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“On the contrary,” said Gardiner, “lightning very often strikes twice in the same place, and often three times. The so-called all-wise Providence is still in the experimental stage. My grandmother, for instance, presented my grandfather with fifteen children: seven live sons and eight dead daughters. That’s when the lightning had fun with itself. And when the epidemic of ophthalmia broke out in the Straits Settlements, what class of people do you suppose developed the highest percentage of total loss of sight in one or both eyes?–why the inmates of the big asylum for the deaf and dumb in Singapore: twenty per cent of those poor stricken souls went stone blind. Then what do you think the lightning did? Set the blooming asylum on fire and burned it to the ground. And then, I dare say, the elements retired to some region of waste, off in space somewhere, and sat down and thundered with laughter. But it wasn’t through with the deaf and dumb, and blind, and roofless even then. It was decided by government, which is the next most irresponsible instrument to lightning, to transfer the late inmates of the asylum to a remantled barrack in the salubrious Ceylon hills; and they were put aboard a ram-shackle, single-screw steamer named the Nerissa. She was wrecked–“

“Coast of Java–in ’80, wasn’t it?” said Pedder, who has read nothing but dictionaries and books of black-and-white facts and statistics in the course of a long life otherwise entirely devoted to misdirected efforts to defeat Colonel Bogey at golf.

“It was,” said Gardiner, “and the lightning was very busy striking. It drowned off every member of the crew who had any sense of decency; and of the deaf and dumb passengers selected to be washed ashore a pair who were also blind. Those saved came to land at a jungly stretch of coast, dented by a slow-running creek. The crew called the place Quickstep Inlet because of the panicky and inhuman haste in which they left it.”

“Why inhuman?” asked Ludlow.

“Because,” said Gardiner, “they only gave about one look at their two comrades in misfortune who were deaf, and dumb, and blind, and decided that it was impracticable to attempt to take them along. I suppose they were right. I suppose it would have been the devil’s own job. The really nasty part was that the crew made a secret of it, and when some of them, having passed through the Scylla and Charybdis of fright and fever, and foul water, and wild beasts, reached a settlement they didn’t say a word about the two unfortunates who had been deliberately abandoned.”

“How was it found out then?” Pedder asked.

“Years and years afterward by the ravings in liquor of one of the crew, and by certain things that I’d like to tell you if you’d be interested.”

“Go on,” said Ludlow.

“The important thing,” said Gardiner, “is that the pair were deserted–not why they were deserted, or how it was found out that they had been. And one thing–speaking of lightning and Providence–is very important. If the pair hadn’t been blind, if the asylum hadn’t been burned, if the Nerissa hadn’t been wrecked, and if the crew hadn’t deserted them–they would never in this world have had an opportunity to lift to their lips the cup of human happiness and drink it off.

“The man did not know that he had been deserted. He vaguely understood that there had been a shipwreck and that he had been washed ashore–alone, he thought. When he got hungry he began to crawl round and round with his hands in front of his face feeling for something to eat, trying and approving of one handful of leaves and spitting out another. But thirst began to torment him, and then, all of a sudden, he went souse into the creek that there emptied into the sea. That way of life went on for several days. And all the while, the woman, just as she had come ashore, was keeping life going similarly–crawling about, always near the creek, crossing the beach at low tide to the mud flats and rooting among the mollusks, and stuffing herself with any kind of sea-growth that tasted good enough. The two were probably often within a few feet of each other; and they might have lived out their lives that way without either of them ever having the least idea that he or she was not the only human being in that part of the world. But something–pure accident or some subtle instinct–brought them together. The man was out crawling with one hand before his face–so was the woman. Their hands met, and clinched. They remained thus, and trembling, for a long time. From that time until the day of their death, years and years later, they never for so much as one moment lost contact with each other.