Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 19

In the Hall of Kings

Somewhat before noon the great doors of the Palace of the Litany and of the Hall of Kings were thrown open, and the people streamed in from the palace grounds and the Eurychôrus. Abroad among them — elusive as that by which we know that a given moment belongs to dawn, not dusk — was the sense of questioning, of unrest, of expectancy that belongs to the dawn itself. Especially the youths and maidens — who, besides wisdom, knew something of spells — waited with a certain wistfulness for what might be, for Change is a kind of god even to the immortals. But there were also those who weighed the departures incident to the coming of the strange people from over-seas; and there were not lacking conservatives of the old régime to shake wise heads and declare that a barbarian is a barbarian, the world over.

All that rainbow multitude, clad for festival, rose with the first light music that stole, winged and silken, from hidden cedar alcoves, and some minutes past the sounding of the hour of noon the chamfered doors set high in the south wall of the Hall of Kings were swung open, and at the head of the stair appeared Olivia.

She was alone, for the custom of Yaque required that the island princesses should on the day of their recognition first appear alone before their people in token of their mutual faith. From the wardrobes at the castle Olivia had chosen the coronation gown of Queen Mitygen herself. It was of fine lace woven in a single piece, and it lay in a foam of shining threads traced with pure lines of shadow. On her head were a jeweled coronal and jeweled hair-loops in the Phoenician fashion, once taken from a king’s casket and sent secretly, upon the decline of Assyrian ascendancy, to be bartered in the marts of Coele–Syria. Chains of jewels, in a noon of colour, lay about her throat, as once they lay upon the shoulders of the dead queens of Yaque and, before them, of the women of the elder dynasties long since recorded in indifferent dust. Girdling her waist was a zone of rubies that burned positive in the tempered light. With all her delicacy, Olivia was like her rubies — vivid, graphic, delineated not by light but by line.

The members of the High Council rustled in their colour and white, and flashed their golden stars; the Golden Guards (save the apostate few who were that day sentenced to be set adrift) were filling the stairway like a bank of buttercups; and Olivia’s women, led by Antoinette in a gown of colours not to be lightly denominated, were entering by an opposite door. In the raised seats near the High Council, Mrs. Hastings and Mr. Frothingham leaned to wave a sustaining greeting. Until that high moment Mrs. Medora Hastings had been by no means certain that Olivia would appear at all, though she openly nourished the hope that “everything would go off smoothly.” (“I don’t care much for foreigners and never have,” she confided to Mr. Frothingham, “still, I was thinking while I was at breakfast, after all, to the prince we are the foreigners. There is something in that, don’t you think? And then the dear prince — he is so very metaphysical!”)

Upon the beetling throne Olivia took her place, and her women sank about her like tiers of sunset clouds. She was so little and so beautiful and so unconsciously appealing that when Prince Tabnit and Cassyrus and the rest of the court entered, it is doubtful if an eye left Olivia, to homage them. But Prince Tabnit was the last to note that, for he saw only Olivia; and the world — the world was an intaglio of his own designing.

With due magnificence the preliminary ceremonies of the coronation proceeded — musty necessities, like oaths and historical truths, being mingled with the most delicate observances, such as the naming of the former princesses of the island, from Adija, daughter of King Abibaal, to Olivia, daughter of King Otho; and such as counting the clouds for the misfortunes of the régime. This last duty fell to the office of the lord chief-chancellor, and from an upper porch he returned quickening with the intelligence that there was not a cloud in the sky, a state of the heavens known to no coronation since Babylon was ruled by Assyrian viceroys. The lord chief-chancellor and Cassyrus themselves brought forth the crown — a beautiful crown, shining like dust-inthe-sun — and Cassyrus, in a voice that trumpeted, rehearsed its history: how it had been made of jewels brought from the coffers of Amasis and Apries, when King Nebuchadnezzar wrested Phoenicia from Egypt, and, too, of all manner of precious stones sent by Queen Atossa, wife of Darius, when the Crotoniat Democedes, with two triremes and a trading vessel, visited Yaque before they went to survey Hellenic shores, with what disastrous result. And Olivia, standing in the queen’s gown, listened without hearing one word, and turned to have her veil lifted by Antoinette and the daughter of a peer of Yaque; and she knelt before the people while the lord chief-chancellor set the crown on her bright hair. It was a picture that thrilled the lord chief-chancellor himself — who was a worshiper of beauty, and a man given to angling in the lagoon and making metric translations of the inscriptions.

Then it was in the room as if a faint flame had been breathed upon and had upleaped in a thousand ways of expectancy, and as if a secret sign had been set in the lift and dip of the music — the music that was so like the great chamber with its lift and dip of carven line. The thrill with which one knows the glad news of an unopened letter was upon them all, and they heard that swift breath of an event that stirs before its coming. When Olivia’s women fell back from the dais with wonder and murmur, the murmur was caught up in the great hall, and ran from tier to tier as amazement, as incredulity, and as thanksgiving.

For there, beside the beetling throne, was standing a man, slenderly built, with a youthful, sensitive face and critically-drooping lids, and upon them all his eyes were turned in faint amusement warmed by an idle approbation.

“Perfect — perfect. Quite perfect,” he was saying below his breath.

Olivia turned. The next moment she stood with outstretched arms before her father; and King Otho, in his long, straight robe, encrusted with purple amethysts, bent with exquisite courtesy above his daughter’s hands.

“My dear child,” he murmured, “the picture that you make entirely justifies my existence, but hardly my absence. Shall we ask his Highness to do that?”

It mattered little who was to do that so long as it was done. For to that people, steeped in dream, risen from the crudity of mere events to breathe in the rarer atmosphere of their significance, here was a happening worthy their attention, for it had the dignity of mystery. Even Mrs. Medora Hastings, billowing toward the throne with cries, was less poignantly a challenge to be heard. Upon her the king laid a tranquillizing hand and, with a droop of eyelids in recognition of Mr. Frothingham, he murmured: “Ah, Medora — Medora! Delight in the moment — but do not embrace it,” while beside him, star-eyed, Olivia stood waiting for Prince Tabnit to speak.

To Olivia, trembling a little as she leaned upon his arm, King Otho bent with some word, at which she raised to his her startled face, and turned from him uncertainly, and burned a heavenly colour from brow to chin. Then, her father’s words being insistent in her ear, and her own heart being tumultuous with what he had told her, she turned as he bade her, and, following his glance, slipped beneath a shining curtain that cut from the audience chamber the still seclusion of the King’s Alcove, a chamber long sacred to the sovereigns of Yaque.

Confused with her wonder and questioning, hardly daring to understand the import of her father’s words, Olivia went down a passage set between two high white walls of the palace, open today to the upper blue and to the floating pennons of the dome. Here, prickly-leaved plants had shot to the cornices with uncouth contorting of angled boughs, and in their inner green ruffle-feathered birds looked down on her with the uncanny interest of myriapods. She caught about her the lace of her skirts and of her floating veil, and the way echoed musically to the touch of her little sandals and was bright with the shining of her diadem. And at the end of the passage she lifted a swaying curtain of soft dyes and entered the King’s Alcove.

The King’s Alcove laid upon one the delicate demands of calm open water — for its floor of white transparent tiles was cunningly traced with the reflected course of the carven roof, and one seemed to look into mirrored depths of disappearing line between spaces shaped like petals and like chevrons. In the King’s Alcove one stood in a world of white and one’s sight was exquisitely won, now by a niche open to a blue well of sea and space, now by silver plants lucent in high casements. And there one was spellbound with this mirroring of the Near which thus became the Remote, until one questioned gravely which was “there” and which was “here,” for the real was extended into vision, and vision was quickened to the real, and nothing lay between. But to Olivia, entering, none of these things was clearly evident, for as the curtain of many dyes fell behind her she was aware of two figures — but the one, with a murmured word which she managed somehow to answer without an idea what she said or what it had said either, vanished down the way that she had come. And she stood there face to face with St. George.

He had risen from a low divan before a small table set with figs and bread and a decanter of what would have been bordeaux if it had not been distilled from the vineyards of Yaque. He was very pale and haggard, and his eyes were darkly circled and still fever-bright. But he came toward her as if he had quite forgotten that this is a world of danger and that she was a princess and that, little more than a week ago, her name was to him the unknown music. He came toward her with a face of unutterable gladness, and he caught and crushed her hands in his and looked into her eyes as if he could look to the distant soul of her. He led her to a great chair hewn from quarries of things silver and unremembered, and he sat at her feet upon a bench that might have been a stone of the altar of some forgotten deity of dreams, at last worshiped as it should long have been worshiped by all the host that had passed it by. He looked up in her face, and the room was like a place of open water where heaven is mirrored in earth, and earth reflects and answers heaven.

St. George laughed a little for sheer, inextinguishable happiness.

“Once,” he said, “once I breakfasted with you, on tea and — if I remember correctly — gold and silver muffins. Won’t you breakfast with me now?”

Olivia looked down at him, her heart still clamourous with its anxiety of the night and of the morning.

“Tell me where you can have been,” she said only; “didn’t you know how distressed we would be? We imagined everything — in this dreadful place. And we feared everything, and we —” but yet the “we” did not deceive St. George; how could it with her eyes, for all their avoidings, so divinely upon him?

“Did you,” he said, “ah — did you wonder? I wish I knew!”

“And my father — where did you find him?” she besought. “It was you? You found him, did you not?”

St. George looked down at a fold of her gown that was fallen across his knee. How on earth was he ever to move, he wondered vaguely, if the slightest motion meant the withdrawing of that fold. He looked at her hand, resting so near, so near, upon the arm of the chair; and last he looked again into her face; and it seemed wonderful and before all things wonderful, not that she should be here, jeweled and crowned, but that he should so unbelievably be here with her. And yet it might be but a moment, as time is measured, until this moment would be swept away. His eyes met hers and held them.

“Would you mind,” he said, “now — just for a little, while we wait here — not asking me that? Not asking me anything? There will be time enough in there — when they ask me. Just for now I only want to think how wonderful this is.”

She said: “Yes, it is wonderful — unbelievable,” but he thought that she might have meant the white room or her queen’s robe or any one of all the things which he did not mean.

Is it wonderful to you?” he asked, and he said again: “I wish — I wish I knew!”

He looked at her, sitting in the moon of her laces and the stars of her gems, and the sense of the immeasurableness of the hour came upon him as it comes to few; the knowledge that the evanescent moment is very potent, the world where the siren light of the Remote may at any moment lie quenched in some ashen present. To him, held momentarily in this place that was like shoreless, open water, the present was inestimably precious and it lay upon St. George like the delicate claim of his love itself. What the next hour held for them neither could know, and this universal uncertainty was for him crystallized in an instant of high wisdom; over the little hand lying so perilously near, his own closed suddenly and he crushed her fingers to his lips.

“Olivia — dear heart,” he said, “we don’t know what they may do — what will happen — oh, may I tell you now?”

There was no one to say that he might not, for the hand was not withdrawn from his. And so he did tell her, told her all his heart as he had known his heart to be that last night on The Aloha, and in that divine twilight of his arriving on the island, and in those hours beside the airy ramparts of the king’s palace, and in the vigil that followed, and always — always, ever since he could remember, only that he hadn’t known that he was waiting for her, and now he knew — now he knew.

“Must you not have known, up there in the palace,” he besought her, “the night that I got there? And yesterday, all day yesterday, you must have known — didn’t you know? I love you, Olivia. I couldn’t have told you, I couldn’t have let you know, only now, when we can’t know what may come or what they may do — oh, say you forgive me. Because I love you — I love you.”

She rose swiftly, her veil floating about her, silver over the gold of her hair; and the light caught the enchantment of the gems of the strange crown they had set upon her head, and she looked down at him in almost unearthly beauty. He stood before her, waiting for the moment when she should lift her eyes. And the eyes were lifted, and he held out his arms, and straight to them, regardless of the coronation laces of Queen Mitygen, went Olivia, Princess of Yaque. He put aside her shining hair, as he had put it aside in that divine moment in the motor in the palace wood; and their lips met, in that world that was like the shoreless open sea where earth reflects heaven, and heaven comes down.

They sat upon the white-cushioned divan, and St. George half knelt beside her as he had knelt that night in the fleeing motor, and there were an hundred things to say and an hundred things to hear. And because this fragment of the past since they had met was incontestably theirs, and because the future hung trembling before them in a mist of doubt, they turned happy, hopeful eyes to that future, clinging to each other’s hands. The little chamber of translucent white, where one looked down to a mirrored dome and up to a kind of sky, became to them a place bounded by the touch and the look and the voice of each other, as every place in the world is bounded for every heart that beats.

“Sweetheart,” said St. George presently, “do you remember that you are a princess, and I’m merely a kind of man?”

Was it not curious, he thought, that his lips did not speak a new language of their own accord?

“I know,” corrected Olivia adorably, “that I’m a kind of princess. But what use is that when it only makes trouble for us?”

“Us”—“makes trouble for us.” St. George wondered how he could ever have thought that he even guessed what happiness might be when “trouble for us” was like this. He tried to say so, and then:

“But do you know what you are doing?” he persisted. “Don’t you see — dear, don’t you see that by loving me you are giving up a world that you can never, never get back?”

Olivia looked down at the fair disordered hair on his temples. It seemed incredible that she had the right to push it from his forehead. But it was not incredible. To prove it Olivia touched it back. To prove that that was not incredible, St. George turned until his lips brushed her wrist.

“Don’t you know, don’t you, dear,” he pressed the matter, “that very possibly these people here have really got the secret that all the rest of the world is talking about and hoping about and dreaming they will sometime know?”

Olivia heard of this likelihood with delicious imperturbability.

“I know a secret,” she said, just above her breath, “worth two of that.”

“You’ll never be sorry — never?” he urged wistfully, resolutely denying himself the entire bliss of that answer.

“Never,” said Olivia, “never. Shall you?”

That was exceptionally easy to make clear, and thereafter he whimsically remembered something else:

“You live in the king’s palace now,” he reminded her, “and this is another palace where you might live if you chose. And you might be a queen, with drawing-rooms and a poet laureate and all the rest. And in New York — in New York, perhaps we shall live in a flat.”

“No,” she cried, “no, indeed! Not ‘perhaps,’ I insist upon a flat.” She looked about the room with its bench brought from the altar of a forgotten deity of dreams, with its line and colour dissolving to mirrored point and light — the mystic union of sight with dream — and she smiled at the divine incongruity and the divine resemblance. “It wouldn’t be so very different — a flat,” she said shyly.

Wouldn’t it — wouldn’t it, after all, be so very different?

“Ah, if you only think so, really,” cried St. George.

“But it will be different, just different enough to like better,” she admitted then. “You know that I think so,” she said.

“If only you knew how much I think so,” he told her, “how I have thought so, day and night, since that first minute at the Boris. Olivia, dear heart — when did you think so first —”

She shook her head and laid her hands upon his and drew them to her face.

“Now, now — now!” she cried, “and there never was any time but now.”

“But there will be-there will be,” he said, his lips upon her hair.

After a time — for Time, that seems to have no boundaries in the abstract, is a very fiend for bounding the divine concrete — after a time Amory spoke hesitatingly on the other side of the curtain of many dyes.

“St. George,” he said, “I’m afraid they want you. Mr. Holland — the king, he’s got through playing them. He wants you to get up and give ’em the truth, I think.”

“Come in-come in, Amory,” St. George said and lifted the curtain, and “I beg your pardon,” he added, as his eyes fell upon Antoinette in a gown of colours not to be lightly denominated. She had followed Olivia from the hall, and had met Amory midway the avenue of prickly trees, and they had helpfully been keeping guard. Now they went on before to the Hall of Kings, and St. George, remembering what must happen there, turned to Olivia for one crowning moment.

“You know,” she said fearfully, “before father came the prince intended the most terrible things — to set you and Mr. Amory adrift in a rudderless airship —”

St. George laughed in amusement. The poor prince with his impossible devices, thinking to harm him, St. George —now.

“He meant to marry you, he thought,” he said, “but, thank Heaven, he has your father to answer to — and me!” he ended jubilantly.

And yet, after all, Heaven knew what possibilities hemmed them round. And Heaven knew what she was going to think of him when she heard his story. He turned and caught her to him, for the crowning moment.

“You love me — you love me,” he said, “no matter what happens or what they say — no matter what?”

She met his eyes and, of her own will, she drew his face down to hers.

“No matter what,” she answered. So they went together toward the chamber which they had both forgotten.

When they reached the Hall of Kings they heard King Otho’s voice — suave, mellow, of perfect enunciation:

“— some one,” the king was concluding, “who can tell this considerably better than I. And it seems to me singularly fitting that the recognition of the part eternally played by the ‘possible’ be temporarily deferred while we listen to — I dislike to use the word, but shall I say — the facts.”

It seemed to St. George when he stood beside the dais, facing that strange, eager multitude with his strange unbelievable story upon his lips — the story of the finding of the king — as if his own voice were suddenly a part of all the gigantic incredibility. Yet the divinely real and the fantastic had been of late so fused in his consciousness that he had come to look upon both as the normal — which is perhaps the only sane view. But how could he tell to others the monstrous story of last night, and hope to be believed?

None the less, as simply as if he had been narrating to Chillingworth the high moment of a political convention, St. George told the people of Yaque what had happened in that night in the room of the tombs with that mad old Malakh whom they all remembered. It came to him as he spoke that it was quite like telling to a field of flowers the real truth about the wind of which they might be supposed to know far more than he; and yet, if any one were to tell the truth about the wind who would know how to listen? He was not amazed that, when he had done, the people of Yaque sat in a profound silence which might have been the silence of innocent amazement or of utter incredulity.

But there was no mistaking the face of Prince Tabnit. Its cool tolerant amusement suddenly sent the blood pricking to St. George’s heart and filled him with a kind of madness. What he did was the last thing that he had intended. He turned upon the prince, and his voice went cutting to the farthest corner of the hall:

“Men and women of Yaque,” he cried, “I accuse your prince of the knowledge that can take from and add to the years of man at will. I accuse him of the deliberate and criminal use of that knowledge to take King Otho from his throne!”

St. George hardly knew what effect his words had. He saw only Olivia, her hands locked, her lips parted, looking in his face in anguish; and he saw Prince Tabnit smile. Prince Tabnit sat upon the king’s left hand, and he leaned and whispered a smiling word in the ear of his sovereign and turned a smiling face to Olivia upon her father’s right.

“I know something of your American newspapers, your Majesty,” the prince said aloud, “and these men are doing their part excellently, excellently.”

“What do you mean, your Highness?” demanded St. George curtly.

“But is it not simple?” asked the prince, still smiling. “You have contrived a sensation for the great American newspaper. No one can doubt.”

King Otho leaned back in the beetling throne.

“Ah, yes,” he said, “it is true. Something has been contrived. But — is the sensation of his contriving, Prince?”

Olivia stood silent. It was not possible, it was not possible, she said over mechanically. For St. George to have come with this story of a potion — a drug that had restored youth to her father, had transformed him from that mad old Malakh  —

“Father!” she cried appealingly, “don’t you remember — don’t you know?”

King Otho, watching the prince, shook his head, smiling.

“At dawn,” he said, “there are few of us to be found remaining still at table with Socrates. I seem not to have been of that number.”

“Olivia!” cried St. George suddenly.

She met his eyes for a moment, the eyes that had read her own, that had given message for message, that had seen with her the glory of a mystic morning willingly relinquished for a diviner dawn. Was she not princess here in Yaque? She laid her hand upon her father’s hand; the crown that they had given her glittered as she turned toward the multitude.

“My people,” she said ringingly, “I believe that that man speaks the truth. Shall the prince not answer to this charge before the High Council now — here — before you all?”

At this King Otho did something nearly perceptible with his eyebrows. “Perfect. Perfect. Quite perfect,” he said below his breath. The next instant the eyelids of the sovereign drooped considerably less than one would have supposed possible. For from every part of the great chamber, as if a storm long-pent had forced the walls of the wind, there came in a thousand murmurs — soft, tremulous, definitive — the answering voice to Olivia’s question:

“Yes. Yes. Yes . . . ”

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