THE ISLAND WITHOUT MARK TWAIN
THE time of parting came all too soon. Mr. Clemens had to be back in New York to be host at a very special luncheon, and Margaret had to submit to some educational discipline which we privately decided she could easily get along without. However, parental prejudices have to be considered, and we had to bow to the inevitable.
The day before they sailed, Margaret said to me, "Is there a Mrs. Clemens in New York?" I told her that Mrs. Clemens had gone very far away and would never come back. "Has Mr. Clemens any little girls?" pursued Margaret. I answered that his girls were now big girls, but that he had lost one whom he now remembered as his little girl, and whom he had loved very tenderly, and that this was the reason he loved other little girls so much. It made him less lonely when he had them about him. Margaret thought for a moment; then, her brown eyes full of tenderness, "I wish I was Mrs. Clemens, and then I would just care for him and care for him, and love him awfully!"
Margaret felt for him the deep affection that children have for an older person who understands them and treats them with respect. Mr. Clemens never talked down to her, but considered her opinions with a sweet dignity. This wonderful comprehension that he had of children, and his perfect sympathy for them, helped us to understand better the simplicity of his own character. When we were with him, we, too, felt like little children. All pretentious wisdom, all sophisticated phrases, all acquired and meaningless conventions were laid aside, and we said what we meant, and spontaneity took the place of calculation, and we became simple and unafraid, and sure of being understood.
We went down to the boat to say good-by to Margaret and Mr. Clemens. The latter, however, hated farewells of any kind, and so he went directly to his cabin and did not emerge therefrom until they had lifted anchor.
As the ship sailed away bearing the sweet little girl, Margaret, and the sweet old man, Mr. Clemens, we felt that the island had grown suddenly smaller, that the colors had faded, and that there was a chill in the air. As we turned away from the dock, however, we saw the familiar form of Maude, standing quiet, imperturbable, unmoved by any emotion, and we felt comforted.
Mr. Clemens had not cared for sailing, so when he had gone we thought to distract our minds by this. Neither was the Lady Mother fond of this particular amusement. The next morning after the steamer went away, I suggested to her that we take a sail. She was examining the interior of a sago-palm at that moment, but she heard my wild proposition. She looked at me pityingly and said: "I want to enjoy my stay here."
She had been inveigled into a rowboat one day. She stepped into it gingerly, and then sat in rigid misery for nearly an hour, eyeing with distrust the other craft in the harbor, for she attributed to them all a sinister intention of running us down. So she was not to be persuaded.
However, a companion was found, and we went down to the pier where the boats stand waiting for customers. The skippers are haughty men who do not beg for patronage. In this they have a social standing far above that of the rowboat men, who shamelessly clamor for passengers.
We took the blackest skipper we could find. He was big and muscular and passing homely, but he had a settled gravity that won our confidence immediately. He seemed to regard with some disdain our order to sail among the islands, so that we might take pictures. His disdain grew into a withering contempt when our taste in subjects was revealed. He suggested a big new house that stared unblinkingly out on the view. When we showed no appreciation he grew silent and taciturn and eyed us with suspicion from time to time. All interest in us died out, and he seemed to grow deaf and dumb when we asked him to go near an old wall lapped by the waves, where cedars and oleanders grew, and where the naked, lace-like branches of a Pride-of-India tree were outlined against the sky. Only once did he vouchsafe to talk, and that was when we had beguiled him to tell us about the Boer prisoners. "Yes, they used to be on that island. They lived in tents and had good things to eat. The men were on one island, the boys on another, and the hospital over there on still another. They were very religious, and every afternoon at five you could hear them singing hymns." " Did any one ever try to escape? " we queried. " Oh, yessum; several. There was one who cut down a cedar tree one night and threw it into the water, then jumped in himself, thrust his head up through the branches, and swam slowly down to the hotel. He was an officer, and had it all arranged with his friends who were stopping at the hotel. They gave him clothes and took care of him that night, and the next morning he went on board the steamer like any ordinary passenger, and so got to New York. There was another poor fellow who wasn't so successful. He took a box and cut air-holes in it, and used that for a head covering while he swam out towards an American ship. As bad luck would have it, a sailor who knew a bit about tides saw this box apparently floating out, while the tide was coming in. He thought there was something mighty queer about that, and he sailed up alongside. The Boer was taken again." "And what happened to him ? " " He was shot, madam."
Our skipper was actually growing garrulous. We were fascinated, not only by his stories, but by his language. It seemed strange to hear a black, black negro speak with an English accent and use almost elegant phraseology. The first time I had been impressed by this characteristic of the black people of the island was when, a day or two after our arrival, we had gone to the Botanical Gardens. Seeing a very strange-looking tree, I asked a darkey who was working near by, what the name of it was. He replied instantly with a rather long and complicated name, which I did not quite catch. I said, "Is that its botanical name?" To which the dusky gentleman answered: "Well, madam, to a certain extent it is."
When the lunch hour made itself felt we gave the word to go home, and our skipper made a good landing at the pier, where other boats had already come in. Others followed, sails were lowered, and soon there were half a dozen or more clustering about the stone landing, their slender masts outlined gracefully against the sky. The wind went down as though it, too, needed a siesta, and the sky began to veil itself in soft gray clouds.
The moonlight nights were very clear and beautiful, and when by chance there was a breeze, just enough to ruffle the surface of the water and to fill the sails, and when there was a softness in the air, then we would go out after dinner. And as I think of it now I relive the scene. As we go down to the pier our voices ring clear in the still air. The bumping of the boat against the wall echoes with a hollow sound -- the song of a lonely oarsman in a distant boat comes distinctly over the water.
We get in and tuck the steamer rugs about us, and in a minute a breeze catches us, the boat bends to it, its bow cutting through the dark water with a gleam of white foam. Above us the stars shine, some large and still, with steady yellow light, others far away and cold, and others twinkling uncertainly, but with a friendly, familiar air, as if to say, "We, too, are small and unsure of our existence." We sail down the harbor, past the town, where lights are gleaming from the windows of white houses, and the hills beyond show little twinkling stars of light through the black of the cedars. The rival hotel has lights streaming from every window, and we can hear the broken strains of a two-step, which sound like the intermittent efforts of a lame man to dance.
Tied up to a wharf is the Halifax steamer, getting ready to sail at midnight for the West Indies. Slender fingers of yellow light point from its portholes, the donkey engine creaks dolorously, and melodious darkey voices are heard singing out orders. We pass over the wavering reflections in the water, and, catching a stronger breeze, we sail out into the larger harbor, where the emerald islands look black against the steely water. Clouds have come across the moon, clouds that hint at storms, but there is still a silver path down to our boat. We grow silent, for the beauty of the scene enters into our hearts, and night is voiceless and needs no empty words to sing its praises. Our boat glides along, with scarcely the sound of a ripple. The sail is black against the sky, and we are borne to the mystic land of night and dreams, down the silvery path of moonbeams.
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