Dick put the hook away and took to the sculls. He had a three-mile row before him, and the tide was coming in, which did not make it any the easier. As he rowed, he talked and grumbled to himself. He had been in a grumbling mood for some time past: the chief cause, Emmeline.
In the last few months she had changed; even her face had changed. A new person had come upon the island, it seemed to him, and taken the place of the Emmeline he had known from earliest childhood. This one looked different. He did not know that she had grown beautiful, he just knew that she looked different; also she had developed new ways that displeased him--she would go off and bathe by herself, for instance.
Up to six months or so ago he had been quite contented; sleeping and eating, and hunting for food and cooking it, building and rebuilding the house, exploring the woods and the reef. But lately a spirit of restlessness had come upon him; he did not know exactly what he wanted. He had a vague feeling that he wanted to go away from the place where he was; not from the island, but from the place where they had pitched their tent, or rather built their house.
It may have been the spirit of civilisation crying out in him, telling him of all he was missing. Of the cities, and the streets, and the houses, and the businesses, and the striving after gold, the striving after power. It may have been simply the man in him crying out for Love, and not knowing yet that Love was at his elbow.
The dinghy glided along, hugging the shore, past the little glades of fern and the cathedral gloom of the breadfruit; then, rounding a promontory, she opened the view of the break in the reef. A little bit of the white strand was visible, but he was not looking that way--he was looking towards the reef at a tiny, dark spot, not noticeable unless searched for by the eye. Always when he came on these expeditions, just here, he would hang on his oars and gaze over there, where the gulls were flying and the breakers thundering.
A few years ago the spot filled him with dread as well as curiosity, but from familiarity and the dullness that time casts on everything, the dread had almost vanished, but the curiosity remained: the curiosity that makes a child look on at the slaughter of an animal even though his soul revolts at it. He gazed for a while, then he went on pulling, and the dinghy approached the beach.
Something had happened on the beach. The sand was all trampled, and stained red here and there; in the centre lay the remains of a great fire still smouldering, and just where the water lapped the sand, lay two deep grooves as if two heavy boats had been beached there. A South Sea man would have told from the shape of the grooves, and the little marks of the out-riggers, that two heavy canoes had been beached there. And they had.
The day before, early in the afternoon, two canoes, possibly from that far-away island which cast a stain on the horizon to the -sou'-sou'-west, had entered the lagoon, one in pursuit of the other.
What happened then had better be left veiled. A war drum with a shark-skin head had set the woods throbbing; the victory was celebrated all night, and at dawn the victors manned the two canoes and set sail for the
home, or hell, they had come from. Had you examined the strand you would have found that a line had been drawn across the beach, beyond which there were no footmarks: that meant that the rest of the island was for some reason taboo.
Dick pulled the nose of the boat up a bit on the strand, then he looked around him. He picked up a broken spear that had been cast away or forgotten; it was made of some hard wood and barbed with iron. On the right-hand side of the beach something lay between the cocoa-nut trees. He approached; it was a mass of offal; the entrails of a dozen sheep seemed cast here in one mound, yet there were no sheep on the island, and sheep are not carried as a rule in war canoes.
The sand on the beach was eloquent. The foot pursuing and the foot pursued; the knee of the fallen one, and then the forehead and outspread hands; the heel of the chief who has slain his enemy, beaten the body flat, burst a hole through it, through which he has put his head, and who stands absolutely wearing his enemy as a cloak; the head of the man dragged on his back to be butchered like a sheep--of these things spoke the sand.
As far as the sand traces could speak, the story of the battle was still being told; the screams and the shouting, the clashing of clubs and spears were gone, yet the ghost of the fight remained.
If the sand could bear such traces, and tell such tales, who shall say that the plastic aether was destitute of the story of the fight and the butchery?
However that may have been, Dick, looking around him, had the shivering sense of having just escaped from danger. Whoever had been, had gone--he could tell that by the canoe traces. Gone either out to sea, or up the right stretch of the lagoon. It was important to determine this.
He climbed to the hill-top and swept the sea with his eyes. There, away to the south-west, far away on the sea, he could distinguish the brown sails of two canoes. There was something indescribably mournful and lonely in their appearance; they looked like withered leaves--brown moths blown to sea--derelicts of autumn. Then, remembering the beach, these things became freighted with the most sinister thoughts for the mind of the gazer. They were hurrying away, having done their work. That they looked lonely and old and mournful, and like withered leaves blown across the sea, only heightened the horror.
Dick had never seen canoes before, but he knew that these things were boats of some sort holding people, and that the people had left all those traces on the beach. How much of the horror of the thing was revealed to his subconscious intelligence, who can say?
He had climbed the boulder, and he now sat down with his knees drawn up, and his hands clasped round them. Whenever he came round to this side of the island, something happened of a fateful or sinister nature. The last time he had nearly lost the dinghy; he had beached the little boat in such a way that she floated off, and the tide was just in the act of stealing her, and sweeping her from the lagoon out to sea, when he returned laden with his bananas, and, rushing into the water up to his waist, saved her. Another time he had fallen out of a tree, and just by a miracle escaped death. Another time a hurricane had broken, lashing the lagoon into snow, and sending the cocoa-nuts bounding and flying like tennis balls across the strand. This time he had just escaped something, he knew not exactly what. It was almost as if Providence were saying to him, "Don't come here."
He watched the brown sails as they dwindled in the wind blown blue, then he came down from the hill-top and cut his bananas. He cut four large bunches, which caused him to make two journeys to the boat. When the bananas were stowed he pushed off.
For a long time a great curiosity had been pulling at his heart-strings: a curiosity of which he was dimly ashamed. Fear had given it birth, and Fear still clung to it. It was, perhaps, the element of fear and the awful delight of daring the unknown that made him give way to it.
He had rowed, perhaps, a hundred yards when he turned the boat's head and made for the reef. It was more than five years since that day when he rowed across the lagoon, Emmeline sitting in the stern, with her wreath of flowers in her hand. It might have been only yesterday, for everything seemed just the same. The thunderous surf and the flying gulls, the blinding sunlight, and the salt, fresh smell of the sea. The palm tree at the entrance of the lagoon stilI bent gazing into the water, and round the projection of coral to which he had last moored the boat still lay a fragment of the rope which he had cut in his hurry to escape.
Ships had come into the lagoon, perhaps, during the five years, but no one had noticed anything on the reef, for it was only from the hill-top that a full view of what was there could be seen, and then only by eyes knowing where to look. From the beach there was visible just a speck. It might have been, perhaps, a bit of old wreckage flung there by a wave in some big storm. A piece of old wreckage that had been tossed hither and thither for years, and had at last found a place of rest.
Dick tied the boat up, and stepped on to the reef. It was high tide just as before; the breeze was blowing strongly, and overhead a man-of-war's bird, black as ebony, with a blood-red bill, came sailing, the wind doming out his wings. He circled in the air, and cried out fiercely, as if resenting the presence of the intruder, then he passed away, let himself be blown away, as it were, across the lagoon, wheeled, circled, and passed out to sea.
Dick approached the place he knew, and there lay the little old barrel all warped by the powerful sun; the staves stood apart, and the hooping was rusted and broken, and whatever it had contained in the way of spirit and conviviality had long ago drained away.
Beside the barrel lay a skeleton, round which lay a few rags of cloth. The skull had fallen to one side, and the lower jaw had fallen from the skull; the bones of the hands and feet were still articulated, and the ribs had not fallen in. It was all white and bleached, and the sun shone on it as indifferently as on the coral, this shell and framework that had once been a man. There was nothing dreadful about it, but a whole world of wonder.
To Dick, who had not been broken into the idea of death, who had not learned to associate it with graves and funerals, sorrow, eternity, and hell, the thing spoke as it never could have spoken to you or me.
Looking at it, things linked themselves together in his mind: the skeletons of birds he had found in the woods, the fish he had slain, even trees lying dead and rotten--even the shells of crabs.
If you had asked him what lay before him, and if he could have expressed the thought in his mind, he would have answered you "change."
All the philosophy in the world could not have told him more than he knew just then about death--he, who even did not know its name.
He was held spellbound by the marvel and miracle of the thing and the thoughts that suddenly crowded his mind like a host of spectres for whom a door has just been opened.
Just as a child by unanswerable logic knows that a fire which has burned him once will burn him again, or will burn another person, he knew that just as the form before him was, his form would be some day--and Emmeline's.
Then came the vague question which is born not of the brain, but the heart, and which is the basis of all religions- where shall I be then? His mind was not of an introspective nature, and the question just strayed across it and was gone. And still the wonder of the thing held him. He was for the first time in his life in a reverie; the corpse that had shocked and terrified him five years ago had cast seeds of thought with its dead fingers upon his mind, the skeleton had brought them to maturity. The full fact of universal death suddenly appeared before him, and he recognised it.
He stood for a long time motionless, and then with a deep sigh turned to the boat and pushed off without once looking back at the reef. He crossed the lagoon and rowed slowly homewards, keeping in the shelter of the tree shadows as much as possible.
Even looking at him from the shore you might have noticed a difference in him. Your savage paddles his canoe, or sculls his boat, alert, glancing about him, at touch with nature at all points; though he be lazy as a cat and sleeps half the day, awake he is all ears and eyes--a creature reacting to the least external impression.
Dick, as he rowed back, did not look about him: he was thinking or retrospecting. The savage in him had received a check. As he turned the little cape where the wild cocoanut blazed, he looked over his shoulder. A figure was standing on the sward by the edge of the water. It was Emmeline.