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Born eighteen months after the first Neanderthal skeleton was found and a year before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, Eugene Dubois vowed to discover a powerful truth in Darwin's deceptively simple ideas. There is a link, he declared, a link as yet unknown, between apes and Man.
It takes a brilliant writer to elucidate a brilliant mind, and Pat Shipman shines as never before. The Man Who Found the Missing Link is an irresistible tale of adventure, scientific daring, and a strange and enduring love--and it is true.
Shipman, a paleontologist herself, is among the best writers who manage to describe science to popular audiences without sacrificing the complexities of the issues that energize and sometimes divide scientists.
— John Noble Wilford
The letter comes by the last post on a weakly sunny afternoon in February of 1937. Looking out the window, Dubois searches for the slightest hint of green that he knows will come first to the willow trees at De Bedelaar. It is still very brisk out, not yet warm. The promise of renewal seems cruel when any real hope of it is still far away.
He is slow to realize what has come, it is so unexpected. His mind is not so quick as it once was, now that he is in his eightieth year, although he has not become so vague as his wife, Anna. The servant girl brings the letters in as usual; he sits down at the desk, puts on his glasses, and takes up his letter opener. He carefully inserts the blade into the corner of the flap and slits each envelope neatly. It is his habit to read his letters in order, placing them in a tidy pile before pausing to compose his answers. While he skims the letters, Anna prattles on, unaware that anything of significance is happening. Most of the post is ordinary -- bills, a few letters of inquiry from colleagues or students. When he picks up the last letter, unsuspecting, he is momentarily confused by the two handwritings on the envelope. The hand that wrote his name is crabbed and somehow familiar, but he cannot place it immediately; the other, which wrote the address, is completely unknown to him. When he opens that envelope and sees the tissue-thin paper inside, something stirs in his memory. As soon as he reads the salutation, he knows, as if he has been expecting this letter for years.
He decides that he cannot read it in front of Anna and rings for the servant. "Take your mistress to sit in the back garden for a while," he says to her. He waits until they have left and the room is quiet to unfold the translucent, crinkling pages. He doesn't need to turn over the last page to look for the signature. There is only one person from whom it can have come, only one person in Kediri, in faraway Java, who would be writing him.
"My dear doctor," the letter begins. He always addressed Dubois so, even when they saw each other daily. How long has it been since Dubois heard from him? It must have been forty years. Forty years since his friend called him "My dear doctor." From anyone else, these words might be only a courtesy, an acknowledgment of his professorial status and medical degree. From Prentice they were a term of endearment, an evocation of the intimacy and friendship they shared so long ago.
Kediri February 7, 1936
An echo of the Past! "Dost thou recall?"
My dear doctor,
You will hardly expect a letter from me! It is long, so very long since last we saw each other.
The philosopher, Renan, in addressing the shade of his departed sister who while in life had accompanied him in his sojourn in the Holy Land, said: --
"Dost thou recall from the bosom of God where thou reposest" --
and I might say now: --
Dost thou recall from the quietness of your peaceful study in the homeland -- the days now long, long flown which we passed together in the peaceful atmosphere of dear old Mr. Boyd's Koffeeland Mringin, -- the good old man's dwelling Ngrodjo, Willisea the block house he put up for you at Jonojang, my own quiet abode at remote Tempoersarie?
Do you remember the many pleasant meetings we had at Ngrodjo when the old gentleman & I listened with so much interest to your enlightening & informative conversation? Indeed we learned much from you, and our minds ever reverted with satisfaction to the many agreeable meetings we three had together. Do you recall our excursion to Trinil the scene of your labors (where the famous Pithecanthropus erectus was found), when contrary to your wont you regaled us at dinner in the evening with a bottle of wine saying it "aided digestion." Do you remember our bathing next day in the river, our pleasant walk in the afternoon to the station along the country road where a snake swallowed a frog and you at once ran to the rescue forcing the snake to disgorge the frog which, still quite alive, first looked to the right & to the left, and then lightheartedly plunged into the stream by the roadside? Do you remember the beautiful flowers at the station which we looked at while waiting for the train? One had a delicate light blue tint and you said that was well nigh your favorite color!
Do you remember the long walks you & I had through the widespread coffee gardens at Mringin?...
Do you remember the two corporals of the engineers who looked after your team of convicts, at the excavation work? Their mode of life ever amused you -- living like kings at the beginning of each month when money was plentiful, and ever on very short rations towards the end of the month when the money was all spent! Through your favorable report they got promoted in time to the rank of Sergeant. Then you photographed them & noticed how they were maneuvering to bring full into the picture their arm shewing the new sergeant's stripes!...And Mr. Mulder, P. T. Sanvraar, & Mr. Turner, controller, at Toeloeng Agoeng. Do you remember our age -- you, Mr. Mulder & I -- was 34 years. Ah, yes, the golden days of youth! Perhaps we had our troubles, too, but we had youth, health, home, and length of days before us! Dost thou recall?
As oft as I look back, the recollection of that happy time is a green spot in my memory, and will endure as long as life lasts!
Good old Mr. Boyd died in 1902 at Kediri under ffan Buren's care from cancer of the throat, aged 74, & was buried at Toeloeng Agoeng. We were all present, and the Asst. Resident, Regent & etc & etc attended also. It may be the kind old man smoked too heavily?
While he still lived we often spoke of you after your departure from Java, very, very, often, & always with esteem & affection. Yes, we both loved you, and never could forget you! Like a sun that had come into our orbit you brought us light and happiness -- it was just a chance in life never likely to recur, for when does it happen that a man of learning ever comes to live on a coffee estate for any length of time?
Later on coffee prices fell by 50% and all profit was gone. After Mr. Boyd's death Mringin was sold. Eventually it was given back to government & is now Bosch Reserve, no Ngrodjo, Willisea, Tempoersarie are all forest now, with not a soul living there any more, and only you & I remain today to muse over the past! Who would have foretold that, 40 years ago, when you & I were young!
My own coffee place near Mringin (Djaean was the name) suffered from the crisis in coffee & after 5 years I left it to be manager of the tapioca fabriek -- the plantation called Brangganan at Ngadiloewek, 8 miles from Kediri on the high road to Kras, which an intimate friend of mine had taken over. Djaean we kept on, & sold later to rubber tree people in Lombok, who still work the estate. So it is not closed like good old Mringin. There I remained about 20 years. Much money was made & eventually my friend sold it for a fancy price & my work there ended. I was then 60 years of age. Since that time I have been interested in other things. I made enough money, but owing to the terrible slump of the past 6 years (malaise) nearly everybody in Java is about bankrupt! Like the majority I have lost cruelly. At least O of what I had are gone. Today I have to live frugally to manage. I am still dependent on coffee for part of my income & coffee alas is down to f8-9.70 per picol -- (formerly f55 to f60), simply ruinous; but there it is, & nothing can be done for no one is to blame -- it is just a long spell of bad times with all values desperately low -- no profit possible, and --
"What can't be cured
Must be endured!"
One has just to make the best of things. The depression has been world-wide, & all have suffered. In Java those who had anything, have lost 1/2, or 3/4, or all...Last year (1935) only ±16% of the sugar mills of Java worked. The rest were closed & the staff discharged. A terrible loss to the Treasury, & to the country...
However nothing can be done save to live on quietly in hope, or wait on better days coming soon. So I shall leave this gloomy theme & not depress you with a tale of woe!
I saw in the papers that you retired when 70 years old in 1928. Of course Mr. Boyd & I fully expected you to become Professor; it could not have been otherwise for your whole mind was ever bent on the acquisition of knowledge. I hope your life at home has been agreeable & satisfactory -- that you have but few regrets & have experienced no heavy losses of whatever sort.
I must now say goodbye. I trust you are in good health. With all good wishes to you & yours,
Believe me as always,
P.S. My own health is fairly good. I never had any very serious sickness to speak about -- a little dysentery once or twice, years ago; and I have still pleasure in existence. But we are getting up in years & haven't the vigor of former days. I will be 78 years old in a few months. You will be about the same, and I fear not many of our friends remain today!
N.B. This letter will be forwarded to you by Mr. C. ffan den Koppel, a state oYcial of Batavia now traveling to Holland via Australia & America. He will find out your address at present in Holland.
Again goodbye -- "Fare thee well"!
Dubois folds the letter back up and places it in his lap for a moment. When was the last time someone told him that they loved him? When was the last time that he brought light and happiness into someone's life? He is close to weeping as the memories flood his mind.
To know that Prentice remembers, too -- that the past echoes for him, too -- is sweet, but the pleasure is tinged with sad mockery. He and Prentice are no longer the handsome young men they once were, when they were together in Java. Thirty-four years old! What an age: so young, so hopeful, so naïve. Now Dubois feels old and fat and cold and tired.
Apparently Prentice never made enough money to return to Europe, as he once wished. But maybe he got used to the way of living there in Java, with the warmth and the sunshine and the servants. He had a beautiful nyai, a sweet and quiet native mistress, who looked after him in those years after his wife died. Is she still there, aged but graceful, looking after him even now? Those who come back can't live like that, with servants and large houses with fine gardens. The trouble is that Java could never have been Dubois' home. Even if he had adapted enough to be considered Indische, he would always have been an outsider, born in Europe. As for himself, Dubois couldn't have stayed; his work was here. He is glad to be here at his beautiful De Bedelaar, his own Dutch corner of nature, near Haelen.
Dubois catalogues his possessions in his mind, systematically. He has his house and his garden, his lake, his woods, his birds, his library, his specimens. He does not have youth or hope, or even much ambition, anymore. He does not have Prentice, or anyone who loves him. Prentice was a true companion. They were young together, and so sure, so certain -- and now, no one else remembers but Prentice.
He hears the outer door open and close and knows that Anna has come back into the house. He isn't ready to see her, or anyone else. It is impossible, with so much in his heart and on his face, too, no doubt. How can he explain why the letter has affected him so? He could not let her read it; it would be a desecration. He takes off his glasses and carefully places them in his top pocket; the letter, too, goes there for safekeeping. Then he rises, goes into the hallway, and puts on his felt hat and a loose coat, not bothering to button it properly. He leaves by the front door, walking out slowly toward the bench by the lake. He often sits there in the afternoons; it is a good time to watch the birds and note which ones have returned from their winter farther south. No one will think it strange of him to sit alone there, thinking, for some hours. He lives a solitary life anyway, even though Anna still visits occasionally.
The earth along the path through the beechwood is springy and soft, from centuries of accumulation of fallen leaves and moss. The ground is no longer hard and bare; with his scientist's eye, he notices the few brave plants that are poking their green noses up through the leaf litter. But there are not many yet; it is too early, too cold still for them, he thinks. Nature always has time; she does not hurry. The woods know that life returns, that nothing is ever gone forever. It is a luxury of the young and of plants, to be so certain.
He reaches the bench and uses his sleeve to wipe off a faint skim of frost, leaving a shadow of moisture and dirt on the wool. He sits heavily and removes the letter from his pocket. He unfolds it carefully, but he doesn't read it again right away. He simply holds the pages in his large, soft, liver-spotted hand. His hands were once so skilled; they dissected the finest anatomical structures, drew close likenesses, and even sculpted a figure once or twice; these hands painstakingly removed rock matrix from priceless fossil specimens. Once he was envied for his fine manual skills as well as for his brains; too many scholars, even physicians, were ham-handed and clumsy, needing others to carry out the detailed work. Not him, not then. And now his hands lie gnarled and crooked-fingered in his lap, holding a letter from his past.
To have Prentice suddenly reappear like that, sounding as full of joy and life as always, understanding Dubois' mind better than he ever did himself...it is almost too much to bear. Dubois cannot think clearly. Indeed, he can hardly breathe for the shock of it. It is like having an attack of asthma; his chest is tight. He takes off his hat, crumpling the letter a little in the process. With the other hand, he rubs his bald head, disarranging the fringe of snow-white hair over his ears. It is a gesture he makes often when he is thinking now; it gives him an oddly wild look, like a merganser chick: untamed, startled, perhaps about to try to take flight. After a moment, he puts his hat back on his head for warmth, but carelessly, not setting it straight. He is an old man. He is not concerned with his appearance.
He feels the texture of the letter in his hand and sits very still, looking at the lake, watching for coots and ducks. He is remembering those years in Java, and that companionship. There was never another time like it.
He has achieved everything he set out to, even though all about him scoffed. It was in Java that he became the man who found the missing link: him, Marie Eugène François Thomas Dubois. In Java, he met his true destiny and began his true life. The missing link has been the most important thing in his life, as he knew it would be. It was...everything.
But now he realizes what he left behind in Java, something he did not know was of such value. For there has never been another friend like Prentice, never another companion of his heart and mind like him. It was a little improbable, that friendship between the Dutch scientist and the Scottish planter. Their backgrounds were different, their training had little overlap, but they both shared a few important things: burning curiosity, physical vigor, and an urgent need to show what they could do when they were freed from the petty restrictions of small-minded European society.
He turns the facts over and over in his mind, musing. How rarely such a friendship comes into a man's life; he didn't know then that it was his only chance. Then, he only thought of finding the missing link and achieving something important in science. He knew Prentice's companionship was a great comfort, for the Scotsman understood the significance of what Dubois was doing. They had in common that need to do something grand. How could a man bear to live without trying to make his mark in the world? In the end, Dubois accomplished something important, very important. He should have valued Prentice more highly, though; he was too preoccupied with fossils. He didn't know how cold and lonely the years after the discovery would be. The years of his greatest professional accomplishments, the years in which his name and discoveries have become famous around the world, have left him living here, in solitude. He has only the trees and the birds and the lake for company.
He stares at the thin light playing on the water. Sometimes a ripple catches the sunshine, reflecting it brightly enough to make his pale blue eyes water in sympathy.
The light was different in Java: hotter, more merciless, sometimes incapacitating. Sometimes there was so much light that he couldn't bear to be outside, and then he would seek the shade, any meager, pale scrap of shade.
In the forests, the light was dappled, filtered through a thousand tones of green and yellow, and the air was tangible with humidity. It was like a wall that pushed against him at every step. Sometimes it was so quiet that the song of an unseen bird would split the air, like a gunshot, making him jump. And there were those interminable insects, which creaked and popped and whirred like a madman's confounded invention, deep in the forest where no inventors ever strayed, where no books were ever read. There was just forest and green and leaves and more green. Those locusts would carry on and on and on with their rasping noise until that became embedded in his brain, echoing in the rhythm of his breathing. And then they'd stop, leaving a silence so profound that it could wake him out of a sound sleep. Or it might be a pair of long-armed gibbons sitting on a branch bellowing their gurgling, echoing call through the forest, the call that he thought must be heard all the way to Sumatra.
Forest! What a word for it. It was no forest like this beechwood at De Bedelaar. It was another thing entirely, a jungle, a creature in and of itself. In some places, he walked in a cathedral of trees, forest giants that soared above his head blocking out most of the light. In other places, he could not walk because there was so much vegetation. He'd fight his way up the hillsides, sweating and straining up the steep slopes, leading his weary horse, urging the men on, slashing at the alang-alang grass that shredded their clothes and skin. Tiny pieces of alang-alang work their way into the skin, leaving itching, red rashes that take days to heal.
Every night, the routine was the same; Dubois saw to that. Stop, make camp, talk to each man -- not just the engineers -- to find out if any of them had seen anything useful. Then clean the new wounds and blisters and lesions, bandage the worst of them, hope no infections would grow tomorrow. Salve the rashes and insect bites, clean and treat yesterday's sores that were still swollen and red, dose those men with fever. While he attended to the health of the coolies, he'd have one of the engineers assess the supplies while the other sent sound men to get water and firewood. The cook, the kokkie, would be setting up the kitchen and he'd remind her, every night, to boil the drinking water thoroughly before using it. Then Dubois would have a long drink of water, or juice if there was any, and a bath. While he waited for dinner, he'd make notes and consult the map and plan the next day's survey.
Nothing was easy, even with the engineers and all the coolies to do the carrying and the heavy labor. Sometimes he thought they only made more people to look after, until he remembered what it was like to work on his own, packing and unpacking his horse, making the fire, buying the food and cooking it too. Still, he had to do so much himself, all the medical work, all the thinking, all the decisions. No one else knew anything about fossils, and even the engineers didn't know much useful geology. But they went on, they always went on -- looking for caves, looking for fossils, looking for fame and glory, not knowing what he had already found.
He sits on the bench remembering until the sun starts to go down and it grows cold. It is time to go back to the large white house and return to the present. He reads the letter one more time and returns it to his top pocket next to his glasses. As he rises and turns to go, the breeze plays across his face and he realizes that his face is wet. Tears have plunged down the deep crevasses beside his nose and mouth, leaving damp streaks in their wake. He can't go into the house like that; he can't let anyone see. He rummages impatiently in his pockets for a handkerchief, turning out rocks and feathers, a few small bones, a dried bit of fern...He finds only one crumpled, soiled square of linen. Why doesn't he have a fresh one? Why...Oh, it doesn't matter, not really. He wipes his face as well as he can. He last used the handkerchief a few days ago, to wrap up some tiny seedlings he was transplanting, and he isn't certain that the effect will be all that could be desired. It will have to do. Anna will not notice a few fragments of dried leaf or soil caught in the white stubble on his chin.
She never really looks at him these days, anyway. Most of what she sees is long ago and far away. For tonight, perhaps, maybe the two of them will be the same. All that matters to him, too, is long ago and far away now.
And he smiles a little and stumps back toward the house, a solitary, solid man, a little less alone in the last light of the evening than he was the day before.
Copyright © 2001 by Pat Shipman