Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 21

Open Secrets

“Will you have tea?” asked Olivia.

St. George brought a deck cushion and tucked it in the willow steamer chair and said adoringly that he would have tea. Tea. In a world where the essentials and the inessentials are so deliciously confused, to think that tea, with some one else, can be a kind of Heaven.

“Two lumps?” pursued Olivia.

“Three, please,” St. George directed, for the pure joy of watching her hands. There were no tongs.

“Aren’t the rest going to have some?” Olivia absently shared her attention, tinkling delicately about among the tea things. “Doesn’t every one want a cup of tea?” she inquired loud enough for nobody to hear. St. George, shifting his shoulder from the rail, looked vaguely over the deck of The Aloha, sighed contentedly, and smiled back at her. No one else, it appeared, would have tea; and there was none to regret it.

St. George’s cursory inspection had revealed the others variously absorbed, though they were now all agreed in breathing easily since Barnay, interlarding rational speech with Irishisms of thanksgiving, had announced five minutes before that the fires were up and that in half an hour The Aloha might weigh anchor. The only thing now left to desire was to slip clear of the shadow of the black reaches of Yaque, shouldering the blue.

Meanwhile, Antoinette and Amory sat in the comparative seclusion of the bow with their backs to the forward deck, and it was definitely manifest to every one how it would be with them, but every one was simply glad and dismissed the matter with that. Mr. Frothingham, in his steamer chair, looked like a soft collapsible tube of something; Bennietod, at ease upon the uncovered boards of the deck, was circumspectly having cheese sandwiches and wastefully shooting the ship’s rockets into the red sunset, in general celebration; and Rollo, having taken occasion respectfully to submit to whomsoever it concerned that fact is ever stranger than fiction, had gone below. Mr. Otho Holland and Little Cawthorne — but their smiles were like different names for the same thing — were toasting each other in something light and dry and having a bouquet which Mr. Holland, who ought to know, compared favourably with certain vintages of 1000 B.C. In a hammock near them reclined Mrs. Medora Hastings, holding two kinds of smelling salts which invariably revived her simply by inducing the mental effort of deciding which was the better. Her hair, which was exceedingly pretty, now rippled becomingly about her flushed face and was guiltless of side-combs — she had lost them both down a chasm in that headlong flight from the cliff’s summit, and they irrecoverably reposed in the bed of some brook of the Miocene period. And Mrs. Hastings, her hand in that of her brother, lay in utter silence, smiling up at him in serene content.

For King Otho of Yaque was turning his back upon his island domain for ever. In that hurried flight across the Eurychôrus among his distracted subjects, his resolution had been taken. Jarvo and Akko, the adieux to whom had been every one’s sole regret in leaving the island, had miraculously found their way to the king and his party in their flight, and were despatched to Mount Khalak for such of their belongings as they could collect, and the island sovereign was well content.

“Ah well now,” he had just observed, languidly surveying the tropical horizon through a cool glass of winking amber bubbles, “one must learn that to touch is far more delicate than to lift. It is more wonderful to have been the king of one moment than the ruler of many. It is better to have stood for an instant upon a rainbow than to have taken a morning walk through a field of clouds. The principle has long been understood, but few have had — shall I say the courage? — to practise it. Yet ‘courage’ is a term from-the-shoulder, and what I require is a word of finger-tips, over-tones, ultra-rays — a word for the few who understand that to leave a thing is more exquisite than to outwear it. It is by its very fineness circumscribed — a feminine virtue. Women understand it and keep it secret. I flatter myself that I have possessed the high moment, vanished against the noon. Ah, my dear fellow —” he added, lifting his glass to St. George’s smile.

But little Cawthorne — all reality in his heliotrope outing and duck and grey curls — raised a characteristic plaint.

“Oh, but I’ve done it,” he mournfully reviewed. “When’ll I ever be in another island, in front of another vacated throne? Why didn’t I move into the palace, and set up a natty, up-to-date little republic? I could have worn a crown as a matter of taste — what’s the use of a democracy if you aren’t free to wear a crown? And what kind of American am I, anyway, with this undeveloped taste for acquiring islands? If they ever find this out at the polls my vote’ll be challenged. What?”

“Aw whee!” said Bennietod, intent upon a Roman candle, “wha’ do you care, Mr. Cawt’orne? You don’t hev to go back fer to be a child-slave to Chillingwort’. Me, I’ve gotta good call to jump overboard now an’ be de sonny of a sea-horse, dead to rights!”

St. George looked at them all affectionately, unconscious that already the experience of the last three days was slipping back into the sheathing past, like a blade used. But he was dawningly aware, as he sat there at Olivia’s feet in glorious content, that he was looking at them all with new eyes. It was as if he had found new names for them all; and until long afterward one does not know that these moments of bestowing new names mark the near breathing of the god.

The silence of Mrs. Hastings and her quiet devotion to her brother somehow gave St. George a new respect for her. Over by the wheel-house something made a strange noise of crying, and St. George saw that Mr. Frothingham sat holding a weird little animal, like a squirrel but for its stumpy tail and great human eyes, which he had unwittingly stepped on among the rocks. The little thing was licking his hand, and the old lawyer’s face was softened and glowing as he nursed it and coaxed it with crumbs. As he looked, St. George warmed to them all in new fellowship and, too, in swift self-reproach; for in what had seemed to him but “broad lines and comic masks” he suddenly saw the authority and reality of homely hearts. The better and more intimate names for everything which seemed now within his grasp were more important than Yaque itself. He remembered, with a thrill, how his mother had been wont to tell him that a man must walk through some sort of fairy-land, whether of imagination or of the heart, before he can put much in or take much from the market-place. And lo! this fairy-land of his finding had proved — must it not always prove? — the essence of all Reality.

His eyes went to Olivia’s face in a flash of understanding and belief.

“Don’t you see?” he said, quite as if they two had been talking what he had thought.

She waited, smiling a little, thrilled by his certainty of her sympathy.

“None of this happened really,” triumphantly explained St. George, “I met you at the Boris, did I not? Therefore, I think that since then you have graciously let me see you for the proper length of time, and at last we’ve fallen in love just as every one else does. And true lovers always do have trouble, do they not? So then, Yaque has been the usual trouble and happiness, and here we are — engaged.”

“I’m not engaged,” Olivia protested serenely, “but I see what you mean. No, none of it happened,” she gravely agreed. “It couldn’t, you know. Anybody will tell you that.”

In her eyes was the sparkle of understanding which made St. George love her more every time that it appeared. He noted, the white cloth frock, and the coat of hunting pink thrown across her chair, and he remembered that in the infinitesimal time that he had waited for her outside the Palace of the Litany, she must have exchanged for these the coronation robe and jewels of Queen Mitygen. St. George liked that swift practicality in the race of faery, though he was completely indifferent to Mrs. Hastings’ and Antoinette’s claims to it; and he wondered if he were to love Olivia more for everything that she did, how he could possibly live long enough to tell her. When one has been to Yaque the simplest gifts and graces resolve themselves into this question.

The Aloha gently freed herself from the shallow green pocket where she had lain through three eventful days, and slipped out toward the waste of water bound by the flaunting autumn of the west. An island wind, fragrant of bark and secret berries, blew in puffs from the steep. A gull swooped to her nest in a cranny of the basalt. From below a servant came on deck, his broad American face smiling over a tray of glasses and decanters and tinkling ice. It was all very tranquil and public and almost commonplace — just the high tropic seas at the moment of their unrestrained sundown, and the odour of tea-cakes about the pleasantly-littered deck. And for the moment, held by a common thought, every one kept silent. Now that The Aloha was really moving toward home, the affair seemed suddenly such a gigantic impossibility that every one resented every one else’s knowing what a trick had been played. It was as if the curtain had just fallen and the lights of the auditorium had flashed up after the third act, and they had all caught one another breathless or in tears, pretending that the tragedy had really happened.

“Promise me something,” begged St. George softly, in sudden alarm, born of this inevitable aspect; “promise me that when we get to New York you are not going to forget all about Yaque — and me — and believe that none of us ever happened.”

Olivia looked toward the serene mystery of the distance.

“New York,” she said only, “think of seeing you in New York — now.”

“Was I of more account in Yaque?” demanded St. George anxiously.

“Sometimes,” said Olivia adorably, “I shall tell you that you were. But that will be only because I shall have an idea that in Yaque you loved me more.”

“Ah, very well then. And sometimes,” said St. George contentedly, “when we are at dinner I shall look down the table at you sitting beside some one who is expounding some baneful literary theory, and I shall think: What do I care? He doesn’t know that she is really the Princess of Far–Away. But I do.”

“And he won’t know anything about our motor ride, alone, the night that I was kidnapped, either — the literary-theory person,” Olivia tranquilly took away his breath by observing.

St. George looked up at her quickly and, secretly, Olivia thought that if he had been attractive when he was courageous he was doubly so with the present adorably abashed look in his eyes.

“When — alone?” St. George asked unconvincingly.

She laughed a little, looking down at him in a reproof that was all approbation, and to be reproved like that is the divinest praise.

“How did you know?” protested St. George in fine indignation. “Besides,” he explained, “I haven’t an idea what you mean.”

“I guessed about that ride,” she went on, “the night before last, when you were walking up and down outside my window. I don’t know what made me — and I think it was very forward of me. Do you want to know something?” she demanded, looking away.

“More than anything,” declared St. George. “What?”

“I think —” Olivia said slowly, “that it began — then — just when I first thought how wonderful that ride would have been. Except — that it had begun a great while before,” she ended suddenly.

And at these enigmatic words St. George sent a quick look over the forward deck. It was of no use. Mr. Frothingham was well within range.

“Heavens, good heavens, how happy I am,” said St. George instead.

“And then,” Olivia went on presently, “sometimes when there are a lot of people about — literary-theory persons and all — I shall look across at you, differently, and that will mean that you are to remember the exact minute when you looked in the window up at the palace, on the mountain, and I saw you. Won’t it?”

“It will,” said St. George fervently. “Don’t try to persuade me that there wasn’t any such mountain,” he challenged her. “I suppose,” he added in wonder, “that lovers have been having these secret signs time out of mind — and we never knew.”

Olivia drew a little breath of content.

“Bless everybody,” she said.

So they made invasion of that pure, dim world before them; and the serene mystery of the distance came like a thought, drawn from a state remote and immortal, to clasp the hand of There in the hand of Here.

“And then sometimes,” St. George went on, his exultation proving greater than his discretion, “we’ll take the yacht and pretend we’re going back —”

He stopped abruptly with a quick indrawn breath and the hope that she had not noticed. He was, by several seconds, too late.

“Whose yacht is it?” Olivia asked promptly. “I wondered.”

St. George had dreaded the question. Someway, now that it was all over and the prize was his, he was ashamed that he had not won it more fairly and humiliated that he was not what she believed him, a pillar of the Evening Sentinel. But Amory had miraculously heard and turned himself about.

“It’s his,” he said briefly, “I may as well confess to you, Miss Holland,” he enlarged somewhat, “he’s a great cheat. The Aloha is

his, and so am I, busy body and idle soul, for using up his yacht and his time on a newspaper story. You were the ‘story,’ you know.”

“But,” said Olivia in bewilderment, “I don’t understand. Surely —”

“Nothing whatever is sure, Miss Holland,” Amory sadly assured her, but his eyes were smiling behind his pince-nez. “You would think one might be sure of him. But it isn’t so. Me, you may depend upon me,” he impressed it lightly. “I’m what I say I am-a poor beggar of a newspaper man, about to be held to account by one Chillingworth for this whole millenial occurrence, and sent off to a political convention to steady me, unless I’m fired. But St. George, he’s a gay dilettante.”

Then Amory resumed a better topic of his own; and Olivia, when she understood, looked down at her lover as miserably as one is able when one is perfectly happy.

“Oh,” she said, “and up there — in the palace today — I did think for a minute that perhaps you wanted me to marry the prince so that — they could —.”

One could smile now at the enormity of that.

“So that I could put it in the paper?” he said. “But, you see, I never could put it in any paper, even if I didn’t love you. Who would believe me? A thousand years from now — maybe less — the Evening Sentinel, if it is still in existence, can publish the story, perhaps. Until then I’m afraid they’ll have to confine themselves to the doings of the precincts.”

Olivia waived the whole matter for one of vaster importance.

“Then why did you come to Yaque?” she demanded.

Mr. Frothingham had left his place by the wheel-house and wandered forward. The steamer chair had a back that was both broad and high, and one sitting in its shadow was hermetically veiled from the rest of the deck. So St. George bent forward, and told her.

After that they sat in silence, and together they looked back toward the island with its black rocks smitten to momentary gold by a last javelin of light. There it lay — the land locking away as realities all the fairy-land of speculation, the land of the miracles of natural law. They had walked there, and had glimpsed the shadowy threshold of the Morning. Suppose, St. George thought, that instead of King Otho, with his delicate sense of the merely visible, a great man had chanced to be made sovereign of Yaque? And instead of Mr. Frothingham, slave to the contestable, and Little Cawthorne in bondage to humour, and Amory and himself swept off their feet by a heavenly romance, suppose a party of savants and economists had arrived in Yaque, with a poet or two to bring away the fire — what then? St. George lost the doubt in the noon of his own certainty. There could be no greater good, he chanted to the god who had breathed upon him, than this that he and Amory shared now with the wise and simple world, the world of the resonant new names. He even doubted that, save in degree, there could be a purer talisman than the spirit that inextinguishably shone in the face of the childlike old lawyer as the strange little animal nestled in his coat and licked his hand. And these were open secrets. Open secrets of the ultimate attainment.

They watched the land dissolving in the darkness like a pearl in wine of night. But at last, when momentarily they had turned happy eyes to each other’s faces, they looked again and found that the dusk, taking ancient citadels with soundless tread, had received the island. And where on the brow of the mountain had sprung the white pillars of the king’s palace glittered only the early stars.

“Crown jewels,” said Olivia softly, “for everybody’s head.”

This web edition published by:

The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

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