The Egg of the Albatross, by Eric Stenbock

Northern royal albatross on the Otago Peninsula
Northern royal albatross on the Otago Peninsula – from

Eric Stenbock published in 1894 a collection of seven short studies, Studies of Death, subtitled Romantic Tales. As indicated by the title, most of these stories are macabre, ending in the death of some protagonists. For nearly a hundred years this book was quite forgotten, and almost unobtainable. In 1984, the Garland publishing house reprinted the 1894 edition, together with The Shadow of Death (1893), Stenbock’s third collection of poetry. Then in 1996 the Durtro publishing house (of David Tibet) reprinted Studies of Death, adding to it the short story “The Other Side: A Breton Legend,” which had originally been published separately in The Spirit Lamp (Vol. IV, No. 2, 6 June 1893, pages 52–68).

A scan of The Shadow of Death followed by Studies of Death is available on Internet Archive. A new edition of Studies of Death was published by Snuggly Books in 2018, based on the original 1894 edition by David Nutt. Then in 2019 David Tibet published with Strange Attractor Press a large collection of texts by Stenbock, which includes these seven tales, as well as “The Other Side” and several others.

Several hypertext transcriptions of “The Other Side” are available on Internet, for instance here and here. From Studies of Death, its best-known tale, “The True Story of A Vampire”, has been transcribed together with “The Other Side” by the Project Gutenberg Australia. But I have not found any hypertext or text version of other tales from the collection.

I have selected the most moving of the seven tales, the fifth, “The Egg of the Albatross,” about a little girl and her bird friend who fall victims of the greed and brutality of men who think that with money they can own anything. My transcription follows the scan of the original 1894 edition on digitised on Internet Archive. I have shared this transcription (in text format) on Google Docs.

Note that the name of the professor, Sammler, means “gatherer” or “collector” in German.

The Egg of the Albatross
by Eric Stenbock

THE TOP of a disused lighthouse, surrounded by the sea, hardly seems to be a convenient or desirable residence for a little girl. This was the residence of Marina.

The people of Varenha did not seem to think there was anything very extraordinary about it. She had always been there: and when her father and mother died, they left her there all alone. Besides, there was something uncanny about her; and although she was a familiar figure in the town, and in fact rather a pet, at the same time people thought it just as well that she should live a little way off.

Varenha is an island in the West Indies not much known to the general public; but, nevertheless, many foreigners alight there in search of rare orchids and butterflies, and particularly of the eggs of waterfowl, who have there one of their greatest fastnesses. Such foreigners as do come thither are mostly wealthy people, and have yachts of their own, and on them the island thrives. It is only every now and then that a steamer touches there.

When I say Marina’s father and mother died in the lighthouse I am not strictly accurate, because they were not her father and mother: and she, instead of being found under the traditional gooseberry bush, was hauled up in a mackerel net at the early age of three. Where she came from, and what she was, nobody ever knew. When she was picked up she could not speak at all. She was not drowned: on the contrary, she was swimming about quite naturally, as a puppy or kitten might do. According to the best authorities, she had the peculiar fairness and other characteristics of the Octoroon. But people generally regarded her as something not of this world. She did not seem to understand or respond to any known language; but she soon learnt to talk Portuguese. The old people, whose only child had been drowned years ago, became devoted to this strange sea-baby, whom they called Marina, from her origin.

A new lighthouse had been built, but they were allowed to keep their old quarters. The two old people died almost simultaneously; so leaving Marina alone. She belonged to no one, and nobody particularly wished to take charge of her. But, as I have said before, she was rather a favourite in the town, when she appeared on market-days with her curious wares; for this is how she made her living.

She would gather all manner of curious and iridescent shells and make them into necklaces, or boxes, and such like things. Likewise she made curious bouquets of dried seaweeds. But her chief source of income were the eggs of the gulls, guillemots, sea-swallows, penguins, and the like.

Strange to say, all these wild creatures were perfectly tame to her. They would come to her to be fed, and actually allowed her to take their eggs from their nest. She never took more than one from each nest. She was singularly nimble of foot, and would climb up to their fastnesses.

In this trade she had a speciality. If anyone else had attempted to take their eggs, the assembled waterfowl of all kinds would unanimously and unmercifully have attacked them.

So, once a week, the quaint little figure could be seen crossing in her little boat, which she had painted green herself, encrusted with corals and shells in strange devices.

She was very simply clad in one single loose white garment, bound rather curiously with a sea-green sash made of silk; on one exceptionally lucky day she had found means to purchase this one article of finery, which had always attracted her fancy. She was always barefooted; but she wore shell necklaces and bracelets, and also wore wreaths in her hair of delicate seaweeds.

Her eyes were green; her hair a peculiar nuance, which also in certain lights looked green. So it was not very wonderful for the superstitious people to think her a water-sprite.

So, though living all alone and unprotected, she was quite safe, as no one would dare to rob or molest her. She spent the rest of her time in swimming and rowing about, or running along the rocks in search of various sea-products. Perhaps on these occasions her toilet was less complete than it was on Saturdays.

I am afraid poor Marina was a heathen. Again, what is everybody’s business is nobody’s business. It was nobody’s business to give her religious instruction, or indeed any instruction whatever. The priests in that part are not of a very high order; generally even more superstitious than their flocks. The worthy Padre did not care to come much in contact with the creature he thought not quite human; and besides, there was no one to pay him for instructing her. Indeed some people averred she had never even been baptized.

One day some vague sense of religion did wake in her; she saw in a shop-window an intaglio, in some green stone, representing a venerable-looking old man with a trident, standing between two long tumbled lines of sea, from which emerged beautiful figures of maidens with long streaming hair, and beautiful youths playing on spiral shell-trumpets. This pleased her immensely. So much so that she determined to purchase it at the cost of all her savings, which, I think, amounted to three dollars. So one day she went to the shop, and triumphantly demanded the article, displaying what she supposed to be her vast wealth.

‘But, my dear,’ said the shopman, ‘the price of that is fifty dollars.’

She stood aghast. Fifty dollars! she had never heard of so much money in her life.

Then she began to cry silently.

There happened to be an intellectual-looking Englishman in the shop, who had come to the island in his yacht in search of orchids. He was struck both with the pathos and the humour of the situation. He paid down the fifty dollars, and gave the intaglio to the child.

She could not believe her senses; and disappeared like a flash of lightning, clutching her treasure to her bosom; ran at full speed through the town, jumped into her boat and rowed quickly across, and did not rest till she had reached her airy nest in safety.

She had occasionally wandered into the church, and got a few confused notions of a cult which she did not understand; so, by way of imitation, she hung up the intaglio in the corner of the room, and placed a perpetual light to burn before it.

I may here fitly describe what the room was like. It was hexagonal; she had painted it herself with a curious wavy pattern in her favourite sea-green. But all the corners she had encrusted with shells and seaweed; of which she also had fashioned an elaborate frieze. The furniture was very simple indeed: the only table was utilised to support a large aquarium, which also was a present from a rich foreigner; and that she had arranged with a kind of fairy garden, with seaweeds for trees, and all manner of beautiful sea anemones for flowers. The rest of the furniture consisted of two large boxes: in one box she had made herself a luxurious bed with the shed feathers of the wild sea-birds; in the other box there was something still more extraordinary at the moment this story commences, namely, an albatross sitting upon her egg. There was no chair; for if she sat down at all, she sat on the floor; also no fireplace, as in Varenha it is never cold. And she spent most of her time in the open air; and as she found her food on the sea-shore, she had no need of cooking. Indeed, so self-supporting was she, that she would first make a meal on a mollusc, and then sell the shell.

On exceptional occasions she would treat herself to a seaweed salad, which is by no means so unpalatable as it sounds to those who have never tasted one.

The windows were always open, and the wild sea-birds would fly out and in; she used to buy food for them in the town, which cost her much more than her own food ever did.

But her chief friend was an albatross, whom she called Almotâna, who had made her nest for three successive years in her box. Indeed, when the albatross flew out, Marina would sit on the nest and keep the egg warm herself; which the albatross understood, as she never flew away unless the little girl was there. Once a day during the season another bigger albatross, whom she called Wandafra, would come to visit his wife. But he did not see the fun of sitting on the egg if the little girl would undertake that office for him. How she came to choose these names, which conformed to no known language, is difficult to ascertain. All that is known is that when she was first picked up she gabbled some unintelligible jargon, which ever afterwards she had been heard to murmur to herself.

☙ ❦ ❧

One day a steamer did land at Varenha. It was quasi-private, and more or less going round the world. There were all sorts and conditions of people in it; or rather, I mean, many sorts, but one condition: e.g. there were collectors, who wished to land at Varenha to collect various objects which were their particular hobby, and sportsmen who thought it great fun to shoot guillemots; but no steerage passengers.

Among these was a certain German professor, called Sammler. Herr Sammler collected everything. From being a poor professor of zoology and botany, he had unexpectedly come into a considerable fortune. So now he was enabled to indulge his mania to the full.

One Saturday, as usual, Marina went with her wares to the market-place; it was just at the beginning of the breeding season, and she had an unusually good collection of various eggs.

There came up to her stall a benevolent-looking old gentleman with a long white beard and a pair of spectacles, accompanied by a well-known character in the town, a certain Portuguese Jew, called Levi Mendès, who used to act as guide and interpreter to foreigners who landed at the island. The benevolent-looking gentleman took a great interest in Marina’s eggs. His knowledge of Portuguese was somewhat limited; so he had to converse chiefly by means of the interpreter. There seemed to be some dispute between them—in German, a language which of course Marina could not understand. But her quick intelligence divined that the Jew wished to beat down her prices, whereas the German was willing to give her more than she asked. It ended by Herr Sammler—for this was he—giving her more money than she had ever got before. Then Mendès drew Professor Sammler aside, and this was their conversation:—

‘You said you particularly wanted to get an albatross egg, Herr Professor. Now that little girl has one. You know they are rather difficult to get.’

‘I know that,’ said the Professor. ‘Besides, in this island there is a peculiar variety of albatross. It would be indeed something if I could get one of their eggs.’

‘Well,’ said the Jew, ‘I think I could get it for you—and cheap too. The child does not know the value of money. If you will pardon me saying so, I think it was injudicious of you to give her so much for those other eggs. And of course she has no notion of comparative value.’

‘I certainly should not think of taking advantage of a little girl,’ said the Professor. ‘I will give her a fair price for it. But let us go back, and you can arrange for me to see the egg.’

They came back again to her stall. The Jew said insinuatingly—

‘This great Senhor is particularly desirous of seeing your albatross egg. Would you mind showing it to him?’

‘Oh no,’ said Marina, who was impressed by the benevolent appearance of the stranger, and only too proud of showing off her treasures.

‘What time could we most conveniently come?’ asked Mendès.

‘Oh, to-morrow afternoon at three,’ said the little girl. ‘Then our Almotâna goes out for her afternoon fly.’

So next day Herr Sammler and his guide presented themselves at the lighthouse, where they found Marina sitting as usual on the egg.

‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ she said, rising and pointing the egg out to the Professor.

‘May the Senhor look at it?’ asked Levi.

‘I don’t know whether Almotâna would like it,’ said Marina; ‘but if he is very careful with it—’

The Professor took the egg up in his hand.

Strange is the mania for collecting. People who would otherwise be incapable of dishonest action resort even to theft in order to obtain some rare object which they especially covet.

‘Tell her,’ said Herr Sammler, ‘I will give her twenty dollars for it.’

‘The Senhor says he will give you two dollars for it,’ says Mendès.

‘No, no, no! you must give it me back,’ cried Marina.

‘No, my dear,’ blurted out the German, in very broken Portuguese, ‘not two dollars, but twenty dollars—twenty-five dollars!’

‘No, this is not to be sold,’ cried the little girl. ‘Almotâna only lays one egg, and what will she say if she finds her egg gone?’

She began to cry bitterly. But the Professor, under the influence of the lust of collection, calmly put the egg in his pocket, but, being naturally of a kind nature, tried to soothe the child, and produced from his pocket two bank-notes of twenty dollars each.

Marina had never seen a bank-note before. She took the paper, not knowing in the least what it meant.

‘You’d better come away,’ said Mendès; and hurried Herr Sammler down the stairs.

The child, clutching the bank-notes in her hand, followed them; and her little boat managed to overtake their large boat with four rowers. Then she followed them through the town, saying in piteous monotony—

‘Give me back my egg!’

Of course a crowd of people gathered together, and naturally asked what all the fuss was about.

‘I do not know what she means,’ said Mendès. ‘She is mad. See, the Senhor has bought her albatross egg. Here is the egg. And he has given her forty dollars for it. See, she has the forty dollars in her hand.’

And so she had—two crumpled notes, almost crushed to pieces by the sculls of her boat.

The people tried to explain that the Senhor had bought it.

‘It is his, and he has given you a very, very great deal of money for it.’

Suddenly Marina attempted to seize the egg from Mendès; and in the scuffle the egg fell to the ground and was smashed.

Marina turned deadly pale, and fell down in a dead faint.

The German, whom I have said before was a kindly man, caused her to be taken to his hotel, and instructed his landlady to put her into the best bed she could find.

The landlady, who was a good kind of woman, and likewise because she wished to oblige the Professor, and feared to do any ill to the water-sprite, treated her with the utmost gentleness.

Marina remained for a long time unconscious, and then reviving to semi-consciousness, fell asleep. Seeing her in a natural sleep the landlady left her. But she did not wake till dawn.

She found herself in a huge room and a large bed. It was some time before she could realise and recollect. Then, clad only in a night-gown as she was, she opened the window, and managed somehow to slide down the water-pipe, and escaped.

When she got to her fastness again, she called out ‘Almotâna! Almotâna!’ telling as best she could in her strange jargon to the bird what had happened.

There was no answer, but a long wail. She caught sight of the albatross circling round and round, lamenting the loss of her only egg. She went to the window and stretched out her arms and implored Almotâna to come in. But she only continued circling round and wailing.

At last, in her attempts to catch the albatross, she overbalanced herself, and fell straight into the water.

Of course the fall was fatal.

☙ ❦ ❧

A strange thing was to be seen that morning on the seashore: the body of a child in a simple white night-gown washed ashore; standing over it, with wings outspread, an albatross. Just then a boat came in sight—one of the boats from the steamer. In it were two Englishmen. One of them was a thick-set and aggressively muscular young man, of that peculiarly English type; well-formed, perhaps, but wholly without grace; healthy, perhaps, but wholly without bloom, or the expression of vitality, those stupid, dull, apathetic, impudent eyes, peculiar to this breed; features perhaps well-formed, but utterly dull and stolid, without any charm of expression; with a thick, coarse, abundant growth of hair. He was clad in a sort of knickerbocker suit of a loud check pattern, a stick-up collar, and a cap; he carried a gun in his hand.

The other was of a different type: an older man, with something intellectual and refined about his features.

‘I say, Jenkins,’ said the young man, ‘here is a chance: there’s an albatross. We shall be able to get one after all. You remember the devil of a fuss we had with that one we hooked: and the bloody brute went and broke the hook, and went off with it.’

‘I thought that was horrible!’ said the other man. ‘The bird was quite tame, and followed the ship for days. Remember the fate of the Ancient Mariner.’

‘Damn the Ancient Mariner!’ said the other.

‘No, I didn’t suppose you were familiar with the story of the Ancient Mariner. But there is another consideration of a more practical kind that I wish to urge upon you. You had better not shoot the albatross, because the people here have a kind of superstitious regard for them, and you might get into a great row if you did.’

‘What do I care what these damned bloody Portuguese think?’ said the young man, taking aim. He shot. And the shot went home.

And at that moment a much larger albatross swooped down, and hit him one terrible blow with his powerful wing. And his companion had little difficulty in ascertaining that he had been killed at once.

Stranger still was the sight that met the eyes of the fisherfolk as they went down to the sea to ply their usual avocation. There was Marina lying dead: and on her bosom the dead albatross, shot through the heart. And circling round, in circles sometimes wide and sometimes narrow, a male albatross, bewailing the death of his mate.

Previously published on Agapeta, 2018/10/07.

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