Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 17

Beneath the Surface

Up came the dusk to the doors of the king’s palace — a hurry of grey banners flowing into the empty ways where the sun had been. Upon this high dominion Night could not advance unheralded, and here the Twilight messengered her coming long after the dark lay thick on the lowland and on the toiling water.

St. George, leaning from Amory’s window, looked down on the shadows rising in exquisite hesitation, as if they came curling from the lighted censer of Med. There is no doubt at all, Olivia had said gravely, that the dusk is patterned, if only one could see it — figured in unearthly flowers, in wandering stars, in upper-air sprites, grey-winged, grey-bodied, so that sometimes glimpsing them one fancies them to be little living goblins. He smiled, remembering her words, and glanced over his shoulder down the long room where the other light was now beginning to creep about, first expressing, then embracing the chamber dusk. It seemed precisely the moment when something delicate should be caught passing from gloom to radiance, to be thankfully remembered. But only many-winged colours were visible, though he could hear a sound like little murmurous speech in the dusky roof where the air had a recurrent fashion of whispering knowingly.

Indeed, the air everywhere in the palace had a fashion of whispering knowingly, for it was a place of ghostly draughts and blasts creeping through chambers cleft by yawning courts and open corridors and topped by that skeleton dome. And as St. George turned from the window he saw that the door leading into the hall, urged by some nimble gust, imaginative or prying, had swung ajar.

St. George mechanically crossed the room to close the door, noting how the pale light warmed the stones of that cave-like corridor. With his hand upon the latch his eyes fell on something crossing the corridor, like a shadow dissolving from gloom to gloom. Well beyond the open door, stealing from pillar to pillar in the dimness and moving with that swiftness and slyness which proclaim a covert purpose as effectually as would a bell, he saw old Malakh.

Now St. George was in felt-soled slippers and he was coatless, because in the adjoining room Jarvo, with a heated, helmet-like apparatus, was attempting to press his blue serge coat. In that room too was Amory, catching glimpses of himself in a mirror of polished steel, but within reach, on the divan where Jarvo had just laid it, was Amory’s coat; and St. George caught that up, slipped it on, and was off down the corridor after the old man, moving as swiftly and slyly as he. St. George had no great faith in him or in what he might know, but the old man puzzled him, and mystification is the smell of a pleasant powder.

The palace was very still. Presumably, Mrs. Hastings and Mr. Frothingham were already at chess in the drawing-room awaiting dinner. St. George heard a snatch of distant laughter, in quick little lilts like a song, and it occurred to him that its echo there was as if one were to pin a ruffle of lace to the grim stones. Some one answered the laugh, and he heard the murmurous touching of soft skirts entering the corridor as he dived down the ancient dark of one of the musty passages. There the silence was resumed. In the palace it was as though the stillness were some living sleeper, waking with protests, thankful for the death of any echo.

No one was in the gallery. St. George, stepping softly, followed as near as he dared to that hurrying figure, flitting down the dark. A still narrower hallway connected the main portion of the palace with a shoulder of the south wing, and into this the old man turned and skirted familiarly the narrow sunken pool that ran the length of the floor, drawing the light to its glassy surface and revealing the shadows sent clustering to the indistinguishable roof.

Midway the gallery sprang a narrow stairway, let in the wall and once leading to the ancient armoury, but now disused and piled with rubbish. Old Malakh went up two steps of this old stairway, turned aside, and slipped away so swiftly that his amazed pursuer caught no more than an after-flutter of his dun-coloured garments. St. George, his softly-clad feet making no noise upon the stones, bounded forward and saw, through a triangular aperture in the stones, and set so low that a man must crouch upon the step to enter, a yawning place of darkness.

He might very well have been taking his life in his hands, for he could have no idea whether the aperture led to the imperial dungeons or to the imperial rain-water cistern; but St. George instantly bent and slipped down into that darkness, thick with the dust of the flight of the old man. With the distinctly pleasurable sensation of being still alive he found himself standing upright upon an uneven floor of masonry. He thrust out his arms and touched sides of mossy rock. Then just before him a pale flame flickered. The old man had kindled a little taper that hardly did more than make shallow hollows in the darkness through which he moved.

It was easy to follow now, and St. George went breathlessly on past the rudely-hewn walls and giant pillars of that hidden way. He might have been lost with ease in any of the lower processes of the palace which they had that morning visited; but he could not be deceived about the chambers which he had once seen, and this subterranean course was new to him. Was it, he wondered, new to Olivia, and to Jarvo? Else why had it been omitted in that morning’s search? And was this strange guide going on at random, or did he know — something? A suspicion leaped to St. George’s mind that made his heart beat. The king — might he be down here after all, and might this weird old man know where? His own consciousness became chiefly conjecture, and every nerve was alert in the pursuit; not the less because he realized that if he were to lose this strange conductor who went on before, either in secure knowledge or in utter madness, he himself might wander for the rest of his life in that nether world.

Past grim latchless doors sealing, with appropriate gestures, their forgotten secrets, past outlying passages winding into the heart of the mountain, past niches filled with shapeless crumbling rubbish they hurried — the mad old man and his bewildered pursuer. Twice the way turned, gradually narrowing until two could hardly have passed there, and at last apparently terminated in a short flight of steps. Old Malakh mounted with difficulty and St. George, waiting, saw him standing before a blank stone wall. Immediately and without effort the old man’s scanty strength served to displace one of the wall’s huge stones which hung upon a secret pivot and rolled noiselessly within. He stepped through the aperture, and St. George sprang behind him, watched his moment to cross the threshold, crouched in the leaping shadow of the displaced stone and looked — looked with the undistinguishing amazement that a man feels in the panorama of his dreams.

The room was small and low and set with a circular bench, running about a central pillar. On the table was a confusion of things brilliantly phosphorescent, emitting soft light, and mingled with bulbs, coils and crucibles lying in a litter of egg-shells, feathers, ivory and paper. But it was not these that held St. George incredulous; it was the fire that glowed in their midst — a fire that leaped and trembled and blazed inextinguishable colour, smouldering, sparkling, tossing up a spray of strange light, lambent with those wizard hues of the pennons and streamers floating joyously from the dome of the Palace of the Litany — the fire from the subject hearts of a thousand jewels. There could be no doubting what he saw. There, flung on the table from the mouth of a carven casket and harbouring the captive light of ages gone, glittered what St. George knew would be the gems of the Hereditary Treasure of the kings of Yaque.

But for old Malakh to know where the jewels were — that was as amazing as was their discovery. St. George, breathing hard in his corner, watched the long, fine hands of the old man trembling among the delicate tubes and spindles, lingering lovingly among the stones, touching among the necklaces and coronals of the dead queens whose dust lay not far away. It was as if he were summoning and discarding something shining and imponderable, like words. The contents of the casket which all Yaque had mourned lay scattered in this secret place of which only this strange, mad creature, a chance pensioner at the palace, had knowledge.

Suddenly the memory of Balator’s words smote St. George with new perception. “He walks the streets of Med,” Balator had told him at the banquet, “saying ‘Melek, Melek,’ which is to say ‘king,’ and so he is seeking the king. But he is mad, and he weeps; and therefore they pretend to believe that he says, ‘Malakh,’ which is to say ‘salt,’ and they call him that, for his tears.”

Could old Malakh possibly know something of the king? The hope returned to St. George insistently, and he watched, spending his thought in new and extravagant conjecture, his mental vision blurring the details of that heaped-up, glistening confusion; and on the opposite side of the table the old man lifted and laid down that rainbow stuff of dreams, delighting in it, speaking softly above it. Had he been the king’s friend, St. George was asking — but why did no one know anything of him? Or had he been an enemy who had done the king violence — but how was that possible, in his age and feebleness? Mystifying as the matter was, St. George exulted as much as he marveled; for it would be his, at all events, to place the jewels in Olivia’s hands and clear her father’s name; he longed to step out of the dark and confront the old man and seize the casket out of hand, and he would probably have done so and taken his chances at getting back to the upper world, had he not been chained to his corner by the irresistible hope that the old man knew something more — something about the king. And while he wondered, reflecting that at any cost he must prevent the replacing of the pivotal stone, he saw old Malakh take up his taper, turn away from the table, and open a door which the room’s central pillar had cut from his view.

He was around the table in an instant. The open door revealed three stone steps which the old man was ascending, one at a time. Following him cautiously St. George heard a door grate outward at the head of the stair, saw the taper move forward in darkness, and the next moment found himself standing in the room of the tombs of the kings of Yaque. And he saw that the panel which had swung inward to admit them was set low in the monolithic tomb of King Abibaal himself.

Old Malakh had crossed swiftly to the wall opposite the tomb, and stood before the vacant niche which was to be occupied, as Jarvo had announced, by “His Majesty, King Otho, by the grace of God.” There, setting aside his taper, the old man stretched his arms upward to the empty shelf and with a gesture of inconceivable weariness bowed his head upon them and stood silent, the leaping candle-light silvering his hair.

“Upon my soul,” thought St George with finality, “he’s murdered him. Old Malakh has murdered the king, and it’s driven him crazy.”

With that he did step out of the dark, and he laid his hand suddenly upon the old man’s shoulder.

“Malakh,” he said, “what have you done with the king?”

The old man lifted his head and turned toward St. George a face of singular calm. It was as if so many phantoms vexed his brain that a strange reality was of little consequence. But as his eyes met those of St. George a sudden dimness came over them, the lids fluttered and dropped, and his lips barely formed his words:

“The king,” he said. “I did not leave the king. It was the king who somehow went away and left me here —”

He threw out his hands blindly, tottered and swayed from the wall; and St. George received him as he fell, measuring his length upon the stones before King Otho’s future tomb.

St. George caught down the light and knelt beside him. Death seemed to have come “pressing within his face,” and breathing hardly disquieted his breast. St. George fumbled at the old man’s robe, and beneath his fingers the heart fluttered never so faintly. He loosened the cloth at the withered throat, passed his hand over the still forehead, and looked desperately about him.

The other inmates of the palace were, he reflected, about two good city blocks from him; and he doubted if he could ever find his unaided way back to them. Mechanically, though he knew that he carried no flask, he felt conscientiously through his pockets — a habit of the boy in perplexity which never deserts the man in crises. In the inside pocket of the coat that he was wearing — Amory’s coat — his fingers suddenly closed about something made of glass. He seized it and drew it forth.

It was a little vase of rock-crystal, ornamented with gold medallions, covered with exquisite and precise engraving of great beauty and variety of design — gryphons, serpents, winged discs, men contending with lions. St. George stared at it uncomprehendingly. In the press of events of the last eight-and-forty hours Amory had quite forgotten to mention to him the prince’s intended gift of wine, almost three thousand years old, sealed in Phoenicia.

St. George drew the stopper. In an instant an odour, spicy, penetrating, delicious, saluted him and gave life to the dead air of the room. For a moment he hesitated. He knew that the flask had not been among Amory’s belongings and that he himself had never seen it before. But the odour was, he thought, unmistakable, and so powerful that already he felt as if the liquor were racing through his own veins. He touched it to his lips; it was like a full draught of some marvelous elixir. Sudden confidence sat upon St. George, and thanking his guiding stars for the fortunate chance, he unhesitatingly set the flask to the old man’s lips.

There was a long-drawn, shuddering breath, a fluttering of the eyelids, a movement of the limbs, and after that old Malakh lay quite still upon the stones. Once more St. George thrust his hand within the bosom of the loose robe, and the heart was beating rapidly and regularly and with amazing force. In a moment deep breaths succeeded one another, filling the breast of the unconscious man; but the eyelids did not unclose, and St. George took up the taper and bent to scan the quiet face.

St. George looked, and sank to his knees and looked again, holding the light now here, now there, and peering in growing bewilderment. What he saw he was wholly unable to define. It was as if a mask were slowly to dissolve and yet to lie upon the features which it had covered, revealing while it still made mock of concealing. Colour was in the lips, colour was stealing into the changed face. The changed face — changed, St. George could not tell how; and the longer he looked, and though he rubbed his eyes and turned them toward the dark and then looked again, moving the taper, he could neither explain nor define what had happened.

He set the candle on the floor and sprang away from the quiet figure, searching the dark. The great silent place, with its shoulders of sarcophagi jutting from the gloom was black save for the little ring of pallid light about that prostrate form. St. George sent his hand to his forehead, and shook himself a bit, and straightened his shoulders with a smile.

“It must be the stuff you’ve tasted,” he addressed himself solemnly. “Heaven knows what it was. It’s the stuff you’ve tasted.”

Though he had barely touched his lips to the rock-crystal vase St. George’s blood was pounding through his veins, and a curious exhilaration filled him. He looked about at the rims and corners of the tombs caught by the light, and he laughed a little — though this was not in the least what he intended — because it passed through his mind that if King Abibaal and Queen Mitygen, for example, might be treated with the contents of the mysterious vase they would no doubt come forth, Abibaal with memories of the Queen of Sheba in his eyes, and Queen Mitygen with her casket of Alexander’s letters. Then St. George went down on his knees again, and raised the old man’s head until it rested upon his own breast, and he passed the candle before his face, his hand trembling so that the light flickered and leaped up.

This time there was no mistaking. The tissues of old Malakh’s ashen face and throat and pallid hands were undergoing some subtle transfiguration. It was as if new blood had come encroaching in their veins. It was as if the muscles were become firm and full, as if the wrinkled skin had been made smooth, the lips grown fresh, as if — the word came to St. George as he stared, spell-stricken — as if youth had returned.

St. George slipped down upon the stones and sat motionless. There was a little blue, forked vein on the man’s forehead, and upon this he fastened his eyes, mechanically following it downward and back. Lines had crossed it, and there had been a deep cleft between the eyes, but these had disappeared, leaving the brow almost smooth. The cheeks were now tinged with colour, and the throat, where he had pulled aside the robe, showed firm and white. Mechanically St. George passed his hand along the inert arm, and it was no more withered than his own — the arm of no greybeard, but of a man in the prime of life. What did it mean — what did it mean? St. George waited, the blood throbbing in his temples, a mist before his eyes. What did it mean?

The minutes dragged by and still the unconscious man did not stir or unclose his eyes. From time to time St. George pressed his hand to the heart, and found it beating on rhythmically, powerfully. When he found himself sitting with averted head, as if he were afraid to look back at that changing face, a fear seized him that he had lost his reason and that what he imagined himself to see was a phase of madness. So he left the old man’s side and sturdily tramped away into the huge dark of the room, resolutely explaining to himself that this was all very natural; the old man had been ill, improperly nourished, and the powerful stimulant of the wine had partly restored him. But even while he went over it St. George knew in his heart that what had happened was nothing that could be so explained, nothing that could be explained at all by anything within his ken.

His footsteps echoed startlingly on the stones, and the chill breath of the place smote his face as he moved. He stumbled on a displaced tile and pitched forward upon a jagged corner of sarcophagus, and reeled as if at a blow from some arm of the darkness. The taper rays struck a length of wall before him, minting from the gloom a sheet of pale orchids clinging to the unclean rock. St. George remembered a green slope, spangled with crocuses and wild strawberries, coloured like the orchids but lying under free sky, in free air. It seemed only a trick of Chance that he was not now lying on that far slope, wherever it was, instead of facing these ghost blooms in this ghost place. Back there, where the light glimmered beside the tomb of King Abibaal, nobody could tell what awaited him. If the man could change like this, might he not take on some shape too hideous to bear in the silence? St. George stood still, suddenly clenching his hands, trying to reach out through the dark and to grasp — himself, the self that seemed slipping away from him. But was he mad already, he wondered angrily, and hurried back to the far flickering light, stumbling, panting, not daring to look at the figure on the floor, not daring not to look.

He resolutely caught up the candle and peered once more at the face. As steadily and swiftly as change in the aspect of the sky the face had gone on changing. St. George had followed to the chamber an old tottering man; the figure before him was a man of not more than fifty years.

St. George let fall the candle, which flickered down, upright in its socket; and he turned away, his hand across his eyes. Since this was manifestly impossible he must be mad, something in the stuff that he had tasted had driven him mad. He felt strong as a lion, strong enough to lift that prostrate figure and to carry it through the winding passages into the midst of those above stairs, and to beg them in mercy to tell him how the man looked. What would she say? He wondered what Olivia would say. Dinner would be over and they would be in the drawing-room — Olivia and Amory and Antoinette Frothingham; already the white room and the lights and Antoinette’s laughter seemed to him of another world, a world from which he had irrevocably passed. Yet there they were above, the same roof covering them, and they did not know that down here in this place of the dead he, St. George, was beyond all question going mad.

With a cry he pulled off Amory’s coat, flung it over the unconscious man, and rushed out into the blackness of the corridor. He would not take the light — the man must not die alone there in the dark — and besides he had heard that the mad could see as well in the dark as in the light. Or was it the blind who could see in the dark? No doubt it was the blind. However, he could find his way, he thought triumphantly, and ran on, dragging his hand along the slippery stones of the wall — he could find his way. Only he must call out, to tell them who it was that was lost. So he called himself by name, aloud and sternly, and after that he kept on quietly enough, serene in the conviction that he had regained his self-control, fighting to keep his mind from returning to the face that changed before his eyes, like the appearances in the puppet shows. But suddenly he became conscious that it was his own name that he went shouting through the passages; and that was openly absurd, he reasoned, since if he wanted to be found he must call some one else’s name. But he must hurry — hurry — hurry; no one could tell what might be happening back there to that face that changed.

“Olivia!” he shouted, “Amory! Jarvo — oh, Jarvo! Rollo, you scoundrel —”

Whereat the memory that Rollo was somewhere on a yacht assailed him, and he pressed on, blindly and in silence, until glimmering before him he saw a light shining from an open door. Then he rushed forward and with a groan of relief threw himself into the room. Opposite the door loomed the grim sarcophagus of King Abibaal, and beside it on the floor lay the figure with the face that changed. He had gone a circle in those tortuous passages, and this was the room of the tombs of the kings.

He dragged himself across the chamber toward the still form. He must look again; no one could tell what might have happened. He pulled down the coat and looked. And there was surely nothing in the delicate, handsome, English-looking face upturned to his to give him new horror. It was only that he had come down here in the wake of a tottering old creature, and that here in his place lay a man who was not he. Which was manifestly impossible.

Mechanically St. George’s hand went to the man’s heart. It was beating regularly and powerfully, and deep breaths were coming from the full, healthily-coloured lips. For a moment St. George knelt there, his blood tingling and pricking in his veins and pulsing in his temples. Then he swayed and fell upon the stones.

When St. George opened his eyes it was ten o’clock of the following morning, though he felt no interest in that. There was before him a great rectangle of light. He lifted his head and saw that the light appeared to flow from the interior of the tomb of King Abibaal. The next moment Amory’s cheery voice, pitched high in consternation and relief, made havoc among the echoes with a background of Jarvo’s smooth thanksgiving for the return of adôn.

St. George, coatless, stiff from the hours on the mouldy stones, dragged himself up and turned his eyes in fear upon the figure beside him. It flashed hopefully through his mind that perhaps it had not changed, that perhaps he had dreamed it all, that perhaps . . .

By his first glance that hope was dispelled. From beneath Amory’s coat on the floor an arm came forth, pushing the coat aside, and a man slenderly built, with a youthful, sensitive face and somewhat critically-drooping lids, sat up leisurely and looked about him in slow surprise, kindling to distinct amusement.

“Upon my soul,” he said softly, “what an admission — what an admission! I can not have made such a night of it in years.”

Upon which Jarvo dropped unhesitatingly to his knees.

“Melek! Melek!” he cried, prostrating himself again and again. “The King! The King! The gods have permitted the possible.”

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