Lost Island, part 10

Chapter X (pages 127 – 142) of Lost Island. Chapter I here.

Davidson was whittling. He sat in the mouth of the cave, with the big green ferns around him, the rocky turrets and soft blue sea for background. He was naked and tawny-colored among green fronds. The thick soft hair on his chest and forearms was spun gold in the sun. The hair on his head was getting scraggly now, and it was oddly bleached on top; the beard was perhaps and inch long — light brown, with glints of gold, and here and there a suspicion of red. In fact, Davidson looked primitive and comfortable, and as if he belonged there. He sat tensely concentrated over a little block of ebony wood which he was shaping with his jackknife; and despite all Jane’s teasing, he would not tell her about it.

“All sailors whittle,” he informed her. “It’s another of our common weaknesses, like not being able to swim, and liking to make love. We just can’t help ourselves.”

“And you won’t tell me what it is?” she pleaded.

“Sure — it’s ebony.”

“Brute!”

“If I told you what it’s going to be, it would turn out to be something else,” he protested.

“Oh, I didn’t know that. One of the subtle secrets of the art of whittling, no doubt.”

“Sailors never confess what they’re whittling,” he went on. “Bad luck.”

“Well, I’ll try to be patient.”

“After all, Janie, there’s plenty of time.”

“‘Scuse me, will you? I’m going for a short swim.”

“Sure — but don’t turn into a mermaid. I shouldn’t like you half so well with a fish-tail, or fins.”

He felt more at peace with life and with himself than he had ever felt before. Every now and then he glanced up from the whittling, and looked out for a moment into the glowing sea. Every leaf in the fringe of bushes trembled; beneath, the waves were small voices. This world belonged to him. The real one was lost outside somewhere, and was of no consequence anyhow. He hoped it had been chucked over the edge into black grinning chaos.

Paradoxically, he was awed and even a little startled when he thought about the superb naturalness of their love the night before — a naturalness which would have been impossible in the mad rush and whirl, the gigantic conflict, of the city. This was the way it was meant to be, and mixing them up till they were hopelessly lost in a jungle labyrinth of complexes, conventions, inhibitions, and all the rest of the long words which merely meant unhappy struggle.

He thought fleetingly, with horror, of the morbid despair of his own boyhood, the blind groping for beauty and for freedom, the tragic squalor of the life his parents lived, in which he had been brought up, from which some inextinguishable silver flame of desire had prompted him to rebel, to run away, to take precarious refuge in the immense aloofness of the sea. And probably, he thought, that same story, with slight variations, was at some time, in some degree, the story of every human being.

What made his particular story different from others, was that he had won. He had completely escaped morbidness and squalor — not only in heart, but in the flesh as well. He had left it all behind, apparently forever; and was surrounded by nothing but beauty — undreamed-of, unimaginable beauty; for so far, certainly, nothing had occurred to justify his first reasonable fears about the island. He was conscious of a surge of gratitude — not exactly to a God whom he doubted, but to whatever circumstances or fates had combined to create this magic. Perhaps it was Jane, after all, to whom gratitude was due. So he thanked her again, silently and worshipfully, and bent over his whittling…. And Jane, who was clambering down the cliff for an early dip in the sea, felt much as he was feeling — ecstatically at peace, with a knowledge that all was well with the world.

She stood on a shelf of rock three or four feet above the water. Seaweed, black and fringy, heaved in a blue, bottomless void. She looked up toward the top of the cliff, but Davidson and the cave were hidden behind tall jags of rock. Between these jags the sea surged and withdrew with a rumbling suck, and eerie swirlings of seaweed.

With sudden abandon, Jane flung her arms above her head, and in the same motion hurled her lithe body into the air, straightened it, and shot cleanly into the sea. It was a superb gesture: her way of shouting joy. Silver bubbles streamed up behind her. She sank, more and more softly, making no move to bring herself to the surface again, but waiting, prolonging the pleasure. Presently she was gliding up instead of down. She looked toward the surface — saw it like a silver film above her before she shattered it. Then, tossing back her hair, she swam vigorously.

For her, swimming was a means of expression that transcended all others that she knew. She had learned it in the cool lakes of Maine; she had taken to it at the age of five or so like a small fish. Swimming opened up an entire new world of possibilities. She had long known the joy of coasting around a small island, sometimes under low-dipping pine branches, sometimes past rocks where turtles sat sunning. She knew the beauty of an under-water world, mystically blurred for human eyes, with its shifting sun-rays, streams of bubbles, golden ripple reflections; a silver-green mermaid world where fish were at home; an alluring world because she could not stay down in it very long at a time, but had to be content with brief glimpses.

In fact, swimming was a way of getting about which did not involve sweat, dirt, or blisters on toes; it was a continuing fresh coolness, a perpetual caress; an escape from gravity, clothes, solidity. And the motions of a well-rounded crawl could certainly give as much creative ecstasy, as much joy in supple grace and power, as any dance.

In New York, swimming, like mountains and sun-worship, had been lost. Now she lived its delights all over again, and they were greater even than she had remembered, because of the clear brilliant buoyancy of this sea, and the glitter of sand, corals, and small fish.

She came ashore at last, feeling rather superior to mere fish — because, after all, fish couldn’t enjoy her world, and probably weren’t over-sensitive to the beauties of their own, whereas she could be keenly alive and appreciative in both of them.

“Davidson” — she repeated the thought aloud at the top of the cliff — “I’m better than a fish.” And she explained about the two worlds.

“Shouldn’t boast, Janie,” he chided her. “You can’t move as fast as a fish.”

“Fast! Who wants to move fast? Too much speed in modern life anyway — everybody knows that.”

“Even in fish life?” he queried.

Sleek and glistening, she flopped down beside him in the ferns. “Certainly,” she insisted. “Modern fish are stream-lined, like modern cars, but they don’t look so silly.”

“And are their bodies by Fisher, too?”

“Certainly — who else?”

“That’s where he got his name and reputation, I s’pose…. Well, as I said before, just as long as you don’t grow fins…”

They went exploring. Back of the cave, the woods stretched for perhaps two or three miles, then rose into a meadowy hilltop, which projected like a bare shoulder from a loosely flung fur mantle. It was toward this hill that they made their way. The woods were for the most part easy enough to get through, although now and then they had to battle underbrush, climb over a mossy windfall, or back away and try another place.

The tree-trunks, dark brown and gnarled, grew up and lost themselves, as the trunks of tropic trees seem always to do. In northern countries, Jane thought, a tree had a more definite personality. Each was an individual. You could see where it came from, and where it was bound, even when many grew thickly together as in a pine grove. They would be growing in harmony, but each knew its own mind, nevertheless. She remembered a certain pine grove on the slope of a pastured hill; and even now she could feel the mighty lilt and sway of those trees before a northwest wind that polished the blue of the sky. She stood there in a tropic island jungle, and heard, for a fleeting minute or two, the long low rushing of that far-away wind.

Here, you saw a section of trunk which rose up and turned into a cloud of green and gray shadowings. Branches intertwined and seemed to grow together. Vines added to the confusion. It was beautiful, but mysterious. It was better not to try to untangle them by following one single column upward. They did not want you to understand them, these tropic woods.

After a while a pool of light began to show ahead, apple-green and translucent. It was the end of the woods. As they went on, this emerald pool became still brighter, and seemed to radiate a warm glow. Great flowering vines grew at the edge of it — purple blossoms in clusters, and white and yellow ones, hibiscus, honeysuckle, jasmine. When they could find no other hold, they grew in loops and arches over each other. A fragrance, tangled as their tentacles, arose from them. Some had sharp reddish thorns, others smooth green curving stems.

And butterflies — fragile flaming creatures; freedom and the quintessence of high ecstasy; beauty measured in wings. A universe of butterflies triumphant. A breath of azure silk with a sheen like a Persian vase; a lace of yellow and gold; a pair of wings made from the secret essence of orange-blossoms. There was hovering and swirling, stooping tenderly over favorite flowers; flirting, poised on a path of fragrance; swerving up into the breeze; coming to rest, wings spread out in sunlight. The keen joy of flight — wings and sunlight and petals… petals… sunlight… wings….

Jane had loved butterflies longer than she remembered. The swift movements of their wings spoke to her, and their colors had symbolized another and more fragrant world. That world was — this island! She had found it, then! She turned to Davidson, to tell him all that she was thinking, to share her exultation with him….

The hill streamed with rivers of green-gold warmth. Each tall grass blade radiated a quivering atmosphere, and the earth was hot underfoot. But Jane and Davidson were becoming used to this. If you wanted to shade your eyes, you plucked a banana leaf, and allowed sunlight to pour over your body in gold cataracts and waves that were almost visible.

They made their way to the top of the hill; and around them, brilliantly colored, was the enchanted circle of their kingdom. Northeast of the hill lay a valley, like a green trench, down which a little river ran, and across the valley the mountain rose almost vertically out of the sea. This was the same mountain, with its rugged green shoulders and tumultuous cone of reddish-purple rock, which had dominated the island as they stared at it from the sea at dawn. It had seemed unbelievably tall and remote. That was illusion, partly caused by their own exhaustion, partly by the confused splendor of the clouds. In reality it was not much higher than the hill they were on now, but it was wilder and grander. At its foot, just across the valley, the woods looked very dense and luxuriant. Down the mountain walls tumbled the same brook that drowsed along so peacefully when it reached the valley — a series of wild flying cascades that gleamed in the sunlight. And now, for the first time, they could look out at the sea on the opposite side of the island, glimpses of blue between a row of sand-dunes that stretched southward from the mountain. On the other side of the hill was the dark fringe of forest through which they had come, dipping to the achingly white crescent of their beach. It seemed far away; and the sea beyond it could hardly be the same sea in which Jane had swum that morning. It was an impalpable soft blue now, like the blue of spring flowers.

“And still no people,” Davidson commented at last. “It becomes increasingly obvious, Janie, that we’re marooned.”

“No matter how feverishly hard I worked my imagination,” she said, “I couldn’t conceive of a more delightful place to be marooned in. I’m less and less afraid of it all, Daveson.”

“I think we can make out of it a life that will be pretty grand,” he said, “if we try hard enough. Interesting to see if we’re equal to our opportunities — if we really can become part of the earth, and get along without a single civilized trapping — except a knife.”

“What a defeat for civilization it will be, if we can!” Jane exclaimed. “Prove it’s all superfluous, just as I suspected; prove that the only necessary thing it’s ever invented is knives!”

They worked in a circle around the hill some distance below its top, and found a corner just under the fringe of vines that edged the woods. Here, in a bower of bright flowers and sunlight, they rested — Jane watching butterflies, Davidson earnestly whittling again at his mysterious block of ebony, covering it with his hand if she became too inquisitive, and laughing at her.

“I’ll show it to you — maybe tonight,” he promised.

She lay on a carpet of grass and petals, and looked up into a thousand miniature miracles of flowers and leaves and light. A tremulous scarlet hibiscus, balancing on no stem that she could see, stared her defiantly in the face. From a crowd of gentle white flowers floated an occasional reminiscent petal, drifting down on rays of light that shot through the upper leaves and played subtle havoc with colors and shapes. Each leaf was a single layer of green-gold light, imprisoned and materialized. Flowers were no longer flowers, but by-products of that light, so intense that it could not be contained in mere rays and flickerings, but had to burst into jets of many-colored fire. Butterflies were a still more extravagant expression of it — light gone wild with ecstasy, light broken free from all shackles, embodied light winging in and out of fragrant archways and palaces.

“And old Professor Myers — ” Jane began in a low voice — “old Professor Myers sends men out with nets and bottles and pins to catch them and take the light out of them, and bring them home dead. And they call it collecting butterflies. More like — collecting dust.”

“Don’t they say it’s ‘in the interest of science,’ and all that?”

“Yes — in the interest of science that isn’t content until it’s taken everything to pieces to see what it’s made of.”

Davidson pondered. “They forget something pretty important,” he said after a while. “They forget that the most vital things get damaged and lost in the course of trying to analyze them. It’s pretty ironical.”

“You mean — the light, the life, get lost, Daveson?”

“Sure — like — like quicksilver. Can’t put your finger on it. But what they lose is the real butterfly. All they have left is a bunch of dead nerves and a little colored dust — so they say that’s what a butterfly’s made of. I think any unpretentious heathen chap’s more on the right track, when he maintains that even a stone has a soul.”

“I’m a heathen,” Jane said. “I’ve always wanted to be free to go heathen without any interference or criticism. I believe everything alive has a soul — flowers, animals, birds — trees, of course — and on this island even stones can have souls, if they like. I suppose that’s why I’ve always loathed the so-called sport of hunting.”

“Even for food?”

“No, that’s different. It’s reasonable and necessary to hunt for food. The Indian does, and the Eskimo. But he takes only what he needs. Nature’s creatures were made to prey on each other. The bird I hate is the one who dresses up in some fashionable sport store, and goes off armed with all the fashionable and expensive gadgets, and then proceeds deliberately, stupidly, to slaughter deer. Just for the fun of it — the famous so-called love of the chase, and the lust to kill. That’s pretty foul. As for collecting butterflies — some time,” Jane went on dreamily, “I’m going to tell Professor Myers what you were saying. You hit the nail on the head again, Daveson. I’ll have it out with him.”

“When you get back?” he questioned.

She snapped her fingers in annoyance. “For months,” she began again, “I tried to get certain thoughts formulated so I could discuss them. I wanted a few simple words — just the words you’ve given me. A dozen times I had it on the tip of my tongue. ‘Professor Myers — you’re wrong, somehow, somewhere.’ But I couldn’t tell why or get any further with the idea. And now that I understand, I’m marooned on an uninhabited island where I can’t do anything about it.”

“But, Janie, you couldn’t anyway. Nobody would listen or care. If it’s the old man’s life to take butterflies apart, you can’t stop him, you know.”

“I can’t help feeling,” she insisted, “that if I could bring him here so that he could see what I’m seeing now, he’d understand, too…. Taking to pieces a breath of light and magic to see what it’s made of, and calling that entomology…!  And yet, Davidson, he’s a dear old man with the kindest heart in the world, and he understands lots of things.”

“Want to write him a note?” Davidson suggested. “Let’s see — we could hang it round a gull’s neck, or put it in a bottle — except we haven’t got a bottle; or pin it to a porpoise.”

“Sort of a nautical free delivery,” Jane smiled.

“Sure; modern stream-lined mail coaches — bodies by Fisher…”

“Nobody back there would understand anyway, I guess,” Jane said, serious again, “except the few who have always understood. We’ll just have to keep it to ourselves, Daveson. This is our world, a brand-new one, and it can have its own independent laws and religion and philosophy of life. And we’re king and queen,” she added, “and can have everything as we want it.”

“Here’s another thing I sometimes believe,” Davidson said. “What is all this taking apart of butterflies, vivisecting dogs, inventing always more and bigger telescopes, but the human passion to have everything explained? What is religion itself, but a way of accounting for why we’re here, how we got here, how the earth began, and all the rest of it? Human nature apparently rebels at mystery. If a man doesn’t understand a thing, and can’t account for it — well, he’ll account for it anyway, if only by some far-fetched fairy-tale like Genesis.”

Jane nodded slowly. “Yes, but don’t get science and religion too mixed up. Some of the time they’re at cross purposes. A few of the more up-to-date and intelligent clergy accept science; but a good many of ’em mistrust and fear it.”

“They think it’s a sin against the Bible, I suppose,” Davidson suggested.

“Sure. They feel that the evolution idea, for instance, in some profane way explains the origin of life; whereas God knows the poor old scientists are completely gumfoozled about the origin of life. They don’t even pretend to understand that.”

“I think it’s rather grand as a mystery,” Davidson put in.

“Oh, so do I. I love it as a mystery. But some people seem to fear being so utterly in the dark. They’d rather believe in Genesis, just as you said. Well, let them!… Ever thought much about evolution, Daveson? It’s glorious. It means that every form of life came from a simpler form. It means there are no sharp demarcations between species — oh, how that problem bothered the poor old classifiers in Darwin’s time and before! It means that all life is one immense varied river. That makes me feel on intimate and friendly terms with the earth and the other creatures on it. If you really believe in evolution, you can’t conceive of man as so very distinct from other animals.”

“It kind of takes the edge off his vaunted superiority, too, doesn’t it?”

“Oh, sure it does! All life is one, plants and animals together.”

Davidson was thoughtful. Then he said: “You’ve made fun of science often enough. Yet it was the most detailed and painstaking research that brought this evolution idea to light.”

Jane conceded this. “Of course,” she agreed. “And it has brought to light a great many interesting and useful facts. Medical research, for instance.”

“Well,” he pursued, “probably every known fact helps to complete the picture. Probably even your friend Professor Myers’ butterflies’ antennae fit in somewhere.”

She smiled. “But you yourself just said they lose one thing they’re after,” she reminded him. “They can’t analyze life. In a way you’re right about the dead butterflies fitting into the picture. My objections are based less on reason than on the fact that I dislike cases full of crucified insects. I wish they could study evolution not in a closed office, or a stinking laboratory, shut away from fresh air and daylight, but first-hand, in the open. Maybe it would be more real that way, and maybe they’d get a better general perspective, even if it wasn’t so scientific. It’s life I’m interested in.”

“And paradoxically,” he said, “they have to study life through death.”

“Yes — and it seems to me like a long way round.”

“Well,” he suggested, “you and I can study however we like, and the graybeards can stick to their microscopes in peace. There’s plenty of room for various kinds of studying, and probably they supplement each other somehow. Anyway, why should we worry about it?”

He was watching the light play upon her brown and white body. Leaf shadows, frail, ephemeral, quivered and flickered across her shoulders and her breast. Once the elusive shadow of a big butterfly wandered erratically up the whole length of her, zigzag, from her ankles to her face and the ragged brown hair that was golden over her forehead where the sun bleached it, and curling a little in the joy of its freedom.

She herself was dreaming now, watching the thronging butterflies, her eyes following their radiant wings in and out of the flowers. She was half-hypnotized by warmth, and by those flickering, weaving, ceaseless movements. Davidson smiled, and went on with his whittling.

And evening came, with crickets in chorus — a long golden chain. Dew was in the air now, and fragrances like cordials in exquisite glasses. Then fireflies came — multitudes — myriads — a never-completed pattern of sudden soft lights, greenish-gold. Only crickets and fireflies and fragrances shared the world.

Jane and Davidson crept from their hide-away, and walked out on to the grassy hillside, under a tremulous sky pricked with stars. They passed through a fringe of woods. Their footsteps here were nearly soundless. The trees were asleep. There was nothing — only the two of them there together in a void of tropical dark.

The rhythm of their footfalls took possession of Jane like a primitive dance. Who were those people who danced over crops they had planted — danced to the gods of the harvest, treading down the earth, pounding it with their naked feet?… She herself felt very primitive. The swing of her own body was part of the forest. Just ahead of her, broad shoulders rose and fell a little, half-invisible, almost mesmerizing in their steady swing.

When they came out of the woods again on to the open hillside of grass, he dropped back beside her, and put his arm around her, to hold her tight against his side; and they walked on as one person, every step, every slight swing, made together in a unison of muscles that was almost music. The island, taking possession of their mood, seemed to have given in return part of its own rhythm and grace.

They rounded the crest of the hill, and a warm wind rushed at them. There was a sense of spaciousness. The sky was straight above — nothing came between. Where they had come from, the forest showed a black fringe of trees. For a few minutes there were only stars. Then, out of a gulf beyond the edge of the east the moon floated, casting an arch of pale rose color on to some wispy clouds just above, slowly transfiguring the entire island into a soft black etching on a background of pale light. The world was still now; but if you held your breath and listened hard, there were always the voices of little creatures in the grass, and the small sound that a leaf makes, and the low far-away murmur of the sea.

“Here’s the top of the hill,” Davidson said. He turned, and put his hands on Jane’s shoulders, looking into her face. And that new moonlight had destroyed the work of the sun — for she looked very white against the soft dark of the island. To her, his tall frame was masterful and a little austere, in silhouette against the sky. The wind made the grass ripple against their knees.

“I want to talk to you,” he said. “I’ve finished it,” he added cryptically.

For a minute she could not think what he meant. Then she remembered, “Oh, the whittling! Let’s see. Did it turn out what you expected?”

“Yes, but not so good, of course. Like a poem or a painting, or anything else, whittling never satisfies its creator.”

“Well, that’s all the more credit to the creator, Daveson. Horribly smug to be satisfied, especially with yourself.”

“It was a labor of love, anyway,” he said. And he opened his big hand to show it to her. It was a slender ring of smooth-polished ebony, precise and symmetrical, resembling those worn by African tribes. Only instead of lines and crosses scratched into the outside of it, Davidson had cut a row of tiny, fanciful figures that stood out in slight relief; two porpoises, bounding, backs arched; an anchor; a butterfly. These Jane could just make out in the moonlight.

It was a piece of workmanship such as he had never even approached before in idle hours of tinkering. Accomplished with nothing but a reasonably sharp jackknife, it would have done credit to the most ingenious wood-carver. It was the expression of one of those rare inspired impulses that seize artistic persons once or twice in a life-time, when, stirred by deep emotion, they are mysteriously capable of work such as they had only dreamed of, and are never able again to match.

In the lovely, unearthly light on the hilltop, in the warm wind, with the grasses rippling, the little ring lying in Davidson’s big square hand had an air of mystery and magic. Neither he nor Jane spoke, as he slipped it on to her finger. This was a solemn rite.

“And so now we’re married,” he said at last.

“Is it legal?” she inquired archly.

“Of course it’s legal. What do you mean — ‘legal,’ anyhow? By what law?”

“I don’t know.” She glanced upward. “The law of the stars, maybe.”

“Right,” he agreed. “I don’t know, and I certainly don’t care, but I’m fairly sure that’s a law no justice of the peace would dispute.”

“He might dispute it,” said Jane, “but he just wouldn’t know any better. Anyway, I feel tremendously married.”

“Well… After all, two thousand stars for witness that were shining long aeons before old Adam was heard of. They ought to have authority — and sacredness, too. They’ve got us on record.”

“I’d like to see the book.”

“Well, you’d find us written down in silver fire.”

“Something like this,” Jane said. “Shipwrecked pair: little island in corner of World No. 5,792,431.…”

“Who would dare say it isn’t legal?” he demanded.

“It’s awesome to be so much married,” Jane said. “It’s frightening. D’you suppose the stars grant divorces, too?”

“Don’t like the way your mind works,” he protested. “What a rebel you are!”

“Yes, I am a rebel, I guess.”

“Now I’m frightened,” he told her.

“Don’t be. What I rebel against is — is — well, giving in to ugliness — that puts it in a nutshell. And you’re the most beautiful lover in the world.”

“Forgive my curiosity, but do tell me how you know that!”

“The stars told me…. I love your ring, David. It’s a work of art, and magic.”

“Glad — it was the best I could do.”

“That’s why I love it. I love it ever so much more than any ring you could have bought for me, if we had met in the world of bought things. Because you made it — and it’s you.”

He sighed with gratitude. “That’s what I hoped you’d feel,” he said. “You’ve said what I didn’t know how to say. You’re wonderful. You understand everything…. You know, Jane, I liked something you said a minute ago — about ugliness — not giving in to it. That’s what I’ve been trying not to do, all my life.”

“It pays,” Jane said. “You stay more alive to lovely things, if you’re a little bit choosy.”

“Let’s promise together,” he said, “never to give in to anything ugly.”

“We don’t need to. We don’t have to worry about ugliness, here. We don’t even have to go hunting for beauty, because it’s all around us…. Daveson, let’s not hide away in our cave tonight. Let’s just sleep out here, under the moon.”

Chapter XI

Comments

  1. Bruce Edward Watts says:

    When it comes to descriptions of nature BNF is second to none. The three sections on swmming, forests/trees and butterflies are some of the most beautiful passages I have ever read.

    The swimming section reminded me of my youth in Hawaii when I would dive into the ocean and glide underwater. It made me long to dive into tropical seas once more.

    Great writing throughout this section. It is hard to understand how this was never published.

    Bruce

    • I agree completely. I am consistently floored by Barbara’s descriptive passages; extraordinary work for a twenty-year-old who never took a writing class in her life! (Maybe that’s the secret.)

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