Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 7

Dusk, and So on

Dusk on the tropic seas is a ceremony performed with reverence, as if the rising moon were a priestess come among her silver vessels. Shadows like phantom sails dip through the dark and lie idle where unseen crafts with unexplained cargoes weigh anchor in mid-air. One almost hears the water cunningly lap upon their invisible sides.

To Little Cawthorne, lying luxuriously in a hammock on the deck of The Aloha, fancies like these crowded pleasantly, and slipped away or were merged in snatches of remembered songs. His hands were clasped behind his head, one foot was tapping the deck to keep the hammock in motion while strange compounds of tune and time broke aimlessly from his lips.

“Meet me by moonlight alone,

And then I will tell you a tale.

Must be told in the moonlight alone

In the grove at the end of the vale”

he caroled contentedly.

Amory, the light of his pipe cheerfully glowing, lay at full length in a steamer chair. The Aloha was bounding briskly forward, a solitary speck on the bosom of darkening purple, and the men sitting in the companionship of silence, which all the world praises and seldom attains, had been engaging in that most entertaining of pastimes, the comparison of present comfort with past toil. Little Cawthorne’s satisfaction flowered in speech.

“Two weeks ago to-night,” he said, running his hands through his grey curls, “I took the night desk when Ellis was knocked out. And two weeks ago tomorrow morning we were the only paper to be beaten on the Fownes will story. Hi — you.”

“Happy, Cawthorne?” Amory removed his pipe to inquire with idle indulgence.

“Am I happy?” affirmed Little Cawthorne ecstatically in four tones, and went on with his song:

“The daylight may do for the gay,

The thoughtless, the heartless, the free,

But there’s something about the moon’s ray

That is sweeter to you and to me.”

“Did you make that up?” inquired Amory with polite interest.

“I did if I want to,” responded Little Cawthorne. “Everything’s true out here — go on, tell everything you like. I’ll believe you.”

St. George came out of the dark and leaned on the rail without speaking. Sometimes he wondered if he were he at all, and he liked the doubt. He felt pleasantly as if he had been cut loose from all old conditions and were sailing between skies to some unknown planet. This was not only because of the strange waters rushing underfoot but because of the flowering and singing of something within him that made the world into which he was sailing an alien place, heavenly desirable. A week ago that day The Aloha had weighed anchor, and these seven days, in fairly fortunate weather, her white nose had been cleaving seas to traverse which had so long been her owner’s dream; and yet her owner, in pleasant apostasy, had turned his back upon the whole matter of what he had been used to dream, and now ungratefully spent his time in trying to count the hours to his journey’s end.

Somewhere out yonder, he reflected, as he leaned on the rail, this southern moonlight was flooding whatever scene she looked on; the lapping of the same sea was in her ears; and his future and hers might be dependent upon those two perplexed tan-coloured greyhounds below. By which one would have said that matters had been going briskly forward with St. George since the morning that he had breakfasted with Olivia Holland.

Exactly when the end of the journey would be was not evident either to him or to the two strange creatures who proposed to be his guides. Or rather to Jarvo, who was still the spokesman; lean little Akko, although his intelligence was unrivaled, being content with monosyllables for stepping-stones while the stream of Jarvo’s soft speech flowed about him. Barnay, the captain, frankly distrusted them both, and confided to St. George that “them two little jool-eyed scuts was limbs av the old gint himself, and they reminded him, Barnay, of a pair of haythen naygurs,” than which he could say no more. But then, Barnay’s wholesale skepticism was his only recreation, save talking about his pretty daughter “of school age,” and he liked to stand tucking his beard inside his collar and indulging in both. In truth, Barnay, who knew the waters of the Atlantic fairly well, was sorely tried to take orders from the two little brown strangers who, he averred, consulted a “haythen apparaytus” which they would cheerfully let him see but of which he could “make no more than av the spach av a fish,” and then directed him to take courses which lay far outside the beaten tracks of the high seas.

St. George, who had had several talks with them, was puzzled and doubtful, and more than once confided to himself that the lives of the passenger list of The Aloha might be worth no more than coral headstones at the bottom of the South Atlantic. But he always consoled himself with the cheering reflection that he had had to come — there was no other way half so good. So The Aloha continued to plow her way as serenely as if she were heading toward the white cliffs of Dover and trim villas and a custom-house. And the sea lay a blue, uninhabited glory save as land that Barnay knew about marked low blades of smoke on the horizon and slipped back into blue sheaths.

This was the evening of the seventh day, and that noon Jarvo had looked despondent, and Barnay had sworn strange oaths, and St. George had been disquieted. He stood up now, going vaguely down into his coat pockets for his pipe, his erect figure thrown in relief against the hurrying purple. St. George was good to look at, and Amory, with the moonlight catching the glass of his pince-nez, smoked and watched him, shrewdly pondering upon exactly how much anxiety for the success of the enterprise was occupying the breast of his friend and how much of an emotion a good bit stronger. Amory himself was not in love, but there existed between him and all who were a special kinship, like that between a lover of music and a musician.

Little Cawthorne rose and shuffled his feet lazily across deck.

“Where is that island, anyway?” he wanted to know, gazing meditatively out to sea.

St. George turned as if the interruption was grateful.

“The island. I don’t see any island,” complained Little Cawthorne. “I tell you,” he confided, “I guess it’s just Chillingworth’s little way of fixing up a nice long vacation for us.”

They smiled at memory of Chillingworth’s grudging and snarling assents to even an hour off duty.

From below came Bennietod, walking slowly. The seaman’s life was not for Bennietod, and he yearned to reach land as fervently as did St. George, though with other anxiety. He sat down on the moon-lit deck and his face was like that of a little old man with uncanny shrewdness. His week among them had wrought changes in the head office boy. For Bennietod was ambitious to be a gentleman. His covert imitations had always amused St. George and Amory. Now in the comparative freedom of The Aloha his fancy had rein and he had adopted all the habits and the phrases which he had long reserved and liked best, mixing them with scraps of allusions to things which Benfy had encouraged him to read, and presenting the whole in his native lower East-side dialect. Bennietod was Bowery-born and office-bred, and this sad metropolitanism almost made of him a good philosopher.

“I’d like immensely to say something,” observed St. George abruptly, when his pipe was lighted.

“Oh, yes. All right,” shrilled Little Cawthorne with resignation, “I suppose you all feel I’m the Jonah and you thirst to scatter me to the whales.”

“I want to know,” St. George went on slowly, “what you think. On my life, I doubt if I thought at all when we set out. This all promised good sport, and I took it at that. Lately, I’ve been wondering, now and then, whether any of you wish yourselves well out of it.”

For a moment no one spoke. To shrink from expression is a characteristic in which the extremes of cultivation and mediocrity meet; the reserve of delicacy in St. George and Amory would have been a reserve of false shame in Bennietod, and of an exaggerated sense of humour in Little Cawthorne. It was not remarkable that from the moment the enterprise had been entered upon, its perils and its doubtful outcome had not once been discussed. St. George vaguely reckoned with this as he waited, while Amory smoked on and blew meditative clouds and regarded the bowl of his pipe, and Little Cawthorne ceased the motion of his hammock, and Bennietod hugged his knees and looked shrewdly at the moon, as if he knew more about the moon than he would care to tell. St. George felt his heart sink a little. Then Little Cawthorne rose and squared valiantly up to him.

“What,” inquired the little man indignantly, “are you trying to do? Pick a fight?”

St. George looked at him in surprise.

“Because if you are,” continued little Cawthorne without preamble, “we’re three to one. And three of us are going to Yaque. We’ll put you ashore if you say so.”

St. George smiled at him gratefully.

“No — Bennietod?” inquired Little Cawthorne.

Bennietod, pale and manifestly weak, grinned cheerfully and fumbled in sudden abashment at an amazing checked Ascot which he had derived from unknown sources.

“Bes’ t’ing t’ever I met up wid,” he assented, “ef de deck’d lay down levil. I’m de sonny of a sea-horse if it ain’t.”

“Amory?” demanded the little man.

Amory looked along his pipe and took it briefly from his lips and shook his head.

“Don’t say these things,” he pleaded in his pleasant drawl, “or I’ll swear something horrid.”

St. George merely held his pipe by the bowl and nodded a little, but the hearts of all of them glowed.

After dinner they sat long on deck. Rollo, at his master’s invitation, joined them with a mandolin, which he had been discovered to play considerably better than any one else on board. Rollo sat bolt upright in a reclining chair to prove that he did not forget his station and strummed softly, and acknowledged approval with:

“Yes, sir. A little music adds an air to any occasion, I always think, sir.”

The moon was not yet full, but its light in that warm world was brilliant. The air was drowsy and scented with something that might have been its own honey or that might have come from the strange blooms, water-sealed below. Now and then St. George went aside for a space and walked up and down the deck or sent below for Jarvo. Once, as Jarvo left St. George’s side, Little Cawthorne awoke and sat upright and inquiring, in his hammock.

“What is the matter with his feet?” he inquired peevishly. “I shall certainly ask him directly.”

“It’s the seventh day out,” Amory observed, “and still nobody knows.”

For Jarvo and Akko had another distinction besides their diminutive stature and greyhound build. Their feet, clad in soft soleless shoes, made of skins, were long and pointed and of almost uncanny flexibility. It had become impossible for any one to look at either of the little men without letting his eyes wander to their curiously expressive feet, which, like “courtier speech,” were expressive without revealing anything.

“I t’ink,” Bennietod gave out, “dat dey’re lost Eyetalian organ-grinder monkeys, wid huming intelligence, like Bertran’s Bimi.”

“What a suspicious child it is,” yawned Little Cawthorne, and went to sleep again. Toward midnight he awoke, refreshed and happy, and broke into instant song:

“The daylight may do for the gay,

The thoughtless, the heartless, the free,

But there’s something about the moon’s ray —”

he was chanting in perfect tonelessness, when St. George cried out. The others sprang to their feet.

“Lights!” said St. George, and gave the glass to Amory, his hand trembling, and very nearly snatched it back again.

Far to the southeast, faint as the lost Pleiad, a single golden point pricked the haze, danced, glimmered, was lost, and reappeared to their eager eyes. The impossibility of it all, the impossibility of believing that they could have sighted the lights of an island hanging there in the waste and hitherto known to nobody simply because nobody knew the truth about the Fourth Dimension did not assail them. So absorbed had St. George become in the undertaking, so convincing had been the events that led up to it, and so ready for anything in any dimension were his companions, that their excitement was simply the ancient excitement of lights to the mariner and nothing more; save indeed that to St. George they spoke a certain language sweeter than the language of any island lying in the heart of mere science or mere magic either.

When it became evident that the lights were no will-o’-the-wisps, born of the moon and the void, but the veritable lights that shine upon harbours, Bennietod tumbled below for Jarvo, who came on deck and gazed and doubted and well-nigh wept for joy and poured forth strange words and called aloud for Akko. Akko came and nodded and showed white teeth.

“To-morrow,” he said only.

Barnay came.

“Fwhat matther?” He put it cynically, scowling critically at Jarvo and Akko. “All in the way av fair fight, that’ll be about Mor-rocco, if I’ve the full av my wits about me, an’ music to my eyes, by the same token.”

Jarvo fixed him with his impenetrable look.

“It is the light of the king’s palace on the summit of Mount Khalak,” he announced simply.

The light of the king’s palace. St. George heard and thrilled with thanksgiving. It would be then the light at her very threshold, provided the impossible is possible, as scientists and devotees have every reason to think. But was she there — was she there? If there was an oracle for the answer, it was not St. George. The little white stars danced and signaled faintly on the far horizon. Whatever they had to reveal was for nearer eyes than his.

The glass passed from hand to hand, and in turn they all swept the low sky where the faint points burned; but when some one had cried that the lights were no longer visible, and the others had verified the cry by looking blankly into a sudden waste of milky black — black water, pale light — and turned baffled eyes to Jarvo, the little man spoke smoothly, not even reaching a lean, brown hand for the glass.

“But have no fear, adôn,” he reassured them, “the chart is not exact — it is that which has delayed us. It will adjust itself. The light may long disappear, but it will come again. The gods will permit the possible.”

They looked at one another doubtfully when the two little brown men had gone below, where Barnay had immediately retired, tucking his beard in his collar and muttering sedition. If the two strange creatures were twin Robin Goodfellows perpetrating a monstrous twentieth century prank, if they were gigantic evolutions of Puck whose imagination never went far beyond threshing corn with shadowy flails, at least this very modern caper demanded respect for so perfectly catching the spirit of the times. At all events it was immensely clever of them to have put their finger upon the public pulse and to have realized that the public imagination is ready to believe anything because it has seen so much proved. Still, “science was faith once”; and besides, to St. George, charts and compasses of all known and unknown systems of seamanship were suddenly become but the dead letter of the law. The spirit of the whole matter was that Olivia might be there, under the lights that his own eyes would presently see again. “Who, remembering the first kind glance of her whom he loves, can fail to believe in magic?” It is very likely that having met Olivia at all seemed at that moment so wonderful to St. George that any of the “frolic things” of science were to be accepted with equanimity.

For an hour or more the moon, flooding the edge of the deck of The Aloha, cast four shadows sharply upon the smooth boards. Lined up at the rail stood the four adventurers, and the glass passed from one to another like the eye of the three Grey Sisters. The far beacon appeared and disappeared, but its actuality might not be doubted. If Jarvo and Akko were to be trusted, there in the velvet distance lay Yaque, and Med, the King’s City, and the light upon the very palace of its American sovereign.

St. George’s pulses leaped and trembled. Amory lifted lazy lids and watched him with growing understanding and finally, upon a pretext of sleep, led the others below. And St. George, with a sense of joyful companionship in the little light, paced the deck until dawn.

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