Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 18

A Morning Visit

In an upper room in the Palace of the Litany, fair with all the burnished devices of the early light, Prince Tabnit paced on that morning of mornings of his marriage day. Because of his great happiness the whole world seemed to him like some exquisite intaglio of which this day was the design.

The room, “walled with soft splendours of Damascus tiles,” was laid with skins of forgotten animals and was hung with historic tapestries dyed by ancient fingers in the spiral veins of the Murex. There were frescoes uniting the dream with its actuality, columns carved with both lines and names of beauty, pilasters decorated with chain and checker-work and golden nets. A stairway led to a high shrine where hung the crucified Tyrian sphinx. The room was like a singing voice summoning one to delights which it described. But whatever way one looked all the lines neither pointed nor seemed to have had beginning, but being divorced from source and direction expressed merely beauty, like an altar “where none cometh to pray.”

Prince Tabnit, in his trailing robe of white embroidered by a thousand needles, looked so akin to the room that one suspected it of having produced him, Athena-wise, from, say, the great black shrine. When he paused before the shrine he seemed like a child come to beseech some last word concerning the Riddle, rather than a man who believed himself to have mastered all wisdom and to have nailed the world-sphinx to her cross.

“Surely there is a vein for the silver

And a place for the gold where they fine it.

Iron is taken out of the earth

And brass is moulton out of the stone.

Man setteth an end to darkness

And searcheth out all perfection:

The stones of darkness and of the shadow of death,”

he was repeating softly. “So it is,” he added, “‘and searcheth to the farthest bound.’ Have I not done so? And do I not triumph?”

Then the youth who had once admitted St. George and his friends to that far-away house in McDougle Street — with the hokey-pokey man outside the door — entered with the poetry of deference; and if, as he bent low, there was a lift and droop of his eyelids which tokened utter bewilderment, not to say agitation, he was careful that the prince should not see that.

“Her Highness, the Princess of Yaque, Mrs. Hastings, Mr. Augustus Frothingham and Miss Frothingham ask audience, your Highness,” he announced clearly.

Prince Tabnit turned swiftly.

“Whom do you say, Matten?” he questioned and when the boy had repeated the names, meditated briefly. He was at a loss to fathom what this strange visit might portend; beyond doubt, he reflected (in a world which was an intaglio of his own designing) it portended nothing at all. He hastened forward to wait upon them and paused midway the room, for the highest tribute that a Prince of the Litany could pay to another was to receive him in this chamber of the Crucified Sphinx.

“Conduct them here, Matten,” he commanded, and took up his station beside an hundred-branched candlestick made in Curium. There he stood when, having been led down corridors of ivory and through shining anterooms, Mrs. Hastings and Olivia and Antoinette appeared on the threshold of the chamber, followed by Mr. Frothingham. As the prince hastened forward to meet them with sweepings of his gown embroidered by a thousand needles and bent above their hands uttering gracious words, assuredly in all the history of Med and of the Litany the room of the Crucified Sphinx had never presented a more peculiar picture.

Into that tranquil atmosphere, dream-pervaded, Mrs. Medora Hastings swept with all the certainty of an opinion bludgeoning the frail security of a fact. She had refused to have her belongings sent to the apartments in the House of the Litany placed that day at her disposal, preferring to dress for the coronation before she descended from Mount Khalak. She was therefore in a robe of black samite, trimmed with the fur of a whole chapter of extinct animals, and bangles and pendants of jewels bobbed and ticked all about her. But on her head she wore the bonnet trimmed with a parrot, set, as usual, frightfully awry. Beside her, with all the timidity of charming reality in the presence of fantasy, came Olivia and Antoinette — Olivia in a walking frock of white broadcloth, with an auto coat of hunting pink, and a cap held down by yards of cloudy veiling; Antoinette in a blue cloth gown, and about them both — stout little boots and suede gloves and smart shirt-waists — such an air of actuality as this chamber, prince and Sphinx and tradition and all, could not approach. Mr. Augustus Frothingham had struck his usual incontestable middle-ground by appearing in the blue velvet of a robe of State, over which he had slipped his light covert top-coat, and he carried his immaculate top-hat and a silver-headed stick.

“Prince Tabnit,” said Mrs. Medora Hastings without ceremony, “what have they done with that poor young man? Ask him, Olivia,” she besought, sinking down upon a chair of verd antique and extending a limp, plump hand to the niece who always did everything executive.

Olivia was very pale. She had hardly slept, night-long. Alarm at the inexplicable disappearance of St. George at dinner-time the day before and at the discovery that old Malakh was nowhere about had, by morning, deepened to unreasoning fear among them all. And then Olivia, knowing nothing of what had taken place in the room of the tombs, had resolved upon a desperate expedient, had bundled into an airship her almost prostrate aunt, Mr. Frothingham and his excited little daughter, and had borne down upon the Palace of the Litany two hours before noon. Amory, frantic with apprehension, had stayed behind with Jarvo, certain that St. George could not have left the mountain. But now that Olivia stood before the prince it required but a moment to convince her that Prince Tabnit really knew nothing of St. George’s whereabouts. Indeed, since his gift of Phoenician wine, sealed three thousand years ago, and the immediate evanishment of the two Americans, his Highness had no longer vexed his thought with them, and he was genuinely amazed to know that (in a world which was an intaglio of his own designing) these two had actually spent yesterday at the king’s palace on Mount Khalak. He perceived that he must give them more definite attention than his half-idle device of the wine — intended as that had been as a mere hyperspatial practical joke, not in the least irreconcilable with his office of host.

“Mr. St. George came to Yaque to help me find my father,” Olivia was concluding earnestly, “and if anything has happened to him, Prince Tabnit, I alone am responsible.”

The prince reflected for a moment, his eyes fixed upon the hundred-branched candlestick. Then:

“Mr. St. George’s disappearance,” he said, “has prevented a still more unpleasant catastrophe.”

“Catastrophe!” repeated Mrs. Hastings, quite without tucking in her voice at the corners, “I have thought of no other word since I got to be royalty.”

“A world experience, a world experience, dear Madame,” contributed Mr. Frothingham, his hands laid trimly along his blue velvet lap.

“But that doesn’t make it any easier to bear, no matter what anybody says,” retorted the lady.

“Inasmuch,” pursued Prince Tabnit with infinite regret, “as these Americans have, as you say, assisted in the search for your father, the king, they have most unfortunately violated that ancient law which provides that no State or satrapy shall receive aid, whether of blood or of bond, from an alien. The Royal House alone is exempt.”

“And the penalty,” demanded Olivia fearfully. “Is there a penalty? What is that, Prince Tabnit?”

The voice of the prince was never more mellow.

“Do not be alarmed, I beg,” he hastened his reassurance. “Upon the return of Mr. St. George, he and his friend will simply be set adrift in a rudderless airship, an offering to the great idea of space.”

Mrs. Hastings swayed toward the prince in her chair of verd antique, and her voice seemed to become brittle in the air.

“Oh, is that what you call being ahead of the time,” she demanded shrilly, “getting behind science to behave like Nero? And for my part I don’t see anything whatever about the island that is ahead of the times. You haven’t even got silk shoe-laces. I actually had to use a cloth-of-gold sandal strap to lace my oxfords, and when I lost a cuff-link I was obliged to make shift with two sides of one of Queen Agothonike’s ear-rings that I found in the museum at the palace. And that isn’t all,” went on the lady, wrong kindling wrong, “what do you do for paper and envelopes? There is not a quire to be found in Med. They offered me wireless blanks— an ultra form that Mr. Hastings would never have considered in good taste. And how about visiting cards? I tried to have a plate made, and they showed me a wireless apparatus for flashing from the doorstep the name of the visitor — an electrical entrance which Mr. Hastings would have considered most inelegant. Ahead of the times, with your rudderless airships! I have always said that the electric chair is a way to be barbarous and good form at the same time, and that is what I think about Yaque!”

Mr. Frothingham’s hands worked forward convulsively on his blue velvet knees.

“My dear Madame,” he interposed earnestly, “the history of criminal jurisprudence, not to mention the remarkable essay of the Marquis Beccaria — proves beyond doubt that the extirpation of the offender is the only possible safety for the State —”

Olivia rose and stood before the prince, her eyes meeting his.

“You will permit this sentence?” she asked steadily. “As head of the House of the Litany, you will execute it, Prince Tabnit?”

“Alas!” said the prince humbly, “it is customary on the day of the coronation to set adrift all offenders. I am the servant of the State.”

“Then, Prince Tabnit, I can not marry you.”

At this Mrs. Hastings looked blindly about for support, and Mr. Frothingham and Antoinette flew to her side. In that moment the lady had seen herself, prophetically, in black samite and her parrot bonnet, set adrift in the penitential airship with her rebellious niece.

For a moment Prince Tabnit hesitated: he looked at Olivia, who was never more beautiful than as she defied him; then he walked slowly toward her, with sweep and fall of his garments embroidered by a thousand needles. Antoinette and her father, ministering to Mrs. Hastings, heard only the new note that had crept into his voice, a thrill, a tremour  —

“Olivia!” he said.

Her eyes met his in amazement but no fear.

“In a land more alien to me than the sun,” said the prince, “I saw you, and in that moment I loved you. I love you more than the life beyond life upon which I have laid hold. I brought you to this island to make you my wife. Do you understand what it is that I offer you?”

Olivia was silent. She was trembling a little at the sheer enormity of the moment. Suddenly, Prince Tabnit seemed to her like a name that she did not know.

“Will you not understand what I mean?” he besought with passionate earnestness. “Can I make my words mean nothing to you? Do you not see that it is indeed as I say — that I have grasped the secret of life within life, beyond life, transcending life, as his understanding transcends the man? The wonder of the island is but the alphabet of wisdom. The secrets of life and death and being itself are in my grasp. The hidden things that come near to you in beauty, in dream, in inspiration are mine and my people’s. All these I can make yours — I offer you life of a fullness such as the people of the world do not dream. I will love you as the gods love, and as the gods we will live and love — it may be for ever. Nothing of high wisdom shall be unrevealed to us. We shall be what the world will be when it nears the close of time. Come to me — trust me — be beside me in all the wonder that I know. But above all, love me, for I love you more than life, and wisdom, and mystery!”

Olivia understood, and she believed. The mystery of life had always been more real to her than its commonplaces, and all her years she had gone half-expecting to meet some one, unheralded, to whom all things would be clear, and who should make her know by some secret sign that this was so, and should share with her. She had no doubt whatever that Prince Tabnit spoke the truth — just as the daughter of the river-god Inachus knew perfectly that she was being wooed by a voice from the air. Indeed, the world over, lovers promise each other infinite things, and are infinitely believed.

“I do understand you, Prince Tabnit,” Olivia said simply, “I do understand something of what you offer me. I think that these things were not meant to be hidden from men always, so I can even believe that you have all that you say. But — there is something more.”

Olivia paused — and swiftly, as if some little listening spirit had released the picture from the air, came the memory of that night when she had stood with St. George on that airy rampart beside the wall of blossoming vines.

“There is something more,” she repeated, “when two love each other very much I think that they have everything that you have said, and more.”

He looked at her in silence. The stained light from some high window caught her veil in meshes of rose and violet — fairy colours, witnessing the elusive, fairy, invincible truth of what she said.

“You mean that you do not love me?” said the prince gently.

“I do not love you, your Highness,” said Olivia, “and as for the wisdom of which you speak, that is worse than useless to you if you can do as you say with two quite innocent men.” She hesitated, searching his face. “Is there no way,” she said, “that I, the daughter of your king, can save them? I will appeal to the people!”

The prince met her eyes steadily, adoringly.

“It would avail nothing,” he said, “they are at one with the law. Yet there is a way that I can help you. If Mr. St. George returns, as he must, he and his friends shall be set adrift with due ceremony — but in an imperial airship, with a man secretly in control. By night they can escape to their yacht. This I will do — upon one condition.”

“Oh — what is that?” she asked, and for all the reticence of her eagerness, her voice was a betrayal.

Prince Tabnit turned to the window. Below, in the palace grounds, and without, in the Eurychôrus, a thousand people awaited the opening of the palace doors. They filled the majestic avenue, poured up the shadowed alleys that taught the necessity of mystery, were grouped beneath the honey-sweet trees; and above their heads, from every dome and column in the fair city, flowed and streamed the joyous, wizard, nameless colours of the pennons blown heavenward against the blue. They were come, this strange, wise, elusive people, to her marriage.

The prince was smiling as he met her eyes; for the world was always the exquisite intaglio, and today was its design.

“They know,” he said simply, “what was to have been at noon today. Do you not understand my condition?”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 22:43