Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 13

The Lines Lead up

In the late hours of the next afternoon Rollo, with a sigh, uncoiled himself from the shadow of the altar to the god Melkarth, in the Ilex Temple, and stiffly rose. Vicissitudes were not for Rollo, who had not fathomed the joys of adaptability; and the savour of the sweet herbs which, from Jarvo’s wallet, he had that day served, was forgotten in his longing for a drop of tarragan vinegar and a bulb of garlic with which to dress the herbs. His lean and shadowed face wore an expression of settled melancholy.

“Sorrow’s nothing,” he sententiously observed. “It’s trouble that does for a man, sir.”

St. George, who lay at full length on a mossy sill of the king’s chapel counting the hours of his inaction, continued to look out over the glistening tops of the ilex trees.

“Speaking of trouble,” he said, “what would you say, Rollo, to getting back to the yacht to-night, instead of going up the mountain with us?”

Rollo dropped his eyes, but his face brightened under, as it were, his never-lifted mask.

“Oh, sir,” he said humbly, “a person is always willing to do whatever makes him the most useful.”

“Little Cawthorne and Bennietod,” went on St. George, “ten to one will take to the trail to-night, if they haven’t already. They’ll be coming to Med and reorganizing the police force, or raising a standing army or starting a subway. You’d do well to drop down and give them some idea of what’s happened, and I fancy you’d better all be somewhere about on the day after tomorrow, at noon. Not that there will be any wedding at that time,” explained St. George carefully, “although there may be something to see, all the same. But you might tell them, you know, that Miss Holland is due to marry the prince then. Can you get back to the yacht alone?”

Rollo hadn’t thought of that, and his mask fell once more into its lines of misery.

“I don’t know, sir,” he said doubtfully, “most men can go up a steep place all right. It’s comin’ down that’s hard on the knees. And if I was to try it alone, sir —”

Jarvo made a sign of reassurance.

“That is not well,” he said, “you would be dashed to pieces. Ulfin, one of the six, will wait for us to-night on the edge of the grove. He can conduct the way to the vessel.”

“Ah, sir,” said Rollo, not without a certain self-satisfaction, “something is always sure to turn up, sir.”

From a tour of the temple Amory came listlessly back to the king’s chapel. There, where the descendants of Abibaal had worshiped until their idols had been refined by Time to a kind of decoration, the Americans and Jarvo had spent the night. They had slept stretched on benches of beveled stone. They had waked to trace the figures in a length of tapestry representing the capture of Io on the coast of Argolis, doubtless woven by an eye-witness. They had bathed in a brook near the entrance where stood the altar for the sacrifice round which the priests and hierodouloi had been wont to dance, and where huge architraves, metopes and tryglyphs, massive as those at Gebeil and Tortosa and hewn from living rock, rose from the fragile green of the wood like a huge arm signaling its eternal “Alas!” They had partaken of Jarvo’s fruit and sweet herbs, and Rollo had served them, standing with his back to the niche where once had looked augustly down the image of the god. And now Amory, with a smile, leaned against a wall where old vines, grown miraculously in crannies, spread their tendrils upon the friendly hieroglyphic scoring of the crenelated stone, and summed up his reflections of the night.

“I’ve got it,” he announced, “I think it was up in the Adirondacks, summer before last. I think I was in a canoe when she went by in a launch, with the Chiswicks. Why, do you know, I think I dreamed about Miss Frothingham for weeks.”

St. George smiled suddenly and radiantly, and his smile was for the sake of both Rollo and Amory — Rollo whose sense of the commonplace nothing could overpower, Amory who talked about the Chiswicks in the Adirondacks. Why not? St. George thought happily. Here in the temple certain precious and delicate idols were believed to be hidden in alcoves walled up by mighty stone; and here, Jarvo was telling them, were secret exits to the road contrived by the priests of the temple at the time of their oppression by the worshipers of another god; but yet what special interest could he and Amory have in brooding upon these, or the ancient Phoenicians having “invited to traffic by a signal fire,” when they could sit still and remember?

“To-night,” he said aloud, feeling a sudden fellowship for both Amory and Rollo, “to-night, when the moon rises, we shall watch it from the top of the mountain.”

Then he wondered, many hundred times, whether Olivia could possibly have recognized him.

When the dark had fallen they set out. The ilex grove was very still save for a fugitive wind that carried faint spices, and they took a winding way among trunks and reached the edge of the wood without adventure. There Ulfin and another of the six carriers were waiting, as Jarvo had expected, and it was decided that they should both accompany Rollo down to the yacht.

Rollo handed the oil-skins to St. George and Amory, and then stood crushing his hat in his hands, doing his best to speak.

“Look sharp, Rollo,” St. George advised him, “don’t step one foot off a precipice. And tell the people on the yacht not to worry. We shall expect to see them day after tomorrow, somewhere about. Take care of yourself.”

“Oh, sir,” said Rollo with difficulty, “good-by, sir. I ‘ope you’ll be successful, sir. A person likes to succeed in what they undertake.”

Then the three went on down the glimmering way where, last night, they had pursued the floating pennon of the veil. There were few upon the highway, and these hardly regarded them. It occurred to St. George that they passed as figures in a dream will pass, in the casual fashion of all unreality, taking all things for granted. Yet, of course, to the passers-by upon the road to Med, there was nothing remarkable in the aspect of the three companions. All that was remarkable was the adventure upon which they were bound, and nobody could possibly have guessed that.

Almost a mile lay between them and the point where the ascent of the mountain was to be begun. The road which they were taking followed at the foot of the embankment which girt the island, and it led them at last to a stretch of arbourescent heath, piled with black basaltic rocks. Here, where the light was dim like the glow from light reflected upon low clouds, they took their way among great branching cacti and nameless plants that caught at their ankles. A strange odour rose from the earth, mineral, metallic, and the air was thick with particles stirred by their feet and more resembling ashes than dust. This was a waste place of the island, and if one were to lift a handful of the soil, St. George thought, it was very likely that one might detect its elements; as, here the dust of a temple, here of a book, here a tomb and here a sacrifice. He felt himself near the earth, in its making. He looked away to the sugar-loaf cone of the mountain risen against the star-lit sky. Above its fortress-like bulk with circular ramparts burned the clear beacon of the light on the king’s palace. As he saw the light, St. George knew himself not only near the earth but at one with the very currents of the air, partaker of now a hope, now a task, now a spell, and now a memory. It was as if love had made him one with the dust of dead cities and with their eternal spiritual effluence.

At length they crossed the broad avenue that led from the Eurychôrus to Melita, and struck into the road that skirted the mountain; and where a thicket of trees flung bold branches across the way, three figures rose from the ground before them, and Akko stepped forward and saluted, his white teeth gleaming. Immediately Jarvo led the way through a strip of underbrush at the base of the mountain, and they emerged in a glade where the light hardly penetrated.

Here were distinguishable the palanquins in which the ascent was to be made. These were like long baskets, upborne by a pole of great flexibility broadening to a wider support beneath the body of the basket and provided with rubber straps through which the arms were passed. When St. George and Amory were seated, Jarvo spoke hesitatingly:

“We must bandage your eyes, adôn,” he said.

“Oh really, really,” protested St. George, “we don’t understand half we do see. Do let us see what we can.”

“You must be blindfolded, adôn,” repeated Jarvo firmly.

Amory, passing his arms reflectively through the rubber straps which Akko held for him, spoke cheerfully:

“I’ll go up blindfold,” he submitted, “if I can smoke.”

“Neither of us will,” said St. George with determination. “See here, Jarvo, we are both level-headed. We pledge you our word of honour, in addition, not to dive overboard. Now — lead on.”

“It has never been done,” said the little brown man with obstinacy, “you will lose your reason, adôn.”

“Ah well now, if we do,” said St. George, “pitch us over and leave us. Besides, I think we have. Lead on, please.”

Against the will of the others, he prevailed. The light oil-skins were placed in the baskets, each of which was shouldered by two men, Jarvo bearing the foremost pole of St. George’s palanquin. All the carriers had drawn on long, soft shoes which, perhaps from some preparation in which they had been dipped, glowed with light, illuminating the ground for a little distance at every step.

“Are you ready, adôn?” asked Jarvo and Akko at the same moment.

“Ready!” cried St. George impatiently.

“Ready,” said Amory languidly, and added one thought more: “I hope for Chillingworth’s sake,” he said, “that Frothingham is a notary public. We’ll have to have somebody’s seal at the bottom of all this copy.”

The baskets were lightly lifted. Jarvo gave a sharp command, and all four of the men broke into a rhythmic chant. Jarvo, leading the way, sprang immediately upon the first foothold, where none seemed to be, and without pause to the next. So perfectly were the men trained that it was as if but one set of muscles were inspiring the movements made to the beat of that monotonous measure. In their strong hands the flexible pole seemed to give as their bodies gave, and so lightly did they leap upward that the jar of their alighting was hardly perceptible, as if, as had occurred to St. George as they ascended the lip of the island, gravity were here another matter. So, without pause, save in the rhythm of that strange march music, the remarkable progress was begun.

St. George threw one swift glance upward and looked down, shudderingly. Beetling above them in the great starlight hung the gigantic pile, wall upon wall of rock hewn with such secret foothold that it was a miracle how any living thing could catch and cling to its forbidding surface. Only lifelong practice of the men, who from childhood had been required to make the ascent and whose fathers and fathers’ fathers before them had done the same, could have accounted for that catlike ability to cling to the trail where was no trail. The sensation of the long swinging upward movement was unutterably alien to anything in life or in dreams, and the sheer height above and the momently-deepening chasm below were presences contending for possession.

Strange fragrance stole from gum and bark of the decreasing vegetation. Dislodged stones rolled bounding from rock to rock into the abyss. To right and left the way went. There was not even the friendly beacon of the summit to beckon them. It seemed to St. George that their whole safety lay in motion, that a moment’s cessation from the advance would hurl them all down the sides of the declivity. Since the ascent began he had not ceased to look down; and now as they rose free of the tree-tops that clothed the base of the mountain he could see across the plain, and beyond the bounding embankment of the island to the dark waste of the sea. Somewhere out there The Aloha was rocking. Somewhere, away to the northwest, the lights of New York harbour shone. Did they, St. George wondered vaguely; and, when he went back, how would they look to him? It seemed to him in some indeterminate fashion that when he saw them again there would be new lines and sides of beauty which he had never suspected, and as if all the world would be changed, included in this new world that he had found.

Half-way up the ascent a resting-place was contrived for the carriers. The projection upon which the baskets were lowered was hardly three feet in width. Its edge dropped into darkness. Within reach, leaves rustled from the summit of a tree rooted somewhere in the chasm. The blackness below was vast and to be measured only by the memory of that upward course. Gemmed by its lighted hamlets the fair plain of the island lay, with Med and Melita glowing like lamps to the huge dusk.

“St. George,” said Amory soberly, “if it’s all true — if these people do understand what the world doesn’t know anything about —”

“Yes,” said St. George.

“It makes a man feel —”

“Yes,” said St. George, “it does.”

This, they afterward remembered, was all that they said on the ascent. One wonders if two, being met among the “strengthless tribes of the dead,” would find much more to say.

Then they went on, scaling that invisible way, with the twinkling feet of the carriers drawing upward like a thread of thin gold which they were to climb. What, St. George thought as the way seemed to lengthen before them, what if there were no end? What if this were some gigantic trick of Destiny to keep him for the rest of his life in mid-air, ceaselessly toiling up, a latter-day Sisyphus, in a palanquin? He had dreamed of stairs in the darkness which men mounted and found to have no summits, and suppose this were such a stair? Suppose, among these marvels that were related to his dreams, he had, as it were, tossed a ball of twine in the air and, like the Indian jugglers, climbed it? Suppose he had built a castle in the clouds and tenanted it with Olivia, and were now foolhardily attempting to scale the air? Ah well, he settled it contentedly, better so. For this divine jugglery comes once into every life, and one must climb to the castle with madness and singing if he would attain to the temples that lie on the castle-plain.

Gradually, as they approached the summit, the ascent became less precipitous. As they neared the cone their way lay over a kind of natural fosse at the cone’s base; and, although the mountain did not reach the level of perpetual snow, yet an occasional cool breath from the dark told where in some natural cavern snow had lain undisturbed since the unremembered eruption of the sullen, volcanic peak. Then came a breath of over-powering sweetness from some secret thicket, and something was struck from the feet of the bearers that was like white pumice gravel. St. George no longer looked downward; the plain and the waste of the sea were in a forgotten limbo, and he searched eagerly on high for the first rays of the light that marked the goal of his longing.

Yet he was unprepared when, swerving sharply and skirting an immense shoulder of rock, Jarvo suddenly emerged upon a broad retaining wall of stone bordering a smooth, moon-lit terrace extending by shallow flights of steps to the white doors of the king’s palace itself.

As St. George and Amory freed themselves and sprang to their feet their eyes were drawn to a glory of light shining over the low parapet which surrounded the terrace.

“Look,” cried St. George victoriously, “the moon!”

From the sea the moon was momently growing, like a giant bubble, and a bright path had issued to the mountain’s foot. “See,” she would doubtless have said if she could, “I would have shown you the way here all your life if only you had looked properly.” But at all events St. George’s prophecy was fulfilled: From the top of Mount Khalak they were watching the moon rise. St. George, however, was not yet in the company whose image had pleasantly besieged him when he had prophesied. He turned impatiently to the palace. Jarvo, resting on the stones where he had sunk down, signaled them to go on, and the two needed no second bidding. They set off briskly across the plateau, Amory looking about him with eager curiosity, St. George on the crest of his divine expectancy.

The palace was set on the west of the gentle slope to which the mountain-top had been artificially leveled. The terrace led up on three sides from the marge of the height to the great portals. Over everything hung that imponderable essence that was clearer and purer than any light —“better than any light that ever shone.” In its glamourie, with that far ocean background, the palace of pale stone looked unearthly, a sky thing, with ramparts of air. The principle of the builders seemed not to have been the ancient dictum that “mass alone is admirable,” for the great pile was shaped, with beauty of unknown line, in three enormous cylinders, one rising from another, the last magnificently curved to a huge dome on whose summit burned with inconceivable brilliance the light which had been a beacon to the longing eyes turned toward it from the deck of The Aloha. In the shadow of the palace rose two high towers, obelisk-shaped from the pure white stone. Scattered about the slope were detached buildings, consisting of marble monoliths resting upon double bases and crowned with carved cornices, or of truncated pyramids and pyramidions. These had plinths of delicately-coloured stone over which the light diffused so that they looked luminous, and the small blocks used to fill the apertures of the courses shone like precious things. Adjacent to one of the porches were two conical shrines, for images and little lamps; and, near-by, a fallen pillar of immense proportions lay undisturbed upon the court of sward across which it had some time shivered down.

But if the palace had been discovered to be the preserved and transported Temple of Solomon it could not have stayed St. George for one moment of admiration. He was off up the slope, seeing only the great closed portals, and with Amory beside him he ran boldly up the long steps. It was a part of the unreality of the place that there seemed absolutely no sign of life about the King’s palace. The windows glowed with the soft light within, but there were no guards, no servants, no sign of any presence. For the first time, when they reached the top of the steps, the two men hesitated.

“Personally,” said Amory doubtfully, “I have never yet tapped at a king’s front door. What does one do?”

St. George looked at the long stone porches, uncovered and girt by a parapet following the curve of the façade.

“Would you mind waiting a minute?” he said.

With that he was off along the balcony to the south — and afterward he wondered why, and if it is true that Fate tempts us in the way that she would have us walk by luring us with unseen roses budding from the air.

Where the porch abruptly widened to a kind of upper terrace, like a hanging garden set with flowering trees, three high archways opened to an apartment whose bright lights streamed across the grass-plots. St. George felt something tug at his heart, something that urged him forward and caught him up in an ecstasy of triumph and hope fulfilled. He looked back at Amory, and Amory was leaning on the parapet, apparently sunk in reflections which concerned nobody. So St. George stepped softly on until he reached the first archway, and there he stopped, and the moment was to him almost past belief. Within the open doorway, so near that if she had lifted her eyes they must have met his own, was the woman whom he had come across the sea to seek.

St. George hardly knew that he spoke, for it was as if all the world were singing her name.

“Olivia!” he said.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 22:43