Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 6

Two Little Men

Next morning St. George was early astir. He had slept little and his dreams had been grotesques. He threw up his blind and looked across buildings to the grey park. The sky was marked with rose, the still reservoir gave back colour upon its breast, and the tower upon its margin might have been some guttural-christened castle on the Rhine. St. George drew a deep breath of good, new air and smiled for the sake of the things that the day was to bring him. He was in the golden age when the youthful expectation of enjoyment is just beginning to be savoured by the inevitable longing for more light, and he seemed to himself to be alluringly near the verge of both.

His first care the evening before had been to hunt out Chillingworth. He had found him in a theatre and had got him out to the foyer and kept him through the third act, pouring in his ears as much as he felt that it was well for him to know. Chillingworth had drawn his square, brown hands through his hair and, in lieu of copy-paper, had nibbled away his programme and paced the corner by the cloak-room.

“It looks like a great big thing,” said the city editor; “don’t you think it looks like a great big thing?”

“Extraordinarily so,” assented St. George, watching him.

“Can you handle it alone, do you think?” Chillingworth demanded.

“Ah, well now, that depends,” replied St. George. “I’ll see it through, if it takes me to Yaque. But I’d like you to promise, Mr. Chillingworth, that you won’t turn Crass loose at it while I’m gone, with his feverish head-lines. Mrs. Hastings and her niece must be spared that, at all events.”

“Don’t you be a sentimental idiot,” snapped Chillingworth, “and spoil the biggest city story the paper ever had. Why, this may draw the whole United States into a row, and mean war and a new possession and maybe consulates and governorships and one thing or another for the whole staff. St. George, don’t spoil the sport. Remember, I’m dropsical and nobody can tell what may happen. By the way, where did you say this prince man is?”

“Ah, I didn’t say,” St. George had answered quietly. “If you’ll forgive me, I don’t think I shall say.”

“Oh, you don’t,” ejaculated Chillingworth. “Well, you please be around at eight o’clock in the morning.”

St. George watched him walking sidewise down the aisle as he always walked when he was excited. Chillingworth was a good sort at heart, too; but given, as the bishop had once said of some one else, to spending right royally a deal of sagacity under the obvious impression that this is the only wisdom.

At his desk next morning Chillingworth gave to St. George a note from Amory, who had been at Long Branch with The Aloha when the letter was posted and was coming up that noon to put ashore Bennietod.

“May Cawthorne have his day off tomorrow and go with me?” the letter ended. “I’ll call up at noon to find out.”

“Yah!” growled Chillingworth, “it’s breaking up the whole staff, that’s what it’s doin’. You’ll all want cut-glass typewriters next.”

“If I should sail today,” observed St. George, quite as if he were boarding a Sound steamer, “I’d like to take on at least two men. And I’d like Amory and Cawthorne. You could hardly go yourself, could you, Mr. Chillingworth?”

“No, I couldn’t,” growled Chillingworth, “I’ve got to keep my tastes down. And I’ve got to save up to buy kid gloves for the staff. Look here —” he added, and hesitated.

“Yes?” St. George complied in some surprise.

“Bennietod’s half sick anyway,” said Chillingworth, “he’s thin as water, and if you would care —”

“By all means then,” St. George assented heartily, “I would care immensely. Bennietod sick is like somebody else healthy. Will you mind getting Amory on the wire when he calls up, and tell him to show up without fail at my place at noon today? And to wait there for me.”

Little Cawthorne, with a pair of shears quite a yard long, was sitting at his desk clipping jokes for the fiction page. He was humming a weary little tune to the effect that “Billy Enny took a penny but now he hadn’t many — Lookie They!” with which he whiled away the hours of his gravest toil, coming out strongly on the “Lookie They!” until Benfy on the floor above pounded for quiet which he never got.

“Cawthorne,” said St. George, “it may be that I’m leaving to-night on the yacht for an island out in the southeast. And the chief says that you and Amory are to go along. Can you go?”

Little Cawthorne’s blue eyes met St. George’s steadily for a moment, and without changing his gaze he reached for his hat.

“I can get the page done in an hour,” he promised, “and I can pack my thirty cents in ten minutes. Will that do?”

St. George laughed.

“Ah, well now, this goes,” he said. “Ask Chillingworth. Don’t tell any one else.”

“‘Billy Enny took a penny,’” hummed Little Cawthorne in perfect tranquillity.

St. George set off at once for the McDougle Street house. A thousand doubts beset him and he felt that if he could once more be face to face with the amazing prince these might be better cleared away. Moreover, the glimpses which the prince had given him of a world which seemed to lie as definitely outside the bourne of present knowledge as does death itself filled St. George with unrest, spiced his incredulity with wonder, and he found himself longing to talk more of the things at which the strange man had hinted.

The squalor of the street was even less bearable in the early morning. St. George wondered, as he hurried across from the Grand Street station, how the prince had understood that he must not only avoid the great hotels, but that he must actually seek out incredible surroundings like these to be certain of privacy. For only the very poor are sufficiently immersed in their own affairs to be guiltless of curiosity, save indeed a kind of surface morbid wonderment at crêpe upon a door or the coming of a well-dressed woman to their neighbourhood. The prince might have lived in McDougle Street for years without exciting more than derisive comment of the denizens, derision being no other than their humour gone astray.

St. George tapped at the door which the night before had admitted him to such revelation. There was no answer, and a repeated summons brought no sound from within. At length he tentatively touched the latch. The door opened. The room was quite empty. No remnant of furniture remained.

He entered, involuntarily peering about as if he expected to find the prince in a dusty corner. The windows were still shuttered, and he threw open the blinds, admitting rectangles of sunlight. He could have found it in his heart, as he looked blankly at the four walls, to doubt that he had been there at all the night before, so emphatically did the surroundings deny that they had ever harboured a title. But on the floor at his feet lay a scrap of paper, twisted and torn. He picked it up. It was traced in indistinguishable characters, but it bore the Holland coat of arms and crown which the prince had shown them. St. George put the paper in his pocket and questioned a group of boys in the passage.

“Yup,” shouted one of the boys with that prodigality of intonation distinguishing the child of the streets, who makes every statement as if his word had just been contradicted out of hand, “he means de bloke wid de black block. Aw, he lef’ early dis mornin’ wid ‘s junk follerin.’ Dey’s two of ’em. Wot’s he t’ink? Dis ain’t no Nigger’s Rest. Dis yere’s all Eyetalian.”

St. George hurried to Fifty-ninth Street. It was not yet ten o’clock, but the departure of the prince made him vaguely uneasy and for his life he could not have waited longer. Perhaps it was not true at all; perhaps none of it had happened. The McDougle Street part had vanished; what if the Boris too were a myth? But as he sprang up the steps at the apartment house St. George knew better. The night before her hand had lain in his for an infinitesimal time, and she had said “Until tomorrow.”

On sending his name to Mrs. Hastings he was immediately bidden to her apartment. He found the drawing-room in confusion — the furniture covered with linen, the bric-à-brac gone, and three steamer trunks strapped and standing outside the door. All of which mattered to him less than nothing, for Olivia was there alone.

She came down the dismantled room to meet him, smiling a little and very pale but, St. George thought, even more beautiful than she had been the day before. She was dressed for walking and had on a sober little hat, and straightway St. George secretly wondered how he could ever have approved of anything so flagrant as a Gainsborough. She lifted her veil as they sat down, and St. George liked that. To complete his capitulation she turned to a little table set before the bowing flames of juniper branches in the grate.

“This is breakfast,” she told him; “won’t you have a cup of tea and a muffin? Aunt Medora will be back presently from the chemist’s.”

For the first time St. George blessed Mrs. Hastings.

“You are really leaving today, Miss Holland?” he asked, noting the little ringless hand that gave him two lumps.

“Really leaving,” she assented, “at noon today. Mr. Frothingham sails with us, and his daughter Antoinette, who will be a great comfort to me. The prince doesn’t know about her yet,” she added naïvely, “but he must take her.”

St. George nodded approvingly. Unless all signs failed, he reflected, Yaque had some surprises in store at the hands of the daughter of its sovereign.

“Where does the prince appoint?” he asked.

He listened in entire disapproval while she told him of the place below quarantine where they were to board the submarine. The prince, it appeared, had sent his servant early that morning to assure them that all was in readiness, a bit of oriental courtesy which made no impression upon St. George, though it explained the prompt withdrawal from 19 McDougle Street. When she had finished, St. George rose and stood before the fire, looking down at her from a world of uncertainty.

“I don’t like it, Miss Holland,” he declared, and hesitated, divided between the desire to tell her that he was going too, and the fear lest Mrs. Hastings should arrive from the chemist’s.

Olivia made a gesture of throwing it all from her.

“Have a muffin — do,” she begged. “This is my last breakfast in America for a time — let me have a pleasant memory of it. Mr. St. George, I want — oh, I want to tell you how greatly I appreciate —”

“Ah, please,” urged St. George, and smiled while he protested, “you see, I’ve been very selfish about the whole matter. I’m selfish now to be here at all when, I dare say, you’ve no end of things to do.”

“No,” Olivia disclaimed, “I have not,” and thus proved that she was a woman of genius. For a less complex woman always flutters through the hour of her departure. Only Juno can step from the clouds without packing a bag and feeding the peacocks and leaving, pinned to an asphodel, a note for Jupiter.

“Then tell me what you are going to do in Yaque,” he besought. “Forgive me — what are you going to do all alone there in that strange land, and such a land?”

He divined that at this she would be very brave and buoyant, and he was lost in anticipative admiration; when she was neither he admired more than ever.

“I don’t know,” said Olivia gravely, “I only know that I must go. You see that, do you not — that I must go?”

“Ah, yes,” St. George assured her, “I do indeed, believe me. Don’t you think,” he said, “that I might give you a lamp to rub if you need help? And then I’ll appear.”

“In Yaque?”

He nodded gravely.

“Yes, in Yaque. I shall rise out of a jar like the Evil Genie; and though I shall be quite helpless you will still have the lamp. And I shall be no end glad to have appeared.”

“But suppose,” said Olivia merrily, “that when I have eaten a pomegranate or a potato or something in Yaque I forget all about America? And when you step out of the jar I say ‘Off with his head,’ by mistake. How shall I know it is you when the jar is opened?”

“I shall ask you what the population of Yaque is,” he assured her, “and how the island compares with Manhattan, and if this is your first visit, and how you are enjoying your stay; and then you will recognize the talk of civilization and spare me.”

“No,” she protested, “I’ve longed to say ‘Off with his head’ to too many people who have said all that to me. And you mustn’t say that a holiday always seems like Sunday, either.”

Whereat they both laughed, and it seemed an uncommonly pleasant world, and even the sad errand that was taking Olivia to Yaque looked like a hope.

Then the talk ran on pleasantly, and things went very briskly forward, and there was no dearth of fleet little smiles at this and that. What was she to bring him from Yaque — a pet ibis? No, he had no taste for ibises — unless indeed there should be Fourth–Dimension ibises; and even then he begged that she would select instead a magic field-glass, with which one might see what is happening at an infinite distance; although of what use would that be to him, he wanted to know, since it would be his too late to follow her errantry through Yaque? They felt, as they talked, quite like the puppets of the days of Haroun-alRaschid; only the puppets, poor children of mere magic, had not the traditions of the golden age of science for a setting, and were obliged to content themselves with mere tricks of jars of genii instead of applied electricity and its daring. What an Arabian Nights’ Entertainment we might have had if only Scheherazade had ever heard of the Present! As for the thousand-and-one-nights, they would not have contained all her invention. No wonder that the time went trippingly for the two who were concerned in such bewildering speculation as the prince had made possible and who were furthering acquaintanceship besides.

“Ah, well now, at all events,” begged St. George at length, “will you remember something while you are away?”

“Your kindness, always,” she returned.

“But will you remember,” said St. George with his boy’s eagerness, “that there is some one who hopes no less than you for your success, and who will be infinitely proud of any command at all from you? And will you remember that, though I may not be successful, I shall at least be doing something to try to help you?”

“You are very good,” she said gently, “I shall remember. For already you have not only helped me — you have made the whole matter possible.”

“And what of that,” propounded St. George gloomily, “if I can’t help you just when the danger begins? I insist, Miss Holland, that it takes far more good nature to see some one else set off at adventure than it takes to go one’s self. Won’t you let me come back here at twelve o’clock and go down with you to the boat?”

“By all means,” Olivia assented, “my aunt and I shall both be glad, Mr. St. George. Then you can wish us well. What is a submarine like,” she wanted to know; “were you ever on one?”

“Never, excepting a number of times,” replied St. George, supremely unconscious of any vagueness. He was rapidly losing count of all events up to the present. He was concerned only with these things: that she was here with him, that the time might be measured by minutes until she would be caught away to undergo neither knew what perils, and that at any minute Mrs. Hastings might escape from the chemist’s.

Although the commonplace is no respecter of enchantments, it was quite fifteen minutes before the sword fell and Mrs. Hastings did make the moment her prey, as pinkly excited as though her drawing-room had been untenanted. And in the meantime no one knows what pleasantly absurd thing St. George longed to say, it is so perilous when one is sailing away to Yaque and another stands upon the shore for a word of farewell. But, indeed, if it were not for the soberest moments of farewell, journeys and their returns would become very tame affairs. When the first man and maid said even the most formal farewell, providing they were the right man and the right maid, the very stars must have begun their motion. Very likely the fixed stars are nothing but grey-beards with no imagination. Distance lends enchantment, but the frivolous might say that the preliminary farewell is the mint that coins it. And, enchantment being independent of the commonplace, after all, it may have been that certain stars had already begun to sing while St. George sat staring at the little bowing flames of the juniper branches and Olivia was taking her tea. Then in came Mrs. Hastings, a very literal interfering goddess, and her bonnet was frightfully awry so that the parrot upon it looked shockingly coquettish and irreverent and lent to her dignity a flavour of ill-timed waggishness. But it must be admitted that Mrs. Hastings and everything that she wore were “les antipodes des grâces.” She was followed by a footman, his arms filled with parcels, and she sank among them on the divan and held out her limp, plump hand for a cup of tea. Mrs. Hastings had the hands that are fettered by little creases at the wrists and whose wedding rings always seem to be uncomfortably snug. She sat down, and her former activity dissolved, as it were, into another sort of energy and became fragments of talk. Mrs. Hastings was like the old woman in Ovid who sacrificed to the goddess of silence, but could never keep still; save that Mrs. Hastings did not sacrifice.

“Good morning, Mr. St. George,” she said. “I’m sure I’ve quite forgotten everything. Olivia dear, I’ve had all the prescriptions made up that I’ve ever taken to Rutledge’s, because no one can tell what the climate will be like, it’s so low on the map. I’ve looked up the Azores — that’s where we get some of our choicest cheese. And camphor — I’ve got a pound of camphor. And I must say positively that I always was against these wars in the far East, because all the camphor comes from Korea or one of those frightful islands and now it has gone up twenty-six cents a pound. And then the flaxseed, Olivia dear. I’ve got a tin of flaxseed, for no one can tell —”

St. George doubted if she knew when he said good morning, although she named him Mr. St. John, gave him permission to go to the boat, hoped in one breath that he would come again to see them, and in the next that he would send them a copy of whatever the Sentinel might publish about them, in serene oblivion of the state of the post-office department in Yaque. Mrs. Hastings, in short, was one of the women who are thrown into violent mental convulsions by the prospect of a journey; this was not at all because she was setting sail specifically for Yaque, for the moment that she saw a porter or a pier, though she was bound only for the Bronx or Staten Island, she was affected in the same way.

As Olivia gave St. George her hand he came perilously near telling her that he would follow her to Yaque; but he reflected that if he were to tell her at all, he would better do so on the way to the submarine. So he went blindly down the hall and rang the elevator bell for so long that the boy deliberately stopped on the floor below and waited, with the diabolical independence of the American lords of the lift, “for to teach ’im a lessing,” this one explained to a passing chamber-maid.

St. George hurried to his apartment to leave a note for Amory who was directed upon his arrival to bide there and await his host’s return. Then he paced the floor until it was time to go back to the Boris, deaf to Rollo’s solemn information that the dust comes up out of the varnish of furniture during the night, like cream out of milk. By the time he had boarded a down-town car, St. George had tortured himself to distraction, and his own responsibility in this submarine voyage loomed large and threatening. Therefore, it suddenly assumed the proportion of mountains yet unseen when, though it wanted ten minutes to twelve when he reached the Boris, his card was returned by a faint polite clerk with the information that Mrs. Hastings and Miss Holland had been gone from the hotel for half an hour. There was a note for him in their box the clerk believed, and presently produced it — a brief, regretful word from Olivia telling him that the prince had found that they must leave fully an hour earlier than he had planned.

Sick with apprehension, cursing himself for the ease and dexterity with which he had permitted himself to be outwitted by Tabnit, St. George turned blindly from the office with some vague idea of chartering all the tugs in the harbour. It came to him that he had bungled the matter from first to last, and that Bud or Bennietod would have used greater shrewdness. And while he was in the midst of anathematizing his characteristic confidence he stepped in the outer hallway and saw that which caused that confidence to balloon smilingly back to support him.

In the vestibule of the Boris, deaf to the hovering attention of a door-boy more curious than dutiful, stood two men of the stature and complexion of Prince Tabnit of Yaque. They were dressed like the youth who had answered the door of the prince’s apartment, and they were speaking softly with many gestures and evidently in some perplexity. The drooping spirits of St. George soared to Heaven as he hastened to them.

“You are asking for Miss Holland, the daughter of King Otho of Yaque,” he said, with no time to smile at the pranks of the democracy with hereditary titles.

The men stared and spoke almost together.

“We are,” they said promptly.

“She is not here,” explained St. George, “but I have attended to some affairs for her. Will you come with me to my apartment where we may be alone?”

The men, who somehow made St. George think of tan-coloured greyhounds with very gentle eyes, consulted each other, not with the suspicion of the vulgar but with the caution of the thorough-bred.

“Pardon,” said one, “if we may be quite assured that this is Miss Holland’s friend to whom we speak —”

St. George hesitated. The hall-boy listened with an air of polite concern, and there were curious over-shoulder glances from the passers-by. Suddenly St. George’s face lighted and he went swiftly through his pockets and produced a scrap of paper — the fragment that had lain that morning on the floor of the prince’s deserted apartment, and that bore the arms of the King of Yaque. It was the strangers’ turn to regard him with amazement. Immediately, to St. George’s utmost embarrassment, they both bowed very low and pronounced together:

“Pardon, adôn!”

“My name is St. George,” he assured them, “and let’s get into a cab.”

They followed him without demur.

St. George leaned back on the cushions and looked at them — lean lithe little men with rapid eyes and supple bodies and great repose. They gave him the same sense of strangeness that he had felt in the presence of the prince and of the woman in the Bitley Reformatory — as if, it whimsically flashed to him, they some way rhymed with a word which he did not know.

“What is it,” St. George asked as they rolled away, “what is it that you have come to tell Miss Holland?”

Only one of the men spoke, the other appearing content to show two rows of exceptionally white teeth.

“May we not know, adôn,” asked the man respectfully, “whether the prince has given her his news? And if the prince is still in your land?”

“The prince’s servant, Elissa, has tried to stab Miss Holland and has got herself locked up,” St. George imparted without hesitation.

An exclamation of horror broke from both men.

“To stab — to kill!” they cried.

“Quite so,” said St. George, “and the prince, upon being discovered, disclosed some very important news to Miss Holland, and she and her friends started an hour ago for Yaque.”

“That is well, that is well!” cried the little man, nodding, and momentarily hesitated; “but yet his news — what news, adôn, has he told her?”

For a moment St. George regarded them both in silence.

“Ah, well now, what news had he?” he asked briefly.

The men answered readily.

“Prince Tabnit was commissioned by the Yaquians to acquaint the princess with the news of the strange disappearance of her father, the king, and to supplicate her in his place to accept the hereditary throne of Yaque.”

“Jupiter!” said St. George under breath.

In a flash the whole matter was clear to him. Prince Tabnit had delivered no such message from the people of Yaque, but had contented himself with the mere intimation that in some vanishing future she would be expected to ascend the throne. And he had done this only when Olivia herself had sought him out after an attempt had been made upon her life by his servant. It seemed to St. George far from improbable that the woman had been acting under the prince’s instructions and, that failing, he himself had appeared and obligingly placed the daughter of King Otho precisely within the prince’s power. Now she was gone with him, in the hope of aiding her father, to meet Heaven knew what peril in this pagan island; and he, St. George, was wholly to blame from first to last.

“Good Heavens,” he groaned, “are you sure — but are you sure?”

“It is simple, adôn,” said the man, “we came with this message from the people of Yaque. A day before we were to land, Akko and I— I am Jarvo — overheard the prince plan with the others to tell her nothing — nothing that the people desire. When they knew that we had heard they locked us up and we have only this morning escaped from the submarine. If the prince has told her this message everything is well. But as for us, I do not know. The prince has gone.”

“He told her nothing — nothing,” said St. George, “but that her father and the Hereditary Treasure have disappeared. And he has taken her with him. She has gone with him.”

Deaf alike to their exclamations and their questions St. George sat staring unseeingly through the window, his mind an abyss of fear. Then the cab drew up at the door of his hotel and he turned upon the two men precipitantly.

“See,” he cried, “in a boat on the open sea, would you two be at all able to direct a course to Yaque?”

Both men smiled suddenly and brilliantly.

“But we have stolen a chart,” announced Jarvo with great simplicity, “not knowing what thing might befall.”

St. George wrenched at the handle of the cab door. He had a glimpse of Amory within, just ringing the elevator bell, and he bundled the two little men into the lobby and dashed up to him.

“Come on, old Amory,” he told him exultingly. “Heaven on earth, put out that pipe and pack. We leave for Yaque to-night!”

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