Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tales of Chinatown THE KEEPER OF THE KEY

The note of a silver bell quivered musically through the scented air of the ante-room. Madame de Medici stirred slightly upon the divan with its many silken cushions, turning her head toward the closed door with the languorous, almost insolent, indifference which one perceives in the movements of a tigress. Below, in the lobby, where the pillars of Mokattam alabaster upheld the painted roof, the little yellow man from Pekin shivered slightly, although the air was warm for Limehouse, and always turned his mysterious eyes toward a corner of the great staircase which was visible from where he sat, coiled up, a lonely figure in the mushrabiyeh chair. Madame blew a wreath of smoke from her lips, and, through half-closed eyes, watched it ascend, unbroken, toward the canopy of cloth-of-gold which masked the ceiling. A Madonna by Leonardo da Vinci faced her across the apartment, the painted figure seeming to watch the living one upon the divan. Madame smiled into the eyes of the Madonna. Surely even the great Leonardo must have failed to reproduce that smile--the great Leonardo whose supreme art has captured the smile of Mona Lisa. Madame had the smile of Cleopatra, which, it is said, made Caesar mad, though in repose the beauty of Egypt's queen left him cold. A robe of Kashmiri silk, fine with a phantom fineness, draped her exquisite shape as the art of Cellini draped the classic figures which he wrought in gold and silver; it seemed incorporate with her beauty.

A second wreath of smoke curled upward to the canopy, and Madame watched this one also through the veil of her curved black lashes, as the Eastern woman watches the world through her veil. Those eyes were notable even in so lovely a setting, for they were of a hue rarely seen in human eyes, being like the eyes of a tigress; yet they could seem voluptuously soft, twin pools of liquid amber, in whose depths a man might lose his soul.

Again the silver bell sounded in the ante-room, and, below, the little yellow man shivered sympathetically. Again Madame stirred with that high disdain that so became her, who had the eyes of a tigress. Her carmine lips possessed the antique curve which we are told distinguished the lips of the Comtesse de Cagliostro; her cheeks had the freshness of flowers, and her hair the blackness of ebony, enhancing the miracle of her skin, which had the whiteness of ivory--not of African ivory, but of that fossil ivory which has lain for untold ages beneath the snows of Siberia.

She dropped the cigarette from her tapered fingers into a little silver bowl upon a table at her side, then lightly touched the bell which stood there also. Its soft note answered to the bell in the ante-room; a white-robed Chinese servant silently descended the great staircase, his soft red slippers sinking into the rich pile of the carpet; and the little yellow man from the great temple in Pekin followed him back up the stairway and was ushered into the presence of Madame de Medici.

The servant closed the door silently and the little yellow man, fixing his eyes upon the beautiful woman before him, fell upon his knees and bowed his forehead to the carpet.

Madame's lovely lips curved again in the disdainful smile, and she extended one bare ivory arm toward the visitor who knelt as a suppliant at her feet.

"Rise, my friend!" she said, in purest Chinese, which fell from her lips with the music of a crystal spring. "How may I serve you?"

The yellow man rose and advanced a step nearer to the divan, but the strange beauty of Madame had spoken straight to his Eastern heart, had, awakened his soul to a new life. His glance travelled over the vision before him, from the little Persian slipper that peeped below the drapery of Kashmir silk to the small classic head with its crown of ebon locks; yet he dared not meet the glance of the amber eyes.

"Sit here beside me," directed Madame, and she slightly changed her position with that languorous and lithe grace suggestive of a creature of the jungle.

Breathing rapidly betwixt the importance of his mission and a new, intoxicating emotion which had come upon him at the moment of entering the perfumed room, the yellow man obeyed, but always with glance averted from the taunting face of Madame. A golden incense-burner stood upon the floor, over between the high, draped windows, and a faint pencil from its dying fires stole grayly upward. Upon the scented smoke the Buddhist priest fixed his eyes, and began, with a rapidity that grew as he proceeded, to pour out his tale. Seated beside him, one round arm resting upon the cushions so as almost to touch him, Madame listened, watching the averted yellow face, and always smiling--smiling.

The tale was done at last; the incense-burner was cold, and breathlessly the Buddhist clutched his knees with lean, clawish fingers and swayed to and fro, striving to conquer the emotions that whirled and fought within him. Selecting another cigarette from the box beside her, and lighting it deliberately, Madame de Medici spoke.

"My friend of old," she said, and of the language of China she made strange music, "you come to me from your home in the secret city, because you know that I can serve you. It is enough."

She touched the bell upon the table, and the white-robed servant reentered, and, bowing low, held open the door. The little yellow man, first kneeling upon the carpet before the divan as before an altar, hurried from the apartment. As the door was reclosed, and Madame found herself alone again, she laughed lightly, as Calypso laughed when Ulysses' ship appeared off the shores of her isle.

God fashions few such women. It is well.

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