Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 14

The Isle of Hearts

The room in which St. George was looking was long and lofty and hung with pale tapestries. White pillars supporting the domed white ceiling were wound with garlands. The smoke from a little brazen tripod ascended pleasantly, and about the windows stirred in the faint wind draperies of exceeding thinness, woven in looms stilled centuries ago.

Olivia was crossing before the windows. She wore a white gown strewn with roses, and she seemed as much at home on this alien mountain-top as she had been in her aunt’s drawing-room at the Boris. But her face was sad, and there was not a touch of the piquancy which it had worn the night before in the throne-room, nor of its delicious daring as she had sped past him in the big Yaque touring car. Save for her, the room was deserted; it was as if the prince had come to the castle and found the Sleeping Princess the only one awake.

If in that supreme moment St. George had leaped forward and taken her in his arms no one — no one, that is, in the fairy-tale of what was happening — would greatly have censured him. But he stood without for a moment, hardly daring to believe his happiness, hardly knowing that her name was on his lips.

He had spoken, however, and she turned quickly, her look uncertainly seeking the doorway, and she saw him. For a moment she stood still, her eyes upon his face; then with a little incredulous cry that thrilled him with a sudden joyous hope that was like belief, she came swiftly toward him.

St. George loved to remember that she did that. There was no waiting for assurance and no fear; only the impulse, gloriously obeyed, to go toward him.

He stepped in the room, and took her hands in his and looked into her eyes as if he would never turn away his own. In her face was a dawning of glad certainty and welcome which he could not doubt.

“You,” she cried softly, “you. How is it possible? But how is it possible?”

Her voice trembled a little with something so sweet that it raced through his veins with magic.

“Did you rub the lamp?” he said. “Because I couldn’t help coming.”

She looked at him breathlessly.

“Have you,” he asked her gravely, “eaten of the potatoes of Yaque? And are you going to say, ‘Off with his head’? And can you tell me what is the population of the island?”

At that they both laughed — the merry, irrepressible laugh of youth which explains that the world is a very good place indeed and that one is glad that one belongs there. And the memory of that breakfast on the other side of the world, of their happy talk about what would happen if they two were impossibly to meet in Yaque came back to them both, and set his heart beating and flooded her face with delicate colour. In her laugh was a little catching of the breath that was enchanting.

“Not yet,” she said, “your head is safe till you tell me how you got here, at all events. Now tell me — oh, tell me. I can’t believe it until you tell me.”

She moved a little away from the door.

“Come in,” she said shyly, “if you’ve come all the way from America you must be very tired.”

St. George shook his head.

“Come out,” he pleaded, “I want to stand on top of a high mountain and show you the whole world.”

She went quite simply and without hesitation — because, in Yaque, the maddest things would be the truest — and when she had stepped from the low doorway she looked up at him in the tender light of the garden terrace.

“If you are quite sure,” she said, “that you will not disappear in the dark?”

St. George laughed happily.

“I shall not disappear,” he promised, “though the world were to turn round the other way.”

They crossed the still terrace to the parapet and stood looking out to sea with the risen moon shining across the waters. The light wind stirred in the cedrine junipers, shaking out perfume; the great fairy pile of the palace rose behind them; and before them lay the monstrous moon-lit abyss than whose depths the very stars, warm and friendly, seemed nearer to them. To the big young American in blue serge beside the little new princess who had drawn him over seas the dream that one is always having and never quite remembering was suddenly come true. No wonder that at that moment the patient Amory was far enough from his mind. To St. George, looking down upon Olivia, there was only one truth and one joy in the universe, and she was that truth and that joy.

“I can’t believe it,” he said boyishly.

“Believe — what?” she asked, for the delight of hearing him say so.

“This — me — most of all, you!” he answered.

“But you must believe it,” she cried anxiously, “or maybe it will stop being.”

“I will, I will, I am now!” promised St. George in alarm.

Whereat they both laughed again in sheer light-heartedness. Then, resting his broad shoulders against a prism of the parapet, St. George looked down at her in infinite content.

“You found the island,” she said; “what is still more wonderful you have come here — but here— to the top of the mountain. Oh, did you bring news of my father?”

St. George would have given everything save the sweet of the moment to tell her that he did.

“But now,” he added cheerfully, and his smile disarmed this of its over-confidence, “I’ve only been here two days or so. And, though it may look easy, I’ve had my hands full climbing up this. I ought to be allowed another day or two to locate your father.”

“Please tell me how you got here,” Olivia demanded then.

St. George told her briefly, omitting the yacht’s ownership, explaining merely that the paper had sent him and that Jarvo and Akko had pointed the way and, save for that journey down nebulous ways in the wake of her veil the night before, sketching the incidents which had followed his arrival upon the island.

“And one of the most agreeable hours I’ve had in Yaque,” he finished, “was last night, when you were chairman of the meeting. That was magnificent.”

“You were there!” cried Olivia, “I thought —”

“That you saw me?” St. George pressed eagerly.

“I think that I thought so,” she admitted.

“But you never looked at me,” said St. George dolefully, “and I had on a forty-two gored dress, or something.”

“Ah,” Olivia confessed, “but I had thought so before when I knew it couldn’t be you.”

St. George’s heart gave a great bound.

“When before?” he wanted to know ecstatically.

“Ah, before,” she explained, “and then afterward, too.”

“When afterward?” he urged.

(Smile if you like, but this is the way the happy talk goes in Yaque as you remember very well, if you are honest.)

“Yesterday, when I was motoring, I thought —”

“I was. You did,” St. George assured her. “I was in the prince’s motor. The procession was temporarily tied up, you remember. Did you really think it was I?”

But this the lady passed serenely over.

“Last night,” she said, “when that terrible thing happened, who was it in the other motor? Who was it, there in the road when I— was it you? Was it?” she demanded.

“Did you think it was I?” asked St. George simply.

“Afterward — when I was back in the palace — I thought I must have dreamed it,” she answered, “and no one seemed to know, and I didn’t know. But I did fancy — you see, they think father has taken the treasure,” she said, “and they thought if they could hide me somewhere and let it be known, that he would make some sign.”

“It was monstrous,” said St. George; “you are really not safe here for one moment. Tell me,” he asked eagerly, “the car you were in-what became of that?”

“I meant to ask you that,” she said quickly. “I couldn’t tell, I didn’t know whether it turned aside from the road, or whether they dropped me out and went on. Really, it was all so quick that it was almost as if the motor had stopped being, and left me there.”

“Perhaps it did stop being — in this dimension,” St. George could not help saying.

At this she laughed in assent.

“Who knows,” she said, “what may be true of us —nous autres in the Fourth Dimension? In Yaque queer things are true. And of course you never can tell —”

At this St. George turned toward her, and his eyes compelled hers.

“Ah, yes, you can,” he told her, “yes, you can.”

Then he folded his arms and leaned against the stone prisms again, looking down at her. Evidently the magician, whoever he was, did not mind his saying that, for the palace did not crumble or the moon cease from shining on the white walls.

“Still,” she answered, looking toward the sea, “queer things are true in Yaque. It is queer that you are here. Say that it is.”

“Heaven knows that it is,” assented St. George obediently.

Presently, realizing that the terrace did not intend to turn into a cloud out-of-hand, they set themselves to talk seriously, and St. George had not known her so adorable, he was once more certain, as when she tried to thank him for his pursuit the night before. He had omitted to mention that he had brought her back alone to the Palace of the Litany, for that was too exquisite a thing, he decided, to be spoiled by leaving out the most exquisite part. Besides, there was enough that was serious to be discussed, in all conscience, in spite of the moon.

“Tell me,” said St. George instead, “what has happened to you since that breakfast at the Boris. Remember, I have come all the way from New York to interview you, Mademoiselle the Princess.”

So Olivia told him the story of the passage in the submarine which had arrived in Yaque two days earlier than The Aloha; of the first trip up Mount Khalak in the imperial airship; of Mrs. Hastings’ frantic fear and her utter refusal ever to descend; and of what she herself had done since her arrival. This included a most practical account of effort that delighted and amazed St. George. No wonder Mrs. Hastings had said that she always left everything “executive” to Olivia. For Olivia had sent wireless messages all over the island offering an immense reward for information about the king, her father; she had assigned forty servants of the royal household to engage in a personal search for such information and to report to her each night; she had ordered every house in Yaque, not excepting the House of the Litany and the king’s palace itself, to be searched from dungeon to tower; and, as St. George already knew, she had brought about a special meeting of the High Council at noon that day.

“It was very little,” said the American princess apologetically, “but I did what I could.”

“What about the meeting of the High Council?” asked St. George eagerly; “didn’t anything come of that?”

“Nothing,” she answered, “they were like adamant. I thought of offering to raise the Hereditary Treasure by incorporating the island and selling the shares in America. Nobody could ever have found what the shares stood for, but that happens every day. Half the corporations must be capitalized chiefly in the Fourth Dimension. That is all,” she added wearily, “save that day after tomorrow I am to be married.”

“That,” St. George explained, “is as you like. For if your father is on the island we shall have found him by day after tomorrow, at noon, if we have to shake all Yaque inside out, like a paper sack. And if he isn’t here, we simply needn’t stop.”

Olivia shook her head.

“You don’t know the prince,” she said. “I have heard enough to convince me that it is quite as he says. He holds events in the hollow of his hand.”

“Amory proposed,” said St. George, “that we sit up here and throw pebbles at him for a time. And Amory is very practical.”

Olivia laughed — her laugh was delicious and alluring, and St. George came dangerously near losing his head every time that he heard it.

“Ah,” she cried, “if only it weren’t for the prince and if we had news of father, what a heavenly, heavenly place this would be, would it not?”

“It would, it would indeed,” assented St. George, and in his heart he said, “and so it is.”

“It’s like being somewhere else,” she said, looking into the abyss of far waters, “and when you look down there — and when you look up, you nearly know. I don’t know what, but you nearly know. Perhaps you know that ‘here’ is the same as ‘there,’ as all these people say. But whatever it is, I think we might have come almost as near knowing it in New York, if we had only known how to try.”

“Perhaps it isn’t so much knowing,” he said, “as it is being where you can’t help facing mystery and taking the time to be amazed. Although,” added St. George to himself, “there are things that one finds out in New York. In a drawing-room, at the Boris, for instance, over muffins and tea.”

“It will be delightful to take all this back to New York,” Olivia vaguely added, as if she meant the fairy palace and the fairy sea.

“It will,” agreed St. George fervently, and he couldn’t possibly have told whether he meant the mystery of the island or the mystery of that hour there with her. There was so little difference.

“Suppose,” said Olivia whimsically, “that we open our eyes in a minute, and find that we are in the prince’s room in McDougle Street, and that he has passed his hand before our faces and made us dream all this. And father is safe after all.”

“But it isn’t all a dream,” St. George said softly, “it can’t possibly all be a dream, you know.”

She met his eyes for a moment.

“Not your coming away here,” she said, “if the rest is true I wouldn’t want that to be a dream. You don’t know what courage this will give us all.”

She said “us all,” but that had to mean merely “us,” as well. St. George turned and looked over the terrace. What an Arabian night it was, he was saying to himself, and then stood in a sudden amazement, with the uncertain idea that one of the Schererazade magicians had answered that fancy of his by appearing.

A little shrine hung thick with vines, its ancient stone chipped and defaced, stood on the terrace with its empty, sightless niche turned toward the sea. Leaning upon its base was an old man watching them. His eyes under their lowered brows were peculiarly intent, but his look was perfectly serene and friendly. His stuff robe hung in straight folds about his singularly erect figure, and his beard and hair were not all grey. But he was very old, with incredibly brown and wrinkled flesh, and his face was vacant, as if the mind were asleep.

As he looked, St. George knew him. Here on the top of this mountain was that amazing old man whom he had last seen in the banquet hall at the Palace of the Litany — that old Malakh for whom Olivia had so unexplainably interceded.

“What is that man doing here?” St. George asked in surprise.

“He is a mad old man, they said,” Olivia told him, “down there they call him Malakh — that means ‘salt’— because they said he always weeps. We had stopped to look at a metallurgist yesterday — he had some zinc and some metals cut out like flowers, and he was making them show phosphorescent colours in his little dark alcove. The old man was watching him and trying to tell him something, but the metallurgist was rude to him and some boys came by and jostled him and pushed him about and taunted him — and the metallurgist actually explained to us that every one did that way to old Malakh. So I thought he was better off up here,” concluded Olivia tranquilly.

St. George was silent. He knew that Olivia was like this, but everything that proved anew her loveliness of soul caught at his heart.

“Tell me,” he said impulsively, “what made you let him stay last night, there in the banquet hall?”

She flushed, and shook her head with a deprecatory gesture.

“I haven’t an idea,” she said gravely, “I think I must have done it so the fairies wouldn’t prick their feet on any new sorrow. One has to be careful of the fairies’ feet.”

St. George nodded. It was a charming reason for the left hand to give the right, and he was not deceived.

“Look at him,” said St. George, almost reverently, “he looks like a shade of a god that has come back from the other world and found his shrine dishonoured.”

Some echo of St. George’s words reached the old man and he caught at it, smiling. It was as if he had just been thinking what he spoke.

“There are not enough shrines,” he said gently, “but there are far too many gods. You will find it so.”

Something in his words stirred St. George strangely. There was about the old creature an air of such gentleness, such supreme repose and detachment that, even in that place of quiet, his presence made a kind of hush. He was old and pallid and fragile, but there lingered within him, while his spirit lingered, the perfume of all fine and gentle things, all things of quietude. When he had spoken the old man turned and moved slowly down the ways of strange light, between the fallen temples builded to forgotten gods, and he seemed like the very spirit of the ancient mountain, ignorant of itself and knowing all truth.

“How strange,” said St. George, looking after him, “how unutterably strange and sad.”

“That is good of you,” said Olivia. “Aunt Dora and Antoinette thought I’d gone quite off my head, and Mr. Frothingham wanted to know why I didn’t bring back some one who could have been called as a witness.”

“Witness,” St. George echoed; “but the whole place is made of witnesses. Which reminds me: what is the sentence?”

“The sentence?” she wondered.

“The potatoes of Yaque,” he reminded her, “and my head?”

“Ah well,” said Olivia gravely, “inasmuch as the moon came up in the east to-night instead of the west, I shall be generous and give you one day’s reprieve.”

“Do you know, I thought the moon came up in the east to-night,” cried St. George joyfully.

It was half an hour afterward that Amory’s languid voice from somewhere in the sky broke in upon their talk. As he came toward them across the terrace St. George saw that he was miraculously not alone.

Afterward Amory told him what had happened and what had made him abide in patience and such wondrous self-effacement.

When St. George had left him contemplating the far beauties of the little blur of light that was Med, Mr. Toby Amory set a match to one of his jealously expended store of Habanas and added one more aroma to the spiced air. To be standing on the doorstep of a king’s palace, confidently expecting within the next few hours to assist in locating the king himself was a situation warranting, Amory thought, such fragrant celebration, and he waited in comparative content.

The moon had climbed high enough to cast a great octagonal shadow on the smooth court, and the Habana was two-thirds memory when, immediately back of Amory, a long window opened outward, releasing an apparition which converted the remainder of the Habana into a fiery trail ending out on the terrace. It was a girl of rather more than twenty, exquisitely petite and pretty, and wearing a ruffley blue evening gown whose skirt was caught over her arm. She stopped short when she saw Amory, but without a trace of fear. To tell the truth, Antoinette Frothingham had got so desperately bored withindoors that if Amory had worn a black mask or a cloak of flame she would have welcomed either.

For the last two hours Mrs. Medora Hastings and Mr. Augustus Frothingham had sat in a white marble room of the king’s palace, playing chess on Mr. Frothingham’s pocket chess-board. Mr. Frothingham, who loathed chess, played it when he was tired so that he might rest and when he was rested he played it so that he might exercise his mind — on the principle of a cool drink on a hot day and a hot drink on a cool day. Mrs. Hastings, who knew nothing at all about the game, had entered upon the hour with all the suave complacency with which she would have attacked the making of a pie. Mrs. Hastings had a secret belief that she possessed great aptitude.

Antoinette Frothingham, the lawyer’s daughter, had leaned on the high casement and looked over the sea. The window was narrow, and deep in an embrasure of stone. To be twenty and to be leaning in this palace window wearing a pale blue dinner-gown manifestly suggested a completion of the picture; and all that evening it had been impressing her as inappropriate that the maiden and the castle tower and the very sea itself should all be present, with no possibility of any knight within an altitude of many hundred feet.

“The dear little ponies’ heads!” Mrs. Hastings had kept saying. “What a poetic game chess is, Mr. Frothingham, don’t you think? That’s what I always said to poor dear Mr. Hastings — at least, that’s what he always said to me: ‘Most games are so needless, but chess is really up and down poetic’”

Mr. Frothingham made all ready to speak and then gave it up in silence.

“Um,” he had responded liberally.

“I’m sure,” Mrs. Hastings had continued plaintively, “neither he nor I ever thought that I would be playing chess up on top of a volcano in the middle of the ocean. It’s this awful feeling,” Mrs. Hastings had cried querulously, “of being neither on earth nor under the water nor in Heaven that I object to. And nobody can get to us.”

“That’s just it, Mrs. Hastings,” Antoinette had observed earnestly at this juncture.

“Um,” said Mr. Frothingham, then, “not at all, not at all. We have all the advantages of the grave and none of its discomforts.”

Whereupon Antoinette, rising suddenly, had slipped out of the white marble room altogether and had found the knight smoking in loneliness on the very veranda.

Amory put his cap under his arm and bowed.

“I hope,” he said, “that I haven’t frightened you.”

He was an American! Antoinette’s little heart leaped.

“I am having to wait here for a bit,” explained Amory, not without vagueness.

Miss Frothingham advanced to the veranda rail and contrived a shy scrutiny of the intruder.

“No,” she said, “you didn’t frighten me in the least, of course. But — do you usually do your waiting at this altitude?”

“Ah, no,” answered Amory with engaging candour, “I don’t. But I— happened up this way.” Amory paused a little desperately. In that soft light he could not tell positively whether this was Miss Holland or that other figure of silver and rose which he had seen in the throne room. The blue gown was not interpretative. If she was Miss Holland it would be very shabby of him to herald the surprise. Naturally, St. George would appreciate doing that himself. “I’m looking about a bit,” he neatly temporized.

Antoinette suddenly looked away over the terrace as her eyes met his, smiling behind their pince-nez. Amory was good to look at, and he had never been more so than as he towered above her on the steps of the king’s palace. Who was he — but who was he? Antoinette wondered rapidly. Had a warship arrived? Was Yaque taken? Or had — she turned eyes, round with sudden fear, upon Amory.

“Did Prince Tabnit send you?” she demanded.

Amory laughed.

“No, indeed,” he said. Amory had once lived in the South, and he accented the “no” very takingly. “I came myself,” he volunteered.

“I thought,” explained Antoinette, “that maybe he opened a door in the dark, and you walked out. It is rather funny that you should be here.”

“You are here, you know,” suggested Amory doubtfully.

“But I may be a cannibal princess,” Antoinette demurely pointed out. It was not that her astonishment was decreasing; but why — modernity and the democracy spoke within her — waste the possibilities of a situation merely because it chances to be astonishing? Moments of mystery are rare enough, in all conscience; and when they do arrive all the world misses them by trying to understand them. Which is manifestly ungrateful and stupid. They do these things better in Yaque.

“You maybe,” agreed Amory evenly, “though I don’t know that I ever met a desert island princess in a dinner frock. But then, I am a beginner in desert islands.”

“Are you an American?” inquired Antoinette earnestly.

Amory looked up at the frowning façade of the king’s palace, and he could have found it in his heart to believe his own answer.

“I’m the ghost,” he confessed, “of a poor beggar of a Phoenician who used to make water-jars in Sidon. I have been condemned to plow the high seas and explore the tall mountains until I find the Pitiful Princess. She must be up at the very peak, in distress, and I—”

Amory stopped and looked desperately about him. Would St. George never come? How was he, Amory, to be accountable for what he told if he were left here alone in these extraordinary circumstances?

Then Antoinette lightly clapped her hands.

“A ghost!” she exclaimed with pleasure. “Miss Holland hoped the place was haunted. A Phoenician ghost with an Alabama accent.”

She had said “Miss Holland hoped.”

“Aren’t you — aren’t you Miss Holland?” demanded Amory promptly, a joyful note of uncertainty in his voice.

Antoinette shook her head.

“No,” she said, “though I don’t know why I should tell you that.”

From Amory’s soul rolled a burden that left him treading air on Mount Khalak. She was not Miss Holland. What did he care how long St. George stayed away?

“I am Tobias Amory,” he said, “of New York. Most people don’t know about the Sidonian ghost part. But I’ve told you because I thought, perhaps, you might be the Pitiful Princess.”

Antoinette’s heart was beating pleasantly. Of New York! How — oh, how did he get here? Was there, then, a wishing-stone in that window embrasure where she had been sitting, and had the knight come because she had willed it? How much did he know? How much ought she to tell? Nothing whatever, prudently decided the lawyer’s daughter.

“I’ve had, I’m almost certain, the pleasure of seeing you before,” imparted Amory pleasantly, adjusting his pince-nez and looking down at her. She was so enchantingly tiny and he was such a giant.

“In New York?” demanded Antoinette.

“No,” said Amory, “no. Do desert island princesses get to New York occasionally, then? No, I think I saw you in Yaque. Yesterday. In a silver automobile. Did I?”

Antoinette dimpled.

“We frightened them all to death,” she recalled. “Did we frighten you?”

“So much,” admitted Amory, “that I took refuge up here.”

“Where were you?” Antoinette asked curiously. Really, he was very amusing — this big courtly creature. How agreeable of Olivia to stay away.

“Ah, tell me how you got here,” she impetuously begged. “Desert island people don’t see people from New York every day.”

“Well then, O Pitiful Princess,” said the Shade from Sidon, “it was like this —”

It was easy enough to fleet the time carelessly, and assuredly that high moon-lit world was meant to be no less merry than the golden. Whoever has chanced to meet a delightful companion on some silver veranda up in the welkin knows this perfectly well; and whoever has not is a dull creature. But there are delightful folk who are wont to suspect the dullest of harbouring some sweet secret, some sense of “those sights which alone (says the nameless Greek) make life worth enduring,” and this was akin to such a sight.

After a time, at Antoinette’s conscientious suggestion, they strolled the way that St. George had taken. And to Olivia and the missing adventurer over by the parapet came Amory’s soft query:

“St George, may I express a friendly concern?”

“Ah, come here, Toby,” commanded St. George happily, “her Highness and I have been discussing matters of state.”

“Antoinette!” cried Olivia in amazement. From time immemorial royalty has perpetually been surprised by the behaviour of its ladies-inwaiting.

“I’ve been remembering a verse,” said Amory when he had been presented to Olivia, “may I say it? It goes:

“‘I’ll speak a story to you,

Now listen while I try:

I met a Queen, and she kept house

A-sitting in the sky.’”

“Come in and say it to my aunt,” Olivia applauded. “Aunt Dora is dying of ennui up here.”

They crossed the terrace in the hush of the tropic night. Through the fairy black and silver the four figures moved, and it was as if the king’s palace — that sky thing, with ramparts of air — had at length found expression and knew a way to answer the ancient glamourie of the moon.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54