CHAPTER II  HALF CHILD--HALF SAVAGE

    Five rainy seasons had passed and gone since the tragic occurrence on the reef. Five long years the breakers had thundered, and the sea-gulls had cried round the figure whose spell had drawn a mysterious barrier across the lagoon.

    The children had never returned to the old place. They had kept entirely to the back of the island and the woods--the lagoon, down to a certain point, and the reef; a wide enough and beautiful enough world, but a hopeless world, as far as help from civilisation was concerned. For, of the few ships that touched at the island in the course of years, how many would explore the lagoon or woods? Perhaps not one.

    Occasionally Dick would make an excursion in the dinghy to the old place, but Emmeline refused to accompany him. He went chiefly to obtain bananas; for on the whole island there was but one clump of banana trees--that near the water source in the wood, where the old green skulls had been discovered, and the little barrel.

    She had never quite recovered from the occurrence on the reef. Something had been shown to her, the purport of which she vaguely understood, and it had filled her with horror and a terror of the place where it had occurred. Dick was quite different. He had been frightened enough at first; but the feeling wore away in time.

    Dick had built three houses in succession during the five years. He had laid out a patch of taro and another of sweet potatoes. He knew every pool on the reef for two miles either way, and the forms of their inhabitants; and though he did not know the names of the creatures to be found there, he made a profound study of their habits.

    He had seen some astonishing things during these five years--from a fight between a whale and two thrashers conducted outside the reef, lasting an hour, and dyeing the breaking waves with blood, to the poisoning of the fish in the lagoon by fresh water, due to an extraordinarily heavy rainy season.

    He knew the woods of the back of the island by heart, and the forms of life that inhabited them, butterflies and moths and birds, lizards, and insects of strange shape; extraordinary orchids--some filthy-looking, the very image of corruption, some beautiful, and all strange. He found melons and guavas, and breadfruit, the red apple of Tahiti, and the great Brazilian plum, taro in plenty, and a dozen other good things--but there were no bananas. This made him unhappy at times, for he was human.

    Though Emmeline had asked Koko for Dick's whereabouts, it was only a remark made by way of making conversation, for she could hear him in the little cane-brake which lay close by amidst the trees.

    In a few minutes he appeared, dragging after him two canes which he had just cut, and wiping the perspiration off his brow with his naked arm. He had an old pair of trousers on--part of the truck salved long ago from the *Shenandoah*--nothing else, and he was well worth looking at and considering, both from a physical and psychological point of view.

    Auburn-haired and tall, looking more like seventeen than sixteen, with a restless and daring expression, half a child, half a man, half a civilised being, half a savage, he had both progressed and retrograded during the five years of savage life. He sat down beside Emmeline, flung the canes beside him, tried the edge of the old butcher's knife with which he had cut them, then, taking one of the canes across his knee, he began whittling at it.

    "What are you making?" asked Emmeline, releasing the bird, which flew into one of the branches of the artu and rested there, a blue point amidst the dark green.

    "Fish-spear," replied Dick.

    Without being taciturn, he rarely wasted words. Life was all business for him. He would talk to Emmeline, but always in short sentences; and he had developed the habit of talking to inanimate things, to the fish-spear he was carving, or the bowl he was fashioning from a cocoa-nut.

    As for Emmeline, even as a child she had never been talkative. There was something mysterious in her personality, something secretive. Her mind seemed half submerged in twilight. Though she spoke little, and though the subject of their conversations was almost entirely material and relative to their everyday needs, her mind would wander into abstract fields and the land of chimerae and dreams. What she found there no one knew--least of all, perhaps, herself.

    As for Dick, he would sometimes talk and mutter to himself, as if in a reverie; but if you caught the words, you would find that they referred to no abstraction, but to some trifle he had on hand. He seemed entirely bound up in the moment, and to have forgotten the past as completely as though it had never been.

    Yet he had his contemplative moods. He would lie with his face over a rock-pool by the hour, watching the strange forms of life to be seen there, or sit in the woods motionless as a stone, watching the birds and the swiftslipping lizards. The birds came so close that he could easily have knocked them over, but he never hurt one or interfered in any way with the wild life of the woods.

    The island, the lagoon, and the reef were for him the three volumes of a great picture book, as they were for Emmeline, though in a different manner. The colour and the beauty of it all fed some mysterious want in her soul. Her life was a long reverie, a beautiful vision--troubled with shadows. Across all the blue and coloured spaces that meant months and years she could still see as in a glass dimly the *Northumberland*, smoking against the wild background of fog; her uncle's face, Boston--a vague and dark picture beyond a storm--and nearer, the tragic form on the reef that still haunted terribly her dreams. But she never spoke of these things to Dick. Just as she kept the secret of what was in her box, and the secret of her trouble whenever she lost it, she kept the secret of her feelings about these things.

    Born of these things there remained with her always a vague terror: the terror of losing Dick. Mrs. Stannard, her uncle, the dim people she had known in Boston, all had passed away out of her life like a dream and shadows. The other one too, most horribly. What if Dick were taken from her as well?

    This haunting trouble had been with her a long time; up to a few months ago it had been mainly personal and selfish--the dread of being left alone. But lately it had altered and become more acute. Dick had changed in her eyes, and the fear was now for him. Her own personality had suddenly and strangely become merged in his. The idea of life without him was unthinkable, yet the trouble remained, a menace in the blue.

    Some days it would be worse than others. To-day, for instance, it was worse than yesterday, as though some danger had crept close to them during the night. Yet the sky and sea were stainless, the sun shone on tree and flower, the west wind brought the tune of the far-away reef like a lullaby. There was nothing to hint of danger or the need of distrust.

    At last Dick finished his spear and rose to his feet.

    "Where are you going?" asked Emmeline.

    "The reef," he replied. "The tide's going out."

    "I'll go with you," said she.

    He went into the house and stowed the precious knife away. Then he came out, spear in one hand, and half a fathom of liana in the other. The liana was for the purpose of stringing the fish on, should the catch be large. He led the way down the grassy sward to the lagoon where the dinghy lay, close up to the bank, and moored to a post driven into the soft soil. Emmeline got in, and, taking the sculls, he pushed off. The tide was going out.

    I have said that the reef just here lay a great way out from the shore. The lagoon was so shallow that at low tide one could have waded almost right across it, were it not for pot-holes here and there--ten-feet traps--and great beds of rotten coral, into which one would sink as into brushwood, to say nothing of the nettle coral that stings like a bed of nettles. There were also other dangers. Tropical shallows are full of wild surprises in the way of life and death.

    Dick had long ago marked out in his memory the soundings of the lagoon, and it was fortunate that he possessed the special sense of location which is the main stand-by of the hunter and the savage, for, from the disposition of the coral in ribs, the water from the shore edge to the reef ran in lanes. Only two of these lanes gave a clear, fair way from the shore edge to the reef; had you followed the others, even in a boat of such shallow draught as the dinghy, you would have found yourself stranded half-way across, unless, indeed, it were a spring tide.

    Half-way across the sound of the surf on the barrier became louder, and the everlasting and monotonous cry of the gulls came on the breeze. It was lonely out here, and, looking back, the shore seemed a great way off. It was lonelier still on the reef.

    Dick tied up the boat to a projection of coral, and helped Emmeline to land. The sun was creeping down into the west, the tide was near]y half out, and large pools of water lay glittering like burnished shields in the sunlight. Dick, with his precious spear beside him, sat calmly down on a ledge of coral, and began to divest himself of his one and only garment.

    Emmeline turned away her head and contemplated the distant shore, which seemed thrice as far off as it was in reality. When she turned her head again he was racing along the edge of the surf. He and his spear silhouetted against the spindrift and dazzling foam formed a picture savage enough, and well in keeping with the general desolation of the background. She watched him lie down and cling to a piece of coral, whilst the surf rushed round and over him, and then rise and shake himself like a dog, and pursue his gambols, his body all glittering with the wet.

    Sometimes a whoop would come on the breeze, mixing with the sound of the surf and the cry of the gulls, and she would see him plunge his spear into a pool, and the next moment the spear would be held aloft with something struggling and glittering at the end of it.

    He was quite different out here on the reef to what he was ashore. The surroundings here seemed to develop all that was savage in him, in a startling way; and he would kill, and kill, just for the pleasure of killing, destroying more fish than they could possibly use.


PREVIOUS  UP  NEXT