Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 3

St. George and the Lady

St. George lunched leisurely at his hotel. Upon his return from Westchester he had gone directly to McDougle Street to be assured that there was a house numbered 19. Without difficulty he had found the place; it was in the row of old iron-balconied apartment houses a few blocks south of Washington Square, and No. 19 differed in no way from its neighbours even to the noisy children, without toys, tumbling about the sunken steps and dark basement door. St. George contented himself with walking past the house, for the mere assurance that the place existed dictated his next step.

This was to write a note to Mrs. Medora Hastings, Miss Holland’s aunt. The note set forth that for reasons which he would, if he might, explain later, he was interested in the woman who had recently made an attempt upon her niece’s life; that he had seen the woman and had obtained an address which he was confident would lead to further information about her. This address, he added, he preferred not to disclose to the police, but to Mrs. Hastings or Miss Holland herself, and he begged leave to call upon them if possible that day. He despatched the note by Rollo, whom he instructed to deliver it, not at the desk, but at the door of Mrs. Hastings’ apartment, and to wait for an answer. He watched with pleasure Rollo’s soft departure, recalling the days when he had sent a messenger boy to some inaccessible threshold, himself stamping up and down in the cold a block or so away to await the boy’s return.

Rollo was back almost immediately. Mrs. Hastings and Miss Holland were not at home. St. George eyed his servant severely.

“Rollo,” he said, “did you go to the door of their apartment?”

“No, sir,” said Rollo stiffly, “the elevator boy told me they was out, sir.”

“Showing,” thought St. George, “that a valet and a gentleman is a very poor newspaper man.”

“Now go back,” he said pleasantly, “go up in the elevator to their door. If they are not in, wait in the lower hallway until they return. Do you get that? Until they return.”

“You’ll want me back by tea-time, sir?” ventured Rollo.

“Wait,” St. George repeated, “until they return. At three. Or six. Or nine o’clock. Or midnight.”

“Very good, sir,” said Rollo impassively, “it ain’t always wise, sir, for a man to trust to his own judgment, sir, asking your pardon. His judgment,” he added, “may be a bit of the ape left in him, sir.”

St. George smiled at this evolutionary pearl and settled himself comfortably by the open fire to await Rollo’s return. It was after three o’clock when he reappeared. He brought a note and St. George feverishly tore it open.

“Whom did you see? Were they civil to you?” he demanded.

“I saw a old lady, sir,” said Rollo irreverently. “She didn’t say a word to me, sir, but what she didn’t say was civiler than many people’s language. There’s a great deal in manner, sir,” declaimed Rollo, brushing his hat with his sleeve, and his sleeve with his handkerchief, and shaking the handkerchief meditatively over the coals.

St. George read the note at a glance and with unspeakable relief. They would see him. A refusal would have delayed and annoyed him just then, in the flood-tide of his hope.

“My Dear Mr. St. George,” the note ran. “My niece is not at home, and I can not tell how your suggestion will be received by her, though it is most kind. I may, however, answer for myself that I shall be glad to see you at four o’clock this afternoon.

“Very truly yours,

“MEDORA HASTINGS.”

Grateful for her evident intention to waste no time, St. George dressed and drove to the Boris, punctually sending up his card at four o’clock. At once he was ushered to Mrs. Hastings’ apartment.

St. George entered her drawing-room incuriously. Three years of entering drawing-rooms which he never thereafter was to see had robbed him of that sensation of indefinable charm which for many a strange room never ceases to yield. He had found far too many tables upholding nothing which one could remember, far too many pictures that returned his look, and rugs that seemed to have been selected arbitrarily and because there was none in stock that the owner really liked. He was therefore pleasantly surprised and puzzled by the room which welcomed him. The floor was tiled in curious blocks, strangely hieroglyphed, as if they had been taken from old tombs. Over the fireplace was set a panel of the same stone, which, by the thickness of the tiles, formed a low shelf. On this shelf and on tables and in a high window was the strangest array of objects that St. George had ever seen. There were small busts of soft rose stone, like blocks of coral. There was a statue or two of some indefinable white material, glistening like marble and yet so soft that it had been indented in several places by accidental pressure. There were fans of strangely-woven silk, with sticks of carven rock-crystal, and hand mirrors of polished copper set in frames of gems that he did not recognize. Upon the wall were mended bits of purple tapestry, embroidered or painted or woven in singular patterns of flora and birds that St. George could not name. There were rolls of parchment, and vases of rock-crystal, and a little apparatus, most delicately poised, for weighing unknown, delicate things; and jars and cups without handles, all baked of a soft pottery having a nap like the down of a peach. Over the windows hung curtains of lace, woven by hands which St. George could not guess, in patterns of such freedom and beauty as western looms never may know. On the floor and on the divans were spread strange skins, some marked like peacocks, some patterned like feathers and like seaweed, all in a soft fur that was like silk.

Mingled with these curios were the ordinary articles of a cultivated household. There were many books, good pictures, furniture with simple lines, a tea-table that almost ministered of itself, a work-basket filled with “violet-weaving” needle-work, and a gossipy clock with well-bred chimes. St. George was enormously attracted by the room which could harbour so many pagan delights without itself falling their victim. The air was fresh and cool and smelled of the window primroses.

In a few moments Mrs. Hastings entered, and if St. George had been bewildered by the room he was still more amazed by the appearance of his hostess. She was utterly unlike the atmosphere of her drawing-room. She was a bustling, commonplace little creature, with an expressionless face, indented rather than molded in features. Her plump hands were covered with jewels, but for all the richness of her gown she gave the impression of being very badly dressed; things of jet and metal bobbed and ticked upon her, and her side-combs were continually falling about. She sat on the sofa and looked at the seat which St. George was to have and began to talk — all without taking the slightest heed of him or permitting him to mention the Evening Sentinel or his errand. If St. George had been painted purple he felt sure that she would have acted quite the same. Personality meant nothing to her.

“Now this distressing matter, Mr. St. George,” began Mrs. Hastings, “of this frightful mulatto woman. I didn’t see her myself — no, I had stopped in on the first floor to visit my lawyer’s wife who was ill with neuralgia, and I didn’t see the creature. If I had been with my niece I dare say it wouldn’t have occurred. That’s what I always say to my niece. I always say, ‘Olivia, nothing need occur to vex one. It always happens because of pure heedlessness.’ Not that I accuse my own niece of heedlessness in this particular. It was the elevator boy who was heedless. That is the trouble with life in a great city. Every breath you draw is always dependent on somebody else’s doing his duty, and when you consider how many people habitually neglect their duty it is a wonder — I always say that to Olivia — it is a wonder that anybody is alive to do a duty when it presents itself. ‘Olivia,’ I always say, ‘nobody needs to die.’ And I really believe that they nearly all do die out of pure heedlessness. Well, and so this frightful mulatto creature: you know her, I understand?”

Mrs. Hastings leaned back and consulted St. George through her tortoise-shell glasses, tilting her head high to keep them on her nose and perpetually putting their gold chain over her ear, which perpetually pulled out her side-combs.

“I saw her this morning,” St. George said. “I went up to the Reformatory in Westchester, and I spoke with her.”

“Mercy!” ejaculated Mrs. Hastings, “I wonder she didn’t tear your eyes out. Did they have her in a cage or in a cell? What was the creature about?”

“She was in a missionary meeting at the moment,” St. George explained, smiling.

“Mercy!” said Mrs. Hastings in exactly the same tone. “Some trick, I expect. That’s what I warn Olivia: ‘So few things nowadays are done through necessity or design.’ Nearly everything is a trick. Every invention is a trick — a cultured trick, one might say. Murder is a trick, I suppose, to a murderer. That’s why civilization is bad for morals, don’t you think? Well, and so she talked with you?”

“No, Mrs. Hastings,” said St. George, “she did not say one word. But she wrote something, and that is what I have come to bring you.”

“What was it — some charm?” cried Mrs. Hastings. “Oh, nobody knows what that kind of people may do. I’ll meet any one face to face, but these juggling, incantation individuals appal me. I have a brother who travels in the Orient, and he tells me about hideous things they do — raising wheat and things,” she vaguely concluded.

“Ah!” said St. George quickly, “you have a brother — in the Orient?”

“Oh, yes. My brother Otho has traveled abroad I don’t know how many years. We have a great many stamps. I can’t begin to pronounce all the names,” the lady assured him.

“And this brother — is he your niece, Miss Holland’s father?” St. George asked eagerly.

“Certainly,” said Mrs. Hastings severely; “I have only one brother, and it has been three years since I have seen him.”

“Pardon me, Mrs. Hastings,” said St. George, “this may be most important. Will you tell me when you last heard from him and where he was?”

“I should have to look up the place,” she answered, “I couldn’t begin to pronounce the name, I dare say. It was somewhere in the South Atlantic, ten months or more ago.”

“Ah,” St. George quietly commented.

“Well, and now this frightful creature,” resumed Mrs. Hastings, “do, pray, tell me what it was she wrote.”

St. George produced the paper.

“That is it,” he said. “I fancy you will not know the street. It is 19 McDougle Street, and the name is simply Tabnit.”

“Yes. And is it a letter?” his hostess demanded, “and whatever does it say?”

“It is not a letter,” St. George explained patiently, “and this is all that it says. The name is, I suppose, the name of a person. I have made sure that there is such a number in the street. I have seen the house. But I have waited to consult you before going there.”

“Why, what is it you think?” Mrs. Hastings besought him. “Do you think this person, whoever it is, can do something? And whatever can he do? Oh dear,” she ended, “I do want to act the way poor dear Mr. Hastings would have acted. Only I know that he would have gone straight to Bitley, or wherever she is, and held a revolver at that mulatto creature’s head, and commanded her to talk English. Mr. Hastings was a very determined character. If you could have seen the poor dear man’s chin! But of course I can’t do that, can I? And that’s what I say to Olivia. ‘Olivia, one doesn’t need a man’s judgment if one will only use judgment oneself.’ What is it you think, Mr. St. George?”

Before St. George could reply there entered the room, behind a low announcement of his name, a man of sixty-odd years, nervous, slightly stooped, his smooth pale face unlighted by little deep-set eyes.

“Ah, Mr. Frothingham!” said Mrs. Hastings in evident relief, “you are just in time. Mr. St. John was just telling me horrible things about this frightful mulatto creature. This is Mr. St. John. Mr. Frothingham is my lawyer and my brother Otho’s lawyer. And so I telephoned him to come in and hear all about this. And now do go on, Mr. St. John, about this hideous woman. What is it you think?”

“How do you do, Mr. St. John?” said the lawyer portentously. His greeting was almost a warning, and reminded St. George of the way in which certain brakemen call out stations. St. George responded as blithely to this name as to his own and did not correct it. “And what,” went on the lawyer, sitting down with long unclosed hands laid trimly along his knees, “have you to contribute to this most remarkable occurrence, Mr. St. John?”

St. George briefly narrated the events of the morning and placed the slip of paper in the lawyer’s hands.

“Ah! We have here a communication in the nature of a confession,” the lawyer observed, adjusting his gold pince-nez, head thrown back, eyebrows lifted.

“Only the address, sir,” said St. George, “and I was just saying to Mrs. Hastings that some one ought to go to this address at once and find out whatever is to be got there. Whoever goes I will very gladly accompany.”

Mr. Frothingham had a fashion of making ready to speak and soliciting attention by the act, and then collapsing suddenly with no explosion, like a bad Roman candle. He did this now, and whatever he meant to say was lost to the race; but he looked very wise the while. It was rather as if he discarded you as a fit listener, than that he discarded his own comment.

“I don’t know but I ought to go myself,” rambled Mrs. Hastings, “perhaps Mr. Hastings would think I ought. Suppose, Mr. Frothingham, that we both go. Dear, dear! Olivia always sees to my shopping and flowers and everything executive, but I can’t let her go into these frightful places, can I?”

There was a rustling at the far end of the room, and some one entered. St. George did not turn, but as her soft skirts touched and lifted along the floor he was tinglingly aware of her presence. Even before Mrs. Hastings heard her light footfall, even before the clear voice spoke, St. George knew that he was at last in the presence of the arbiter of his enterprise, and of how much else he did not know. He was silent, breathlessly waiting for her to speak.

“May I come in, Aunt Dora?” she said. “I want to know to what place it is impossible for me to go?”

She came from the long room’s boundary shadow. There was about her a sense of white and gray with a knot of pale colour in her hat and an orchid on her white coat. Mrs. Hastings, taking no more account of her presence than she had of St. George’s, tilted back her head and looked at the primroses in the window as closely as at anything, and absently presented him.

“Olivia,” she said, “this is Mr. St. John, who knows about that frightful mulatto creature. Mr. St. George,” she went on, correcting the name entirely unintentionally, “my niece, Miss Holland. And I’m sure I wish I knew what the necessary thing to be done is. That is what I always tell you, you know, Olivia. ‘Find out the necessary thing and do it, and let the rest go.’”

“It reminds me very much,” said the lawyer, clearing his throat, “of a case that I had on the April calendar —”

Miss Holland had turned swiftly to St. George:

“You know the mulatto woman?” she asked, and the lawyer passed by the April calendar and listened.

“I went to the Bitley Reformatory this morning to see her,” St. George replied. “She gave me this name and address. We have been saying that some one ought to go there to learn what is to be learned.”

Mr. Frothingham in a silence of pursed lips offered the paper. Miss Holland glanced at it and returned it.

“Will you tell us what your interest is in this woman?” she asked evenly. “Why you went to see her?”

“Yes, Miss Holland,” St. George replied, “you know of course that the police have done their best to run this matter down. You know it because you have courteously given them every assistance in your power. But the police have also been very ably assisted by every newspaper in town. I am fortunate to be acting in the interests of one of these — the Sentinel. This clue was put in my hands. I came to you confident of your coöperation.”

Mrs. Hastings threw up her hands with a gesture that caught away the chain of her eye-glass and sent it dangling in her lap, and her side-combs tinkling to the tiled floor.

“Mercy!” she said, “a reporter!”

St. George bowed.

“But I never receive reporters!” she cried, “Olivia — don’t you know? A newspaper reporter like that fearful man at Palm Beach, who put me in the Courtney’s ball list in a blue silk when I never wear colours.”

“Now really, really, this intrusion —” began Mr. Frothingham, his long, unclosed hands working forward on his knees in undulations, as a worm travels.

Miss Holland turned to St. George, the colour dyeing her face and throat, her manner a bewildering mingling of graciousness and hauteur.

“My aunt is right,” she said tranquilly, “we never have received any newspaper representative. Therefore, we are unfortunate never to have met one. You were saying that we should send some one to McDougle Street?”

St. George was aware of his heart-beats. It was all so unexpected and so dangerous, and she was so perfectly equal to the circumstance.

“I was asking to be allowed to go myself, Miss Holland,” he said simply, “with whoever makes the investigation.”

Mrs. Hastings was looking mutely from one to another, her forehead in horizons of wrinkles.

“I’m sure, Olivia, I think you ought to be careful what you say,” she plaintively began. “Mr. Hastings never allowed his name to go in any printed lists even, he was so particular. Our telephone had a private number, and all the papers had instructions never to mention him, even if he was murdered, unless he took down the notice himself. Then if anything important did happen, he often did take it down, nicely typewritten, and sometimes even then they didn’t use it, because they knew how very particular he was. And of course we don’t know how —”

St. George’s eyes blazed, but he did not lift them. The affront was unstudied and, indeed, unconscious. But Miss Holland understood how grave it was, for there are women whose intuition would tell them the etiquette due upon meeting the First Syndic of Andorra or a noble from Gambodia.

“We want the truth about this as much as Mr. St. George does,” she said quickly, smiling for the first time. St. George liked her smile. It was as if she were amused, not absent-minded nor yet a prey to the feminine immorality of ingratiation. “Besides,” she continued, “I wish to know a great many things. How did the mulatto woman impress you, Mr. St. George?”

Miss Holland loosened her coat, revealing a little flowery waist, and leaned forward with parted lips. She was very beautiful, with the beauty of perfect, blooming, colourful youth, without line or shadow. She was in the very noon of youth, but her eyes did not wander after the habit of youth; they were direct and steady and a bit critical, and she spoke slowly and with graceful sanity in a voice that was without nationality. She might have been the cultivated English-speaking daughter of almost any land of high civilization, or she might have been its princess. Her face showed her imaginative; her serene manner reassured one that she had not, in consequence, to pay the usury of lack of judgment; she seemed reflective, tender, and of a fine independence, tempered, however, by tradition and unerring taste. Above all, she seemed alive, receptive, like a woman with ten senses. And — above all again — she had charm. Finally, St. George could talk with her; he did not analyze why; he only knew that this woman understood what he said in precisely the way that he said it, which is, perhaps, the fifth essence in nature.

“May I tell you?” asked St. George eagerly. “She seemed to me a very wonderful woman, Miss Holland; almost a woman of another world. She is not mulatto — her features are quite classic; and she is not a fanatic or a mad-woman. She is, of her race, a strangely superior creature, and I fancy, of high cultivation; and I am convinced that at the foundation of her attempt to take your life there is some tremendous secret. I think we must find out what that is, first, for your own sake; next, because this is the sort of thing that is worth while.”

“Ah,” cried Miss Holland, “delightful. I begin to be glad that it happened. The police said that she was a great brutal negress, and I thought she must be insane. The cloth-of-gold and the jewels did make me wonder, but I hardly believed that.”

“The newspapers,” Mr. Frothingham said acidly, “became very much involved in their statements concerning this matter.”

“This ‘Tabnit,’” said Miss Holland, and flashed a smile of pretty deference at the lawyer to console him for her total neglect of his comment, “in McDougle Street. Who can he be? — he is a man, I suppose. And where is McDougle Street?”

St. George explained the location, and Mrs. Hastings fretfully commented.

“I’m sure, Olivia,” she said, “I think it is frightfully unwomanly in you —”

“To take so much interest in my own murder?” Miss Holland asked in amusement. “Aunt Dora, I’m going to do more: I suggest that you and Mr. Frothingham and I go with Mr. St. George to this address in McDougle Street —”

“My dear Olivia!” shrilled Mrs. Hastings, “it’s in the very heart of the Bowery — isn’t it, Mr. St. John? And only think —”

It was as if Mrs. Hastings’ frustrate words emerged in the fantastic guise of her facial changes.

“No, it isn’t quite the Bowery, Mrs. Hastings,” St. George explained, “though it won’t look unlike.”

“I wish I knew what Mr. Hastings would have done,” his widow mourned, “he always said to me: ‘Medora, do only the necessary thing.’ Do you think this is the necessary thing — with all the frightful smells?”

“It is perfectly safe,” ventured St. George, “is it not, Mr. Frothingham?”

Mr. Frothingham bowed and tried to make non-partisanship seem a tasteful resignation of his own will.

“I am at Mrs. Hastings’ command,” he said, waving both hands, once, from the wrist.

“You know the place is really only a few blocks from Washington Square,” St. George submitted.

Mrs. Hastings brightened.

“Well, I have some friends in Washington Square,” she said, “people whom I think a great deal of, and always have. If you really feel, Olivia —”

“I do,” said Miss Holland simply, “and let us go now, Aunt Dora. The brougham has been at the door since I came in. We may as well drive there as anywhere, if Mr. St. George is willing.”

“I shall be happy,” said St. George sedately, longing to cry: “Willing! Willing! Oh, Mrs. Hastings and Miss Holland —willing!”

Miss Holland and St. George and the lawyer were alone for a few minutes while Mrs. Hastings rustled away for her bonnet. Miss Holland sat where the afternoon light, falling through the corner window, smote her hair to a glory of pale colour, and St. George’s eyes wandered to the glass through which the sun fell. It was a thin pane of irregular pieces set in a design of quaint, meaningless characters, in the centre of which was the figure of a sphinx, crucified upon an upright cross and surrounded by a border of coiled asps with winged heads. The window glittered like a sheet of gems.

“What wonderful glass,” involuntarily said St. George.

“Is it not?” Miss Holland said enthusiastically. “My father sent it. He sent nearly all these things from abroad.”

“I wonder where such glass is made,” observed St. George; “it is like lace and precious stones — hardly more painted than carved.”

She bent upon him such a sudden, searching look that St. George felt his eyes held by her own.

“Do you know anything of my father?” she demanded suddenly.

“Only that Mrs. Hastings has just told me that he is abroad — in the South Atlantic,” St. George wonderingly replied.

“Why, I am very foolish,” said Miss Holland quickly, “we have not heard from him in ten months now, and I am frightfully worried. Ah yes, the glass is beautiful. It was made in one of the South Atlantic islands, I believe — so were all these things,” she added; “the same figure of the crucified sphinx is on many of them.”

“Do you know what it means?” he asked.

“It is the symbol used by the people in one of the islands, my father said,” she answered.

“These symbols usually, I believe,” volunteered Mr. Frothingham, frowning at the glass, “have little significance, standing merely for the loose barbaric ideas of a loose barbaric nation.”

St. George thought of the ladies of Doctor Johnson’s Amicable Society who walked from the town hall to the Cathedral in Lichfield, “in linen gowns, and each has a stick with an acorn; but for the acorn they could give no reason.”

He looked long at the glass.

“She,” he said finally, “our false mulatto, ought to stand before just such glass.”

Miss Holland laughed. She nodded her head a little, once, every time she laughed, and St. George was learning to watch for that.

“The glass would suit any style of beauty better than steel bars,” she said lightly as Mrs. Hastings came fluttering back. Mrs. Hastings fluttered ponderously, as humblebees fly. Indeed, when one considered, there was really a “blunt-faced bee” look about the woman.

The brougham had on the box two men in smart livery; the footman, closing the door, received St. George’s reply to Mrs. Hastings’ appeal to “tell the man the number of this frightful place.”

“I dare say I haven’t been careful,” Mrs. Hastings kept anxiously observing, “I have been heedless, I dare say. And I always think that what one must avoid is heedlessness, don’t you think? Didn’t Napoleon say that if only Cæsar had been first in killing the men who wanted to kill him — something about Pompey’s statue being kept clean. What was it — why should they blame Cæsar for the condition of the public statues?”

“My dear Mrs. Hastings,” Mr. Frothingham reminded her, his long gloved hands laid trimly along his knees as before, “you are in my care.”

The statue problem faded from the lady’s eyes.

“Poor, dear Mr. Hastings always said you were so admirable at cross-questioning,” she recalled, partly reassured.

“Ah,” cried Miss Holland protestingly, “Aunt Dora, this is an adventure. We are going to see ‘Tabnit.’”

St. George was silent, ecstatically reviewing the events of the last six hours and thinking unenviously of Amory, rocking somewhere with The Aloha on a mere stretch of green water:

“If Chillingworth could see me now,” he thought victoriously, as the carriage turned smartly into McDougle Street.

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