Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 2

A Scrap of Paper

To be awakened by Rollo, to be served in bed with an appetizing breakfast and to catch a hansom to the nearest elevated station were novel preparations for work in the Sentinel office. The impossibility of it all delighted St. George rather more than the reality, for there is no pastime, as all the world knows, quite like that of practising the impossible. The days when, “like a man unfree,” he had fared forth from his unlovely lodgings clandestinely to partake of an evil omelette, seemed enchantingly far away. It was, St. George reflected, the experience of having been released from prison, minus the disgrace.

Yet when he opened the door of the city room the odour of the printers’ ink somehow fused his elation in his liberty with the elation of the return. This was like wearing fetters for bracelets. When he had been obliged to breathe this air he had scoffed at its fascination, but now he understood. “A newspaper office,” so a revered American of letters who had begun his life there had once imparted to St. George, “is a place where a man with the temperament of a savant and a recluse may bring his American vice of commercialism and worship of the uncommon, and let them have it out. Newspapers have no other use — except the one I began on.” When St. George entered the city room, Crass, of the goblin’s blood cravats, had vacated his old place, and Provin was just uncovering his typewriter and banging the tin cover upon everything within reach, and Bennietod was writhing over a rewrite, and Chillingworth was discharging an office boy in a fashion that warmed St. George’s heart.

But Chillingworth, the city editor, was an italicized form of Chillingworth, the guest. He waved both arms at the foreman who ventured to tell him of a head that had one letter too many, and he frowned a greeting at St. George.

“Get right out on the Boris story,” he said. “I depend on you. The chief is interested in this too — telephoned to know whom I had on it.”

St. George knew perfectly that “the chief” was playing golf at Lenox and no doubt had read no more than the head-lines of the Holland story, for he was a close friend of the bishop’s, and St. George knew his ways; but Chillingworth’s methods always told, and St. George turned away with all the old glow of his first assignment.

St. George, calling up the Bitley Reformatory, knew that the Chances and the Fates were all allied against his seeing the mulatto woman; but he had learned that it is the one unexpected Fate and the one apostate Chance who open great good luck of any sort. So, though the journey to Westchester County was almost certain to result in refusal, he meant to be confronted by that certainty before he assumed it. To the warden on the wire St. George put his inquiry.

“What are your visitors’ days up there, Mr. Jeffrey?”

“Thursdays,” came the reply, and the warden’s voice suggested handcuffs by way of hospitality.

“This is St. George of the Sentinel. I want very much to see one of your people — a mulatto woman. Can you fix it for me?”

“Certainly not,” returned the warden promptly. “The Sentinel knows perfectly that newspaper men can not be admitted here.”

“Ah, well now, of course,” St. George conceded, “but if you have a mysterious boarder who talks Patagonian or something, and we think that perhaps we can talk with her, why then —”

“It doesn’t matter whether you can talk every language in South America,” said the warden bruskly. “I’m very busy now, and —”

“See here, Mr. Jeffrey,” said St. George, “is no one allowed there but relatives of the guests?”

“Nobody,”— crisply.

“I beg your pardon, that is literal?”

“Relatives, with a permit,” divulged the warden, who, if he had had a sceptre would have used it at table, he was so fond of his little power, “and the Readers’ Guild.”

“Ah — the Readers’ Guild,” said St. George. “What days, Mr. Jeffrey?”

“To-day and Saturdays, ten o’clock. I’m sorry, Mr. St. George, but I’m a very busy man and now —”

“Good-by,” St. George cried triumphantly.

In half an hour he was at the Grand Central station, boarding a train for the Reformatory town. It was a little after ten o’clock when he rang the bell at the house presided over by Chillingworth’s “rabble of wild eagles.”

The Reformatory, a boastful, brick building set in grounds that seemed freshly starched and ironed, had a discoloured door that would have frowned and threatened of its own accord, even without the printed warnings pasted to its panels stating that no application for admission, with or without permits, would be honoured upon any day save Thursday. This was Tuesday.

Presently, the chains having fallen within after a feudal rattling, an old man who looked born to the business of snapping up a drawbridge in lieu of a taste for any other exclusiveness peered at St. George through absurd smoked glasses, cracked quite across so that his eyes resembled buckles.

“Good morning,” said St. George; “has the Readers’ Guild arrived yet?”

The old man grated out an assent and swung open the door, which creaked in the pitch of his voice. The bare hall was cut by a wall of steel bars whose gate was padlocked, and outside this wall the door to the warden’s office stood open. St. George saw that a meeting was in progress there, and the sight disturbed him. Then the click of a key caught his attention, and he turned to find the old man quietly and surprisingly swinging open the door of steel bars.

“This way, sir,” he said hoarsely, fixing St. George with his buckle eyes, and shambled through the door after him locking it behind them.

If St. George had found awaiting him a gold throne encircled by kneeling elephants he could have been no more amazed. Not a word had been said about the purpose of his visit, and not a word to the warden; there was simply this miraculous opening of the barred door. St. George breathlessly footed across the rotunda and down the dim opposite hall. There was a mistake, that was evident; but for the moment St. George was going to propose no reform. Their steps echoed in the empty corridor that extended the entire length of the great building in an odour of unspeakable soap and superior disinfectants; and it was not until they reached a stair at the far end that the old man halted.

“Top o’ the steps,” he hoarsely volunteered, blinking his little buckle eyes, “first door to the left. My back’s bad. I won’t go up.”

St. George, inhumanely blessing the circumstance, slipped something in the old man’s hand and sprang up the stairs.

The first door at the left stood ajar. St. George looked in and saw a circle of bonnets and white curls clouded around the edge of the room, like witnesses. The Readers’ Guild was about leaving; almost in the same instant, with that soft lift and touch which makes a woman’s gown seem sewed with vowels and sibilants, they all arose and came tapping across the bare floor. At their head marched a woman with such a bright bonnet, and such a tinkle of ornaments on her gown that at first sight she quite looked like a lamp. It was she whom St. George approached.

“I beg your pardon, madame,” he said, “is this the Readers’ Guild?”

There was nothing in St. George’s grave face and deferential stooping of shoulders to betray how his heart was beating or what a bound it gave at her amazing reply.

“Ah,” she said, “how do you do?”— and her manner had that violent absent-mindedness which almost always proves that its possessor has trained a large family of children —“I am so glad that you can be with us today. I am Mrs. Manners — forgive me,” she besought with perfectly self-possessed distractedness, “I’m afraid that I’ve forgotten your name.”

“My name is St. George,” he answered as well as he could for virtual speechlessness.

The other members of the Guild were issuing from the room, and Mrs. Manners turned. She had a fashion of smiling enchantingly, as if to compensate her total lack of attention.

“Ladies,” she said, “this is Mr. St. George, at last.”

Then she went through their names to him, and St. George bowed and caught at the flying end of the name of the woman nearest him, and muttered to them all. The one nearest was a Miss Bella Bliss Utter, a little brown nut of a woman with bead eyes.

“Ah, Mr. St. George,” said Miss Utter rapidly, “it has been a wonderful meeting. I wish you might have been with us. Fortunately for us you are just in time for our third floor council.”

It had been said of St. George that when he was writing on space and was in need, buildings fell down before him to give him two columns on the first page; but any architectural manoeuvre could not have amazed him as did this. And too, though there had been occasions when silence or an evasion would have meant bread to him, the temptation to both was never so strong as at that moment. It cost St. George an effort, which he was afterward glad to remember having made, to turn to Mrs. Manners, who had that air of appointing committees and announcing the programme by which we always recognize a leader, and try to explain.

“I am afraid,” St. George said as they reached the stairs, “that you have mistaken me, Mrs. Manners. I am not —”

“Pray, pray do not mention it,” cried Mrs. Manners, shaking her little lamp-shade of a hat at him, “we make every allowance, and I am sure that none will be necessary.”

“But I am with the Evening Sentinel,” St. George persisted, “I am afraid that —”

“As if one’s profession made any difference!” cried Mrs. Manners warmly. “No, indeed, I perfectly understand. We all understand,” she assured him, going over some papers in one hand and preparing to mount the stairs. “Indeed, we appreciate it,” she murmured, “do we not, Miss Utter?”

The little brown nut seemed to crack in a capacious smile.

“Indeed, indeed!” she said fervently, accenting her emphasis by briefly-closed eyes.

“Hymn books. Now, have we hymn books enough?” plaintively broke in Mrs. Manners. “I declare, those new hymn books don’t seem to have the spirit of the old ones, no matter what any one says,” she informed St. George earnestly as they reached an open door. In the next moment he stood aside and the Readers’ Guild filed past him. He followed them. This was pleasantly like magic.

They entered a large chamber carpeted and walled in the garish flowers which many boards of directors suppose will joy the cheerless breast. There were present a dozen women inmates — sullen, weary-looking beings who seemed to have made abject resignation their latest vice. They turned their lustreless eyes upon the visitors, and a portly woman in a red waist with a little American flag in a buttonhole issued to them a nasal command to rise. They got to their feet with a starched noise, like dead leaves blowing, and St. George eagerly scanned their faces. There were women of several nationalities, though they all looked raceless in the ugly uniforms which those same boards of directors consider de rigueur for the soul that is to be won back to the normal. A little negress, with a spirit that soared free of boards of directors, had tried to tie her closely-clipped wool with bits of coloured string; an Italian woman had a geranium over her ear; and at the end of the last row of chairs, towering above the others, was a creature of a kind of challenging, unforgetable beauty whom, with a thrill of certainty, St. George realized to be her whom he had come to see. So strong was his conviction that, as he afterward recalled, he even asked no question concerning her. She looked as manifestly not one of the canaille of incorrigibles as, in her place, Lucrezia Borgia would have looked.

The woman was powerfully built with astonishing breadth of shoulder and length of limb, but perfectly proportioned. She was young, hardly more than twenty, St. George fancied, and of the peculiar litheness which needs no motion to be manifest. Her clear skin was of wonderful brown; and her eyes, large and dark, with something of the oriental watchfulness, were like opaque gems and not more penetrable. Her look was immovably fixed upon St. George as if she divined that in some way his coming affected her.

“We will have our hymn first.” Mrs. Manners’ words were buzzing and pecking in the air. “What can I have done with that list of numbers? We have to select our pieces most carefully,” she confided to St. George, “so to be sure that Soul’s Prison or Hands Red as Crimson, or, Do You See the Hebrew Captive Kneeling? or anything personal like that doesn’t occur. Now what can I have done with that list?”

Her words reached St. George but vaguely. He was in a fever of anticipation and enthusiasm. He turned quickly to Mrs. Manners.

“During the hymn,” he said simply, “I would like to speak with one of the women. Have I your permission?”

Mrs. Manners looked momentarily perplexed; but her eyes at that instant chancing upon her lost list of hymns, she let fall an abstracted assent and hurried to the waiting organist. Immediately St. George stepped quietly down among the women already fluttering the leaves of their hymn books, and sat beside the mulatto woman.

Her eyes met his in eager questioning, but she had that temper of unsurprise of many of the eastern peoples and of some animals. Yet she was under some strong excitement, for her hands, large but faultlessly modeled, were pressed tensely together. And St. George saw that she was by no means a mulatto, or of any race that he was able to name. Her features were classic and of exceeding fineness, and her face was sensitive and highly-bred and filled with repose, like the surprising repose of breathing arrested in marble. There was that about her, however, which would have made one, constituted to perceive only the arbitrary balance of things, feel almost afraid; while one of high organization would inevitably have been smitten by some sense of the incalculably higher organization of her nature, a nature which breathed forth an influence, laid a spell — did something indefinable. Sometimes one stands too closely to a statue and is frightened by the nearness, as by the nearness of one of an alien region. St. George felt this directly he spoke to her. He shook off the impression and set himself practically to the matter in hand. He had never had greater need of his faculty for directness. His low tone was quite matter-of-fact, his manner deferentially reassuring.

“I think,” he said softly and without preface, “that I can help you. Will you let me help you? Will you tell me quickly your name?”

The woman’s beautiful eyes were filled with distress, but she shook her head.

“Your name — name — name?” St. George repeated earnestly, but she had only the same answer. “Can you not tell me where you live?” St. George persisted, and she made no other sign.

“New York?” went on St. George patiently. “New York? Do you live in New York?”

There was a sudden gleam in the woman’s eyes. She extended her hands quickly in unmistakable appeal. Then swiftly she caught up a hymn book, tore at its fly-leaf, and made the movement of writing. In an instant St. George had thrust a pencil in her hand and she was tracing something.

He waited feverishly. The organ had droned through the hymn and the women broke into song, with loose lips and without restraint, as street boys sing. He saw them casting curious, sullen glances, and the Readers’ Guild whispering among themselves. Miss Bella Bliss Utter, looking as distressed as a nut can look, nodded, and Mrs. Manners shook her head and they meant the same thing. Then St. George saw the attendant in the red waist descend from the platform and make her way toward him, the little American flag rising and falling on her breast. He unhesitatingly stepped in the aisle to meet her, determined to prevent, if possible, her suspicion of the message. “Is it the barbarism of a gentleman,” Amory had once propounded, “or is it the gentleman-like manners of a barbarian which makes both enjoy over-stepping a prohibition?”

“I compliment you,” St. George said gravely, with his deferential stooping of the shoulders. “The women are perfectly trained. This, of course, is due to you.”

The hard face of the woman softened, but St. George thought that one might call her very facial expression nasal; she smiled with evident pleasure, though her purpose remained unshaken.

“They do pretty good,” she admitted, “but visitors ain’t best for ’em. I’ll have to request you”— St. George vaguely wished that she would say “ask”—“not to talk to any of ’em.”

St. George bowed.

“It is a great privilege,” he said warmly if a bit incoherently, and held her in talk about an institution of the sort in Canada where the women inmates wore white, the managers claiming that the effect upon their conduct was perceptible, that they were far more self-respecting, and so on in a labyrinth of defensive detail. “What do you think of the idea?” he concluded anxiously, manfully holding his ground in the aisle.

“I think it’s mostly nonsense,” returned the woman tartly, “a big expense and a sight of work for nothing. And now permit me to say —”

St. George vaguely wished that she would say “let.”

“I agree with you,” he said earnestly, “nothing could be simpler and neater than these calico gowns.”

The attendant looked curiously at him.

“They are gingham,” she rejoined, “and you’ll excuse me, I hope, but visitors ain’t supposed to converse with the inmates.”

St. George was vanquished by “converse.”

“I beg your pardon,” he said, “pray forgive me. I will say good-by to my friend.”

He turned swiftly and extended his hand to the strange woman behind him. With the cunning upon which he had counted she gave her own hand, slipping in his the folded paper. Her eyes, with their haunting watchfulness, held his for a moment as she mutely bent forward when he left her.

The hymn was done and the women were seating themselves, as St. George with beating heart took his way up the aisle. What the paper contained he could not even conjecture; but there was a paper and it did contain something which he had a pleasant premonition would be invaluable to him. Yet he was still utterly at loss to account for his own presence there, and this he coolly meant to do.

He was spared the necessity. On the platform Mrs. Manners had risen to make an announcement; and St. George fancied that she must preside at her tea-urn and try on her bonnets with just that same formal little “announcement” air.

“My friends,” she said, “I have now an unexpected pleasure for you and for us all. We have with us today Mr. St. George, of New York. Mr. St. George is going to sing for us.”

St. George stood still for a moment, looking into the expectant faces of Mrs. Manners and the other women of the Readers’ Guild, a spark of understanding kindling the mirth in his eyes. This then accounted both for his admittance to the home and for his welcome by the women upon their errand of mercy. He had simply been very naturally mistaken for a stranger from New York who had not arrived. But since he had accomplished something, though he did not know what, inasmuch as the slip of paper lay crushed in his hand unread, he must, he decided, pay for it. Without ado he stepped to the platform.

“I have explained to Mrs. Manners and to these ladies,” he said gravely, “that I am not the gentleman who was to sing for you. However, since he is detained, I will do what I can.”

This, mistaken for a merely perfunctory speech of self-depreciation, was received in polite, contradicting silence by the Guild. St. George, who had a rich, true barytone, quickly ran over his little list of possible songs, none of which he had ever sung to an audience that a canoe would not hold, or to other accompaniment than that of a mandolin. Partly in memory of those old canoe-evenings St. George broke into a low, crooning plantation melody. The song, like much of the Southern music, had in it a semi-barbaric chord that the college men had loved, something — or so one might have said who took the canoe-music seriously — of the wildness and fierceness of old tribal loves and plaints and unremembered wooings with a desert background: a gallop of hoof-beats, a quiver of noon light above saffron sand — these had been, more or less, in the music when St. George had been wont to lie in a boat and pick at the strings while Amory paddled; and these he must have reëchoed before the crowd of curious and sullen and commonplace, lighted by that one wild, strange face. When he had finished the dark woman sat with bowed head, and St. George himself was more moved by his own effort than was strictly professional.

“Dear Mr. St. George,” said Mrs. Manners, going distractedly through her hand-bag for something unknown, “our secretary will thank you formally. It was she who sent you our request, was it not? She will so regret being absent today.”

“She did not send me a request, Mrs. Manners,” persisted St. George pleasantly, “but I’ve been uncommonly glad to do what I could. I am here simply on a mission for the Evening Sentinel.”

Mrs. Manners drew something indefinite from her bag and put it back again, and looked vaguely at St. George.

“Your voice reminds me so much of my brother, younger,” she observed, her eyes already straying to the literature for distribution.

With soft exclamatory twitters the Readers’ Guild thanked St. George, and Miss Bella Bliss Utter, who was of womankind who clasp their hands when they praise, stood thus beside him until he took his leave. The woman in the red waist summoned an attendant to show him back down the long corridor.

At the grated door within the entrance St. George found the warden in stormy conference with a pale blond youth in spectacles.

“Impossible,” the warden was saying bluntly, “I know you. I know your voice. You called me up this morning from the New York Sentinel office, and I told you then —”

“But, my dear sir,” expostulated the pale blond youth, waving a music roll, “I do assure you —”

“What he says is quite true, Warden,” St. George interposed courteously, “I will vouch for him. I have just been singing for the Readers’ Guild myself.”

The warden dropped back with a grudging apology and brows of tardy suspicion, and the old man blinked his buckle eyes.

“Gentlemen,” said St. George, “good morning.”

Outside the door, with its panels decorated in positive prohibitions, he eagerly unfolded the precious paper. It bore a single name and address: Tabnit, 19 McDougle Street, New York.

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