Lost Island, part 2

Chapter II, (pages 15-28) of Lost Island. All typos are mine. You’ll notice that Barbara circled “flapper” in the first paragraph, suggesting that she might have wanted a different word. Chapter I here.

II

Jane awoke with a feeling that everyone in New York, perhaps everyone in the world, was unhappy or in trouble. It had been so long since one of her young friends had come to her with news of happiness and good fortune. There were two exceptions, and on them she counted more than she knew — Millie, Broadway flapper; and Professor Myers, contented scientist.

The worst of it was that nothing seemed to be leading anywhere. You might struggle up a mountainside, tired and aching, thirsty and scratched with brambles, your packstraps cutting into your shoulders as if they were red-hot; but the fight was to a purpose. You would win, stand at last on the crest with triumph. You would unsling your pack and feel light and free as the wind, and go joyfully about the chores of making camp for the night. Stars in the depth of an ice-cold little spring.

Here was never-ending struggle, with no aim in it; nothing more noble than the brute, beast maintaining of life. You were fighting in the dark, for no reason that you could see. To be happy in New York your whole scheme of life had to be in tune. Millie was in tune. But the things which made Millie joyful or disgusted never touched Jane at all. Her life wasn’t cut out of the same pattern. Some people thrived on ten-cent diamonds. Others had to have stars. The star-people were not superior. They were in some ways less fortunate.

Jane knew mountains well, but the sea and she were strangers. She could not help wondering about it sometimes, when she heard the whistle of an outbound liner. There had been someone back in the Carey family: an Irish sea-captain? — a South Sea trader? No one remembered much about him. Nothing was left of his adventures except one fine old shell with the poetry of running tide in its heart. There must be peace at sea, if it could fashion a mysterious quiet thing like that old shell…. But the sea was unapproachable. On a ferry you could cross the harbor and see ships — rusty freighters and tall liners. But they weren’t really ships. They were symbols, intangible and ghostly. If you looked twice, they were likely not to be there.

Awaking with nothing ahead but another day of the crabbed routine…. Even Professor Myers, absorbed in his entomology, seemed restless at times. “Good morning, Miss Carey, good morning,” he greeted her. “Nice weather.”

“Yes, it’s a vast improvement over yesterday.”

“Days like these” — reminiscent tone — “I get to thinking about — well, going somewhere.”

“Collecting butterflies?”

“Butterflies, and other things. I get to thinking of all the men I know doing it, while I just sit here and tell ’em how. As if I was an old man — I’m not so old…. The West Indies, now — here’s a letter from Dr. Schultenberger down there. Wonderful place for insects. Why, there are spiders so big!” He gestured significantly, measuring the air. Outside, a hurdy-gurdy was quavering a song about spring.

“I know,” Jane said with a sigh. “Personally, I prefer butterflies to spiders, Professor Myers, but it’s really all the same.”

He nodded sadly. “Yes, it’s all the same,” he repeated, as if that were very important.

“Why don’t you rig up an expedition and start out for somewhere, with all your bottles and nets and things?”

“Ah, you collect the money for me, Miss Carey, and I will…. And now let’s write to that man — Schultenberger, or whatever it is. I want to tell him that the grasshopper he’s so proud of is quite ordinary, only he hit on a deformed specimen. He thinks he’s really discovered something.”

Her thoughts hovered around that deformed grasshopper in the West Indies. It was very sad. He thought he’d really discovered something, and it was only a cripple. Must have hurt the feelings of the little thing. A grasshopper certainly had feelings. That one was dead, though…. The hurdy-gurdy was frantic in its efforts to sound like springtime….

Sales everywhere: bankrupt sales, final sales, over-stock sales, super-sales. Everyone frantic to sell, sell, sell. On the way home Jane stopped at a small bakery. Over its counter hung loud signs summoning the whole of New York to come with an enthusiastic rush because a three-day sale on doughnuts was now in effect. A solitary German leaned meditatively over the counter; otherwise the place was empty.

“So you’re having sales, too!” Jane burst out. “Aren’t we all funny?”

The German raised his head and broke into a long laugh. “You said it, miss!” he exclaimed. “Ve are! Ve are! You said it!”

Jane liked Germans. You could always get a laugh out of them, and a laugh was more important than anything else in the world, when you were fighting to keep your head above water. It was all right, as long as Professor Myers had a chuckle about his grasshoppers, Millie about her long line of boy friends, Bob about his fish-hooks, and the baker about his doughnut sale. She herself? Well, she could smile at the whole bunch of them. There was the world to smile at, after all. But it was pretty lonely.

For, in spite of her many friends, acquired easily and quickly wherever she went, she was always, in the last analysis, alone. Perhaps she would be alone till the last star set. Perhaps everyone on earth was surrounded by an impassable barricade of aloneness, doomed to stay inside its walls forever, only they didn’t know it because they didn’t think about it. How could you tell? It didn’t seem as though Millie had such a wall, for instance. Yet perhaps she had. It was a delicate subject. You couldn’t talk about it — too intangible. Fancy going up to someone on the street and saying: “Beg your pardon, ma’am, but have you a wall?” Jane grinned: it was grand to be naive sometimes in the privacy of that wall.

When people were in love, were they still alone? Hard to tell. They liked to pretend they weren’t, but really weren’t they still paddling around in their own little orbits like the stars and comets — orbits which now and then coincided deceivingly, only to diverge once more? But in front of questions like those, you had to give up. One man’s guess wouldn’t mean a grain of sand more than another’s.

The best solution to everything, perhaps, was just to go on and not think about it. That was Millie’s idea. Just go on. Take what comes, have as good a time as possible with the materials on hand, and don’t ask questions about it. That way, Jane supposed, you could in time kid yourself to think that even mud was beautiful. That was a horrid thought, that eventually you could lose your own standards, adapting them to what was around you! It might be a comfortable way out, but it was cowardly. Letting ugliness triumph…! The answer, then? Get away from it, move on — if you can.

“I think I will,” said Jane, aloud. “I think I’d better, before it’s too late.”

Her hand was at her own doorknob. Physical habit had taken her there, while her mind was away drifting on a confused sea. One lighthouse stood out sharply above that sea. The thought: “Move on!… I think I will.”

“Oh, hello, Mary. Thought you might be still asleep. You were snoring like an old volcano when I left, this morning.”

“Not like a little bat?”

“No, there was nothing bat-like about it.”

“Bob crashed through,” Mary said. “I’ve got a date with his father, for tomorrow.”

Jane tapped her gently on the back. “Patience, and you’re all set. Always takes a lot of waiting around.”

Mary sighed. “Patience! That seems to be the one virtue on earth that counts.”

Jane was looking at her now with sudden eagerness. Maybe it was fortunate that Mary had blown in upon her the night before, out of the wind and rain. For even if you’d had a message from Gabriel himself ordering you to leave the city and move on at once, there had to be a certain amount of arranging. You couldn’t just drop everything in the middle. There were frazzled rope ends which had to be cleaned up. And Gabriel couldn’t clean them up.

“Mary, how do you like this little hole of mine?”

“Adore it, Janie.”

“Would you like to live here with Millie?”

“But you…?” Mary protested with bewilderment.

“Oh, me!” Jane’s smile was not her usual everyday smile. Not the shopworn one she used when she handed Professor Myers his glasses. “Well, I think I’ll be going away.”

“Where, Jane? Going to get married, or — ?”

“I don’t think so,” said Jane. “I really don’t know much about it yet; it’s very nebulous. Only, I’ve got a bit of money saved, and — spring is coming.”

“Lucky!” Mary said softly.

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m just plumb foolish. But how about the apartment? Want it?”

“Sure, if I get a job. But Jane, are you going right away, or what, or how?”

“Next week,” Jane said convincingly…. And now, she thought to herself, perhaps the next thing was to find out where.

How did you find out, when the wind and the stars had told you to go? They gave the command, but left the road unmapped. That was why so many never went at all. Hadn’t the courage to swing out into that void, or the strength to make a footprint upon it. You could stand on the verge and say: “If I only had the chance!” But when the chance came, either you never saw it at all, or you let it slip. It was a subtle thing. You had to grab it before it was there. And even after you had taken it firmly by the hair, it was likely to elude you.

It wouldn’t have occurred to Jane to scan a newspaper for reports of tours and cruises, or to telephone a steamship office and be deluged with catalogs and folders, written in words which said “glamour” without meaning it, empty shells of words, a vain and futile mockery, trite and languid, savoring of hotels and deck sports. That she had long ago abandoned as a useless quest. You could find nothing there except words and hotel rates. The adventure to which she had been summoned was not like that. This adventure was not a separate thing, beginning on one day, ending another. It was a continuation, a going-on, of the life-long adventure. It was the next phase. It had no ending, and its beginning was vague. Whatever purpose it might have it kept a secret. Jane felt it there, but she knew nothing about it, except that it was likely to begin as an escapade to the hills and lakes of Maine — the country and the way of living with which she was most familiar. Pack, tent, cooking-kit…

“I feel,” she said to herself, “as if this is going to be more than just a summer vacation. But maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I ought to stand by things here — ignore the whole idea, shove it away on a dusty shelf, call it an illusion and a dream. But that isn’t common sense — is it?”

The two other girls aroused her out of this revery. They were getting ready to sail out upon New York and demolish it. Millie would doubtless do most of the demolishing, and Mary would follow obediently in her wake, finishing up odds and ends. Then Jane remembered that Ellen Green would presently be arriving. They had arranged by telephone in the morning. Another difficulty to be cleared up.

She had the apartment to herself for a few blessedly quiet minutes; then the bell jangled. “Hello, you old turtle,” said Ellen, pouncing. “Always with your head well inside your shell! Same as ever, Janie? Well, don’t be such an old iceberg. Gimme a kiss.”

“Turtle and iceberg all in one breath,” Jane laughed. “Wonder what I’ll be in another five minutes!”

Ellen was an odd contrast to her friend. She was little and soft. Her curling golden hair was silky, and shone. Her small face suggested the conventional ideal fairy-tale princess. Limpid hazel eyes, and long curved dark lashes. Jane, who was tall and had strong shoulders, sometimes tended to wonder if Ellen were real. She seemed a helpless silken creature, calling up Bob’s young chivalry and masculine desire to protect. This annoyed Jane, because she knew Ellen just a trifle better than he did, and recognized that silken helplessness for exactly what it was — a deliberate illusion.

“How’s things, Ellen?”

“Terrible. Unspeakable. Life is a colossal bore, and all that stuff.”

“Oh, that’s just a state of mind.”

“Don’t you ever get bored yourself, Jane? Should think you would, taking dictation day after day from that old fogy.”

“Oh, I have an occasional adventure. For instance, whom do you suppose I met night before last outside the office?”

“Moses, maybe.”

“Somebody you know; a rather nice young chap of your acquaintance.”

“Not Donald!”

Jane was startled at this give-away, but did not show it. “No, not Donald. Bob. He had supper with me.”

Ellen endeavored to look hard and stern. “You can have him,” she said, and lowered her eyes so that her innocent lashes were magnificently displayed. “And how’s he getting on?”

Jane refused to admire the lashes. “He doesn’t seem any too happy, either,” she said. “I imagine he finds life a colossal bore, too.”

“Oho! So he doesn’t like it! Well, let him have a taste of his own home-brew, that’s all I can say.”

“Oh, come! Does he really deserve all this systematic torture?”

“Try him yourself,” said Ellen. “If you think I’m so awful, just try him yourself. And what’s more, if you think he’s the only one hurt around here — ”

“He’s an honest soul,” said Jane. “He told me a little of what it was all about.”

“He doesn’t like me any more,” said Ellen.

Jane was conscious of a desire to scold her, as though she were a recalcitrant younger sister. But she was also very conscious of intruding into someone else’s life. She had a horror of meddling people, well-intentioned or otherwise. Still, she had fairly promised Bob —  He had made it her business. Promises like that were dangerous. The pain she remembered in his quiet eyes nerved her.

“Whoever is Donald?” she asked.

“I won’t see Bob gadding around with other girls, and not pay him back. You wouldn’t either, Janie.” There was rising fire in Ellen’s voice. “You wouldn’t stand for it. No one would. Oh, Jane, you don’t know! Bob’s filled you up with his side of the thing. Now you just try to understand mine a little.”

“I think I do,” said Jane. “You’re jealous. And nothing is more stupid or more forgivably natural.”

“You’d be jealous, too, Janie. Nobody but a damn cold-blooded lily-white angel wouldn’t be; and I’m not one, thank God, and neither are you.”

This situation was hard to handle as an infernal nightmare. But she had promised, rashly enough, and now something had to be done. There was Bob, with the young pain in his eyes….

“Ellen, try not to be jealous of so little. It may be hard, next to impossible. I’m not denying that. But try. It’s worth it. And I wouldn’t say so if I didn’t feel pretty sure you’re worrying over wispy nothings. That’s perhaps why you are worried: there’s nothing tangible to get hold of and look at. Those girls you’re upset about are like snowflakes; each one has its flash of life as a tiny and lovely crystal, and then melts. Bob’s young and alive and interested, and — you’ll have to face it — male. Naturally he has to look around a bit, see what’s going on. Doesn’t mean anything. Let him look all he wants. He’ll love you more for it…. Oh, Ellen, ‘scuse me for being an old Dutch aunt; but I’ve seen you happy together, and it was rare, and good — too good to lose. You know that better than I. Don’t be jealous of snowflakes; not worth it.”

Ellen drew a long sigh. “If I could believe that — ” But she caught herself. “I don’t believe it, you old orator!” she snapped.

Jane scented victory. She wasn’t sure whether she had won her point, but she followed up fiercely, with the battle-light in her eyes. “Don’t forget,” she said, “that Bob’s in the middle of a social whirlpool. He’s awfully good-looking and entertaining, and — well, rich; and he must be run after a lot by all the young debs and especially their ambitious mammas.”

Ellen turned her head wistfully to one side, and said in a very changed voice: “I was ready to make up, you know.”

“Sure, but he didn’t know, because you wouldn’t show him.”

“If he loved me, he’d have known anyway.”

“You’re trying to make him out a woman,” said Jane. “Men are inclined to be rather dumb.”

“Yes,” Ellen said, “dumb about things that count.” Her voice was extremely gentle now, and the eyelashes were more and more in evidence.

“He’s longing and longing for you to make up.”

“If he wants to make up, he can come to me.”

“He has come, and you’ve always repulsed him.”

“But he might have known,” Ellen wailed, “that I didn’t mean it.”

“You’re so subtle,” said Jane, “how could he know?”

This was the lucky touch, the magic wand, this precious bit of praise. Ellen smiled.

“Forgive me for meddling?” Jane asked anxiously.

“I wouldn’t forgive anyone else under the sun,” Ellen confessed. “But somehow you’re different. And oh, Jane — ” She broke off suddenly, and giggled.

“Well?”

“Jane, I can’t help wondering about you — if you’ll ever manage a love affair of your own as neatly as you manage other people’s.”

“I’ve done some wondering about that myself, lately,” Jane chuckled. “And, you know, I think I’ll presently abandon other people’s and concentrate on my own. So weep your last on this solid shoulder!”

The next day was Saturday, a free day. Professor Myers carried on his researches alone over week-ends, and to all intents and purposes the office was closed. But Jane knew that he would be there, poring among dusty old records, classifying butterflies’ antennae and beetles’ wing-cases, losing his glasses….

How did one begin an adventure? Almost any road you took would lead there, if only you went on far enough. Now that she had a ghost in sight, she would follow it. Maybe it would lead to the reality. Ghosts couldn’t stay too long away from bodies to which they belonged.

So she crossed the Hudson in a ferry. It was a feeble beginning, she admitted to herself; but she would roam around in the woods of New Jersey and try to think out what she wanted to do. From the bow of the ferry, she listlessly watched a little tugboat snorting down-river, and wondered where it was bound. She might have been excited if she had known that it was heading for a lumber schooner becalmed in the harbor below, where old Captain Maynard was pacing his poop with impatience, anxiously watching his idle flapping sails, and cursing the lumber yard for being so slow with their miserable tug.

“Infernal, blasted nuisance, Davidson; that’s what ’tis. They must think I’ve got a couple o’ turbines, or something.”

Davidson, the helmsman, merely glanced at the cracking sails. His answer was a sage smile that never came to the surface. You have to be fatalistic about these things. He shrugged his shoulders. It wouldn’t have mattered to him that at the very moment Jane was watching it chug down the river with that quaint dignity tugs have — the dignity of a solemn snub-nosed dwarf, a coarse and common-sense philosophy of life. It was fun to watch three or four of them butting ridiculously into the immensity of the Rex or the Ile de France, handling the liner with such determination. She had often seen them after dark on the river, coming up with a string of three, four, five huge barges; or on some dignified errand alone, a light high astern, looking like a small cat with its tail in the air. Resolute and staunch, and with an air, too, of mysterious purposefulness, as if it knew all about the sea and the beyond, even if it was only a tug. This particular one, on its way down-river, seemed to say quietly: “I know a lot of things you don’t know.” She could almost imagine that it winked at her.

Up-river they had built a new bridge — a new perpetuation of the skill and strength of engineers. Men had given dreams and love to that structure, built their visions into its very fiber. Sleepless, someone had paced the floor at night, over complex blueprints. Now the leap had been dare; two gaunt dark gray towers supported the slow curve of the cables. There was a haze over the Hudson, and nothing beyond the bridge could be seen. It was obscure and mystic. Those pillars might be the gateposts to purgatory. They were unearthly and aloof. Their strength was remote, with the remoteness of dreams….

There were woods along the river, if you knew where to look. Jane was always at home in the woods. She could understand the language of young leaves, as they poised in the sun, letting gold-green sparks of light play upon them and flick off them. She dreamed of mountains she had known — the gods of forgotten but powerful religions. She had labored up their steep sides and ponderous brows; beaten through storms and clouds along their giant backbones.

And by evening, when she came down to the ferry again, she had nearly decided that as soon as she could decently leave the office, she would go back to those mountains once more.

Then she saw that out in the river lay the symbol of all adventure, gray and still in the dusk, peaceful as a seagull come to rest — a schooner anchored. She was dreaming there, wings folded. Up into the river she had brought with her an atmosphere of untroubled calm, mingled with a touch of the old-fashioned, as if not belonging to this world of engines and industrial turmoil. She was aloof as a little Chinese goddess, and as tranquil. As Jane gazed at her four straight masts and graceful hull, the sparks of her riding lights suddenly pricked out like a friendly signal, a beckoning.

Jane was suddenly overwhelmed with curiosity. She wanted to get closer to that quiet ship. She wanted to know the people aboard her, who lived in this old-fashioned world apart; and she wondered whether such a visit could be arranged. Her friendliness and curiosity vied with shyness. “Maybe morning would be better— ” And then a new thought, devastating in its excitement: “Maybe I could sail in that schooner. What an adventure that would be! Maybe that’s the way to get out of New York!” But she brought herself up sharply. “You silly dreamer, you know things like that don’t happen….” Getting out, once you were rooted, took some doing. You had no courage, nothing except a few hazy and romantic longings which were doomed anyway….

She stood still a minute, lashing herself with scorn; then made her way down the river road, mud-flats on one side of her and factory yards on the other. A dirty and slovenly world. Slovenly people, too. Well, how could they help it, surrounded by this? Here was an existence where there was literally nothing but mud and squalor — a rather striking contrast to her own. Well, some had to have stars. Others could get more pleasure from sitting on grimy doorsteps and surmising who was the father of the landlord’s niece’s baby. They wouldn’t see anything worth while about a mere star.

The lumber yard at last. It’s gate was closed. The schooner herself, if she were real, lay somewhere behind, out in the open river. Jane hailed the watchman, an old man who sat inside the gate. “I want to find out about the ship. She came to your company, didn’t she?”

The old man looked at her with suspicion, and pushed his cap back on his forehead. Obviously he was annoyed at this disturbance of his somnolent peace. “Ship?… Oh, you mean that old scow in the river? Yeah, she brung in some lumber.”

“I want to go aboard her,” said Jane.

“That old scow? Aw, there ain’t nothin’ there for you, girlie.”

Jane flinched, but refused to be daunted. “I’ve never seen a ship like her, and I’m interested. Do you know the captain?”

“Yeah, I seen him once or twice. Too old to go to sea in a reg’lar ship, so they give him that old boat. Don’t matter if he do wreck her, see?”

“How do you think I could get aboard?” Jane persisted.

But this ugly, leering old man apparently had no desire to cooperate in Jane’s escape. “Swim, girlie, swim,” he muttered peevishly, and ambled off into the gloom.

Chapter III…

Comments

  1. I’m enjoying the story so far! Thanks for writing it up. I’m looking forward to the next part.

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