Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 15

A Vigil

Upon Mrs. Hastings and Mr. Augustus Frothingham, drowsing over the pocket chess-board, the sound of footsteps and men’s voices in the corridor acted with electrical effect. Then the door was opened and behind Olivia and Antoinette appeared the two visitors who seemed to have fallen from the neighbouring heavens. The two chess-pretenders looked up aghast. If there were a place in the world where chaperonage might be relaxed the uninformed observer would say that it would be the top of Mount Khalak.

“Mercy around us!” cried Mrs. Medora Hastings, “if it isn’t that newspaper man! He’s probably come over here to cable it all over the front page of every paper in New York. Well,” she added complacently, as if she had brought it all about, “it seems good to see some of your own race. How did you get here? Some trick, I suppose?”

“My dear fellows,” burst out Mr. Augustus Frothingham fervently, “thank God! I’m not, ordinarily, unequal to my situations, but I confess to you, as I would not to a client, that I don’t object to sharing this one. How did you come?”

“It’s a house-party!” said Antoinette ecstatically.

Amory looked at her in her blue gown in the light of the white room, and his spirits soared heavenward. Why should St. George have an idea that he controlled the hour?

From a tumult of questioning, none of which was fully answered before Mrs. Hastings put another query, the lawyer at length elicited the substance of what had occurred.

“You came up the side of the mountain, carried by four of those frightful natives?” shrilled Mrs. Hastings. “Olivia, think. It’s a wonder they didn’t murder you first and throw you over afterward, isn’t it, Olivia? Oh, and my poor dear brother. To think of his lying somewhere all mangled and bl —”

Emotion overcame Mrs. Hastings. Her tortoise-shell glasses fell to her lap and both her side-combs tinkled melodiously to the tiled floor.

“This reminds me,” said Mr. Frothingham, settling back and finding a pencil with which to emphasize his story, “this reminds me very much of a case that I had on the June calendar —”

In half an hour St. George and Amory saw that all serious consideration of their situation must be accomplished alone with Olivia; for in that time Mr. Frothingham had been reminded of two more cases and Mrs. Hastings had twice been reduced to tears by the picture of the possible fate of her brother. Moreover, there presently appeared supper — a tray of the most savoury delicacies, to produce which Olivia had slipped away and, St. George had no doubt, said over some spell in the kitchens. Supper in the white marble room of the king’s palace was almost as wonderful as muffins and tea at the Boris.

There were Olivia in her gown of roses on one side of the table and Antoinette on the other and between them the hungry and happy adventurers. Across the room under a tall silver vase that might have been the one proposed by Achilles at the funeral games for Patroclus (“that was the work of the ‘skilful Sidonians’” St. George recalled with a thrill), Mrs. Hastings and Mr. Frothingham were conscientiously finishing their chess, since the lawyer believed in completing whatever he undertook, if for nothing more than a warning never to undertake it again. Manifestly the little ivory kings and queens and castles were in league with all the other magic of the night, for the game prolonged itself unconscionably, and the supper party found it far from difficult to do the same. St. George looked at Olivia in her gown of roses, and his eyes swept the high white walls of the room with its frescoes and inscriptions, its broken statues and defaced chests of stone and ancient armour, and so back to Olivia in her gown of roses, with her little ringless hands touching and lifting among the alien dishes as she ministered to him. What a dear little gown of roses and what beautiful hands, St. George thought; and as for the broken statues and the inscriptions and the contents of the stone chests, nobody had paid any attention to them for so long that they could hardly have missed his regard. Nor Amory’s. For Amory was in the midst of a reminiscent reference to the Chiswicks, in the Adirondacks, and to Antionette Frothingham in a launch.

At last they all were aware that the chess-board was being closed and Mrs. Hastings had risen.

“I suppose,” she was saying, “that they have an idea here, the poor deluded creatures, that it is very late. But I tell Olivia that we are so much farther east it can’t be very late in New York at this minute, and I intend to go to bed by my watch as I always do, and that is New York time. If I were in New York I wouldn’t be sleepy now, and I’m no different here, am I? I don’t think people are half independent enough.”

Mrs. Hastings stepped round a stone god, almost faceless, that stood in a little circular depression in the floor.

“Olivia, where,” she inquired, patting the bobbing, ticking jet on her gown, “where do you think that frightful, mad, old man is?”

“I heard him cross the corridor a little while ago,” Olivia answered. “I think he went to his room.”

“I must say, Olivia,” said Mrs. Hastings with a damp sigh, “that you are very selfish where I am concerned — in this matter.”

“Ah,” said Olivia, “please, Aunt Dora. He is far too feeble to harm any one. And he’s away there on the second floor.”

“I’m sure he’s a murderer,” protested Mrs. Hastings. “He has the murderer’s eye. Mr. Hastings would have said he has. We all sleep on the ground floor here,” she continued plaintively, “because we are so high up anyway that I think the air must be just as pure as it would be up stairs. I always leave my window up the width of my handkerchief-box.”

As they went out to the great corridor Olivia spoke softly to St. George.

“Look up,” she said.

He looked, and saw that the vast circular chamber was of incalculable height, extending up to the very dome of the palace, and shaping itself to the lines of the topmost of the three huge cones. It was a great well of light, playing over strange frescoes of gods and daemons, of constellations and of beasts, and exquisite with all the secret colours of some other way of vision. As high as the eye could see, the precious metals upon the skeleton of the open roof shone in the bright light that was set there — the light on the summit of the king’s palace.

St. George turned from the glory of it and looked into her eyes.

“‘A new Heaven and a new earth,’” he said; but he did not mean the dome of light nor yet the splendour of the palace.

Manifestly, there is no use in being asleep when one can dream rather better awake. St. George wandered aimlessly between his room and Amory’s and took the time to reflect that when a man looks the way Amory did he might as well have Cupids painted on his coat.

“St. George,” Amory said soberly, “is this the way you’ve been feeling all the way here? Is this what you came for? Then, on my soul, I forgive you everything. I would have climbed ten mountains to meet Antoinette Frothingham.”

“I’ve been watching you, you son of Dixie,” said St. George darkly; “don’t you lose your head just when you need it most.”

“I have a notion yours is gone,” defended Amory critically, “and mine is only going.”

“That’s twice as dangerous,” St. George wisely opined; “besides — mine is different.”

“So is mine,” said Amory, “so is everybody’s.”

St. George stepped through the long window to the terrace. Amory didn’t care whether anybody listened; he simply longed to talk, and St. George had things to think about. He crossed the terrace to the south, and went back to the very spot where he and Olivia had stood; and there, because the night would have it no other way, he stretched along the broad wall among the vines, and lit his pipe, and lay looking out at sea. Here he was, liberated from the business of “buzzing in a corner, trifling with monosyllables,” set upon a field pleasant with hazard and without paths, to move in the primal experiences where words themselves are born. Better and more intimate names for everything seemed now almost within his ken.

He had longed unspeakably to go pilgriming, and he had forthwith been permitted to leave the world behind with its thickets and thresholds, its hesitations and confusions, its marching armies, breakfasts, friendships and the like, and to live on the edge of what will be. He thought of his mother, in her black gowns and Roman mosaic pins with a touch of yellow lace at her throat, listening to the bishop as he examined the dicta of still cloisters, and he told himself that he knew a heresy or two that were like belief. His mother and the bishop at Tübingen and on the Baltic! Curiously enough, they did not seem very remote. He adored his mother and the bishop, and so the thought of them was a part of this fairy tale. All pleasant thoughts whether of adventure or impression boast kinship, perhaps have identity. And the name of that identity was Olivia. So he “drove the night along” on the leafy parapet.

He was not far from asleep, nor perhaps from the dream of the Roman emperor who believed the sea to have come to his bedside and spoken with him, when something — he was not sure whether it was a voice or a touch — startled him awake. He rose on his elbow and looked drowsily out at the glorified blackness — as if black were no longer absence cf colour but, the veil of negative definitions having been pierced, were found to be a mystic union of colour and more inclusive than white. The very dark seemed delicately vocal and to “fill the waste with sound” no less than the wash of the waves. St. George awoke deliciously confused by a returning sense of the sweet and the joy of the night.

“‘This was the loneliest beach between two seas,’” there flitted through his mind, “‘and strange things had been done there in the ancient ages.’” He turned among the vines, half listening. “And in there is the king’s daughter,” he told himself, “and this is certainly ‘the strangest thing that ever befell between two seas.’ And I have a great mind to look up the old woman of that tale who must certainly be hereabout, dancing ‘widdershins.’”

Then, like a bright blade unsheathed in a quiet chamber, a cry of great and unmistakable fear rang out from the palace — a woman’s cry, uttered but once, and giving place to a silence that was even more terrifying. In an instant St. George was on his feet, running with all his might.

“Coming!” he called, “where are you — where are you?” And his heart pounded against his side with the certainty that the voice had been Olivia’s.

It was unmistakably Olivia’s voice that replied to him.

“Here!” she cried clearly, and St. George followed the sound and dashed through the long open window of the room next that in which he had first seen her that night.

“Here,” she repeated, “but be careful. Some one is in this room.”

“Don’t be afraid,” he cried cheerily into the dark. “It’s all right,” which is exactly what he would have said if there had been about dragons and real shades from Sidon.

The room was now in darkness, and in the dim light cast by the high moon he could at first discern nothing. He heard a silken rustling and the tap of slippered feet. The next instant the apartment was quick with light, and in the curtained entrance to an inner room, Olivia, in a brown dressing-gown, her hair vaguely bright about her flushed face, stood confronting him.

Between them, his thin hand thrown up, palm outward, to protect his eyes from the sudden light, was the old man whom St. George had last seen by the shrine on the terrace.

St. George was prepared for a mere procession of palace ghosts, but at this strange visitor he stared for an uncomprehending moment.

“What are you doing here?” he said wonderingly to him; “what in the world are you doing here?”

The old man looked uncertainly about him, one hand spread against the pillar behind him, the other fumbling at his throat.

“I think,” he answered almost indistinguishably, “I think that I meant to sit here — to sit in the room beyond, where the mock stars shine.”

Olivia uttered an exclamation.

“How could he possibly know that?” she said.

“But what does he mean?” asked St. George.

She crossed swiftly to a portiere hanging by slender rings from the full height of the lofty room, and at her bidding St. George followed her. She pushed aside the curtain, revealing a huge cave of the dark, a room whose walls were sunk in shadow. But overhead the ceiling was constellated in stars, so that it seemed to St. George as if he were looking into a nearer heaven, homing the far lights that he knew. The Pleiades, Orion, and the Southern Cross, blazing down with inconceivable brilliance, were caught and held captive in the cup of this nearer sky.

“It is like this at night,” Olivia said, “but we see nothing in the daytime, save the vague outlines of here and there a star. But how could he have known? There is no other door save this.”

The old man had followed them and stood, his eyes fixed on the shining points.

“It is done well,” he said softly, “it makes one feel the firmament.”

St. George, thrilling with the strangeness of what he saw, and the strangeness of being there with Olivia and this weird old man of the mountain, turned toward him almost fearfully. How did he know, indeed?

“Ah well,” he said, striving to reassure her, “I’ve no doubt he has wandered in here some evening, while you were at dinner. No doubt —”

He stopped abruptly, his eyes fixed on the old man’s hand. For as he lifted it St. George had thought that something glittered. Without hesitation he caught the old man’s arm about the wrist, and turned his hand in his own palm. In the thin fingers he found a small sealed tube, filled with something that looked like particles of nickel.

“Do you mind telling me what that is?” asked St. George.

Old Malakh’s eyes, liquid and brown and very peaceful, met his own without rebuke.

“Do you mean the gem?” he asked gently. “It is a very beautiful ruby.”

Then St. George saw upon the hand that held the sealed tube a ring of matchless workmanship, set with a great ruby that smouldered in the shadow where they stood. Olivia looked at St. George with startled eyes.

“He was not wearing this when we first saw him,” she said. “I haven’t seen him wearing it at all.”

St. George confronted the old man then and spoke with some determination.

“Will you please tell us,” he said, “what there is in this tube, and how you came by this ring?”

Old Malakh looked down reflectively at his hand, and back to St. George’s face. It was wonderful, the air of courtliness and urbanity and delicate breeding which persisted through age and infirmity and the fallow mind.

“I wish that I might tell you,” he said humbly, “but I have only little lights in my head, instead of words. And when I say them, they do not mean — what they shine. Do you not see? That is why every one laughs. But I know what the lights say.”

St. George looked at Olivia helplessly.

“Will you tell me where his room is?” he said, “and I’ll go back with him. I don’t know what to make of this, quite, but don’t be frightened. It’s all right. Didn’t you say he is on the second floor?”

“Yes, but don’t go alone with him,” begged Olivia suddenly, “let me call some of the servants. We don’t know what he may do.”

St. George shook his head, smiling a little in sheer boyish delight at that “we.” “We” is a very wonderful word, when it is not put to unimportant uses by kings, editors and the like.

“I’d rather not, thank you,” he said. “I’ll have a talk with him, I think.”

“His room is at the top of the stair, on the left,” said Olivia reluctantly, “but I wish —”

“We shall get on all right,” St. George assured her, “and don’t let this worry you, will you? I was smoking on the terrace. I’ll be there for a while yet. Good night,” he said from the doorway.

“Good night,” said Olivia. “Good night — and, oh, I thank you.”

St. George’s expectation of having a talk with the old man was, however, unfounded. Old Malakh led the way to his room — a great place of carven seats and a frowning bed-canopy and high windows, and doors set deep in stone; and he begged St. George to sit down and permitted him to examine the sealed tube filled with little particles that looked like nickel, and spoke with gentle irrelevance the while. At the last St. George left him, feeling as if he were committing not so much an indignity as a social solecism when he locked the door upon the lonely creature, using for the purpose a key-like implement chained to the lock without and having a ring about the size of the iron crown of the Lombards.

“Good night,” old Malakh told him courteously, “good night. But yet all nights are good — save the night of the heart.”

St. George went back to the terrace. For hours he paced the paths of that little upper garden or lay upon the wall among the pungent vines. But now he forgot the iridescent dark and the companion-sea and the high moon and the king’s palace, for it was not these that made the necromancy of the night. It was permitted him to watch before the threshold while Olivia slept, as lovers had watched in the youth of the world. Whatever the morrow held, to-night had been added to yesternight. Not until the dawn of that morrow whitened the sky and drew from the vapourous plain the first far towers of Med, the King’s City, did St. George say good night to her glimmering windows.

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