Curtiss saw assent in the silence which followed his outbreak, and taking advantage of this tacit encouragement, he seized her hands in his and drew her toward him.

“Oh, Victoria,” he whispered, “tell me that thing I wish to hear from your dear lips. Tell me that even a tenth part of my love is returned, and I shall be happy.”

She looked up into his eyes, shining down upon her in the moonlight, and on her lips trembled an avowal of the love she honestly believed she could at last bestow upon the man of her choice. In the past few moments she had thrashed out the question of that other, unreal and intangible love that had held her chained to a dream for years, and in the cold light of twentieth century American rationality she had found it possible to put her hallucinations from her and find happiness in the love of this very real and very earnest young man.

“Billy,” she said, “I,” but she got no further. Even as the words that would have bound her to him were forming upon her tongue there came a low sullen rumbling from the bowels of the earth—the ground rose and fell beneath them as the swell of the sea rises and falls. Then there came a violent trembling and shaking and a final deafening crash in the distance that might have accompanied the birth of mountain ranges.

With a little moan of terror the girl drew away from Curtiss, and then, before he could restrain her, she had turned and fled toward the bungalow. At the veranda steps she was met by the other members of the house party, and by the Greystokes and numerous servants who had rushed out at the first premonition of the coming shock.

Barney Custer saw his sister running toward the house, and knowing her terror of such phenomena ran to meet her. Close behind her came Curtiss, just in time to see the girl swoon in her brother’s arms. Barney carried her to her room, where Lady Greystoke, abandoning the youthful “Jack” to his black mammy, Esmeralda, ministered to her.

The Eternal Lover - Contents    |     Part I - Chapter III - Nu, the Sleeper Awakes

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