Aepyornis Island, by H. G. Wells
Bacillus and Other Incidents
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?"
"Dawsons. 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 island …"
"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
"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.
Sinbad'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 'em—Lord!—it's nearly twenty years ago. If
Dawsons 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,
"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.[A] 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 A: No European is known to have seen a live Aepyornis,
with the doubtful exception of MacAndrew, who visited Madagascar in
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
"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 sunset, and just this black canoe drifting steadily out to sea. I
tell you I damned Dawsons and Jamrachs 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 a scream.
"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
"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 one 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
"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 yolk, 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 dare say 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 was!
"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 cart-horse. 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 sledge hammer 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
"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 existed.
"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 someone turned
up another thighbone 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 bloodvessel. But it was a queer thing to happen to a man;