Lost Island, part 7

Chapter VII (pp. 84 – 99) of Lost Island, which began here.

The storm came with a frowning of the sky, and ponderous shadows over the sea’s face. Jane sensed it, early one morning when she went on deck. Serenity was lost, cast away behind. The sea had no use for that now. The world was a gray color, unutterably gray. The wind was gray. It came in whorls, biting at the foam. The waves showed white hungry teeth.

Mate and captain stood together in a corner of the poop, but Jane could not hear their voices. The wind had set its heart upon transforming the two men into marionettes, animated but soundless. She moved a little closer, and thought she heard Captain Maynard say: “Dirty, by the look of it.” Stevens solemnly nodded his head. All of a sudden Jane wanted to laugh, and wished Davidson were up there with her. Human beings had dwindled, and seemed puny and helpless. The ship was diminishing, too. Once, without any warning, she took a gaunt wave over her windward bow, and shuddered to it like some wild creature.

“Best get them topsails in, Stevens,” the captain said. “Then they’ll be in.” The mate nodded again, somewhat grimly, Jane thought.

Breakfast was rather silent. The ship lurched a good deal, and shook herself when waves met her bows too hard. The captain was troubled. He felt that there was treachery in the sea. And he could do nothing about it. He must push on ahead into the ambush of the storm. And the burden was all his own.

Davidson was on deck when she came up again. He stood gazing out to windward. Jane met him with a question in her eyes. But he could not answer. He doubted the loyalty of the sea, that was all. You had to be fatalistic about some things. A storm was one of them. He hoped it would hold off, but if it came he was ready. As he turned to greet her, his eyes were very gray. The sea had darkened them.

“The Annie‘s a staunch old girl,” he said consolingly. “Well put together.”

“If we do go down,” Jane teased, “and you are the sole survivor, you might inform my deluded father and my ex-intended. It would be a shame for them to miss that pleasure.”

“Shall I give them your dying affection, and all that sort of thing?”

“No, the dolphins can have that. But you may go shares with ’em if you like, Daveson.”

“And suppose nothing happens at all? It may not, you know.”

“Well, then the dolphins won’t have to go shares with you. But if I should be the lone survivor, are there any little things of that sort I can do for you?”

“Just remember,” he answered, “that in my case there weren’t any dolphins at all.”

By afternoon it was blowing half a gale. The sky sagged with ominous clouds, shadowing the sea, which swirled and heaved like boiling ink. The voice of the wind rose and fell, and its tone was resentful. Sometimes it shrieked triumphantly through the rigging, and then fell to low moaning. The Annie Marlow‘s sails were storm-reefed, and she tore on obliquely before the wind, rising high over the piles of water, crashing down into innumerable hollows, while spray crackled sharply upon her decks. Her masts leaned at a weird angle against a frayed sky, and they looked tired and old.

Evening came, and the wind remained about the same. The captain began to be hopeful. “Perhaps we’ll run out of the doggoned thing yet, Stevens.” The mate, as usual, was taciturn.

Jane went to sleep in peace. She had no serious idea that anything calamitous might happen to the schooner. Shipwrecks belonged to adventure stories. She had trust in the old skipper, and perhaps in Davidson. She fancied the wind was going down a little. The motion of the ship was not uncomfortable, except for occasional jerks and plunges. Besides, the sea was her friend….

When she awoke it was with the sensation that her feet were jammed tightly against the foot of her bunk, and that she was almost standing upright. The universe gave a violent shudder; there was a rush, and Jane found herself in a heap in a corner of her room — which corner she could not tell. There was no great pain in the fall, and yet when she tried to get up she could not. “What have I broken?” she wondered. She clung frantically to something that was in her way, and recognized it as the small bench opposite the bunk. But she was still not sure which was up and which down. And something in her body began to ache. An arm, or a leg?  She could not tell. Nothing was familiar, not even her own limbs. She wrestled to get up, but it was like struggling in pitch black with an unseen foe — like one of those nightmares in which all strength and control have vanished.

She looked for the porthole, but wasn’t sure where to look. At last her eyes found it, a small gray piece of doubtfulness in the black wall. Then she knew where the floor was, and struggled up, clinging to the bench. Nothing broken after all, only she felt full of bruises. One arm was hurting badly now, but it was sound and she could move it.

She found it comical, this crushing of the world. Here she was, groping for the floor, which had got so mixed up with walls and ceilings; relieved, now that she had found it, as though it were some inestimable treasure; thanking heaven because she knew where it was, and where the porthole was. She tried to get to that porthole, with the vague idea of looking out; made a desperate dash for the bunk which was somewhere up above her across the room. As she started to climb at it, she was hurled down upon it violently. She caught its edge and stood clutching that, while the world seesawed about her again. She chuckled a little. A feat of acrobatics just to cross her room!

She managed to peer out the porthole, just in time to see three or four big silver stars go flying up somewhere into infinity, while an immense black weight hurled itself with malevolence at the small pane of glass. When the sky came down again, there was only one star left, which went out as she looked, extinguished suddenly against its will.

Then she remembered a flashlight she had left somewhere about. Perhaps she could get a bit of light. It might help. A little flicker of light could cheer one’s soul. But she could not even think of anywhere to look for it. There was nowhere. She concentrated her faculties into a reasonable studying out of where she had last seen it. As if in mockery, something hit her on the head and flew off across the room. What on earth was that? There was no way of finding out. Then she remembered the little row of books on the shelf above the bench. She groped over there, vaguely hoping to do something about it, but could find nothing except occasional edges which she held on to thankfully. No, she could do nothing about anything. The air might be full of flying books, but she could not help it.

The ship was plunging desperately forward, swinging back, leaping, staggering. Waves beat and hammered the decks with diabolical frenzy. The wind howled. Outside, the sea was black chaos gleaming now and then with fangs of white foam. Once the ship plunged into such a succession of gigantic seas that Jane felt: “Everything will give way now.” But somehow the Annie Marlow came through. Jane strained her eyes at the porthole again. A livid cascade of lightning illuminated the whole sea and sky in a mad gold suspense. Awful chasms, abysses, and parapets of black clouds, with jagged edges…. Whatever thunder followed may have added to the uproar, but was not distinguishable as thunder.

And then, all of a sudden, Jane wanted Davidson more than she had ever wanted anything in her life. She wanted his quiet smile, and his aloof strength. The need was an actual pain, a dull, unintelligent throbbing. She felt for the pain — oh, that cursed arm again…. At the same time she was conscious of a dim rectangle in one wall of the cabin, with a shadow bulking in it — some strange illusion. But after she had looked at it a while, she remembered the door; and then she knew that it was Davidson who stood there. She even believed she could hear his voice faintly calling to her across a measureless gulf.

“Yes, yes, I’m here,” she almost shrieked, trying to make her way toward him. She felt for the edge of the door, found it at last, and got to her feet facing him. He was immensely tall in his wet black oilskins. She could not see his face.

“Are you all right, Jane?” came his voice close to her ear. She felt his breath for a second, a precious scrap of life and warmth.

“Yes, I’m all right,” she shouted back.

“Just came down — to see if you needed me. Now I must go.” Their hands met somehow, and held on for a second in a mute exchange of comradeship. Then he had melted into the obscurity outside, and the released door slammed viciously.

He had come — to see if she needed him! She stood in the dark treasuring this. And now he had gone back to the Annie, who did need him very much. Was he up in that awful fury now?… The ship leaped; Jane felt her rising on an endless flight, which changed to a quivering, painful struggle upwards. A tremendous crash came, and it was as though an entire range of mountains had been precipitated upon the ship. She was buried, lost, extinguished. There were smothered slammings and crashes, and the roaring of a thousand giant waterfalls, pouring, pouring…. Still buried in that sea. She reeled, shaking beneath the blow. She seemed to give up, only to begin struggling quietly again, stifled under the weight, a crushed ship. “She’ll never get through this — never,” Jane thought. And Davidson? Where was he?… Still the ship was trembling, as though alive, patiently trying to cast the thing off.

She came out of it at last. Jane could only guess how much the ship had suffered for that victory. She could not know that the mainmast had snapped off clean, carrying away with it a ruin of splitting timber, streaming rags of sail, and a whipping tangle of rigging. She had no way of knowing that Stevens, the mate, and two of her sailor friends had lost their lives.

Some time after that a curious release came, a comparative hush, with a low thrashing of seas and a snarling of wind. It was as though the treacherous purpose had been accomplished, and now the elements rested. Jane waited a while, listening; it might have been hours or only seconds. At last she ventured to look out the porthole again. Surely the seas were less now. Or was it only that they seemed less in contrast to that monster which had nearly extinguished them? The water beat less madly against the ship, and crests were not so high. But the ocean itself was closer than before, closer and blacker. There was no sky at all that she could see; nothing except sinister gleams of that black water.

The ship was sluggish now, not rising so promptly to meet the seas. She kept her head down, and let them slam over her with sickening thuds in a dreary rhythm, only shuddering now and then, as if hurt, tired….

The door burst open again, and Captain Maynard stood outside, haggard under his sou’-wester. “We’re leaving her,” he called hoarsely to Jane; and she knew intuitively that this was the supreme confession of his life.

She stared at him horror-struck. He seemed to be shaking with exhaustion and half-suppressed grief and anger.

“Pack your things and come on deck,” he told her. And he was gone, swallowed in the grayness….

Leaving her! That meant she was going down beneath them — that she could bear it no longer and had surrendered. Her struggle was at an end. But — leave her? In the life-boat, of course; but how could any boat live in such a sea?… Pack up her things… in pitch dark with a ship going down under her!… Where was everything, anyway? She found the chest of drawers that was built in under her bunk. Her one small suit-case should be in the lowest drawer — yes, it was. She opened others, and her hands met vaguely recognizable objects — shoes, for instance, and a blouse. She was astonished to find them there, as though they must have gone through some terrible transformation in the course of the night — as though it were strange beyond belief that a shoe should still be a shoe. She put them into the suit-case deliberately, wondering at her ability to do this thing at all.

Then she realized that she was not yet dressed. “I can’t go up into the storm in pyjamas,” she reasoned deliberately. She slipped into the first clothes that her hand touched — the rebellious red skirt, an old green blouse, an overcoat. She grew calmer and calmer, even began to calculate as to what else she had better look for in the way of personal belongings. There should be a comb about somewhere, for instance. And then there were the books — three or four of them, old companions. Where were they? Lying about on the floor, of course. She would look for them, too, while the ship was going down. One of them had been sliding about in that far corner for some time, but she had not been able to make the effort of reaching it. Now she rescued it, felt it over, recognized it — Lord Jim….

She emerged into a world of black wreckage. The Annie Marlow was a battered skeleton, swaying unevenly under the impact of seas that still poured across her decks, tireless in their determination to sweep everything away. Although she could not see the schooner’s bow, the forward slant told her that it must be under water most of the time. The poop was comparatively high.

She found her way into the little knot of anxious men who stood with weariness depicted in every gesture and in the droop of their broad shoulders. Someone had a lantern. In their black sou’-westers they faintly resembled a band of monks. Oilskins gleamed occasionally. She tried to look at their faces when the lantern lighted them, and thought she had a glimpse of Davidson, busy with the life-boat, which had a dozen times narrowly missed being smashed or carried away. The ocean was a turbulent waste of black angry water. The Annie rolled ceaselessly, as if frantic with exhaustion, like a tormented soul, and at every swing her bow inclined still closer toward the sea that had caught her at last. The captain’s face was that of a ghost suffering beyond all mortal words or help.

“Look out! Squall!” came someone’s cry. A savage gust enveloped the ship, and a demoniac rush of water came. Jane, who had sought the standing rigging of the jigger mast for something to hold on to, clutched the shrouds with all her strength, and waited. There was a roaring, an almost gleeful howl of wind, a crash somewhere — and then she was falling, falling in the dark through a measureless chasm while the shouting of wind and sea became fainter and fainter, sounding far up above her somewhere, dying away into silence….

She awoke with a sense of peacefulness, and of swinging lightly through space. Of swinging on, poised like a seagull; rushing down rivers of wind, soaring up hills of it — winged and free. Half-seen rainbows, stars, meteors seemed to flit around her, to stream past her. She was one white soul, unencumbered by earthly trash, darting through a friendly sky.

So civilization was lost, was it? Surely there were no chains now — chains of the flesh, chains of the world. Well, it was time some of that perished….

As if the very thought was too rebellious, the air was suddenly full of hard thudding pains that held her with iron fingers. She could see their black wings beating over her, and hear the growling of their voices. She shrank from them; lifted a hand to fend them off. It struck wood — only a mortal hand after all; and her eyes opened straight into an immense sky, black and full of bright, scudding clouds. Nearby loomed a silent figure, rugged in the moonlight. Once, centuries ago perhaps, she knew she had seen that same shape, unstirring and somber — a symbol of the sea.

The sea! She felt and heard it all around her, heaving and whispering. At that feeble tap of her hand, the man, who had been silent as a carved figurehead, seemed to leap into life. Almost instantaneously he was bending over her, looking anxiously into her face. “Jane! Jane! Awake?”

The pains that had possession of her were still beating frenzied black wings together. “You’re not one of them, are you?” she wanted to ask, but her voice had fallen into a hollow of the sea.

Davidson gave her a drink of water, out of the little cask in the bow of the boat. His hands trembled. She struggled a minute and sat up, while he steadied her. The illusion of freedom had vanished now. Pathetically mortal and clumsy she was, after all. The sea tore past, slantingly. Great waves toppled high and threatening, changed into abysses almost before they had come. Black and gray waves, gleaming with moonlight, crested with fragments of it. A wild sky, with those white clouds, and the moon racing like a frightened creature through them.

Jane was in the captain’s sailing skiff, which had hung beneath the life-boat. It was chasing along like a porpoise. It soared up on to a pinnacle, poised there dancingly, then, with a chuckling of water under the keel, swung into the shifting hollow. This was merely playfulness. There was no danger in the marbled sky, and the wind was light. But there was an illusion of tremendous swiftness, like flying.

“How do you feel?” he asked her after a while. Words were like children’s wooden joys that jiggle on an elastic, after the spring has worn out and half the paint has rubbed off, leaving an absurd and doleful expression on their small faces.

And when she answered, her own syllables sounded no less odd, as if English were some weird foreign tongue which they were attempting to speak for the first time. “All right,” she quavered — then collapsed against him in a little heap. “Water,” she pleaded. “More water.”

Davidson was almost holding his breath, as if its motion and sound might send her slipping away from him again. And slowly the black wings ceased their thundering; but they left her bruised and aching from head to foot. “Where — is everyone?” she asked faintly.

“Jane — I don’t know.”

“Oh, I can’t think!” she exclaimed, and put her hands over her eyes.

“Hurt, aren’t you?”

“Yes, what did I… something hit me?”

“Great mass of stuff falling…. Wonder you’re not — dead. Anything broken?”

“I don’t know. Oh, why don’t you tell me where we are? Did the ship go down?”

“Don’t look so reproachful,” was all he said.

“I don’t understand,” she repeated. “I don’t understand anything.”

“Neither do I,” he told her.

She lay down again in the bottom of the boat, which was just long enough, and looked at the sky. When she stirred, everything crashed and pounded in her body. Davidson sat in the stern, and held under his arm the handle of an oar he was using for rudder. Steering somewhere that cockle-shell with its little white sail — shelterless, without even a compass. He looked old, a trifle grim; always he appeared to hold mystic kinship with the tall gaunt waves. He guided the skiff through them with a subtle, half-tender understanding. He knew them, and the treachery of their natures.

She lay motionless, and tried to think. As her strength came back slowly, she began to remember and to understand. After a while she looked across at Davidson again; and she saw that he was haggard with weariness. His eyes were changed; his teeth were clenched as though their tenseness was holding him up. She tried to move toward him, but could not wrestle with the entangling faintness that would not let her go. The world turned swiftly upside down, and she saw the speeding sea above and the sky below with the moon gliding through those fleece-clouds that looked like Arctic ice floes. When things had righted themselves, she got to the stern of the skiff. Her muscles were trembling; but even then she felt secret exultation because her bones were miraculously intact, and he would not have a cripple on his hands.

“Let me take her — David.” She could not remember just what his name was.

“You’d better sleep, Jane.”

“Let me take her — please.”

He looked at her and smiled a very little, relinquishing the oar to her. “Keep her as she is,” he said. “As near east as you can. You can pick out a star ahead — any star you like — your favorite star — only check it now and then by the North Star, because that’s the only one that stays put. If the wind changes, call me. And some day we’ll get to — God knows where. And — call me — when you’re — too tired.” He drew a deep breath, shuddering, and curled up his tall frame in the bottom of the boat. His head leaned toward the forward seat, but he was asleep before he touched it.

Jane sat in the stern and steered with the oar. This was no dream, then. The feel of its handle was comforting. It was real. As real as anything ever was. Just now one could not be quite sure. “Keep her as she is.” The little sail held steady; she watched it, alert. She would have to bear up. Stars were few and rather dim because of the moon. But old Polaris gave her confidence, when it wasn’t in a cloud. For the first time she realized what an abstract thing a direction is. Ashore she took them for granted; usually knew where she was just by a feeling, or by familiar landmarks. At sea there was nothing. A mere star couldn’t give you the feeling that a tree could, or a church steeple. Perhaps it did, though, to a sailor. How fortunate that whoever had invented stars had put one in the center of things where it could do nothing but chase its own tail, so to speak, in one spot. That was thoughtful. Otherwise the earth had not done a methodical job in casting off these stars…. What? That was nonsense, of course.… The stars rose up in multitudes and shouted at her all together, reproaching her for impertinence. The universe was a cosmic din. Careful — Davidson’s asleep!

It was pretty grim. Davidson looked sick, and she was half delirious. If anything should happen to him — well, then there would be nobody even to mention a star. But he would last. He was made to last a long time. He was dead tired, that was all. How long had he been at this job? For all she knew it might be days and days. How could she tell how long they had been adrift, or how far they had come? There was no record of it on the sea’s face. And where were they going? Had he thought, as he set that easterly course, that some day they should land on some shore or other?

She could answer none of this, of course. She could only steer. She steered for hours, and still the night held on. She steered for centuries, and yet the dawn refused to come. She steered for aeons, and the moon hung high. The motion of the little boat was subtle and haunting. The white wing dipped gracefully now and then. And Davidson slept on. She wished he would wake up and be companionable, for it was pretty lonely, this steering a coracle at a bare horizon of sea with nothing but a few stars for friends — the sea under you and the sky over you and the whole world so empty and strange…. And then her thoughts edged back to New York. A phantasmagoric city of diabolical green and gold rose up swiftly and reached out the arms of a monstrous robot. She drew back, the thing faded, and she felt comforted by the simplicity and grandeur of the sea. There was meaning and a kind of beauty — this wistful human effort in a symphony of elements which were perhaps friendly — who could tell? — and certainly were beautiful, sky and peering stars, great restless sea, warm wind of the tropics, and now — a line of gray was beginning to grow over in the east — now the sunrise. She felt exalted, and opened her heart to all this…. And Davidson slept, tired out with his brutal fight against a sea which now had forgotten that brutality.

The exaltation was not without its icicle of fear. As the line of gray brightened, she wondered if she had strength, heart, staunchness, to cope with this and see it through. She steered on, waiting for the sun, longing for a rest, determined not to wake Davidson. Ahead the boat’s wing beckoned pensively, ghostlike in the gray. She was more alone in that moment, while he was sleeping, and the sun had not yet quite decided whether it would rise that day, than she had ever been in her life.

Davidson woke with the first rays. He opened his eyes and saw Jane’s face in the new white light. The sea looked young again. Jane’s face was passive yet triumphant. He marveled, and adored her.

She smiled when she saw he was awake. This was how life could go on — if two people marooned in an open boat could still be cheerful to the sun and each other…. Half standing in the bow, he peered off ahead. There was nothing to be seen, of course. He expected nothing.

“My trick at the wheel, Jane.”

He took the oar quietly from her grasp. She shifted cautiously to the bow seat — there was no middle one — and sat clasping her knees with her hands.

“Everything still hurt?” He wished he could replace her aching bones, which weren’t good enough for her, with better ones of pure gold.

“Yes, but I’m all right. I can stand it. This soaring gets into one’s fiber. I think I’ll feel it all the rest of my life. Tell me, where are we bound for?”

“Jupiter, I guess. I’m trying for the coast, of course, but the currents are wrong. I may as well say it — there’s so little hope that it would take a magician to see it — and then he’d have to have a microscope.”

“So little as that?” she asked with a casual interest that astounded him. It was what she had expected.

He pointed to the tin of biscuits and the breaker of water that lay in the little boat’s bow, telling her the whole story without the added harshness of words. She met his glance unwavering.

The sun was beginning to assert its cruelty, but the breeze held. The sea’s floor, intense blue, rose and fell swiftly. You looked at its continual hovering and waving, and then turned for relief to the sky, pale and strangely still.

“What’s all this about?” Jane asked abruptly.

“What do you think?” He did not move.

“I can’t tell — I’ve never been shipwrecked before,” she said. “Only I know I’ve never been so conscious of the — unreality.”

“I’m afraid it’s real, Jane — damn real.”

“Is anything?”

“Hunger and thirst are, when they get you.”

“Isn’t there anything edible floating around?” she asked quaintly. “Jellyfish or something? Seems as if there ought to be.”

His chuckle was small in that colossal solitude, yet it contained infinite warmth and comradeship. Jane looked at him a moment, and held out her hand. He grasped it as though across an abyss.

Unutterably tired as she was, after all; and bewildered — she wanted to be bewildered, but must hold up for his sake. She crouched in the bottom of the boat, at his feet, and leaned her head ever so little against his knees.

“We’ll see it through, won’t we, Jane? Together.”

Davidson was greater than the sea, master of it. A cliff, rugged and furrowed by storm and tide, but dominating both. An oak-tree that no gale could break, though it made a mighty harp of the branches. Death was a nothingness, danger a wisp of thistledown upon the wind, and civilization had never existed at all. Nothing could hurt him. He was eternal.

“Sure, we’ll see it through.”

The material world had given way. It was weak and paltry, and it was unimportant. But Davidson was there. He was real, and could be counted on. The simplicity of his acceptance, and the strength of his passiveness, could never be shaken, by time or suffering or despair or death.

Chapter 8

Comments

  1. Really enjoying the story. Thanks again for typing it up!

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