Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 4

The Prince of Far-away

No. 19 McDougle Street had been chosen as a likely market by a “hokey-pokey” man, who had wheeled his cart to the curb before the entrance. There, despite Mrs. Hastings’ coach-man’s peremptory appeal, he continued to dispense stained ice-cream to the little denizens of No. 19 and the other houses in the row. The brougham, however, at once proved a counter-attraction and immediately an opposition group formed about the carriage step and exchanged penetrating comments upon the livery.

“Mrs. Hastings, you and Miss Holland would better sit here, perhaps,” suggested St. George, alighting hurriedly, “until I see if this man is to be found.”

“Please,” said Miss Holland, “I’ve always been longing to go into one of these houses, and now I’m going. Aren’t we, Aunt Dora?”

“If you think —” ventured Mr. Frothingham in perplexity; but Mr. Frothingham’s perplexity always impressed one as duty-born rather than judicious, and Miss Holland had already risen.

“Olivia!” protested Mrs. Hastings faintly, accepting St. George’s hand, “do look at those children’s aprons. I’m afraid we’ll all contract fever after fever, just coming this far.”

Unkempt women were occupying the doorstep of No. 19. St. George accosted them and asked the way to the rooms of a Mr. Tabnit. They smiled, displaying their wonderful teeth, consulted together, and finally with many labials and uncouth pointings of shapely hands they indicated the door of the “first floor front,” whose wooden shutters were closely barred. St. George led the way and entered the bare, unclean passage where discordant voices and the odours of cooking wrought together to poison the air. He tapped smartly at the door.

Immediately it was opened by a graceful boy, dressed in a long, belted coat of dun-colour. He had straight black hair, and eyes which one saw before one saw his face, and he gravely bowed to each of the party in turn before answering St. George’s question.

“Assuredly,” said the youth in perfect English, “enter.”

They found themselves in an ample room extending the full depth of the house; and partly because the light was dim and partly in sheer amazement they involuntarily paused as the door clicked behind them. The room’s contrast to the squalid neighbourhood was complete. The apartment was carpeted in soft rugs laid one upon another so that footfalls were silenced. The walls and ceiling were smoothly covered with a neutral-tinted silk, patterned in dim figures; and from a fluted pillar of exceeding lightness an enormous candelabrum shed clear radiance upon the objects in the room. The couches and divans were woven of some light reed, made with high fantastic backs, in perfect purity of line however, and laid with white mattresses. A little reed table showed slender pipes above its surface and these, at a touch from the boy, sent to a great height tiny columns of water that tinkled back to the square of metal upon which the table was set. A huge fan of blanched grasses automatically swayed from above. On a side-table were decanters and cups and platters of a material frail and transparent. Before the shuttered window stood an observable plant with coloured leaves. On a great table in the room’s centre were scattered objects which confused the eye. A light curtain stirring in the fan’s faint breeze hung at the far end of the room.

In a career which had held many surprises, some of which St. George would never be at liberty to reveal to the paper in whose service he had come upon them, this was one of the most alluring. The mere existence of this strange and luxurious habitation in the heart of such a neighbourhood would, past expression, delight Mr. Crass, the feature man, and no doubt move even Chillingworth to approval. Chillingworth and Crass! Already they seemed strangers. St. George glanced at Miss Holland; she was looking from side to side, like a bird alighted among strange flowers; she met his eyes and dimpled in frank delight. Mrs. Hastings sat erectly beside her, her tortoise-rimmed glasses expressing bland approval. The improbability of her surroundings had quite escaped her in her satisfied discovery that the place was habitable. The lawyer, his thin lips parted, his head thrown back so that his hair rested upon his coat collar, remained standing, one long hand upon a coat lapel.

“Ah,” said Miss Holland softly, “it is an adventure, Aunt Dora.”

St. George liked that. It irritated him, he had once admitted, to see a woman live as if living were a matter of life and death. He wished her to be alive to everything, but without suspiciously scrutinizing details, like a census-taker. To appreciate did not seem to him properly to mean to assess. Miss Holland, he would have said, seemed to live by the beats of her heart and not by the waves of her hair — but another proof, perhaps, of “if thou likest her opinions thou wilt praise her virtues.”

It was but a moment before the curtain was lifted, and there approached a youth, apparently in the twenties, slender and delicately formed as a woman, his dark face surmounted by a great deal of snow-white hair. He was wearing garments of grey, cut in unusual and graceful lines, and his throat was closely wound in folds of soft white, fastened by a rectangular green jewel of notable size and brilliance. His eyes, large and of exceeding beauty and gentleness, were fixed upon St. George.

“Sir,” said St. George, “we have been given this address as one where we may be assisted in some inquiries of the utmost importance. The name which we have is simply ‘Tabnit.’ Have I the honour —”

Their host bowed.

“I am Prince Tabnit,” he said quietly.

St. George, filled with fresh amazement, gravely named himself and, making presentation of the others, purposely omitted the name of Miss Holland. However, hardly had he finished before their host bowed before Miss Holland herself.

“And you,” he said, “you to whom I owe an expiation which I can never make — do you know it is my servant who would have taken your life?”

In the brief interval following this naïve assertion, his guests were not unnaturally speechless. Miss Holland, bending slightly forward, looked at the prince breathlessly.

“I have suffered,” he went on, “I have suffered indescribably since that terrible morning when I missed her and understood her mission. I followed quickly — I was without when you entered, but I came too late. Since then I have waited, unwilling to go to you, certain that the gods would permit the possible. And now — what shall I say?”

He hesitated, his eyes meeting Miss Holland’s. And in that moment Mrs. Hastings found her voice. She curved the chain of her eye-glasses over her ear, threw back her head until the tortoise-rims included her host, and spoke her mind.

“Well, Prince Tabnit,” she said sharply — quite as if, St. George thought, she had been nursery governess to princes all her life —“I must say that I think your regret comes somewhat late in the day. It’s all very well to suffer as you say over what your servant has tried to do. But what kind of man must you be to have such a servant, in the first place? Didn’t you know that she was dangerous and blood-thirsty, and very likely a maniac-born?”

Her voice, never modulated in her excitements, was so full that no one heard at that instant a quick, indrawn breath from St. George, having something of triumph and something of terror. Even as he listened he had been running swiftly over the objects in the room to fasten every one in his memory, and his eyes had rested upon the table at his side. A disc of bronze, supported upon a carven tripod, caught the light and challenged attention to its delicate traceries; and within its border of asps and goat’s horns he saw cut in the dull metal a sphinx crucified upon an upright cross — an exact facsimile of the device upon that strange opalized glass from some far-away island which he had lately noted in the window in Mrs. Hastings’ drawing-room. Instantly his mind was besieged by a volley of suppositions and imaginings, but even in his intense excitement as to what this simple discovery might bode, he heard the prince’s soft reply to Mrs. Hastings:

“Madame,” said the prince, “she is a loyal creature. Whatever she does, she believes herself to be doing in my service. I trusted her. I believed that such error was impossible to her.”

“Error!” shrilled Mrs. Hastings, looking about her for support and finding little in the aspect of Mr. Augustus Frothingham, who appeared to be regarding the whole proceeding as one from which he was to extract data to be thought out at some future infinitely removed.

As for St. George, he had never had great traffic with a future infinitely removed; he had a youthful and somewhat imaginative fashion of striking before the iron was well in the fire.

“Your servant believed, then, your Highness,” he said clearly, “that in taking Miss Holland’s life she was serving you?”

“I must regretfully conclude so.”

St. George rose, holding the little brazen disc which he had taken from the table, and confronted his host, compelling his eyes.

“Perhaps you will tell us, Prince Tabnit,” he said coolly, “what it is that the people who use this device find against Miss Holland’s father?”

St. George heard Olivia’s little broken cry.

“It is the same!” she exclaimed. “Aunt Dora — Mr. Frothingham — it is the crucified sphinx that was on so many of the things that father sent. Oh,” she cried to the prince, “can it be possible that you know him — that you know anything of my father?”

To St. George’s amazement the face of the prince softened and glowed as if with peculiar delight, and he looked at St. George with admiration.

“Is it possible,” he murmured, half to himself, “that your race has already developed intuition? Are you indeed so near to the Unknown?”

He took quick steps away and back, and turned again to St. George, a strange joy dawning in his face.

“If there be some who are ready to know!” he said. “Ah,” he recalled himself penitently to Miss Holland, “your father — Otho Holland, I have seen him many times.”

Seen Otho!” shrilled Mrs. Hastings, as pink and trembling and expressionless as a disturbed mold of jelly. “Oh, poor, dear Otho! Did he live where there are people like your frightful servant? Olivia, think! Maybe he is lying at the bottom of a gorge, all wounded and bloody, with a dagger in his back! Oh, my poor, dear Otho, who used to wheel me about!”

Mrs. Hastings collapsed softly on the divan, her glasses fallen in her lap, her side-combs slipping silently to the rug. Olivia had risen and was standing before Prince Tabnit.

“Tell me,” she said trembling, “when have you seen him? Is he well?”

Prince Tabnit swept the faces of the others and his eyes returned to Miss Holland and dropped to the floor.

“The last time that I saw him, Miss Holland,” he answered, “was three months ago. He was then alive and well.”

Something in his tone chilled St. George and sent a sudden thrill of fear to his heart.

“He was then alive and well?” St. George repeated slowly. “Will you tell us more, your Highness? Will you tell us why the death of his daughter should be considered a service to the prince of a country which he had visited?”

“You are very wonderful,” observed the prince, smiling meditatively at St. George, “and your penetration gives me good news — news that I had not hoped for, yet. I can not tell you all that you ask, but I can tell you much. Will you sit down?”

He turned and glanced at the curtain at the far end of the room. Instantly the boy servant appeared, bearing a tray on which were placed, in dishes of delicate-coloured filigree, strange dainties not to be classified even by a cosmopolitan, with his Flemish and Finnish and all but Icelandic cafés in every block.

“Pray do me the honour,” the prince besought, taking the dishes from the hands of the boy. “It gives me pleasure, Miss Holland, to tell you that your father has no doubt had these very plates set before him.”

Upon a little table he deftly arranged the dishes with all the smiling ease of one to whom afternoon tea is the only business toward, and to whom an attempted murder is wholly alien. He impressed St. George vaguely as one who seemed to have risen from the dead of the crudities of mere events and to be living in a rarer atmosphere. The lawyer’s face was a study. Mr. Augustus Frothingham never went to the theatre because he did not believe that a man of affairs should unduly stimulate the imagination.

There was set before them honey made by bees fed only upon a tropical flower of rare fragrance; cakes flavoured with wine that had been long buried; a paste of cream, thick with rich nuts and with the preserved buds of certain flowers; and little white berries, such as the Japanese call “pinedews”; there was a tea distilled from the roots of rare exotics, and other things savoury and fantastic. So potent was the spell of the prince’s hospitality, and so gracious the insistence with which he set before them the strange and odourous dishes, that even Olivia, eager almost to tears for news of her father, and Mrs. Hastings, as critical and suspicious as some beetle with long antennæ, might not refuse them. As for Mr. Augustus Frothingham, although this might be Cagliostro’s spagiric food, or “extract of Saturn,” for aught that his previous experience equipped him to deny, yet he nibbled, and gazed, and was constrained to nibble again.

When they had been served, Prince Tabnit abruptly began speaking, the while turning the fine stem of his glass in his delicate fingers.

“You do not know,” he said simply, “where the island of Yaque lies?”

Mrs. Hastings sat erect.

“Yaque!” she exclaimed. “That was the name of the place where your father was, Olivia. I know I remembered it because it wasn’t like the man What’s-his-name in As You Like It, and because it didn’t begin with a J.”

“The island is my home,” Prince Tabnit continued, “and now, for the first time, I find myself absent from it. I have come a long journey. It is many miles to that little land in the eastern seas, that exquisite bit of the world, as yet unknown to any save the island-men. We have guarded its existence, but I have no fear to tell you, for no mariner, unaided by an islander, could steer a course to its coasts. And I can tell you little about the island for reasons which, if you will forgive me, you would hardly understand. I must tell you something of it, however, that you may know the remarkable conditions which led to the introduction of Mr. Holland to Yaque.

“The island of Yaque,” continued the prince, “or Arqua, as the name was written by the ancient Phoenicians, has been ruled by hereditary monarchs since 1050 B.C., when it was settled.”

“What date did I understand you to say, sir?” demanded Mr. Augustus Frothingham.

The prince smiled faintly.

“I am well aware,” he said, “that to the western mind — indeed, to any modern mind save our own — I shall seem to be speaking in mockery. None the less, what I am saying is exact. It is believed that the enterprises of the Phoenicians in the early ages took them but a short distance, if at all, beyond the confines of the Mediterranean. It is merely known that, in the period of which I speak, a more adventurous spirit began to be manifested, and the Straits of Gibraltar were passed and settlements were made in Iberia. But how far these adventurers actually penetrated has been recorded only in those documents that are in the hands of my people — descendants of the boldest of these mariners who pushed their galleys out into the Atlantic. At this time the king of Tyre was Abibaal, soon to be succeeded by his son Hiram, the friend, you will remember, of King David — ”

Mr. Frothingham, who did not go to the theatre for fear of exciting his imagination, uttered the soft non-explosion which should have been speech.

“King Abibaal,” continued the prince, “who maintained his court in great pomp, had a younger and favourite son who bore his own name. He was a wild youth of great daring, and upon the accession of Hiram to the throne he left Tyre and took command of a galley of adventuresome spirits, who were among the first to pass the straits and gain the open sea. The story of their wild voyage I need not detail; it is enough to say that their trireme was wrecked upon the coast of Yaque; and Abibaal and those who joined him — among them many members of the court circle and even of the royal family — settled and developed the island. And there the race has remained without taint of admixture, down to the present day. Of what was wrought on the island I can tell you little, though the time will come when the eyes of the whole world will be turned upon Yaque as the forerunner of mighty things. Ruled over by the descendants of Abibaal, the islanders have dwelt in peace and plenty for nearly three thousand years — until, in fact, less than a year ago. Then the line thus traceable to King Hiram himself abruptly terminated with the death of King Chelbes, without issue.”

Again Mr. Frothingham attempted to speak, and again he collapsed softly, without expression, according to his custom. As for St. George, he was remembering how, when he first went to the paper, he had invariably been sent to the anteroom to listen to the daily tales of invention, oppression and projects for which a continual procession of the more or less mentally deficient wished the Sentinel to stand sponsor. St. George remembered in particular one young student who soberly claimed to have invented wireless telegraphy and who molested the staff for months. Was this olive prince, he wondered, going to prove himself worth only a half-column on a back page, after all?

“I understand you to say,” said St. George, with the weary self-restraint of one who deals with lunatics, “that the line of King Hiram, the friend of King David of Israel, became extinct less than a year ago?”

The prince smiled.

“Do not conceal your incredulity,” he said liberally, “for I forgive it. You see, then,” he went on serenely, “how in Yaque the question of the succession became engrossing. The matter was not merely one of ascendancy, for the Yaquians are singularly free from ambition. But their pride in their island is boundless. They see in her the advance guard of civilization, the peculiar people to whom have come to be intrusted many of the secrets of being. For I should tell you that my people live a life that is utterly beyond the ken of all, save a few rare minds in each generation. My people live what others dream about, what scientists struggle to fathom, what the keenest philosophers and economists among you can not formulate. We are,” said Prince Tabnit serenely, “what the world will be a thousand years from now.”

“Well, I’m sure,” Mrs. Hastings broke in plaintively, “that I hope your servant, for instance, is not a sample of what the world is coming to!”

The prince smiled indulgently, as if a child had laid a little, detaining hand upon his sleeve.

“Be that as it may,” he said evenly, “the throne of Yaque was still empty. Many stood near to the crown, but there seemed no reason for choosing one more than another. One party wished to name the head of the House of the Litany, in Med, the King’s city, who was the chief administrator of justice. Another, more democratic than these, wished to elevate to the throne a man from whose family we had won knowledge of both perpetual motion and the Fourth Dimension —”

St. George smiled angelically, as one who resignedly sees the last fragments of a shining hope float away. This quite settled it. The olive prince was crazy. Did not St. George remember the old man in the frayed neckerchief and bagging pockets who had brought to the office of the Sentinel chart after chart about perpetual motion, until St. George and Amory had one day told him gravely that they had a machine inside the office then that could make more things go for ever than he had ever dreamed of, though they had not said that the machine was named Chillingworth.

“You have knowledge of both these things?” asked St. George indulgently.

“Yaque understood both those laws,” said the prince quietly, “when William the Conqueror came to England.”

He hesitated for a moment and then, regardless of another soft explosion from Mr. Frothingham’s lips, he added:

“Do you not see? Will you not understand? It is our knowledge of the Fourth Dimension which has enabled us to keep our island a secret.”

St. George suddenly thrilled from head to foot. What if he were speaking the truth? What if this man were speaking the truth?

“Moreover,” resumed the prince, “there were those among us who had long believed that new strength would come to my people by the introduction of an inhabitant of one of the continents. His coming would, however, necessitate his sovereignty among us, in fulfilment of an ancient Phoenician law, providing that the state, and every satrapy therein, shall receive no service, either of blood or of bond, nor enter into the marriage contract with an alien; from which law only the royal house is exempt. Thus were the two needs of our land to be served by the means to which we had recourse. For there being no way to settle the difficulty, we vowed to leave the matter to Chance, that great patient arbiter of destinies of which your civilization takes no account, save to reduce it to slavery. Accordingly each inhabitant of the island took a solemn oath to await, with an open mind free from choice or prejudice, the settlement of the event, certain that the gods would permit the possible. Five days after this decision our watchers upon the hills sighted a South African transport bound for the Azores to coal. A hundred miles from our coast she was wrecked, and it was thought that all on board had been lost. A submarine was ordered to the spot —”

“Do you mean,” interrupted St. George, “that you were able to see the wreck at that distance?”

“Certainly,” said the prince. “Pray forgive me,” he added winningly, “if I seem to boast. It is difficult for me to believe that your appliances are so immature. We were using steamship navigation and limiting our vision at the time of Pericles, but the futility of these was among our first discoveries.”

Involuntarily St. George turned to Miss Holland. What would she think, he found himself wondering. Her eyes were luminous and her breath was coming quickly; he was relieved to find that she had not the infectious vulgarity to doubt the possibility of what seemed impossible. This was one of the qualities of Mr. Augustus Frothingham, who had assumed an air of polite interest and an accurately cynical smile, and the manner of generously lending his professional attention to any of the vagaries of the client. Mrs. Hastings stirred uneasily.

“I’m sure,” she said fretfully, “that I must be very stupid, but I simply can not follow you. Why, you talk about things that don’t exist! My husband, who was a very practical and advanced man, would have shown you at once that what you say is impossible.”

Here was the attitude of the Commonplace the world over, thought St. George: to believe in wireless telegraphy simply because it has been found out, and to disbelieve in the Fourth Dimension because it has not been.

“I can not explain these things,” admitted the prince gravely, “and I dare say that you could prove that they do not exist, just as a man from another planet could show us to his own satisfaction that there are no such things as music or colour.”

“Go on, please,” said Olivia eagerly.

“Olivia, I’m sure,” protested Mrs. Hastings, “I think it’s very unwomanly of you to show such an interest in these things.”

“Will you bear with me for one moment, Mrs. Hastings?” begged the prince, “and perhaps I shall be able to interest you. The submarine returned, bringing the sole survivor of the wreck of the African transport.”

“Ah, now,” Mrs. Hastings assured him blandly, “you are dealing with things that can happen. My brother Otho, my niece’s father, was just this last year the sole survivor of the wreck of a very important vessel.”

“I have the honour, Mrs. Hastings, to be narrating to you the circumstances attending the discovery of your brother and Miss Holland’s father, after the wreck of that vessel.”

“My father?” cried Olivia.

The prince bowed.

“After this manner, Chance had rewarded us. We crowned your father King of Yaque.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gale/zona/romance-island/chapter4.html

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