The Island Mystery/Chapter 8
THE Queen, closely followed by Phillips, hurried through the cellars, along narrow passages, up a dozen different flights of stairs. They lost themselves several times. Twice they arrived by different routes at the large central kitchen. Twice they left it by different doors. They grew hot with laughter and bewilderment. Then they heard the steamer’s syren and grew hotter still with impatience. At last, breathless and flushed, they reached the steps at which they had landed.
Eight boats lay clustered round the steamer. One of them was her own, a heavy white boat, carvel built, with high freeboard. Four men sat in her, resting on their oars. The other seven were island boats, gaily painted red and green, high prowed, high sterned. The biggest of them had a mast stepped right forward, a mast which raked steeply aft, across which lay the yard of a lateen sail. Six oarsmen sat in her. The other island boats were smaller. There were only two rowers in each. They had the same high bows and high sterns curving inwards, the same low freeboard amidships where the rowers sat. In them were many women and children.
On the deck of the Ida stood a little group of men. Captain Wilson’s neat alert figure was easily recognizable. Mr. Donovan’s white Panama hat was unmistakable. Phillips declared that the smaller man who stood beside Mr. Donovan was Smith, the steward. A little apart from them stood a tall bare-headed man. He had a long white beard. There seemed to be some kind of consultation going on. When the Queen and Phillips appeared on the steps below the castle the group on the steamer broke up. Captain Wilson, Mr. Donovan and Smith took places in the Ida’s lifeboat. The old man went into the largest of the island boats. He stood in the stern, his hand on the carved end of her huge tiller. The eight boats, tailing out in a long procession, rowed slowly towards the castle steps.
“They must be your subjects,” said Phillips. “They are coming to swear allegiance.”
“My!” said the Queen. “What shall I say? What shall I do? What will they do? They can’t all kiss my hand. There must be forty of them.”
“I think,” he said, “that you’d better stand beside the flagstaff. It’s a commanding sort of position. They’ll have to climb up the steps to get to you. I wish the breeze had not died away. The flag would look ever so much better if it blew out.”
The Queen climbed the steps and took her place beneath the limp royal standard. Mr. Phillips bared his head and stood behind her.
The boats reached the steps. Mr. Donovan landed. Smith stepped ashore after him. Captain Wilson bade his men push off. He remained, a critical observer of the scene, some twenty or thirty yards from the shore.
“Daisy,” said Mr. Donovan, “there’s going to be a pageant. The inhabitants of this island are going to demonstrate.”
“How shall I talk to them?” said the Queen. “What language do they speak?”
“Don’t you fret any about that. I’ve brought Smith along. Smith is the only living Englishman who speaks the Megalian language. He’s been explaining the situation to the high priest of the island for the last half-hour while we blew bugle calls on the syren to attract your attention. Smith is a wonderful man, worth any salary to a firm with a big foreign business.”
“It’s hardly a language, sir,” he said. “A dialect, a patois. Partly Turkish, partly Slavonic, with a Greek base.”
“Some language that,” said Mr. Donovan. “It would interest our college professors. If you found a university on the island, Daisy, you must institute a system of visiting lecturers from the colleges on our side.”
“Oh, here they are!” said the Queen. “How lovely! Look at all their bright dresses. And the men are as gay as the women. Oh! there’s the dinkiest little baby with a brown face. He’s smiling at me. I know I shall just love them all, especially the brown babies.”
The islanders were disembarking from their boats. They crowded together on the lower steps of the staircase which led up to the flagstaff. They talked rapidly in low voices and gazed with frank curiosity at the little group above them. Women held babies high in their arms. Men took up toddling children and set them on their shoulders. Evidently all, even the youngest, were to have their chance of gazing at the new queen.
The old man who had stood at the tiller of the leading boat disengaged himself from the crowd. He mounted the steps slowly, pausing now and then to bow low. He was a picturesque figure. He wore a short black jacket, heavily embroidered with gold thread. Underneath it was a blue tunic reaching to his knees. Round his waist was a broad crimson sash. He advanced with a grave dignity. Each bow—and he bowed often—was an act of ceremonial courtesy. There was no trace of servility, nor of any special desire to please or propitiate in his manner. He reached the step below the terrace on which the flagstaff stood. He bowed once more and then stood upright, looking straight at the Queen with calm, untroubled eyes.
He spoke a few words in a soft, low tone. Smith stepped forward to explain and interpret.
“This is Stephanos,” he said, “the Elder of Salissa.”
“Minister of religion?” said Donovan.
“He acts as such, sir,” said Smith, “at marriages and such-like among his own people; but I don’t know that the Church of England would consider him as a regular clergyman. He appears to be more of the nature of a Lord Mayor than an Archbishop.”
“What does he say?” asked the Queen.
“Does your Majesty wish me to translate literally?”
The Queen nodded.
“I Stephanos,” Smith began, “elder of Salissa and father of the dwellers on the island.”
“Does he mean that they’re all his children?” asked the Queen, “even the babies?”
“I think not, your Majesty,” said Smith, “though I expect he’s father or grandfather of half of them.”
“Go on,” said the Queen.
“I Stephanos, elder of Salissa and father of the dwellers on the island, bid the English lady welcome. All that we have is hers.”
“Oh,” said the Queen, “how lovely! But of course I won’t take anything from them—tell him that—though I would rather like a brown baby to play with, just loaned to me for a few hours every day, and of course I would pay the mother whatever she asked.”
“And you might explain,” said Donovan, “that we’re American citizens, not English.”
“I’ll tell him, sir,” said Smith, “but I expect it’ll be the same thing to him.”
Smith made a long speech. Apparently he failed to make the difference between an Englishman and an American clear to Stephanos, but he conveyed the Queen’s request for a baby.
Stephanos’ answer was translated thus:
“Every baby from three years old and under shall be laid at the white feet of the English lady and she shall take them all. There are five such on the island. They are hers.”
Stephanos turned while his speech was being translated, and addressed his people. Apparently they were quite prepared to fulfil the promise he had made on their behalf. Five smiling young women with babies in their arms detached themselves from the crowd. They mounted two steps and then stood, with bowed heads, waiting for the next command.
“The darlings,” said the Queen. “But I don’t want them all laid at my feet. They’d be sure to roll away and fall into the sea. Tell them to-morrow will be time enough, and—and I’d like mothers to come too. I’m not sure that I could manage a baby all by myself.”
She did not wait for Smith to translate this speech. She ran down the steps to where the five young women stood. She took one of the babies in her arms. She kissed another. The women stood round her, smiling shyly. The babies cooed and gurgled. She kissed them all, and took them one after another in her arms. She sat down on the steps and laid a crowing baby on her lap. The mothers smiled and drew nearer to her. Other women from the crowd below gathered round her. Their shyness disappeared completely, too completely. They stroked her hair. They patted her face and hands. They were filled with curiosity about her clothes. They felt the texture of her dress, fingered the brooch she wore, knelt down and took her feet into their hands that they might examine her shoes. They explored the clocks on her stockings. Miss Daisy—no queen for the moment—was seriously embarrassed. She jumped to her feet, thrust the baby she held into its mother’s arms.
“You mustn’t pull my clothes off altogether,” she said.
She smoothed her skirt down with her hands and brushed exploring fingers from her blouse. But the island women were not easily repulsed. They were ready to give their babies to her if she asked for them. They would not forgo if they could help it the delight of examining new and fascinating kinds of clothes. Miss Daisy—still Miss Daisy, not a queen—burst from them and ran, with tossed hair and ruffled garments, up the steps again.
“Oh, Smith,” she said, “tell them that they mustn’t do it. I’m sure they don’t mean any harm, but I can’t bear to be pulled about.”
Smith translated; but it is doubtful if the women understood or even heard. There was a babble of soft voices. They were discussing eagerly the strange garments of the English lady.
Stephanos spoke again, gravely, gently.
“It is in my mind,” so Smith translated, “that one of our daughters should be the servant of the English lady; seeing that she has no maidens of her own people round about her. Kalliope is the fairest and the deftest. If it be the good pleasure of the English lady Kalliope shall serve her day and night, doing in all things the bidding of the Queen wherein if Kalliope fail by one hair’s breadth of perfect service, I, Stephanos the elder, her grandsire, will beat her with pliant rods fresh cut from the osier trees until the blood of full atonement flows from her.”
“My!” said the Queen. “After that I shan’t dare say a word to Kalliope even if she steals the last hairpin I own.”
“Tell that high priest,” said Donovan, “that I admire his loyalty. He may trot out the young woman. You must have a maid of some sort, Daisy, and I expect Kalliope will do her darnedest with that threat hanging over her.”
Stephanos the elder was an old gentleman of quick apprehension. He did not wait for Smith to translate what Donovan said. He turned to the women crowded below him. He raised one hand. Their babbling ceased at once. Through the silence Stephanos the elder spoke.
A young girl, perhaps eighteen or nineteen years of age, came forward. Bowing low at each step she mounted, she climbed slowly towards the flagstaff. Her bowing suggested profound humility, but her eyes, when she raised them, sparkled, and her lips were parted in a gay smile. She was evidently in no fear of an immediate beating with fresh-cut osier rods. Yet Kalliope had some cause to be afraid. It was she who had endeavoured to explore to their source the clocks on the Queen’s stockings.
Stephanos the elder spoke to her briefly but very solemnly. Kalliope remained unimpressed. She took quick glances at the Queen’s face and her eyes were full of laughter and delight. Stephanos took her by the hand, led her forward and formally presented her to the Queen. Kalliope immediately fell on her knees and kissed the toes of the Queen’s shoes.
“Tell the high priest,” said Donovan, “that I’ll pay the girl the same wages that I undertook to give to the pampered English maid who went on strike this morning.”
Kalliope completed her obeisance and realized almost at once that she had won the position of lady’s maid to the Queen. She took her place meekly behind her mistress. There she stood smiling at her sisters and cousins who stood below. She was at the moment the most fortunate, the most envied young woman on the island. Hers would be the inexpressible joy of examining at her leisure all the wonderful clothes worn or possessed by the Queen. She realized this; but neither she nor any other woman on the island guessed, or, by the wildest flight, could have imagined, how many and how various were the garments packed by the English maid into the trunks which lay in the steamer’s hold.
Kalliope was never beaten by her grandfather with osier rods. She devoted herself utterly to the service of the Queen. The only fault that could be found with her was that her devotion was too complete, her service too untiring. At meals she stood behind the Queen’s chair. During the day she followed the Queen from room to room. She would stand silent in a corner for an hour waiting while her mistress read or talked. There was no escaping from the girl. At night she slept on the floor at the end of the Queen’s bed, wrapped in a rug, her head pillowed on her own arm. She was quick to learn what was wanted, and acquired, after a while, an uncanny power of anticipating the Queen’s wishes.