Lost Island, part 17 – the later ending

The final chapter of Lost Island, written in May-June 1932, when Barbara decided her story needed it. Chapter I is here.

 

“John, you’re an old kidnapper, that’s what you are!”

“Glad?”

“Sure I’m glad, but I think you’re a menace to the country, all the same.”

“What do you propose to do about it, Janie?”

“That’s just what I’m trying to figure out. Dangerous business, you know, to transplant a person several hundred miles without even giving them a chance to breathe. New York — presto! — the Maine woods.”

“But you are glad?”

“Yes, that’s the one flaw in my arguments. I am glad.”

“I want to be — oh, awfully good to you, Jane. After all, I took you away, almost by main force, to spend your nasty little two-weeks vacation at my sister’s house in Portland, and now I’ve got to be good.”

“You’re incredible, Johnnie. I always knew that — ever since you said: ‘Why doon’t ye pin a note on the duck?’ Remember?”

John threw back his head and laughed happily. His eyes met the rare blue of the sky over Maine on a clear day. She looked up too — not at tenements or skyscrapers, but into a wavering lattice of pine branches. A green and gold dragonfly whisked overhead. A song sparrow was chattering about summer time and the sun. This was Maine again. It had not been an illusion. There was really sunlight here.

Now that she was sure, she dared to remember a time, not long ago, when there had been a creeping darkness around her, over her — stifling, thunderous. She beat her wings in anguish against iron — and no release, no hope, no beauty, seemed even remotely true any more. The world was a glum black smudge. No prospect of its ever changing. You marched on, round and round, until you fell gasping from exhaustion. And she had too much strength to fall from exhaustion. Life was apparently hardest on strong people, then. The weaklings could simply die.

She remembered how she had cursed the world, hated the world, screamed at the world for driving Davidson off from her — for driving him off into the clean wide seas on an endless quest. In a way the victory was his, for he had not compromised with love. He had taken the iridescent essence of it in the palm of his hand, sorted out of it every grain of earthly dust, locked it up and thrown the key into his ocean. His victory and hers — but at the price of all the happiness in life. The sun had gone out — civilization had extinguished it as though it were a frail candle.

She had been deathly tired and sick — more so, it seemed, than during her days in the open boat. She remembered standing at Times Square one afternoon, waiting to cross to the subway entrance, and the ring of buildings had moved unsteadily and rocked in upon her, throwing ghastly shadows, and then wheeled back to leave cosmic spaces. Throngs and floods of people had swept by like an ugly wind; and over their roaring and droning a babel of sharper voices had hovered, each one clamoring for instant attention. “Jane, won’t you marry me?” “Aw, shucks, kid, cut out the lion-fever stuff. Don’t be a weepin’ willer.” “Have you seen my glasses, by any chance?” “Somewhere — there may be another island.”… The traffic lights changed — the currents of people mingled, conflicted, altered. She went on with them blindly, and fell down the subway entrance into complete darkness.…

“You’re right, Johnnie, I ought to be much more gracious about the way you yanked me out and set me down in my woods again. Tell me — I’m a little browner and sunnier today, aren’t I?”

“Yes, now you’re — you’re almost Jane, instead of that little wispy ghost with hollow cheeks and immense tragic eyes.”

“It’s the woods,” she told him, laughing. “I belong here, you know.”

Always the woods had calmed her. They were home. She could bend her body lithely among close brush and low branches. She could make her way with amazing soft-footedness — almost as quietly as the rustling squirrels and rabbits themselves. She loved the fragrance of wintergreen and sassafras leaves, and balsam needles. Years ago, when life had seemed very complex considering its futility, she would go out alone among leaves and moss, hills and streams, and they would sweep away the world’s tangles much as she brushed aside dewy cobwebs in the undergrowth. Now, in this bitterest experience of her life, had the woods lost their magic?

At first it seemed as though they had. Every creature, every leaf-shadow, every spore-laden fern, was in tune, while she was an outsider, grieving, unfulfilled. She felt white and conspicuous in a world where all colors blended as though they had grown there. And she could remember only the Lost Island forest, where she and Davidson had walked together, as part of each other and part of their world.

But after all there was sunlight here. Pastures ripe with steeplebush and gold-green hayscented ferns, luscious with blueberries. Pine groves and wild flowers and small animals. Walking alone for miles along narrow roads. Sometimes a deer dashed across in front of her, wide-eyed and alert, white tail in the air. Or a partridge would start up with a thunderous whir of wings. She would push into the woods after awhile, and wander quietly among shadows of leaf and light, quick to see a scattering of yellow lady-slippers or a cluster of white and lavender orchids. Sometimes a lizard — small curl of reddish color — would move against a wet brown leaf; or a chipmunk scurry by, his cheek pockets well stuffed. Veeries sang in golden spirals. And in the evening, hermit-thrushes answered each other from tree to tree.

There were countless things to be discovered when you roamed about outdoors, alone and in sunlight. She knew now the answer to a question she had asked long ago — when people were in love, were they still alone? Yes, always alone. Everyone on earth who thought about it at all was isolated, starkly, completely. Love gave a divine illusion. It gave companionship developed to the most subtle pitch — but beyond that it was an illusion. You were alone.

The Maine forest had taken her now, and it was pounding her against its earth, stripping away her half-shattered ragged rainbow. She was alone. And there was nothing to be counted on, anywhere. There were these woods, of course, but someday men from cities would come breaking in, and find here deposits of iron or of coal, or strip the place of its trees to build their own super-civilized dwelling places. Not even the woods, then, could really be counted on. Life was transitory, shifting, mirage-like.

Still, these forests would probably last her lifetime, after all. And then the candle goes out. She threw her arms impulsively around the trunk of a splendid young white pine, and laid her head against its rough bark. It reminded her of the day when she had first climbed the main rigging of the Annie Marlow, when she had clung to the sturdy topmast for strength and support. This was a very sympathetic white pine. Perhaps, in days gone by, it had been personally acquainted with that topmast. She almost felt that it was on communicative terms with her. A gust of wind shook its upper boughs — the masses of needles went sparking silver in the sun, and a vibration ran through the staunch old trunk. Its roots were in the earth, and its branches in the sun, and that was a good way to live.

Nothing could be counted on, all was transitory, and you were alone. Those facts were rather difficult foundations for a house of life, but perhaps you could build upon them, if you knew how. Or perhaps it was better to forget all houses and be like this tree, roots in the earth, boughs in the sun. A world of philosophy there — whole dusty bookshelves of it in two phrases!

This tree seemed permanent enough. For the time being, and for her, it could serve. Not even the earth was really permanent. Perhaps someday something would go wrong with the machinery of the universe — the balance would be upset — and the earth would go catapulting into its sun like a very small moth into a gigantic flame. But for the time being, this tree would serve well.

She looked straight up at the sky through surges of silver-green. Big bright clouds rolled by smoothly. She stared at them a long time, and then felt the swift sensation that she, her pine tree, and all the woods, all the world, were falling slantingly. She held on and watched, and drifted more and more into the swinging illusion of the thing. She and the pine tree were falling through space together. It was a long fall, and an oddly companionable one. She laughed a little at that. Life was relentless, but there was nothing more it could take away from her. She clung to her tree, ruthlessly divested by life of an entire world — a complete paradise — but the magic had been, and it was hers — as much hers and as real as anything could be in a transitory earth where no one could entirely possess anything.

The first thing to do was to dispose of this abysmal sorrow. Intellectually, logically, she had banished it long ago — in fact, on the day they had parted, and she had opened her arms to release him. “My mind’s right with you,” she told his shadow afterwards, “but oh, beloved, my heart’s making bad weather of it.”

He was right, of course. To take a love that had been divine, and force it to continue on a worldly plane, might have been cruel and heartless, and led to a towering disillusion. Better to sorrow, then — better to sorrow your heart out. This way, the essence of the rainbow could be forever treasured, preserved in its crystal. Uncared for, it might have waned until at last the crystal was only an empty shell.

Nothing in life was permanent. That was a terrible fact to take and be on friendly terms with. You were content to let most things shift and change, but there were a few you craved to hold with might and main. That was where bitterness came in — when you saw that this changing was a relentless river, eventually carrying everything away with it, bringing new things, carrying them away.

Even beauty changed. You changed. You were caught in the midst of complex currents of continual change. Perhaps it was good, if only you could accept it completely — if only your heartstrings would accept it. Perhaps it could keep you alive and happy and excited, if you knew how to use it. That was how you revolved in harmony with the world, instead of trying to buck it, to alter its direction according to yours.

Jane laughed, then. To complain, as she sometimes did, at the absence of change, then to struggle with the fact of continual change; to call herself a rebel, a hater of civilization, and then to philosophize about revolving along with the world…. It was impossible to solve anything there. You went round and round in circles. And all those conflicting thoughts had some measure of truth. She felt that at last she had come to a point of vantage — a mountain outlook where she could rest awhile and study the landscape. She saw it all below — a confusion of feelings and opinions and complaints spread out in complex circular patterns. All had a touch of absurdity. They were all true, they were all false, they all conflicted. Life was a complex circular pattern. It was absurd to believe anything too strongly — absurd to want anything too much — certainly absurd to be unhappy. She should be happier than most. She could survey the thing from a mountain outlook, and see it in totality, whereas if you lost yourself down there you took it all very seriously and followed some strand on and on without even realizing that it was circular and that there was no use in it. And she thought of the man pursuing the horizon in Stephen Crane’s poem….

Some of her feelings and thoughts she could confide to John. He would understand pieces of them, and they would discuss life animatedly as though it were an intellectual adventure. He would carefully follow all her winding passageways, but only with his mind. When it came to living, there were no winding passageways and no corners that were for him especially dark. When life was difficult, he went away and climbed a mountain, and came back with his heart washed in star-dust and his hope and faith high. If only she could go back from the Maine woods to New York feeling like that!

Till now she had hardly dared to think about New York, even for a minute. Now she would set to work systematically to map out and build up for herself a possible life there. Millie had gone on the road, so there was the question of a new roommate, for instance. And a job. Maybe there was another job in the world beside that grubby little one in Professor Myers’ office. She would ask John that evening. He had various surprising contacts with editors, printers, publishers. How about a bookstore? It might actually be fun to sell books. She would become adept at looking at a customer and knowing what was wanted. She would learn how to advise solicitous aunts what to buy for their infant nieces, or what a strapping father should present to his daughter on her birthday….

A qualm of despair rushed over her, a little shudder of rebellion. Why did people have to go on this way, fighting the world to wring a meager living out of it through devious channels? Channels? Gutters, rather! Why weren’t the trees enough? Why couldn’t one dance in fairy circles and thrive on frosty red wintergreen berries? Well, there was John. She distinctly saw that thought, overhead and a little to one side, hovering elusively. It must keep on hovering for some time before she could use it. Perhaps it would never come any nearer or be any brighter….

Now to stop rambling and get back to that city. She would miss this tree. She and it had lived through some vivid moments together…. There was the roommate question to attend to. She would need someone who was very happy. A happy person in New York? Doubtless there were a few, but they would be harder to find than fairies. One by one, she thought about the girls she knew, beginning, as nearly as she could judge, at the top of the happiness list. It was amusing to speculate about them this way. They ranged themselves in her mind like a row of marigolds, the brightest at one end, shading by degrees to duller, more wilted ones. After awhile she came to the very end of the line….

It was a long time since she had found courage to call on Margaret Kingsley, in her miserable corner down town, with not even a window-box of pansies for company. But now that the Maine woods had stiffened up her back a little, perhaps she could use this new strength — hold on to it by using it — by playing tree to somebody else. She had long been used as a tree by her friends. It was odd, and significant, that in her need she could turn only to the original tree itself — roots truly in the earth, branches waving in the sun!

Suddenly, from overhead, came a rush of song — notes that were clear and cool as moonstones, trailing up to a cascade of opals. Into the song of that hermit-thrush had crept all the joy mingled with all the sadness of her thoughts since she had come out by herself into the woods. As if the bird understood. Sunlight glanced through the leaves. The woods were alive and breathing gently. She was a pagan. She was in tune with them…. Clinging in silence to the white pine tree, she closed her eyes, but the cloud motion went on. She fell softly through infinite space, while a hermit-thrush sang. A far cry from New York!…

 

“Margie, you look grand this morning in that green dress.”

“Really like it, Jane? I think it’s not so bad.” Margaret Kingsley was brushing her hair thoughtfully in front of the little mirror.

“Howard tonight?”

“Yes, he’s meeting me at the store, after I finish selling corsets to my ugly old ladies.”

“Oh, well, I’ll be at my books all day, too — selling sex books to timid little women, books on woodcraft and fishing to pudgy business men, and the mediocrest novels you ever saw to everybody.”

“Don’t forget you found Howard Castle in that bookstore of yours.”

“You don’t let me forget it, do you?”

“Honest, Jane, I can’t so much as think about him without being practically electrocuted…. It’s a good life, you know.”

“Sure, I know. Nasty weather today, though.” Jane drew aside a rather dingy curtain and looked out into gray sheets of rain.

“Oh, by the way, Jane, I was thinking — whatever has become of John these days? Haven’t seen him in ages.”

“He went to Canada to nurse his battered emotions. Didn’t I tell you?”

Margaret turned around. “Why don’t you marry the poor guy and put him out of his misery?” she inquired.

“I may sometime.”

“I think he’s gorgeous,” said the other; then turned to her brushing again.

“Well, marry him yourself, and save me the trouble,” Jane suggested.

“Janie, you aren’t still — married to a ghost, are you?” A visible tremor went through the girl as she spoke. “Oh, Jane, it sounds so cold and shivery — married to a ghost.”

“Don’t talk about ghosts in weather like this. I’ve got to go to work, you know — smile all day at the dear customers — if any.”

It seemed to Jane that during the last year she and Margaret had pulled each other up pretty well, braced back to back. They had taken all the best odds and ends of life that they could find, and mingled them into a mosaic sort of pattern which was life. “Not much like the dreams, Marg, but it isn’t so bad, either, if we stick together.”

Still, Margaret was right. There was no sense at all in being married to a ghost. You could love the past and hold it sacred, but it was futile to try to live by it in the present — to mingle the two and build the present upon the dream that had been. Millie would doubtless have called her “Mrs. Ghost.” The thought made her chuckle, and she wished Millie were on hand to share it. She missed Millie a good deal, especially these last few weeks, for it seemed that Margaret’s standing was precarious — that any day now would see her carried off, body and soul, by her young poet. But then, any day now Millie would come home.

She would come in late some evening, with a great scuffling of heels and a gorgeous painted mouth, wearing a skin-tight black satin dress and a fluffy black fur-piece thrown casually over one shoulder. “Hello, lioness!” she would shout gaily. And Jane would never mention Mrs. Ghost at all….

And then it would be just as it was five years ago. Margaret would marry her poet, but Millie’s fifteenth — or was it sixteenth? — fiancé would be sent packing. Millie was now further along in the world of vaudeville and choruses, and Jane worked in a bookstore instead of an entomological research bureau, at a wage of five dollars a week more, but otherwise… it was fearful to think of civilization going on and on like this, trying to kid itself into believing it was eternal and immortal.

She had an odd sensation, then, as though, like the light princess in MacDonald’s enchanting fairy tale, she had lost her gravity. It was incredible that she should come back from her kingdom outside the world — come back and be able, even painfully, to adapt herself to life on earth again. It was incredible that the earth should still exist. She and it both should have undergone some supreme transformation. Instead of which — here she was. She was conscious that a few floating ragged streamers of rainbow still clung about her. She must carefully strip them off now, and put them into the trash-basket. In a few minutes it would be time to sally out to work. And you couldn’t go to a respectable job in a bookstore with rainbow rags drifting about your shoulders, or star-dust in your hair….

Jane laughed again, but there was a gleam of danger in her eye. Sometime, not too far off, she would stage another rebellion. It would not be the same kind of rebellion, though. One could never repeat the real adventures. That was why so many people were unhappy, she reflected. They tried to go back and repeat the things that had made them happy before. They tried to retrace the trail and visit again the places where they had known their highest ecstasies; whereas, if only they had the courage to push on, forward, over deserts and swamps and glaciers, they would sometime make new discoveries as bright as the others, or even brighter, perhaps…. One good way to start a rebellion was to buy a red, red skirt….

The rain surged down with a steady drone. Well, it was time to go to work. Couldn’t hang about the window all day. She peered out once more into the gray. As fas as she could see, not even a cat was out.

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  1. Thanks Stefan for your work on getting this online. I enjoyed reading this unpublished work and look forward to Travels Without a Donkey.

    Bruce

  2. Thank you for posting this. I enjoyed reading it very much. I especially liked the scenes on the island.

    I came here after reading “Vanishing Act.”