The Island Mystery/Chapter 24
THEOLOGIANS are fond of speculative subjects; but I do not remember that any of them have discussed the feelings of Noah and his family when shut up in the ark. What did they talk about when they came together in the evening after feeding the various animals? No doubt they congratulated each other on their escape. No doubt they grumbled occasionally at the limited accommodation of the ark. But were they interested in what was going on outside? Did they guess at the depth of the flood, calculate whether this or that town were submerged, discuss the fate of neighbours and friends, wonder what steps the Government was taking to meet the crisis? They had very little chance of getting accurate information. The ark had only one window, and, if we can trust the artists who illustrate our Bibles, it was a kind of skylight.
The refugees on Salissa—if refugees is the proper word—were in one respect worse off than Noah’s family. They had no skylight. The wireless message sent to the Megalian admiral told them that the Great Powers were at war. After that they got no news at all for more than two months. The windows, not this time of heaven, but of hell, were opened. The fountains of the great deep of human ambition, greed and passion were broken up. Lands where men, unguessing, had bought and sold, married and been given in marriage, were submerged, swamped, desolated. Salissa was a good ark, roomier than Noah’s, and with this advantage, that it stayed still instead of tossing about. But not even Noah was so utterly cut off from all news of the catastrophe outside.
During August and September almost anything might have happened. Germans might have ridden through the streets of Paris and London. Russians might have placed their Czar on the throne of the Hapsburgs in Vienna. The English Fleet might have laid Hamburg in ruins and anchored in the Kiel Canal. Men might have died in millions. Civilization itself might have been swept away. But the face of the sun, rising on Salissa day by day, was in no way darkened by horror, or crimsoned with shame. The sea whispered round the island shores, but brought no news of the rushings to and fro of hostile fleets. The winds blew over battle-fields, but they reached Salissa fresh and salt-laden, untainted by the odour of carnage or the choking fumes of cannon firing.
Donovan was probably the only one of the party in the palace who was entirely satisfied with this position. With the help of Smith he had demonstrated the efficacy of pacifist methods, and saved the island from bombardment. In less than a week he removed, to his own satisfaction, the scandal of Konrad Karl’s relations with Madame Ypsilante. Then he handed the reins of government to the Queen again and settled down to the business of avoiding exertion and soothing the disorder of his heart.
To Donovan it always seemed a perfectly natural and simple thing that Konrad Karl should marry Madame Ypsilante. But it turned out to be rather difficult to arrange the matter. Madame herself had no particular objection to being married. She was lukewarm and indifferent until she found out that the Queen was looking forward to the wedding as a beautiful finish to a great romance. Madame had a grateful soul and was willing to do much to please the Queen who nursed her and was kind to her while she lay in bed exhausted by her journey. Her contempt for the American miss vanished, as soon as she understood that neither her pearls nor Konrad Karl were to be taken from her. Besides, there is always pleasure to be got out of preparing for a wedding. It was impossible, indeed, to buy clothes on Salissa. But it was not impossible to accept presents from the Queen’s ample wardrobe. A great deal of interesting fitting and altering was done, and in the end Madame had an ample trousseau. The Queen, with the help of Smith, made an immense and splendid wedding cake.
It was Konrad Karl who created difficulties. He said—and Donovan believed him—that he was personally quite willing to marry Madame Ypsilante. He desired to marry her. She was the only woman in the world whom he would marry of his own free will. But he remained incurably terrified of the Emperor. Donovan talked to him about the rights of free citizens. He said that the humblest man had power to choose his wife. Nothing he said had the slightest influence on Konrad Karl.
“But,” the King used to reply, “you do not understand. I am a king.”
“Well,” said Donovan, “according to my notions that’s the same thing, only more so.”
“Ah, no,” said the King. “Ah, damn it, no. A king is not bourgeois, what you call citizen. That is the point. It is because I am a king that the Emperor interferes. If I were a citizen, but——”
He shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
Gorman tried him along a different line.
“Look here,” he said, “the Emperor has got himself into a nasty mess. He’s in for a big war. He can’t possibly have any time to spare to worry over who you marry.”
“To-day, no,” said the King, “but to-morrow the Emperor wins the war, and then——”
“I wouldn’t be too cocksure of his winning,” said Gorman.
“It is surer than any cock,” said the King. “It was settled long ago. I do not understand Real Politik, but I know that much. The Emperor wins the war. Then he says to me: ‘Konrad, you married her. Good. You are in a fortress for life.’ And I am. You do not understand the Emperor, my friend.”
“I’m beginning to,” said Gorman.
It was Smith who talked over Konrad Karl in the end. I am sure that Donovan would not have approved of his argument. I doubt whether Gorman would have cared to use it. Smith said frankly that a marriage performed by Stephanos the Elder would be no marriage at all outside the Island of Salissa and could be repudiated at any time without the slightest inconvenience.
“You think,” said the King, “that I wish to desert Corinne. But never.”
“Beg pardon, your Majesty,” said Smith. “That wasn’t the idea in my mind. What I was thinking of, your Majesty, was the way the matter might be represented to the Emperor.”
The King saw the point. On the whole he seems to have been pleased when his last difficulty was removed and he was actually able to marry his beloved Corinne.
I do not think they were very happy afterwards. They were, no doubt, well enough suited to each other. But neither of them was suited to a life on Salissa. Monotony preyed on them. They both suffered from a kind of homesickness, an aching hunger for streets, theatres, shops, the rattle of traffic, the glitter of city life at night. They would have been good friends if they had been able to live their proper lives. Even on Salissa King Konrad Karl remained a lover. But they bickered a great deal and sometimes openly quarrelled. Then Madame would retire to her room and sulk for hours or whole days, while the King wandered about the palace and bewailed the cruelty of Corinne.
Gorman too, in his own way, suffered from homesickness and had fits of irritation. He had lived his life in the centre of events, not great events, but such things as intrigues at Westminster, changes of Governments, and amendments, in committees, of Acts of Parliament. He had always known what was going on in the world. He found himself hopelessly shut off from all news of the greatest happenings of his time. He wanted desperately to know what England was doing, whether the French had risen to the occasion. He wanted, above all, to know about Ireland. Was Ireland in the throes of a civil war, or were her children taking their places in the ranks of the Allied Armies? Gorman was unreasonably annoyed by King Konrad Karl’s certainty that the Emperor would win the war and by Donovan’s passive neutrality of sentiment. For Gorman neutrality in any quarrel was no doubt inconceivable. As a younger man he might have been a rebel and given his life in some wild struggle against the power of England; or he might have held the King’s commission and led other Irishmen against a foreign foe. He could never, if a great fight were going on, have been content to stand aside as Donovan did; neither praising nor blaming, neither hoping for victory nor fearing defeat.
Even more difficult to bear was Konrad Karl’s conviction that the Emperor was invincible. It does not appear that the King had any particular wish for a German victory. He would perhaps have preferred to see the Emperor beaten and humiliated. But that seemed to him outside all possibility. The Emperor’s triumph was as inevitable as the changing of the seasons. A man may not wish for winter or the east winds of spring; but he does not soothe himself with hopes that the long days of summer will continue. It seemed to Konrad Karl merely foolish that Gorman should speak as if the issue of the war were in any doubt.
Gorman has often spoken to me about his feelings at this time.
“I could have broken Konrad Karl’s head with pleasure,” he said once. “I had to hold myself tight if I did not mean to fall on him. He was so infernally certain that the Emperor would wipe the floor with us. Us! Isn’t it a queer thing now? Here I am, a man who has been abusing the English all my life, and hating them—I give you my word that I’ve always hated the self-sufficiency and nauseating hypocrisy of the English. There’s nothing I’ve wanted more than to see them damned well thrashed by somebody. And yet the minute anybody comes along to thrash them I’m up on my hind legs, furious, talking about ‘Us’ and ‘We’ and ‘Our’ army just as if I were an Englishman myself.”
Gorman made every effort in his power to get news of some sort. He tried to bribe the island fishermen to sail over to the mainland in their largest boat. He offered to go with them. It was a voyage which they sometimes made. In fine weather there was no great difficulty about it. But Gorman’s bribes were offered in vain. A curious fear possessed the islanders; the same fear which laid hold of the souls of simple people all over Europe at that time. They were afraid of some vast evil, undefined, unrealized, and their terror kept them close to the shadows of their homes. The most that Gorman could persuade them to do was to take him a few miles out to sea in one of their boats. There he used to stay for an hour or so, for so long as the men with him would consent to remain, going out as often as they would go with him. His hope was that he might see some ship, hail her, and get news from her crew. But no steamer, no fishing boat even, came in sight.
Of all the people on the island, Gorman was the most to be pitied except perhaps the Queen.
For awhile she was happy enough. The wedding interested and excited her. The presence of guests in the palace gave her much to think about and do. She was busy with her school. She still found pleasure in roaming over the island with Kalliope, but there came a time when she began to expect the arrival of the Ida. She knew how long the voyage to England took. She made calculations of the time required for loading the steamer with her new cargo. She fixed a day, the earliest possible, on which the Ida might reach Salissa again. That day passed, and many after it. The Ida was overdue, long overdue.
The Queen used to ask questions of every one, seeking comfort and assurance. She got little. Konrad Karl’s conviction that the Emperor must be victorious was not cheering. Gorman supposed that the Ida might have been taken over by the Admiralty, or might have been forbidden to sail, or that Captain Wilson might be unwilling to take risks if enemy cruisers were at large on the high seas. Smith coolly discussed the possibility of a blockade of the English coasts by German submarines. Kalliope was the Queen’s only comforter. She had no theories about war or politics, but she had a profound conviction of the certainty of lovers meeting.
“He will come once more,” she said, “sure thing.”
That was the Queen’s conviction too. But it was weary work waiting.
There is a nook, a little hollow, high up on one of the western cliffs of the island where it is possible to sit, sheltered among tall ferns, and gaze out across the sea. There came a time towards the end of September, when the Queen used to climb up there every morning and sit for hours watching for the Ida. Kalliope went with her. They erected a little flagstaff. They carried up the blue banner of Salissa. It was the Queen’s plan to signal a welcome to her lover when she saw his ship. Above the nook in which they sat the two girls laid a beacon fire, a great pile of dry wood, dragged up the cliff with immense toil. The Queen thought of leaping flames and a tall column of smoke which should catch her lover’s eyes and tell him that she was waiting for him. But day after day the calm sea lay shining, vacant. Evening after evening the Queen came sadly home again, a cold fear in her heart, bitter disappointment choking her. Then Kalliope would do her best for her mistress, repeating over and over her comforting phrases.
“He will come once more. Sure thing. Damned sure.”