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They Shall Return as Strangers

ISSUE:  Autumn 1934

Off the flat coast with its ample curves the island lay—not far, but in a sufficient isolation. If it had ever been a part of the mainland it must have torn loose long ago, hating its seamless identity with the mass of the continent, and have lumbered off a little way. Since then it was perfect in aloofness; weather and water changed from blue to green to black; slanting squall-rain, the steady weight of unobstructed winds and semi-tropical suns, passed smoothly over. From a hinterland thin strewn with people almost no one came there. A few Negro families drew a living from the soil rich in little but quietude. They were five generations descended from slaves who had been put on the island by the family owning it, and there they remained, sometimes rowing to the mainland to barter a little produce for the few things they had not learned to do without.

Across the water at Buckingham Ferry sunlight clashed on new nickel moving among the oaks and palmettos clumped about the wharf. Two young men got out of an automobile and went over to a small hut withdrawn in the deepest shade.

“Is Jake Polite here?” said one of them loudly, above the clattering of the palmettos in the strong sea wind. The ferryman’s wife came to the door, answering deliberately that Jake had gone off a little piece—would be back after a while. A man’s cap, pulled down over short kinky pig-tails sticking out on all sides, appeared to be her deputy’s badge.

The taller man, who had been snapping pictures with an expensive-looking German camera, now turned and asked, “What’s the ferry schedule?” The face of the Negress closed to a complete blank. The first speaker, amused, set at the barrier of language that threatened, thickening his Southern accent until it approached hers. “I am Mr. Fairfield,” he said, “and I told Mr. Shaftoe at Bluffton to send word that I wanted to get across to April Island today.”

A slow upheaval shook the woman. Was this Mr. Fairfield for true? She praised God that she saw him at last! They had had a message that he would be there sometime this week and they had been looking for him. Jake had gone with the boat to take the Bluffton butcher to another island to look at his cattle, but she was thankful Mr. Fairfield had remembered his people—

“How long will Jake be gone?” cut in Henry Fairfield, embarrassed.

“A good w’ile,” she admitted.

“Look here, we’ve driven the devil of a long way to get to that island. You must have a boat to make the regular trips.”

Well, no sir, the ferry didn’t have no regular time to go. Jake mostly took people when they came—took them all round — Hilton Head, Daufuskie, Daw’s Island — all round—

Well, how in the name of God—

Well, there were some people going out to fish in the inlet and if the gentlemen didn’t mind to go with them, they could stop off at April Island on the way. She moved meditatively toward the bluff. From a mud-flat below, a boat was putting out with a Negro man and two fat women, whose calico dresses, filled and flapping with wind, bulged over the gunwales. “That boat’s got a full cargo already,” said Henry; “they haven’t got room for two minnows, let alone us. Besides, we have to drive back to Charleston this evening, and if they find a good drop they might never come back for us. You’ll have to do better than that.”

The ferryman’s wife plainly thought it a pity the gentlemen were in such a hurry. “Zeke!” she shouted in the direction of the hut. A slough of shadow under some low palmettos began to heave and a lanky boy, hitherto eclipsed in protective coloring, materialized from the dark mass. After a curious sort of wordless communication with him the ferryman’s wife said there was a sailboat, and that Zeke would take them to April Island and bring them back.

Fred Skeene, who had been following the conversation with good-humored amazement, now said in a low voice, “Hadn’t you better make a dicker with them?”

“Oh, it won’t be much,” muttered Henry, feeling such frugalities out of character with a landowner and a gentleman.

Fred appeared dissatisfied with these methods of business. Approaching the woman he ventured two syllables, loudly and clearly as if to one deaf or a foreigner. “How much?”

The woman turned away pained. “We gits fifty cent’ to go and come.”

Fred grinned at Henry. “You win; I feel like a dog.”

“How far is it?”

” ‘E ain’t fur; da’s April Islan’ right yonder.” She threw out her chin toward the floating strip of green. They all stared for a moment. As the actual bulk suddenly presented , itself to Henry and its image travelled from retina to brain, a warmth surged up in him—it belongs to me (he thought) and gosh! it’s beautiful. . . . Do I think that because it’s mine? Even if I lose it to Snell, wouldn’t the look of it always make my heart jump . . . ? But I may not have to give it up, he went on hurriedly, surprised at the pounding of his blood. The Negro woman was unashamedly enjoying a dramatic situation. “Mr. Fayfiel’ tek ‘e fus’ look at ‘e ol’ place,” she said unctuously to Fred, who did not risk a reply.

They walked down the low bluff and over the wet flats of mud and oyster-shells bared by the relapsing tide. In a tubby row-boat Zeke was already hoisting a sail whose heavy patches bannered out faded legends—”Obelisk Flour,” “Self-rising—.” The three men got in amid a confusion of hunting for oars, oar-locks, and rudder; an oar went overboard, was retrieved, and the wind giving a great puff, the sail filled and the flat bottom slid with unexpected agility over the water toward the open sea. “Look here, hasn’t this tub got a center-board?” shouted Henry.

Zeke was now trying to extricate a flat contraption of thin planks from under the duffle which he had just piled on top of it. The boat sped. By good fortune a mud-bank lay in their path and put a mushy stop to their progress; Zeke jumped cheerfully overboard and pushed the boat off, shoving her nose round. Boarding her again he dropped the improvised lee-board over the gunwale, the wide-waisted craft retraced her course with a sidewise motion, and in spite of Henry’s manful efforts to co-ordinate rudder and sail to the doubtful element of the lee-board, in a few minutes they sidled gently up on the flats from which they had first launched out.

Even Zeke seemed to feel that this was a little ignominious. “I cyan’ sail boat so good,” he observed.

“If you think I am going to risk my valuable life in this scow with you two for a crew—” Fred threw a leg over the side and grasped at firm ground with his foot.

“Good God, you can swim, can’t you? I haven’t come a thousand miles to look at that island and go back without getting there. And there are plenty of mud-banks to crawl out on if you do wet your valuable skin.” Henry waved spaciously toward the intervening expanse of sleek, gleaming hummocks with the channel slinking between.

“And just sit there and hope the tide won’t rise?” But Fred pulled the prehensile leg back into the boat. He hunched himself up on a thwart, holding his feet and the lunch gingerly above the dirty water that swashed around in the bottom.

Beneath a surface hilarity Henry had been recollecting his disused knowledge of sailing and when Zeke shoved off again he took the sail and tiller in hand and got the boat under way with Zeke holding the lee-board overside and lifting it periodically to correct the slewing. This system carried them on a course of wide scallops but generally in the right direction. Sun and wind beat on the sail, the water drubbed with martial urgency on the wooden sides of the boat, routing the vague mist ,hat troubled Henry’s spirits when he thought of what lay before him. As they drew to the island, its shore line clarified and whetted their desire to penetrate that fastness, to enter on a strange country now almost within reach. The clumps of green swung to their j changing angle, palmettos detached themselves from the mass, lifting their round polls above the low oaks, marsh and myrtle separated at the water’s edge and took each its own identity. Henry was seized with a childish urge to lunge overboard and wade inshore with no boat-bottom to insulate that clinging magnetism; he wanted to feel the beach under his foot-soles, to pass into those water-shadowing boughs and up the narrow coves that curved inland with promise at their hidden heads. Tales of discoverers, deep-sunken in his childish mind, wavered up tangled with stray words of his father’s about the Fairfields and the house they had built there, and those shapeless ancients began to take contour, the egotism of the blood tinged them with color for him and made him aware how unalterably his being was knit with theirs.

He held a steady course, however, towards a landing about half-way down the length of the island, saying in a voice which he made deliberately unsentimental, “Looks to me like a swell hang-out for bootleggers.”

Fred came out of his bemused staring at the rich-foliaged shore and began to require information. Henry told him what he knew with an air of not taking such things seriously. Some exploring Spaniards first made land there in the fifteen hundreds and named the island after the month of their successful voyage. After the English took the sea coast from Spain, the Fairfields acquired the island and Henry’s great-grandfather built the house to which he came every summer with his daughters—a tall house on brick arches, according to a tight little water-color made by Cousin Sa-bina. But the sea had a funny way with these sea-islands; it liked to nibble a piece off of one and pile it on another with no respect for grants from the King, and in the fullness of time it undermined the bluff they had built on, and the next good storm cracked the house down the middle so that half of it collapsed into the water. The rest eventually followed.

“My grandfather rowed round the bluff after the storm, and he said the house split through the library and you could see half of it hanging there with the books and globes and astronomical instruments still on the shelves.”

“Good Lord, didn’t they save any of the furniture?”

Telling the story of the house now for the first time, Henry discovered that he was moved by his own recital. “I don’t take much stock in this ancestral stuff,” he said, lying. “I think the family has some April Island chairs or trundle-beds or something. They’ve probably got the old gentleman’s long drawers embalmed in camphor.” Zeke now began to mumble and gesture toward a cabin bedded in trees. “Is that Adam Brown’s house? Hard-a-starboard!” Henry shouted, exuberantly throwing the helm over. The boat wheeled and ran up the shelving beach as they lowered the sail. Rolling up their trousers they jumped I overboard and dragged the boat higher up the beach, to the discomfiture of a rabble of fiddlers that fell back stubbornly into their holes in the hard brown sand. The moment of landing was magnificent and absurd.

The space around the cabin was littered with chickens and wagon-wheels and small Negro children who whisked out of sight much like the fiddlers at their approach. An oldish man sitting on a brick outdoor oven got up as they advanced. His skin was the rich loam-brown of the island breed of Negro. Henry spoke first, telling him who he was and that he had come to see the island.

“Yes, suh? I glad fuh see you, Mr. Henry, suh.” He seemed remotely pleased, without the servility of the ferryman’s wife. The long break in contact with the Fairfield family had left him (Henry realized) with only a dim notion of the absentee owner on whose land he had lived all his life. It was as if Adam by absorption had become the owner, the genius of the place—and I am as much a stranger as Fred, he thought with a pang, reproaching himself for his failure to till this soil, not so much agriculturally as humanly; he had failed to bedew it with his thought, his love, his duty.

“I want you to drive me over to where the house was, Adam. Have you got a wagon?”

Adam went off to get his marsh-tackey while the two men, retiring from the May-glare, sat under a tree smoking and talking. “I wonder what it would be like to have nothing you couldn’t stop doing and go off with anybody who happened along. What do you suppose your family did with themselves when they were here?”

“You’re asking me,” said Henry. “They must have felt a powerful pull to come all this distance; it would have been a good two-days drive with horses. They had an eight-oared periauger and their Negroes used to meet them on the mainland and row them to the island. Father used to tell me, ‘Aunt Maria was considered strong-minded and wrote political tracts.’ I’ll bet they were hot. I don’t know—I suppose they liked the country; lots of people do. Besides, there’s something about islands—that feeling that when you cross water you are clean away from everybody and can do what you damn please, sit in the sun like Adam here and think, or not think.”

He stopped and looked at Fred’s clear-colored face with the skin drawn tight over its well-shaped bones, and thought that his very nose looked trimmed for action. Their friendship was grounded, for his part, on his admiration for Fred’s ability to draw his faculties to a focus—for instance, the expansion of the Richbourg Radiator Company—and working beside him in the New York office, he was constantly trying and failing to gear himself up to that well-timed performance. But again he was convinced by his own words, as if he had heard them for the first time from some prophet speaking out of a neighboring oak. And that picture (he thought unhappily) I’ve been cherishing of myself as grabbing success by the throat is not a picture of me at all but borrowed— “Of course, if you’ve got money . . . ” he ruminated aloud, drawing his heavy eyebrows to a straight black smudge. “The old gentleman spent quite a bit on farming experiments, had a pecan grove and all, but he had some good investments soaked away to feed the family if blight got the pecans first.”

“Yeah, your gentleman farmer usually has a hoe in one hand and a bunch of high-grade bonds in the other.”

Adam came back leading his seedy marsh-tackey and began assembling part of the litter in the yard; he dragged some running gear over to the unpainted body of a wagon which lay flat on the ground and with Zeke’s languid assistance set the latter on the frame. He backed the horse in and invited the young gentlemen to take the seat, which teetered on rusty springs high above the sides. A small packing-box served as seat for himself, to which he climbed over the wheel, resting his feet on one of the shafts.

“What about you, Zeke?” said Henry, getting in. “You’ve got to get us back to Buckingham Ferry this afternoon dead or alive.”

“Yes, sun.”

“You mean you’re going to wait till we come back?”

“I ain’t got to go noways partickerlar.”

Fred and Henry perched springily on the seat, hooking arms to keep from being catapulted off as the wagon started over the rough ground. After all, this was a vacation and the blazing blue day seemed hung in heaven for their reception. “Land travel in the South suits me better than water travel,” said Fred, bouncing, “because when you have to jump you can light on dry land. Ask him about himself.” He nodded at Adam’s ragged back.

They were jolting along a rudimentary road beside a field, the plowed earth like purple powder in the blinding noon. Adam was unresponsive about his planting and answered Henry’s questions with random and contradictory replies. This unprecedented descent on his island security plainly made him suspicious, and he prepared to hinder whatever they might propose by assuming a mulish stupidity. After a silence he grudgingly volunteered that he was a deacon in the church.

“I a deacon, too.” The meek syllables came from behind them, and they looked round to discover Zeke’s back where he sat on the rear of the wagon with his legs dangling.

“Hello, Zeke! So you came along. Well, if we’ve got a deacon before and a deacon behind we ought to get to heaven anyhow,” said Henry, paraphrasing a spiritual which broke like a trout from the deep hole of his memory.

This little sally had quite a success and dissolved Adam’s reticence somewhat. He admitted remembering Henry’s grandfather, who used to travel down from the town now and then to collect rent from the Negroes, but nobody had come now for about fifty years. Fred wanted to know why.

“Well,” said Henry, “there was a long stretch after the Confederate war when there weren’t any horses or boats— even now there’s no railroad anywhere near—and when we first got automobiles the roads were so bad it made too long a trip. By the time Uncle Marcus died and left the place to me I was in college, and then I went to work. He always stayed with some cousins of ours who used to have a plantation near here; I reckon he borrowed a buggy from them to drive over to the Ferry. But the niggers impoverished the land and the crops fell off till they couldn’t pay any rent, so he stopped coming—it’s so damn un-get-at-able. I wouldn’t, be here now but for the coincidence of our getting this vacation and having brought your car to Charleston just about the time that fellow Snell got interested in buying.”

They creaked along in a pleasant air suspended between wind and sun, crossing slashes of damp, velvety marsh or bumping over grassy ribs of abandoned fields. Under a blanket of drowsiness Henry felt his senses sharpening to apprehend this island that was his own. “I am the land of their fathers; in me their virtue stays. . . .” He would have liked to quote the lines aloud. Those green ribs denying the obliteration of the forest, like skeletons stubbornly refusing to decay with the attendant flesh, reproached him with their mute optimism. Perhaps they could be brought back easily now that fertilizer was cheap. The greedy scrub-palmetto rooted out, the first sharp spears of corn breaking ground. . . . His mind ran on, luxuriating in the illusion of having lopped off his jerky past, of being planted on a spot lost in the farthest ocean. His eye gathered in the glossy summer of the hedges, their unknown blooms reeked mysteriously. It gratified him to see that Fred also was moved by the island’s tranquil charm.

Beside a plowed field stood a rickety cabin. It had canted outward from its clay chimney, and through the intervening crack smoke poured from the fire that could be seen glowing on the hearth. The wooden chimney-frame was charred in several places. As they drew opposite, the horse stopped of his own accord. “Dis house been my-own too.” There was a tentative note in Adam’s voice.

“Quite the landed proprietor,” said Fred amiably, “but of all the darned chimneys I ever saw—what’s it made of?”

“A leetle bit o’ mud an’ a leetle bit o’ clay.”

“The Lord takes care of his own, I suppose.” Fred couldn’t help it. “But if you want that house, why don’t you prop it up and put on a brick chimney?”

Adam had drawn in like a turtle until only his round back seemed to be left. “If yuh ain’ got horse, yuh haf tuh ride cow,” he muttered. Then he put his head out again and said to Henry, “Maussuh, you fixin’ to tek ‘way my fiel’?”

Henry had jumped down during this colloquy to pick up a lump of dirt and was rubbing it in his hands, trying to recall what he knew about sour land—poor soil. He threw the clod to the ground and got back into the wagon. “Don’t you fret about that; as long as I own the Island you’ll have a patch to plant.”

Adam glowed. He didn’t thank Henry for what he regarded as his own, but with his anxiety removed he expanded in all directions. He slapped the rope lines on the horse’s back, starting him into a jerky canter.

As they passed a gap in the hedge, Adam uttered a loud “Haw!” and pulled in, attempting a sharp left turn through the opening. The right front wheel canted outward as if about to leave the party and continue the straight road. Leaping down, he gave it an expert kick that turned it toward the gap and sent the whole equipage rolling down a short drop. Chuckling at the attempts of his passengers to keep their balance on the rocking seat, he climbed up on the axle to his box. “Dis w’eel sick; ‘e got to go to de doctuh,” he offered.

From a grove of live-oaks a spring trickled along the shallow depression, nourishing lush spear-heads of a weed that smelled of mint as their wheels crushed it. Getting down for a moment’s respite from the sun, they drank and bathed their sun-burnt faces and arms. As they stood about, stretching cramped muscles, deliberate hooves thumped the ground nearby and a half-grown colored girl rode up on an ox, which she pulled off to one side on catching sight of strangers. To Adam’s gruff greeting she made no reply but rode under the low boughs, and, motionless on her stolid mount, looked at them through a loop-hole in the leaves.

“Where does she live?” asked Fred. Adam nodded toward the grove at the far edge of which some cabins lurked in blue shade. This settlement was called Big House, he explained, and the colored people who used to work at the big house itself lived here. “Ane we almost there?” said Henry sharply. A little piece—a little piece—. They quickly resumed their places in the wagon and drove off, forgetting the girl who sat her ox, watching.

Threading a stretch of woods, they came out on a beach which gave them their first view of the end of the island where it nosed out into the immense reach of Port Royal Sound. They clopped along a mile or so of blinding sand, the wind, cool and urgent, coming directly in from the sea, bending the limber trees, flicking the clear sea-water to glass fragments, to cutlasses brandished in the sunlight. At the extreme headland they came to a halt.

“Where was the house?” asked Fred, turning to let himself down from his perch. “Hello, the rear-guard is swelling.” The colored girl was just coming up, having abandoned her mount and followed them the hot mile on foot.

Henry took out the basket of lunch which was ample for them and Adam, but the two uninvited guests were a problem. “Has she come to get food?” he asked Adam, “because we haven’t got very much with us.”

“De gal? No, suh; she ain’t expec’ nutt’n; she jis come fuh look.”

He led up to the high ground where a grove of magnificent pines and palmettos covered the headland to its tip. “House about a’ acre out in de water,” he exclaimed, dramatically shooting his arm out toward the sound. When he was just old enough to have sense he had seen the brick ruins at low tide, but now they were ‘way out yonder. It was a fine fishing-drop. He withdrew tactfully.

The two visitors stood for a moment at the edge, staring fascinated at the water rocking over the place where the house was. What finer site than this headland looking across the sound; a place that people had endued with their devotion, coming a tiresome way to enjoy it, drawing its especial color into the web of their lives, keeping it matted in their memories until they died. With modern methods the erosion could be controlled; you could clear a space for a house and a sea-side garden. Henry saw walls with windows beginning to rise, and the tall trees falling to make way for ordered living. Now, the beach below was laced and littered with wasted tree-trunks, their black roots upturned in death just as they had clutched at the unaiding air when their heads went down into the water. Imagine the anguishing roar! And a casual day—temperature 76, wind velocity 20 miles, barometer 30—shed its inappropriate blue on empty landscape and consuming sea. “God! Nature is cruel.” How silly that sounds; so many true things do.

“It’s only impersonal,” said Fred; “but the egocentric human expects to be cherished and preserved, so Nature’s impartiality always seems a personal affront.”

Easy enough for you to be so philosophical, thought Henry sulkily, disliking his friend, finding something inhuman in his hard flat cheeks, raging against his insuperable logic. He himself had no associations with this place; until today it had had little room in his conscious thought; but now, the nerves of his skin washed over by the smooth wind, his five wits sunk like fingers into the very nap and tissue of the island, he felt a curious removal to some anterior position in space and time, in which he took on stature because he owned it; and all his emotions drew together into a large sorrow not only for this but for all ruined houses, all lost projects of hopeful men.

“Now fishes inhabit the Fairfield halls,” murmured Fred. “If there isn’t a poem that begins like that, there should be.”

“Let’s have a drink,” said Henry.

They poured the corn whiskey into paper cups and shared out the lunch, setting some aside for the retainers.

“What does Snell want the island for?”

“He says he wants to raise game to supply a big hunting preserve he has bought near here, and maybe sell the surplus to other places round about. He has plenty of jack and doesn’t care how much land he owns.”

“Well, I guess you are lucky to have an offer for it,” said Fred. Henry could see him pulling himself out of sentiment and facetiousness and closing on the problem before him. This was why he had wanted Fred to come with him on this holiday, to help him make a realistic approach to his decision, which was going to be more momentous than he had foreseen. But Fred’s qualifications had indubitably shriveled in sun and salt—indeed, the whole Richbourg Radiator Company, looked at between the dark trees and against the brilliant water, had a thinness and a dryness that was not entirely accounted for by its being in the mind’s eye. “It’s a swell island,” Fred went on, “and it’s a pity you can’t keep it, but you need a million to play with a place like this. You couldn’t farm it profitably; I doubt if there’s enough of a market to make it pay to raise game, the way Snell is planning to do. Even if you put up a shack here, you couldn’t get away often enough to make the trip worth while.”

“What are all the fellows like me going to do?” asked Henry, talking into the hubbub of wind and tree. “I mean the millions of them that are growing up all over the country. When I went away everybody seemed to agree that if you stay at home you get in a rut and never amount to a damn. If you have initiative and want to ‘get somewhere,’ you are supposed to gird up your loins and go to New York or Chicago. Suppose all the young men went to New York or Chicago—” “What a calamity for the girls back home—” “What do we get out of it anyway? Say I sell this place and buy stock in the Company, and say I’m an industrious boy and work my way up, playing the market on the side, by the time I’m sixty I might have enough left over from feeding and educating the children to revisit my ancestral acres, only I wouldn’t have them.” “Well!” said Fred. “That little sermon, well-preached in its way, reveals you for the first time as an aesthete. You could leave the clamorous world and become the Hermit of April Island—preach to the birds and fishes and eat them afterward, and write poetry with that good line I gave you for a start.”

Henry was always easily unhorsed by Fred’s sarcasm. He’s so damn self-confident (he thought) because he’s all set to go on the road he wants to travel. But just where am I off to? He repulsed a suspicion that these two difficult years in New York had been wasted. What in hell else can I do? he asked himself for the millionth time. “I don’t know anything about writing poetry,” he said aloud, “but if I lived on this island I wouldn’t need to; it has all the things that poetry is about. On an island you can feel a respectable size; you can go down to the marsh and look at ten million fiddlers waving their silly claws and say, “By God, I’m different!’”

Fred laughed. “I don’t blame you,” he said sympathetically, and began gathering the papers into a neat pile which he set on fire. Henry yawned himself out of the lassitude that had followed his outburst and took Adam’s allotment of lunch to him. Zeke and the girl had disappeared. This solved the loaves and fishes problem but raised questions about their getting away. Adam with sly amusement assured them they would pick Zeke up on the way back. While Adam munched his sandwiches, Henry stood looking toward the sound flashing between the dark boles. “That’s St. Helena’s Island over there—the blue one; tell me this isn’t a view. And here’s something else you can make fun of. There’s a feeling about the ground your family has walked back and forth on that gives you a kind of sense of them. I’m not talking about family pride—it’s a kind of feeling. . . .” He bogged and halted as the words became thick and cluttered the gushing of his clear thought. “It’s a sort of refuge between individual egotism and being obliterated in the mass. It isn’t that I think so much of the Fairfields,” he went on defensively, “they were just a good county family, but I like that feeling of being a part of a tribe—and of course you are, whether you like it or not.”

He climbed into the wagon feeling that he had sounded rather unconvincing about something that was actually quite simple and real. Why is it such a wrench for me to leave this place, as if I were going away forever? As they rolled down the beach into the wood he looked stiffly ahead. Their trail of the morning with its comely pattern rolled up like a used carpet; the spring-grove, the flowery hedges, appeared distantly, drew abreast, and were engulfed. A soft thud on the rear of the wagon announced that Zeke had rejoined the cavalcade, but they felt no special interest.

“Adam,” said Henry abruptly, “how would you like it if I were to sell this island?”

“Yes, suh.” His back was even more non-committal than his words, a sober back topped by a fragmentary hat that showed patches of gray wool with brown skull glistening between. The back revealed nothing, waiting to know the import of this earthquake and what it portended for him. Henry went on: “A gentleman wants to buy it to raise game. You understand, everything would be different then; he may not let you have the land to plant as you’ve been doing, but I reckon it will mean work for everybody. It may mean white people living here again and running the island their way. It will be a bigger change for the younger ones than for you; there’ll be boats going to the Ferry all the time, maybe a bridge, and your children will be buying second-hand Fords and store clothes. You’ll hardly be on an island any more.”

“Yes, suh.”

Silence accompanied them the rest of the way, while they all looked at the island, asking the fields what would become of them, asking the groves if the axe would lay open their cover, now deepening toward nightfall. The afternoon light had thickened, turning the young-leaved oaks to olive-gold, blackening the ponds of shadow in which they stood. The horse’s feet slid in muffs of sand; the axles kept up a gentle creaking. Henry thought there was a pattern in the talk of axle to wheel; he tried through his confused feelings to understand what was being said; but as he listened he knew that the sound was meaningless and that only his tormented blood was seeking a sign to relieve him of the great human prerogative of choosing his fate.

When they reached Adam’s house the tide was full and their boat was some distance out from shore, pulling landward with the weight of the current. Zeke waded out and brought it up on the beach. As Henry slipped a bill to Adam, he grasped the crooked hand and a current flickered between them; for the first time an acknowledgment of some personal compact came out of hiding. Coasting on the wave of the instant, Henry perceived the futility of trying to revive this compact, this complementary relationship of master and man, that was disappearing from a new and free world.

“Well . . . good-bye,” “Good-bye. . . .” The boat slid away on the heavy tide; Adam, standing on the beach, diminished before their eyes; the island folded up in the heart-rending light of late afternoon. The blue water of morning had turned to green under the pervading sun-tinge, had drowned the silver mud-flats and swelled in the estuaries to meet the dipping trees. They passed close to three pelicans fishing in the channel, their preposterous bills and huge tawny bodies glinting as they rocked. A different glint brightened beyond under the trees at the Ferry where the level rays were picking up the facets of Fred’s new roadster. The cold brillance of the chromium struck Henry to the bone, cutting at the stature his new sense of owning the island had given him. With a feeling of physical shock he saw it as the focus of a long train of events leading back to New York, the swiftness and co-ordination of the motor triumphing over the ambling pace of Adam’s wagon. Useless to buck that sleek success. He was conscious of Fred’s looking at him from time to time as if he wanted to speak—hunting for the exact words (he thought) to express sympathy without encouraging my sentimentality. Vaguely he heard the words—

“There’s really nothing else you can do.”

He looked astern, watching the island swim away, wrap itself in fabulous light. As it lost reality, he thought how in the office next week, moving from typewriter to file and back, he would remember it as a place of pure magic to be possessed only by kings of the earth, of which he was not one.


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