by H. G. Wells
The man with the scarred face leant over the table and looked at my
"Orchids?" he asked.
"A few," I said.
"Cypripediums," he said.
"Chiefly," said I.
"Anything new? I thought not. I did these islands twenty-five—
twenty-seven years ago. If you find anything new here—well, it's brand
new. I didn't leave much."
"I'm not a collector," said I.
"I was young then," he went on. "Lord! how I used to fly round." He seemed
to take my measure. "I was in the East Indies two years, and in Brazil
seven. Then I went to Madagascar."
"I know a few explorers by name," I said, anticipating a yarn. "Whom did
you collect for?"
"Dawson's. I wonder if you've heard the name of Butcher ever?"
"Butcher—Butcher?" The name seemed vaguely present in my memory;
then I recalled Butcher v. Dawson. "Why!" said I, "you are the
man who sued them for four years' salary—got cast away on a desert
"Your servant," said the man with the scar, bowing. "Funny case, wasn't
it? Here was me, making a little fortune on that island, doing nothing
for it neither, and them quite unable to give me notice. It often used
to amuse me thinking over it while I was there. I did calculations of
it—big—all over the blessed atoll in ornamental figuring."
"How did it happen?" said I. "I don't rightly remember the case."
"Well… You've heard of the AEpyornis?"
"Rather. Andrews was telling me of a new species he was working on only a
month or so ago. Just before I sailed. They've got a thigh bone, it seems,
nearly a yard long. Monster the thing must have been!"
"I believe you," said the man with the scar. "It was a monster.
Sindbad's roc was just a legend of 'em. But when did they find these
"Three or four years ago—'91, I fancy. Why?"
"Why? Because I found them—Lord!—it's nearly twenty years ago. If
Dawson's hadn't been silly about that salary they might have made a
perfect ring in 'em… I couldn't help the infernal boat going
He paused. "I suppose it's the same place. A kind of swamp about ninety
miles north of Antananarivo. Do you happen to know? You have to go to it
along the coast by boats. You don't happen to remember, perhaps?"
"I don't. I fancy Andrews said something about a swamp."
"It must be the same. It's on the east coast. And somehow there's
something in the water that keeps things from decaying. Like creosote it
smells. It reminded me of Trinidad. Did they get any more eggs? Some of
the eggs I found were a foot-and-a-half long. The swamp goes circling
round, you know, and cuts off this bit. It's mostly salt, too. Well…
What a time I had of it! I found the things quite by accident. We went for
eggs, me and two native chaps, in one of those rum canoes all tied
together, and found the bones at the same time. We had a tent and
provisions for four days, and we pitched on one of the firmer places. To
think of it brings that odd tarry smell back even now. It's funny work.
You go probing into the mud with iron rods, you know. Usually the egg gets
smashed. I wonder how long it is since these AEpyornises really lived. The
missionaries say the natives have legends about when they were alive, but
I never heard any such stories myself.[*] But certainly those eggs we got
were as fresh as if they had been new laid. Fresh! Carrying them down to
the boat one of my nigger chaps dropped one on a rock and it smashed. How
I lammed into the beggar! But sweet it was, as if it was new laid, not
even smelly, and its mother dead these four hundred years, perhaps. Said a
centipede had bit him. However, I'm getting off the straight with the
story. It had taken us all day to dig into the slush and get these eggs
out unbroken, and we were all covered with beastly black mud, and
naturally I was cross. So far as I knew they were the only eggs that have
ever been got out not even cracked. I went afterwards to see the ones they
have at the Natural History Museum in London; all of them were cracked and
just stuck together like a mosaic, and bits missing. Mine were perfect,
and I meant to blow them when I got back. Naturally I was annoyed at the
silly duffer dropping three hours' work just on account of a centipede. I
hit him about rather."
[Footnote *: No European is known to have seen a live AEpyornis, with the
doubtful exception of MacAndrew, who visited Madagascar in 1745.—H.G.W.]
The man with the scar took out a clay pipe. I placed my pouch before him.
He filled up absent-mindedly.
"How about the others? Did you get those home? I don't remember—"
"That's the queer part of the story. I had three others. Perfectly fresh
eggs. Well, we put 'em in the boat, and then I went up to the tent to make
some coffee, leaving my two heathens down by the beach—the one fooling
about with his sting and the other helping him. It never occurred to me
that the beggars would take advantage of the peculiar position I was in to
pick a quarrel. But I suppose the centipede poison and the kicking I had
given him had upset the one—he was always a cantankerous sort—and he
persuaded the other.
"I remember I was sitting and smoking and boiling up the water over a
spirit-lamp business I used to take on these expeditions. Incidentally I
was admiring the swamp under the sunset. All black and blood-red it was,
in streaks—a beautiful sight. And up beyond the land rose grey and hazy
to the hills, and the sky behind them red, like a furnace mouth. And fifty
yards behind the back of me was these blessed heathen—quite regardless of
the tranquil air of things—plotting to cut off with the boat and leave me
all alone with three days' provisions and a canvas tent, and nothing to
drink whatsoever beyond a little keg of water. I heard a kind of yelp
behind me, and there they were in this canoe affair—it wasn't properly a
boat—and, perhaps, twenty yards from land. I realised what was up in a
moment. My gun was in the tent, and, besides, I had no bullets—only duck
shot. They knew that. But I had a little revolver in my pocket, and I
pulled that out as I ran down to the beach.
"'Come back!' says I, flourishing it.
"They jabbered something at me, and the man that broke the egg jeered. I
aimed at the other—because he was unwounded and had the paddle, and I
missed. They laughed. However, I wasn't beat. I knew I had to keep cool,
and I tried him again and made him jump with the whang of it. He didn't
laugh that time. The third time I got his head, and over he went, and the
paddle with him. It was a precious lucky shot for a revolver. I reckon it
was fifty yards. He went right under. I don't know if he was shot, or
simply stunned and drowned. Then I began to shout to the other chap to
come back, but he huddled up in the canoe and refused to answer. So I
fired out my revolver at him and never got near him.
"I felt a precious fool, I can tell you. There I was on this rotten, black
beach, flat swamp all behind me, and the flat sea, cold after the sun set,
and just this black canoe drifting steadily out to sea. I tell you I
damned Dawson's and Jamrach's and Museums and all the rest of it just to
rights. I bawled to this nigger to come back, until my voice went up into
"There was nothing for it but to swim after him and take my luck with the
sharks. So I opened my clasp-knife and put it in my mouth, and took off
my clothes and waded in. As soon as I was in the water I lost sight of
the canoe, but I aimed, as I judged, to head it off. I hoped the man in it
was too bad to navigate it, and that it would keep on drifting in the
same direction. Presently it came up over the horizon again to the
south-westward about. The afterglow of sunset was well over now and the
dim of night creeping up. The stars were coming through the blue. I swum
like a champion, though my legs and arms were soon aching.
"However, I came up to him by the time the stars were fairly out. As it
got darker I began to see all manner of glowing things in the water—
phosphorescence, you know. At times it made me giddy. I hardly knew which
was stars and which was phosphorescence, and whether I was swimming on my
head or my heels. The canoe was as black as sin, and the ripple under the
bows like liquid fire. I was naturally chary of clambering up into it. I
was anxious to see what he was up to first. He seemed to be lying cuddled
up in a lump in the bows, and the stern was all out of water. The thing
kept turning round slowly as it drifted—-kind of waltzing, don't you
know. I went to the stern and pulled it down, expecting him to wake up.
Then I began to clamber in with my knife in my hand, and ready for a rush.
But he never stirred. So there I sat in the stern of the little canoe,
drifting away over the calm phosphorescent sea, and with all the host of
the stars above me, waiting for something to happen.
"After a long time I called him by name, but he never answered. I was too
tired to take any risks by going along to him. So we sat there. I fancy I
dozed once or twice. When the dawn came I saw he was as dead as a doornail
and all puffed up and purple. My three eggs and the bones were lying in
the middle of the canoe, and the keg of water and some coffee and biscuits
wrapped in a Cape Argus by his feet, and a tin of methylated spirit
underneath him. There was no paddle, nor, in fact, anything except the
spirit-tin that I could use as one, so I settled to drift until I was
picked up. I held an inquest on him, brought in a verdict against some
snake, scorpion, or centipede unknown, and sent him overboard.
"After that I had a drink of water and a few biscuits, and took a look
round. I suppose a man low down as I was don't see very far; leastways,
Madagascar was clean out of sight, and any trace of land at all. I saw a
sail going south-westward—looked like a schooner but her hull never came
up. Presently the sun got high in the sky and began to beat down upon me.
Lord! it pretty near made my brains boil. I tried dipping my head in the
sea, but after a while my eye fell on the Cape Argus, and I lay
down flat in the canoe and spread this over me. Wonderful things these
newspapers! I never read one through thoroughly before, but it's odd what
you get up to when you're alone, as I was. I suppose I read that blessed
old Cape Argus twenty times. The pitch in the canoe simply reeked
with the heat and rose up into big blisters.
"I drifted ten days," said the man with the scar. "It's a little thing in
the telling, isn't it? Every day was like the last. Except in the morning
and the evening I never kept a look-out even—the blaze was so infernal. I
didn't see a sail after the first three days, and those I saw took no
notice of me. About the sixth night a ship went by scarcely half a mile
away from me, with all its lights ablaze and its ports open, looking like
a big firefly. There was music aboard. I stood up and shouted and screamed
at it. The second day I broached one of the AEpyornis eggs, scraped the
shell away at the end bit by bit, and tried it, and I was glad to find it
was good enough to eat. A bit flavoury—not bad, I mean—but with
something of the taste of a duck's egg. There was a kind of circular
patch, about six inches across, on one side of the yoke, and with streaks
of blood and a white mark like a ladder in it that I thought queer, but I
did not understand what this meant at the time, and I wasn't inclined to
be particular. The egg lasted me three days, with biscuits and a drink of
water. I chewed coffee berries too—invigorating stuff. The second egg I
opened about the eighth day, and it scared me."
The man with the scar paused. "Yes," he said, "developing."
"I daresay you find it hard to believe. I did, with the thing
before me. There the egg had been, sunk in that cold black mud, perhaps
three hundred years. But there was no mistaking it. There was the—what is
it?—embryo, with its big head and curved back, and its heart beating
under its throat, and the yolk shrivelled up and great membranes spreading
inside of the shell and all over the yolk. Here was I hatching out the
eggs of the biggest of all extinct birds, in a little canoe in the midst
of the Indian Ocean. If old Dawson had known that! It was worth four
years' salary. What do you think?
"However, I had to eat that precious thing up, every bit of it, before I
sighted the reef, and some of the mouthfuls were beastly unpleasant. I
left the third one alone. I held it up to the light, but the shell was too
thick for me to get any notion of what might be happening inside; and
though I fancied I heard blood pulsing, it might have been the rustle in
my own ears, like what you listen to in a seashell.
"Then came the atoll. Came out of the sunrise, as it were, suddenly, close
up to me. I drifted straight towards it until I was about half a mile from
shore, not more, and then the current took a turn, and I had to paddle as
hard as I could with my hands and bits of the AEpyornis shell to make the
place. However, I got there. It was just a common atoll about four miles
round, with a few trees growing and a spring in one place, and the lagoon
full of parrot-fish. I took the egg ashore and put it in a good place,
well above the tide lines and in the sun, to give it all the chance I
could, and pulled the canoe up safe, and loafed about prospecting. It's
rum how dull an atoll is. As soon as I had found a spring all the interest
seemed to vanish. When I was a kid I thought nothing could be finer or
more adventurous than the Robinson Crusoe business, but that place was as
monotonous as a book of sermons. I went round finding eatable things and
generally thinking; but I tell you I was bored to death before the first
day was out. It shows my luck—the very day I landed the weather changed.
A thunderstorm went by to the north and flicked its wing over the island,
and in the night there came a drencher and a howling wind slap over us. It
wouldn't have taken much, you know, to upset that canoe.
"I was sleeping under the canoe, and the egg was luckily among the sand
higher up the beach, and the first thing I remember was a sound like a
hundred pebbles hitting the boat at once, and a rush of water over my
body. I'd been dreaming of Antananarivo, and I sat up and holloaed to
Intoshi to ask her what the devil was up, and clawed out at the chair
where the matches used to be. Then I remembered where I was. There were
phosphorescent waves rolling up as if they meant to eat me, and all the
rest of the night as black as pitch. The air was simply yelling. The
clouds seemed down on your head almost, and the rain fell as if heaven was
sinking and they were baling out the waters above the firmament. One great
roller came writhing at me, like a fiery serpent, and I bolted. Then I
thought of the canoe, and ran down to it as the water went hissing back
again; but the thing had gone. I wondered about the egg then, and felt my
way to it. It was all right and well out of reach of the maddest waves, so
I sat down beside it and cuddled it for company. Lord! what a night that
"The storm was over before the morning. There wasn't a rag of cloud left
in the sky when the dawn came, and all along the beach there were bits of
plank scattered—which was the disarticulated skeleton, so to speak, of my
canoe. However, that gave me something to do, for, taking advantage of two
of the trees being together, I rigged up a kind of storm-shelter with
these vestiges. And that day the egg hatched.
"Hatched, sir, when my head was pillowed on it and I was asleep. I heard a
whack and felt a jar and sat up, and there was the end of the egg pecked
out and a rum little brown head looking out at me. 'Lord!' I said, 'you're
welcome'; and with a little difficulty he came out.
"He was a nice friendly little chap at first, about the size of a small
hen—very much like most other young birds, only bigger. His plumage was a
dirty brown to begin with, with a sort of grey scab that fell off it very
soon, and scarcely feathers—a kind of downy hair. I can hardly express
how pleased I was to see him. I tell you, Robinson Crusoe don't make near
enough of his loneliness. But here was interesting company. He looked at
me and winked his eye from the front backwards, like a hen, and gave a
chirp and began to peck about at once, as though being hatched three
hundred years too late was just nothing. 'Glad to see you, Man Friday!'
says I, for I had naturally settled he was to be called Man Friday if ever
he was hatched, as soon as ever I found the egg in the canoe had
developed. I was a bit anxious about his feed, so I gave him a lump of raw
parrot-fish at once. He took it, and opened his beak for more. I was glad
of that for, under the circumstances, if he'd been at all fanciful, I
should have had to eat him after all.
"You'd be surprised what an interesting bird that AEpyornis chick was. He
followed me about from the very beginning. He used to stand by me and
watch while I fished in the lagoon, and go shares in anything I caught.
And he was sensible, too. There were nasty green warty things, like
pickled gherkins, used to lie about on the beach, and he tried one of
these and it upset him. He never even looked at any of them again.
"And he grew. You could almost see him grow. And as I was never much of a
society man, his quiet, friendly ways suited me to a T. For nearly two
years we were as happy as we could be on that island. I had no business
worries, for I knew my salary was mounting up at Dawsons'. We would see a
sail now and then, but nothing ever came near us. I amused myself, too, by
decorating the island with designs worked in sea-urchins and fancy shells
of various kinds. I put AEPYORNIS ISLAND all round the place very nearly,
in big letters, like what you see done with coloured stones at railway
stations in the old country, and mathematical calculations and drawings of
various sorts. And I used to lie watching the blessed bird stalking round
and growing, growing; and think how I could make a living out of him by
showing him about if I ever got taken off. After his first moult he began
to get handsome, with a crest and a blue wattle, and a lot of green
feathers at the behind of him. And then I used to puzzle whether Dawsons'
had any right to claim him or not. Stormy weather and in the rainy season
we lay snug under the shelter I had made out of the old canoe, and I used
to tell him lies about my friends at home. And after a storm we would go
round the island together to see if there was any drift. It was a kind of
idyll, you might say. If only I had had some tobacco it would have been
simply just like heaven.
"It was about the end of the second year our little paradise went wrong.
Friday was then about fourteen feet high to the bill of him, with a big,
broad head like the end of a pickaxe, and two huge brown eyes with yellow
rims, set together like a man's—not out of sight of each other like a
hen's. His plumage was fine—none of the half-mourning style of your
ostrich—more like a cassowary as far as colour and texture go. And then
it was he began to cock his comb at me and give himself airs, and show
signs of a nasty temper …
"At last came a time when my fishing had been rather unlucky, and he began
to hang about me in a queer, meditative way. I thought he might have been
eating sea-cucumbers or something, but it was really just discontent on
his part. I was hungry too, and when at last I landed a fish I wanted it
for myself. Tempers were short that morning on both sides. He pecked at it
and grabbed it, and I gave him a whack on the head to make him leave go.
And at that he went for me. Lord! …
"He gave me this in the face." The man indicated his scar. "Then he kicked
me. It was like a carthorse. I got up, and seeing he hadn't finished, I
started off full tilt with my arms doubled up over my face. But he ran on
those gawky legs of his faster than a racehorse, and kept landing out at
me with sledgehammer kicks, and bringing his pickaxe down on the back of
my head. I made for the lagoon, and went in up to my neck. He stopped at
the water, for he hated getting his feet wet, and began to make a shindy,
something like a peacock's, only hoarser. He started strutting up and down
the beach. I'll admit I felt small to see this blessed fossil lording it
there. And my head and face were all bleeding, and—well, my body just one
jelly of bruises.
"I decided to swim across the lagoon and leave him alone for a bit, until
the affair blew over. I shinned up the tallest palm-tree, and sat there
thinking of it all. I don't suppose I ever felt so hurt by anything before
or since. It was the brutal ingratitude of the creature. I'd been more
than a brother to him. I'd hatched him, educated him. A great gawky,
out-of-date bird! And me a human being—heir of the ages and all that.
"I thought after a time he'd begin to see things in that light himself,
and feel a little sorry for his behaviour. I thought if I was to catch
some nice little bits of fish, perhaps, and go to him presently in a
casual kind of way, and offer them to him, he might do the sensible thing.
It took me some time to learn how unforgiving and cantankerous an extinct
bird can be. Malice!
"I won't tell you all the little devices I tried to get that bird round
again, I simply can't. It makes my cheek burn with shame even now to think
of the snubs and buffets I had from this infernal curiosity. I tried
violence. I chucked lumps of coral at him from a safe distance, but he
only swallowed them. I shied my open knife at him and almost lost it,
though it was too big for him to swallow. I tried starving him out and
struck fishing, but he took to picking along the beach at low water after
worms, and rubbed along on that. Half my time I spent up to my neck in the
lagoon, and the rest up the palm-trees. One of them was scarcely high
enough, and when he caught me up it he had a regular Bank Holiday with the
calves of my legs. It got unbearable. I don't know if you have ever tried
sleeping up a palm-tree. It gave me the most horrible nightmares. Think of
the shame of it, too! Here was this extinct animal mooning about my island
like a sulky duke, and me not allowed to rest the sole of my foot on the
place. I used to cry with weariness and vexation. I told him straight that
I didn't mean to be chased about a desert island by any damned
anachronisms. I told him to go and peck a navigator of his own age. But he
only snapped his beak at me. Great ugly bird, all legs and neck!
"I shouldn't like to say how long that went on altogether. I'd have killed
him sooner if I'd known how. However, I hit on a way of settling him at
last. It is a South American dodge. I joined all my fishing-lines together
with stems of seaweed and things, and made a stoutish string, perhaps
twelve yards in length or more, and I fastened two lumps of coral rock to
the ends of this. It took me some time to do, because every now and then
I had to go into the lagoon or up a tree as the fancy took me. This I
whirled rapidly round my head, and then let it go at him. The first time I
missed, but the next time the string caught his legs beautifully, and
wrapped round them again and again. Over he went. I threw it standing
waist-deep in the lagoon, and as soon as he went down I was out of the
water and sawing at his neck with my knife …
"I don't like to think of that even now. I felt like a murderer while I
did it, though my anger was hot against him. When I stood over him and saw
him bleeding on the white sand, and his beautiful great legs and neck
writhing in his last agony … Pah!
"With that tragedy loneliness came upon me like a curse. Good Lord! you
can't imagine how I missed that bird. I sat by his corpse and sorrowed
over him, and shivered as I looked round the desolate, silent reef.
I thought of what a jolly little bird he had been when he was hatched, and
of a thousand pleasant tricks he had played before he went wrong.
I thought if I'd only wounded him I might have nursed him round into a
better understanding. If I'd had any means of digging into the coral rock
I'd have buried him. I felt exactly as if he was human. As it was,
I couldn't think of eating him, so I put him in the lagoon, and the little
fishes picked him clean. I didn't even save the feathers. Then one day a
chap cruising about in a yacht had a fancy to see if my atoll still
"He didn't come a moment too soon, for I was about sick enough of the
desolation of it, and only hesitating whether I should walk out into the
sea and finish up the business that way, or fall back on the green
"I sold the bones to a man named Winslow—a dealer near the British
Museum, and he says he sold them to old Havers. It seems Havers didn't
understand they were extra large, and it was only after his death they
attracted attention. They called 'em AEpyornis—what was it?"
"AEpyornis vastus," said I. "It's funny, the very thing was
mentioned to me by a friend of mine. When they found an AEpyornis, with a
thigh a yard long, they thought they had reached the top of the scale, and
called him AEpyornis maximus. Then some one turned up another
thigh-bone four feet six or more, and that they called AEpyornis
Titan. Then your vastus was found after old Havers died, in his
collection, and then a vastissimus turned up."
"Winslow was telling me as much," said the man with the scar. "If they get
any more AEpyornises, he reckons some scientific swell will go and burst a
blood-vessel. But it was a queer thing to happen to a man; wasn't it—