Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 20

The Colony in Being

WHEN I arrived at Valparaiso the Skid was waiting for me, manned by Ng–Gunko and Kemi. Both lads had appreciably matured since I had last seen them, nearly four years earlier. Those crowded years seemed to have speeded up the slow growth natural to their kind. Ng–Gunko, in particular, who was actual ly sixteen and might have been taken for twelve, had acquired a grace and a seriousness which I never expected of him. Both seemed in a great hurry to put to sea. I asked if there was any special engagement to keep on the island. “No,” said Ng–Gunko, “but we may have less than a year to live, and we love the island, and all our friends. We want to go home.”

As soon as my baggage and some cases of books and stores had been transhipped in the Skid’s dinghy, we got under way. Ng–Gunko and Kemi promptly divested themselves of their clothes, for it was a hot day. Kemi’s fair skin had been burnt to the colour of the teak woodwork of the Skid.

When we had come within about forty miles of the island, Kemi, who was at the helm, said, glancing from the magnetic to the gyroscopic compass, “They must be using the deflector. That means some ship has come too close, and they’re heading her off.” He went on to explain that on the island they had an instrument for deflecting a magnetic compass at any range up to about fifty miles. This was the fourth occasion for its use.

At last we sighted the island, a minute grey hump on the horizon. As we approached, it rose and displayed itself as a double mountain. Even when we were quite close to land I failed to detect any sign of habitation. Ng–Gunko explained that the buildings had all been placed in such a manner as to escape detection. Not till the island had opened out its little harbour to embrace us did I see the corner of one wooden building protruding from behind some trees. Not till we had entered the inner harbour did the whole settlement appear. It consisted of a score or more of small wooden buildings, with a larger stone building behind them and slightly higher up the slope. Most of the little wooden buildings, I was told, were the private houses of the residents. The stone building was the library and meeting-house. There were also buildings on the quayside, including a stone power-station. Somewhat remote from the rest of the settlement was a collection of wooden sheds which were said to be temporary labs.

The Skid was moored alongside the lowest of three stone quays, for the tide was out. The colonists were waiting to receive us and unload. They were a bunch of naked, sunburnt youngsters of both sexes and very diverse appearance. John sprang on board to greet me, and I found myself tongue-tied. He had become a dazzling figure, at least to my faithful eyes. There was a new firmness and a new dignity about him. His face was brown and smooth and hard like a hazel nut. His whole body was like shaped and bees-waxed oak. His hair was bleached to a dazzling whiteness. I noted among the party several unfamiliar faces, the Asiatics, of course, from China, Tibet and India. Seeing all these supernormals together, I was struck by a pervading Chinese or Mongolian expression about them. They had come from many lands, but they had a family likeness. John might well he right in guessing that all had sprung from a single “sporting point” centuries ago, probably in Central Asia. From that original mutation, or perhaps from a number of similar mutations, successive generations of offspring had spread over Asia, Europe, Africa, interbreeding with the normal kind, but producing occasionally a true supernormal individual.

Subsequently I learned that Shên Kuo’s direct researches in the past had confirmed this theory.

I had been dreading life in this colony of superior persons. I expected to feel unwanted, to be as useless and distracting as a dog at a highbrow concert. But my reception reassured me. The younger members accepted me gaily and carelessly, treating me much as nieces and nephews might treat an uncle whose special office it was to make a fool of himself. The elders of the party were more restrained, but genial.

I was assigned one of the wooden cottages or shacks as my private residence. It was surrounded by a verandah. “You may prefer to have your bed out here,” said John. “There are no mosquitoes.” I noticed at once that the cottage had been made with the care and accuracy of fine cabinet-making. It was sparsely furnished with solid and simple articles of waxed wood. On one wall of the sitting-room was a carved panel representing in an abstract manner a boy and a girl (of the supernormal type) apparently at sea in a canoe, and hunting a shark. In the bedroom was another carving, much more abstract, but vaguely suggestive of sleep. On the bed were sheets and blankets, woven of rough yarns unknown to me. I was surprised to see electric light, an electric stove, and beyond the bedroom a minute bathroom with hot and cold taps. The water was heated by an electric contrivance in the bathroom itself. Fresh water was plentiful, I was told, for it was distilled from the sea as a sort of by-product of the psycho-physical power-station.

Glancing at the small electric clock, let into the wall, John said. “There’ll be a meal in a few minutes. That long building is the feeding-house, with the kitchen alongside of it.” He pointed to a low wooden building among the trees. In front of it was a terrace, and on the terrace, tables.

I shall not forget my first meal on the island. I was seated between John and Lo. The table was crowded with unfamiliar eatables, especially tropical and sub-tropical fruits, fish, and a queer sort of bread, all served in vessels made of wood or of shell. Marianne and the two Chinese girls seemed responsible for the meal, for they kept disappearing into the kitchen to produce new dishes.

Looking at the slight naked figures of various shades from Ng–Gunko’s nigger-brown to Sigrid’s rich cream, all seated round the table and munching with the heartiness of a school treat, I felt that I had strayed into an island of goblins. This was in the main an effect of the two rows of large heads and eyes like field-glass lenses, but was accentuated by the disproportionately large hands which were busy with the food. The islanders were certainly a collection of young freaks, but one or two of them were freakish even in relation to the standards of the group itself. There was Jelli with her hammer-head and hare-lip, Ng–Gunko with his red wool and discrepant eyes, Tsomotre, a Tibetan boy, whose head seemed to grow straight out of his shoulders without the intervention of a neck, Hwan Tê, a Chinese youngster, whose hands outclassed all the others in size, and bore, in addition to the normal set of fingers, an extra and very useful thumb.

Since the death of Yang Chung the party comprised eleven youths and boys (including Sambo) and ten girls, of whom the youngest was a little Indian child. Of these twenty-one individuals, three lads and a girl were Tibetan, two youths and two girls were Chinese, two girls were Indian. All the others were of European origin, except Washingtonia Jong. I was to discover that of the Asiatics the outstanding personalities were Tsomotre, the neckless expert in telepathy, and Shên Kuo, a Chinese youth of John’s age who specialized in direct research into the past. This gentle and rather frail young man, who, I noticed, was given specially prepared food, was said to be in some ways the most “awakened” member of the colony. John once said half seriously, “Shên Kuo is a reincarnation of Adlan.”

On my first afternoon John took me for a tour of inspection round the island. We went first to the power-house, a stone building on the quay. Outside the door the infant Sambo lay upon a mat, kicking with his crooked black legs. Curiously, he seemed to have changed less than the other supernormals. His legs were still too weak to support him. As we passed, he piped to John, “Hi! What about a bit of a talk? I’ve got a problem.” John replied without checking his progress, “Sorry, too busy just now.” Within we found Ng–Gunko, his back shining with sweat, shovelling sand, or rather dried ooze, into a sort of furnace. “Convenient,” I said, laughing, “to be able to burn mud.” Ng–Gunko paused, grinning, and wiping his brow with the back of his hand.

John explained. “The element that we use now is particularly easy to disintegrate by the psychical technique, but also it occurs only in very small quantities. Of course, if we disintegrated all this mass of stuff and let it go off with a bang, the whole island would be blown up. But only about a millionth part of the raw material is the element we want. The furnace merely frees the desired atoms as a sort of ash, which has to be refined out of the other ash, and stored in that hermetically sealed container.”

He now led the way into another room, and pointed to a much smaller and very solid-looking bit of mechanism. “That,” he said, “is where the real business is done. Every now and then Ng–Gunko puts a pinch of the stuff on a sticky wafer, pops it in there, and ‘hypnotizes’ it. That makes it go invisible and intangible and materially non-existent, at least for ordinary purposes; because, you see, it has gone to sleep and can’t take any effect on anything. Well, either Ng–Gunko wakes it up again at once, and it sends the hell of a blast of power into that engine, to drive the dynamos; or it is taken away for use on the Skid, or elsewhere.”

We passed into a room full of machinery, a mass of cylinders, rods, wheels, tubes, dials. Beyond that were three big dynamos, and beyond them the plant for distilling sea-water.

We then moved over to the laboratory, a rambling collection of wooden buildings rather apart from the settlement. There we found Lo and Hwan Tê working with microscopes. Lo explained that they were “trying to spot a bug that’s got at the maize plantation.” The place was much like any ordinary lab., crowded with jars, test-tubes, retorts and so on. It evidently served for work on both the physical and the biological sciences, but the biological was preponderant. On one side of the room was an immense cupboard, or rather series of small cupboards. These, I learned, were incubators for use in embryological work. I was to hear more of this later.

The library and meeting-room was a stone erection which had evidently been built to last, and to delight the eye. It was quite a small building of one storey, and I was not surprised to learn that most of the books were still housed in wooden sheds. But the shelves of the library itself were already filled with all the most prized volumes. When we entered the room, we found Jelli, Shên Kuo and Shahîn surrounded by piles of books. The smaller half of the building was occupied by the meeting-room, which was panelled with strange woods and decorated with much-stylized carvings. Of these works, some repelled and intrigued me, others moved me not at all. The former, John said, had been done by Kargis, the latter by Jelli. It was plain that Jelli’s creations had a significance unperceived by me, for John was evidently held by them, and to my surprise we found Lankor, the Tibetan girl, standing motionless before one of them, her lips moving. When he saw her, John said, lowering his voice, “She’s far away, but we mustn’t risk disturbing her.”

After leaving the library we walked through a big kitchen garden, where several of the young people were at work, and thence up the valley between the island’s two mountains. Here we passed through fields of maize and groves of baby orange-trees and shaddock, which, it was hoped, would some day bear a rich crop. The vegetation of the island ranged from tropical to subtropical and even temperate. The extinct native pioneers had introduced much valuable tropical vegetation, such as the ubiquitous and invaluable coco-palm, and also bread-fruit, mango, and guava. Owing to the saltness of the air none but the coco-palm had really prospered until the supernormals had invented a spray to counteract the salt. When we had climbed out of the valley by a little track amongst a tangle of aromatic bushes, we presently emerged upon a tract of bare hillside consisting of rock, covered in places with dried sub-oceanic ooze. Here and there a wind-borne seed had alighted and prospered, and founded a little colony of vegetation. On a shoulder of the mountain John pointed out “the island’s main attraction for sightseers.” It was the keel and broken ribs of a wooden vessel evidently wrecked and sunk before the island rose from the bottom of the Pacific. Within it were bits of crockery and a human skull.

On the top of the little mountain we came upon the unfinished observatory. Its walls had risen only a foot from the ground, yet the whole place had a deserted look. To my question John replied, “When we found out how short a time lay before us, we abandoned all work of that kind, and concentrated on undertakings that we could bring to some sort of conclusion. I’ll tell you more about them, some day.”

I have reached the part of my narrative that I intended to present with most detail and greatest effect, but several attempts to tackle it have finally convinced me that the task is beyond my powers. Again and again I have tried to plan an anthropological and psychological report on the colony. Always I have failed. I can give only a few incoherent observations. I can say, for instance, that there was something incomprehensible, something “inhuman,” about the emotional life of the islanders. In all normal situations, though of course their behaviour varied from the exuberance of Ng–Gunko and the fastidiousness of Kargis to the perfect composure of Lo, their emotions seemed on the whole normal. Doubtless, even in the most hearty expression of normal emotion in everyday situations, there was a curious self-observation and a detached relish, which seemed to me not quite “human.” But it was in grave and exceptional situations and particularly in disaster that the islanders revealed themselves as definitely of a different texture from that of Homo sapiens. One incident must serve as an example.

Shortly after my arrival Hsi Mei, the Chinese girl, commonly called May, was seized with a terrible fit, and in disastrous circumstances. In her, apparently, the supernormal nature, though highly developed, was very precariously established. Her fit was evidently caused by a sudden reversion to the normal, but to the normal in a distorted and savage form. One day she was out fishing with Shahîn, who had recently become her mate. She had been strange all the morning. Suddenly she flew at him and began tearing him with nails and teeth. In the scuffle the boat capsized, and the inevitable shark seized May by the leg. Fortunately Shahîn wore a sheath-knife, for use in cleaning fish. With this he attacked the shark, which by good luck was a young one. There was a desperate struggle. Finally the brute released its prey and fled. Shahîn, mauled and exhausted, succeeded with great difficulty in bringing May back to land. During the following three weeks he nursed her constantly, refusing to allow anyone to relieve him. What with her almost severed leg and her mental disorder, she was in a desperate plight. Sometimes her true self seemed to reappear, but more often she was either unconscious or maniacal. Shahîn was hard put to it to restrain her from doing serious hurt to herself or to him. When at last she seemed to be recovering, Shahîn was ecstatically delighted. Presently, however, she grew much worse. One morning, when I took his breakfast over to their cottage, he greeted me with a gaunt but placid face, and said, “Her soul is torn too deeply now. She will never mend. This morning she knows me, and has reached out her hand for me. But she is not herself, she is frightened. And very soon she will not know me ever again. I will sit with my dear this morning as usual, but when she is asleep I must kill her.” Horrified, I rushed to fetch John. But when I had told him, he merely sighed and said, “Shahîn knows best.”

That afternoon, in the presence of the whole colony, Shahîn carried the dead Hsi Mei to a great rock beside the harbour. Gently he laid her down, gazed at her for a moment with longing, then stepped back among his companions. Thereupon John, using the psycho-physical technique, caused a sufficient number of the atoms of her flesh to disintegrate, so that there was a violent outpouring of their pent-up energies, and her whole body was speedily consumed in a dazzling conflagration. When this was done, Shahîn passed his hand over his brow, and then went down with Kemi and Sigrid to the canoes. The rest of the day they spent repairing the nets. Shahîn talked easily, even gaily, about May; and laughed, even, over the desperate battle of her spirit with the powers of darkness. And sometimes while he worked, he sang. I said to myself, “Surely this is an island of monsters.”

I must now try to convey something of my vivid impression that strange and lofty activities were all the while going on around me on the island although I could not detect them. I felt as though I were playing blind man’s buff with invisible spirits. The bodily eye watched unhindered the bright perceived world and the blithe physical activities of these young people; but the mind’s eye was blindfold, and the mind’s ear could gather only vague hints of incomprehensible happenings.

One of the most disconcerting features of life on the island was that much of the conversation of the colonists was carried on telepathically. So far as I could judge, vocal speech was in process of atrophy. The younger members still used it as the normal means of communication, and even among the elders it was often indulged in for its own sake, much as we may prefer to walk rather than take a bus. The spoken language was prized chiefly for its aesthetic value. Not only did the islanders make formal poems for one another as frequently as the cultured Japanese; they also delighted sometimes to converse with one another in subtle metre, assonance and rhyme. Vocal speech was used also for sheer emotional expression, both deliberately and inadvertently. Our civilization had left its mark on the island in such ejaculations as “damn” and “blast” and several which we do not yet tolerate in print. In all reactions to the personality of others, too, speech played an important part. It was often a vehicle for the expression of rivalry, friendship and love. But even in this field all finer intercourse, I was told, depended on telepathy. Speech was but an obbligato to the real theme. Serious discussion was always carried on telepathically and in silence. Sometimes, however, emotional stress would give rise to speech as a spontaneous but unconsidered accompaniment of telepathic discourse. In these circumstances vocal activity tended to be blurred and fragmentary like the speech of a sleeper. Such mutterings were rather frightening to one who could not enter into the telepathic conversation. At first, by the way, I had been irrationally disturbed whenever a group of the islanders, working in silence in the garden or elsewhere, suddenly began to laugh for no apparent reason though actually in response to some telepathic jest. In time I came to accept these oddities without the “nervy” creepiness which they used to arouse in me.

There were happenings on the island far more strange than the normal flow of telepathic conversation. On my third evening, for instance, all the colonists gathered in the meeting-room. John explained that this was one of the regular twelfth-day meetings “to review our position in relation to the universe.” I was advised to come, but to go away when I was bored. The whole party sat in the carved wooden chairs round the walls of the room. There was silence. Having had some experience of Quaker meetings, I was not at first ill at ease. But presently a rather terrifying absolute stillness came upon the company. Not only gross fidgetings, but even those almost imperceptible movements which characterize all normal living, ceased, and became noticeable through their absence. I might have been in a roomful of stone images. On every face was an expression of intent but calm concentration which was not solemn, was even perhaps faintly amused. Suddenly and with keen scrutiny, all eyes turned upon me. I was seized with a sudden panic; but immediately there came over all the intent faces a reassuring smile. Then followed an experience which I can only describe by saying that I felt directly the presence of those supernormal minds, felt telepathically a vague but compelling sense of their immature majesty, felt myself straining desperately to rise to their level, felt myself breaking under the strain, so that I had finally to flee back into my little isolated and half-human self, with the thankfulness of one who falls asleep after great toil, but with the loneliness of an exile.

The many eyes were now turned from me. The young winged minds had soared beyond my reach.

Presently Tsomotre, the neckless Tibetan, moved to a sort of harpsichord, tuned to the strange intervals which the islanders enjoyed. He played. To me his music was indescribably unpleasant. I could have screamed, or howled like a dog. When he had done, a faint involuntary murmur from several throats seemed to indicate deep approval. Shahîn rose from his seat, looking with keen inquiry at Lo, who hesitated, then also rose. Tsomotre began playing once more, tentatively. Lo, meanwhile, had opened a huge chest, and after a brief search she took from it a folded cloth, which when she had shaken it out was revealed as an ample and undulatory length of silk, striped in many colours. This she wrapped around her. The music once more took definite form. Lo and Shahîn glided into a solemn dance, which quickened presently to a storm of wild movement. The silk whirled and floated, revealing the tawny limbs of Lo; or was gathered about her with pride and disdain. Shahîn leapt hither and thither around her, pressed toward her, was rejected, half accepted, spurned again. Now and then came moments of frank sexual contact, stylized and knit into the movement-pattern of the dance. The end suggested to me that the two lovers, now clinging together, were being engulfed in some huge catastrophe. They glanced hither and thither, above, below, with expressions of horror and exaltation, and at one another with gleams of triumph. They seemed to thrust some invisible assailant from them, but less and less effectively, till gradually they sank together to the ground. Suddenly they sprang up and apart to perform slow marionette-like antics which meant nothing to me. The music stopped, and the dance. As she returned to her seat, Lo flashed a questioning, taunting look at John.

Later, when I had described this incident in my notes, I showed my account of it to Lo. When she had glanced at it, she said, “But you have missed the point, you old stupid. You’ve made it into a love story. Of course, what you say is all right — but it’s all wrong too, you poor dear.”

After the dance the company relapsed into silence and immobility. Ten minutes later I slipped away to refresh myself with a walk. When I returned, the atmosphere seemed to have changed. No one noticed my entrance. There was something indescribably eerie in the spectacle of those young faces staring with adult gravity at nothing. Most disturbing of all was Sambo, sitting like a little black doll in his ample chair. Tears were trickling down his cheeks, but his soft little mouth seemed to have grown hard and proud and old. After a few minutes I fled.

Next morning, though the meeting had not ended till dawn, the normal life of the colony was afoot once more. I asked John to explain what had been happening at the meeting. He said they had at first merely been looking into their motives. The young especially had still a lot to learn in this respect. Both young and old had also done a good deal of work upon their deeper mutual relations, relations which in the normal species would have been far below the threshold of consciousness.

All the colonists, John said, had been engaged in making themselves known to one another as fully as possible. They had also, all of them, been disciplining themselves, making their minds more seemly and more effective. This they had performed in the presence of Langatse, their spiritual adviser, and of course under his guidance. With him they had also meditated deeply about metaphysics. In addition to all this, said John, they had been learning to expand their “now” to embrace hours, days; and narrowing it also to distinguish the present and the past strokes of a gnat’s wing. “And we explored the remote past.” he said, “helped greatly by Shên Kuo, whose genius moves in that sphere. We attained also a kind of astronomical consciousness. Some of us at least glimpsed the myriads of peopled worlds, and even the minds of stars and of nebulae. We saw also very clearly that we must soon die. And there were other things which I must not tell you.”

Life on the island did not consist entirely of this exalted corporate activity. The islanders had to do a good deal of hard work of a much more practical kind. Every day two or three canoes would go out fishing. Nets and boats and harpoons had to be repaired. There was constant work in the garden and fruit-groves, and in the maize-fields. Hitherto there had been endless building operations in wood and stone, but when the islanders had discovered their impending fate, such work was abandoned. A good deal of minor woodwork was still afoot. Much of the “crockery” was made of wood, and the rest of shell or gourd. The machinery needed constant attention, and so did the Skid. I was surprised to learn that the Skid had made many voyages among the Polynesian Islands, actually bartering some of the handicrafts of the colony for native produce. Later I found that these voyages had another purpose.

All this manual work was entered into rather as sport than as toil, for it had never been a tyranny. The most serious attention of every member was given to very different matters. The younger islanders spent much time in the library and the lab., absorbing the culture of the inferior species. The elders were concerned with a prolonged research into the physical and mental attributes of their own kind. In particular they were grappling with the problem of breeding. At what age might their young women safely conceive? Or should reproduction be ectogenetic? And how could they ensure that the offspring should be both viable and supernormal? This research was evidently the chief work of the laboratory. Originally its aim had been mainly practical, but even after the discovery of their impending doom the islanders continued these biological experiments for their theoretical interest.

When we entered the labs we found several persons at work. Lo, Kargis and the two Chinese boys were apparently in charge of the research. Delicate experiments were being carried out on the germ cells of molluscs, fishes and specially imported mammals. Still more difficult work was in progress upon human ova and spermatozoa, both normal and supernormal. I was shown a series of thirty-eight living human embryos, each in its own incubator. These startled me considerably, but the story of their conception and capture startled me even more. Indeed, it filled me with horror, and with violent though short-lived moral indignation. The eldest of these embryos was three months old. Its father, I was told, was Shahîn, its mother a native of the Tuamotu Archipelago. The unfortunate girl had been seduced, brought to the island, operated upon, and killed while still under the anaesthetic. The more recent specimens, however, had been secured by milder methods, for Lo had invented a technique by which the fertilized ovum could be secured without violence to the mother. In all the more recent cases the mothers had yielded up their treasure unwittingly, and without leaving their native islands. They were merely persuaded to agree to comply with certain instructions given by the supernormal father. The technique apparently combined physical and psychical methods, and was imposed upon the girls as a sublime religious ritual.

There was also a series of five much younger and ectogenetically fertilized ova. In these cases both father and mother were members of the colony. Lo herself had contributed one specimen. The father was Tsomotre. “You see,” she said. “I am rather young for gestation, but my ova are all right for experimental purposes.” I was puzzled. I knew well that sexual intercourse was practised on the island. Why then had the fertilization of this ovum been carried out artificially? As tactfully as I could, I stated my difficulty. Lo answered with some asperity, “Why, of course, because I was not in love with Tsomotre.”

Since I am on this subject of sex I had better pursue it. The younger members of the colony, such as Ng–Gunko and Jelli, were only on the threshold of adolescence. Nevertheless, they were very sensitive to one another, both physically and mentally. Moreover, though physically backward, they were (so to speak) imaginatively precocious, as John had been. Consequently the mental side of sexual love was surprisingly developed among them.

Among the elder members there were, of course, more serious attachments. As they had discovered how to bring conception under direct voluntary control, their unions were followed by no practical difficulties. They had, however, produced a crop of emotional stresses.

From what I was told, I gathered that there must have been a subtle difference between the love experiences of the islanders and those of normal persons. So far as I can tell, the difference was caused by two characteristics of the supernormal, namely, more discriminate awareness of self and of others, and greater detachment. The greater accuracy of self and other-consciousness was of course responsible for a high degree of mutual understanding, tolerance and sympathy in ordinary relations. It seems to have rendered the loves of these strange beings at once exceptionally vivid and in most eases exceptionally harmonious. Occasionally some surge of crude and juvenile emotion would threaten to blot out this insight, but then detachment would normally supervene to prevent disaster. Thus between the very different spirits of Shahîn and Lankor there arose a passionate relationship in which there were frequent conflicts of desire. With beings like us this would have produced endless strife. But in them mutual insight and self-detachment seems to have kindled in each the spirit of the other, so that the result was not strife but the mental aggrandizement of both. On the other hand, when the unhappy Washingtonia found herself forsaken by Shahîn, primitive impulses had triumphed in her to such an extent that, as I have reported, she hated her rival. Such an irrational emotion was from the supernormal point of view sheer insanity. The girl herself was terrified at her own derangement. A similar incident occurred when Marianne favoured Kargis rather than Huan Tê. But the Chinese youth apparently cured himself without help. Yet not strictly without help, for all the islanders had formed a habit of recounting their amatory experiences to Jacqueline, far away in France; and she had often played the part of the wise woman, comforting them, helping these complicated and inexperienced young creatures to make effective spiritual contact with one another.

When the young people had enjoyed one another promiscuously for a period of many months, they seem to have passed into a new phase. They gradually sorted themselves out into more or less constant couples. In some cases a couple would actually build for themselves a single cottage, but as a rule they were content to make free of each other’s private homes. In spite of these permanent “marriages” there were many fleeting unions, which did not seem to break up the more serious relationship. Thus at one time or other nearly every lad was mated with nearly every lass. This statement may suggest that the islanders lived in a ceaseless round of promiscuous sexual activity. They did nothing of the sort. The sexual impulse was not violent in them. But though coitus was on the whole a rare event on the island, it was always permitted when both parties desired it. Moreover, though the culminating sexual act was rare, much of the normal social life of the island was flushed, so to speak, with a light-hearted and elegant sexuality.

I believe that there were only one male and one female who had never spent a night in one another’s arms, and indeed had never embraced at all. These, surprisingly, and in spite of their long connexion and deep mutual intimacy and respect, were John and Lo. Neither of them had a permanent mate. Each had played a part in the light-hearted promiscuity of the colony. Their seeming detachment from one another I attributed at first to sheer sexual indifference. But I was mistaken, When I remarked to John in my blundering way that I was surprised that he never seemed to be in love with Lo, he said simply, “But I am in love with Lo, always.” I concluded that she was not attracted by him, but John read my thoughts, and said, “No, it’s mutual all right.” “Then why?” I demanded. John said nothing until I had pressed him again. He looked away, like any bashful adolescent. Just as I was about to apologize for prying, he said, “I just don’t know. At least, I half know. Have you noticed that she never lets me so much as touch her? And I’m frightened of touching her. And sometimes she shuts me right out of her mind. That hurts. I’m frightened even of trying to make telepathic contact with her, unless she begins it; in case she doesn’t want it. And yet I know her so well. Of course, we are very young, and though we have both had many loves and have learnt a lot, I think we mean so much to one another that we are afraid of spoiling it all by some false step. We are frightened to begin until we have learned much more about the art of living. Probably if we were to live another twenty years — but we shall not.” That “not” sounded with an undercurrent of grief which shocked me. I did not believe John would ever be shaken by purely personal emotion.

I decided to make an opportunity for asking Lo about her relations with John. One day, while I was meditating a tactful approach, she discovered my intention telepathically, and said, “About me and John — I keep him away because I know, and he knows too, that we are not in a position yet to give our best to one another. Jacqueline advised me to be careful, and she’s right. You see, John is amazingly backward in some ways. He’s cleverer than most of us, but quite simple about some things. That’s why he’s — Odd John. Though I’m the younger, I feel much older. It would never do to go all the way with him before he’s really grown up. These years on the island with him have been very beautiful, in their kind. In another five we might be ready. But of course, since we have to die soon, I shall not wait too long. If the tree is to be destroyed, we must pluck the fruit before it is ripe.”

When I had written and revised the foregoing account of life on the island, I realized that it failed almost completely to convey even so much of the spirit of the little community as I myself had been able to appreciate. But, try as I may, I cannot give concrete embodiment to that strange combination of lightness and earnestness, of madness and superhuman sanity, of sublime common sense and fantastic extravagance, which characterized so much on the island.

I must now give up the attempt, and pass on to describe the sequence of events which led to the destruction of the colony, and the death of all its members.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00