Selected Czech Tales/The Island

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Selected Czech Tales  (1925)  translated by Marie Busch and Otto Pick
The Island by Karel Čapek

Translators ascribed the short story to both brothers Karel and Josef Čapek, probably because they took it from their collection of short stories Zářivé hlubiny (1916). However, the story had been already published in the newspaper Lidové noviny in 1912 where it was signed only by Karel Čapek.




Once upon a time there lived in Lisbon Dom Luiz de Faria who afterwards sailed away into the world; and when he had come to know the greater part of it he died on the farthest island imaginable. At the time when he was living in Lisbon, he was a man of good sense and of importance. He was living as such men do live, doing well by himself and not hindering others, and taking up as much room as he owed to his innate pride. But by and by even this kind of life wearied him and became a burden, so that he turned all his possessions into money and sailed away in the first ship that came handy.

So they sailed first to Cadiz, then to Palermo, Constantinople and Beirut, to Palestine and Egypt, and round Arabia to Ceylon; then they even sailed along the Malay Peninsula and the island of Java, and, having regained the open sea, they took a south-easterly course. Sometimes they would meet with compatriots, homeward bound, who wept with joy at hearing news of their country. In all these parts Dom Luiz saw so much that was marvellous and even seemed incredible, that he fancied he had forgotten all else. While they were sailing in the open sea, a gale overtook them, and their ship was tossed about on the waves like a cork, without direction or guidance. For three days the gale increased, and raged with unabated fury, and on the third night the ship foundered on a coral reef. Amid the most appalling noise Dom Luiz felt himself lifted high and pitched down again; but the wave threw him back upon a raft, senseless. When he came to himself, he found that it was midday, and that he was quite alone upon the raft of splintered wood in a calm sea. At that moment he experienced the joy of living for the first time in his life. His raft kept afloat until the evening, and all through the night and throughout the next day; but nowhere did he espy land. Moreover the spars of his raft were loosened by the water, and one piece after another dropped off. In vain did Dom Luiz try to secure them with strips of his clothing. In the end only three insecure spars were left, and he himself grew faint with weariness and the thought of his isolation. Then Dom Luiz took his leave of life and bowed himself to the will of God.

On the third day at dawn he found that the waves were carrying him to a wonderful island; it appeared to him to be rising then and there from the water with beautiful groves and green bushes. At last he was able to step on to the shore which was covered with salt and foam. At this moment some savages came out of the grove, but Dom Luiz shouted furiously at them, for he was afraid of them. Then he knelt to pray, sank down upon the ground near the shore and went to sleep.

Towards sunset hunger awoke him. The sands round about him were full of the prints of flat, naked feet, and Dom Luiz was glad to find that the savages, who were crouching round him, staring at him with wonder, and talking about him, were not doing him any harm. He went in search of nourishment, but darkness had now descended. Rounding a rock, he came upon a large number of savages, sitting in a circle and eating their supper; he saw men, women, and children in the circle, but he himself stood afar, not daring to approach, like a beggar from another parish. Then from among the others there rose up a young native woman, and brought him fruit upon a dish of straw. Luiz rushed upon the food, and greedily ate the bananas, fresh and dried figs and other fruit, meat dried in the sun, and sweet bread of a different taste from ours. The girl moreover brought him a pitcherful of spring water and, crouching, watched him as he ate. When he had eaten, his whole body felt at ease; he thanked the girl with a loud voice for her gifts, for her bread and her charity, and thanked the others for their charity also. While he spoke, his gratitude grew upon him like a tender constraint of his overcharged heart, and burst forth in words such as he had never found before. The native woman sat opposite him and laughed.

And Dom Luiz thought that he must repeat what he had said, so that she should understand, and he thanked her as fervently as though he were praying. Meanwhile all the others had gone into the wood, and Luiz was afrald to remain by himself with so much joy in his heart, and in so lonely a spot. To retain the girl, he began to tell her who he was and whence he came, how the ship had foundered, and what he had suffered on the high seas. Presently Luiz noticed that she had gone to sleep with her cheek pressed to the ground, and he got up and sat at a little distance, looked at the stars and listened to the surging of the sea, until he was overcome by sleep.

In the morning when he awoke, he looked for the woman, but she was gone; only the imprint of her body was left in the sand at full length, straight and slender as a green branch, and when Luiz stepped into this hollow, it was warm with the sun. Then he went the round of the island by the shore, to see what it was like. Sometimes his way led him through the woods or through brashwood; at other times he had to round a morass, or climb over a rock. Several times he met with savages, but he no longer feared them. The sea was of a blue more intense than anywhere else in the world, and the blossom-trees and plants were of a peculiar grace. He walked all day, and beheld the beauty of the most beautiful of all the islands he had ever seen. He also thought the beauty of the savages greater than that of any others. On the next day he continued his quest, until he had made the complete round of the island, which was blessed with springs and flowers, and as peaceful as we imagine the garden of Eden to have been. At night he returned to the spot where he had stepped ashore; there he found the woman sitting alone, braiding her hair. At her feet lay the raft which had carried him, lapped by the waves of the impassable sea, so that he could go no further. Dom Luiz sat down near her, and looked at the waves which carried off his thoughts one by one. When many hundreds of waves had come and gone, his heart overflowed with boundless grief, and he poured forth his plaint: how he had been wandering for two days and taken the measure of all the isle, but had nowhere found a city or harbour, nor any man in his own likeness; that all his companions had perished in the sea, and he was left alone on this island whence there was no return, alone among savages who spoke a language the words and meaning of which were unintelligible to him. So he bemoaned his fate, and the woman lay in the sand and listened to him till she went to sleep, lulled by the monotony of his plaint. Then Dom Luiz ceased to speak and breathed gently.

In the morning they sat together on a rock, high above the sea, and looked at the horizon. Dom Luiz thought over his whole life; he remembered the magnificence and preciousness of Lisbon, his love affairs, his travels, and everything in the world that he had seen, and he closed his eyes, so as to find inwardly all those beautiful pictures. But when he opencd them, he saw the woman sitting on her heels opposite him and staring obliquely and dully in front of her; he noticed that she was comely with small breasts and slender limbs, brown as reddle and very straight.

He would often sit on this rock to look for ships. He saw the sun rise from the sea and set therein, and he got used to this and to everything else. He began to taste the sweetness of this island, and it seemed to him an isle of love. Sometimes the savages would seek him; they held him in high esteem. When they crouched round him they looked like fattened geese; they were tattooed, and some of them were very old; they brought him food and cared for him. When the time of the rains came, Dom Luiz went to live in the woman’s hut. Thus he lived among the savages and was naked like them; but he despised them and would not learn a word of their language. He did not know what they called the island on which he lived, nor the roof which sheltered him, nor the woman who was before God his sole companion.

Whenever he returned to the hut of a night, he found his supper prepared, his couch ready, and the gentle embrace of the brown woman. Although he counted her as hardly a human being, but more akin to the animals, yet he would talk to her in his own language, and was content when she listened. So he told her all the thoughts that were continually passing through his mind: of his house in Lisbon and the details of his travels. At first it annoyed him that the woman understood neither his words nor the purport of all he was telling her, but gradually he got used to this also, and told her the same things over and over again, always in the same words and manner of speech; after that he would take her into his arms as his wife.

But in course of time his descriptions became shorter and less coherent; many events escaped his memory as though they had never happened; for whole days together he would lie on his couch without speaking, and think about himself. He got so accustomed to his surroundings that he would sit on the rock for hours, but never think of looking for ships.

Some years passed, and Luiz forgot his return and his mother-tongue; his mind was as dumb as his speech. At every nightfall he would return to his hut, but he knew no more of the woman than he had done on the first day.

One day in the summer, when he was roaming in the depth of the forest, he was suddenly seized by a great restlessness, so that he ran out into the open, and there he espied a fine ship riding at anchor. With a beating heart he ran down to the shore and mounted his rock, whence he could see a group of sailors and their officers. He hid behind a boulder like a savage and listened to their talk. Their speech touched something in his memory, and he became conscious that the strangers were talking in his own language. Then he stood up, meaning to speak to them, but he could only cry out. The strangers were startled, and he cried out for the second time. They pointed their carbines at him, and then his tongue was loosened and he called to them: ‘Mercy, senhores!’ They shouted with joy and ran towards him, but, like a savage, Luiz felt that he must run away. They, however, surrounded him, embraced him one after the other, and overwhelmed him with questions. But he stood among them naked and full of fear, anxious to escape.

‘Be not afraid,’ said an old officer to him, ‘remember that you are a man. Bring meat and wine, for he looks thin and miserable. Come and sit with us and make yourself at home, so that you may get used to human speech again, and not to cries which may be the speech of monkeys.’ And they gave Dom Luiz sweet wine, preserved meat and rusks. He sat among them as in a dream and ate, and he felt his memory returning to him.

The others also ate and drank, and chatted, glad to have found a compatriot. When Luiz had eaten, he was filled with as sweet a feeling of gratitude as on that other day when the woman had nourished him, and he was overjoyed to hear his own beautiful language, and to be with companionable human beings, who talked to him as to a brother. The words therefore returned readily to his tongue, and he thanked them all as well as he could.

‘Rest a little longer,’ said the old officer, ‘and after that you shall tell us who you are and how you came to be here. Then the precious gift of speech will return to you, for man’s greatest possession is that he can talk, and communicate to others what has happened to him and what his feclings are.’

While the officer thus spoke, a young sailor began to sing a lovely song. He sang of a man who sails across the sea, while his sweetheart entreats the sea, the winds and the heavens to send him back to her. Her longing and sorrow were expressed In the temderest words imaginable. When the saillor had finished, others sang or recited poems of a like kind, emulating each other in sadness: they sang of longing for the beloved one, of ships bound for far-off countries, and of the ever-changing sea. At last they all began to talk of their homes and of those they had left behind. Dom Luiz wept, happy to the verge of pain at the thought of what he had suffered, and that now he was able, having previously forgotten his speech, to understand again the lovely music of poetry; and he wept because it was all so like a dream, and he was afraid of the awakening.

At last the old officer got up and said: ‘Boys, we will have a look at this island which we have discovered, and we will all return before sundown and set sail. We will start to-night on our return journey under God’s protection. But you,’ he turned to Luiz, ‘if you should possess anything in this place which you would like to take with you, as a remembrance, bring it hither and await our return at sunset.’

The sailors dispersed along the shore, and Dom Luiz turned towards the woman’s hut. The nearer he drew, the more he hesitated; he bethought himself how he could best tell her that he must go away and leave her. And he sat down on a stone by the wayside, and realized that he could not simply run away and leave her without thanking her, when he had lived with her for ten years. He remembered what she had been to him, how she had nourished him, and served him with her body and her work. He went into her hut, sat down near her and talked hurriedly and a great deal, as though that must convince her. He told her that they had come to fetch him away, and that pressing affairs demanded that he should go; he invented many excuses. Then he took her into his arms, thanked her for all she had done for him, and made sacred promises to return soon. When he had been talking for a long time, he became aware that she was listening without reason and understanding, and he became angry and repeated all his arguments with the greatest emphasis, and stamped his feet with impatience. Suddenly it occurred to him that the sailors might perhaps be starting without him, and he ran out in the middle of his arguments and hurried to the shore.

But as yet no one had arrived, and he sat down to wait. He began to be haunted by the thought that the woman had not properly understood what he had told her of his impending departure; this became so unbearable that he started up and ran back, to explain it all once more to her. But when he came to the hut, instead of entering, he peered through a crack to see what she was doing. He saw that she had plucked fresh grasses and made his couch for the night of these; that she was now preparing his meal of fruit, and he noticed for the first time that she was herself eating the inferior pieces, those which were bruised or rotting, and chose the best for him, all picked fruit, large and faultless; then she sat down motionless like an image, and waited for him. Then Dom Luiz felt that undoubtedly he must first eat the fruit she had prepared and lie down on the couch and put an end to her waiting before he departed.

Meanwhile the sun was sinking, and the sailors were assembling on the shore, prior to their departure. None but Dom Luiz was missing, and they called him: ‘Senhor! Senhor!’ When he did not come, they ran to the edge of the wood, and looked and called for him there. Two of them passed quite close, calling out incessantly, but he hid in the thicket, and his heart was throbbing with fear that they might discover him. At last their calls ceased and night came on. He heard the plashing of their oars as they returned to the ship, loudly pitying the missing man. Then all was silent, and Dom Luiz crept out of the thicket and returned to the hut. He found the woman sitting motionless and patient. Dom Luiz ate the fruit, lay down on the fragrant couch and took to himself her who had been waiting for him. Dawn rose; Dom Luiz had not been asleep; he looked out of the door of his hut towards the sea, which he could see through an opening in the trees. He saw the departing ship in the far distance. He looked at the native woman asleep by his side, and she was no longer beautiful as of yore, but hideous and terrible. Tear upon tear ran down upon her breasts while Dom Luiz repeated in whispers, so that she should not hear him, all those splendid words and wonderful poems, describing the pain of longing and ever unfulfilled desires.

Then the ship disappeared below the horizon. Dom Luiz remained on the island. But from that day, and during all the years he yet had to live, he never spoke a single word.