Lost Island, part 14

“XV” (really Chapter XIV, I think), pp. 194 – 212 of Lost Island. Chapter I is here.

He was gone. There were some facts you could deny, or argue with, or ignore, but there was nothing to do about this one, except coldly look it between the eyes and say: “I’m not afraid of you.”

But Jane was afraid. When you were one with another human being, and suddenly were made to drift about and act as an independent unit, what happened? Where and who were you then?

The first few days of his absence had taken an amusing, almost entertaining aspect. For she was constantly turning to him in all the varied, multitudinous details of life. She would forget he was away; she could not keep the fact in mind. Sometimes she laughed aloud at this — and as she laughed, turned to share its grim humor with him.

Then these incidents became painful and exasperating. Instead of sudden stabs of loneliness which had come at intervals in the beginning, she was haunted by an almost unceasing ache, alternating with deadly weariness. Without him, the city was more alarming than ever. Alone in her apartment, she had moments of real terror. On the island she had never minded darkness and isolation, the rumbling of the sea, rustling of leaves, odd sounds made by forest creatures. But here the huge grumble of traffic kept her awake; she flinched when the windows shook with it. And no Millie to keep her company. She considered finding some other congenial room-mate, but rejected the idea: some time Davidson would come back, and he must be able to come freely to stay with her. So she went on by herself, fighting the city, wrestling with her loneliness, and by a miracle of perseverance holding her own.

Davidson wrote to her sometimes — short, curiously worded letters — mere skeletons of thoughts, with their fabric left to her understanding. He wrote in little phrases separated by curved dashes. From anyone else she would have thought it a barbaric manner of writing, but from him she adored it. Mostly these were dashed off hastily at sea, sometimes to be posted within a few minutes. “Just coming into San So-and-So — funny little place — in fact it can’t really be called a place — just a pier with a light on the end — to keep one from walking off I suppose — I love you.”

Every once in a while a much longer letter would come. She soon learned that these were his ‘longshore letters, written when he had perhaps an entire evening at his disposal. Even they did not tell her anything very concrete about what he was doing, and the chronological order of events in his life.  He simply assumed that it would not be interesting to her, since to him it was commonplace enough. He would recount scattered pieces of what had happened since he had written last, and then dive into philosophical meditations and humorous descriptions.

She was glad when old friends began showing up, one by one. Some of them had never heard that she had gone away, and others supposed that she was dead or had forgotten them. Before the Annie Marlow adventure, her friends had been the one part of New York life that had made her happy. They were a diverse crowd. There were young married people, lonely girls struggling with their first jobs, boys trying to work their way through Columbia, girls who had gone to business school with Jane when she first came to New York. Most of them were hard up or making bad weather of it in some way: she had made few contacts with the idle rich.

People confided in Jane. Before she had been back in the city very long she had heard a good many sorrowful tales, and several little tangled situations had been put tenderly into her hands. People’s difficulties had always secretly astounded her, because she was simple at heart, and believed in simplicity. Now they seemed even more absurd and out of place. Perhaps that explained her success in handling these matters: she never took them quite seriously, but always with a touch of secret humor, while no one suspected that she was not solemn as a judge. In a way that was what they made of her, she reflected: a friendly and unofficial judge. She felt that she could fill the post more ably now, because of Davidson and the stars, and the sea that had stamped its rhythm upon her heart.

The office was the same as always. Miss Perry sat eternally at her desk, wiry and grayish, with impersonal eyes. Like Professor Myers, she seemed to have aged. The whole office and everyone in it appeared dustier than ever. And the horrible part of it all was that these small changes were merely superficial, and by their nature served only to intensify the dismal sameness that went on underneath. Every now and then she would be overwhelmed by an odd sensation, as though, like the light princess in the fairy tale, she had lost her gravity. Perhaps the most surprising fact was that she had been able to readapt herself to this old life, even painfully and with difficulty. It was wrong. She and the office should both have undergone such a transformation that their reunion would have been impossible. Instead of which, here she was with nothing but an ebony ring and a few rainbow streamers around her shoulders to prove that Lost Island and Davidson had ever existed. The ring was part of her flesh. As for the rainbows — well, they were pretty ragged, pretty battered, and in any event not suitable to wear to a respectable job. Every now and then she would put a few pieces into the trash basket…. She was almost sure that never again would she discuss dreams with Miss Perry.

New York had all the same old things wrong with it. The same gods, Money and Speed. If you refused to bow before those altars, it was too bad for you, that was all. You lived in the murk, with never a really fresh piece of wind or a first-hand ray of sunlight. It was no wonder people sometimes lost their heads, and drank and dissipated.

Jane was living in two worlds: a shadowy, dim one superposed on a background of brightness and gleam. Sometimes these made war. Her hardest job was to keep them reconciled, to make each one of them give her something of value. The one thing that never failed to amuse her and keep her busy, was this interest she took in people. She could even get a kick out of the old game of watching faces in the subway, although that tended to be a depressing rather than a stimulating game. Rows of fat business men behind newspapers, all devastatingly alike. The women were possibly a shade better, though it was a scant shade. Subway men certainly put the species to shame. There were pale effeminate creatures, whom you had to look at twice to be sure they weren’t girls; short pudgy Jews in striped shirts; strange droopy men with mustaches. Only once a week, or twice in rare weeks, you caught a glimpse of a brave upstanding creature with an honest gleam in his eyes. Another interesting fact about subways was that people headed for different destinations differed hugely. You could make quite a sociological study of that, if you could stand the diverse smells.

She would gladly have traded all her friends, old and new, to be with Davidson. She was more aware of him now than when he had been constantly with her. Overshadowing everything she did, following her wherever she went, was her longing for him. At first this ghost was very definitely Davidson, with his moody eyes and his characteristic walk, that looked so leisurely, and a little awkward, and was really so fast. And then, as time wore on, she could no longer say for sure that it was he, that it was anyone at all; it was just a longing. She had always tried to be honest with herself, and she was not too old-fashioned to question whether this longing might not be simply for companionship, and love, rather than for some one person whom she could not have. After all, nearly a year had gone by….

Her friends took it for granted that she was just about the happiest creature on earth. She had established herself with them in that capacity, and nothing she did could change their conception of her. When she was quiet and serious, they never suspected her. That was just Janie’s way. She was, as far as they were concerned, a known quantity. This was humorous to her and a little painful at times, for although she liked to keep within the protection of her secret, she sometimes felt a human pang because they did not understand. Her heart was cold around the edges, and no one knew; sometimes it froze into a small sharp icicle, like a waterfall in winter time.

Margaret Kingsley came nearer than anyone else to understanding. Sometimes the two girls had lunch together; but lunch was crowded and unsatisfactory. More often Margaret would meet Jane outside the office after work, and they would cook supper in Jane’s kitchenette; afterwards go to a show, or just sit talking.

“I have more fun with you, Jane, than with any of my boy friends — not that that’s saying much.”

“They must be pretty awful.”

“Indescribable,” Margaret said. “What are the prospects of your having one some time?”

“Well, I’m just getting round to the idea that it might be fun.”

“Atta girl! Don’t stay married to a ghost. Not healthy.”

“Sounds pretty cold,” Jane admitted. “Sounds almost like pneumonia. But you know, I think you’re married to one, yourself.”

“Maybe. But it doesn’t pay. I know that’s true, even if I don’t practice what I preach. Jane, I haven’t really enjoyed anything since — except you — and it was nearly three years ago…. What’s the matter with love, that it always goes so wrong? Either they are cruel to each other, or else get bored to extinction.”

“I don’t think there’s anything the matter with love,” Jane said. “Only civilization has kind of dressed it up in plate-glass armor, and invested it with some sort of mystery that has no particular business to be there. We’re hampered and fettered with the good old iron shackles of tradition, inhibition, et al., and then we’re surprised when we trip and fall down and hurt ourselves. And then, I think people get so mixed up with a kind of dreamy-eyed mock romance of their own invention that they can’t tell that from the real article. They play a game, thinking it’s sincere. A girl thinks any man is her rightful, one-and-only mate if he’s a bit convincing and a bit mock-romantic. And any poor wretch can be that. They learn it from the movies, and get it down pretty pat.”

“You had an island,” Margaret said.

“Yes — that was my luck.”

“Even if I should ever get shipwrecked,” the other girl went on, “it wouldn’t be with the right man. It would be the fat old steward, I’m sure. Or else the island would turn out to be a barren coral reef.”

“You’re too romantic,” Jane said.

“Romantic! What do you mean?”

“Well, when people find life unexciting, as you seem to, it’s sometimes because they themselves are way off in gold clouds, looking down snootily upon this little ash-heap of an earth, and thumbing their noses at it, not even trying to get properly acquainted with it. Of course it looks like an ash-heap, at that distance.”

“It’s sort of hard not to turn up your nose at life,” Margaret said. “Especially when it’s hurt you. Sort of a defense.”

“Maybe it’s a defense,” Jane said, “but I don’t believe it’s a good one…. You don’t mind my saying this, do you?”

“Shoot, kid!”

“You don’t have to take me seriously, anyhow. But that kind of defense — shutting yourself up in a castle, and thumbing your nose between the bars — doesn’t hurt the world a bit, after all. The world doesn’t even know about it. You want revenge, but you’re just wasting your energy; you’re just hurting and limiting yourself.”

“I know that, sort of subconsciously,” Margaret admitted. “What’s the secret of your own resilience, Jane?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s no secret. My friends help. You help, for one. I’m interested in people. And I have a tendency to laugh. I know I’d get a kick out of posing in corsets, or selling sausages. I like to think I can get some sort of a kick out of most anything. I think I’m better at that than I used to be. Takes practice, and you have to try a little. If you don’t care about people, there are other surprising phenomena, such as tadpoles growing up to be frogs, or the fact that light comes in waves, or the question of space being infinite, or the birth control movement. And little things — that you can’t possibly see from your castle. You’ve known me long enough to know what I mean. Today I saw a dirty kitten playing with a broom in a grocery store. It made me laugh out loud. The other day I walked out to the Washington bridge, and there was a perfectly passable sunset. There are lots of things: a glass of wine, maybe, or a good tune on a neighbor’s radio, a new bud on my geraniums, an evening with you.”

“You seem to have doped it out pretty well. You make me feel a bit ashamed.”

“Oh, it only seems to run smoothly because I’ve trained it to, Marg. Hard work, of course. If I were in your shoes, looking out of that castle window, I’d buy a telescope. You’d see some pretty amusing things, if you’d only set yourself a different scale.”

“What would you do, Jane, if you had my dumb pack of boy friends?”

“Oh, come now! Everybody has a spark or two somewhere. Something he’s interested in, or can do well, or likes to talk about. Just hunt around till you find the spark. Then blow on it…. Oh heck, let’s not talk philosophy any more.”

“But you’re so good at it.”

“Do I really help any?”

“Of course you do! You’re the sanest, most practical creature I ever ran into.”

“Well, you help me, too,” Jane said. “You’ve an uncanny feeling for clothes — line and color. I’m dressing a hundred per cent better since I knew you.”

“That’s pretty superficial help,” Margaret said.

“Nothing is superficial that makes you a well-balanced person,” Jane asserted. “Besides, people ought to supplement each other, exactly as you and I are doing. I can get a kick out of that in itself. Just come down off your beloved Olympus, and you will, too.”…

A few days later, at five o’clock, Jane was standing outside the door of the building her office was in. The city was just lighting up. A murmur, forever growing to a roar and then subsiding, like a gigantic pulse: countless fragments of humanity, the chorus of millions of voices, the tired beating of millions of heels against the pavements, the great varied streams of traffic….

“Jane!”

This voice came from a group of people on the steps, some of whom were coming out in a hurry, and others trying to force their way in. She saw a young man pushing toward her, with light brown curling hair and eyes of rare shining blue.

“Jane! Gosh all hemlocks, is it you?”

“Wait a minute! Take it easy!” she commanded. “I can’t think…”

He grabbed her arm. “Jane!” he exclaimed again.

“Wait… oh, I know…! Heather!… Johnny!”

And right there, on the steps of the building, in the crowd, he flung his arms around her and kissed her, laughing, as if he hadn’t kissed anyone for a hundred years.

“You old parachute! Wherever did you drop from?”

“Where did you drop from, you’d better say, Jane. I’ve been hunting you for years. Did you get lost in a cloud, or what? I had an address once. I kept writing there, and all my letters came back.” He was talking so fast and eagerly that his words fell over one another.

“I don’t know where to begin, John. But let’s go home and talk — ”

“All right!” he put in.

“And I’ll tell you the tale of my life, and you’ll tell me yours. How’s your father, and Heather?”

“Well, I’m afraid Father’s not so young as he used to be — can’t do so much; but Heather’s alive and kicking,” he added with a sudden burst of enthusiasm.

“You look as young as ever, John — in fact, younger.”

“I am. Why wouldn’t I be. I’ve found you!”

“Life’s been treating you well, what?”

“Except for not being able to find you.”

“Oh, forget me, you liar! What have you been doing with yourself? Married?”

“Ye Gods, of course not! Do I look like it? Do I sound like it?”

“Well, not exactly.”

“Are you?”

“Well, no.”

“Surprising!”

“So what!” said Jane.

“So I think I’ll kiss you again,” he said…. “By the way, I’ve got a car some place. Which way is west, Janie?”

“A whole car of your own, you plutocrat?”

“Well, a whole Ford…. Here! Maybe this is it.”

They worked their way slowly uptown. Whenever they came to a red traffic-light, John kissed her. “Damn!” he would say, “it’s going green!” or “Hurrah! We’ll never make this one!”

Jane was much too weak with laughter to protest, even if she had wanted to. Between traffic-lights she wangled out of him bits of his own history.

“…It isn’t very interesting, but you see old Aunt Angeline kicked the bucket and left me quite a nest-egg.”

“Atta girl!” said Jane. “Who’d have thunk it of her?”

“You disrespectful wench! You might at least thank her for my having a Ford.”

“So now you’re a gentleman of leisure, is that it?”

“Well, not exactly. I’ve got an income that I can’t quite live on, so I piece it out by — well, I’ve been doing a bit of writing, to tell the truth. Not very good, though. Published a few articles and a story, and I’ve got a book in my head.”

“Sounds good to me!”

“Think so? Well, you know what I do? I have a rather swell sort of life. Bum around — mountains, mostly — you know how I always loved mountains, Janie. And you — you loved them, too.”

She turned to him, radiant. “Why, you remember a lot about me, don’t you? You remember that mountains were my God.”

“I should say I do! Remember the time — we were just little kids then — and we climbed Whitney Hill to pick blueberries, and we looked off at the White Mountains, and you said: ‘Gee, Johnny, I don’t know about God, and I don’t think I believe in Him, but I sure believe in mountains.'”

Jane laughed joyously. “Oh, Lord, what times we had! All those quaint ideas that we were so solemn about. They were secrets, too, weren’t they? We never dared tell anyone else. But you and I always understood.”

“Well, I’m faithful. I stick to mountains most of the time, now. I hike all over the country, and climb everything in sight. Pack on my back, a string of Knorr’s pea soup sticks round my belt, and off I go, for weeks and months at a stretch.”

“Regular gipsy, what?”

“Yes, and you know what? I’ve got the grandest little log cabin in Maine, near Katahdin. Enormous fireplace, books. Sometimes I spend a whole winter there, writing, reading, tramping. How I’ve longed to show you that place, Janie! Fetch my wood in from the forest — trees all snowy — tracks of little animals. You’d love it. Tramp fifteen miles for provisions. I couldn’t ever live long out of the wilds. It’s in my bones…. Then every once in a while I put on a collar and come to town, see a show, talk to a publisher or two, see you.”

He was like a little boy in his vigor and enthusiasm. “Tell you how it is,” he ran on. “I couldn’t go on living an ordinary sort of life, you see. I was scared I’d get caught in the machine — you know — The Machine, and all that. Had a job in Portland once. Nearly finished me…. There’s been only one thing wrong, as a matter of fact. I missed you so, Janie. I wanted the kid I used to pick blueberries with. I kept thinking of you with your hair flying in the wind, and the way you laughed, and the way you loved butterflies, and how you were the grandest pal on earth, and what a grand runner you were. I didn’t know — until you went away after that Charlie business….”

“I thought of you, too, Johnny.”

“Did you? he asked eagerly. “You did!”

“Yes, I thought of you saying: ‘Why doon’t ye pin a note on the duck, Janie? If Heather’s aroond, Andra’s no far awa’.”

“Oh, Jane, I’m glad you thought of me, even if it was just something ridiculous. Tell me some of yours now. I just bet you’ve a yarn to spin!” His eyes were shining.

“I bought a red skirt,” she said solemnly. “That sums it up.”

“Hope you didn’t pay too much for it. Where is it now?”

“Well, I left most of it on an island. You see, I got shipwrecked. That’s why I didn’t get your letters.”

“What an imagination!”

“No, honest!”

“Well, hadn’t we better get you another?”

“Another island?”

“Sure, if you like. I really meant another red skirt. Become you very well.”

“You seem to understand,” said Jane.

“Oh, sure, in my scatter-brained way. I know you meant it as a symbol of fun and freedom, and that something happened to it. Well, I’m glad you had it. It was time. Let’s have some more!”

“You bet!”

“Like to dance?”

For a minute she held her breath. Then suddenly: “John — that’s it!” she exclaimed.

“What’s what?… Let’s go slow, Ford — miss this light.”

“I knew there was something. Ever since I got back from that island — ”

“Loon Island!” he chuckled.

“I’ve known there was something I wanted, and in the city. I couldn’t think… Dancing — that was it! Rhythm and jazz.”

“Everybody needs that, if they’re any sort of creature at all,” said John. “It’s in the bones. Maybe you’ve been in love. Realize it more then. Of course you’ve been in love! Anybody so alive — ”

“And so beautiful — ” she put in.

“Of course! You were in love with me, really, all the time; only it probably had another name.”

“It certainly did,” Jane agreed dryly.

“Of course,” John said, with every appearance of solemnity. “Well, a-dancing we will go.”

“You seem to know a lot about me,” Jane said.

“Does that annoy you?”

“No, amuses me.”

“Of course I know a lot about you. Didn’t we climb Whitney Hill together and pick blueberries?”

“What’s far more important, we talked about God,” said Jane.

“One thing I know about you is that you adore to be kissed. Don’t you?”

“How am I supposed to answer that?”

“It doesn’t matter how you answer. It’s true, anyway. When you were standing out there on the office steps, you were simply dying to be kissed, weren’t you?”

“Not necessarily by you.”

“Oh, I know that; but even I was better than nobody, wasn’t I?”

“Is that why you promptly did?”

“Sure; I’m a gentleman.”

“So what!”

“Don’t you know? A gentleman is one who always pleases the lady…. Oh, don’t bother to say it. I know you aren’t a lady.”

All of a sudden a few tears of fierce relief welled up into Jane’s eyes, in the midst of her laughter.

With dancing came even greater relief. Either she had forgotten, or else, as John suggested, had never known its fascination. She had not realized the intricate splendor of jazz, with its thousands of scintillating tricks that made the senses stand on tiptoe with pleasure. They whirled, dipped, swung their feet back and forth, until Jane practically lost all sense of the polished floor beneath them; for all she knew, they might be dancing in space, unbound by any gravitational laws. If ever she had been unhappy, or had any trouble or worry of any kind, it was utterly erased now — drowned in primitive rivers of music.

“You haven’t had enough fun lately,” John said.

“Is that so obvious?”

“Yes. You dance desperately, as if it were the last dance on earth. You’re hungry. You’ve been taking life too dismally hard.”

“Maybe.”

“You’ve been thinking,” he said accusingly.

“Is that so bad?”

“Janie, if you value your happiness, don’t ever think!”

“How does one stop?”

“I’ll see that you don’t have time for it any more,” he said.

“Just do this once in a while, and I won’t take life hard.”

“And buy a new dress,” he said.

“Money, John!”

“Buy one anyway. Let me give it to you. I’d love to, as a sort of welcome-home present…. Don’t say no, because think what a kick it would give me.”

“Do you really think clothes make a difference?”

“Didn’t you hear me say you take life too hard? I want you to be light-headed and frivolous, for a change. I want you to get a kick out of superficial things. I’d adore you in something new and sparkly, showing off your backbone. I bet you’ve got a swell back, with muscles.”

“Muscles aren’t in style,” said Jane.

“That’s because they’re rare articles.”

“John, I never knew how much I loved to dance.”

“That’s easy to explain. You never danced with me.”

“You’re pretty good, I have to admit.”

“You’re in love with me, you see.”

“Oh, am I?”

“Certainly!”

They tried a hundred old steps, devised new combinations of them, changed abruptly from slow and sedate to hilarious and abandoned. They danced patterns around the glass pillars of the ballroom; they slid and skipped and skidded, experimented with new positions; sometimes they danced with the music, and sometimes in utter defiance of it; every now and then they broke into spontaneous, uncontrollable laughter, like schoolchildren.

Once Jane thought of Davidson, and it occurred to her that he was a living violation of everything John was dinning into her ears. He, too, might be happier if he would dance now and then. The thought of the tall sailor dancing was so incongruous that she chuckled aloud; and at the same time another part of her life, Davidson’s, was shocked by that chuckle. The Jane dancing so ecstatically in John’s arms, glad to let him kiss her lips in the corners of the room, brimming over with delight at the pleasure of flirting with him, was another Jane, certainly, who had little, if anything, to do with Davidson’s Jane. He would hate and despise everything she was doing tonight. She knew this, and yet curiously she had no sense that she was in any way disloyal to him. When you were two or three kinds of person at once, capable of enjoying two or three unrelated kinds of life, there was no reason why you should not live two or three separate lives — just as long as you carefully kept them separate!

At midnight they strolled over to the bar and drank a good many little sparkling glasses of Amontillado. It warmed them even more than the dancing had done; it lit Jane’s cheeks a little, made her eyes sparkle, and wrapped the room in golden mist. When they waltzed, it seemed that she was coming close to the motions of a swallow, soaring and skimming, touching the tops of waves. But now it was dancing with John, and not the dancing itself, that was exciting. The pressure of his hand on her back made her tingle; her fingers were suddenly aware that they liked to curl around his hand.

“If you tell me once more that I love you, I might believe it,” she warned him. “You’d better look out.”

“That would be hell, wouldn’t it?”

Their dancing became more and more a unison of movement; they pressed closer together, forgetting the separate steps, forgetting the music itself, in the pleasure of that embrace. And when the music stopped, they went on dancing. Somebody, seeing their rapt faces, laughed coarsely.

John put her into her coat, and walked her outside. Cold night wind made her hot face sting, ruffled her hair, made her feel wider awake than she had ever felt in her life. It was three o’clock, and the streets were almost deserted. Only an occasional light shone out from the enormous sides of buildings that flared up into the dark.

“New York at its best,” said John.

In her apartment, he took her in his arms again — not playfully. “I’ve loved you all my life,” he said.

“What sweeping statements you make!”

“Well, how about you?”

“It had another name,” she said mockingly.

“Yes, but now?”

“Right now — I love you,” she told him.

“I think you’d better let me stay tonight.”

“There’s not much of it left,” she retorted.

“You’d better let me stay. It’s what all our dancing has been leading to.”

“Of course, but — ”

“You’d be miserable if I didn’t, you know.”

“As a matter of fact, I’d probably fall asleep in two minutes,” she told him.

“I don’t believe it. And anyway, I’d be miserable. And after all, I’ve loved you all my life.”

“You’d better let me think about it.”

“Wrong, Janie! You shouldn’t ever think. And anyway, loving isn’t something to be thought about. It’s a need of the heart and the body. It’s a beautiful need, and ought to be fulfilled. It only gets ugly when it isn’t fulfilled.”

She looked squarely into his blue eyes, and laughed a little.

“Nothing that’s beautiful is ever wrong,” he said.

“You glorious pagan! I quite agree with you.”

“You’re a pagan, too,” he said. “I knew you would be, after you got away from Maine and Charlie, and had a chance. That’s why I’ve hunted you so madly.”

“I’m awfully glad you’ve found me,” she confessed simply. “You’ve made me happy. And if you really want to love me — here I am.”

Chapter XV…

Speak Your Mind

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