Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 20

Out of the Hall of Kings

In Prince Tabnit’s face there was a curious change, as if one were suddenly to see hieroglyphics upon a star where before there had been only shining. But his calm and his magnificent way of authority did not desert him, as so grotesque a star would still stand lonely and high in the heavens. He spoke, and upon the multitude fell instant silence, not the less absolute that it harboured foreboding.

“Whatever the people would say to me,” said the prince simply, “I will hear. My right hand rests in the hand of the people. In return I decree allegiance to the law. Your princess stands before you, crowned. This most fortunate return of his Majesty, the King, can not set at naught the sacred oath which has just left her lips. Henceforth, in council and in audience, her place shall be at his Majesty’s right hand, as was the place of that Princess Athalme, daughter of King Kab, in the dynasty of the fall of Rome. Is it not, therefore, but the more incumbent upon your princess to own her allegiance to the law of the island by keeping her troth with me — that troth witnessed and sanctioned by you yourselves? This ceremony concluded I will answer the demands of the loyal subjects whose interests alone I serve. For we obey that which is higher than authority — the law, born in the Beginning —”

Prince Tabnit’s voice might almost have taken his place in his absence, it was so soft, so fine of texture, no more consciously modulated than is the going of water or the way of a wing. It was difficult to say whether his words or, so to say, their fine fabric of voice, begot the silence that followed. But all eyes were turned upon Olivia. And, Prince Tabnit noting this, before she might speak he suddenly swept his flowing robes embroidered by a thousand needles to a posture of humility before his sovereign.

“Your Majesty,” he besought, “I pray your consent to the bestowal upon my most unworthy self of the hand of your daughter, the Princess Olivia.”

King Otho leaned upon the arm of his carven throne. Against its strange metal his hand was cameo-clear.

“For the king,” he was remembering softly, “‘the Pyrenees, or so he fancied, ceased to exist.’ For another ‘the mountains of Daphne are everywhere.’ Each of us has his impossible dream to prove that he is an impossible creature. Why not I? To be normal is the cry of all the hobgoblins . . . And what does the princess say?” he asked aloud.

“Her Highness has already given me the great happiness to plight me her troth,” said Prince Tabnit.

King Otho’s eyebrows flickered from their parallel of repose.

“In Yaque or in America,” he murmured, “the Americans do as the Americans do. None of us is mentioned in Deuteronomy, but what is the will of the princess?” the American Sovereign asked.

Mrs. Hastings, seated near the dais, heard; and as she turned, a rhinestone side-comb slipped from her hair, tinkled over the jewels of her corsage and shot into the lap of a member of the High Council. He, never having seen a side-comb, fancied that it might be an infernal machine which he had never seen either, and, palpitating, flashed it to the guardian hand of Mr. Frothingham. At the same moment:

“Ah, why, Otho,” said Mrs. Hastings audibly, “we had two ancestors at Bannockburn!”

“Bannockburn!” argued Mr. Augustus Frothingham, below the voice, “Bannockburn. But what, my dear Mrs. Hastings, is Bannockburn beside the Midianites and the Moabites and the Hittites and the Ammonites and the Levites?”

In this genealogical moment the prince leaned toward Olivia.

“Choose,” he said significantly, but so softly that none might hear, “oh, my beloved, choose!”

The faces of the great assembly blurred and wavered before Olivia, and the low hum of the talk in the room was relative, like the voices of passers-by. She looked up at the prince and away from him in mute appeal to something that ought to help her and would not. For Olivia was of those who, never having seen the face of Destiny very near, are accustomed to look upon nothing as wholly irrevocable; and — for one of her graces — she had the feminine expectation that, if only events can be sufficiently postponed, something will intervene; which is perhaps a heritage of the gentlest women descended from Homeric days. If the island was so historic, little Olivia may have said, where was the interfering goddess? She looked unseeingly toward St. George and toward her father, and the sense of the bitter actuality of the choice suddenly wounded her, as the Actual for ever wounds the woman and the dream.

Then suddenly, above the stir of expectation of the people, and the associate bustling of the High Council there came a vague confusion and trampling from outside, and the far outer doors of the hall were thrown open with a jar and a breath, vibrant as a murmur. There was a cry, the determined resistance of some of the Golden Guard, and shouts of expostulation and warning as they were flung aside by a powerful arm. In the disorder that followed, a miraculously-familiar figure — that familiarity and strangeness are both miracles ought to explain certain mysteries — was beside St. George and a thankful voice said in his ear:

“Mr. St. George, sir, for the mercy of Heaven, sir — come back to the yacht. No person can tell what may happen ten minutes ahead, sir!”

The oracle of this universal truth was Rollo, palpitating, his immaculate coat stained with earth, earth-stains on his cheeks, and his breast labouring in an excitement which only anxiety for his master could effect. But St. George hardly saw him. His eyes were fixed on some one who stood towering before the dais, like the old prints of the avenging goddesses. Clad in the hideous stripes which boards of directors consider de rigueur for the soul that is to be won back to the normal, stood the woman Elissa, who, by all counts of Prince Tabnit, should have been singing a hymn with Mrs. Manners and Miss Bella Bliss Utter in the Bitley Reformatory, in Westchester County, New York.

“Stop!” she cried in that perfect English which is not only a rare experience but a pleasant adventure, “what new horror is this?”

To Prince Tabnit’s face, as he looked at her, came once more that indefinable change — only this time nearer and more intimately explainable, as if something ethereal, trained to delicate lines, like smoke, should suddenly shape itself to a menace. St. George saw the woman step close to the dais, he saw Olivia’s eyes questioning him, and in the hurried rising of the peers and of the High Council he heard Rollo’s voice in his ear:

“It’s a gr’it go, sir,” observed Rollo respectfully, “the woman has things to tell, sir, as people generally don’t know. She’s flew the coop at the place she was in-it seems she’s been shut up some’eres in America, sir; an’ she got ‘old of the capting of a tramp boat o’ some kind — one o’ them boats as smells intoxicating round the ‘atches — an’ she give ’im an’ the mate a ‘andful o’ jewelry that she’d on ‘er when she was took in an’ ‘ad someways contrived to ‘ang on to, an’ I’m blessed hif she wasn’t able fer to steer fer the island, sir — we took ‘er aboard the yacht only this mornin’ with ‘er ‘air down her back, an’ we’ve brought ‘er on here. An’ she says — men can be gr’it beasts, sir, an’ no manner o’ mistake,” concluded Rollo fervently.

And a little hoarse voice said in St. George’s ear:

“Mr. St. George, sir — we ain’t late, are we? We been flirtin’ de ger-avel up dat ka-liff since de car-rack o’ day.”

And there was Bennietod, with an edge of an old horse pistol showing beneath his cuff; and, round-eyed and alert as a bird newly alighted on a stranger sill, Little Cawthorne stood; and the sight put strength into St. George, and so did Little Cawthorne’s words:

“I didn’t know whether they’d let us in or not,” he said, “unless we had on a plaited décolletté, with biases down the back.”

Clearly and confidently in the silent room rang the voice of the woman confronting Prince Tabnit, and her eyes did not leave his face. St. George was struck with the change in her since that day in the Reformatory chapel. Then she had been like a wild, alien thing in dumb distress; now she was unchained and native. Her first words explained why, in the extreme dilemma in which St. George had last seen her, she had yet remained mute.

“I release myself,” she cried, “from my oath of silence, though until today I have spoken only to those who helped me to come back to you — my master. Have you nothing to say to me? Has the time seemed long? Is it a weary while since I left you to do your will and murder the woman whom you were now about to make your wife?”

A cry of horror rose from the people, and then stillness came again.

“Take the woman away,” said Prince Tabnit only, “she is speaking madness.”

“I am speaking the truth,” said the woman clearly. “I was of Melita — there are those here who will know my face. And it is not I alone who have served the State. I challenge you, Tabnit — here, before them all! Where are Gerya and Ibera, Cabulla and Taura? Have not their people, weeping, besought news of them in vain? And what answer have you given them?”

Murmurs and sobs rose from the assembly, stilled by the tranquil voice of the prince.

“Where are they?” he repeated gently, his voice vibrant in its rise and fall, its giving of delicate values. “But the people know where they are. They have attained to the perfect life and died the perfect death. For I have raised them to the supreme estate.”

Prince Tabnit, with uplifted face, sat motionless, looking out over the throng from beneath lowered lids; then his eyes, confident and a little mocking, returned to the woman. But they had for her no terror. She turned from him, confronting the pale, eager faces of the people; and in her beauty and distinction she was like Olivia’s women, crowded beside the dais.

“Men and women of Yaque,” cried Elissa, “I will tell you to what ‘supreme estate’ these friends whom you seek have long been raised. For here in Med and in Melita you will find many of those whom you have mourned as dead — you will find them as you yourselves have met and passed them, it may have been countless times, on your streets of Yaque — not young and beautiful as when they left you, but men and women of incredible age. Withered, shaken by palsy, infirm, they creep upon their lonely ways or go at will to drag themselves unrecognized along your highways, as helpless as the dead themselves. They number scores, and they are those who have displeased your prince by some little word, some little wrong, or, more than these, by some thwarting of the way of his ambition: Oblo, who disappeared from his place as keeper at the door; Ithobal, satrap of Melita; young Prince Kaal — ay, and how many more? You do not understand my words? I say that your prince has knowledge of some secret, accursed drug that can call back youth or make actual age —age, do you understand — just as we of Yaque bring both flowers and fruit to swift maturity!”

Olivia uttered a little cry, not at the grotesque horror of what the woman had said but at the miracle of its unconscious support of the story and theory of St. George. And St. George heard; and suddenly, because another had voiced his own fantastic message, its incredibility and unreality became appalling, and yet he felt infinitely reconciled to both because he interpreted aright that little muffled exclamation from Olivia. What did it matter — oh, what did it matter whether or not the reality were grotesque? What seems to be happening is always the reality, if only one understands it sufficiently. And at all events there had been that hour in the King’s Alcove. At last, as he weighed that hour against the fantasy of all the rest, St. George understood and lived the divine madness of all great moments, the madness that realizes one star and is content that all the heavens shall march unintelligibly past so long as that single shining is not dimmed.

But King Otho was riding no such griffin with sun-gold wings. King Otho was genuinely and personally interested in the woman’s words. He turned to Prince Tabnit with animation.

“Really, Prince,” he said, “is it so? Pray do not deny it unless there is no other way, for I am before all things interested. It is far more important to me that you tell me as much as you can tell, than that you deny or even disprove it.”

Prince Tabnit smiled in the eagerly interested face of his sovereign, and rose and came to the edge of the dais, his garments embroidered by a thousand needles touching and floating about him; and it was as if he reached those before him by a kind of spiritual magnetism, not without sublimity.

“My people,” he said — and his voice had all the tenderness that they knew so well —“this is some conspiracy of those to whom we have shown the utmost hospitality. I would have shielded your king, for he was also my sovereign and I owed him allegiance. But now that is no longer possible, and the time is come. Know then, oh my people of Yaque, that which my loyalty has led me wrongfully to conceal: that in the strange disappearance and return of your sovereign, King Otho, he who will may trace the loss of that which the island has mourned without ceasing. I accuse your king — he is no longer mine — of being now in possession of the Hereditary Treasure of Yaque.”

Then St. George came back with a thrill to actuality. In the press of the events of this morning, after his awakening in the room of the tombs, he had completely forgotten the soft fire of gems that had burned beneath the hands of old Malakh in that dark chamber under King Abibaal’s tomb. He and Amory and Jarvo had, with the king, left the chamber by the upper passages, and Amory and Jarvo knew nothing of the jewels. Yet St. George was certain that he could not have been mistaken, and he listened breathlessly for what the king would say.

King Otho, with a smile, nodded in perfect imperturbability.

“That is true,” he said, “I had forgotten all about it.”

They waited for him to speak, the people in amazed silence, Mrs. Medora Hastings saying unintelligible things in whispers, for which she had a genius.

“It is true,” said King Otho, “that I am responsible for the disappearance of the Hereditary Treasure. You will find it at this moment in a basement dungeon of the palace on Mount Khalak. On the very day, three months ago, that I dined with your prince I had made a discovery of considerable importance to me, namely, that the little island of Yaque is richer in most of the radio-active substances than all the rest of the world. The discovery gave me keener pleasure than I had known in years — I had suspected it for some time after I found the noctilucous stars on the ceiling of my sitting-room at the palace. And in the work-shop of the Princess Simyra I came upon a quantity of metallic uranium, and a great many other things which I question the taste of taking the time to describe. But my experiments there with the very perfect gems of your admirable collection had evidently been antedated by some of your own people, for the apparatus was intact. I shall be glad to show some charming effects to any one who cares to see them. I have succeeded in causing the diamonds of Darius to phosphoresce most wonderfully.”

The phosphorescence of the diamonds of Darius was to the people far less important than the joyous fact which they were not slow to grasp, that the Hereditary Treasure was, if they might believe the king’s words, restored to them, and the burden of the tax averted. They did not understand, nor did they seek to understand; because they knew the inefficiency of details and they also knew the value of mere import.

But the king, child of a social order that wreaks itself on particularizations, returned to his quest for a certain recounting.

“Prince Tabnit,” he said, “the High Council and the people of Yaque are impatient for your answer to this woman’s words.”

“I rejoice with them and with your Majesty,” replied Prince Tabnit softly, “that the treasure is safe. My own explanation is far less simple. If what this woman says is true, yet it is true in such wise as, strive as I may, I can not speak; nor, strive as you may, can you fathom. Therefore I say that the claim which she has made is idle, and not within my power to answer.”

At this St. George bounded to his feet. Amory looked up at him in terror, and Little Cawthorne and Bennietod went a step or two after him as he sprang forward, and Rollo’s lean shadowed face, obvious as his way of speech, was wrinkled in terrified appeal.

“An idle claim!” St. George thundered as he strode before the dais. “Is this woman’s story and mine an idle claim, and one not within your power to answer? Then I will tell you how to answer, Prince Tabnit. I challenge you now, in the presence of your people — taste this!”

Upon the carven arm of Prince Tabnit’s throne St. George set something that he had taken from his pocket. It was the vase of rock-crystal from which, the night before in the room of the tombs, the king had drunk.

What followed was the last thing that St. George had expected. It was as if his defiance had unlocked flood-gates. In an instant the vast assembly was in motion. With a sound of garments that was like far wind they were upon their feet and pressing toward the throne. With all the passion of their “Yes! Yes! Yes!” in response to Olivia’s appeal they came, resistlessly demanding the answer to some dreadful question long shrouded in their hearts. Their armour was their silence; they made no sound save that ominous sweep of their robes and the conspiracy of their sandaled feet upon the tiles.

St. George did not turn. Indeed, it did not once cross his mind that their hostility could possibly be toward him. Besides, his look was fixed upon the prince’s face, and what he read there was enough. The peers, the High Council and those nearest the throne wavered and swerved from the man, leaving him to face what was to come.

Whatever was to come he would have met nobly. He was of those infrequent folk of some upper air who exhibit a certain purity even in error, or in worse. He stood with his exquisite pale face uplifted, his white hair in a glory about it, his white gown embroidered by a thousand needles falling in virginal lines against the warm, pure colour of that room with its wraiths of hue and light. And he opened the heart of the green jewel that burned upon his breast.

“Not for me the wine of youth,” he said slowly, “but the poison of age. The poison which, without me to unlock the secret, all mankind must drink alone. May you drink it late, my friends!” he cried. “I, who hold in my soul the secret of the passing of time and youth, drink now to those among you and among all men who have won and kept the one thing dearer than these.”

He touched the green gem to his lips, and let it fall upon the embroidered laces on his breast. Then quietly and in another voice he began to speak.

With the first words there came to St. George the thrill of something that had possessed him — when? In that ecstatic moment on The Aloha when he had seen the light in the king’s palace; in the instant when the Isle of Yaque had first lain subject before him, “a land which no one can define or remember — only desire;” in the divine time of his triumph in having scaled the heights to the palace, that sky-thing, with ramparts of air; above all, in the hour of his joy in the King’s Alcove, when Olivia had looked in his eyes and touched his lips. Inexplicably as the way that eternity lies barely unrevealed in some kin-thing of its own — a shell, a duty, a vista — he suddenly felt it now in what the prince was saying. He listened, and for one poignant stab of time he knew that he touched hands with the elemental and saw the ancient kindliness of all those people naked in their faces and knew himself for what he was.

He listened, and yet there was no making captive the words of the prince in understanding. Prince Tabnit was speaking the English, and every word was clearly audible and, moreover, was probably daily upon St. George’s lips. But if it had been to ransom the rest of the world from its night he could not have understood what the prince was saying. Every word was a word that belonged as much to St. George as to the prince; but in some unfathomable fashion the inner sense of what he said for ever eluded, dissolving in the air of which it was a part. And yet, past all doubting, St. George knew that he was hearing the essence of that strange knowledge which the Isle of Yaque had won while all the rest of mankind struggled for it — he knew with the certainty with which we recognize strange forces in a dozen of the every-day things of life, in electricity, in telepathy, in dreams. With the same certainty he realized that what the prince was saying would, if he could understand, lift a certain veil. Here, put in words at last, was manifestly the secret, that catch of understanding without which men are groping in the dark, perhaps that mere pointing of relations which would make clear, without blasphemy, time and the future, rebirth and old existence, it might be; and certainly the accident of personality. Here, crystallized, were the things that men almost know, the dream that has just escaped every one, the whisper in sleep that would have explained if one could remember when one woke, the word that has been thrillingly flashed to one in moments of absorption and has fled before one might catch the sound, the far hope of science, the glimpse that comes to dying eyes and is voiced in fragments by dying lips. Here without penetrating the great reserve or tracing any principle to its beginning, was the truth about both. And St. George was powerless to receive it.

He turned fearfully to Olivia. Ah — what if she did not guess anything of the meaning of what she was hearing? For one instant he knew all the misery of one whose friend stands on another star. But when he saw her uplifted face, her eager eyes and quick breath and her look divinely questioning his, he was certain that though she might not read the figures of the veil, yet she too knew how near, how near they Stood; and to be with her on this side was dearer — nay, was nearer the Secret — than without her to pass the veil that they touched. Then he looked at Amory; wouldn’t old Amory know, he wondered. Wouldn’t his mere understanding of news teach him what was happening? But old Amory, the light flashing on his pince-nez, was keeping one eye on the prince and wondering if the chair that he had just placed for Antoinette was not in the draught of the dome; and little Antoinette was looking about her like a rosebud, new to the butterflies of June; and King Otho was listening, languid, heavy-lidded, sensitive to little values, sophisticating the moment; and Little Cawthorne stood with eyes raised in simple, tolerant wonder; and the others, Bennietod, Mrs. Hastings and Mr. Augustus Frothingham, showed faces like the pools in which pebbles might be dropped, making no ripples — one must suppose that there are such pools, since there are certainly such faces. St. George saw how it was. Here, spoken casually by the prince, just as the Banal would speak of the visible and invisible worlds, here was the Sesame of understanding toward which the centuries had striven, the secret of the link between two worlds; and here, of all mankind, were only they two to hear — they two and that motionless company who knew what the prince knew and who kept it sealed within their eyes.

St. George looked at the multitude in swift understanding. They were like a Greek chorus, signifying what is. They knew what the prince was saying, they had the secret and yet — they were no nearer, no nearer than he. With their ancient kindliness naked in their faces, St. George knew that through his love he was as near to the Source as were they. And it was suddenly as it had been that first night when he had stridden buoyantly through the island; for he could not tell which was the secret of the prince and of these people and which was the blessedness of his love.

None the less he clung desperately to the last words of Prince Tabnit in a vain effort to hold, to make clear, to sophisticate one single phrase, as one waking in the night says over, in a vain effort to fix it, some phantom sentence cried to him in dreams by a shadowy band destined to be dissolved when, in bright day, he would reclaim it. He even managed frantically to write down a jumble of words of which he could make nothing, save here and there a phrase like a touch of hands from the silence: “ . . . the infinite moment that is pending” . . . “all is become a window where had been a wall” . . . “the wintry vision” . . . they were all words that beckon without replying. And all the time it was curiously as if the Something Silent within St. George himself, that so long had striven to speak, were crying out at last in the prince’s words — and he could not understand. Yet in spite of it all, in spite of this imminent satisfying of the strange, dreadful curiosity which possesses all mankind, St. George, even now, was far less keen to comprehend than he was to burst through the throng with Olivia in his arms, gain the waiting Aloha and sail into the New York harbour with the prize that he had won. “I drink now to those among you and among all men who have won and kept that which is greater than these,” the prince had said, and St. George perfectly understood. He had but to look at Olivia to be triumphantly willing that the gods should keep their secrets about time and the link between the two worlds so long as they had given him love. What should he care about time? He had this hour.

When the prince ceased speaking the hall was hushed; but because of the tempest in the hearts of them all the silence was as if a strong wind, sweeping powerfully through a forest, were to sway no boughs and lift no leaves, only to strive noiselessly round one who walked there.

Prince Tabnit wrapped his white mantle about him and sat upon his throne. Spell-stricken, they watched him, that great multitude, and might not turn away their eyes. Slowly, imperceptibly, as Time touches the familiar, the face of the prince took on its change — and one could not have told wherein the change lay, but subtly as the encroachment of the dark, or the alchemy of the leaves, or the betrayal of certain modes of death, the finger was upon him. While they watched he became an effigy, the hideous face of a fantasy of smoke against the night sky, with a formless hand lifted from among the delicate laces in farewell. There was no death — the horror was that there was no death. Only this curse of age drying and withering at the bones.

A long, whining cry came from Cassyrus, who covered his face with his mantle and fled. The spell being broken, by common consent the great hall was once more in motion — St. George would never forget that tide toward all the great portals and the shuddering backward glances at the white heap upon the beetling throne. They fled away into the reassuring sunlight, leaving the echoless hall deserted, save for that breathing one upon the throne.

There was one other. From somewhere beside the dais the woman Elissa crept and knelt, clasping the knees of the man.

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