The Yellow Flower by Melville Davisson Post
The girl sat in a great chair before the fire, huddled, staring into the glow of the smoldering logs.
Her dark hair clouded her face. The evening gown was twisted and crumpled about her. There was no ornament on her; her arms, her shoulders, the exquisite column of her throat were bare.
She sat with her eyes wide, unmoving, in a profound reflection.
The library was softly lighted; richly furnished, a little beyond the permission of good taste. On a table at the girl's elbow were two objects; a ruby necklace, and a dried flower. The flower, fragile with age, seemed a sort of scrub poppy of a delicate yellow; the flower of some dwarfed bush, prickly like a cactus.
The necklace made a great heap of jewels on the buhl top of the table, above the intricate arabesque of silver and tortoise-shell.
It was nearly midnight. Outside, the dull rumble of London seemed a sound, continuous, unvarying, as though it were the distant roar of a world turning in some stellar space.
It was a great old house in Park Lane, heavy and of that gloomy architecture with which the feeling of the English people, at an earlier time, had been so strangely in accord. It stood before St. James's Park oppressive and monumental, and now in the midst of yellow fog its heavy front was like a mausoleum.
But within, the house had been treated to a modern re-casting, not entirely independent of the vanity of wealth.
After the dinner at the Ritz, the girl felt that she could not go on; and Lady Mary's party, on its way to the dancing, put her down at the door. She gave the excuse of a crippling headache. But it was a deeper, more profound aching that disturbed her. She was before the tragic hour, appearing in the lives of many women, when suddenly, as by the opening of a door, one realizes the irrevocable aspect of a marriage of which the details are beginning to be arranged. That hour in which a woman must consider, finally, the clipping of all threads, except the single one that shall cord her to a mate for life.
Until to-night, in spite of preparations on the way, the girl had not felt this marriage as inevitable. Her aunt had pressed for it, subtly, invisibly, as an older woman is able to do.
Her situation was always, clearly before her. She was alone in the world; with very little, almost nothing. The estate her father inherited he had finally spent in making great explorations. There was no unknown taste of the world that he had not undertaken to enter. The final driblets of his fortune had gone into his last adventure in the Great Gobi Desert from which he had never returned.
The girl had been taken by this aunt in London, incredibly rich, but on the fringes of the fashionable society of England, which she longed to enter. Even to the young girl, her aunt's plan was visible. With a great settlement, such as this ambitious woman could manage, the girl could be a duchess.
The marriage to Lord Eckhart in the diplomatic service, who would one day be a peer of England, had been a lure dangled unavailingly before her, until that night, when, on his return from India, he had carried her off her feet with his amazing incredible sacrifice. It was the immense idealism, the immense romance of it that had swept her into this irrevocable thing.
She got up now, swiftly, as though she would again realize how the thing had happened and stooped over the table above the heap of jewels. They were great pigeon-blood rubies, twenty-seven of them, fastened together with ancient crude gold work. She lifted the long necklace until it hung with the last jewel on the table.
The thing was a treasure, an immense, incredible treasure. And it was for this - for the privilege of putting this into her hands, that the man had sold everything he had in England - and endured what the gossips said - endured it during the five years in India - kept silent and was now silent. She remembered every detail the rumor of a wild life, a dissolute reckless life, the gradual, piece by piece sale of everything that could be turned into money. London could not think of a ne'er-do-well to equal him in the memory of its oldest gossips - and all the time with every penny, he was putting together this immense treasure - for her. A dreamer writing a romance might imagine a thing like this, but had it any equal in the realities of life?
She looked down at the chain of great jewels, and the fragment of prickly shrub with its poppy-shaped yellow flower. They were symbols, each, of an immense idealism, an immense conception of sacrifice that lifted the actors in their dramas into gigantic figures illumined with the halos of romance.
Until to-night it had been this ideal figure of Lord Eckhart that the girl considered in this marriage. And to-night, suddenly, the actual physical man had replaced it. And, alarmed, she had drawn back. Perhaps it was the Teutonic blood in him - a grandmother of a German house. And, yet, who could say, perhaps this piece of consuming idealism was from that ancient extinct Germany of Beethoven.
But the man and the ideal seemed distinct things having no relation. She drew back from the one, and she stood on tip-toe, with arms extended longingly toward the other.
What should she do?
Had the example of her father thrown on Lord Eckhart a golden shadow? She moved the bit of flower, gently as in a caress. He had given up the income of a leading profession and gone to his death. His fortune and his life had gone in the same high careless manner for the thing he sought. For the treasure that he believed lay in the Gobi Desert - not for himself, but for every man to be born into the world. He was the great dreamer, the great idealist, a vague shining figure before the girl like the cloud in the Hebraic Myth.
The girl stood up and linked her fingers together behind her back. If her father were only here - for an hour, for a moment! Or if, in the world beyond sight and hearing, he could somehow get a message to her!
At this moment a bell, somewhere in the deeps of the house, jangled, and she heard the old butler moving through the hall to the door. The other servants had been dismissed for the night, and her aunt on the preliminaries of this marriage was in Paris.
A moment later the butler appeared with a card on his tray. It was a card newly engraved in some English shop and bore the name "Dr. Tsan-Sgam." The girl stood for a moment puzzled at the queer name, and then the memory of the strange outlandish human creatures, from the ends of the world, who used sometimes to visit her father, in the old time, returned, and with it there came a sudden upward sweep of the heart - was there an answer to her longing, somehow, incredibly on the way!
She gave a direction for the visitor to be brought in. He was a big old man. His body looked long and muscular like that of some type of Englishmen, but his head and his features were Mongolian. He was entirely bald, as bald as the palm of a hand, as though bald from his mother he had so remained to this incredible age. And age was the impression that he profoundly presented. But it was age that a tough vitality in the man resisted; as though the assault of time wore it down slowly and with almost an imperceptible detritus. The great naked head and the wide Mongolian face were unshrunken; they presented, rather, the aspect of some old child. "He was dressed with extreme care, in the very best evening clothes that one could buy in a London shop.
He bowed, oddly, with a slow doubling of the body, and when he spoke the girl felt that he was translating his words through more than one language; as though one were to put one's sentences into French or Italian and from that, as a sort of intermediary, into English - as though the way were long, and unfamiliar from the medium in which the man thought to the one in which he was undertaking to express it. But at the end of this involved mental process his English sentences appeared correctly, and with an accurate selection in the words.
"You must pardon the hour, Miss Carstair," he said, in his slow, precise articulation, "but I am required to see you and it is the only time I have."
Then his eyes caught the necklace on the table, and advancing with two steps he stooped over it.
For a moment everything else seemed removed, from about the man. His angular body, in its unfamiliar dress, was doubled like a finger; his great head with its wide Mongolian face was close down over the buhl top of the table and his finger moved the heap of rubies.
The girl had a sudden inspiration.
"Lord Eckhart got these jewels from you?"
The man paused, he seemed to be moving the girl's words backward through the intervening languages.
Then he replied.
"Yes," he said, "from us."
The girl's inspiration was now illumined by a further light.
"And you have not been paid for them?"
The man stood up now. And again this involved process of moving the words back through various translations was visible - and the answer up.
"Yes - " he said, "we have been paid."
Then he added, in explanation of his act.
"These rubies have no equal in the world - and the gold-work attaching them together is extremely old. I am always curious to admire it."
He looked down at the girl, at the necklace, at the space about them, as though he were deeply, profoundly puzzled.
"We had a fear," he said, " - it was wrong!"
Then he put his hand swiftly into the bosom pocket of his evening coat, took out a thin packet wrapped in a piece of vellum and handed it to the girl.
"It became necessary to treat with the English Government about the removal of records from Lhassa and I was sent - I was directed to get this packet to you from London. To-night, at dinner with Sir Henry Marquis in St. James's Square, I learned that you were here. I had then only this hour to come, as my boat leaves in the morning." He spoke with the extreme care of one putting together a delicate mosaic.
The girl stood staring at the thin packet. A single thought alone consumed her.
"It is a message from - my - father."
She spoke almost in a whisper.
The big Oriental replied immediately.
"No," he said, "your father is beyond sight and hearing."
The girl had no hope; only the will to hope. The reply was confirmation of what she already knew. She removed the thin vellum wrapper from the packet. Within she found a drawing on a plate of ivory. It represented a shaft of some white stone standing on the slight elevation of what seemed to be a barren plateau. And below on the plate, in fine English characters like an engraving, was the legend, "Erected to the memory of Major Judson Carstair by the monastery at the Head."
The man added a word of explanation.
"The Brotherhood thought that you would wish to know that your father's body had been recovered, and that it had received Christian burial, as nearly as we were able to interpret the forms. The stone is a sort of granite."
The girl wished to ask a thousand questions: How did her father meet his death, and where? What did they know? What had they recovered with his body?
The girl spoke impulsively, her words crowding one another. And the Oriental seemed able only to disengage the last query from the others.
"Unfortunately," he said, "some band of the desert people had passed before our expedition arrived, nothing was recovered but the body. It was not mutilated."
They had been standing. The girl now indicated the big library chair in which she had been huddled and got another for herself. Then she wished to know what they had learned about her father's death.
The Oriental sat down. He sat awkwardly, his big body, in a kind of squat posture, the broad Mongolian face emerging, as in a sort of deformity, from the collar of his evening coat. Then he began to speak, with that conscious effect of bringing his words through various mediums from a distance.
"We endeavored to discourage Major Carstair from undertaking this adventure. We were greatly concerned about his safety. The sunken plateau of the Gobi Desert, north of the Shan States, is exceedingly dangerous for an European, not so much on account of murderous attacks from the desert people, for this peril we could prevent; but there is a chill in this sunken plain after sunset that the native people only can resist. No white man has ever crossed the low land of the Gobi."
"And there is in fact no reason why any one should wish to cross it. It is absolutely barren. We pointed out all this very carefully to Major Carstair when we learned what he had in plan, for as I have said his welfare was very pressingly on our conscience. We were profoundly puzzled about what he was seeking in the Gobi. He was not, evidently, intending to plot the region or to survey any route, or to acquire any scientific data. His equipment lacked all the implements for such work. It was a long time before we understood the impulse that was moving Major Carstair to enter this waste region of the Gobi to the north."
The man stopped, and sat for some moments quite motionless.
"Your father," he went on, "was a distinguished man in one of the departments of human endeavor which the East has always neglected; and in it he had what seemed to us incredible skill - with ease he was able to do things which we considered impossible. And for this reason the impulse taking him into the Gobi seemed entirely incredible to us; it seemed entirely inconsistent with this special ability which we knew the man to possess; and for a long time we rejected it, believing ourselves to be somehow misled."
The girl sat straight and silent, in her chair near the brass fender to the right of the buhl table; the drawing, showing the white granite shaft, held idly in her fingers; the illuminated vellum wrapper fallen to the floor.
The man continued speaking slowly.
"When, finally, it was borne in upon us that Major Carstair was seeking a treasure somewhere on the barren plateau of the Gobi, we took every measure, consistent with a proper courtesy, to show him how fantastic this notion was. We had, in fact, to exercise a certain care lest the very absurdity of the conception appear too conspicuously in our discourse."
He looked across the table at the girl.
The man's great bald head seemed to sink a little into his, shoulders, as in some relaxation.
"We brought out our maps of the region and showed him the old routes and trails veining the whole of it. We explained the topography of this desert plateau; the exact physical character of its relief. There was hardly a square mile of it that we did not know in some degree, and of which we did not possess some fairly accurate data. It was entirely inconceivable that any object of value could exist in this region without our knowledge of it."
The man was speaking like one engaged in some extremely delicate mechanical affair, requiring an accurracy almost painful in its exactness.
"Then, profoundly puzzled, we endeavored to discover what data Major Carstair possessed that could in any way encourage him in this fantastic idea. It was a difficult thing to do, for we held him in the highest esteem and, outside of this bizarre notion, we had before us, beyond any question, the evidence of his especial knowledge; and, as I have said, his, to us, incredible skill."
He paused, as though the careful structure of the long sentence had fatigued him.
"Major Carstair's explanations were always in the imagery of romance. He sought `a treasure - a treasure that would destroy a Kingdom.' And his indicatory data seemed to be the dried blossom of our desert poppy."
Again the Oriental paused. He put up his hand and passed his fingers over his face. The gaunt hand contrasted with the full contour.
"I confess that we did not know what to do. We realized that we had to deal with a nature possessing in one direction the exact accurate knowledge of a man of science, and in another the wonder extravagances of a child. The Dalai Lama was not yet able to be consulted, and it seemed to us a better plan to say no more about the impossible treasure, and address our endeavors to the practical side of Major Carstair's intelligence instead. We now pointed out the physical dangers of the region. The deadly chill in it coming on at sunset could not fail to inflame the lungs of a European, accustomed to an equable temperature, fever would follow; and within a few days the unfortunate victim would find his whole breathing space fatally congested."
The man removed his hand. The care in his articulation was marked.
"Major Carstair was not turned aside by these facts, and we permitted him to go on."
Again he paused as though troubled by a memory.
"In this course," he continued, "the Dalai Lama considered us to have acted at the extreme of folly. But it is to be remembered, in our behalf, that somewhat of the wonder at Major Carstair's knowledge of Western science dealing with the human body was on us, and we felt that perhaps the climatic peril of the Gobi might present no difficult problem to him.
"We were fatally misled."
Then he added.
"We were careful to direct him along the highest route of the plateau, and to have his expedition followed. But chance intervened. Major Carstair turned out of the route and our patrol went on, supposing him to be ahead on the course which we had indicated to him. When the error was at last discovered, our patrol was entering the Sirke range. No one could say at what point on the route Major Carstair had turned out, and our search of the vast waste of the Gobi desert began. The high wind on the plateau removes every trace of human travel. The whole of the region from the Sirke, south, had to be gone over. It took a long time."
The man stopped like one who has finished a story. The girl had not moved; her face was strained and white. The fog outside had thickened; the sounds of the city seemed distant. The girl had listened without a word, without a gesture. Now she spoke.
"But why were you so concerned about my father?"
The big Oriental turned about in the chair. He looked steadily at the girl, he seemed to be treating the query to his involved method of translation; and Miss Carstair felt that the man, because of this tedious mental process, might have difficulty to understand precisely what she meant.
What he wished to say, he could control and, therefore, could accurately present - but what was said to him began in the distant language.
"What Major Carstair did," he said, "it has not been made clear to you?"
"No," she replied, "I do not understand."
The man seemed puzzled.
"You have not understood!"
He repeated the sentence; his face reflective, his great bare head settling into the collar of his evening coat as though the man's neck were removed.
He remained for a moment thus puzzled and reflective. Then he began to speak as one would set in motion some delicate involved machinery running away into the hidden spaces of a workshop.
"The Dalai Lama had fallen - he was alone in the Image Room. His head striking the sharp edge of a table was cut. He had lost a great deal of blood when we found him and was close to death. Major Carstair was at this time approaching the monastery from the south; his description sent to us from Lhassa contained the statement that he was an American surgeon. We sent at once asking him to visit the Dalai Lama, for the skill of Western people in this department of human knowledge is known to us."
The Oriental went on, slowly, with extreme care.
"Major Carstair did not at once impress us. `What this man needs,' he said, `is blood.' That was clear to everybody. One of our, how shall I say it in your language, Cardinals, replied with some bitterness, that the Dalai Lama could hardly be imagined to lack anything else. Major Carstair paid no attention to the irony. `This man must have a supply of blood,' he added. The Cardinal, very old, and given to imagery in his discourse answered, that blood could be poured out but it could not be gathered up . . . and that man could spill it but only God could make.
"We interrupted then, for Major Carstair was our guest and entitled to every courtesy, and inquired how it would be possible to restore blood to the Dalai Lama; it was not conceivable that the lost blood could be gathered up.
"He explained then that he would transfer it from the veins of a healthy man into the unconscious body."
The Oriental hesitated; then he went on.
"The thing seemed to us fantastic. But our text treating the life of the Dalai Lama admits of no doubt upon one point - `no measure presenting itself in extremity can be withheld.' He was in clear extremity and this measure, even though of foreign origin, had presented itself, and we felt after a brief reflection that we were bound to permit it."
"The result was a miracle to us. In a short time the Dalai Lama had recovered. But in the meantime Major Carstair had gone on into the Gobi seeking the fantastic treasure."
The girl turned toward the man, a wide-eyed, eager, lighted face.
"Do you realize," she said, "the sort of treasure that my father sacrificed his life to search for?"
The Oriental spoke slowly.
"It was to destroy a Kingdom," he said.
"To destroy the Kingdom of Pain!" She replied, "My father was seeking an anesthetic more powerful than the derivatives of domestic opium. He searched the world for it. In the little, wild desert flower lay, he thought, the essence of this treasure. And he would seek it at any cost. Fortune was nothing; life was nothing. Is it any wonder that you could not stop him? A flaming sword moving at the entrance to the Gobi could not have barred him out!"
The big Oriental made a vague gesture as of one removing something clinging to his face.
"Wherefore this blindness?" he said.
The girl had turned away in an effort to control the emotion that possessed her. But the task was greater than her strength; when she came back to the table tears welled up in her eyes and trickled down her face. Emotion seemed now to overcome her.
"If my father were only here," her voice was broken, "if he were only here!"
The big Oriental moved his whole body, as by one motion, toward her. The house was very still; there was only the faint crackling of the logs on the fire.
"We had a fear," he said. "It remains!"
The girl went over and stood before the fire, her foot on the brass fender, her fingers linked behind her back. For sometime she was silent. Finally she spoke, without turning her head, in a low voice.
"You know Lord Eckhart?"
A strange expression passed over the Oriental's face.
"Yes, when Lhassa was entered, the Head moved north to our monastery on the edge of the Gobi - the English sovereignty extends to the Kahn line. Lord Eckhart was the political agent of the English government in the province nearest to us."
When the girl got up, the Oriental also rose. He stood awkwardly, his body stooped; his hand as for support resting on the corner of the table. The girl spoke again, in the same posture. Her face toward the fire.
"How do you feel about Lord Eckhart?"
"Feel!" The man repeated the word.
He hesitated a little.
"We trusted Lord Eckhart. We have found all English honorable."
"Lord Eckhart is partly German," the girl went on.
The man's voice in reply was like a foot-note to a discourse.
"Ah!" He drawled the expletive as though it were some Oriental word.
The girl continued. "You have perhaps heard that a marriage is arranged between us."
Her voice was steady, low, without emotion.
For a long time there was utter silence in the room.
Then, finally, when the Oriental spoke his voice had changed. It was gentle, and packed with sympathy. It was like a voice within the gate of a confessional.
"Do you love him?" it said.
"I do not know."
The vast sympathy in the voice continued. "You do not know? - it is impossible! Love is or it is not. It is the longing of elements torn asunder, at the beginning of things, to be rejoined."
The girl turned swiftly, her body erect, her face lifted.
"But this great act," she cried. "My father, I, all of our blood, are moved by romance - by the romance of sacrifice. Look how my father died seeking an antidote for the pain of the world. How shall I meet this sacrifice of Lord Eckhart?"
Something strange began to dawn in the wide Mongolian face.
The girl came over swiftly to the table. She scattered the mass of jewels with a swift gesture.
"Did he not give everything he possessed, everything piece by piece, for this?"
She took the necklace up and twisted it around her fingers. Her hands appeared to be a mass of rubies.
A great light came into the Oriental's face.
"The necklace," he said, "is a present to you from the Dalai Lama. It was entrusted to Lord Eckhart to deliver."