Lost Island, part 4

Chapter IV, pp. 42-53. All typos mine. If you missed the beginning, it’s here.

Jane sang as she fried the eggs for breakfast. The world had suddenly changed from a drab, exhausted mud-puddle into a rainbow. She sang ridiculous songs. Why, even the eggs had changed! They were positively smiling now, instead of presenting a wrinkled scowl. Literally the weather was desolate, but that was to be expected on Monday. It was probably trying to deceive her into thinking yesterday was all a dream. But it couldn’t deceive her. A tingling sunburn was on her arms and face. There was no mistaking that, or the haunting vision of rigging and white clouds.

Millie’s voice drawled sleepily from the bed, with a yawn in the middle. “Why all the operatics, Janie?” she protested.

“I’ll tell you when you get up,” Jane caroled. “But I won’t confide in a lump of bedclothes…. Millie, you make me quite tired lying there under the bedclothes on such a grand day.”

“Grand day, you nut! ‘S raining cats and hot dogs!”

“Oh, it’s clearing up fast. Do get up, lazybones, and let me tell you about yesterday.”

“Why didn’t you tell me when I got in last night, if it’s so important, kitten? I can’t get up. I was working till three-thirty. Jeese, have a heart!”

“Oh, Millie, I’m not the same old flub-dub any more. I feel as if I could sleep in a buttercup bowl or any other little stunt like that. I feel ten thousand years younger.”

“Gee, Grandma, you must feel prehistoric. What’s up? Fallen in love?”

“That’s exactly it,” said Jane. In love, yes — with a ship.”

“A what?”

“You heard me.”

“Janie — now listen here — you crazy, insane — ”

“I’m sailing in her. Never was saner in my life.”

“Gawd!”

“It’s all arranged,” Jane went on gaily. “Mary’s going to take over my share of this little joint, when she gets a job. I’m going to pay a month’s rent in advance, so nobody’ll get stuck.”

“Hey, wait a minute, wait a minute. What is all this? S’pose I don’t want to bunk in with that little lame cat? And when did you get all this doped out, anyways? Jeese, kitten, I didn’t know you could move that fast. What’s the big idea?”

“I’m only following your precious advice,” Jane said. “I’m going to visit my lions. I wouldn’t be surprised if I turned into a lioness, would you?”

“Not a bit! But come across with the story, can’t you? When are you going?”

“About a week.”

“Well, where?”

Jane frowned — wanted to laugh, but was too overwhelmed. “I don’t know,” she said.

The other girl whistled sharply.

“You seem to be rather less sleepy now,” Jane remarked.

“Gawd, I think I’m sound asleep and having nightmares. What is all this you’re trying to hand me?”

“It’s straight goods,” said Jane. “I forgot to ask.” After all, she thought to herself, it was not so surprising. In the hilarity of the adventure, facts simply did not exist. The destination of the Annie Marlow was a mere earthly detail, of no consequence. Whether she were bound for tropic waters of peacock blue, or for the iceberg-haunted seas off Greenland, mattered not at all. An adventure like this had to be taken one fragment at a time. They were to be outward bound in a week or so; that was enough.

It was futile even to try explaining any of this to Millie, of course. Millie had simply abandoned the whole subject, as something out of which it was impossible to form a connected sequence which an intelligent and rational being could comprehend. “I don’t suppose you happen to know, by any chance, when you’re coming back, do you, lioness?”

“Of course not,” said Jane lightly. She heard Millie swallow hard, and added considerately: “Oh, next fall, probably.”

“What’ll all the busted backbones, bleeding hearts, etc., do?”

“Oh, you’ll look out for them.”

“Will I! They’d better look out for me!”

“They’re one of the things I’m taking a vacation from,” Jane explained.

“Yeah, and from your own brains, looks like. Out to bust your own backbone, huh?”

“That’s the idea. Don’t you want any breakfast?”

“Nope.”

“Will you miss me, Mill?”

“Aw, nothin’ doin’ on the sentiment, kitten.”

Jane walked with an air of triumph, on her way to work. Daylight was ahead, above. She had made the first step to get out of the pit. The kindly grasp of old Captain Maynard’s strong hand, the wind-swept rigging of the schooner, the gray eyes of the sailor reading Conrad on the fo’c’sle deck, the quiet calling of the sea and far places — these were her weapons, and New York was swaying perilously on its false throne.

But another feeling was mingled with the bright swirl of her thoughts. A curious sense that she might really be going away forever, instead of a few weeks; that the sailing of the Annie Marlow out of the Hudson River would mark for her the beginning of more than the voyage itself, as though she were about to step into a new life, adventurous and unimaginably beautiful. “I’m going to be disillusioned, of course,” she told herself, with mixed sternness and sadness. “I’ll have to come back, and when I come back things will be much the same as now. But I won’t think about that.” Let the illusion persist, for it had beauty. Let it persist until cursed old civilization had driven it out, if it dared.

Instinctively as she walked, she clutched at fragile wings, perishable branches of iridescent trees, elusive shimmering fruit that a playful wind jerked from her, the jewels that the sun trailed across the sea. There was a small cold fear around her heart — fear of the return, fear of the dreams she had allowed herself to dream. “Maybe I can stay with the schooner indefinitely, on and on. (I’ll work. Captain Maynard shan’t complain that I’m a nuisance.) Maybe there’ll be other schooners.” Fragile wings, perishable branches of iridescent trees….

It should be satisfying to think no further than the immediate adventure. But no one with a sane mind could always do that, Jane thought. You had to look ahead. Hers was a bothersome sort of mind. It often got in her way, poking too far into the future, where it had no business…. Now she was off on another train of thought. Her old and must futile question: what did life mean? What was it for? Once she had believed it was for happiness. But happiness was as ethereal as the colors on a bubble, the powder on a butterfly’s wing. Often if you looked it square between the eyes, it was gone. It could not stand your gaze. Surely there was something brighter and firmer to hold. Beauty? That was what they called it, said Jane, for want of a better word. The thought annoyed her, for it savored of cosmetics and manicure parlors. Movie stars, too. Some time, when there was leisure and peace and the sea, she might invent a new word. This one was frazzled and worn out…. She rammed herself into a downtown subway….

At about the same time that morning, on the deck of his schooner, Captain Maynard was talking with Mr. Stevens, who had paused in his supervision of the stevedores long enough for a smoke. The schooner was now tied up at the lumber company’s dock, and was unloading her cargo of Nova Scotia spruce. The captain was happy. He had been pacing the poop that morning with a light tread. He felt almost like a young man. Jane’s visit aboard, her headlong love for the ship, and her “romantic notions,” had made him laugh to himself more than he had done many a year. He was keenly looking forward to having her sail with him, and as he walked his deck, with an air of prideful possession of his schooner, he pictured to himself how intense her delight would be at the bright blue mornings and soft nights with moonlight on the great sails.

“And then, Stevens,” he recounted, “she throwed her arms up and said if only she could come along of us she’d die happy. Well, I ain’t made o’ steel.”

“So she’s coming, eh?” Stevens appeared none too well pleased, but his face was imperturbable. “Seasick females!” he muttered.

“Stevens, d’you believe in that there old yarn ’bout it bein’ bad luck to have women aboard of a vessel?”

All questions of this nature Mr. Stevens answered with caution. He said he took no stock in any old superstition whatsoever, and followed this announcement by recounting a tale in which a woman had brought exceedingly bad luck upon a vessel.

“Bad luck or good luck, she’s coming,” said Captain Maynard. “And I don’t mind sayin’ as I’m glad of it. Don’t often have comp’ny, Stevens.”

“Passengers are a damn nuisance, Cap’n. But I’m not saying anything, you understand. I never saw a woman yet aboard of a vessel that didn’t get into hot water o’ one kind or another. But I’m not saying anything.” He continued to say nothing for a fairly long time.

The captain was annoyed. “This gal ain’t goin’ to get in no hot water,” he said, with a little curtness. “‘N’ if she’s seasick that ain’t your fun’ral, is it?”

“No,” Stevens admitted, “that’s between her and the fishes, Captain.”

“‘Sides, I’ve a fondness for Miss Jane,” the skipper went on. “She brung to mind my own daughter — poor little girl.”

“Was she the one that died, Cap’n?”

“She was the only one,” the old man said, with reverence. “Born at sea, lived at sea, died at sea — poor little girl.”

“Well, Cap’n,” the mate morosely answered, “I don’t know about being born, but lots of us live at sea, and expect to die at sea.”

Jane was walking into Professor Myers’ office. It occurred to her that she would have to tell him. He would be surprised, and perhaps such short notice wasn’t fair. But fate had taken it out of her control. She would have to tell him, that was all. He would be concerned, too, when his questioning disclosed that she did not even know where the ship was going. He was fatherly and conservative.

“Good morning, Miss Carey, good morning.” He had not changed; he never would. Subconsciously she had expected him to share the radiance of her own heart, and it disturbed her a little that he did not. Wasn’t her adventure written plain as print upon her face?… “Allen has cornered a brand-new cricket,” he announced. “South Seas. Quite a beauty.” (That elusive word again.)

“Well, I’m glad he’s cornered something at last.”

The old man chuckled. He had a good spirit of fun. “I imagine the Foundation was beginning to wonder what on earth he was doing with his time and their money.”

Jane had often wondered how it happened that some foundations were so eager about latest styles in crickets. She had never solved the puzzle. But just now there was something of far more importance to talk about, and it was hard to begin. She plunged bravely. It ought to be done before the two other members of the staff arrived.

“Professor Myers, I’m going away.” It sounded brusque, and now she wished she had said it differently.

He took off his glasses and looked up quickly, but otherwise betrayed not a quiver of surprise. His life had not been without adventure. There had been scientific expeditions into the recesses of the Malay Peninsula. He had very nearly been poisoned once, for the Malay gods were not altogether friendly. He had faced a typhoon in the China Sea. Tigers he had met, on one or two occasions, face to face in the wilds of Burma. He had learned how to encounter the cataclysmal, and keep his face as passive as any Oriental’s.

“Away, Miss Carey? Tired of this little dry, scientific place of mine?”

“No — tired of New York, that’s all. I’m sure you can understand that!” She paused, smiling, and he nodded encouragingly. Her words sounded stilted and uneven. Her forearms glowed with sunburn, and the sound of wind about a schooner’s rigging haunted her. “I’m afraid I haven’t exactly played fair,” she went on bravely. “I’m leaving in about a week. You see, I didn’t even know until yesterday.”

“Going traveling, Miss Carey?” Characteristically, he never commented on the shortness of the notice at all.

Her eyes shone, but she merely nodded her head. She didn’t want him to question her too closely. It would sound idiotic to say: “No, I don’t know where. I forgot to ask.” Although, if the worst came to the worst, she could invent a destination for the Annie Marlow. Let’s see… No, every port of call that occurred to her sounded absurd. A dream ship bound for nowhere…. Professor Myers crashed in again.

“Well, traveling is great experience, any way you look at it, Miss Carey, whether it’s beetles you’re after, or original Old Masters, or just a glimpse of life. Broadens the outlook. May we expect you back?”

In spite of his naturalness she was troubled. “I don’t know just how long — Perhaps you’d better not count on me, Professor Myers.” She felt, indeed, as little to be counted on as though she were bound for the moon or one of the planets.

He smiled reassuringly. “Well, here’s a word of advice from a seasoned old traveler. Don’t do too much work or studying while you’re abroad. My entomology almost ruined my good times.” He was talking in a confidential tone, with a sly smile which, from him, was startling. “Tourist third cabins are fine in the Cunarders, but the food’s best on the new German boats. Trust the Germans for a square meal every time.”

Jane visualized the schooner’s little messroom, its red-checked tablecloth, and the captain’s bottle of “unexpressive” pepper-sauce.

“Well, I certainly hope you enjoy yourself, Miss Carey. And I also hope to see you back here some day.” He began groping patiently about his desk. “By the way,” he said, “have you seen my glasses, by any chance?”

That day Jane’s work was done unconsciously and mechanically. Some kindly god of chance kept her fingers from writing, on the big typewriter, curious sentences which were burlesques of the ones Professor Myers had painstakingly dictated to her. She wanted to mingle a nautical flavor with the entomological atmosphere of his letters. “The peak-halliards of your new cricket are doubtless spliced differently from those of any other which I have examined through the sextant…. I see her little white ghost now, risin’ out o’ the sea. It is orthopterous and saltatorial. She would do anything but talk; but, having modified fore wings, makes a low humming sound by rubbing them together.”

The two other members of the staff came in later. There was a sallow-faced young man who did the dustiest of the classifying and arranging of specimens; and a tight-set woman of indeterminate age, who attended to — well, it was never altogether clear what she did attend to. She was a trig but unattractive little person, whom you could never catch napping. She irritated Jane sometimes by her air of knowing a great deal which she would never under any circumstances divulge, and of being perpetually very busy. Miss Perry prided herself on her knowledge and practice of modern business efficiency, although Jane suspected that Miss Perry’s efficiency was no better than it should be. Her manner was nearly always cold and detached. She had a reputation for coldness, in fact. And in this she gloried.

Jane had never thought much about her until today. She had been too preoccupied in her own first job. But now, with the secret knowledge of sudden release, she could glance in a more leisurely way over the long carriage of her typewriter, and see what was going on. No wonder Miss Perry was slightly inhuman! Jane felt a wave of compassion for her. Why, she had been right there, behind that very desk, for some nine years. Would she ever be anywhere else? It was not likely now. Did a sense ever sweep over her of the utter futility of all this small toil? And if it did — well, no wonder then that she gloried in her detached manner, her little coldnesses. They were all she had.

A vision of lofty rigging obscured Miss Perry. Lines leading aloft, slender and poised, free of perspiration and money, created to a purpose and a beauty. Perhaps the loveliest happening of the afternoon had been the seagulls, so close and seemingly so friendly. She and they had understood each other, and flown on intimate terms. Glorious white wings brushing by, in the sunlight….

“I’m going away, Miss Perry,” said Jane. “In about a week. I’ve told Professor Myers. And by the way, I know a simply corking girl who could come in right away if you’d like to have her. Mary Rogers, a friend of mine.”

Miss Perry looked up from her broad ledgers, and it seemed that her eyes, of an indefinite blue, were friendly. She had hired a great many stenographers from right there behind that desk. She had dismissed some of them with equal imperturbability. Jane was merely one of them. But the indefinite eyes were friendly. She nodded.

“Yes, send Miss Rogers in. You look very happy. Glad to be getting out, I suppose.”

No need of dissimulation, Jane realized with relief. “Well, I am,” she answered as frankly. The gulls’ wings brushed by. “I’m going on a sea voyage, Miss Perry. It’s been a dream for a long time, though I didn’t realize it. Now it’s suddenly come true.” She watched the other’s eyes closely, but they were inscrutable. Had she said too much? Were dreams banned from conversations with Miss Perry? Did she indeed believe in dreams at all? It was doubtful.

“Dreams,” said Miss Perry slowly, “are half one’s life, and the most important half. Take them away and — what have you?”

Jane could only nod in reply. Miss Perry went on, in her noncommittal voice. “It isn’t so much whether they come true, either, because in a way a dream is true if you have it.”

And this was the crass little materialist in her rut! Strangely, it was Jane who said: “They’re so much more satisfactory if they do come actually true, realistically true.”

“I doubt it,” Miss Perry said with conviction. “Often I think it’s better if they don’t. Because the reality is never as good as the anticipation. Not by a long shot.”

“Never?” Jane protested. She felt herself on unfirm ground: Miss Perry seemed to know all about dreams.

“I don’t know about ‘never.’ All I know — and you may not believe it — is that I had one once myself.” She smiled. Jane was sorry for her — liked her, all of a sudden.

The spell broke then. Miss Perry remembered her beloved reputation — impersonal, unaffectionate. Jane was a mere stenographer. Miss Perry settled down over the ledger with immense energy…. Jane’s seagull wings flashed against the rays of a friendly sun.

It was noon. Jane stood on the steps of the building, uncertain whether to go east or west. Nothing much in either direction, for that matter. As she stood undecided, she glanced down at her very sober gray dress, her calm black shoes. That dress was utterly impossible, all of a sudden. There was no use even considering it. How on earth had she ever got into that thing this morning? For the most part she was not concerned with clothes, but the drabness of this was more than she could bear. She hurried off down the street, longing to get rid of it — bury it somewhere, cast it off forever.

All out of breath, she hustled into the nearest store. “I want a red skirt,” she announced. “Right away, if you want to save my life.”

The salesgirl looked at her in cool amazement. “Red, miss? I’m afraid we have nothing in red today. How about this little navy blue one, or a beige? These are the very newest tints.”

“Newest or oldest,” said Jane, “red I must have. Why do you talk fashion when my soul pines for red?”

That was New York. Prating of newest tints. No wonder people were melancholy, in the clothes that prevailed this season. Like being in mourning. As though a little gaiety were against the rules.

In the next store an old lady with white hair waited on her. “A red skirt, my dear? Why yes, of course. Here you are. This russet is very smart, my dear.”

“Is that the reddest you have?” Jane asked, with great irony.

It was. She fled.

At last, in an obscure little place on a dingy street, she unearthed a blazing creation with a flare and a general cockiness that won her.

“And a blouse, too,” she commanded. “Some soft little white thing. With ruffles. Yes, ruffles,” she repeated, sternly.

When she walked out she left the dress of gray tweed behind as a present to the astounded salesgirl. It was a symbolic gesture which stood for the denial of New York’s hold on her. She was climbing into space on the mesh of a schooner’s rigging.

Chapter V…

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