Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tales of Chinatown TWIN POOLS OF AMBER

THE white-robed Chinese servant entered and placed fresh perfume upon the burning charcoal of the silver incense-burner. As the scented smoke began to rise he withdrew, and a second servant entered, who facially, in dress, in figure and bearing, was a duplicate of the first. This one carried a large tray upon which was set an exquisite porcelain tea-service. He placed the tray upon a low table beside the divan, and in turn withdrew.

Deacon, seated in a great ebony chair, smoked rapidly and nervously--looking about the strangely appointed room with its huge picture of the Madonna, its jade Buddha surmounting a gilded Burmese cabinet, its Persian canopy and Egyptian divan, at the thousand and one costly curiosities which it displayed, at this mingling of East and West, of Christianity and paganism, with a growing wonder.

To one of his blood there was delight, intoxication, in that room; but something of apprehension, too, now grew up within him.

Madame de Medici entered. The garish motor-coat was discarded now, and her supple figure was seen to best advantage in one of those dark silken gowns which she affected, and which had a seeming of the ultra-fashionable because they defied fashion. She held in her hand an orchid, its structure that of an odontoglossum, but of a delicate green colour heavily splashed with scarlet--a weird and unnatural-looking bloom.

Just within the doorway she paused, as Deacon leaped up, and looked at him through the veil of the curved lashes.

"For you," she said, twirling the blossom between her fingers and gliding toward him with her tigerish step.

He spoke no word, but, face flushed, sought to look into her eyes as she pinned the orchid in the button-hole of his coat. Her hands were flawless in shape and colouring, being beautiful as the sculptured hands preserved in the works of Phidias.

The slight draught occasioned by the opening of the door caused the smoke from the incense-burner to be wafted toward the centre of the room. Like a blue-gray phantom it coiled about the two standing there upon a red and gold Bedouin rug, and the heavy perfume, or the close proximity of this singularly lovely woman, wrought upon the high-strung sensibilities of Deacon to such an extent that he was conscious of a growing faintness.

"Ah! You are not well!" exclaimed Madame with deep concern. "It is the perfume which that foolish Ah Li has lighted. He forgets that we are in England."

"Not at all," protested Deacon faintly, and conscious that he was making a fool of himself. "I think I have perhaps been overdoing it rather of late. Forgive me if I sit down."

He sank on the cushioned divan, his heart beating furiously, while Madame touched the little bell, whereupon one of the servants entered.

She spoke in Chinese, pointing to the incense-burner.

Ah Li bowed and removed the censer. As the door softly reclosed:

"You are better?" she whispered, sweetly solicitous, and, seating herself beside Deacon, she laid her hand lightly upon his arm.

"Quite," he replied hoarsely; "please do not worry about me. I am wondering what has become of Annesley."

"Ah, the poor man!" exclaimed Madame, with a silver laugh, and began to busy herself with the teacups. "He remembered, as he was looking at my new Leonardo, an appointment which he had quite forgotten."

"I can understand his forgetting anything under the circumstances."

Madame de Medici raised a tiny cup and bent slightly toward him. He felt that he was losing control of himself, and, averting his eyes, he stooped and smelled the orchid in his buttonhole. Then, accepting the cup, he was about to utter some light commonplace when the faintness returned overwhelmingly, and, hurriedly replacing the cup upon the tray, he fell back among the cushions. The stifling perfume of the place seemed to be choking him.

"Ah, poor boy! You are really not at all well. How sorry I am!"

The sweet tones reached him as from a great distance; but as one dying in the desert turns his face toward the distant oasis, Deacon turned weakly to the speaker. She placed one fair arm behind his head, pillowing him, and with a peacock fan which had lain amid the cushions fanned his face. The strange scene became wholly unreal to him; he thought himself some dying barbaric chief.

"Rest there," murmured the sweet voice.

The great eyes, unveiled now by the black lashes, were two twin lakes of fairest amber. They seemed to merge together, so that he stood upon the brink of an unfathomable amber pool--which swallowed him up--which swallowed him up.

He awoke to an instantaneous consciousness of the fact that he had been guilty of inexcusably bad form. He could not account for his faintness, and reclining there amid the silken cushions, with Madame de Medici watching him anxiously, he felt a hot flush stealing over his face.

"What is the matter with me!" he exclaimed, and sprang to his feet. "I feel quite well now."

She watched him, smiling, but did not speak. He was a "very young man" again, and badly embarrassed. He glanced at his wrist-watch.

"Gracious heavens!" he cried, and noted that the tea-tray had been removed, "there must be something radically wrong with my health. It is nearly seven o'clock!"

The note of the silver bell sounded in the ante-room.

"Can you forgive me?" he said.

But Madame, rising to her feet, leaned lightly upon his shoulder, toying with the petals of the orchid in his buttonhole.

"I think it was the perfume which that foolish Ah Li lighted," she whispered, looking intently into his eyes, "and it is you who have to forgive me. But you will, I know!" The silver bell rang again. "When you have come to see me again--many, many times, you will grow to love it--because I love it."

She touched the bell upon the table, and Ah Li entered silently. When Madame de Medici held out her hand to him Deacon raised the white fingers to his lips and kissed them rapturously; then he turned, the Gascon within him uppermost again, and ran from the room.

A purple curtain was drawn across the lobby, screening the caller newly arrived from the one so hurriedly departing.

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