Romance Island, by Zona Gale

Chapter 16


There is a certain poster, all stars and poppies and deep grass; and over these hangs a new moon which must surely have been cut by fairy scissors, for it looks as much like a cake or a cowslip as it looks like a moon. But withal it sheds a light so eery and strangely silver that the poster seems, in spite of the poppies, to have been painted in Spring-wind.

“Never,” said some chance visitors vehemently, “have I seen such a moon as that!”

“But ah, sir, and ah, madame,” was the answer — it is not recorded whether the poster spoke or whether some one spoke for it —“wouldn’t you like to?”

Now, therefore, concerning the sweet of those hours in the king’s palace the Vehement may be tempted to exclaim that in life things never happen like that. Ah — do they not so? You have only to go back to the days when young love and young life were yours to recall distinctly that the most impossible things were every-day occurrences. What about the time that you went down one street instead of up another and that changed the entire course of your days and brought you two together? What about the song, the June, the letter that touched the world to gold before your eyes and caught you up in a place of clouds? Remembering that magic, it is quite impossible to assert that any charming thing whatever would not have happened. Is there not some wonderland in every life? And is not the ancient citadel of Love-upon-the-Heights that common wonderland? One must believe in all the happiness that one can.

But if the Most Vehement — who are as thick as butterflies — still remain unconvinced and persist that they never heard of things fallen out thus, there is left this triumph:

“Ah, sir, or ah, madame, wouldn’t you like to?”

A fugitive wind rollicking in from sea next morning swept through the palace and went on around the world; and thereafter it had an hundred odourous ways of attracting attention, which were merely its own tale of what pleasant things it had seen and heard on high.

For example, that breakfast. A cloth had been laid at one end of the long stone table whereat, since the days of Abibaal, brother to Hiram, friend to David, kings had breakfasted and banqueted, and this cloth had now been set with the ancient plate of the palace — dishes that looked like helmets and urns and discs. Here Olivia and Antoinette, in charming print frocks, made a kind of tea in a kind of biblical samovar and served it in vessels that resembled individual trophies of the course. And here St. George and Amory praised the admirable English muffins which some one had taught the dubious cook to make; and Mr. Augustus Frothingham tip-fingered his way about his plate among alien fruits and queer-shaped cakes. “Are they cookies or are they manna?” Amory wondered, “for they remind me of coriander seeds.” And here Mrs. Hastings, who always awoke a thought impatient and became ultra-complacent with no interval of real sanity, wistfully asked for a soft-boiled egg and added plaintively:

“Though I dare say the very hens in Yaque lay something besides eggs — pineapples, very likely.”

“I suppose,” speculated Amory, “that when we get perfectly intuitionized we won’t have to eat either one because we’ll know beforehand exactly how they both taste.”

“A reductio ad absurdum, my young friend,” said the lawyer sternly; “the real purpose of eating will remain for ever unchanged.”

Later, while Mrs. Hastings and Mr. Frothingham went out on the terrace in the sun and wished for a morning paper (“I miss the weather report so,” complained Mrs. Hastings) the four young people with Jarvo and Akko for guides set out to explore the palace. For St. George had risen from his two hours’ sleep with some clearly-defined projects, and he meant first to go over every niche and corner of the great pile where one — say a king — might be hidden with twenty other kings, and no one be at all the wiser.

What a morning it was! When the rollicking wind got to that part of the story it must have told about it in such intimating perfumes that even the unimaginative were constrained to sit idle, “thinking delicate thoughts.” There never was a fairer temple of romance, a very temple of Young Love’s Plaisaunce; and since the coming of St. George and Amory all the cavernous chambers and galleries were become homes of hope that the king would be found and all would yet be well.

To the main part of the palace there were storey after storey, all octagons and pentagons and labyrinths, so that incredulity and amazement might increase with every step. How they had ever raised those massive blocks of stone to that great height no one can guess unless, indeed, Amory’s theory were correct and the palace had originally been built upon level ground and had had its surroundings blasted neatly away to make a mountain. At all events there were the walls of the great airy rooms made of the naked stone, exquisitely beveled and chiseled, and frescoed with the planetary deities — Eloti, the Moon with her chariot drawn by white bulls, the Sun and his four horses, with his emblem of a column in the form of a rising flame — types taken from the heavens and from the abyss. There were roofs of sound fir and sweet cedar, carven cornices, cave-like window embrasures with no glass, and little circular rooms built about shrines in which sat broken images of Baal the sun god, of a sandaled Astarte, and a ravening Melkarth, with the lion’s skin.

From a great upper corridor there went a stairway, each deep step of which was placed on the back of a stone lion of increasing size, until the tallest lion’s head extended close to the painted ceiling, and there were comfortable benches cut in his gigantic paws. Many of the rooms were without furnishing, some were filled with vague, splendid stuff mouldering away, and others with most luxuriously-devised ministries to beauty and comfort. The palace was curiously and wonderfully an habitation of more than two thousand years ago, furnished with a taste and luxury in advance of this moment’s civilization of the world. The heart of that elder world beat strangely in one of the upper chambers where they came upon a little work-shop, strewn with unknown metals and tools and empty crucibles, and in their midst a rectangular metallic plate partly traced with a device of boughs, appearing, in one light, slightly fluorescent.

“It is the work of the Princess Simyra, adôn,” said Jarvo. “She was the daughter of King Thabion, and when she died what she had touched in this room was left unmoved. But it was very many years ago — I have forgotten. Every one has forgotten.”

They went down among the very roots of the palace, three full storeys below the surface of the summit. Jarvo went before, lighting the way, and they threaded vaulted corridors and winding passages, and emerged at last in a silent, haunted chamber whose stones had been hewn and sunken there, before Issus. This was the chamber of the tombs of the kings, and its floor echoed to their footsteps, now hollowly, now with ringing clearness. Three sides of the mighty hall were lined with loculi or niches, each as deep as the length of a man. About the floor stood stone sarcophagi and beneath the long flags kings were sleeping, each with his abandoned name graven on the stones, washed year-long by the dark. In the room’s centre was a lofty cylindrical tomb, mounted by four steps, and this was the resting-place of King Abibaal, the younger son of King Abibaal of Tyre, and the brother to King Hiram, who ruled in Tyre when the Phoenicians who settled Yaque, or Arqua, first passed the Straits of Gibraltar and gained the open sea. (“Dear me,” said Mrs. Hastings when they told her, “I was at Mount Vernon once, and the Washingtons’ tombs there impressed me very deeply, but they were nothing to these in point of age, were they?”) Sunken in the wall was a tomb of white marble hewn in a five-faced pyramidion, where slept Queen Mitygen, who ruled in Yaque while Alexander was king of Persia. There was said to have been buried with her a casket of love-letters from Alexander, who may have known Yaque and probably at one time visited it and, in that case, was entertained in the very palace. And if this is true the story of his omission to conquer the island may one day divert the world.

Jarvo bent before a low tomb whose stone was delicately scored with winged circles.

“Perhaps,” he said, “you will recall the accounts of the kidnapped Egyptian priestesses sold to the Theoprotions by Phoenician merchants in the heroic age of Greece? They were not all sold. Here lie the bones of four, given royal burial because of their holy office.”

Nothing was unbelievable — nothing had been unbelievable for so long that these four had almost learned that everything is possible. Which, if you come to think of it, and no matter how absurdly you learn it, is a thing immeasurably worth realizing in this world of possibilities. It is one of our two magics.

“And this,” Jarvo said softly, pausing before a vacant niche opposite the tomb of King Abibaal, “this will be the receptacle for the present king of Yaque, his Majesty, King Otho, by the grace of God.”

Olivia suddenly looked up at St. George, her face pale in the ghostly light. There it had been, waiting for them all the while, the sense of the vivid personal against the vague eternal. But her involuntary appeal to him, slight as it was, thrilled St. George with tenderness as vivid as this tragic element itself.

They went back to the sun and the sweet messengering air above, and crossed a little vacant grassy court on the north side of the mountain. Here they saw that the palace climbed down the northern slope from the summit, and literally overhung the precipice where the supports were made fast by gigantic girders run in the living rock. A little observatory was built below the edge of the mountain, and this box of a place had a glass floor, and one felt like a fly on the sky as one stood there. It was said that a certain king of Yaque, sometime in the course of the Punic Wars, had thrown himself from this observatory in a rage because his court electrician had died, but how true this may be it is impossible to say because so little is known about electricity. Below the building lay quite the most wonderful part of the king’s palace.

Here in the long north rooms, hermetically quiet, was the heart of the treasure of the ancient island. Here, saved inexplicably from the wreck of the past, were a thousand testimonies to that lost and but half-guessed art of the elder world. Beautiful things, made in the days when King Solomon built the Temple at Jerusalem, lined the walls, and filled the stone shelves, together with curios of that later day when Phoenicia stood first in knowledge of the plastic and glyptic arts. Workers in gold and ivory, in gems and talismans, in brass and fine linen and purple had done the marvels which those courtier adventurers brought with them over the sea, and to these, from year to year, had been added the treasure of private chests — necklaces and coronals and hair-loops, bottles and vases of glass coloured with metallic oxides, and patterned aggry-beads, now sometimes found in ancient tombs on the Ashantee coasts. Beneath an altar set with censers and basins of gold was a chest brought from Amathus, its ogive lid carved with bigæ or two-horsed chariots, and it was in this chest, Jarvo told them, that the Hereditary Treasure had been kept. The chamber walls were covered with bas-reliefs in the ill-proportioned and careful carving of the Phoenician artists not yet under Greek influence, and all about were set the wonderful bronzes, such as Tyrian artificers made for the Temple. The other chambers gave still deeper utterance to days remote, for it was there that the king’s library had been collected in case after case, filled with parchment rolls preserved and copied from age to age. What might not be there, they wondered — annals, State documents, the Phoenician originals of histories preserved elsewhere only in fragments of translation or utterly lost, the secrets of science and magic known to men the very forms of whose names have perished; and not only the longed-for poems of Sido and Jopas, but of who could tell how many singing hearts, lyric with joy and love and still voiceful here in these strange halls? These were chambers such as no one has ever entered, for this was the vexing of no unviolated tomb and no buried city, but the actual return to the Past, watching lonely on the mountain.

“Clusium,” said Amory softly. “I had actually wanted to go to the cemetery at Clusium, to see some inscriptions!”

“No, you didn’t, Toby,” said St. George pleasantly, “you wanted to go somewhere and you called it Clusium. You wanted an adventure and you thought Clusium was the name of it.”

“I know,” said Amory shamelessly, “and there are no end of names for it. But it’s always the same thing. Excepting this.”

“Excepting this,” St. George repeated fervently as they turned to go; and if, in singing of that morning, the rollicking wind sang that, it must have breathed and trembled with a chorus of faint voices from every shelf in the room — voices that of old had thrilled with the same meaning and woke now to the eternal echo.

Woke now to the eternal echo — an echo that touched delicately through the events of that afternoon and laid strange values on all that happened. Otherwise, if they four were not all a little echo-mad, how was it that in the shadow of doubt, in the face of danger, and near the inextinguishable mystery they yet found time for the little, wing-like moments that never hold history, because they hold revelation. There were, too, some events; but an event is a clumsy thing at best, unless it has something intangible about it. The delicious moments are when the intangibilities prevail and pervade and possess. In the king’s palace there must have been shrines to intangibilities — as there should be everywhere — for they seemed to come there, and belong.

The mere happenings included, for example, a talk that St. George had with Mr. Augustus Frothingham on the terrace after luncheon, in which St. George laid before the lawyer a plan which he had virtually matured and of which he himself thought very well. Thought so well, because of its possibilities, that his face was betrayingly eager as he told about it. It was, briefly, that inasmuch as four of the six men who could scale the mountain were now on its summit, and inasmuch as all the airships were there also, now, therefore, they, the guests on the island of Yaque, were in a perfectly impregnable position — counting out Fifth Dimension contingencies, which of course might include appearings as well as disappearings — and why shouldn’t they stay there, and let the ominous noon of the following day slip by unmarked? And when the lawyer said, “But, my dear fellow,” as he was bound to say, St. George answered that down there in Med there would be, by noon of the following day, two determined persons who, if Jarvo would get word to them, would with perfect certainty find Mr. Otho Holland, the king, if he were on the island. And when “Well, but my dear fellow” occurred again, St. George replied with deference that he knew it, but although he never had managed an airship he fancied that perhaps he might help with one; and down there in the harbour was a yacht waiting to sail for New York, and therefore no one need even set foot on the island who didn’t wish. And Mr. Frothingham laid one long hand on each coat-lapel and threw back his head until his hair rested on his collar, and he looked at the palace — that Titan thing of the sky with ramparts of air — and said, “Nothing in all my experience —” and St. George left him, deep in thought.

On the way back he chanced upon Mrs. Hastings, seated on a bench of lapidescent wood in the portico — and a Titanic portico it looked by day — and, having sent for the palace chef, she was attempting to write down the recipe for the salad of that day’s luncheon, although it was composed chiefly of fowls now extinct everywhere excepting in Yaque.

“But my poultry man will get them for me,” she urged with determination; “I have only to tell him the name of what I want, and he can always produce it in tins, nicely labeled.”

Later, St. George came upon old Malakh, leaning on the terrace wall, looking out to sea, and stood close beside him, marveling at the pallor and the thousand wrinkles of the man’s strange face. The face was stranger by day than it had been by night — this St. George had felt when he went that morning to release him, and the old man leaned from the frowning bed-hangings to bid him a gentle good morning. Could he be, St. George now wondered vaguely, a citizen of the fifteenth or twentieth dimension, and, there, did they live to his incredible age? Then he noticed that the old man was not wearing the ruby ring.

“I wear it only when I wish to see it shine, sir,” old Malakh answered, and St. George marveled at that courteous “sir,” and at other things.

To everything that he asked him the old man returned only his urbane, unmeaning replies, touched with their melancholy symbolism. When St. George left him it was in the hope that Olivia would consent to have him sent down the mountain, although St. George himself was half inclined to agree with Amory’s “But, really, I would far rather talk with one madman with this madman’s manners than to sup with uncouth sanity” and “After all, if he should murder us, probably no one could do it with greater delicacy.” And Olivia had no intention of sending old Malakh back to Med. “How could one possibly do that?” she wanted to know, and there was no oracle.

All the while the world of intangibilities was growing, growing as only that world can grow from the abysmal silence of life that went before. St. George was saying to himself that at last the Here and the Now were infinitely desirable; and as for the fear for the morrow, what was that beside the promise of the days beyond? At noon they all climbed the Obelisk Tower with its ceiling of carved leaves above carved leaves, and the real heavens a little farther up. They leaned on the broad wall, cut by mock bastions and faced the glory of the sunny, trembling sea, starred with the dipping wings of gulls. Blue sky, blue sea, eyes that saw looks that eyes did not know they gave — ah, what a day it was! When the rollicking wind told about that, down on the dun earth, surely it echoed their young courage, their young belief in the future, the incorruptibility of their understanding that the future was theirs, under the law. For the wind always teaches that. The wind is the supreme believer, and one has only to take a walk in it at this moment to know the truth. Yet in spite of the wind, in spite of their high security, in spite of the little wing-like moments that hold not history but revelation, they were all going down the hours beneath the pendent sword of “To-morrow, at noon.”

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