Lost Island, part 8

Chapter VIII (pages 100-112) of Lost Island, which began here.

Long afterwards Davidson was to remember a certain moment on the Annie Marlow‘s poop deck as the most dire moment of his life. In times of stress he would compare his trouble to that past horror, and sigh with relief. That was the ultimate. Nothing the world could do to him would ever approach the intensity of it. Thinking of it, he would feel impervious to discouragement, money, life. He never regretted having seen the bottom of the pit of despair, for it served as armor and shield. It was the moment when he realized that Jane was not there with the others.

They were lowering the life-boat in the thick of fiendish confusion. In the uproar of squall and rain that had suddenly descended as if released from long imprisonment, the sea was like the inside of a volcano in eruption.

The men had been pumping hard most of the night, and were exhausted and bleary-eyed. That was why he had forgotten to look for her, make sure that she was with them. And now it was too late. Now they were launching the life-boat, and the schooner was sinking.

It was the captain who bawled out anxiously: “Miss Jane there?”

Someone’s voice answered faintly: “No, sir!”

Davidson shouted in anguish: “I’ll get her!” and, snatching a lantern, he had dashed away from the others.

“There’s no time! God, there’s no time!” the men protested in a despairing chorus.

The schooner was rolling her decks full of water, and each shuddering heave seemed her last.

“Wait!” Captain Maynard quietly commanded.

But they rebelled. Hours on end they had fought for the ship and for their lives; were they to be denied at the last their one little chance of escape? And for what? One more life — a girl who had probably been swept overboard anyway? Maddened with terror, intensified by the loss of the first mate, they had forgotten all discipline. They forgot even their shipmate Davidson. During “flyin’-fish weather” they were passable sailors; it was in a crisis like this that it became obvious to what pitiful degree of inadequacy the seafaring profession had fallen.

By main force they carried their captain to the life-boat, and launched her. She wheeled dizzily on a great black pinnacle, and then fell into unthinkable depths. At the same instant the ship vanished from them, and they could see nothing but turbulent blackness….

Davidson knew none of this. He knew only that he was hunting for Jane, and that he would never leave that sinking ship unless he found her. His life was for her, with her; and he had not known it until now, when perhaps she was lost to him forever.

He flayed himself without mercy for not having been more careful of her. A stupid brute…. For all he knew, she had been lost overboard. But he would not believe that. He would believe that she was here somewhere, and he would find her. And he would never leave without her. That thought gave him a curious calmness, a sense of quietude.

“Jane! Oh, Jane!” He held up the lantern again. Nothing.

Could she have gone down below? Below decks it was up to his waist, almost, in water. He got to her cabin at last, calling her. Nothing. Only the mournful slamming of a door somewhere, the creaking of the ship, water sloshing, seas hammering, wind lamenting. He called again, agonized. The water mocked him.

Never leave the ship without her. That was something to hold to — a purpose, at least. He had nearly deserted her once. The horror of that! But it would be atoned now…. The ship was shuddering, giving way to the sea; but still she fought a little, numb with terror and weariness.

His mind became clear and steady. He climbed out on deck again in a leisurely manner, preferring to die in the open; and as he tramped up the companionway stairs he tried to picture Jane as he had seen her last. Where had she been? He made powerful, deliberate efforts to remember, and suddenly it seemed that in the light of a swinging lantern he caught a glimpse of her holding on to the rigging with both hands as a voice rang out: “Squall!” The jigger rigging… starboard side…

Nothing but a tangle of wreckage there. The topmast had snapped in that squall, and come hurtling down with whatever running gear had not been blown away before. Was she in that awful heap, then — mangled, crushed?… Never leave without her — never leave…. He shoved something aside, and wire rope spat at his bare hands viciously. He wrestled with it. There was — a piece of topsail, most likely — a faint suggestion of something white in under there. And then he saw that it was Jane’s upturned throat.

He got her out of there at last. He had lifted her up in his arms, and her head fell back limply. There was no doubt in the world that she was dead. Her face was that of a little girl lost and lonely, wistful beyond words. He stroked aside the tangles of her hair, but she could not feel his gentleness, or know his sad triumph. He had come back for her, and found her….

During all this he had been too absorbed to notice the absence of the crew. Now he stood looking over the edge of the poop with Jane in his arms, wondering if he were possessed by some fiendish hallucination. The life-boat was not there, that was all. He stood like a man in a dream. The Annie Marlow herself awoke him. For she was trembling hard, lowering her bow steadily, and going down, down….

It was not until then that he remembered the captain’s skiff, with the dismounted mast and boom that the old man had made himself, with which he used to amuse himself in the quiet harbors. He leaped at this one dim chance, working fast in the dark, always believing that in another second he would feel the rush and suck of the whirlpool. And it seemed that hardly more than one swift heart-beat after he had launched the skiff, with Jane lying in it, the ship gave a great sigh and slipped into the hollow that rose in tumult and came together over her. It was like the extinguishing of a light. She was there no more. There was only the sea.

Much to Davidson’s surprise, the boat lived through that night. The mast and boom lay in the bottom of it, and to one side, projecting a couple of feet over the bow. Davidson unlashed the little sail from between them, and folded it over Jane, trying to protect her from the smashing clouds of spray. He steadied the boat with an oar. Between seas he bailed with his sou’-wester. He felt the waves diminishing, and saw the dawn come. The sea was an ancient cornfield of gray and battered stubble, rough and unkempt. The sunrise was a smear of ambiguous lighter color. That was east, then. It was the first he had known or even suspected of direction for many hours. Rain had stopped, and the skiff rode the waves without taking parts of them over her small bow. Daylight had brought relief.

He took the sail from Jane’s body, and looked into her face. She was white and lost, and they were awesomely alone. The sea and the world had forgotten them long ago. Perhaps the sea and the world were right. There was no way of telling whether he himself was really alive. There was no one to ask, and nothing to believe in…. Was Jane breathing? No, the boat’s motion… For all he knew, there might be no sharp demarcation between life and death. Maybe this was their passage through eternity. Desolate sort of eternity, though.

He set up the mast. It was a solemn rite. The boat would drift about aimlessly in the gray wash no longer. The little sail flapped pitifully as he released it, like a soft white creature suddenly put out in the open by itself, and frightened; then it steadied as though it had got over the worst of its trouble. The boat steadied a good deal, too. Feeling the tiller, she stepped out determinedly, with a purpose. She could go on now, for someone was steering.

All that day he sat there alone. In his terrible solitude he saw the setting of the sun and the stealthy falling of dark, all the while watching over the body of the woman he loved. Then at last she had awakened….

 

They gave all their strength to this fight, yet that strength was pitifully small, and it dwindled with the supply of biscuits and water. Those little crumbs lasted several days, but at last were gone — “weevils and all,” Davidson declared. Hunger was not the most painful enemy. The worst of that was over. Nothing was left of it except increasing weakness and weariness. It seemed to Jane as though her body were held together by a few very taut elastic bands. But when the water was gone…

They lost all sense of time, of course. There was no time to count, in this long blue torture. They watched the sky in despair, longing for the blessed cool wetness of rain. Even the wind had despaired, exhausted. A few languid zephyrs rippled the sail now and then. All hope of progressing anywhere was shattered by this tropic calm. Sometimes they took down the sail and used it for shelter against the sun….

“Is there a chance we shall be picked up?” Jane asked.

“Yes — a very little one.”

“What do you think about dying, Daveson. Better, maybe?”

“How?” he asked.

“We might jump overboard. Swim, and swim — and — swim…”

“I can’t swim,” he told her. “And anyway, I want to hold out for that little chance. I want to live.”

“So do I.”

She played her part determinedly, faithfully. When she complained it was in jest. Civilization? Well, a soda-fountain, perhaps. But there were no such compromises. It seemed that she had been swallowing red-hot embers. Another day or two crept by, and they still steered watch and watch, shipmates. Davidson’s cheeks were hollow, and his eyes blazed. Soon she realized that her voice was useless. She could not speak above a painful, half-choked whisper. No, there were no compromises. She wished she could talk with him, if only a little. Their scraps of conversation had been precious.

“Daveson, do you believe in God?” she had asked once, as they exchanged the oar.

“I don’t believe in anything on earth, still less anything off it.”

They, and the oar, were floating in a blue void.

“God was hammered — and — hammered — into my head years ago,” Jane pursued. “But I rebelled. I didn’t like Him. Not their little God, anyhow.”

“I believe in you,” Davidson faltered.

That was the last coherent conversation. Every time he woke her, it was harder for her to move. It came like a rough intrusion. She had to struggle up against the weakness that held her crushed flat underfoot in the bottom of the boat — the burden that was each time harder to throw off. Sometimes she wondered whether it was worth the fight. Why not just lie there and die? The restfulness of death! But Davidson’s face, tormented with weariness and starvation, would make her remember. Until the last, her small strength was promised.

She lost all sense of gravity. The world would not pause. It was a pulsing whirl of hot blue, with Davidson’s face somewhere in its eddies. She could scarcely hold the oar, while the sea poured back and forth and the sky wheeled. The sail looked old and haggard, too, as frail as though the merest puff might make it melt away into air. It seemed to be made of no real solid material. She could see no recognizable world. But she held on to what there was. She steered a while, then found a shadow bending over her. Her hand did not know enough to let go of the oar of its own accord, until it was taken from her. She slept, then, until the relentless shadow came again to wake her. That was in the desolate hours some time after midnight. She steered again — a small, worn-out ghost.

The end of strength came with terrifying suddenness, as if all her muscles had agreed to surrender together from their feeble hold, and had left her unsustained. Dizzily the oar eluded her grasp. She kept it from sliding into the sea. It was her last effort. She felt a sense of victory, as if with that faint gesture she had saved the boat. The oar was safe. It was all she could do.

“David!” she said faintly, in an agonized whisper; and slipped forward, helpless. She could steer his course no longer. He roused himself from his half-sleep; and as he touched her she gave him a tiny wisp of a parched smile.

“Shipmate,” he whispered, so faintly that she scarcely heard him. He took the oar, and bent over her. Her head was on his knees….

Then he felt a coolness about him, as though a wind had sprung up; and the air surrounding him was brighter. Struggling, he raised his head and looked. Yes, the dawn was coming. It was light. The east was like a ship with immense rose-colored sails. Dawn? What good was the dawn? Beauty. It could give them that while Jane’s life faded — his own, too, soon enough.

With a sudden wildness, he stared ahead; and kept on gazing fixedly into the sunrise, incredulous and awed, wondering why his eyes were playing such tricks. Then, very gently, he roused Jane. With awful weariness she lifted her head, and he felt remorse at having disturbed her to share this insane delusion. He pointed; she looked out ahead, and he felt a quiver run through her.

Sometimes it happens that, just as you have reconciled yourself, after long struggle, to some harsh decision the world has made upon you, these seemingly unalterable circumstances may alter, as though a black curtain had been raised to reveal a gleaming stage…. Sometimes, after a Nantucket sea captain’s wife has strained her eyes for days from the look-out on the roof for the sails of the schooner long overdue, just as she has abandoned herself to a grief so benumbing, a torture so exquisite, that the world has no room to hold it — sometimes he comes home…. And sometimes, when two people are dying together in an open boat, hundreds of miles from any known land, the sea and sky form a prodigious magic, and dawn clouds lift from an enchanted island.

It showed through rifts in the rose and gold clouds, almost as ethereal as they. In that mystic light, land and mist were jumbled in a glowing mountainous heap of colors, and over them was the tense sky thronged with still brightening feathers of cloud. The very water beneath the keel of the skiff was alive and magical; and the little boat herself seemed to be holding her breath. A marvellous iridescence came over the island, a gleam of pale gold and lavender, of green and soft blue, intermingled subtly, woven with the wings of crimson mist. The sea was silver-blue, and the island drifted between it and the sky, gleaming like a fire-opal.

Wild-eyed, Davidson stared at the fusion of those colors. It was ineffable loveliness given at a moment of despair and surrender. It was hope and happiness and beauty, coming together at a time when he was sure they were all completely lost. He had always held, deep down, an obscure faith in life — that you could live without being forever disillusioned, that sometimes you were given a piece of beauty unchallenged and untroubled — “a woodpile without a nigger,” he said to himself — that there were some few remnants of a good old-fashioned fairy-tale magic left, to live for. This passage in the open boat had shaken that faith. He had deliberately accused it, face to face, of being a tinseled liar; he had chucked it overboard and watched it sink. And now, here was a living proof, a symbol, of that faith; it had been quietly drifting along with him all the time — or perhaps, perverse creature, was merely following him because he had abandoned it — and now a score of ardent voices clamored in his heart to say that he had not been wrong after all.

The mist-screen lifted and broke here and there, showing a green peninsula with a tuft of feathery palm trees; then a soft abyss of blue velvet between two gilded ridges; a sharp purple mountain with red clouds hovering about its peak. Clouds and island were still half-melted together, half-submerged in an ocean of colored light.

The sun cast gold spears radiating upward through the colors, making them paler, making clouds stand separate from the land, and the land look more real and substantial. In a few more moments the sea was its own clear blue once more, the clouds had drifted clear, and ahead of the exhausted pair in the open boat was a real earthly island, as though sea and sky and sun had created it at that very moment expressly for them, seeing and rescuing them in their direst need.

All this time Jane had never spoken or moved. Only now she looked up at him, smiling as much as her blackened and tortured lips would allow. The magic should not be tarnished with a few choking words. She leaned her head against his knees again, and that small gesture of companionship was an eloquent thanksgiving to the sea and to him….

They remembered little else of that day. They had crept from the skiff and fallen in warm pinkish sand. The beach rose at a rather steep slant to a forest fringed with palms. They staggered up into cool fragrant shade, and found a few coconuts, fallen before they were ripe. Davidson had one tool — his jackknife. It took all his strength to cut through the green husk…. Water, milky and cool, and the soft white jelly that lined the shell of the unripe coconut — this was their first food. They opened another, and moistened their faces with its water…. There were flickering shadows and shearing lights, fragrances, and an odd poise to the universe.

The island was kind. It seemed to understand their plight. Its long crescent of a beach had welcomed them like an enchanted threshold. At its south end it tapered into a low green peninsula, lacy with palms, and at its very tip two magnificent ones leaned out over the sea, heads together. Sometimes they were two plotting mischief-makers, sometimes two lovers. To the north, the beach gave place to rocks, and finally rose in cliffs that were like the crude castle of a giant.

Behind the circle of coconut palms that edged the beach, the forest was not dense, although it was luxuriant. It was a friendly forest, with few harsh brambles and thick creepers. Its floor was covered with mosses and small vines and flowers, broken by clumps of ferns, some nearly as tall as Davidson, yet delicately feathered as frost on a window-pane. Flowering trees threw brightness and fragrance among the more sober green of mangoes and breadfruit. Some of these flowering trees had immense clusters of flame-red flowers; some were white; some pink like apple-blossoms. And there was a modest white flower with the fragrance of a marvellous wine. But far more important to the shipwrecked pair were papaia trees, with their fantastic clusters of big, smooth-skinned yellow fruit, easily reached; and alligator pears, guavas, bananas, and pale wild oranges.

There was nothing to do but rest in silence, and nibble cautiously at the fruits, a few of which they collected by almost superhuman effort. They felt very sick. That weary writhing of the little boat haunted their muscles. In spite of being starved, it was hard to swallow anything. They lay on the beach all day and all the next day almost without speaking. The sea whispered at the edge of the sand, and the big palm fronds rustled.

Jane could do nothing but dream, and her thoughts edged back softly but not understandingly over her life. This was too different from anything she had known or conceived, for her to understand it. Not so long ago the perpetual dust of Professor Myers’ office threatened to be her only atmosphere, perhaps forever. That dust! There was none here. Where was she now?… There had been Millie, gay and heartless, and other friends, apparently always in trouble, whom she had sistered. There had been disillusionments, mountain-high. Your voice could laugh, but sometimes your soul didn’t. It stayed underneath and languished. She was hurt to find life made up of so many little things. At first she believed most faithfully that they had a deeper meaning and a coherent larger purpose; but after a while she saw to her dismay that the deeper and larger things were merely shadows cast by the small. So she buried the whole great treasure of winged dreams and iridescent shades under an oak-tree in the farthest corner of her heart, and planted a bush of wild roses over it. A small grave of dreams. Secretly and silently she buried them, a little ashamed, as a burglar might be who had long pursued some gleaming ruby necklace, and, having by infinite stealth and risk obtained it, found that it was red glass.

After that burial — now that the world had jolted her down to its own level — she had gone straight ahead with life, not liking it very well, but liking a few of the ways it had and some of the friends it had given her. She tried, serenely and patiently, to help them a little, to give them something of herself and of a curious wisdom she had evolved; yet she had a dim vision of herself always standing a bit aloof from them after all, half-smiling — a little gray goddess with dull brown hair. And that would have been her life.

But, because she wasn’t gray enough, after all — she had missed it by a shade — there came the red skirt and the Annie Marlow. Where was that poor ship now? She thought of dark green sea-caverns, and the slow waving of great fishes’ tails, deliberate and soft and half-seen in dimness, coming and going and interweaving…. And then that good-hearted crew, and old Captain Maynard. Where were they? Drifting around somewhere in the life-boat, starving and suffering and dying? A shudder… She herself had come so near the edge of a great granite cliff overhanging a valley of black and purple shadows….

And then, Davidson, who had saved her life, for whom she was beginning to feel something like earnest adoration. He was still a mystery. His sense of values and appreciation of the poetic side of life were sometimes a little hard to reconcile with the sea. Strange that he could come to her straight out of this sea, in all the grandeur of his simplicity, and understand her, when not one of the friends whose lives had been more like hers could come so near.

Thinking of him, all at once she wanted him. That, also, was new — the feeling that she needed companionship. He was stretched out beside her in the shade; and she spoke to him. “Daveson, have you got another orange over there? I honestly can’t move, to speak of.”

“I’m trembly, too.”

“I like having you around,” she said. “My thoughts wabble so. How’s your state of mind?”

“Haven’t any.”

“I was thinking — about the others — wondering what happened.”

“No one’ll ever know, I guess. I’m afraid they never got anywhere, Jane. And I’m sure I don’t understand why we did.”

“I’m curious to know where we got to,” she said.

“Well, as far as I know, no land has any business to be here.”

“Could it be the coast?”

“We were hundreds of miles from the coast when we were wrecked,” he told her, “and you know how much progress we made in the skiff.”

“An island, then.”

“Must be. Perhaps it’s Atlantis. Some day we’ll explore.”

“Do you really have hopes that we’ll ever be all right again?”

“Well, I don’t feel any worse, do you?”

“I feel like a starfish,” Jane said. “A sick starfish….”

“Maybe we’re dead. I don’t know.”

“The other world doesn’t seem to exist,” she went on. “I’ve been thinking about it a long time, trying to figure out which of them is the dream.”

“Don’t you believe there’s room for both of ’em?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t seem likely. If we survive this, we may find out.”

“Be a shame if we didn’t survive, having stuck it out this long.”

“Yes. I want to. I’m going to try to. What shall we do? Do you think we’ll be rescued, or what?”

“Maybe there are people around,” he said. “We’ll explore, when we can. Maybe we’ll have to make out here a while.”

“There seems to be stuff to eat growing round.”

“Yes; we won’t starve. And another thing. I’ve got matches. Waterproof container in the biscuit tin. Probably O.K. We can build fires, to keep warm, if it ever gets cold here, and to cook things.”

“What things?”

“Well, breadfruit, for instance. Isn’t one supposed to roast breadfruit? I’m not an expert in the field of tropical cooking, but I know we can’t exist very healthily on just fruit.”

“What is breadfruit, then?”

“Potato-y stuff, I think.”

“I believe it will all be sort of natural to me,” Jane suggested. I’ve camped out a lot.”

“Without a tent? Without any blankets, cook-pots, or a single useful implement of any kind, except a knife? This isn’t a summer vacation, Jane.”

“S’pose there are wild beasts around?”

“Might be. Almost certain to be poisonous snakes. Furthermore, in the tropics there’s always fever, and no quinine within a thousand miles.”

But in spite of this dismal note, Jane could not seem to come to grips with reality. She was conscious only of a dreamy peace.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you, Jane. Likely nothing that happens to us here can seem very bad after the boat. I just don’t want you to get the idea that our troubles are over, or that this is a ready-made fairy-tale paradise, that’s all.”

As evening came, a thousand shrill-voiced crickets burst into chorus, and bat-wings swooped overhead. A new breath of subtle fragrance came from the island that had sheltered them — the fragrance of tangles of jasmine flowers. Stars came, and the great fans of palm trees stirred softly. Davidson slept near her. It was not a ready-made, fairy-tale paradise. But she knew of nowhere in the world she would rather be.

Chapter IX.

Speak Your Mind

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