One of H.G. Wells' earliest short stories, Æpyornis Island is atypically lighthearted for the cynical English leftist. Not long after its publication in 1894, Wells would content himself far more with destroying humanity, vivisecting animals, and outlining his models for oppressive, totalitarian, utopian regimes. Originally published in the Pall Mall Budget and later included in the 1895 anthology The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents, Æpyornis Island draws influence from Daniel Defoe by way of Jules Verne in a mostly comic tale.
The story is a reminiscence of a fossil collector named Butcher, who is familiar to the nameless narrator by having sued his former employer for four years wages. It seems he was trapped on a deserted island during those four years while carrying out an expedition on behalf of his employer. Due to the hardships and peculiar incidents of his abandonment, he naturally felt he was owed his wages. After all, he never would have been in so unique a situation if not for his employer. If only the employer realized what treasure Butcher had in his possession, the four years of accrued wages would have been a small price to pay.
That treasure, unique in all the world, were the earthly remains of the world's last Æpyornis, the Elephant Bird of Madagascar, recently deceased.
Æpyornis, also known as the Elephant Bird, was something of a sensation around the time of Wells' writing. In 1893-94, six new species of Æpyornis were scientifically identified, primarily by the team of Alphonse Milne-Edwards of the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris and the explorer Alfred Grandidier. The latter literally made the island of Madagascar his life's work. He first visited it in 1865 and spent the remainder of his research there, until returning to France in 1870 to write the 40 volume L'Histoire physique, naturelle et politique de Madagascar. It was Grandidier's work that drew French attention to Madagascar, whereupon they colonized it in 1890. Milne-Edwards assisted in many of these volumes, which in turn fuelled his own interest in extinct flightless birds. An excellent display of these birds can still be found at the Galerie de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée in the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in the Jardin des Plantes (which elicited the cry from me of "Giant eggs! Giant birds!" in the order in which I saw them from across the room, much to my wife's good humour).
|Giant eggs and giant birds at the Galerie de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée|
Unfortunately, the work of Milne-Edwards and Grandidier did much to confuse the lineage of Æpyornis. Palaeontology is fraught with the problem of "lumping" vs. "splitting." Lumpers prefer to assign any individuals even remotely similar into the same species. Splitters opt instead to make every slight variation between fossils the cause for naming a new species. Milne-Edwards and Grandidier were clearly splitters. 13 species of Æpyornis have been identified, the majority by Milne-Edwards and Grandidier. Only four of those species are actually recognized by scientific consensus today, and even then, they are in dispute. Some suggest that there is but one species, Æpyornis maximus.
Æpyornis was a ratite, in the same family as ostriches, emus, cassowaries, and the rhea. Genetic analysis of Æpyornis remains have connected them most closely to the kiwi, supporting the strangest fact of ratite evolution. The various ratites evolved after the tectonic break-up of the Southern Hemisphere, meaning that the same family of birds evolved the same flightless body pattern independently of each other. Their ancestors flew to Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South America, and Madagascar, and once arrived, evolved identically. Æpyornis was the tallest of the ratites at approximately 10 feet tall, and among birds only outclassed by the extinct ratite-like moa of New Zealand, which could reach up to 12 feet. As astonishing as the bird itself is the egg. Elephant bird eggs were not only the largest bird eggs, but the largest of any egg. At a foot long and with a volume equivalent to 160 chicken eggs - about 7-9 litres - Æpyornis eggs may top out how big an egg can be. Any larger and the egg shell would be too thick to be permeable to air.
It is estimated that Æpyornis went extinct some 1000 years ago. Evidence is scant on exactly why, other than fragments of Æpyornis found in human fire pits. The timing also coincides with the arrival of ethnic Bantu peoples from East Africa arriving on the island. While these migrants may have been, rightly, hesitant to take on a querulous, 10 foot tall ratite, their eggs may have been fair game. Enough predation on their eggs would have, inevitably, driven the species into extinction. Sadly, human activities are continuing to drive Madagascar's endemic fauna towards extinction. As one of the poorest countries in the world, the needs of people and the needs of the environment regularly conflict, with the environment losing. Approximately 90% of species found in Madagascar are only found there, including all 103 species of lemurs.
For H.G. Wells' castaway, his problem is one individual of one species in particular. And it is a rather sizable problem.
The man with the scarred face leant over the table and looked at my bundle.
'Orchids?' he asked.
'A few,' I said.
'Cypripediums,' he said.
'Chiefly,' said I.
'Anything new? I thought not. I did these islands twenty-five--twenty-seven years ago. If you find anything new here--well, it's brand new. I didn't leave much.'
'I'm not a collector,' said I.
'I was young then,' he went on. 'Lord! how I used to fly round.' He seemed to take my measure. 'I was in the East Indies two years and in Brazil seven. Then I went to Madagascar.'
'I know a few explorers by name,' I said, anticipating a yarn. 'Whom did you collect for?'
'Dawsons. I wonder if you've heard the name of Butcher ever?'
'Butcher--Butcher?' The name seemed vaguely present in my memory; then I recalled Butcher v. Dawson. 'Why!' said I, 'you are the man who sued them for four years' salary--got cast away on a desert island...'
'Your servant,' said the man with the scar, bowing. 'Funny case, wasn't it? Here was me, making a little fortune on that island, doing nothing for it neither, and them quite unable to give me notice. It often used to amuse me thinking over it while I was there. I did calculations of it--big--all over the blessed atoll in ornamental figuring.'
'How did it happen?' said I. 'I don't rightly remember the case.'
'Well...you've heard of the Aepyornis?'
'Rather. Andrews was telling me of a new species he was working on only a month or so ago. Just before I sailed. They've got a thigh-bone, it seems, nearly a yard long. Monster the thing must have been!'
'I believe you,' said the man with the scar. 'It was a monster. Sindbad's roc was just a legend of 'em. But when did they find these bones?'
'Three or four years ago--'91, I fancy. Why?'
'Why? because I found them--Lord!--it's nearly twenty years ago. If Dawsons' hadn't been silly about that salary they might have made a perfect ring in 'em.... I couldn't help the infernal boat going adrift.'
He paused. 'I suppose it's the same place. A kind of swamp about ninety miles north of Antananarivo. Do you happen to know? You have to go to it along the coast by boats. You don't happen to remember, perhaps?'
'I don't. I fancy Andrews said something about a swamp.'
'It must be the same. It's on the east coast. And somehow there's something in the water that keeps things from decaying. Like creosote it smells. It reminded me of Trinidad. Did they get any more eggs? Some of the eggs I found were a foot and a half long. The swamp goes circling round, you know, and cuts off this bit. It's mostly salt, too. Well.... What a time I had of it! I found the things quite by accident. We went for eggs, me and two native chaps, in one of those rum canoes all tied together, and found the bones at the same time. We had a tent and provisions for four days, and we pitched on one of the firmer places. To think of it brings that old tarry smell back even now. It's funny work. You go probing into the mud with iron rods, you know. Usually the egg gets smashed. I wonder how long it is since these Aepyornises really lived. The missionaries say the natives have legends about when they were alive, but I never heard any such stories myself. But certainly those eggs we got were as fresh as if they had been new laid. Fresh! Carrying them down to the boat one of my n----- chaps dropped one on a rock and it smashed. How I lammed into the beggar! But sweet it was, as if it was new laid, not even smelly, and its mother dead these four hundred years, perhaps. Said a centipede had bit him. However, I'm getting off the straight with the story. It had taken us all day to dig into the slush and gets these eggs out unbroken, and we were all covered with beastly black mud, and naturally I was cross. As far as I knew they were the only eggs that have ever been got out not even cracked. I went afterwards to see the ones at the Natural History Museum in London; all of them were cracked and just stuck together like a mosaic, and bits missing. Mine were perfect, and I meant to blow them when I got back. Naturally I was annoyed at the silly duffer dropping three hours' work just on account of a centipede. I hit him about rather.'
The man with the scar took out a clay pipe. I placed my pouch before him. He filled up absent-mindedly.
'How about the others? Did you get those home? I don't remember---'
'That's the queer part of the story. I had three others. Perfectly fresh eggs. Well, we put 'em in the boat, and then I went up to the tent to make some coffee, leaving my two heathens down on the beach--the one fooling about with his sting and the other helping him. It never occurred to me that the beggar would take advantage of the peculiar position I was in to pick a quarrel. But I suppose the centipede poison and the kicking I had given him had upset the one--he was always a cantankerous sort--and he persuaded the other.
'I remember I was sitting and smoking and boiling up the water over a spirit-lamp business I used to take on these expeditions. Incidentally I was admiring the swamp under the sunset. All black and blood-red it was, in streaks--a beautiful sight. And up beyond the land rose grey and hazy to the hills, and the sky behind them was red, like a furnace mouth. And fifty yards behind the back of me was these blessed heathen--quite regardless of the tranquil air of things--plotting to cut off with the boat and leave me all alone with three days' provisions and a canvas tent, and nothing to drink whatsoever beyond a little keg of water. I heard a kind of yelp behind me, and there they were in this canoe affair--it wasn't properly a boat--and, perhaps, twenty yards from land. I realized what was up in a moment. My gun was in the tent, and, besides, I had no bullets--only duck shot. They knew that. But I had a little revolver in my pocket, and I pulled that out as I ran down to the beach.
' "Come back!" says I, flourishing it.
'They jabbered something at me, and the man that broke the egg jeered. I aimed at the other--because he was unwounded and had the paddle, and I missed. They laughed. However, I wasn't beat. I knew I had to keep cool, and I tried him again and made him jump with the whang of it. He didn't laugh that time. The third time I got his head, and over he went, and the paddle with him. It was a precious lucky shot for a revolver. I reckon it was fifty yards. He went right under. I don't know if he was shot, or simply stunned and drowned. The I began to shout to the other chap to come back, but he huddled up in the canoe and refused to answer. So I fired out my revolver at him and never got near him.
'I felt a precious fool, I can tell you. There I was on this rotten black beach, flat swamp all behind me, and the flat sea, cold after the sun set, and just this black canoe drifting steadily out to sea. I tell you I damned Dawsons' and Jamrach's and Museums and all the rest of it just to rights. I bawled to this n----- to come back, until my voice went up into a scream.
'There was nothing for it but to swim after him and take my luck with the sharks. So I opened my clasp-knife and put it in my mouth, and took off my clothes and waded in. As soon as I was in the water I lost sight of the canoe, but I aimed, as I judged, to head it off. I hoped the man in it was too bad to navigate it, and that it would keep on drifting in the same direction. Presently it came up over the horizon again to the south-westward about. The afterglow of sunset was well over now and the dim of night creeping up. The stars were coming through the blue. I swum like a champion, though my legs and arms were soon aching.
'However, I came up to him by the time the stars were fairly out. As it got darker I began to see all manner of glowing things in the water--phosphorescence, you know. At times it made me giddy. I hardly knew which was stars and which was phosphorescence, and whether I was swimming on my head or my heels. The canoe was as black as sin, and the ripple under the bows like liquid fire. I was naturally chary of clambering up into it. I was anxious to see what he was up to first. He seemed to be lying cuddled up in a lump in the bows, and the stern was all out of water. The thing kept turning round slowly as it drifted--kind of waltzing, don't you know. I went to the stern and pulled it down, expecting him to wake up. Then I began to clamber in with my knife in my hand, and ready for a rush. But he never stirred. So there I sat in the stern of the little canoe, drifting away over the calm phosphorescent sea and with all the host of the stars above me, waiting for something to happen.
'After a long time I called him by name, but he never answered. I was too tired to take any risks by going along to him. So we sat there. I fancy I dozed once or twice. When the dawn came I saw he was as dead as a door-nail and all puffed up and purple. My three eggs and the bones were lying in the middle of the canoe, and the keg of water and some coffee and biscuits wrapped in a Cape Argus by his feet, and a tin of methylated spirit underneath him. There was no paddle, nor, in fact, anything except the spirit tin that I could use as one, so I settled to drift until I was picked up. I held an inquest on him, brought in a verdict against some snake, scorpion, or centipede unknown, and sent him overboard.
'After that I had a drink of water and a few biscuits, and took a look round. I suppose a man low down as I was don't see very far; leastways, Madagascar was clean out of sight, and any trace of land at all. I saw a sail going south-westward--looked like a schooner but her hull never came up. Presently the sun got high in the sky and began to beat down upon me. Lord! it pretty near made my brains boil. I tried dipping my head in the sea, but after a while my eye fell on the Cape Argus, and I lay down flat in the canoe and spread this over me. Wonderful things these newspapers! I never read one thoroughly before, but it's odd what you get up to when you're alone, as I was. I suppose I read that blessed old Cape Argus twenty times. The pitch in the canoe simply reeked with the heat and rose up into big blisters
'I drifted ten days,' said the man with the scar. 'It's a little thing in the telling, isn't it? Every day was like the last. Except in the morning and the evening, I never kept a lookout even--the blaze was so infernal. I didn't see a sail after the first three days, and those I saw took no notice of me. About the sixth night a ship went by scarcely half a mile away from me, with all its lights ablaze and its ports open, looking like a big firefly. There was music aboard. I stood up and shouted and screamed at it. The second day I broached one of the Aepyornis eggs, scraped the shell away at the end bit by bit, and tried it, and I was glad to find it was good enough to eat. A bit flavoury--not bad, I mean--but with something of the taste of a duck's egg. There was a kind of circular patch, about six inches across, on one side of the yolk, and with streaks of blood and a white mark like a ladder in it that I thought queer, but I did not understand what this meant at the time, and I wasn't inclined to be particular. The egg lasted me three days, with biscuits and a drink of water. I chewed coffee-berries too--invigorating stuff. The second egg I opened about the eighth day, and it scared me.'
The man with the scar paused. 'Yes,' he said, 'developing.'
'I dare say you find it hard to believe. I did, with the thing before me. There the egg had been, sunk in that cold black mud, perhaps three hundred years. But there was no mistaking it. There was the--what is it?--embryo, with its big head and curved back, and its heart beating under its throat, and the yolk shrivelled up and great membranes spreading inside of the shell and all over the yolk. Here was I hatching out the eggs of the biggest of all extinct birds, in a little canoe in the midst of the Indian Ocean. If old Dawson had known that! It was worth four years' salary. What do you think?
'However, I had to eat that precious thing up, every bit of it, before I sighted the reef, and some of the mouthfuls were beastly unpleasant. I left the third one alone. I held it up to the light, but the shell was too thick for me to get any notion of what might be happening inside; and though I fancied I heard blood pulsing, it might have been the rustle in my own ears, like what you listen to in a seashell.
'Then came the atoll. Came out of the sunrise, as it were, suddenly, close up to me. I drifted straight towards it until I was about half a mile from shore, not more, and then the current took a turn, and I had to paddle as hard as I could with my hands and bits of the Aepyornis shell to make the place. However, I got there. It was just a common atoll about four miles round, with a few trees growing and a spring in one place, and the lagoon full of parrot-fish. I took the egg ashore and put it in a good place, well above the tide lines and in the sun, to give it all the chance I could, and pulled the canoe up safe, and loafed about prospecting. It's rum how dull an atoll is. As soon as I had found a spring all the interest seemed to vanish. When I was a kid I thought nothing could be finer or more adventurous than the Robinson Crusoe business, but that place was as monotonous as a book of sermons. I went round finding eatable things and generally thinking; but I tell you I was bored to death before the first day was out. It shows my luck--the very day I landed the weather changed. A thunderstorm went by to the north and flicked its wing over the island, and in the night there came a drencher and a howling wind slap over us. It wouldn't have taken much, you know, to upset that canoe.
'I was sleeping under the canoe, and the egg was luckily among the sand higher up the beach, and the first thing I remember was a sound like a hundred pebbles hitting the boat at once, and a rush of water over my body. I'd been dreaming of Antananarivo, and I sat up and halloed to Intoshi to ask her what the devil was up, and clawed out at the chair where the matches used to be. Then I remembered where I was. There were phosphorescent waves rolling up as if they meant to eat me, and all the rest of the night as black as pitch. The air was simply yelling. The clouds seemed down on your head almost, and the rain fell as if heaven was sinking and they were bailing out the waters above the firmament. One great roller came writhing at me, like a fiery serpent, and I bolted. Then I thought of the canoe, and ran down to it as the water went hissing back again; but the thing had gone. I wondered about the egg, then, and felt my way to it. It was all right and well out of reach of the maddest waves, so I sat down beside it and cuddled it for company. Lord! what a night that was!
'The storm was over before the morning. There wasn't a rag of cloud left in the sky when the dawn came, and all along the beach there were bits of plank scattered--which was the disarticulated skeleton, so to speak, of my canoe. However, that gave me something to do, for taking advantage of two of the trees being together, I rigged up a kind of storm-shelter with these vestiges. And that day the egg hatched.
'Hatched, sir, when my head was pillowed on it and I was asleep. I heard a whack and felt a jar and sat up, and there was the end of the egg pecked out and a rum little brown head looking out at me. "Lord!" I said, "you're welcome'; and with a little difficulty he came out.
'He was a nice friendly little chap at first, about the size of a small hen--very much like most other young birds, only bigger. His plumage was a dirty brown to begin with, with a sort of grey scab that fell off it very soon, and scarcely feathers--a kind of downy hair. I can hardly express how pleased I was to see him. I tell you, Robinson Crusoe don't make near enough of his loneliness. But here was interesting company. He looked at me and winked his eye from the front backward, like a hen, and gave a chirp and began to peck about at once, as though being hatched three hundred years too late was just nothing. "Glad to see you, Man Friday!" says I, for I had naturally settled he was to be called Man Friday if he ever was hatched, as soon as ever I found the egg in the canoe had developed. I was a bit anxious about his feed, so I gave him a lump of raw parrot-fish at once. He took it, and opened his beak for more. I was glad of that, for, under the circumstances, if he'd been at all fanciful, I should have had to eat him after all.
'And he grew. You could almost see him grow. And as I was never much of a society man, his quiet, friendly ways suited me to a T. For nearly two years we were as happy as we could be on that island. I had no business worries, for I knew my salary was mounting up at Dawsons'. We would see a sail now and then, but nothing ever came near us. I amused myself, too, by decorating the island with designs worked in sea-urchins and fancy shells of various kinds. I put AEPYORNIS ISLAND all around the place very nearly, in big letters, like what you see done with coloured stones at railway stations in the old country, and mathematical calculations and drawings of various sorts. And I used to lie watching the blessed bird stalking round and growing, growing; and think how I could make a living out of him by showing him about if I ever got taken off. After his first moult he began to get handsome, with a crest and a blue wattle, and a lot of green feathers at the behind of him. And then I used to puzzle whether Dawsons' had any right to claim him or not. Stormy weather and in the rainy season we lay snug under the shelter I had made out of the old canoe, and I used to tell him lies about my friends at home. And after a storm we would go round the island together to see if there was any drift. It was a kind of idyll, you might say. If only I had had some tobacco it would have been simply just like heaven.
'It was about the end of the second year our little paradise went wrong. Friday was then about fourteen feet high to the bill of him, with a big, broad head like the end of a pickaxe, and two huge brown eyes with yellow rims, set together like a man's--not out of sight of each other like a hen's. His plumage was fine--none of the half-mourning style of your ostrich--more like a cassowary as far as colour and texture go. And then it was he began to cock his comb at me and give himself airs, and show signs of a nasty temper...
'At last came a time when my fishing had been rather unlucky, and he began to hang about me in a queer, meditative way. I thought he might have been eating sea-cucumbers or something, but it was really just discontent on his part. I was hungry, too, and when at last I landed a fish I wanted it for myself. Tempers were short that morning on both sides. He pecked at it and grabbed it, and I gave him a whack on the head to make him leave go. And at that he went for me. Lord!...
'He gave me this in the face.' The man indicated his scar. 'Then he kicked me. It was like a cart-horse. I got up, and, seeing he hadn't finished, I started off full tilt with my arms doubled up over my face. But he ran on those gawky legs of his faster than a racehorse, and kept landing out at me with sledgehammer kicks and bringing his pickaxe down on the back of my head. I made for the lagoon, and went in up to my neck. He stopped at the water, for he hated getting his feet wet, and began to make a shindy, something like a peacock's, only hoarser. He started strutting up and down the beach. I'll admit I felt small to see this blessed fossil lording it there. And my head and face were all bleeding, and--well, my body just one jelly of bruises. '
'I decided to swim across the lagoon and leave him alone for a bit, until the affair blew over. I shinned up the tallest palm-tree, and sat there thinking of it all. I don't suppose I ever felt so hurt by anything before or since. It was the brutal ingratitude of the creature. I'd been more than a brother to him. A great gawky, out-of-date bird! And me a human being--heir of the ages and all that.
'I thought after a time he'd begin to see things in that light himself, and feel a little sorry for his behaviour. I thought if I was to catch some nice little bits of fish, perhaps, and go to him presently in a casual kind of way, and offer them to him, he might do the sensible thing. It took me some time to learn how unforgiving and cantankerous an extinct bird can be. Malice!
'I won't tell you all the little devices I tried to get that bird round again. I simply can't. It makes my cheek burn with shame even now to think of the snubs and buffets I had from this infernal curiosity. I tried violence. I chucked lumps of coral at him from a safe distance, but he only swallowed them. I shied my open knife at him and almost lost it, though it was too big for him to swallow. I tried starving him out and struck fishing, but he took to picking along the beach at low water after worms, and rubbed along on that. Half my time I spent up to my neck in the lagoon, and the rest up the palm-trees. One of them was scarcely high enough, and when he caught me up it he had a regular Bank Holiday with the calves of my legs. It got unbearable. I don't know if you have ever tried sleeping up a palm-tree. It gave me the most horrible nightmares. Think of the shame of it, too! Here was this extinct animal mooning about my island like a sulky duke, and me not allowed to rest the sole of my foot on the place. I used to cry with weariness and vexation. I told him straight that I didn't mean to be chased about a desert island by any damned anachronisms. I told him to go and peck a navigator of his own age. But he only snapped his beak at me. Great ugly bird, all legs and neck!
'I shouldn't like to say how long that went on altogether. I'd have killed him sooner if I'd known how. However, I hit on a way of settling him at last. It is a South American dodge. I joined all my fishing-lines together with stems of seaweed and things, and made a stoutish string, perhaps twelve yards in length or more, and I fastened two lumps of coral rock to the ends of this. It took me some time to do, because every now and then I had to go into the lagoon or up a tree as the fancy took me. This I whirled rapidly round my head, and then let it go at him. The first time I missed, but the next time the string caught his legs beautifully, and wrapped round them again and again. Over he went. I threw it standing waist-deep in the lagoon, and as soon as he went down I was out of the water and sawing at his neck with my knife...
'I don't like to think of that even now. I felt like a murderer while I did it, though my anger was hot against him. When I stood over him and saw him bleeding on the white sand, and his beautiful great legs and neck writhing in his last agony...Pah!
'With that tragedy loneliness came upon me like a curse. Good Lord! you can't imagine how I missed that bird. I sat by his corpse and sorrowed over him, and shivered as I looked round the desolate, silent reef. I thought of what a jolly little bird he had been when he was hatched, and of a thousand pleasant tricks he had played before he went wrong. I thought if I'd only wounded him I might have nursed him round into a better understanding. If I'd had any means of digging into the coral rock I'd have buried him. I felt exactly as if he was human. As it was, I couldn't think of eating him, so I put him in the lagoon, and the little fishes picked him clean. I didn't even save the feathers. Then one day a chap cruising about in a yacht had a fancy to see if my atoll still existed.
'He didn't come a moment too soon, for I was about sick enough of the desolation of it, and only hesitating whether I should walk out into the sea and finish up the business that way, or fall back on the green things...
'I sold the bones to a man named Winslow--a dealer near the British Museum, and he says he sold them to old Havers. It seems Havers didn't understand they were extra large, and it was only after his death they attracted attention. They called 'em Aepyornis--what was it?'
' Aepyornis vastus ,' said I. 'It's funny the very thing was mentioned to me by a friend of mine. When they found an Aepyornis with a thigh a yard long, they thought they had reached the top of the scale, and called him Aepyornis maximus. Then someone turned up another thigh-bone four feet six or more, and that they called Aepyornis titan. Then your vastus was found after old Havers died, in his collection, and then a vastissimus turned up.'
'Winslow was telling me as much,' said the man with the scar. 'If they get any more Aepyornises, he reckons some scientific swell will go and burst a blood-vessel. But it was a queer thing to happen to a man; wasn't it--altogether?'