The Exiles Club

It was an evening party; and something someone had said tome had started me talking about a subject that to me is fullof fascination, the subject of old religions, forsakengods. The truth (for all religions have some of it), thewisdom, the beauty, of the religions of countries to which Itravel have not the same appeal to me; for one only noticesin them their tyranny and intolerance and the abjectservitude that they claim from thought; but when a dynastyhas been dethroned in heaven and goes forgotten and outcasteven among men, one's eyes no longer dazzled by its powerfind something very wistful in the faces of fallen godssuppliant to be remembered, something almost tearfullybeautiful, like a long warm summer twilight fading gentlyaway after some day memorable in the story of earthly wars. Between what Zeus, for instance, has been once and thehalf-remembered tale he is to-day there lies a space sogreat that there is no change of fortune known to manwhereby we may measure the height down which he has fallen. And it is the same with many another god at whom once theages trembled and the twentieth century treats as an oldwives' tale. The fortitude that such a fall demands issurely more than human.

Some such things as these I was saying, and being upon asubject that much attracts me I possibly spoke too loudly,certainly I was not aware that standing close behind me wasno less a person than the ex-King of Eritivaria, the thirtyislands of the East, or I would have moderated my voice andmoved away a little to give him more room. I was not awareof his presence until his satellite, one who had fallen withhim into exile but still revolved about him, told me thathis master desired to know me; and so to my surprise I waspresented though neither of them even knew my name. Andthat was how I came to be invited by the ex-King to dine athis club.

At the time I could only account for his wishing to knowme by supposing that he found in his own exiled conditionsome likeness to the fallen fortunes of the gods of whom Italked unwitting of his presence; but now I know that it wasnot of himself he was thinking when he asked me to dine atthat club.

The club would have been the most imposing building inany street in London, but in that obscure mean quarter ofLondon in which they had built it it appeared undulyenormous. Lifting right up above those grotesque houses andbuilt in that Greek style that we call Georgian, there wassomething Olympian about it. To my host an unfashionablestreet could have meant nothing, through all his youthwherever he had gone had become fashionable the moment hewent there; words like the East End could have had nomeaning to him.

Whoever built that house had enormous wealth and carednothing for fashion, perhaps despised it. As I stood gazingat the magnificent upper windows draped with great curtains,indistinct in the evening, on which huge shadows flickeredmy host attracted my attention from the doorway, and so Iwent in and met for the second time the ex-King ofEritivaria.

In front of us a stairway of rare marble led upwards, hetook me through a side-door and downstairs and we came to abanqueting-hall of great magnificence. A long table ran upthe middle of it, laid for quite twenty people, and Inoticed the peculiarity that instead of chairs there werethrones for everyone except me, who was the only guest andfor whom there was an ordinary chair. My host explained tome when we all sat down that everyone who belonged to thatclub was by rights a king.

In fact none was permitted, he told me, to belong to theclub unless his claim to a kingdom made out in writing hadbeen examined and allowed by those whose duty it was. Thewhim of a populace or the candidate's own misrule were neverconsidered by the investigators, nothing counted with thembut heredity and lawful descent from kings, all else wasignored. At that table there were those who had oncereigned themselves, others lawfully claimed descent fromkings that the world had forgotten, the kingdoms claimed bysome had even changed their names. Hatzgurh, the mountainkingdom, is almost regarded as mythical.

I have seldom seen greater splendour than that long hallprovided below the level of the street. No doubt by day itwas a little sombre, as all basements are, but at night withits great crystal chandeliers, and the glitter of heirloomsthat had gone into exile, it surpassed the splendour ofpalaces that have only one king. They had come to Londonsuddenly most of those kings, or their fathers before them,or forefathers; some had come away from their kingdoms bynight, in a light sleigh, flogging the horses, or hadgalloped clear with morning over the border, some hadtrudged roads for days from their capital in disguise, yetmany had had time just as they left to snatch up some smallthing without price in markets, for the sake of old times asthey said, but quite as much, I thought, with an eye to thefuture. And there these treasures glittered on that longtable in the banqueting-hall of the basement of that strangeclub. Merely to see them was much, but to hear their storythat their owners told was to go back in fancy to epic timeson the romantic border of fable and fact, where the heroesof history fought with the gods of myth. The famous silverhorses of Gilgianza were there climbing their sheermountain, which they did by miraculous means before the timeof the Goths. It was not a large piece of silver but itsworkmanship outrivaled the skill of the bees.

A yellow Emperor had brought out of the East a piece ofthat incomparable porcelain that had made his dynasty famousthough all their deeds are forgotten, it had the exact shadeof the right purple.

And there was a little golden statuette of a dragonstealing a diamond from a lady, the dragon had the diamondin his claws, large and of the first water. There had beena kingdom whose whole constitution and history were foundedon the legend, from which alone its kings had claimed theirright to the sceptre, that a dragon stole a diamond from alady. When its last king left that country, because hisfavourite general used a peculiar formation under the fireof artillery, he brought with him the little ancient imagethat no longer proved him a king outside that singular club.

There was the pair of amethyst cups of the turbaned Kingof Foo, the one that he drank from himself, and the one thathe gave to his enemies, eye could not tell which was which.

All these things the ex-King of Eritivaria showed me,telling me a marvellous tale of each; of his own he hadbrought nothing, except the mascot that used once to sit onthe top of the water tube of his favourite motor.

I have not outlined a tenth of the splendour of thattable, I had meant to come again and examine each piece ofplate and make notes of its history; had I known that thiswas the last time I should wish to enter that club I shouldhave looked at its treasures more attentively, but now asthe wine went round and the exiles began to talk I took myeyes from the table and listened to strange tales of theirformer state.

He that has seen better times was usually a poor tale totell, some mean and trivial thing that has been his undoing,but they that dined in that basement had mostly fallen likeoaks on nights of abnormal tempest, had fallen mightily andshaken a nation. Those who had not been kings themselves,but claimed through an exiled ancestor, had stories to tellof even grander disaster, history seeming to have mellowedtheir dynasty's fate as moss grows over an oak a great whilefallen. There were no jealousies there as so often thereare among kings, rivalry must have ceased with the loss oftheir navies and armies, and they showed no bitternessagainst those that had turned them out, one speaking of theerror of his Prime Minister by which he had lost his throneas "poor old Friedrich's Heaven-sent gift of tactlessness."

They gossiped pleasantly of many things, thetittle-tattle we all had to know when we were learninghistory, and many a wonderful story I might have heard, manya side-light on mysterious wars had I not made use of oneunfortunate word. That word was "upstairs."

The ex-King of Eritivaria having pointed out to me thoseunparalleled heirlooms to which I have alluded, and manymore besides, hospitably asked me if there was anything elsethat I would care to see, he meant the pieces of plate thatthey had in the cupboards, the curiously graven swords ofother princes, historic jewels, legendary seals, but I whohad had a glimpse of their marvelous staircase, whosebalustrade I believed to be solid gold and wondering why insuch a stately house they chose to dine in the basement,mentioned the word "upstairs." A profound hush came down onthe whole assembly, the hush that might greet levity in acathedral.

"Upstairs!" he gasped, "We cannot go upstairs."

I perceived that what I had said was an ill-chosenthing. I tried to excuse myself but knew not how.

"Of course," I muttered, "members may not take guestsupstairs."

"Members!" he said to me, "We are not the members!"

There was such reproof in his voice that I said no more,I looked at him questioningly, perhaps my lips moved, I mayhave said, "What are you?" A great surprise had come on meat their attitude.

"We are the waiters," he said.

That I could not have known, here at least was honestignorance that I had no need to be ashamed of, the veryopulence of their table denied it.

"Then who are the members?" I asked.

Such a hush fell at that question, such a hush of genuineawe, that all of a sudden a wild thought entered my head, athought strange and fantastic and terrible. I gripped myhost by the wrist and hushed my voice.

"Are they too exiles?" I asked.

Twice as he looked in my face he gravely nodded his head.

I left that club very swiftly indeed, never to see itagain, scarcely pausing to say farewell to those menialkings, and as I left the door a great window opened far upat the top of the house and a flash of lightning streamedfrom it and killed a dog.