Lost Island, part 12

Chapter XII (pages 159 – 169) of Lost Island, which began here.

“Jane — come here and look.”

She had just awakened. Early morning light filled the cave, shimmered faintly golden on the sand floor. She stretched lazily, then got up and came to where Davidson stood, on the threshold, pointing out to sea. She followed his finger, but saw only the long blueness.

“I don’t see anything,” she told him.

He dropped his arm, but still stood staring.

“What is it?”

“I’m not quite sure,” he said. “Look again, Janie — just under that little cloud.”

“In the sky?”

“No — the sea.”

“Davidson — not a ship!”

“I’m not sure,” he repeated. “But there’s something.”

The possibility of a ship anchoring in their harbor had not occurred to Jane for a long time. She had come to feel that they would live here all their lives and eventually die here. She looked on the island as indisputably, irrevocably theirs, their home, their kingdom. She had even thought that some day, in spite of all the obvious difficulties, she would like to have children here. What would the landing of this ship, if it was a ship, mean to their world? Instinctively she drew back from the idea. It was an unknown quantity, and to be feared. It was the intrusion of something alien.

Yet mingled with these feelings was intense curiosity — and of course the instinct of gregariousness common to everyone except perhaps a few carefully self-hardened cynics — an instinct enormously intensified by long isolation….

“Yes,” Davidson finally said. “It’s a ship.”

She could barely make it out now, herself — a microscopic speck — oh, less than a speck — on the rim of the world.

“Davidson, what — ?” But she stopped short. A thousand unspoken questions were in her mind, but how could he answer them?

It would probably be noon before the ship could get in, for the wind was light. Jane and Davidson went about their usual daily life, trying to be unconcerned, but succeeding very poorly. A scrap of civilization was coming — white sails were pressing in upon them; how could they turn their backs upon such an invasion? Davidson, like Jane, was uncertain as to whether he should welcome or fear it. Only, when the ship came near enough so that he could tell she was a schooner, his eyes seemed to light up. Jane noticed it, and was more frightened than ever.

“Pretty,” he said, very low. The sun was blazing on her tall sails. Did she look to him much as the Annie Marlow had looked to her years ago?

“What shall we do, Daveson? Go down and meet these people?”

“Sure — they may be in trouble — need water or something.”

“Or maybe they’re pirates,” she suggested. “What’ll we use for clothes?”

He looked at her and smiled. “I forgot how naked we are,” he said. “Let’s ransack the oddments and see what we can find.”

The dreary little pile of clothes was in the back of the cave. They hauled them out into the sunlight — tenderly, for fear they would fall to pieces. Jane put on her old red skirt. But the faded green blouse split down the front as she struggled with it, and she looked at Davidson in dismay.

“Put it on backwards,” he advised her. “And now let’s see what’s left of my pants.”

Fortified by these threads of civilization, they sat on the rocks in front of their cave, watching what was going on below. They heard the purring squeak of gaffs coming down, and the rumble of the anchor chain. The schooner was still pretty far out — of course the captain would not risk her in the shoals of a strange harbor. A boat was lowered. It looked as if there were three in it, apparently dressed, or half-dressed, in traditional tropic fashion, with white pants and wide-brimmed hats.

“They don’t look very piratical,” Davidson said. “Let’s go down and see what it’s all about.” But for a minute or two she could not help holding back. “Come on,” he urged. “It’s probably one of those wandering scientific expeditions, out after bugs and corals and compass variations.”

There were three in the boat: a big, dark, bearded fellow; a tight-set young man in a helmet; and a thin tall man with distant blue eyes and gray hair showing beneath his hat. He carried a large butterfly net. That was the first thing to catch Jane’s eye, and she resented it…. Butterfly-hunting on her island?

“You’re right,” she whispered to Davidson. “Scientists.”

The men were too absorbed in their landing to notice the islanders. But presently the big man looked up and caught sight of them, standing quietly at the edge of the woods. “Hello! Hello there!” he shouted impulsively. Then he added: “D’you speak English?”

Jane laughed frankly, and Davidson found his voice. “Castaways,” he explained huskily. “Annie Marlow.”

The big man hung fire a minute, and then fumed with jerky energy. “Annie Marlow! By jings!” he exclaimed. “I remember. Lost with all hands. I remember. Well, for Christ’s sake!”

They shook hands all around, and introduced themselves. The big man was captain; the young, tight-lipped one was Thomas, geologist of the expedition; the one with the net was Richardson, an entomologist of whom Jane dimly remembered having heard through old Professor Myers years ago.

“Off on a holiday?” she asked, trying to be casual.

Holiday!” the skipper exclaimed. And he looked quizzically at the others. “No, you couldn’t call it that.”

“How’d you happen to land up here?” Davidson asked. “And where are we, anyhow?”

“You got us, brother,” said the captain. “I can tell you the latitude and longitude, but that doesn’t help much.”

“You mean, the island isn’t known about at all?” Jane asked.

The geologist shook his head, and the captain went on explaining. “We knew this part of the ocean hadn’t been explored, and we wanted to chart currents and such stuff. And Mr. Thomas here had a theory that if there did happen to be any islands round hereabouts, they’d be — interesting — from a geological standpoint…. Say, is there any water on the God-damned place? We’ve got mighty low. Had me worried.”

“Sure there’s water,” Davidson said. “And plenty of fruit and stuff. I bet you could stand some fresh stuff, couldn’t you?”

“Sure could!… My God! So you two’ve been living here all this time!”

“How long is it, anyway?” Jane asked.

The captain considered. “Annie Marlow,” he repeated slowly. “Well, must be nigh on to three years ago we heard about her being lost…. Three years!” he exclaimed, as the thought struck him forcibly. “Say, I’ll bet you’re a’mighty glad to see somebody. Musta been hell-fired lonesome. It’s a damn wonder you found enough to live on…. Well, we’re going home to New York. How does that sound, eh?”

“New York!” Jane exclaimed sharply.

“Impatient?” the skipper queried. “Well, it won’t be long. A few days ought to finish up our looking round here, hadn’t it, Ned?” he asked the young geologist.

“She’s a darn pretty schooner you’ve got there,” Davidson remarked.

The rather coarse-looking captain changed countenance, and for a second he looked out to sea with the same affectionate pride that Jane had seen many a time on old Captain Maynard’s weatherbeaten face…. “Sailors!” she exclaimed softly to herself, half-exasperated, half-admiring.

Besides these three men, they learned that there was a crew of mate, cook, and three seamen, and an indefinite number of other scientists, all working day and night over collections and records, all engulfed in back-breaking work. Their method was to land anywhere that looked scientifically promising; there they would camp for a few days and collect feverishly almost everything they came across. During the next interval at sea they would compile their records and slave intensely over tabulations, analyses, charts, graphs, amid batteries of delicate instruments. They had been under way for two years now, and were ready to run home to their laboratories and see what they had actually accomplished.

The islanders showed Captain Porter where to fill his water-cask, a few hundred yards back of the beach in the woods; and Jane helped him fill with wild oranges a basket he had brought along. The skipper was mightily concerned for the well-being of these castaways.

“Say, wouldn’t you folks like to come out to the schooner? Guess we could scare up a couple o’ bunks for you. Bet a decent feed would taste a’mighty good.”

Jane thanked him cordially enough, but said they were doing fine — in fact, they had worked it out to a point where they were eating regally…. The captain looked at her in unconcealed amazement, doubtless thinking that the long ordeal had made this poor child daft. He scratched his head, while she continued to pick oranges, oblivious. Presently he asked her if there wasn’t anything they’d like to have brought in to them in the morning: blankets, a water-pail, matches…? Wasn’t there anything in the way of grub she had a yen for? Not that they had anything very fancy.…

“Why, yes,” she told him frankly, from a branch half-way up the orange tree. “I’ve sometimes thought I’d love a slice of bread and butter and sugar.”

At this the burly fellow burst into a long roar of laughter. It struck him as incongruous beyond anything he had ever heard that this girl, marooned so long in terrible solitude without any of the things that made life worth living, should voice this naive and child-like desire for bread and butter and sugar. He, in her shoes, would have had torturing dreams of beef-steak, tender, running with red juice… or a fat turkey… chestnut stuffing….

After they were gone, Jane and Davidson climbed very quietly back to their cave. They sat down on the rocks, and watched the boat reach the schooner’s side, and the three men climb up the rope ladder.

“I don’t like that Thomas chap,” Jane said suddenly. “He looks hard and selfish. I wonder what he’s up to with his geology.”

“Well, it isn’t any of our business.”

“Davidson, are we going with them?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

Her resentment surged up. “But why should we?” she demanded bitterly. “The world hasn’t anything for you and me. What would we do in — New York — of all places! Aren’t we happy here?”

“They’ll think we’re crazy if we stay here,” Davidson mumbled.

“Well, isn’t that our business? We’ll go off and hide on the mountain till they’ve gone.”

But Davidson did not answer. He only stared at the little schooner as if he could not take his eyes off her. “How I’d like to have one of my own,” he sighed, “and sail in her all over the world!”

A silent panic seized Jane. She knew that the sailor in him was awake and rampant, that he was hearing waves slap against a courageous prow, and the song of wind in the sails — cold northern wind — a virile wind, instead of these tropic zephyrs. Was this, after all, any kind of life for a red-blooded man: flowers, butterflies, fishes? Was she going to lose him, then — lose him to the sea? Was every white-winged ship to be her rival?… Twice during the night he got up restlessly; she saw him stand silhouetted in the mouth of the cave. She knew he was staring down into the harbor where he could see the pin-pricks of the schooner’s riding lights. Then he would return, with a curious sigh…. Jane lay perfectly still, with her hands clenched by her sides, looking straight up into the cave’s black roof, as though lying awake and tense, without relaxing, was somehow a way of fighting the sea. Davidson slept fitfully enough. Once, as he turned over, his arm fell heavily across her chest, like a gesture of reassurance…. I against a ship, thought Jane — I against a ship….

The scientists came ashore in the morning, six of them, and some of the seamen as well. They brought a tremendous pile of dunnage: tent, mosquito nettings, shovels and pickaxes, water buckets, cameras, bottles, scientific instruments. It made Jane laugh a little to see them laboriously carting all that stuff ashore. Such extensive preparation was incongruous and amusing, when she had managed life so very well with no earthly possessions whatever. Civilization certainly did burden one with luggage, she reflected — oh, Lord, masses of mental and material luggage to be carried….

They did not go down to meet the party this morning. Jane stood on the ledge in front of the cliff, watching the little group of men on the beach…. All at once an explosion, a terrific ghastly scream from scores of birds’ throats, Jane’s scream mingled with them, a thunderous clatter of wings from the cliff, and the unbearable sight of a crumpled bird reeling in his flight and falling, stricken — falling….

Jane stood glaring savagely. She could see the detestable Mr. Thomas, his shotgun smoking, walk up the beach to recover the bird he had killed. And suddenly she felt that she could not tolerate these meddling scientists — coming to her island to catch butterflies and murder birds, and bringing their cursed little schooner under Davidson’s sailor eyes, tantalizing him, maybe luring him off to sea. She could no longer control her rage, and, half-crying hysterically, she went running back into the woods, tearing through the brush, jumping over the tangled deadfalls until, completely broken in wind, she could not run any longer. And even this violence of hers could not make her forget the horror of seeing that free, living creature struck down before her very eyes in the midst of its flying….

This running away into the woods had always been her favorite escape, from other people or from herself, beginning with her childhood in Maine. The woods of Maine were very different, though. There, she had looked up into a wavering lattice of pine branches, sparking silver in the sun. She remembered that one day, alone and half-afraid, she had put her arms around a young white pine, leaned her slender body upon it, and felt at once as though she had a friend. That tree had seemed solid and permanent. As permanent as anything on earth could be. Not even the earth itself was really permanent. Some day maybe the machinery of the universe would go wrong — the balance would be upset — and the earth would go catapulting into its sun like a very small moth into a gigantic flame.

She remembered, too, liking the way a tree lived — drawing its own sustenance direct from the earth, dispensing sustenance generously to the world around it; roots solid in the earth, growing and gripping; branches free to wave in the wind and to sparkle in the sun; trunk flexible, swaying with the weather. You could learn something from that. If you understood it properly, you could read from it the equivalent of many dusty bookshelves of philosophy. Once people had worshipped trees. A sensible worship, too, since without them the human race could not live…. She had decided then that, in her own humble way, she would try to live as a tree did.

She wandered restlessly among tropic creepers, and tried to forget the murdered seagull — tried to dispel her fears about the island. She could not get away from the haunting idea that the visit of these scientists somehow spelled disaster — disaster on a larger scale than the sacrifice of a few specimens. She was overwhelmed by a new realization of the transitory nature of everything in life. Nothing could be counted on, anywhere. All was shifting and mirage-like. That was pretty difficult to accept. Human nature had an unfortunate clinging tendency, a tragic desire to make life settle, a pitiful expectation that it would stay settled. Human nature could never get used to the idea of life as a relentless river, eventually carrying everything away with it, bringing new things, carrying them away in turn.

Beauty changed. You yourself changed, perhaps more than anything. Perhaps this was good, if you could only learn to accept it. Perhaps it could keep you happy and interested, if you only knew how to use it. It might enable you to revolve in the same direction as the world, instead of bucking it, trying to make it revolve as you wanted.

Jane laughed, then. Once she had complained at absence of change. Now she was bitterly fighting this menace of change. She had often called herself a rebel, hater of civilization; now she was wondering if it was not wiser to try and go with the world. And the paradox was that all these conflicting thoughts had some measure of sense and truth. She felt herself temporarily posted at a vantage point, a mountain outlook from which she could survey the landscape. She saw the whole intricate mesh spread out below, a spider-web of feelings, motives, opinions, dreams, complaints in conflict with one another. They were all true, they were all false; and, looked at from far away, they were all a little bit absurd.

Even this peaceful island was the scene of confusion now. The scientists had their motives, doubtless as real as her resentment of them. She had her dreams. Davidson was torn by two desires. And the ogre that was civilization, that had so considerately left them alone for nearly three years, was now brooding again over the scene with a cynical eye, laughing, doubtless, as the bird fell, a white crumpled thing in the sunlight…. She almost wished she were devoid of emotion, for apparently it was futile, or absurd, or both, to want anything too much, to believe anything too strongly, to get mad, or to be unhappy. Yet how unlikeable a person would be, who did none of these things!…

The scientific party camped on the west side of the hill. For Jane, there was not the slightest possibility of any friendly relations with them. Davidson strolled over to the tent once in a while to chin with them, and he brought back amusing tales of their doings. Once he brought back a small package wrapped in a napkin. For Jane, he said, with Captain Porter’s compliments…. There was one sailor in the party, a young chap named Wilson, whom he liked. This Wilson had for years been saving money, a few pennies at a time, so that some day he could buy a little boat of his own. Talking together, the two men found that they shared a dream — and their friendship was cemented.

Fragments of their conversation were repeated to Jane, and she could guess the rest. For the most part, Davidson did not talk much about the sea. But there was a new touch of restlessness in the atmosphere. Often she would find him brooding. He would struggle with these moods, and throw them off, and be unusually kind and tender to her for a while; and she knew that he was doing this consciously, logically — and that it never quite worked. It was pathetic, and hateful because it divided them. She surmised that he was trying to fight it intellectually — rationalize it out of existence. She racked her brains for some way to help him accomplish this — some way to steel him against the whisperings of the sea. There were moments when she was frantic with fear and exasperation. She would have enjoyed burning the schooner that drew Davidson’s eyes so irresistibly, except that that would have stranded this unwelcome company indefinitely on the island!

One evening Davidson came back to the cave gloomier than ever. Jane asked no questions. She supposed it was another attack of the sea. But presently of his own accord he spoke to her. “Bad news,” he said very softly. “We’re through here, Jane.”

And although she had been fearing this for days, half expecting it, she felt all the breath go out of her body, leaving her limp.

“What’s happened?” she asked faintly.

“They’ve found what they were after,” he said. He was holding his head in his hands, not daring to look at her.

“But I don’t understand,” she protested. “What were they after, David?”

He answered in one word. “Gold,” he said.

Chapter XIII…

Comments

  1. Hard not to wonder about Barbara’s last known night when reading, “This running away into the woods had always been her favorite escape, from other people or from herself, beginning with her childhood in Maine.”

  2. Bluejay Young says:

    Thank you. You know, this tale would make one hell of a movie.

  3. I’m dying to read the rest! I see it’s been nearly three years since a post has been added . . . please don’t leave us in suspense!!

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