Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 5

Olivia Proposes

Prince Tabnit’s announcement was received by his guests in the silence of amazement. If they had been told that Miss Holland’s father was secretly acting as King of England they could have been no more profoundly startled than to hear stated soberly that he had been for nearly a year the king of a cannibal island. For the cannibal phase of his experience seemed a foregone conclusion. To St. George, profoundly startled and most incredulous, the possible humour of the situation made first appeal. The picture of an American gentleman seated upon a gold throne in a leopard-skin coat, ordering “oysters and foes” for breakfast, was irresistible.

“But he shaved with a shell when he chose,

’Twas the manner of Primitive Man”

floated through his mind, and he brought himself up sharply. Clearly, somebody was out of his head, but it must not be he.

“What?” cried Mrs. Hastings in two inelegant syllables, on the second of which her uncontrollable voice rose. “My brother Otho, a vestry-man at St. Mark’s —”

“Aunt Dora!” pleaded Olivia. “Tell us,” she besought the prince.

“King Otho I of Yaque,” the prince was begining, but the title was not to be calmly received by Mrs. Hastings.

King Otho!” she articulated. “Then — am I royalty?”

“All who may possibly succeed to the throne Blackstone holds to be royalty,” said the lawyer in an edictal voice, and St. George looked away from Olivia.

The Princess Olivia!

“King Otho,” continued the prince, “ruled wisely and well for seven months, and it was at the beginning of that time that the imperial submarine was sent to the Azores with letters and a packet to you. The enterprise, however, was attended by so great danger of discovery that it was never repeated. This is why, for so long, you have had no word from the king. And now I come,” said the prince with hesitation, “to the difficult part of my narrative.”

He paused and Mr. Frothingham rushed to his assistance.

“As the family solicitor,” said the lawyer, pursing his lips, and waving his hands, once, from the wrists, “would you not better divulge to my ear alone, the — a —”

“No — no!” flashed Olivia. “No, Mr. Frothingham — please.”

The prince inclined his head.

“Will it surprise you, Miss Holland,” he said, “to learn that I made my voyage to this country expressly to seek you out?”

“To seek me?” exclaimed Olivia. “But — has anything happened to my father?”

“We hope not,” replied the prince, “but what I have to tell will none the less occasion you anxiety. Briefly, Miss Holland, it is more than three months since your father suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from Yaque, leaving absolutely no clue to his whereabouts.”

A little cry broke from Olivia’s lips that went to St. George’s heart. Mrs. Hastings, with a gesture that was quite wild and sent her bonnet hopelessly to one side, burst into a volley of exclamations and demands.

“Who did it?” she wailed. “Who did it? Otho is a gentleman. He would never have the bad taste to disappear, like all those dreadful people’s wives, if somebody hadn’t —”

“My dear Madame,” interposed Mr. Frothingham, “calm — calm yourself. There are families of undisputed position which record disappearances in several generations.”

“Please,” pleaded Olivia. “Ah, tell us,” she begged the prince again.

“There is, unfortunately, but little to tell, Miss Holland,” said the prince with sympathetic regret. “I had the honour, three months ago, to entertain the king, your father, at dinner. We parted at midnight. His Majesty seemed —”

“His Majesty!” repeated Mrs. Hastings, smiling up at the opposite wall as if her thought saw glories.

“— in the best of health and spirits,” continued the prince. “A meeting of the High Council was to be held at noon on the following day. The king did not appear. From that moment no eye in Yaque has fallen upon him.”

“One moment, your Highness,” said St. George quickly; “in the absence of the king, who presides over the High Council?”

“As the head of the House of the Litany, the chief administrator of justice, it is I,” said the prince with humility.

“Ah, yes,” St. George said evenly.

“But what have you done?” cried Olivia. “Have you had search made? Have you —”

“Everything,” the prince assured her. “The island is not large. Not a corner of it remains unvisited. The people, who were devoted to the king, your father, have sought night and day. There is, it is hardly right to conceal from you,” the prince hesitated, “a circumstance which makes the disappearance the more alarming.”

“Tell us. Keep nothing from us, I beg, Prince Tabnit,” besought Olivia.

“For centuries,” said the prince slowly, “there has been in the keeping of the High Council of the island a casket, containing what is known as the Hereditary Treasure. This casket, with some of the finest of its jewels, was left by King Abibaal himself. Since his time every king of the island has upon his death bequeathed to the casket the finest jewel in his possession; and its contents are now therefore of inestimable value. The circumstance to which I refer is that two days after the disappearance of the king, your father, which spread grief and alarm through all Yaque, it was discovered that the Hereditary Treasure was gone.”

“Gone!” burst from the lips of the prince’s auditors.

“As utterly as if the Fifth Dimension had received it,” the prince gravely assured them. “The loss, as you may imagine, is a grievous one. The High Council immediately issued a proclamation that if the treasure be not restored by a certain date — now barely two weeks away — a heavy tax will be levied upon the people to make good, in the coin of the realm, this incalculable loss. Against this the people, though they are a people of peace, are murmurous.”

“Indeed!” cried Mrs. Hastings. “Great loyalty it is that sets up the loss of their trumpery treasure over and above the loss of their king, my brother Otho! If,” she shrilled indignantly, “we are not unwise to listen to this at all. What is it you think? What is it your people think?”

She raised her head until she had framed the prince in tortoise-shell. Mrs. Hastings never held her head quite still. It continually waved about a little, so that usually, even in peace, it intimated indignation; and when actual indignation set in, the jet on her bonnet tinkled and ticked like so many angry sparrows.

“Madame,” said the prince, “there are those among his Majesty’s subjects who would willingly lay down their lives for him. But he is a stranger to us — come of an alien race; and the double disappearance is a most tragic occurrence, which the burden of the tax has emphasized. To be frank, were his Majesty to reappear in Yaque without the treasure having been found —”

“Oh!” breathed Mrs. Hastings, “they would kill him!”

The prince shuddered and set his white teeth in his nether lip.

“The gods forbid,” he said. “Such primeval punishment is as unknown among us as is war itself. How little you know my people; how pitifully your instincts have become — forgive me — corrupted by living in this barbarous age of yours, fumbling as you do at civilization. With us death is a sacred rite, the highest tribute and the last sacrifice to the Absolute. Our dying are carried to the Temple of the Worshipers of Distance, and are there consecrated. The limit of our punishment would be aerial exposure —”

“You mean?” cried St. George.

“I mean that in extreme cases we have, with due rite and ceremonial, given a victim to an airship, without ballast or rudder, and abundantly provisioned. Then with solemn ritual we have set him adrift — an offering to the great spirits of space — so that he may come to know. This,” the prince paused in emotion, “this is the worst that could befall your father.”

“How horrible!” cried Olivia. “Oh, how horrible.”

“Oh,” Mrs. Hastings moaned, “he was born to it. He was born to it. When he was six he tied kites to his arms and jumped out the window of the cupola and broke his collar bone — oh, Otho — oh Heaven — and I made him eat oatmeal gruel three times a day when he was getting well.”

“Prince Tabnit,” said St. George, “I beg you not to jest with us. Have consideration for the two to whom this man is dear.”

“I am speaking truth to you,” said the prince earnestly. “I do not wish to alarm these ladies, but I am bound in honour to tell you what I know.”

“Ah then,” said St. George, his narrowed eyes meeting those of the prince, “since the taking of life is unknown to you in Yaque, will you explain how it was that your servant adopted such unerring means to take the life of Miss Holland? And why?”

“My servant,” said the prince readily, “belongs to the lahnas or former serfs of the island. Upon her people, now the owners of rich lands, the tax will fall heavily. Crazed by what she considers her people’s wrongs following upon the coming of the stranger sovereign, the poor creature must have developed the primitive instincts of your race. Before coming to this country my servant had never heard of murder save as a superseded custom of antiquity, like the crucifying of lions. Her discovery of your daily practice of murder, and of murder practised as a cure for crime —”

“Sir,” began the lawyer imposingly.

“— wakened in her the primitive instincts of humanity, and her instinct took the deplorable and fanatic form of your own courts,” finished the prince. “Her bitterness toward his Majesty she sought to visit upon his daughter.”

Olivia sprang to her feet.

“I must go to my father. I must go to Yaque,” she cried ringingly. “Prince Tabnit, will you take me to him?”

Into the prince’s face leaped a fire of admiration for her beauty and her daring. He bowed before her, his lowered lashes making thick shadows on his dark cheeks.

“I insist upon this,” cried little Olivia firmly, “and if you do not permit it, Prince Tabnit, we must publish what you have told us from one end of the city to the other.”

“Yes, by Jove,” thought St. George, “and one’s country will have a Yaque exhibit in its own department at the next world’s fair.”

“Olivia! My child! Miss Holland — ” began the lawyer.

The prince spoke tranquilly.

“It is precisely this errand,” he said, “that has brought me to America. Do you not see that, in the event of your father’s failure to return to his people, you will eventually be Queen of Yaque?”

St. George found himself looking fixedly at Mrs. Hastings’ false front as the only reality in the room. If in a minute Rollo was going to waken him by bringing in his coffee, he was going to throttle Rollo — that was all. Olivia Holland, an American heiress, the hereditary princess of a cannibal island! St. George still insisted upon the cannibal; it somehow gave him a foothold among the actualities.

“I!” cried Olivia.

Mrs. Hastings, brows lifted, lips parted, winked with lightning rapidity in an effort to understand.

St. George pulled himself together.

“Your Highness,” he said sternly, “there are several things upon which I must ask you to enlighten us. And the first, which I hope you will forgive, is whether you have any direct proof that what you tell us of Miss Holland’s father is true.”

“That’s it! That’s it!” Mr. Frothingham joined him with all the importance of having made the suggestion. “We can hardly proceed in due order without proofs, sir.”

The prince turned toward the curtain at the room’s end and the youth appeared once more, this time bearing a light oval casket of delicate workmanship. It was of a substance resembling both glass and metal of changing, rainbow tints, and it passed through St. George’s mind as he observed it that there must be, to give such a dazzling and unreal effect, more than seven colours in the spectrum.

“A spectrum of seven colours,” said the prince at the same moment, “could not, of course, produce this surface. I confess that until I came to this country I did not know that you had so few colours. Our spectrum already consists of twelve colours visible to the naked eye, and at least five more are distinguishable through our powerful magnifying glasses.”

St. George was silent. It was as if he had suddenly been permitted to look past the door that bars and threatens all knowledge.

The prince unlocked the casket. He drew out first a quantity of paper of extreme thinness and lightness on which, embossed and emblazoned, was the coat of arms of the Hollands — a sheaf of wheat and an unicorn’s head — and this was surmounted by a crown.

“This,” said the prince, “is now the device upon the signet ring of the King of Yaque, the arms of your own family. And here chances to be a letter from your father containing some instructions to me. It is true that writing has with us been superseded by wireless communication, excepting where there is need of great secrecy. Then we employ the alphabet of any language we choose, these being almost disused, as are the Cuneiform and Coptic to you.”

“And how is it,” St. George could not resist asking, “that you know and speak the English?”

The prince smiled swiftly.

“To you,” he said, “who delve for knowledge and who do not know that it is absolute and to be possessed at will, this can not now be made clear. Perhaps some day . . . ”

Olivia had taken the paper from the prince and pressed it to her lips, her eyes filling with tears. There was no mistaking that evidence, for this was her father’s familiar hand.

“Otho always did write a fearful scrawl,” Mrs. Hastings commented, “his l’s and his t’s and his vowels were all the same height. I used to tell him that I didn’t know whatever people would think.”

“I may, moreover,” continued the prince, “call to mind several articles which were included in the packet sent from the Azores by his Majesty. You have, for example, a tapestry representing an ibis hunt; you have an image in pink sutro, or soft marble, of an ancient Phoenician god — Melkarth. And you have a length of stained glass bearing the figure of the Tyrian sphinx, crucified, and surrounded by coiled asps.”

“Yes, it is true,” said Olivia, “we have all these things.”

“Why, the trash must be quite expensive,” observed Mrs. Hastings. “I don’t care much for so many colours myself, perhaps because I always wear black; though I did wear light colours a good deal when I was a girl.”

“What else, Mr. St. George?” inquired the prince pleasantly.

“Nothing else,” cried Olivia passionately. “I am satisfied. My father is in danger, and I believe that he is in Yaque, for he would never of his own will desert a place of trust. I must go to him. And, Aunt Dora, you and Mr. Frothingham must go with me.”

“Oh, Olivia!” wailed Mrs. Hastings, a different key for every syllable, “think — consider! Is it the necessary thing to do? And what would your poor dear uncle have done? And is there a better way than his way? For I always say that it is not really necessary to do as my poor dear husband would have done, providing only that we can find a better way. Oh,” she mourned, lifting her hands, “that this frightful thing should come to me at my age. Otho may be married to a cannibal princess, with his sons catching wild goats by the hair like Tennyson and the whistling parrots —”

“Madame,” said the prince coldly, “forgets what I have been saying of my country.”

“I do not forget,” declared Mrs. Hastings sharply, “but being behind civilization and being ahead of civilization comes to the same thing more than once. In morals it does.”

St. George was silent. Olivia’s splendid daring in her passionate decision to go to her father stirred him powerfully; moreover, her words outlined a possible course of his own whose magnitude startled him, and at the same time filled him with a sudden, dazzling hope.

“But where is your island, Prince Tabnit?” he asked. “You’ve naturally no consul there and no cable, since you are not even on the map.”

“Yaque,” said the prince readily, “lies almost due southwest from the Azores.”

Mr. Frothingham stirred skeptically.

“But such an island,” he said pompously, “so rich in material for the archaeologist, the anthropologist, the explorer in all fields of antiquity — ah, it is out of the question, out of the question!”

“It is difficult,” said the prince patiently, “most difficult for me to make myself intelligible to you — as difficult, if you will forgive me, as if you were to try to explain calculus to one of the street boys outside. But directly your phase of civilization has opened to you the secrets of the Fourth Dimension, much will be discovered to you which you do not now discern or dream, and among these, Yaque. I do not jest,” he added wearily, “neither do I expect you to believe me. But I have told you the truth. And it would be impossible for you to reach Yaque save in the company of one of the islanders to whom the secret is known. I can not explain to you, any more than I can explain harmony or colour.”

“Well, I’m sure,” cried Mrs. Hastings fretfully, “I don’t know why you all keep wandering from the subject so. Now, my brother Otho —”

“Prince Tabnit,”— Olivia’s voice never seemed to interrupt, but rather to “divide evidence finely” at the proper moment —“how long will it take us to reach Yaque?”

St. George thrilled at that “us.”

“My submarine,” replied the prince, “is plying about outside the harbour. I arrived in four days.”

“By the way,” St. George submitted, “since your wireless system is perfected, why can not we have news of your island from here?”

“The curve of the earth,” explained the prince readily, “prevents. We have conquered only those problems with which we have had to deal. The curve of the earth has of course never entered our calculation. We have approached the problem from another standpoint.”

“We have much to do, Prince Tabnit,” said Olivia; “when may we leave?”

“Command me,” said Prince Tabnit, bowing.

“To-morrow!” cried Olivia, “tomorrow, at noon.”

“Olivia!” Mrs. Hastings’ voice broke over the name like ice upon a warm promontory. Mrs. Hastings’ voice was suited to say “Keziah” or “Katinka,” not Olivia.

“Can you go, Mr. Frothingham?” demanded Olivia.

Mr. Frothingham’s long hands hung down and he looked as if she had proposed a jaunt to Mars.

“My physician has ordered a sea-change,” he mumbled doubtfully, “my daughter Antoinette — I— really — there is nothing in all my experience —”

“Olivia!” Mrs. Hastings in tears was superintending the search for both side-combs.

“Aunt Dora,” said Olivia, “you’re not going to fail me now. Prince Tabnit — at noon tomorrow. Where shall we meet?”

St. George listened, glowing.

“May I have the honour,” suggested the prince, “of waiting upon you at noon to conduct you? And I need hardly say that we undertake the journey under oath of secrecy?”

“Anything — anything!” cried Olivia.

“Oh, my dear Olivia,” breathed Mrs. Hastings weakly, “taking me, at my age, into this awful place of Four Dimentias — or whatever it was you said.”

“We will be ready to go with you at noon,” said Olivia steadily.

St. George held his peace as they made their adieux. A great many things remained to be thought out, but one was clear enough.

The boy servant ran before them to the door. They made their way to the street in the early dusk. A hurdy-gurdy on the curb was bubbling over with merry discords, and was flanked by garrulous Italians with push-carts, lighted by flaring torches. Men were returning from work, children were quarreling, women were in doorways, and a policeman was gossiping with the footman in a knot of watching idlers. With a sigh that was like a groan, Mrs. Hastings sank back on the cushions of the brougham.

“I feel,” she said, eyes closed, “as if I had been in a pagan temple where they worship oracles and what’s-his-names. What time is it? I haven’t an idea. Dear, dear, I want to get home and feel as if my feet were on land and water again. I want some strong sleep and a good sound cup of coffee, and then I shall know what’s actually what.”

To St. George the slow drive up town was no less unreal than their visit. His head was whirling, a hundred plans and speculations filled his mind, and through these Mrs Hastings’ chatter of forebodings and the lawyer’s patterned utterance hardly found their way. At his own street he was set down, with Mrs. Hastings’ permission to call next day.

Miss Holland gave him her hand.

“I can not thank you,” she said, “I can not thank you. But try to know, won’t you, what this has been to me. Until tomorrow.”

Until tomorrow. St. George stood in the brightness of the street looking after the vanishing carriage, his hand tingling from her touch. Then he went up to his apartment and met Rollo — sleek, deferential, the acme of the polite barbarism in which the prince had made St. George feel that he and his world were living. Ah, he thought, as Rollo took his hat, this was no way to live, with the whole world singing to be discovered anew.

He sat down before the trim little white table with its pretty china and silver and its one rose-shaded candle, but the doubtful content of comfort was suddenly not enough. The spirit of the road and of the chase was in his veins, and he was aglow with “the taste for pilgriming.” He looked about on the simple luxury with which he had surrounded himself, and he welcomed his farewell to it. And when Rollo had gone up stairs to complain in person of the shad-roe, St. George spoke aloud:

“If Miss Holland sails for Yaque tomorrow on the prince’s submarine,” he said, “The Aloha and I will follow her.”

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