The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 6

The Yacht in the Lagoon

Mister Abe Loeb squinted into the setting sun; he would have like in some way to express how beautiful it was, but his sweetheart, Li, alias Miss Lily Valley, whose real name was Miss Lilian Nowak and who was known in short as golden-haired Li, White Lily, Lily Longlegs and all the other names she had been called during her seventeen years, slept on the warm sand, nestled in a fluffy bathing gown and curled up like a sleeping dog. That is why Abe said nothing about the beauty of the world and merely sighed, scratching his naked feet because there was sand on them. Out there on the ocean was the yacht named after Gloria Pickford; Abe had been given the yacht by his father for passing his university entrance exam. His father was a great guy. Jesse Loeb, film magnate and so on. Abe, said the old man, go and get to know something of the world and take a few of your friends with you. Jesse Loeb was a truly great guy. Gloria Pickford lay out there on the pearly waters and next to him, in the warm sand, lay his sweetheart, Li. Abe sighed with happiness. She was sleeping like a little child, poor thing. Abe felt a yearning to protect her somehow. I really ought to marry her, thought the young Mister Loeb to himself, and as he did so he was tortured with the beautiful feeling in his heart that comes when a firm decision is mixed with fear. Mamma Loeb would be unlikely to agree to it and Papa Loeb made decisions with his hands: You’re crazy, Abe. His parents would be unable to understand it, and that was all there was to it. And Mister Abe, sighing with tenderness, covered the white ankle of his sweetheart with the tip of her bathing gown. How come I’ve got such hairy feet? he thought, absent mindedly.

God it’s beautiful here, so beautiful. It’s a shame that Li can’t see it. Mister Abe looked at her charming outline, and through some vague association began to thing about art. This was because his sweetheart, Li, was an artist. A film artist. True, she had never actually been in any films, but she was quite certain she would become the greatest film actress ever; and when Li was certain of something that was what happened. That was what Mamma Loeb couldn’t understand; an artist is simply an artist, and she can’t be like other girls. And anyway, other girls were no better than she was, Mister Abe decided; that Judy on the yacht, for instance, a rich girl like her - and Abe knew that Fred went into her cabin. Every night, in fact. Whereas Li and I . . . well Li just isn’t like that. I want Baseball Fred to have the best, Abe thought generously, he’s a friend from university, but every night . . . a rich girl like her oughtn’t to do that. I think that a girl from a family like Judy’s . . . and Judy isn’t even an artist. (That’s what these girls sometimes gossip about, Abe remembered; with their eyes shining, and giggling . . . I never talk about that sort of thing with Fred.) (Li oughtn’t to drink so many cocktails, she never knows what she’s talking about afterwards.) (This afternoon, for example, she didn’t need to . . . ) (I think she and Judy were arguing about who has nicer legs. Why, it clearly has to be Li. I know these things.) (And Fred didn’t have to have that dumb idea about a beautiful legs contest. They might do that kind of thing on Palm Beach, but not in private company. And the girls didn’t have to lift their skirts so high. That was more than just legs. At least, Li didn’t have to. And right there in front of Fred! And a rich girl like Judy didn’t have to do it either.) (Maybe I oughtn’t to have called the captain over to be the judge. That was dumb of me. The captain went so red, and his mustache stuck out, and he excused himself and slammed the door. Awful. Just awful. The captain didn’t have to be so coarse about it. And anyway, it’s my yacht, isn’t it?) (True, the captain doesn’t have a sweetheart with him on board; so how’s he going to look on that sort of thing, poor man? Seeing as he’s got no choice but to be alone, I mean.) (And why did Li cry when Fred said Judy has nice legs? And then she said Fred was a brute, that he was spoiling the whole trip . . . Poor Li!) (And now the girls aren’t talking to each other. And when I wanted to talk to Fred Judy called him over like a dog. Fred is my best friend after all. And if he’s Judy’s lover of course he’s going to say she has nicer legs! True, he didn’t have to be so emphatic about it.  That wasn’t very tactful towards poor Li; Li is right when she says Fred is a self centered brute. A heck of a brute.) (I really didn’t think the trip was going to turn out like this. Devil take that Fred!)

Mister Abe realised that he was no longer looking blissfully out at the pearly ocean, but that he was scowling, scowling very hard. He was anxious and no longer in a good mood. Go out and see something of the world, Papa Loeb had said. Well have we seen something of the world? Mister Abe tried hard to remember what exactly it was he had seen, but he wasn’t able to remember anything except how Judy and Li, his sweetheart, had shown their legs to Fred, big shouldered Fred, squatting down in front of them. Abe scowled even harder. What’s this coral island called anyway? Taraiva, the captain had said. Taraiva, or Tahuara or Taraihatuara-ta-huara. How about if we go back now, and I can say to old Jesse; Dad, we’ve been to Taraihatuara-ta-huara. (If only I hadn’t called the captain over, Mister Abe frowned.) (I have to talk to Li so that she won’t do that sort of thing. God, why do I love her so much! I’ll talk to her as soon as she wakes up. I’ll tell her we ought to get married . . . ) Mister Abe’s eyes were full of tears; oh God, is this love or pain, or is this endless pain just part of me being in love with her?

Sweetheart Li’s eyes, made up in blue like a tender shell, fluttered. “Abe,” she called sleepily, “know what I’ve been thinking? I’ve been thinking that on this island you could make a fan-tas-tic film.” Mister Abe sprinkled fine sand over his unfortunately hairy feet.

“Excellent idea, sweetheart. And what sort of film?” Sweetheart Li opened her boundless blue eyes.

“Well how about . . . Imagine I was stuck on this island like Robinson Crusoe. A female Robinson Crusoe. Don’t you think that’s a great new idea?”

“Yeah,” said Mister Abe uncertainly. “And how would you have gotten onto this island?”

“Easy,” came her sweet reply. “Our yacht would just have been shipwrecked in a storm, and all of you would have been drowned, you and Judy and the captain and everyone.”

“And how about Fred? Fred’s a very strong swimmer.” Li’s smooth brow became furrowed.

“In that case, Fred will have to be eaten by a shark. That’d be a great piece of detail,” said Abe’s sweetheart, clapping her hands as she did so. “And Fred has a really beautiful body for it, don’t you think?” Mister Abe sighed.

“And what happens after that?”

“And then I’d be thrown unconscious onto the shore by a big wave. I’d be wearing those pyjamas, the ones with the blue stripes you liked so much the other day.” She narrowed her eyes and looked at him in the tender way she had seen used to depict female seductiveness. “And the film really needs to be in color, Abe. Everyone says how much the color blue goes with my hair.”

“And who would find you here?” asked Mister Abe objectively.” His sweetheart thought for a while.

“No-one. I wouldn’t be a Robinson Crusoe if there were people here,” she said with a surprising grasp of logic. That’s what would make it such a great role, because I’d always be on my own. Just imagine it, Abe, Lily Valley in the title role and only role!”

“And what would you be doing all through the film?” Li leant up on her elbow.

“I’ve got that all thought out. I’d swim in the lagoon and I’d climb up on the rocks and sing.”

“In your pyjamas?”

“Without my pyjamas,” said Abe’s sweetheart. “Don’t you think that’d be a great success?”

“Well you can’t do the whole film naked,” grumbled Abe, who felt strongly opposed to the idea.

“Why not?” answered his sweetheart in innocent surprise. “Who’d be there to see me?” Mister Abe said something that could not be properly heard. “And then,” Li considered, “and then . . . I’ve got it. Then I’d be captured by a gorilla, you know? A gorilla that’s really big and black and hairy.” Mister Abe went red, and tried to hide his damned hairy feet even deeper in the sand.

“They don’t have any gorillas on this island,” he objected, not very convincingly.

“Yes they do. They’ve got every possible kind of animal here. You have to look at it scientifically, Abe. And a gorilla would go so well with my complexion. Have you noticed how Judy has hairs on her legs?”

“No,” said Abe, somewhat displeased at this change of subject.

“Awful legs,” thought Abe’s sweetheart as she looked down at her own. “And as the gorilla carries me away in its arms a young and handsome wild man would come out of the jungle and knock it down.”

“How would he be dressed?”

“He’d have a bow and arrow,” was his sweethearts unhesitating reply, “and a wreath on his head. And this wild man would pick me up and take me to the cannibals’ campfire.”

“There aren’t any cannibals here,” said Abe in defence of the island of Tahuara.

“There are too! And the cannibals would want to sacrifice me to their idols and they’d be singing like they do in Hawaii, you know, like those negroes in the Paradise Restaurant. But one of the young cannibals would fall in love with me,” sighed Abe’s sweetheart, her eyes wide open in amazement, “and then another of the savages would fall in love with me, it could be the cannibal chief this time, and then a white man . . . ”

“Where did this white man come from?” asked Abe, just to be sure.

“Hell have been there from the start. He could be a famous tenor who’s fallen into the savages clutches. That’s so that he can sing in the film.”

“And what would he be wearing?” Abe’s sweetheart looked at her big to.

“He should be . . . he should be naked, just like the cannibals.” Mister Abe shook his head.

“Sweetheart, that wouldn’t work. Famous tenors are always horribly fat.”

“Oh, that’s such a shame,” lamented Abe’s sweetheart. “Maybe Fred could play that part and then the tenor could just do the singing, you know how they do that dubbing in films.”

“But Fred was eaten by a shark!” Abe’s sweetheart frowned.

“You don’t need to be so realistic all the time, Abe. I just can’t talk about art with you. And then this king of the cannibals would put strings and strings of pearls around my neck . . . ”

“Where does he get them from?”

“Why there’s lots of pearls here,” Li insisted. “And then Fred gets jealous and boxes with him on the rocks overlooking the sea as it crashes on shore. Don’t you think Fred would have a fantastic silhouette against the sky? Isn’t that a great idea? And then the two of them would fall into the sea . . .” This thought cheered Abe up slightly. “And then you could have that detail with the shark. Think how mad it would make Judy if Fred played in a film with me! And I’d get married to this beautiful wild man.” The golden-haired Li jumped up from where she lay. “I’d be standing here on the shore like this, outlined against the setting sun, entirely naked, and the film would slowly come to a close.” Li threw off her bathing gown. “And now I’m going to go for a swim.”

“ . . . You haven’t got your bathing suit,” pointed out Abe in alarm, looking out to the yacht to see if anyone was watching; but Li, his sweetheart, was already dancing across the sand to the lagoon.

Suddenly, Abe heard a voice: “Actually, she does look better with her clothes on.” The voice was brutally cool and critical. Abe felt crushed at his lack of erotic admiration, he even felt almost guilty about it. But, well, when Li is wearing her clothes and stockings she does, well, seem more beautiful somehow. In his own defence, Abe considered that what he meant was more decent. Well, that as well. And nicer. And why’s she running like that? And why do her thighs wobble like that? And why . . . Stop this! Abe told himself in horror. Li is the most beautiful girl that ever lived. And I’m terribly in love with her. “Even when she’s got nothing on?” asked the cool and critical voice. Abe turned his eyes away and looked at the yacht in the lagoon. It was so beautiful, every line was perfect! It’s a shame that Fred isn’t here. If Fred were here we could talk about how beautiful the yacht is.

Meanwhile, Abe’s sweetheart had reached the water and was standing in it up to her knees, her arms were stretched out to the setting Sun and she was singing. She can go and swim in Hell, thought Abe in irritation. But it had been nice while she was lying there curled up in a ball, wrapped in her bathing gown and with her eyes closed. Dear Li. And with a touching sigh, Abe kissed the sleeve of her bathing gown. Yes, he was terribly in love with her. So much in love it hurt.

There was a sudden, piercing scream from the lagoon. Abe lifted himself up on his elbow so that he could see better. Li, his sweetheart, was screaming, waving her arms in the air and rushing through the water to the shore, floundering and splashing water all around. Abe jumped up and ran to her. “What is it, Li?” (Look at that stupid way she runs, the cool and critical voice remarked. She throws her legs about. She flaps her arms about. It just isn’t nice. And she’s even squawking as she does it, yes, she squawks.) “What’s happened, Li?” called Abe as he ran to her assistance.

“Abe, Abe,” squawked his sweetheart, and all of a sudden she was there hanging, cold and wet, around his neck. “Abe there’s some kind of animal out there!”

“Why that’s nothing,” laughed Abe. “It must be some kind of fish.”

“Not with an awful head like that,” his sweetheart howled, and pressed her wet nose against Abe’s breast. Abe wanted to pat her on the shoulder like a father, but on her wet body it would have sounded more like a slap.

“Alright, alright,” he muttered, “look out there, there’s nothing there any more.” Li looked out to the lagoon.

“It was awful,” she sighed, then suddenly started to howl again. “There, there, you see it?” There was the black head of something above the water slowly coming in to shore, its mouth opening and closing. Abe’s sweetheart Li screamed hysterically and set off in desperate flight away from the water.

Abe did not know what he should do. Should he run after Li so that she would not be so afraid? Or should he stay where he was to show that he had no fear of this animal himself? He chose, of course, the second option; strode towards the sea until he was up to his ankles in water and, his fists clenched, looked the creature in the eye. The black head stopped coming closer, it swayed oddly, and said: Ts-ts-ts. Abe was somewhat uneasy about this, but he could not possibly let it be seen. “What is it you want?” he said sharply.

“Ts-ts-ts,” the head replied.

“Abe, Abe, A-a-abe,” sweetheart Li shrieked.

“I’m coming,” Abe replied, and he slowly (so that nobody would get the wrong idea) went back towards his girl. He stopped and turned to look severely at the sea. At the waters edge, where the sea never stops tracing its lacey patterns in the sand, there was some kind of dark-coloured animal standing on its hind legs. Its head was round and its body swayed. Abe stood where he was with his heart beating fast.

“Ts-ts-ts,” said the animal.

“A-a-abe” wailed his sweetheart, close to fainting. Abe walked backwards, step by step, without letting the animal out of his sight. The animal did not move but merely turned its head to watch him. At last, Abe was once more with his sweetheart, who was lying with her face to the ground and howling and blubbering with the horror of it.

“It’s . . . it’s some kind of seal,” said Abe uncertainly. “We really ought to go back to the ship, Li.” But Li merely shuddered. “There’s nothing there to be frightened of,” Abe insisted. He wanted to kneel down beside Li, but it was his duty to stand like a knight in armour between her and the beast. He wished he were wearing more than just bathing trunks, or that he had at least something like a penknife with him, or that he could find a stick.

It was beginning to get dark. The animal came closer again and stopped about thirty paces away. And behind it were five, six, eight of the same animal appearing out of the sea and hesitantly, swaying and tip-tapping, they made their way to where Abe was protecting his sweetheart, Li. “Don’t look, Li,” gasped Abe, although this was quite unnecessary as Li would not have looked for anything in the world. More of the shadows came out of the sea and formed into a broad semi-circle. By now there was about sixty of them, Abe reckoned. That light patch was his sweetheart Li’s bathing gown, the gown she had been asleep in only a short time before. The animals had come as far as this light patch, which lay carelessly thrown down on the sand.

Then Abe did something as natural and as nonsensical as the knight in the Schiller story who went into the lion’s cage to fetch his lady’s glove. There are many natural and nonsensical things that men will keep on doing for as long as the world is still spinning. Without thinking, and with his head erect and his fists clenched, Mister Abe Loeb went in among the animals to fetch the bathing gown belonging to his sweetheart, Li.

The animals stepped back slightly but did not run away. Abe picked up the gown, threw it over his arm like a toreador and remained standing where he was. “A-abe,” came the desperate whine from behind him.

Mister Abe felt a sense of boundless strength and nobility. “What then?” he said to the animals, taking a step closer. “What exactly is it you want?”

“Ts-ts,” hissed one of the animals, and then, in a rasping voice like an old mans, it barked, “Knife!” The other animals, a little way away joined in, barking like the first: “Knife, knife, knife!”

“A-abe!”

“Don’t be afraid, Li,” Abe called back.

“Li,” came a bark from in front of him. “Li.” “Li.”

“A-a-abe!” To Abe it seemed like he was dreaming.

“What is it?”

“Knife!”

“A-a-abe!” wailed his sweetheart.  “Come back here!”

“Right away. - I don’t have a knife. I’m not going to hurt you. What is it you want?”

“Ts-ts,” hissed another of them as it swayed its way across to him. Abe stood with his legs apart, the gown still over his arm, but he did not retreat. “Ts-ts,” it said.

“What is it you want?” The animal seemed to be offering Abe its front paw, but Abe did not like this at all. “What?” he said, somewhat sharply.

“Knife,” barked the animal, and dropped something whitish, like a beads, from its paw. But they were not beads as they rolled across the sand.

“A-abe,” stammered Li. “Don’t leave me here!”

By now, Mister Abe was no longer afraid. “Get out of the way,” he said, waving the bathing gown at the animals. The animals made a sudden and hasty retreat. It would now be possible for Abe to withdraw with honour, but so that Li would see what courage he had he stooped down to pick up the white things the animal had dropped from its paw and see what they were. There were three of them, hard, smooth and round and with a dull sheen to them. As it was getting dark, Mister Abe brought them up close to his eyes.

“A-abe,” wailed his abandoned sweetheart, “Abe!”

“I’m coming,” Mister Abe called back. “Li, I’ve got something here for you! Li, Li, I’ll bring it right over!” With the bathing gown whirling above his head, Mister Abe Loeb ran across along the shore like a young god.

Li was squatting a little way off and shaking. “Abe,” she sobbed as her teeth chattered. “How could you, . . . how could you . . .” The triumphant Abe knelt down in front of her.

“Lily Valley, the gods of the sea, the Tritons, come to pay you homage. I am to tell you that ever since Venus emerged from the foaming deep no artist has ever impressed them like you. As proof of their awe they send you this.” Abe held out his hand. “Look, three pearls.”

“Don’t talk garbage, Abe,” snorted his sweetheart, Li.

“Honest, Li. Take a look, they’re genuine pearls!”

“Let me see them,” she whined, and with trembling hands reached out to touch the whitish spheres. “Abe,” she gasped, “they really are pearls! Did you find them in the sand?”

“But Li, Sweetheart, you don’t just find pearls in the sand!”

“Yes you do,” his sweetheart insisted. “You wash the sand off in a pan and there they are. Didn’t I tell you there must be lots of pearls round here?”

“Pearls grow in kind of clams under the water,” said Abe, almost sure of himself. “But listen, Li, it was the tritons, they brought them for you? They must have seen you while you were bathing. They wanted to give them to personally, but you were so afraid . . . ”

“But they’re so ugly,” exclaimed Li. “Abe these are wonderful pearls. I’m really fond of pearls!” (Now she’s beautiful, said the critical voice. Kneeling here in the sand with the pearls on the palm of her hand . . . yes, beautiful, it has to be said.) “And those, those animals, did they really . . . ”

“They’re not animals, sweetheart. They’re the gods of the sea, they’re called tritons.” This did not surprise his sweetheart in the slightest.

“Why, that’s so nice of them. They really are very sweet. What do you think, Abe, do you think I ought to thank them in some way.”

“Aren’t you afraid of them any more?” Abe’s sweetheart shuddered.

“Yes. Abe, please, get me out of here!”

“Well that means,” said Abe, “we’ve got to get to our boat. Come with me and don’t be afraid.”

“But what if . . . what if they’re standing in our way, Abe?” shuddered Li. “Couldn’t you go out there to them on your own? But you can’t leave me here all by myself!”

“I’ll carry you in my arms,” offered Mister Abe, the hero.

“That would be all right,” his sweetheart sighed.

“But put your bathing gown on,” grumbled Abe.

“Right away.” Miss Li rearranged her famously golden hair with both hands. “I must look an awful mess! Abe, do you have any lipstick on you?” Abe lay the bathing gown over her shoulders.

“I think it’s best just to go, Li!”

“But I’m afraid,” gasped his sweetheart. Mister Abe took her up in his arms. Li thought she was as light as a cloud. Hell, she’s heavier than you thought, isn’t she, said the critical voice. And now you’ve got both hands full, haven’t you; if those animals do come at us, what then? “Can’t you run any faster?” his sweetheart suggested.

“Sure,” gasped Mister Abe, hardly able not to get his legs in a tangle. By this time it was getting dark very fast. Abe was getting closer to the broad semi-circle formed by the animals.

“Hurry Abe, faster, faster,” whispered Li. The animals began to sway and gyrate the upper half of their bodies in their peculiar wave-like way. “Quick, Abe, hurry, faster,” his sweetheart whined as she kicked her legs about hysterically and jagging her silver-lacquered nails in Abe’s neck.

“For Gods sake, Li, give it a rest,” Abe muttered.

“Knife,” came a barking voice from just beside them.

“Ts-ts-ts.”

“Knife.”

“Li.”

“Knife.”

“Knife.”

“Knife.”

“Li.”

They had already got past the semi-circle of animals, and Abe felt he could run no further through the damp sand. “You can put me down, now,” said his sweetheart, just as Abe’s legs were about to give way. He wiped the sweat from his brow as he panted for breath.

“Get into the boat, quick,” he ordered his sweetheart. The semi-circle of dark shapes had turned to face Li and was coming closer.

“Ts-ts-ts.”

“Knife.”

“Knife.”

“Li.”

But Li did not scream. Li did not run away in terror. Li raised her arms to the sky, the bathing gown slipped off her shoulders, and naked and with both hands she waved to the swaying forms, blowing kisses to them as she did. On her trembling lips there appeared something which could only be called a charming smile. “You’re so sweet,” she stuttered in her squeaky voice, and stretched her white hands out once again to the swaying shadows.

“Come and give me a hand, Li,” Abe ordered somewhat sharply as he pushed the boat out into the water. Sweetheart Li picked up her bathing gown.

“Goodbye, my darlings!” There was a sound of splashing as the shadows made their way into the water. “So hurry up, Abe,” hissed his sweetheart as she paddled out to the boat. “They’ve nearly reached us!” Mister Abe Loeb was making desperate exertions to get the boat out into the water when sweetheart Li stepped into it to add to the weight, still fluttering her hand about. “Go over to the other side, Abe, they can’t see me.”

“Knife.”

“Ts-ts-ts.”

“A-abe.”

“Knife, ts, knife.”

“Ts-ts.”

“Knife!”

At last the boat was bobbing on the waves. Mister Abe clambered into it and leant with all his strength on the oars. One of the oars struck against something slippery.

Sweetheart Li made a deep sigh. “Aren’t they so sweet? And wasn’t I just perfect?” Mister Abe rowed out to the yacht with all the strength he had.

“Put your bathing gown on, Li,” he replied somewhat drily.

“I think I was a great success,” asserted Miss Li. “And those pearls, Abe, what do you think they’re worth?” For a moment, Mister Abe stopped rowing.

“I think you needn’t have shown so much of yourself, sweetheart.” Miss Li felt slightly offended.

“Well what if I did? Anyone can see that you’re not an artist, Abe Loeb. And now, if you don’t mind, keep rowing; I’m getting cold in just this gown!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/capek/karel/newts/chapter6.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:34