The Island Mystery/Chapter 7

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HISTORY says little about them, but there doubtless have been queens who lacked dignity, queens with high spirits and little sense of decorum, queens who outraged pompous chamberlains and brought shame into the lives of stately chancellors. The behaviour of the new queen of Salissa caused no scandal; but that was only because there was no one in her small court who had any sense of the dignity proper to queens. The major domo’s feelings would certainly have been outraged if he watched Queen Daisy make her first royal progress. But he was shut up in his cabin. The other servants might have quivered with shame and disgust if they had seen—but they saw nothing, having turned away their eyes from beholding vanity.

After the cable had ceased rattling through the hawse hole Miss Daisy demanded a boat. Scarcely waiting for Captain Wilson’s word, Mr. Phillips rushed to lower one. Lashings were cast loose, the boat was swung outboard and manned with a speed which would have done credit to a smart yacht’s crew. Miss Daisy ran to her cabin. The oarsmen sat ready to push off. Mr. Phillips stood in the stern sheets, the tiller between his feet. Miss Daisy appeared at the top of the accommodation ladder. She held a large parcel in her hand.

“Catch,” she said to Mr. Phillips, “it’s the flag.”

She flung it. Mr. Phillips with a wild grab saved it from the sea. Miss Daisy laughed joyously.

“Catch again,” she said, “the palace keys.”

A bunch of keys crashed on the floor boards of the boat between the feet of the man who rowed stroke. Mr. Phillips picked them up. Miss Daisy, disdaining a helping hand held out by Smith, skipped down the steps; her skirt held tight in one hand she leaped into the boat.

“Quickly,” she cried, “oh, quickly, quickly! Please don’t be long.”

“Shove off,” said Mr. Phillips, “and pull like—pull like——

“Say it,” said Miss Daisy, “say it, if it will make them go quicker.”

“Pull,” said Mr. Phillips, “pull like—billy-o.”

The men pulled. Not even the expected invocation of bloody hell would have stirred them to greater exertions. The boat sprang forward. She sped towards the palace. The water bubbled round her bows, swished and foamed in the wake astern of her. Mr. Phillips brought her up alongside a broad flight of white steps. The men clawed at the smooth stone with their fingers. The Queen stepped ashore.

She stood on the lowest step, a figure poised for swift eager motion, a flushed excited girl, a queen with palpitating heart and eyes full of dancing merriment. The steps, blazing white in the sunshine, led up to a broad platform where a tall flagstaff stood. Behind was all the fantastic wonder of the palace, the porticoes, slender carved columns, stone lacework of flying buttresses, spires, hollowed spaces of dark shade, points of sparkling light, broad surfaces of dazzling whiteness. Mr. Phillips leaped ashore and passed the Queen, bounding up the steps to the platform. He carried in his hand the parcel which she had flung into the boat. He reached the flagstaff. He knotted a light line round his waist. He swarmed up the bare pole. He rove the line through the block at the top of the staff and slid to earth again. He bent the halyard to the flag. It ran up, a neat ball. With a sharp chuck at the line Mr. Phillips broke it out. The Royal Standard of Salissa fluttered in the morning breeze, pale blue, glorious.

Mr. Phillips shouted:

“Long live the Queen! long live the Queen!”

The Queen, still standing on the bottom step, gave a little cry of delight. The men in the boat sat still, with puzzled grins on their faces. Mr. Phillips bounded down to them, leaping the steps in threes and fours.

“Cheer, you blighters,” he said, “unless you want your silly skulls smashed. Cheer like billy-o. Long live the Queen!”

The men scrambled to their feet and responded. Their cheers rang out. One of them, moved to enthusiasm, seized his oar and beat the water with the flat of the blade. Like a man with a flail he raised the oar high and brought it down with loud smacks on the water, splashing up sparkling drops, rocking the boat in which he stood. He was not a native of Salissa, not a subject of the Queen, but his action expressed the enthusiasm of devoted loyalty.

The Queen bowed, blushing, laughing, breathless with excitement.

Across the bay came the sound of shouting from the men on board the Ida, ragged cheers. The steamer’s syren shrieked. Mr. Donovan stood on the bridge, the rope which controlled the syren in his hand. The Queen waved to him. Five revolver shots rang out in quick succession.

“Good old Wilson!” said Mr. Phillips. “I wouldn’t have thought he had it in him to fire a royal salute.”

He gave Captain Wilson credit which was not his due. It was Smith, the steward, who fired the revolver. Afterwards that loyal servant excused himself to Mr. Donovan.

“Beg pardon, sir,” he said, “perhaps I oughtn’t to have fired without orders; but it seemed the proper thing to do, sir.”

“Do you always carry a gun in your pocket?” said Mr. Donovan.

“Only when I’m among Eastern peoples, sir. It’s wiser then. Not in England, sir.”

The Queen, standing radiant in the sunshine before her palace, gave her first royal command.

“Mr. Phillips,” she said, “take the keys and come along.”

They ran up the steps together, past the flagstaff, crossed a space of smooth white rock, and reached the great door which faced them. Mr. Phillips fitted the key and flung the door wide. A gloomy cool space lay before them. They were standing in bright sunshine and a glow of reflected light. Their eyes failed to penetrate the darkness before them. It was as if a thick black curtain hung inside the door. The Queen hesitated on the threshold. Mr. Phillips entered the room. He threw open the shutters and flung the great windows wide. Broad belts of light crossed the room. The sunshine flooded it. The morning breeze blew in, driving before it the heavy stagnant air.

The Queen entered.

She stood in a great hall. Round the walls hung pictures in tarnished frames. Rich furniture, damp-stained and worm-eaten, stood stiffly arranged as if for some great function. Only here and there was evidence of some disorder. A table was upset near the fireplace. The covering of a chair had been torn, and the hair stuffing of its cushions bulged through the rent. The ashes of a wood fire and the charred remains of half-burnt logs were on the hearth. Some papers lay scattered on the floor near one of the windows.

The Queen, subdued, quieter, went on tip-toe round the room. She touched the furniture and the pictures softly, as she passed them. There was in her a feeling, half fear, half reverence, for the things which had once belonged to the dead King Otto. Phillips, moved by an impulse of curiosity, crossed the room to where the torn papers lay. He stooped down and picked up some of the fragments. For the most part they were blank. On one or two there were words in a language he did not understand. Only one fragment interested him. It was the corner of a torn envelope. It bore an English stamp and a London postmark.

“Your Majesty,” he said.

She did not hear or did not reply. Mr. Phillips was not used to intimate association with royal persons. He tried another form of address. “Your Serene Highness,” he said.

The Queen looked round.

“Do you mean me?” she said.

“Yes, your Excellency,” said Phillips.

The Queen laughed aloud. The sound of his voice and her own, the ready merriment of her laughter, awoke her from the fear and reverence, scattered the vague feeling of mystery which hung over her.

“Don’t you do it,” she said. “I’m queen of this island right enough, but I don’t mean to spend the rest of my life walking on stilts. I’m not that kind of queen. I’m a genuine democrat all the time. Don’t you forget that. Now call me Miss Daisy, same as you used to on board.”

Mr. Phillips blushed.

“Miss Daisy,” he said, “how long is it since the last king lived here?”

“I don’t know,” she said, “and I don’t care. Centuries and centuries, I expect. Come and explore, I want to see the whole of the palace and let the light and air into every room.”

She had shaken off entirely all vestiges of the sense of oppression which had come on her when she first breathed the heavy stale air of the hall and saw it with its decayed furniture, huge and dim before her. It was full of sunlight now and she was merry again in the sunlight and fresh air.

She ran from room to room, pulling shutters back, flinging wide the windows. Phillips followed her, listened to her while she planned these for her father’s rooms, those for her own, how breakfast should be laid on summer mornings on a balcony right over the water, how midday meals should be eaten in a shaded portico.

“And this,” she said, “shall be your room, for you’re to spend all your holidays here. See, if you open the window you can take a header right into the blue water—Oh, isn’t it a beautiful colour?—and have a morning swim.”

Phillips was ready to take a header from any window at the Queen’s command. He would ask nothing better than to spend, not holidays only, but all his days there on the island with her. If he could enter her service—he wondered whether the Queen of Salissa would start a Royal Navy of her own.

They passed from room to room. They ran up winding staircases and emerged in tiny turret chambers, glass enclosed like the tops of lighthouses. They found a roof garden set round with huge stone urns full of dry caked earth. Once, no doubt, flowers had bloomed in them. Flowers, so the Queen determined, should bloom in them again. They descended to cool, spacious kitchens, to cellars where wine had been stored. They passed through a narrow doorway and found suddenly that the sea was lapping at their feet. They were underneath the centre of the house. Around them were high walls. From the water itself arose thick round pillars, supports of the vaulting on which the great hall rested. The light, entering for the most part through the water, was blue and faint. The stones beneath the water gleamed blue. The pillars as they rose changed from blue to purple. The water sighed, murmured, almost moaned. It seemed as if it tried to cling to the smooth stone work, as if it sank back again disappointed, weary of for ever giving kisses which were not returned. They stood in silence, looking, listening. Then Phillips spoke. His voice sounded strangely hollow. He sank it to a whisper.

“Miss Daisy,” he said, “how long is it since the last king lived here?”

“Why do you ask me that again?” she said. “I don’t know. A hundred years ago, perhaps. They killed him, you know. I wonder if they threw his body into the sea there?”

“Was it last December?”

“Of course not. How can you be so silly? As if any one would kill a king last December! They only did things like that centuries ago.”

Phillips took from his pocket the torn envelope he had picked up in the great hall.

“Look,” he said, “I found that near the fireplace in the hall we went into first.”

“It’s an old envelope,” she said. “It must have belonged to the king they killed. How interesting! Fancy their having had envelopes in those days!”

“The postmark on it,” he said, “is London, and the date is December 15, 1913. Some one was in the house since then, living in it.”

The Queen clapped her hands.

“Oh, splendid,” she said. “A mystery. It was the one thing I longed for. A mystery, a ghost, a secret chamber and all those beautiful things. I was quite afraid the house was too sunny for mystery until we came down here. There might be anything here, in this blue light, brigands or wandering spirits, or the old gods of the island. Now I call it just perfect. Thank you so much, Mr. Phillips, for finding me that paper. Now we can just brood on that brigand. It must have been a brigand. Or do you think the assassins came back, driven by pangs of conscience, to the scene of their crime, and just dropped that envelope so as to give a clue? There always are clues, aren’t there? Oh, I am glad you found it.”

As she spoke there came a thin high sound, a ghostly wail. It echoed back from the walls, repeating itself. The sound was broken among the pillars, came confusedly to the listening ears. The waters stirred uneasily, sucking at the walls and the pillars with a kind of fierce intensity. Her hand sought his arm, caught it, held it tightly.

“It’s the steamer’s syren,” said Phillips. “They must be signalling.”

She loosed her hold of his arm and turned from him.

“How can you say such a thing? Just when I thought it was the ghost of the murdered king crying for vengeance.”

“I am sure they’re signalling for us,” he said. “We’d better go.”