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MAX BRAND
[FREDERICK FAUST]

WHISTLE THRICE

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First published in All-American Fiction, February 1938

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
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All-American Fiction, February 1938, with "Whistle Thrice"



Illustration


Illustration

AT three o'clock Jones had lunch. After that he lounged in the shade, vaguely wondering when mosquito-time would begin, watching the tree shadows on the farther margin of the lake with the white feet of the birches stepping out before the rest, and dimly concerned as to whether he would go out in the boat or simply remain where he was and do some bait-casting from the rocky point. This mild quandary put him to sleep; when be wakened, he found himself in a moment of mysterious and silent beauty. No whisper came from the trees; not a frog croaked; and never a ripple stirred on the golden lake.

Jones, sitting up, felt his spirit journeying deep into this moment of delight and far from the vision of Gorilla Smith, the head of his firm, whose voice had entered the dream of Jones and brought with it all the hot uproar of Manhattan's summer.

A fisherman loves silence but he always uses it. Jones, as he felt the sunset quiet sifting down around him, automatically reached for his rod.

Illustration

A small island lay like an ornament of jade on the golden breast of the lake, and at the tip of the island appeared a soft design of lily pads exactly such as small-mouth bass delight in. Jones cast toward it but his eagerness made him overshoot the mark, bearing a little to the left, so that the bait splashed just past the end of the island.

What followed brought him startled to his feet. A tremendous tension set the line quivering; there was a great thrashing of water; and then a girl's voice cried:

"Cut the line! You've caught me by the hair!"

But Jones kept the rod bent with the power of his strong wrist. He began to reel in, and something came around the end of the island, still striking the water into a smother, a wavering brightness just beneath the surface of the lake. At a point where rushes lifted well above the lip of the water and made a semi-transparent screen, the figure was stayed.

"This is a private lake," said Jones to the invisible figure. "What are you doing here?"

"Curse the lake! There's not much privacy about it," answered the voice. "How long have you been over there, peeping?"

"I've just waked up," said Jones. "Stop trying to break my line."


THE efforts ended with an exclamation. "I've cut my hand on that infernal leader!" she cried. "Pay out some slack and let me get back to my island, will you?"

"Your island?" said Jones. "What are you? A mermaid or a siren or what?"

"No matter what I am, I've got to get out of here," she told him.

"You're a trespasser," said Jones. "Come on in and we'll talk it over."

"I tell you, I can't be seen!"

"You're not as invisible as all that." said Jones. "I had a glimpse."

"What?" cried a voice of agony.

"Dimly—under the water," said Jones. "Haven't you anything on at all?"

"What do mermaids and sirens generally have on?" she demanded with anger.

"Naturally," said Jones.

"Are you going to pay out some slack?" she asked. "Are you going to let me out of this?"

"This is the only luck I've had for years," said Jones. "Why should I let go of it?"

"Do you mean, actually...?" she said.

"I actually do," said Jones.

"Exactly what sort of luck do you have in mind?" she asked.

"You can find it in a lot of the old books," said Jones. "The fisherman who catches a water-spirit always gets his wish."

There was a pause.

"What wish?" asked the voice behind the rushes.

"By your voice, you're a siren," said Jones. "And a first-rate siren ought to be able to grant quite a wish while she's about it."

"I'm not the kind of a siren you have in mind," said she. "When sailors hear my song, it makes them homesick, and they go away."

"You've never sung to my kind of sailor before," said Jones, "I intend to stay. I like your sort of music. What are you paying if I let you go?"

"Will you tell me in two words what you're driving at?" asked the siren. "What do you want?"

"I only want to be made an emperor, or something like that," said Jones.

"Oh, that's quite simple," said the siren.

"What can you make me emperor of?" asked Jones.

"Whatever you please. Russia, for instance," she told him.

"Russia isn't an empire any more," said Jones.

"That's true. I forgot," said the siren.

"I don't suppose you keep in touch with history," he replied.

"Ever know a siren that did?" she asked.

"True," said Jones. "But what other empire have you in mind?"

"How about Ethiopia?" she asked.

"It would fit me," said Jones, "like old shoes."

"It's yours then," said the siren, "unless I think of something better in the meantime.... Will you pay out some slack now?"

"Certainly," said the emperor, and let the line run.

The gold had vanished from the lake, by this time, and a twilight wind was speaking quietly to the trees when sudden exclamations came from the rushes. "That wretched bait is so tangled that I'll have to cut it out of my hair!" cried the siren.

The line pulled taut.

"Shall I bring a knife out to you?" asked Jones.

"Certainly not!" she answered.

"Will you come and get it, then?" said he.

"Good heavens, no!" said the siren. "What can I do?"

"You could make yourself invisible," said Jones.

"I wish you wouldn't talk like a complete idiot," she answered.

"Or we can wait till it's dark," said Jones.

"Does it ever get that dark?" she asked.

"Certainly," said Jones, "to near-sighted people like me."

"There's nothing wrong with your eyes," said the siren.

"An incurable astigmatism." said Jones, "with a cast in the left eye and a cataract on the right. That's why I missed the lily pads and hit your hair."

"Well," said the siren, sadly, "I don't suppose there's anything else for it. I'll be hideously late for dinner."

"Where do you live?" asked Jones.

"In the sea, of course," said the siren.

"Naturally," agreed Jones, "But how do you happen to be in a lake?"

"Sirens are very much like salmon," said she, "Part of our life is spent in the salt, and part in the fresh water."

"I understand," said Jones. "The purpose for which salmon ascend rivers is...."

"I wish it were dark!" said the siren.

"To all intents and purposes," said Jones, "I already hardly can see my hand before my face."

"I haven't the slightest faith in your intents." said the siren, "but it's getting terribly cold."

"It really won't grow any darker to speak of," said Jones, "You can see where that half-moon is rising."

"Great heavens!" said the siren.

"Ah," said Jones, "do sirens have a heaven?"

"Certainly," she answered.

"The angels must make very pretty fish," said Jones.

"They're no more fishy than others," said the siren. "Will you tell me what on earth I can do?"

Jones took off his coat, laid it on a rock, and turned his back.

"I am looking in an opposite direction," he assured her.

"Well...." said the siren, desperately, and presently water sounds began to splash toward the shore. A faint noise of dripping rustled on the rocks just behind Jones. He sighed.

"All right," said the siren.


HE turned. His coat covered most of her. Besides, it really was quite dark, so that he stuck his fingers painfully when he set to work on the disentangling of the barbs of the bait. He was only sure of one thing, which was that the siren was trembling, and yet the air still kept the warmth of the summer day.

"What color is your hair?" asked the emperor.

"Green," said the siren.

"It would be, of course," said Jones, "The bright glints in it must be moonshine; or some of the sunset gold, perhaps. What's your name?"

"Sirens don't have names," she answered.

"I mean, your father's name," said Jones.

"Sirens don't have fathers," she replied.

"What the devil do they do, then?" asked Jones.

"It's all a matter of parthenogenesis, with us," she answered.

"As with the rotifers?" he suggested.

"Yes, or some of the hymenoptera," she said. "What is your name?"

"Since I'm an emperor," said Jones, "only my first name counts. You can think of me as the Emperor Dexter."

"Are you the Dexter Jones who played in the golf tournament?" she asked.

"What have sirens to do with golf?" said Jones.

"We walk invisible on grass," she said, "unless someone has caught us by the hair with a fish-bait."

"If you walk invisible," said Jones, "maybe you laid me that stymie at the seventh hole. By the way, I suppose that I can see you again whenever I want to?"

"What makes you think so?" asked the siren.

"In the book," said Jones, "all the fisherman has to do is to come to the water's-edge and whistle thrice, at the same hour. Would you rise from the sea?"

"I won't know till I hear the whistle," said the siren.

"Ah, there we are," said Jones, and finally removed the bait from the tangle of hair.

"May I borrow that boat and the coat while I row back to the island?" she asked.

"Take everything you want," said Jones,

She rowed the boat away on silent oars and did not return. After a half hour, he whistled thrice but there was no answer, so Jones went back to the hotel, ate a solitary meal, and then sat for hours in the moonlight until it began to enter his brain, storing away bale after bale of the gossamer stuff out of which dreams are woven.


THE next morning, nothing happened, but in the afternoon he received a letter neatly typewritten and without a signature.

My dear Emperor,

When I had a chance to think things over, I saw that Ethiopia was not half good enough and I decided on a much more famous empire. I enclose your insignia which all your subjects will be able to recognize at once.


That was all the note contained except for the enclosure, which consisted of a little square fragment of worn tapestry on which appeared a capital "N" with the golden bees of Napoleon crawling over it. Jones put the "insignia" in his pocket and went, at sunset, to the shore of the lake again. He waited until the gold had slid away from the water and the images of the tree had drawn back from the margin of the lake before he whistled thrice.


THEN he listened with bent head and his back to the beach, staring into the tree-shadows until something bumped against the rocks of the little point. Turning, be saw the dim outline of a rowboat, together with a bundle on one seat that might be his coat. Nearby he saw the slim shadow of a canoe, with one gleam beside it where the paddle dipped.

"Ah, there you are again," said Jones.

"Yes, Imperial Majesty," said the siren.

Illustration

"One of these days you'll catch the devil for poaching on this lake," said Jones.

"Why? Who owns it?" asked the siren.

"A hard-boiled old gal called Miss Darnell," said Jones. "Elizabeth Darnell."

"What are you doing hare, then?" demanded the siren.

"I'm invited." said Jones, "because I handle some of her investments now and then."

"If I get into trouble," said the siren, "you can help me out, then."

"Or else you can disappear," said Jones, "the way you did last night."

"It wasn't my fault;" said the siren. "The moon grew too bright, and I dissolved in it, suddenly. Did you need the coat?"

"Not a great deal. When I warn you about Elizabeth Darnell, though, I'm telling you something. She keeps a stable of Great Danes as tall as stags and feeds 'em with the flesh of trespassers, if you know what I mean."

"I could dive into the lake and disappear," said the siren.

"She'd have a warrant waiting for you when you got home," said Jones. "You'd better get that canoe of yours back to your own landing. But wait a minute, I haven't thanked you for the empire."

"You don't find it a little dead, do you?" she asked.

"Not at all," said Jones. "I placed tennis with Murat, and Josephine dropped in for tea this afternoon."

"I thought you'd divorced her," said the siren.

"No. I haven't gone that far in my career," answered Jones. "I'm back there at the Peace of Tilsit, pulling Russia's hair with one hand and punching the nose of Spain with the other and kicking the shopkeepers in the shins in between."

"It must be fun," said the siren.

"Tremendous," said Jones. "By the way, its getting so dark that it's hard to keep my mind on you. Will you come ashore?"

"Why?" asked the siren.

"To talk," said Jones.

"I can talk from here," said the siren.

"My mind keeps wandering, at this distance," said Jones. "And I have important things to say."

"Have you? said the siren,

"There are several subjects I'd like to touch on," said Jones.

"I'm already late for dinner," said the siren. "I have to go, now. And thank you for everything."

"Do you mean you're going to do a fadeout like this?" said Jones. "Do I have to say goodbye?"

"You could whistle thrice some other evening," suggested the siren.

"This is my last evening," said Jones. "I have to go back to work to-morrow."

"I thought you were to emperor," said the siren. "Who can make you do anything?"

"Even emperors have people behind their thrones," said Jones.

"Who's behind yours?" asked the siren.

"Some people call him 'Gorilla Smith' because he has hair on his chest and such a grip on things," said Jones. "He hates New York in the summer heat unless he has someone to kick around. It's my turn to be kicked."

"If I were an emperor," said the siren, "I'd slap him down.... I really have to go, now."

"May I light a match as I say goodbye?" asked Jones.

"And you wearing the cocked hat and riding the white Arab?" she asked

"No, I'm on the Bellerophon sailing into exile," said Jones.

"Good heavens," said the girl, "has Waterloo come and gone?"

"Just now, I think," said Jones.

"Then we'd better say goodbye," said the siren. "I don't want you to see my tears."

There was a faint splash.

"By the way," said Jones, "I forgot to ask for another gift."

"Gift?" said the siren.

"Certainly," said Jones. "Whenever the fisherman whistles thrice he gets whatever he wishes for."

"Very well," said the siren, "what is your wish?"

"Why, a golden treasure, of course," said Jones.

"You shall have it," said the siren.

He did not bear the paddle strokes, but the canoe began to fade into the dark.

"Goodbye," said Jones, "and look for Miss Darnell and the Great Danes!"

"Tell me what she looks like so I'll recognize her," said the siren.

"I've never seen her," said Jones. "You'll know her by her dogs."

Her laughter came through the dark in silvery music.

"Goodbye," she called, and the canoe vanished under the thicker night beside the trees.


JONES went back to the hotel again, ordered a fish dinner, failed to eat it, tried scotch-and-soda for few hours, tried bed for a few hours but could not sleep, and reached ten o'clock the next morning with half an hour to train-time and his suitcases still not closed. Then he came to a pause during which the summer sounds bore drowsily in upon him through the open window with the smell of new hay sweetening the air.

A bellboy brought up his mail. One letter contained a blank fold of paper, and inside the fold lay a paper-thin little horseshoe, of gold. Jones held it for a moment and regarded the empty spaces of the future.

He picked up the telephone and called New York. Presently he was saying: "Hello. Mr. Smith?"

"Hello! Hello! Hello!" rumbled Gorilla Smith. "Why aren't you back here? I expected you yesterday."

"I'm not due till tomorrow," said Jones.

"Then what d'you want, ringing me up?" demanded the Gorilla. "I don't care what the weather is up there and you don't care what the weather is down here. Goodbye!"

"I wanted you to know that I'm extending my vacation," said Jones.

"Extending what? I'm not extending it," said the Gorilla. "I'm cutting it short. Take the next train and get back here on the run."

"I'm not taking the next train," said Jones. "I may not take a train for a week."

He listened to the silence. He could feel it in his heart and in his head. "Are you drunk, or a fool, or only crazy?" shouted the Gorilla.

"I'm simply waking up," said Jones.

"If you've got anything to say, say it!" roared the Gorilla.

"All I have to say is: To hell with you!" said Jones, and hung up.

It was as though he had cut a life-line, or the string of a balloon which now soared into dizzy heights and would burst at any moment. Even in the stillness of his room he felt as though a wind were blowing in his face and through him.

He went over to Jackson Pond and played tennis with Dick Waterson. He played with a singular indifference and clarity of eye and mind. Waterson's flat, acing serve shot bullets into the corners of the service court. He picked those bullets up on his racket and turned them into winners. Waterson's great sliced drive was wiping off the face of the baseline; forehand or backhand, he murdered those drives with a dreamy precision.

"Say, what have you been doing to yourself?" asked Waterson after the second love-set. "Have you gone crazy or something?"

"Yeah, crazy," said Jones.


IN the middle of the afternoon he got back to his hotel. The desk waved him frantically forward. "It's New York again!" called the clerk. "Fourth or fifth time since you've been out. Please hurry!"

"Tell New York I'm in, now," said Jones, "but I'm not interested. I'm going up to my room and don't want to be disturbed."

He went up to his room and slept till dark. Then be got up, ate an omelet for supper, and walked into the night. It was much too late for sirens but his feet carried him of their own volition to Darnell Lake. Whatever wind there was, the trees shut away and the stars lay with untrembling brightness in the still face of the water. A fish broke the surface with a sound like the smacking of wet lips. Far away, deep-voiced dogs were barking.

After a moment, Jones lifted his head from his thoughts and from the empty vision of the future. He whistled thrice.

And she was there.

"I thought you'd never come," said the siren, from behind him; "or else I thought you were clear off there on St. Helena."

"I turned back the hands of the clock," said Jones, "I've grown young and thin; Barras is lifting my star in the East; I've got the army in the mountains; 'beyond the Alps lies Italy!' That's the proclamation I made to the army today."

"And New York?" asked the siren.

"New York? I never heard of it," said Jones. "Or wait—no—isn't that some little town in the English colonies?"

"But the Gorilla?" asked the siren.

"We've said goodbye," said Jones.

"Do you mean that?" asked the siren. "Do you mean," she asked, coming suddenly close to him, "that you've snapped off your career short?"

"My dear," said Jones, "an emperor with a siren and a golden treasure. What more career do I care about?"

"But you haven't done it!" she protested.

Illustration

"I have, though," said Jones. "It came over me that an emperor ought to have higher things to think about than the Stock Market and what Steel is doing and what will the Old Man say?"

"Ah." she said, "there is something wild and delicious about you!"

"Of course there is," said Jones. "There's a siren about me. What's that you're wearing?"

"It's a muslin sort of a fluffy, silly thing," said the siren.

"I mean, the perfume," said Jones. "No, it isn't you: it's the breath off the hay-fields, and the whole green and the coolness of the summer... and you're a lovely thing, you know."

"But you've never seen me," said the siren.

"Certainly not." said Jones, "but I've heard your song, and that's all I'll ever care to see or hear. But wait a moment. There's the moon—you see it coming up like a fire through the trees? I'll see you by that."

"I'll have to go!" said the siren. "Please let me!"

"I'm sorry," said Jones, "I haven't asked for a gift yet, you know."

"Ask for it, then," said the siren.

"I wish," said Jones, "that you should stay here with me until the moon is above the trees,"

"That's a ridiculous wish, for an emperor," she said.

"That's because most emperors know nothing about sirens," said Jones.

While he was standing with her, the deep-throated barking of dogs had been ranging through the woods and now, suddenly, like noise breaking into a room with the opening of a door, the chorus came sweeping upon them,

"Get behind me!" said Jones. "By Harry, the murdering fools have turned the dogs loose in the woods!"


HE saw them then come sweeping out of the shrubbery with their heads close to the ground—as big as young lions—five of them striding like huge shadows over the ground. Their chorus turned into a wild riot of noise as they swerved and came straight toward him.

Jones picked up a chunk of rock and braced himself. If he had been alone, he would have taken to the water, but there was the siren.

"Get back to the lake—dive in!" he ordered.

And then he saw, staggered by the sight of it, that she was running out ahead of him, calling out: "Down. Jim! Down, Bess! Good boys!"

They rose up in a great, tangled wave around her, over her. He saw a monster with forepaws on her shoulders, as tall as a tall man, but there was no question about the joyous nature of their uproar. And she, with a few strokes of the voice, made them drop down, panting, on the ground. Then she came back to Jones.

"You mean to say that those dogs know you?" he asked.

"I'm sorry; it was a horrible shock," she said, "but you were wonderful about it. You were wonderful!"

"Wonderful, my foot!" said Jones. "Are you Elizabeth Darnell, or what?"

"I'm sorry," said she.

"Well," said Jones, "goodbye. I've been a damned fool. I thought—Well, goodbye."

"I thought you were going to stay?" said the siren.

"For what?" asked Jones.

"For the moonrise," she answered.

But it was already there, and the light which first had printed the tree shadows in ink upon the lake now lighted her as far as the bare throat.

"It isn't true," said Jones. "The real you is old and sallow and hard and has a damned snappy, mean voice over the telephone. You're not lovely, and perfect, and glorious, and beautiful like this, are you?"

"Do I please you?" asked the siren. "Ah, that makes me happy!"

When Jones reached the hotel that night the night clerk said: "But if you please—Mr. Jones. I mean singing at this hour of the night...."

"Damn the night! I mean, God bless the night," said Jones. "And here's ten dollars I've been meaning to give you...."

When he got to his room and threw the door open, he was surprised, first, to find the lights were burning, and then in a comer of the room, in a hard, straight-backed chair, he saw a big old man with a sawed-off chunk of grey beard stuck on his chin. He had a mouth made for biting and holding on, not for speech. As he spoke now, he used only half of that grim stretch of lips.

"Now what in blazes is the matter with you?" he demanded. "You blithering young jackass, what do you mean by it? Is it more money you want?"

"Chief," said the emperor, "there's nothing in the whole world that I want. If you were to fence in the whole of Eurasia with a steel fence and offer it to me, I wouldn't take it. I wouldn't need it."

"Then why the devil did you leave me?" asked Gorilla Smith,

"I didn't leave you, did I?" asked Jones happily.

"You're drunk," said the Gorilla, "or else you're crazy."

Jones looked at the ceiling and half closed his eyes. "I want to tell you a wonderful thing. You won't believe it, but it's true. She loves me!"

"The Darnell gal?" asked the Gorilla,

"Yes—loves—" said Jones, reeling slightly. "But how did you know who it was?" he demanded, rallying himself.

"Why do you think I sent you up here, except to marry that account?" demanded the Gorilla,

"Why?" asked Jones. "You—! Marry...."

He stared helplessly at the huge, iron face; he was seeing in it things of which he never before had dreamed.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.