A Fool and a Maid on Lundy Island
It was the seventh day since I came ashore on this little granite boss which stands up through the waters of the Bristol Channel, and still I could not set to work. My cabinet of stoppered glass tubes for the collections of the Isopoda and Thysanura which I had intended to make were still empty, my cork setting-boards for the Lepidoptera still unpacked. The prime object of my visit to the island was to gather new facts for the padding up of a theory I had framed in explanation of the anomalous land fauna of this long isolated rock.
That little problem seemed childish enough beside the all-absorbing and incognizable mystery which I very soon detected lightly wreathed around its hollow fern-lined combes and split pinnacles of granite crag.
A great enigma had entered like a spirit into the soul of the island’s beauty and made it dazzling and perfectly unintelligible. Its magnetic fascination had trapped me within its field and kept me idle through the summer days.
It was the hottest afternoon I had experienced during my stay. A great sheet of liquid blue ran out across the channel and in the haze of distance bent back, returning again as the blue vault overhead. The head of a bull seal rose through the sea-blue, that deep mystery of blue, down in the cove 300 feet below. I could just make him out with the help of my binoculars. He quickly disappeared.
The sky-blue was so transparent that one might reasonably have expected to be able to see through to Almighty God Himself sitting on the throne, but it was unrelieved by any object save the flecks of a few gulls’ wings beating up from the sea.
The island was becalmed. Not a puff of wind stirred to swing the sea-pinks or to tap the line against the flagstaff on Semaphore Hill. Red Admiral butterflies flaunted pink-barred wings to the sun, and large green beetles dropped at random into the fern. The air was turgid, inspissated almost by the continuous heat, yet the calm was not that of inaction but the intensification of motion of the “sleeping” top. Nature was in dynamic equilibrium.
The silent brilliance of the scene was menacing. It was more terrible than a thunderstorm because more unintelligible.
Flashes of quartz and felspar crystals shot from the granite through the eyeball like streaks of pain. Somewhere up in the blue, a lark sang on and on ceaselessly, as if in a magic trance. It maddened me at last, and I longed to rip out its heart and read the cypher of that unintelligible song. No other sound was audible but the whisper of “mystery, mystery” coming up from the sea waves on the beach.
Such a mystic trinity of sea, sky, and rock would have strangled thought even in Spinoza, and excluded from its communion Wordsworth’s divining soul. A great vascular system ramified through Puffin Island and distributed to every blade of grass a mystery steeped in ichor. I could hear the pulse of its arteries in the song of that lark, and seemed to hear the beat of its heart coming up through the ground on which I stood.
A large white butterfly nestled in the heather away on my right. It was the artist, in her white gown, painting the Knight Templar Rock. I wondered what impression she could squeeze out of the inscrutable silence of that grey granite stack. She had always appeared to be profoundly pleased, I thought, with her Lundy work, and certainly none of the islanders were troubled with the sensations of mystery which fell to my lot. And why should they? The circumstances, after all, were nothing but a fine day on a beautiful island, with what the guide-books call “rugged scenery of great grandeur.” But the mystery could not be shaken off. I met with it afresh in the next combe, where a boulder-scattered green slope ran almost down to the sea. Vast multitudes of uncanny, owl-faced puffins had collected there, and stood about on the rocks or at the entrance to their nesting burrows. Overhead flew a gyrating circle of these winged goblins, and the papillotance of the sunlight played across the serried ranks of the lesser sprites — bluebells, sea pinks, and red robins. Deep, unplumbed silence prevailed, for the puffin has no voice. Only occasionally, could be heard the whish of the wings of a passing bird.
The irresistible magnetism of the scene would have aroused the most sluggish curiosity and yet defied the most intense. I was tired after my long walk in the sun, and mentally fatigued as well. I slept at last.
It was late in the evening when I awoke. For a while, the dreams of sleep passed on, uninterrupted, into those of my waking hours. A yellow new moon overhead was carved into an Egyptian hieroglyph. The stars shone out around her; they were the polished tips of a thousand spears all pointing down at me. A bank of clotted mist caught in the dark foliage of a phalanx of Scots firs, whose giant forms stood up one behind the other at the top of the slope, like a troop of bad angels, and, like the whiteness of the bitten lip of hate, the white sea breakers were just visible through the thickening fog. The sea itself was hidden from view.
Immense wreaths of mist coiled around the columns, pinnacles, and minarets of granite, time-sculptured and grey. The mist magnified and trans- formed. The island changed into a great temple pushing up into the clouds with its superscription writ large —
I craved for the intellectual satisfaction of final and complete knowledge. I made an effort to reach the Deity as I looked out once again with a knife-like scrutiny on the sea, and rocks and sky — all those material objects which muffled and obscured the Real behind them. No reply came, and even as I looked, the face of Nature hardened into petrification. Its stone bruised the heart. I turned my Gorgon’s head away towards home, feeling how terrible it was to be alive, to be taking part, willy-nilly, in the great mystery play, into Death itself. What a grand optimism was that which let men eat, drink, and carouse. Rather would I have expected them to stand at the street corners discussing their common doom or to fret their hearts away like beasts tortured in a puzzle box.
I recalled how I had scoffed at the words of my friend Kinnaird at lunch that day, when he said, looking towards his wife, “The only perfection of which man is capable is not knowledge, but love.” Then, smiling at me, “Give up your search, Paracelsus, and take a wife,” and I had scoffed again. “Whose wife?” said I.
I was within 50 yards of the Knight Templar Rock when I noticed a mysterious whiteness shining through the thin mist which capped its top. The few scattered rays of the early morning light were directed towards that desolate perch. I paused and looked. Was it up there on the cold grey stone that I was going to find the noumenon, and final rest from the hounds of reason and curiosity which had dogged my steps? Or was it a sign, a revelation, implanting the germ of a new philosophy of life, which I so badly needed? I soon would know.
A strong impulse sent me running across the heath towards the naked outcrop of granite stone. Sick with excitement, I reached the bottom of the stack, assured that some sort of consolation awaited me above. The rock goes up for 40 feet. I scaled the steepest side, forgetting in my haste the steps cut out on the other side. I looked over the edge of the top and across at the figure of a young girl lying out still on the fiat, lichened surface of the rock. She was clothed in a white muslin gown.
On hands and knees I crept over to her side and lit a match. Before the third match in succession flickered and went out she opened her eyes and caught me watching the beauty of her face.
I knew then wherein the revelation lay, not in knowledge, but in love.
Even without the large stain of Vandyke brown on her small sunburnt hand, I should have recognized the person of the artist who, for fear of stepping over the cliffs in the fog, had bravely decided to remain on the rock until it cleared away. There she fell asleep.
As we entered the farmstead at the south end of the island, day came “like a mighty river flowing in.” The fog cleared and the air freshened. Already I saw a change on the face of Nature. I had cast my mental slough.