Darwin Island

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Darwin Island  (1912) 
by Desmond Coke

Extracted from the Windsor magazine, vol. 35, 1912, pp. 38–42. Illustrated by Cyrus Cuneo. Illustrations may be omitted


Author of "The Bending of a Twig;" "Beauty for Ashes;"
"The Comedy of Age;" etc.

I HAVE always been sorry about Brand.

He meant well, and he ended badly, which is never anything but tragic.

The first hint I got of his good intentions was gained one day when we were walking down a little byway of the Strand. We came upon one of those old-fashioned organs that have monkeys on the top, and I seized the occasion to enlarge upon the alien peril—a very favourite topic, I may say, of mine, on which I hold some strong and seasoned views.

"Pah!" I said, as we went by, because I make a duty of it. Brand, on the contrary, gave the man some coppers.

I walked on in silence for a little, naturally expecting some explanation of this extraordinary and unpatriotic action, when suddenly my poor friend halted.

"I must," he said almost to himself, and turned.

Puzzled, but with a faint hope that some British blood had stirred in him and moved him to demand his money back, I waited to observe the sequel. There was much gesticulation from the alien, whilst Brand's tone seemed now wheedling and now full of threats. The interview was an enigma, though a stormy one. Presently, however, there were obvious signs of an agreement; but just as I looked forward to my friend's vindication, he put his hand into his pocket, drew out what I knew to be his sovereign purse, and showed every sign that it was he who would pay as a result of this amazing colloquy. Very suspiciously the alien took whatever the sum was, and then, before my astounded eyes, unloosed a grimy chain and, with no sign of regret, handed his moth-eaten monkey over to my deluded friend as though it had been a mere pound of biscuits. Brand, on the contrary, took it to his coat front with a gentleness which I always observed in his perplexing nature.

I must confess that as he came towards me—who always wear a top-hat when in the West, South-West, or West-Central districts—my first thought was of flight. Then, rightly or wrongly, I reflected that this man, though he held a preposterous and inappropriate creature in his arms, had not merely been my school-fellow, but was the godfather of my only sister's little girl, and the bonds of patriotism and kinship triumphed. I stood firm and waited for him.

"What on earth is that for?" I could not help asking, and in my justifiable excitement I very nearly began "whatever"—a vulgarism to which I especially object.

"Sorry, old man!" he replied. "I never do it, as a rule, except when I'm alone."

"Do what," I asked, adding with what I admit I intended to be ironical rebuke—"buy monkeys?"

"Yes," answered my poor friend quite simply. And he fondled the fly-blown-looking monster as though it had been something human, pressing his cheek against its domed forehead till it bit his chin; and even then he did not do what I confess I should have done. "Poor little devil!" he said. "No wonder it does not trust man!" and held it rather lower on his chest.

I walked along in silence and digust.

"Look here, old boy," the poor fellow said after a while, "I can see that you regard me as ridiculous!" (I paraphrase his always flippant way of speech.) "Let me explain. When I was a little kiddie, we—I and my sister—we had hairy monkeys—no dolls or golliwogs, or any modern rubbish of that sort, but splendid things with real fur and a button for their eyes, and little bits of leather as their ears. Mine was Tommy, hers Sally; and mine was white at first, but hers was always black. We loved those monkeys as if they had been alive. We slept with them beside us, and when our mother took them from us because we and they were too old, I know we wept for hours together. Well, that made me love monkeys. I know this poor little devil here is ugly and vicious and all that—not a bit like Tommy—but I can't help that. I think I've got an ideal monkey treasured up for me, just like Plato and those old Greek Johnnies."

"My dear fellow!" I protested, for this was really too absurd, and I remember nothing about monkeys in my Plato.

"Well, anyhow," went on Brand, opening his coat to shelter the monkey, which now stopped shivering and began to scratch, "as a child, for Tommy's sake, I never could bear the sight of monkeys upon organs, cold and hungry and teased by disgusting little children." (These are his own words—I remember them.) "I always longed to let them go, and now—now that I've made some money, I am doing it."

"But where?" I asked in my astonishment.

He lowered his voice mysteriously, and I began to have doubts even then about his sanity.

"Look here," he said, "don't tell anyone. I've not till now, but, of course, it is bound to get about before I can carry out my scheme."

"Your scheme? But what?"

He gazed up and down the street. "When I've got enough of them," he said with sudden cunning, "nearly all of them, do you think I shall be fool enough to let them go on Clapham Common, and have all the Italians of London going out to hunt them? No, not I! I'm making inquiries now at the British Museum as to where they come from—Brazil, I think, isn't it?—and when I know, and am ready, I shall take them there in cages and let them dash away into the jungle; and as I see them shinning up the mango trees or throwing cocoanuts, free once again, I shall feel that I've raised the proper monument at last to Tommy and to my dear sister, who died before she came of age. I always think she pined for Sally."

Poor Brand! He spoke so sadly and held the dirty alien thing so lovingly, he looked out along the street with dim, dreamy eyes, that I could not help feeling the sympathy one has for madmen. None the less, for the sake of the family, I felt it my duty to throw cold water on this foolish scheme.

"Bah," I exclaimed, "they'll be worse off out there! They're British bred. They are not made to fight for their own food. They'll die without their flannel jackets. Any fool knows that, if you release a tame animal among the wild of its own species, they will turn upon it."

"No?" He stopped dead, his face full of dismay, and for a moment I quite hoped that I had cured him of his insane design. But then he grew more cheery and moved on again. "Very well, then"—and his tones showed a new resolve—"it shall be an island without any wild ones, and I'll stay there for a bit myself and feed the poor beggars till they learn the business, and, if essential, keep their little jackets in repair,"

After that I saw less of Brand. Argument was plainly useless, and, if only as a business duty, one must be particular about one's friends.

I heard of him, however, often.

Brand's purchases, I fancy, grew more frequent, and, in any case, began to attract the neighbours' notice; whilst his house, big as it was for him—he had never married—must soon have become overcrowded, and the weaker monkeys forced towards the window. Whatever the cause, rumour got to work. Crowds of small boys, I was told, stood around the house in hopes of something happening. They came to refer to my poor friend in the open street as "Monkey" Brand. He could not leave his house without some rapscallion, in feigned panic, announcing that one of the monkeys had escaped.

These nuisances, no doubt, as well as an inconsiderate action by the borough council, hastened on his schemes; for scarcely two months after I had first heard of them, there came a letter full of finality. He had arranged about the island, his very route was settled, a steamer had been chartered, all was in train for the mad enterprise. He wrote with enthusiasm, and announced his intention of staying some weeks on the island to overcome the risks that I had "so generously suggested." The crew and the natives, before putting off, would build him a hut and leave provisions, for the demented fellow, thinking more of his monkeys than his health, had lit upon a desert island. Later, he said, a native boat would call and take him back to the mainland, and he was ever my grateful old friend

The signature was followed in brackets by "Pres., P.S.R.D.B.O.M.," initials which I found, on reference to the note-heading, stood for the Philanthropic Society for the Repatriation of Destitute Barrel-Organ Monkeys, but I have never been able to discover whether this preposterous organisation had any members beside my poor friend.

I did not answer, naturally.

The thing, however, got into some of the evening papers, and caused me not a little worry. Indeed, it is largely to Brand's ill-considered expedition, and the exaggerated press reports of its start which appeared, together with the efforts of certain reporters to drag me into the disreputable business, that I attribute my subsequent breakdown. The thought that anybody, bound however slightly to my family, should find his way into the halfpenny press, galled me more than I can say. At last, indeed, my doctor was forced to order me complete rest and a long sea-voyage.

Now, my last object in making this record is to try and glorify in any way my own behaviour in this matter, nor will anyone suggest that I have any need to be on my defence. I may therefore pass over the reasons that made me, confronted with a vague sea trip, draw out Brand's letter and note the exact position of his island. Suffice it to say that my beneficent idea was either to find Brand still there and console his loneliness, or, if he had gone, to bring him welcome news as to the progress of his simian charges.

Nor need I dwell upon the journey, least of all upon those final miles of sea, traversed upon a native boat mainly composed of two hollow trees united by a cross-bar, and most trying to a convalescent.

At last, however, the front end of this incommodious ferry grounded itself upon a coast that for some hours had seemed to recede rather than approach, and then my eyes lit upon a most extraordinary sight.

I had, of course, expected to see monkeys on this little island, but I had thought that they would be scattered over its whole area. Instead, as we disembarked, it seemed almost as though we had landed in a monkey-house, such a chattering crowd was there on every neighbouring tree.

The odd thing was that none of them paid any heed to me or the attendant natives. Their whole excited attention was directed on another spot, so that the snarling, fighting mob seemed quite oblivious of our arrival.

And then I realised the fact.

That object on which their gaze and, as I now saw, also their attack, had been directed was nothing else than my poor friend's native hut. Battered and half in ruins it lay, with a pile of cocoauuts and other projectiles around it.

Alas, what irony had led the deluded fellow, in that all too prophetic vision of the captives' first freedom, to picture them as throwing cocoauuts?

At the cry I gave, they swung about, first one, then another, and in a moment the savage fusillade was directed upon us.

My one thought, none the less, was now for Brand, who took no notice of my shouts. All was still within the little hut. I turned to my natives, about to urge them on to the attack, but they were scuttling back into their craft, and even whilst I spoke they put off, with much jabbering, to a distance out of range, and there, to my relief, waited till I was ready to return.

Afraid of missing the boat, and yet determined not to f my old school-fellow and the godsire of my niece, I hurriedly advanced towards the hut. Luckily, as is well known, even expert marksmen find some difficulty with a moving target. Conceive, however, my dismay when I discovered that the door was bolted.

Over that minute, whilst I stood there battering the door, I still prefer to draw a veil of silence, nor does it affect my story.

One point, however, is of interest.

The mind in moments of stress, peril, and pain, is quicker than at other times, and I remember everything. Amongst my assailants, then, I recognised the monkey that Brand had bought when with me in that by-street of the Strand. It had grown into a fine, upstanding figure of an ape. Its aim. too, seemed unusually accurate. In a word, although its red jacket was tattered, it was in every other way a better monkey, and I feel it only due to my kinsman and to other members of the P.S.R.D.B.O.M., if any, to set it on record that, in the sole instance where I was privileged to see a candidate before and after, the experiment, however otiose, was a success;.

Meanwhile the door yielded, and I entered suddenly.

Poor Brand, the shadow of himself, and with both eyes piteously black, raised himself on one elbow as, groaning and dishevelled, I staggered into the small hut.

"Tommy!" he exclaimed in joy. The poor fellow was delirious.

"No," I answered gently, "not Tommy, but an old friend, who has come to save you."

I was too late, though—I saw that. The poor apartment was battered with the projectiles, and so was the poor fellow.

"They're all right, old man," he said very faintly, as I put my arm behind his emaciated shoulder. "They don't mean any harm. They love me. Only—I got ill. I couldn't make their food or mend their clothes. They didn't understand. Still, they've got acclimatised, and now they're strong. Soon——"

His sentence was never finished.

Less prudent than my friend, I had omitted to barricade the door; and, as he said that, smiling happily, a cocoanut, its force not broken by coming through the shanty's wall, caught him a hideous crack upon the skull. A spatter of milk fell upon my hand, and in one moment Brand was unconscious on his bunk. In the next, there as an ugly rush of monkeys, led by the fellow from the Strand—whom he called Tommy, I believe—and I saw retreat to essential. I looked hastily about.

Happily, the monkeys, like most desperadoes, had overreached themselves in one direction. The walls of the hut, made of wattled reed, had ill withstood the fierce artillery of cocoanuts, so that the very fusillade which was planned for our ruin opened a way, narrow but yet adequate, for our escape. I seized Brand, ever a small man, in my arms.

As the apes surged in by the door, I went out by the impromptu window. Perhaps my unexpected action gave food for delaying thought to these monkeys, whose brain even Professor Darwin diagnosed as infra-human, or maybe my poor friend had some edibles within his hut. In an case, before the crowd had ceased to push its way into the open door, I, with my burden, was close beside the sea.

The natives, attracted by my cries, my haste, and the limp mass over my shoulder—conceiving it, as I later ascertained, to be a bag of treasure, in which they would share—hurriedly, if nervously, drew in; and as the first of the monkeys bore down on us, snarling and stiff of tail, we pushed our frail bark on to the waves, with much chattering, alarm, and splashing from the swarthy but white-livered boatmen.

Perhaps it was this last—the splashing—which, after some minutes, brought Brand back to life again. He stirred uneasily, and I leaned over him solicitously, so far as the crazy boat allowed.

"Where's Tommy?" he murmured drowsily.

I pointed to the fast-receding shore.

He looked around and instantly revived in an astoundingly active fashion which could not but alarm me, considering his weak health and the boat's instability.

"Back! Back!" he cried deliriously, snatching a paddle from the most convenient native. He back-paddled vainly.

Their signs were in the negative, and I, too, tried to calm him. But he would not. His exact words I try to forget—he was delirious.

"I saved your life," I said quietly, not in any spirit of vaunting, nor from desire of thanks, but because his attitude did not seem correct under the circumstances.

"You've murdered them!" he answered wildly. "Winter will come, and there will be no food, and all their little jackets——"

For a moment real tears broke the poor fellow's utterance. Then, just as I was about to console, he turned upon me with a fierceness, in fact, almost ape-like.

"Fool!" he -cried, and much to a like tenor. "Saved me—helped me? Pah! You have wrecked my schemes, my hopes, my everything! Before I can get back, they will be dead. … Tommy a mere heap of bones I… And you—it is you who did it! Out of my sight—away from me this moment—slayer of my life ambition, and never enter it again!"

It was no use to argue. I contented myself with replying that I could not obviously meet his wishes so long as we were confined upon the narrow tree-like raft, which I believe to be called a catamaran; but once upon the ship, I duly bathed and had my meals at other times than Brand, and I have never seen him from that hour.

Poor Brand!

It has, of course, been quite impossible to ask him in on Sunday evenings to meet our circle, or to my wife's tea-parties, but I should put him down as a crank rather than a knave. As a man, he doubtless had good points. He sacrificed himself, like many, to an idea. But he was, so long as I knew him, a good business man, as well as a good godfather, although a curious fellow; and I have never concealed the fact, even from my wife, that I am sorry.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1931, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 91 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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