The Island Mystery/Chapter 1
IN 1914 there were not twenty men in England who had ever heard of the island of Salissa. Even now—I am writing in the spring of 1917—the public is very badly informed about the events which gave the island a certain importance in the history of the war. A couple of months ago I asked a well-known press-cutting agency to supply me with a complete collection of all references to Salissa which had appeared in our newspapers. I received a single short paragraph from a second-rate society weekly. It ran thus:
“Is it true that our new Minister for Balkan Problems has a curious story to tell about a certain island in the Mediterranean, and is there a lady in the case?”
The Minister referred to is, of course, Sir Bartholomew Bland-Potterton. The island must be Salissa. It is a clear proof, if proof is required, of the efficiency of our press censorship that this should be the only reference to the island in any newspaper in the course of three years. We have blundered a good deal during the war; but it cannot be said of us that we have allowed our press to supply the enemy or any one else with information likely to be of value.
Such knowledge as the public now possesses has come to it, not through newspapers, but by way of gossip. Sir Bartholomew sometimes talks, and the words of a man in his position are repeated in the smoking-rooms of clubs, round tea tables and elsewhere. Unfortunately gossip of this kind is most unreliable. The tendency is to exaggerate the picturesque parts of the story and to misinterpret motives. It is slanderous, for instance, to suggest that Sir Bartholomew was in any way attracted by the lady who bore the title of Queen of Salissa. He never spoke to her or even saw her. His interest in the Salissa affair was that of a patriotic statesman. He told me this himself, yesterday after dinner.
It was Sir Bartholomew who drew my attention to the exhaustive monograph on the Island of Salissa written by Professor Homer Geldes, of Pearmount University, Pa., U.S.A. The book was published ten years ago, but has never been widely read. I am indebted to the professor for the following information.
Salissa is derived by Professor Geldes from a Greek word Psalis, which means an arched viaduct. It is a doubtful piece of etymology, but if it were reliable the name seems appropriate enough. The island, according to the maps published in the book, appears to be a kind of roof supported by the walls of caverns. It is possible that the professor has exaggerated this peculiarity. He was naturally anxious to make good his derivation of the name. But there are certainly many caves under the fields and vineyards of Salissa. There is one excellent natural harbour, a bay, about a mile wide, in the south coast of the island. It is protected from heavy seas by a reef of rock, a natural breakwater, which stretches across and almost blocks the entrance of the bay.
In the chapter on Ethnography I find that the people are of a mixed race. A Salissan, I gather, might boast with equal truth of being a Greek, a Turk, a Slav, or an Italian. His skull is dolichocephalic. His facial angle—but it is better for any one interested in these points to read Professor Geldes’ book for himself. No regular census has ever been made on the island; but in 1907 there were forty-three inhabitants. The number has probably increased since then.
The principal industries are set down, rather grandiloquently, as agriculture and fishing. A small quantity of poor wine is made by the inhabitants for their own use. The religion of these islanders, like their race, is mixed. It seems to consist of some vague pagan beliefs and the observance of a few Christian ceremonies. The people are not in any way bigoted. Their priesthood—if it can be called a priesthood—is patriarchal. There are no taxes, no police, no courts of justice, no regular laws, indeed no government, though the island is, or was, part of the Kingdom of Megalia.
My friend Gorman, who spent some time there, says that Salissa was a delightful place to live on until the Great Powers discovered its existence. But I do not quote Gorman as a reliable authority on a question of this kind. He is an Irishman, Member of Parliament for Upper Offaly, and therefore naturally at home on an island with no government. There are people who prefer to live under settled conditions, who like paying taxes, who appreciate policemen. It is not likely that they would have been happy on Salissa three years ago. They would certainly not like to live there now.
It is scarcely necessary to add—any one who possesses an atlas can find this out for himself—that Salissa lies 47 miles (nautical) south-east of the nearest point of the Megalian coast, and thus occupies a position of supreme strategic importance. Sir Bartholomew kindly allows me to quote him on this subject. I took down the words he used and read them over to him afterwards.
“The Power,” he said, “which controls the Near East controls the world. The Power which dominates the Cyrenian Sea holds the Near East in its grasp. The Island of Salissa is the keystone of the Cyrenian Sea. The German dream of world power depends, at the last analysis, on the use of the Island of Salissa as a submarine base.”
This reads like a quotation from a political speech. It is nothing of the sort. Sir Bartholomew always talks in that way. He made this statement to me yesterday evening after dinner, when I told him that I had undertaken to write the story of recent events in the island. The pronouncement, coming from a man like Sir Bartholomew, admittedly the greatest living authority on all Near Eastern questions, justifies the writing of this book.
Whether I am the man to attempt the work is another question. Gorman, Michael Gorman, M.P., would no doubt do it better. Though he has no financial interests in the island, he was mixed up in its affairs and knows a great deal about them. But Gorman will not do it. He says, perhaps truly, that there is no money in histories of recent events. William Peter Donovan paid heavily for his knowledge of Salissa and is certainly entitled to such credit as may be won by writing a history of the recent troubles. But Donovan has devoted his later years to the cult of indolence, and he suffers from disordered action of the heart. Miss Daisy Donovan—I prefer to use her original name—might have given us a picturesque account of the events in which she played the leading part. But she is now very fully occupied with more personal affairs. Lieutenant-Commander Phillips, R.N.R., is barred by professional regulations from writing the story, and in any case he had no direct knowledge of the beginning of it. King Konrad Karl II of Megalia knows most of the facts, but it is doubtful whether the British public would tolerate a book from the pen of a man who is legally an alien enemy.
I have, at all events, leisure to devote to the work, and I have heard the story from the lips of those chiefly concerned. They have allowed me to question them on various points, and placed all, or almost all, they knew at my disposal.