Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 10

Tyrian Purple

The “porch of light” proved to be an especially fascinating place at evening. Evening, which makes most places resemble their souls instead of their bodies, had a grateful task in the beautiful room whose spirit was always uppermost, and Evening moved softly in its ivory depths, preluding for Sleep. Here, his lean, shadowed face all anxiety, Rollo stood, holding at arm’s length a parti-coloured robe with floating scarfs.

“It seems to me, sir,” he said doubtfully, “that this one would ‘ave done better. Beggin’ your pardon, sir.”

St. George shook his head distastefully.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, and broke into a slow smile as he looked at Amory. The robes which the prince had provided for the evening were rather harder to become accustomed to than the notion of intuitive knowledge.

“There’s an air about this one though, sir,” opined Rollo firmly, “there’s a cut — a sort of way with the seams, so to speak, sir, that the other can’t touch. And cut is what counts, sir, cut counts every time.”

“Ah, yes, I dare say, Rollo,” said St. George, “and as a judge of ‘cut’ I don’t say you can be equaled. But I do say that in the styles of Deuteronomy you aren’t necessarily what you might call up.”

“Yes, sir,” said Rollo, dropping his eyes, “but a well-dressed man was a well-dressed man, sir, then as now.”

As a matter of fact the well-knit, athletic young figures looked uncommonly well in the garments à la mode in Yaque. One would have said that if the garments followed Deuteronomy fashions they had at all events been cut by the scissors of a court tailor to Louis XV. The result was beautiful and bizarre, but it did not suggest stageland because the colours were so good.

“I dare say,” said St. George, examining the exquisitely fine cloth whose shades were of curious depth and richness, “that this may be regular Tyrian purple.”

Amory waved his long sleeves.

“Stop,” he languidly begged, “you make me feel like a golden text.”

St. George went back to the row of open casements and resumed his walk up and down before the windows that looked away to the huge threatening bulk of Mount Khalak. Since the prince’s announcement that afternoon St. George had done little besides continuing that walk. Now it wanted hardly half an hour to the momentous ceremony of the evening, big with at least one of the dozen portents of which he accused it.

“Amory,” he burst out as he walked, “if you didn’t know anything about it, would you say that the prince could possibly have made her consent to marry him?”

Amory, left in the middle of the great room, stood polishing his pince-nez exactly as if he had been waiting at the end of Chillingworth’s desk of a bright, American morning.

“If I didn’t know anything about it,” he said cheerfully, “I should say that he had. As it is, having this afternoon watched a certain motor wear its way past me, I should say that nothing in Yaque is more unlikely. And that’s about as strong as you could put it.”

“We don’t know what the man may have threatened,” said St. George morosely, “he may have played upon her devotion to her father to some ridiculous extent. He may have refused to land the submarine at Yaque at all otherwise —”

St. George broke off suddenly.

“Toby!” he said.

Amory looked over and nodded. He had seen that look before on St. George’s face.

“She’s not going to marry the prince,” said St. George, “and if her father is alive and in a hole, he’s going to be pulled out. And she’s not going to marry the prince.”

“Why, no,” assented Amory, “no.”

He had guessed a good deal of the truth since he had been watching St. George flee over seas upon a yacht, shod, so to speak, with fire, and he had arrived at the suspicion that The Aloha was winged by little Loves and guided under water by plenty of blue and green dragons. But he had not, until now, been thoroughly certain that St. George’s spirit of adventure had another name; and though theoretically his sympathies leaped to the look in his friend’s eyes, yet he found himself wondering practically what effect romance would be having upon their enterprise. After all, from a newspaper point of view, to relinquish any part of the adventure was a kind of tragedy, and it cost Amory something to emphasize his assent.

“Of course she won’t,” he said, “and now let’s toddle down and see about it.”

When the tread of the feet of a detachment of the Royal Golden Guard was heard without, Rollo advanced to the door with a dignity which amounted to melancholy. The setting of a palace and the proximity of a prince had raised his office to the majesty of skilled labour. He always threw open the door now as who should say, “Enter. But mind you have a reason.”

At sight of the long liberty of the corridor where the light lay mysteriously touching tiles and tapestries to festal colours, Amory’s spirits rose contagiously, and his eyes shone behind his pince-nez.

“Me,” he said, looking ahead with enjoyment at the glittering escort, “me — done in a fabric of about the eleventh shade of the Yaque spectrum — made loose and floppy, after a modish Canaanitish model. I’ll wager that when the first-born of Canaan was in the flood-tide of glory, this very gown was worn by one of the most beautiful women in the pentapolis of Philistia. I’m going to photograph the model for the Sunday supplement, and name it The Nebuchadnezzar.”

Amory murmured on, and St. George hardly heard him. He could almost count by minutes now the time until he should see her. Would she see him, and might he just possibly speak with her, and what would the evening hold for her? As he went forth where she would be, the spell of the place was once more laid upon him, as it had been laid in the hour of his coming. Once more, as in the hour when he had first looked down upon the valley brimming with a light “better than any light that ever shone” he was at one with the imponderable things which, always before, had just eluded him. Now, as then, the thought of Olivia was the symbol for them all. So the two went on through the winding galleries — silent, haunted — to the great staircase, and below into the crowded court. And when they reached the threshold of the audience-chamber they involuntarily stood still.

The hall was like a temple in its sense of space and height and clear air, but its proportions did not impress one, and indeed one could not remember its boundaries as one does not consider the boundaries of a grove. It was amphitheatre-shaped, and about it ran a splendid colonnade, in the niches of whose cornices were beautiful grotesques — but Yaque seemed to be a land whose very grotesques had all the dignity of the ultimate instead of crying for the indulgence due a phase. The roof was inlaid with prisms of clear stone, and on high were pilasters carved with the Tyrian sphinxes crucified upon upright crosses, surmounted by parhelions of burnished metal. All the seats faced a great dais at the chamber’s far end where three thrones were set.

But it was the men and women in the great chamber who filled St. George with wonder. The women — they were beautiful women, slow-moving, slow-eyed, of soft laughter and sudden melancholy, and clear, serene profiles and abundant hair. And they were all alive, fully and mysteriously alive, alive to their finger-tips. It was as if in comparison all other women acted and moved in a kind of half-consciousness. It was as if, St. George thought vaguely, one were to step through the frame of a preRaphaelite tapestry and suddenly find its strange women rejoicing in fulfillment instead of yearning, in noon instead of dusk. As he stood looking down the vast chamber, all springing columns and light lines lifting through the honey-coloured air, it smote St. George that these people, instead of being far away, were all near, surprisingly, unbelievably near to him — in a way, nearer to his own elusive personality than he was himself. They were all obviously of his own class; he could perfectly imagine his mother, with her old lace and Roman mosaics, moving at home among them, and the bishop, with his wise, kindly smile. Yet he was irresistibly reminded of a certain haunting dream of his childhood in which he had seemed to himself to walk the world alone, with every one else allied against him because they all knew something that he did not know. That was it, he thought suddenly, and felt his pulse quickening at the intimation: They all knew something that he did not know, that he could not know. But, as they swept him with their clear-eyed, impersonal look, a look that seemed in some exquisite fashion to take no account of individuality, he was gratefully aware of a curious impression that they would like to have had him know, too.

“They wish I knew — they’d rather I did know,” St. George found himself thinking in a strange excitement, “if only I could know — if only I could know.”

He looked about him, smiling a little at his folly. He saw the light flash on Amory’s glasses as they turned inquisitively on this and that, and somehow the sight steadied him.

“Ah well,” he assured himself, “I’ll look them up in a thousand years or so, and we’ll dine together, and then we’ll say: ‘Don’t you remember how I didn’t know?’”

Immediately there presented himself to them a little man who proved to be Balator, lord-chief-commander of the Royal Golden Guard, and now especially directed by the prince, he pleasantly told them, to be responsible for their entertainment and comfort during the ceremony to follow. They were, in fact, his guests for the evening, but St. George and Amory were uncertain whether, considering his office, this was a high honour or a kind of exalted durance. However, as the man was charming the doubt was not important. He had an attenuated face, so conveniently brown by race as to suggest the most soldierly exposure, and he had great, peaceable, slow-lidded eyes. He was, they subsequently learned, an authority upon insect life in Yaque, for he had never had the smallest opportunity to go to war.

As Balator led his guests to their seats near the throne every one looked on them, as they passed, with the serenest fellowship, and no regard persisted longer than a glance, friendly and fugitive. Balator himself not only refrained from stoning the barbarians with commonplaces, but he did not so much as mention America to them or treat them otherwise than as companions, as if his was not only the cosmopolitanism that knows no municipal or continental aliens of its own class, but a kind of inter-dimensional cosmopolitanism as well.

“Which,” said Amory afterward, “was enviable. The next man from Trebizond or Saturn or Fez whom I meet I’m going to greet and treat as if he lived the proverbial ‘twenty minutes out.’”

A great clock boomed and throbbed through the palace, striking an hour that was no more intelligible than the jargon of a ship’s clock to a landsman. Somewhere an orchestra thrilled into haunting sound, poignant with disclosures barely missed. Overhead, through the mighty rafters of the conical roof, the moon looked down.

“That’ll be the same old moon,” said Amory. “By Jove! Won’t it?”

“It will, please Heaven,” said St. George restlessly; “I don’t know. Will it?”

Near the throne was seated a company of dignitaries who wore upon their breasts great stars and were soberly dressed in a kind of scholar’s gown. Some whispered together and nodded and looked as solemn as tithing men; and others were feverishly restless and continually took papers from their graceful sleeves. By developments these were revealed to be the High Council of Yaque, conservative and radical, even in dimensional isolation. Farther back rose tier upon tier of seats sacred to the wives and daughters of the ministry, and St. George even looked hopelessly and mechanically among these for the face that he sought.

To some seats slightly elevated, not far from the dais, his attention was at length challenged by an upheaving and billowing of purple and black. He looked, and in the same instant what seemed to have been a kind of storm centre resolved itself cloudily into Mrs. Medora Hastings, breathlessly resuming her seat, while Mr. Augustus Frothingham, in indescribably gorgeous apparel elaborately bent to receive — and a member of the High Council bent to hand — two glittering articles which St. George was certain were side-combs. There the lady sat, tilting her head to keep her tortoise-shell glasses on her nose, perpetually curving their chain over her ear, a gesture by which the side-combs were perpetually displaced. If the island people had been painted purple, St. George felt sure that she would have acted quite the same. Personality meant nothing to her — not, as with them, because it had been merged in something greater, but because, with her, it was overborne by self. And there sat Mr. Frothingham (who did not attend the play during court because he believed that a man of affairs should not unduly stimulate the imagination), his head thrown back so that his long hair rested on his amazing collar, his hands laid trimly along his knees. In that crystal air, instinct with its delicate, dominant implication of things imponderable, the personality of each persisted undisturbed, in a kind of adamantine unconsciousness. Again, as when he had considered the soul of Rollo, St. George smiled a shade bitterly. Is it then so easy to persist, he wondered? Is love’s uttermost gift so little? But as the music swelled with premonitory meaning, he understood something that its very transitoriness disclosed: the persistence of love, love’s mere immortality, is the dead letter of the law without that which is elusive, imponderable, even evanescent as the spirit of the land to which he had come, into which he felt himself new-born.

Immediately, bestowing its gift of altered mood, other music, cut by the lift and fall of trumpets, sounded from hidden places all about the walls and from the alcoves of the lofty roof. Then a veil hanging between two pillars was drawn aside, and the prince’s train appeared. There were a detachment of the guard, splendid in their unrelieved gold, and the officers of the court, at their head Cassyrus, the premier, who had manifestly been compounded of Heaven to be a drum-major, and had so undeviating a look that he seemed always to have been caught, red-handed, at his post. Last came Prince Tabnit, dressed in pure white save for a collar of precious stones from which hung the strange green gem that St. George remembered. His clear face and the whiteness of his hair lent to him an air of almost unearthly distinction. His delicate hands wearing no jewels were at his sides, and his head was magnificently erect. He mounted the dais as the music sank to silence, and without preface began to speak.

“My people,” he said, and St. George felt himself thrilling with the strength and tenderness of that voice, “in the continuance of this our time of trial we come among you that we may win strength and courage from your presence. Since one mind dwells in us all, we have no need of words of cheer. That no message from his Majesty, the King, has come to us is known to you all, with mourning. But the gods — to whom ‘here’ is the same as ‘there’— will permit the possible, and they have permitted to us the presence of the daughter of our sovereign, by the grace of the infinite, heir to the throne of Yaque. In two days, should his Majesty not then have returned to his sorrowing people, she will, in accordance with our custom, be crowned Hereditary Princess of Yaque and, after one year, Queen of Yaque and your rightful sovereign.”

As the prince paused, a little breath of assent was in the room, more potent than any crudity of applause.

“Next,” pursued the prince, “we would invite your attention to our own affairs, which are of importance solely as they are affected by the immemorial tradition of the House of the Litany. Therefore, in accordance with the custom of our predecessors for two thousand years,” lightly pursued the prince, “we have named this day as the day of our betrothal. Moreover, this is determined upon in justice to the daughters of the twenty peers of Yaque, whose marriage the law forbids until the choice of the head of the House of the Litany has been made . . . ”

St. George listened, and his hope soared heavenward as the hope of young love will soar, in spite of itself, at the mere sight of open sky. The daughters of the twenty peers of Yaque! Of course they were to be considered. Why should he fear that, because Olivia was in Yaque, the mere mention of a betrothal referred to Olivia? He was bold enough to smile at his fears, to smile even when, as the prince ceased speaking, the music sounded again, as it were from the air, in a chorus of pure young voices with a ripple of unknown strings in accompaniment.

Suddenly, at the opening of great doors, a flood of saffron light was poured upon a stair, and at the summit appeared the leisurely head of a procession which the two men were destined never to forget. Across the gallery and down the stair — it might have been the Golden Stair linking Near with Far — came a score of exquisite women in all the glory of their youth, of perfect physical beauty and splendid strength and fullness of life; and the wonder was not their beauty more than a kind of dryad delicacy of that beauty, which was yet not frailty but a look of angelic strength. But they were not remote — they were gloriously human, almost, one would say, divinely human, all gentle movement and warmth and tender breath. They were not remote, save as one’s own soul would be remote by its very excess of intimacy with life, Little maids, so shy that their actuality was certain, came before them carrying flowers, and these were followed by youths scattering fragrant burning powder whose fallen flames were instantly pounced upon and extinguished by small furry lemurs trained to lay silver discs upon the flames. And as they all ranged themselves about the throne a little figure appeared at the top of the stairway alone, beneath the lifted curtain.

She was veiled; but the elastic step, the girlish grace, the poise and youthful dignity were not to be mistaken. The room whirled round St. George, and then closed in about him and grew dark. For this was the woman advancing to her betrothal; from the manner of her entrance there could be no doubt of that. And it was none of the daughters of the twenty peers. It was Olivia.

She wore a trailing gown of rainbow hues, more like the hues of water than of texture, and the warm light fell upon these as she descended and variously multiplied them to beauty. Her little feet were sandaled and a veil of indescribable thinness was wound about her abundant hair and fell across her face, but the gold of her hair escaped the veil and rippled along her gown. Carven chains and necklaces were upon her throat, and bracelets of beaten gold and jewels upon her arms. About her forehead glittered a jeweled band with pendent gems which, at her moving, were like noon sun upon water.

As he realized that this was indeed she whom he had come to seek, only to find her hedged about with difficulties — and it might be by divinities — which he had not dreamed of coping, a kind of madness seized St. George. The lights danced before his eyes, and his impulse had to do with rushing up to the dais and crying everybody defiance but Olivia. On the moon-lit deck of The Aloha he had dreamed out the island and the rescue of the island princess, and a possible home-going on his yacht to a home about which he had even dared to dream, too. But it had not once occurred to him to forecast such a contingency as this, or, later, so to explain to himself Prince Tabnit’s change of purpose in permitting her recognition as Princess of Yaque — indeed, if what Jarvo and Akko had told him in New York were accurate, in bringing her to the island at all. And yet what, he thought crazily, if his guess at her part in this betrothal were far wrong? What if her father’s safety were not the only consideration? What if, not unnaturally dazzled by the fairy-land which had opened to her . . . even while he feared, St. George knew far better. But the number of terrors possible to a man in love is equal to those of battle-fields.

Amory bent toward him, murmuring excitedly.

“Jupiter,” he said, “is she the American girl?”

“She’s Miss Holland,” answered St. George miserably.

“No — no, not the princess,” said Amory, “the other.”

St. George looked. On the stair was a little figure in rose and silver — very tiny, very fair, and no doubt the lawyer’s daughter.

“I dare say it is,” he told him, as one would say, “Now what the deuce of it?”

Prince Tabnit had risen to receive Olivia, and St. George had to see him extend his hand and assist her beside him upon the dais. In the absence of her father she was obliged to stand alone. Then the little figure in rose and silver and one of the daughters of the peers advanced and lifted her veil, and St. George wanted to shout with sudden exultation. This then was she — so near, so near. Surely no great harm could come to them so long as the sea and the mystery of the island no longer lay between them. Did she know of his presence? Although he and Amory were seated so near the throne, they were at one side, and her clear, pure profile was turned toward them. And Olivia did not lift her eyes throughout the prime minister’s long address, of which St. George and Amory, so lapped were they in wild projects and importunities, heard nothing until, uttered with indescribable pompousness, as if Cassyrus were a dowager and had made the match himself, the concluding words beat upon St. George’s heart like stones. They were the formal announcement of the betrothal of Olivia, daughter of his Majesty, Otho I of Yaque, to Tabnit, Prince of Yaque and Head of the House of the Litany.

St. George saw Prince Tabnit kneel before Olivia and place a ring upon her hand — no doubt the ring which had betrothed the island princesses for three thousand years. He saw the High Council standing with bowed heads, like the necessary archangels in an old painting; he caught the flash of the turquoise-blue ephod of the head of the religious order, as the benediction was pronounced by its wearer. And through it all he said to himself that all would be well if only she understood, if only she had the supreme self-consciousness to play the game. After all he knew her so little. He was certain of her exquisite, playful fancy, but had she imagination? Would she see the value of the moment and watch herself moving through it? Or would she live it with that feminine, unhumourous seriousness which is woman’s weakness? She had an exquisite independence, he was certain that she had humour, and he remembered how alive she had seemed to him, receptive, like a woman with ten senses. But after all, would not her graceful sanity of view, that sense of tradition and unerring taste which he so reverenced, yet handicap her now and prevent her from daring whatever she must dare?

Amory was beside himself. It was all very well to feel a great sympathy for St. George, but the sight was more than journalistic flesh and blood could look upon with sympathetic calm.

“An American girl!” he breathed in spite of himself. “Why, St. George, if we can leave this island alive —”

“Well, you won’t,” St. George explained, with brutal directness, “unless you can cut that.”

Before silence had again fallen, the prime minister, all his fever of importance still upon him, once more faced the audience. This time his words came to St. George like a thunderbolt:

“In three days’ time, at noon, in this the Hall of Kings,” he cried, letting each phrase fall as if he were its proud inventor, “immediately following the official recognition of Olivia, daughter of Otho I, as Hereditary Princess of Yaque, there will be solemnized, according to the immemorial tradition of the island last observed six hundred and eighty-four years ago by Queen Pentellaria, the marriage of Olivia of Yaque, to his Highness, Prince Tabnit, head of the House of the Litany, and chief administrator of justice. For the law prescribes that no unmarried woman shall sit upon the throne of Yaque. At noon of the third day will be observed the double ceremony of the recognition and the marriage. May the gods permit the possible.”

There was a soft insistence of music from above, a stir and breath about the room, the premier backed away to his seat, and St. George, even with the horrified tightening at his heart, was conscious of a vague commotion from the vicinity of Mrs. Medora Hastings. Then he saw the prince rise and turn to Olivia, and extend his hand to conduct her from the hall. The great banquet room beyond the colonnade was at once thrown open, and there the court circle and the ministry were to gather to do honour to the new princess, whom Prince Tabnit was to lead to the seat at his right hand at the table’s head.

To the amazement of his Highness, Olivia made no movement to accept the hand that he offered. Instead, she sat slightly at one side of the great glittering throne, looking up at him with something like the faintest conceivable smile which, while one saw, became once more her exquisite, girlish gravity. When the music sank a little her voice sounded above it with a sweet distinctness:

“One moment, if you please, your Highness,” she said clearly.

It was the first time that St. George had heard her voice since its good-by to him in New York. And before her words his vague fears for her were triumphantly driven. The spirit that he had hoped for was in her face, and something else; St. George could have sworn that he saw, but no one else could have seen the look, a glimpse of that delicate roguery that had held him captive when he had breakfasted with her — several hundred years before, was it? — at the Boris. Ah, he need not have feared for her, he told himself exultantly. For this was Olivia — of America — standing in a company of the women who seemed like the women of whom men dream, and whose presence, save in glimpses at first meetings, they perhaps never wholly realize. These were the women of the land which “no one can define or remember.” And yet, as he watched her now, St. George was gloriously conscious that Olivia not only held her own among them, but that in some charm of vividness and of knowledge of laughter, she transcended them all.

A ripple of surprise had gone round the room. For all the air of the ultimate about the island-women, St. George doubted whether ever in the three thousand years of Yaque’s history a woman had raised her voice from that throne upon a like occasion. And such a tender, beguiling, cajoling little voice it was. A voice that held little remarques upon whatever it had just said, and that made one breathless to know what would come next.

“Bully!” breathed Amory, his eyes shining behind his pince-nez.

Prince Tabnit hesitated.

“If the princess wishes to speak with us —” he began, and Olivia made a charming gesture of dissent, and all the jewels in her hair and upon her white throat caught the light and were set glittering.

“No,” she said gently, “no, your Highness. I wish to speak in the presence of my people.”

She gave the “my” no undue value, yet it fell from her lips with delicious audacity.

“Indeed,” she said, “I think, your Highness, that I will speak to my people myself.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54