Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 8

The Porch of the Morning

By afternoon the island of Yaque was an accomplished fact of distinguishable parts. There it lay, a thing of rock and green, like the islands of its sister latitudes before which the passing ships of all the world are wont to cast anchor. But having once cast anchor before Yaque the ships of all the world would have had great difficulty in landing anybody.

Sheer and almost smoothly hewn from the utmost coast of the island rose to a height of several hundred feet one scarcely deviating wall of rock; and this apparently impregnable wall extended in either direction as far as the sight could reach. Above the natural rampart the land sloped upward still in steep declivities, but cut by tortuous gorges, and afar inland rose the mountain upon whose summit the light had been descried. There the glass revealed white towers and columns rising from a mass of brilliant tropical green, and now smitten by the late sun; but save these towers and columns not a sign of life or habitation was discernible. No smoke arose, no wharf or dock broke the serene outline of the black wall lapped by the warm sea; and there was no sound save that of strong torrents afar off. Lonely, inscrutable, the great mass stood, slightly shelved here and there to harbour rank and blossomy growths of green and presenting a rugged beauty of outline, but apparently as uninhabitable as the land of the North Silences.

Consternation and amazement sat upon the faces of the owner of The Aloha and his guests as they realized the character of the remarkable island. St. George and Amory had counted upon an adventure calling for all diplomacy, but neither had expected the delight of hazard that this strange, fairy-like place seemed about to present. Each felt his blood stirring and singing in his veins at the joy of the possibilities that lay folded before them.

“We shall be obliged to land upon the east coast then, Jarvo?” observed St. George; “but how long will it take us to sail round the island?”

“Very long,” Jarvo responded, “but no, adôn, we land on this coast.”

“How is that possible?” St. George asked.

“Well, hi — you,” said Little Cawthorne, “I’m a goat, but I’m no mountain goat. See the little Swiss kid skipping from peak to peak and from crag to crag —”

“Do we scale the wall?” inquired St. George, “or is there a passage in the rock?”

Bennietod hugged himself in uncontrollable ecstasy.

“Hully Gee, a submarine passage, in under de sea, like Jules Werne,” he said in a delight that was almost awe.

“There is a way over the rock,” said Jarvo, “partly hewn, partly natural, and this is known to the islanders alone. That way we must take. It is marked by a White Blade blazoned on the rock over the entrance of the submarines. The way is cunningly concealed — hardly will the glass reveal it, adôn.”

Barnay shook his head.

“You’ve a bad time comin’ with the home-sickness,” he prophesied, tucking his beard far down in his collar until he looked, for Barnay, smooth-shaven. “I’ve sailed the sou’ Atlantic up an’ down fer a matther av four hundhred years, more or less, an’ I niver as much as seed hide nor hair av the place before this prisint. There ain’t map or chart that iver dhrawed breath that shows ut, new or old. Ut’s been lifted out o’ ground to be afther swallowin’ us in-a sweet dose will be the lot av us, mesilf with as foine a gir-rl av school age as iver you’ll see in anny counthry.”

“Ah yes, Barnay,” said St. George soothingly — but he would have tried now to soothe a man in the embrace of a sea-serpent in just the same absent-minded way, Amory thought indulgently.

The sun was lowering and birds of evening were beginning to brood over the painted water when The Aloha cast anchor. In the late light the rugged sides of the island had an air of almost sinister expectancy. There was a great silence in their windless shelter broken only by the boom and charge of the breakers and the gulls and choughs circling overhead, winging and dipping along the water and returning with discordant cries to their crannies in the black rock. Before the yacht, blazoned on a dark, water-polished stratum of the volcanic stone, was the White Blade which Jarvo told them marked the subterranean entrance to the mysterious island.

St. George and his companions and Barnay, Jarvo and Akko were on deck. Rollo, whose soul did not disdain to be valet to a steam yacht, was tranquilly mending a canvas cushion.

“The adôn will wait until sunrise to go ashore?” asked Jarvo.

Sunrise!” cried St. George. “Heaven on earth, no. We’ll go now.”

There was no need to ask the others. Whatever might be toward, they were eager to be about, though Rollo ventured to St. George a deprecatory: “You know, sir, one can’t be too careful, sir.”

“Will you prefer to stay aboard?” St. George put it quietly.

“Oh, no, sir,” said Rollo with a grieved face, “one should meet danger with a light heart, sir,” and went below to pack the oil-skins.

“Hear me now,” said Barnay in extreme disfavour. “It’s I that am to lay hereabouts and wait for you, sorr? Lord be good to me, an’ fwhat if she lays here tin year’, and you somewheres fillin’ the eyes av the aygles with your brains blowed out, neat?” he demanded misanthropically. “Fwhat if she lays here on that gin’ral theory till she’s rotted up, sorr?”

“Ah well now, Barnay,” said St. George grimly, “you couldn’t have an easier career.”

Little Cawthorne, from leaning on the rail staring out at the island, suddenly pulled himself up and addressed St. George.

“Here we are,” he complained, “here has been me coming through the watery deep all the way from Broadway, with an octopus clinging to each arm and a dolphin on my back, and you don’t even ask how I stood the trip. And do you realize that it’s sheer madness for the five of us to land on that island together?”

“What do you mean?” asked St. George.

The little man shook his grey curls.

“What if it’s as Barnay says?” he put it. “What if they should bag us all — who’ll take back the glad news to the harbour? Lord, you can’t tell what you’re about walking into. You don’t even know the specific gravity of the island,” he suggested earnestly. “How do you know but your own weight will flatten you out the minute you step ashore?”

St. George laughed. “He thinks he is reading the fiction page,” he observed indulgently. “Still, I fancy there is good sense on the page, for once. We don’t know anything about anything. I suppose we really ought not to put all five eggs in one basket. But, by Jove —”

He looked over at Amory with troubled eyes.

“As host of this picnic,” he said, “I dare say I ought to stay aboard and let you fellows — but I’m hanged if I will.”

Little Cawthorne reflected, frowning; and you could as well have expected a bird to frown as Little Cawthorne. It was rather the name of his expression than a description of it.

“Suppose,” he said, “that Bennietod and I sit rocking here in this bay — if it is a bay — while you two rest your chins on the top of that ledge of rock up there, and look over. And about tomorrow or day after we two will venture up behind you, or you could send one of the men back —”

“My thunder,” said Bennietod wistfully, “ain’t I goin’ to get to climb in de pantry window at de palace — nor fire out of a loophole —”

“Bennietod an’ I couldn’t talk to a prince anyway,” said Little Cawthorne; “we’d get our language twisted something dizzy, and probably tell him ‘yes, ma’am.’”

St. George’s eyes softened as he looked at the little man. He knew well enough what it cost him to make the suggestion, which the good sense of them all must approve. Not only did Little Cawthorne always sacrifice himself, which is merely good breeding, but he made opportunities to do so, which is both well-bred and virtuous. When Rollo came up with the oil-skins they told him what had been decided, and Rollo, the faithful, the expressionless, dropped his eyelids, but he could not banish from his voice the wistfulness that he might have been one to stay behind.

“Sometimes it is best for a person to change his mind, sir,” was his sole comment.

Presently the little green dory drew away from The Aloha, and they left her lying as much at her ease as if the phantom island before her were in every school-boy’s geography, with a scale of miles and a list of the principal exports attached.

“If we had diving dresses, adôn,” Jarvo suggested, “we might have gone down through the sluice and entered by the lagoon where the submarines pass.”

“Jove,” said Amory, trying to row and adjust his pince-nez at the same time, “Chillingworth will never forgive us for missing that.”

“You couldn’t have done it,” shouted Little Cawthorne derisively, from the deck of the yacht, “you didn’t wear your rubbers. If anybody sticks a knife in you send up a r-r-r-ocket!”

The landing, effected with the utmost caution, was upon a flat stone already a few inches submerged by the rising tide. Looking up at the jagged, beetling world above them their task appeared hopeless enough. But Jarvo found footing in an instant, and St. George and Amory pressed closely behind him, Rollo and little Akko silently bringing up the rear and carrying the oil-skins. Slowly and cautiously as they made their way it was but a few minutes until the three standing on the deck, and Barnay open-mouthed in the dory, saw the sinuous line of the five bodies twist up the tortuous course considerably above the blazoned emblem of the White Blade.

In truth, with Jarvo to set light foot where no foot seemed ever before to have been set, with Jarvo to inspect every twig and pebble and to take sharp turns where no turn seemed possible, the ascent, perilous as it was, proved to be no such superhuman feat as from below it had appeared. But it seemed interminable. Even when the sea lay far beneath them and the faces of the watchers on the deck of The Aloha were no longer distinguishable, the grim wall continued to stretch upward, melting into the sky’s late blue.

The afterglow laid a fair path along the water, and the warm dusk came swiftly out of the east. At snail’s pace, now with heads bent to knees, now standing erect to draw themselves up by the arms or to leap a wicked-looking crevice, the four took their way up the black side of the rock. Birds of the cliffs, disturbed from long rest, wheeled and screamed about them, almost brushing their faces with long, fearless wings. There was an occasional shelf where, with backs against the wall spotted with crystals of feldspar, they waited to breathe, hardly looking down from the dizzy ledge. Great slabs of obsidian were piled about them between stretches of calcareous stone, and the soil which was like beds of old lava covered by thin layers of limestone, was everywhere pierced by sharp shoulders of stone lying in savage disarray. Gradually rock-slides and rock-edges yielded a less insecure footing on the upper reaches, but the chasms widened and water dripping from lateral crevasses made the vague trail slippery and the occasional earth sodden and treacherous. For a quarter of a mile their way lay over a kind of porous gravel into which their feet sank, and beyond at the summit of a ridge Jarvo halted and threw back to them a summary warning to prepare for “a long leap.” A sharp angle of rock, jutting out, had been split down the middle by some ancient force — very likely a Paleozoic butterfly had brushed it with its wing — and the edges had been worn away in a treacherous slope to the very lip of the crumbling promontory. From this edge to the edge of the opposite abutment there was a gap of wicked width, and between was a sheer drop into space wherefrom rose the sound of tumbling waters. When Jarvo had taken the leap, easily and gracefully, alighting on the other side like the greyhound that he resembled, and the others, following, had cleared the edge by as safe a margin as if the abyss were a minor field-day event, St. George and Amory looked back with sudden wonder over the path by which they had come.

“I feel as if I weighed about ninety pounds,” said St. George; “am I fading away or anything?”

Amory stood still.

“I was thinking the same thing,” he said. “By Jove — do you suppose — what if Little Cawthorne hit the other end of the nail, as usual? Suppose the specific gravity — suppose there is something — suppose it doesn’t hold good in this dimension that a body — by Jove,” said Amory, “wouldn’t that be the deuce?”

St. George looked at Jarvo, bounding up the stony way as easily as if he were bounding down.

“Ah well now,” he said, “you know on the moon an ordinary man would weigh only twenty-six or seven pounds. Why not here? We aren’t held down by any map!”

They laughed at the pleasant enormity of the idea and were hurrying on when Akko, behind them, broke his settled silence.

“In America,” he said, “a man feels like a mountain. Here he feels like a man.”

“What do you mean by that?” demanded St. George uneasily. But Akko said no more, and St. George and Amory, with a disquieting idea that each was laughing at the other, let the matter drop.

From there on the way was easier, leveling occasionally, frequently swelling to gentle ridges, and at last winding up a steep trail that was not difficult to keep in spite of the fast falling night. And at length Jarvo, rounding a huge hummock where converging ridges met, scrambled over the last of these and threw himself on the ground.

“Now,” he said simply.

The two men stood beside him and looked down. It seemed to St. George that they looked not at all upon a prospect but upon the sudden memory of a place about which he might have dreamed often and often and, waking, had not been able to remember, though its familiarity had continued insistently to beat at his heart; or that in what was spread before him lay the satisfaction of Burne–Jones’ wistful definition of a picture: “ . . . a beautiful, romantic dream of something that never was, never will be, in a light better than any light that ever shone, in a land no one can define or remember, only desire . . . ” yet it was to St. George as if he had reached no strange land, no alien conditions; but rather that he had come home. It was like a home-coming in which nothing is changed, none of the little improvements has been made which we resent because no one has thought to tell us of them; but where everything is even more as one remembers than one knew that one remembered.

At his feet lay a pleasant valley filled with the purple of deep twilight. Far below a lagoon caught the late light and spread it in a pattern among hidden green. In the midst of the valley towered the mountain whose summit, royally crowned by shining towers, had been visible from the open sea. At its feet, glittering in the abundant light shed upon its white wall and dome and pinnacle, stood Med, the King’s City — but its light was not the light of the day, for that was gone; nor of the moon, not risen; and no false lights vexed the dark. Yet he was looking into a cup of light, as clear as the light in a gazing-crystal and of a quality as wholly at variance with reality. The rocky coast of Yaque was literally a massive, natural wall; and girt by it lay the heart of the island, fertile and populous and clothed in mystery. This new face which Nature turned to him was a glorified face, and some way it meant what he meant.

St. George was off for a few steps, trampling impatiently over the coarse grass of the bank. Somewhere in that dim valley — was she there, was she there? Was she in trouble, did she need him, did she think of him? St. George went through the ancient, delicious list as conscientiously as if he were the first lover, and she were the first princess, and this were the first ascent of Yaque that the world had ever known. For by some way of miracle, the mystery of the island was suddenly to him the very mystery of his love, and the two so filled his heart that he could not have told of which he was thinking. That which had lain, shadowy and delicious, in his soul these many days — not so very many, either, if one counts the suns — was become not only a thing of his soul but a thing of the outside world, almost of the visible world, something that had existed for ever and which he had just found out; and here, wrapped in nameless light, lay its perfect expression. When a shaft of silver smote the long grass at his feet, and the edge of the moon rose above the mountain, St. George turned with a poignant exultation — did a mere victory over half a continent ever make a man feel like that? — and strode back to the others.

“Come on,” he called ringingly in a voice that did everything but confess in words that something heavenly sweet was in the man’s mind, “let’s be off!”

Amory was carefully lighting his pipe.

“I feel sort of tense,” he explained, “as if the whole place would explode if I threw down my match. What do you think of it?”

St. George did not answer.

“It’s a place where all the lines lead up,” he was saying to himself, “as they do in a cathedral.”

The four went the fragrant way that led to the heart of the island. First the path followed the high bank the branches of whose tropical undergrowth brushed their faces with brief gift of perfume. On the other side was a wood of slim trunks, all depths of shadow and delicacies of borrowed light in little pools. Everywhere, everywhere was a chorus of slight voices, from bark and air and secret moss, singing no forced notes of monotone, but piping a true song of the gladness of earth, plaintive, sweet, indescribably harmonious. It came to St. George that this was the way the woods at night would always sound if, somehow, one were able to hear the sweetness that poured itself out. Even that familiar sense in the night-woods that something is about to happen was deliciously present with him; and though Amory went on quietly enough, St. George swam down that green way, much as one dreams of floating along a street, above-heads.

The path curved, and went hesitatingly down many terraces. Here, from the dimness of the marge of the island, they gradually emerged into the beginnings of the faint light. It was not like entering upon dawn, or upon the moonlight. It was by no means like going to meet the lights of a city. It was literally “a light better than any light that ever shone,” and it wrapped them round first like a veil and then like a mantle. Dimly, as if released from the censer-smoke of a magician’s lamp, boughs and glades, lines and curves were set free of the dark; and St. George and Amory could see about them. Yet it did not occur to either to distrust the phenomenon, or to regard it as unnatural or the fruit of any unnatural law. It was somehow quite as convincing to them as is his first sight of electric light to the boy of the countryside, and no more to be regarded as witchcraft.

St. George was silent. It was as if he were on the threshold of Far–Away, within the Porch of the Morning of some day divine. The place was so poignantly like the garden of a picture that one has seen as a child, and remembered as a place past all speech beautiful, and yet failed ever to realize in after years, or to make any one remember, or, save fleetingly in dreams to see once more, since the picture-book is never, never chanced upon again. Sometimes he had dreamed of a great sunny plain, with armies marching; sometimes he had awakened at hearing the chimes, and fancied sleepily that it was infinite music; sometimes, in the country in the early morning, he had had an unreasonable, unaccountable moment of perfect happiness: and now the fugitive element of them all seemed to have been crystallized and made his own in that floating walk down the wooded terraces of this unknown world. And yet he could not have told whether the element was contained in that beauty, or in his thought of Olivia.

At last they emerged upon a narrow, grassy terrace where white steps mounted to a wide parapet. Jarvo ran up the steps and turned:

“Behold Med, adôn,” he said modestly, as if he had at that moment stirred it up in a sauce-pan and baked it before their astonished eyes.

They were standing at the top of an immense flight of steps extending as far to right and left as they could see, and leading down by easy stages and wide landings to the white-paved city itself. The clear light flooded the scene — lucid, vivid, many-peopled. Far as the eye could see, broad streets extended, lined with structures rivaling in splendour and beauty those unforgotten “topless towers.” Temples, palaces, and public buildings rose, storey upon storey, built of hewn stones of great size; and noble arches faced an open square before a temple of colossal masonry crowning an eminence in the centre of the city. Directly in line with this eminence rose the mountain upon whose summit stood the far-seen pillars where burned the solitary light.

If an enchanted city had risen from the waves because some one had chanced to speak the right word, it could have been no more bewildering; and yet the look of this city was so substantial, so adapted to all commonplace needs, so essentially the scene of every-day activity and purpose, that dozens of towns of petty European principalities seem far less actual and practicable homes of men. Busy citizens hurrying, the bark of a dog, the mere tone of a temple bell spoke the ordinary occupations of all the world; and upon the chief street the moon looked down as tranquilly as if the causeway were a continuation of Fifth Avenue.

But it was as if the spirit of adventure in St. George had suddenly turned and questioned him, saying:

“What of Olivia?”

For Olivia gone to a far-away island to find her father was subject of sufficient anxiety; but Olivia in the power of a pretender who might have at command such undreamed resources was more than cool reason could comprehend. That was the principal impression that Med, the King’s City, made upon St. George.

“To the right, adôn,” Jarvo was saying, “where the walls are highest — that is the palace of the prince, the Palace of the Litany.”

“And the king’s palace?” St. George asked eagerly.

Jarvo lifted his face to the solitary summit light upon the mountain.

“But how does one ascend?” cried St. George.

“By permission of Prince Tabnit,” replied Jarvo, “one is borne up by six imperial carriers, trained in the service from birth. One attempting the ascent alone would be dashed in pieces.”

“No municipal line of airships?” ventured Amory in slow astonishment.

Jarvo did not quite get this.

“The airships, adôn,” he said, “belong to the imperial household and are kept at the summit of Mount Khalak.”

“A trust,” comprehended Amory; “an absolute monarchy is a bit of a trust, anyhow. Of course, it’s sometimes an outraged trust . . . ” he murmured on.

“The adôn,” said Jarvo humbly, “will understand that we, I and Akko, have borne great risk. It is necessary that we make our peace with all speed, if that may be. The very walls are the ears of Prince Tabnit, and it is better to be behind those walls. May the gods permit the possible.”

“Do you mean to say,” asked St. George, “that we too would better look out the prince at once?”

“The adôn is wise,” said Jarvo simply, “but nothing is hid from Prince Tabnit.”

St. George considered. In this mysterious place, whose ways were as unknown to him and to his companions as was the etiquette of the court of the moon, clearly diplomacy was the better part of valour. It was wiser to seek out Prince Tabnit, if he had really arrived on the island, than to be upon the defensive.

“Ah, very well,” he said briefly, “we will visit the prince.”

“Farewell, adôn,” said Jarvo, bowing low, “may the gods permit the possible.”

“Of course you will communicate with us tomorrow,” suggested St. George, “so that if we wish to send Rollo down to the yacht —”

“The gods will permit the possible, adôn,” Jarvo repeated gently.

There was a flash of Akko’s white teeth and the two little men were gone.

St. George and Amory turned to the descending of the wide white steps. Such immense, impossible white steps and such a curious place for these two to find themselves, alone, with a valet. Struck by the same thought they looked at each other and nodded, laughing a little.

“Alone in the distance,” said Amory, emptying his pipe, “and not a cab to be seen.”

Rollo thrust forward his lean, shadowed face.

“Shall I look about for a ‘ansom, sir?” he inquired with perfect gravity.

St. George hardly heard.

“It’s like cutting into a great, smooth sheet of white paper,” he said whimsically, “and making any figure you want to make.”

Before they reached the bottom of the steps they divined, issuing from an isolated, temple-seeming building below, a train of sober-liveried attendants, all at first glance resembling Jarvo and Akko. These defiled leisurely toward the strangers and lined up irregularly at the foot of the steps.

“Enter Trouble,” said Amory happily.

They found themselves confronting, in the midst of the attendants, an olive man with no angles, whose face, in spite of its health and even wealth of contour, was ridiculously grave, as if the papier-mâché man in the down-town window should have had a sudden serious thought just before his papier-mâché incarnation.

“Permit me,” said the man in perfect English and without bowing, “to bring to you the greeting of his Highness, Prince Tabnit, and his welcome to Yaque. I am Cassyrus, an officer of the government. At the command of his Highness I am come to conduct you to the palace.”

“The prince is most kind,” said St. George, and added eagerly: “He is returned, then?”

“Assuredly. Three days ago,” was the reply.

“And the king — is he returned?” asked St. George.

The man shook his head, and his very anxiety seemed important.

“His Majesty, the King,” he affirmed, “is still most lamentably absent from his throne and his people.”

“And his daughter?” demanded St. George then, who could not possibly have waited an instant longer to put that question.

“The daughter of his Majesty, the King,” said Cassyrus, looking still more as if he were having his portrait painted, “will in three days be recognized publicly as Princess of Yaque.”

St. George’s heart gave a great bound. Thank Heaven, she was here, and safe. His hope and confidence soared heavenward. And by some miracle she was to take her place as the people of Yaque had petitioned. But what was the meaning of that news of the prince’s treachery which Jarvo and Akko had come bearing? The prince had faithfully fulfilled his mission and had conducted the daughter of the King of Yaque safely to her father’s country. What did it all mean?

St. George hardly noted the majestic square through which they were passing. Impressions of great buildings, dim white and misty grey and bathed in light, bewilderingly succeeded one another; but, as in the days which followed the news of his inheritance, he found himself now in a temper of unsurprise, in that mental atmosphere — properly the normal — which regards all miracle as natural law. He even omitted to note what was of passing strangeness: that neither the retinue of the minister nor the others upon the streets cast more than casual glances at their unusual visitors. But when the great gates of the palace were readied his attention was challenged and held, for though mere marvels may become the air one breathes, beauty will never cease to amaze, and the vista revealed was of almost disconcerting beauty.

Avenues of brightness, arches of green, glimpses of airy columns, of boundless lawns set with high, pyramidal shrines, great places of quiet and straight line, alleys whose shadow taught the necessity of mystery, the sound of water — the pure, positive element of it all — and everywhere, above, below and far, that delicate, labyrinth light, diffused from no visible source. It was as if some strange compound had changed the character of the dark itself, transmuting it to a subtle essence more exquisite than light, inhabiting it with wonders. And high above their heads where this translucence seemed to mix with the upper air and to fuse with moonbeams, sprang almost joyously the pale domes and cornices of the palace, sending out floating streamers and pennons of colours nameless and unknown.

“Jupiter,” said the human Amory in awe, “what a picture for the first page of the supplement.”

St. George hardly heard him. The picture held so perfectly the elusive charm of the Question — the Question which profoundly underlies all things. It was like a triumphant burst of music which yet ends on a high note, with imperfect close, hinting passionately at some triumph still loftier.

From either side of the wall of the palace yard came glittering a detachment of the Royal Golden Guard, clad in uniforms of unrelieved cloth-of-gold. These halted, saluted, wheeled, and between their shining ranks St. George and Amory footed quietly on, followed by Rollo carrying the yellow oil-skins. To St. George there was relief in the motion, relief in the vastness, and almost a boy’s delight in the pastime of living the hour.

Yet Royal Golden Guard, majestic avenues, and towered palace with its strange banners floating in strange light, held for him but one reality. And when they had mounted the steps of the mighty entrance, and the sound of unrecognized music reached him — a very myth of music, elusive, vagrant, fugued — and the palace doors swung open to receive them, he could have shouted aloud on the brilliant threshold:

“He says she is here in Yaque.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gale/zona/romance-island/chapter8.html

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