While Heliobas was speaking, Alwyn's countenance had grown vaguely troubled, and now into his deep poetic eyes there came a look of sudden penitence.
"True!" he said softly, almost humbly, "I will tell you everything while I remember it,—though it is not likely I shall ever forget! I believe there must be some truth after all in what you say concerning the Soul, ... at any rate, I do not at present feel inclined to call your theories in question. To begin with, I find myself unable altogether to explain what it was that happened to me during my conversation with you last night. It was a very strange sensation! I recollect that I had expressed a wish to be placed under your magnetic or electric influence, and that you had refused my request. Then an odd idea suggested itself to me— namely, that I could if I chose COMPEL your assent,—and, filled with this notion, I think I addressed you, or was about to address you, in a rather peremptory manner, when—all at once—a flash of blinding light struck me fiercely across the eyes like a scourge! Stung with the hot pain, and dazzled by the glare, I turned away from you and fled ... or so it seemed—fled on my own instinctive impulse ... into DARKNESS!"
He paused and drew a long, shuddering breath, like one who has narrowly escaped imminent destruction.
"Darkness!" he went on in low accents that thrilled with the memory of a past feat—"dense, horrible, frightful darkness!— darkness that palpitated heavily with the labored motion of unseen things!—darkness that clung and closed about me in masses of clammy, tangible thickness,—its advancing and resistless weight rolled over me like a huge waveless ocean—and, absorbed within it, I was drawn down—down—down toward some hidden, impalpable but All Supreme Agony, the dull unceasing throbs of which I felt, yet could not name. 'O GOD!' I cried aloud, abandoning myself to wild despair, 'O GOD! WHERE ARE THOU?' Then I heard a great rushing sound as of a strong wind beaten through with wings, and a Voice, grand and sweet as a golden trumpet blown suddenly in the silence of night, answered: 'HERE! ... AND EVERYWHERE!' With that, a slanting stream of opaline radiance cleft the gloom with the sweep of a sword-blade, and I was caught up quickly ... I know not how ... for I saw nothing!"
Again he pushed and looked wistfully at Heliobas, who in turn regarded him with gentle steadfastness.
"It was wonderful—terrible!" ... he continued slowly—"yet beautiful! ... that Invisible Strength that rescued, surrounded, and uplifted me; and—" here he hesitated, and a faint flush colored his cheeks and stole up to the roots of his clustering hair— "dream or no dream, I feel I cannot now altogether reject the idea of an existing Divinity. In brief ... I believe in God!"
"Why?" asked Heliobas quietly.
Alwyn met his gaze frankly and with a soft brightening of his handsome features.
"I cannot give you any logical reasons," he said. "Moreover, logical reasoning would not now affect me in a matter which seems to me more full of conviction than any logic. I believe, ... simply because I believe!"
Heliobas smiled—a very warm and kindly smile—but said nothing, and Alwyn resumed his narrative.
"As I tell you, I was caught up,—snatched out of that black profundity with inconceivable swiftness,—and when the ascending movement ceased, I found myself floating lightly like a wind-blown leaf through twining arches of amber mist, colored here and there with rays of living flame ... I heard whispers, and fragments of song and speech, all sweeter than the sweetest of our known music, ... and still I saw nothing. Presently some one called me by name —'THEOS! ... THEOS!' I strove to answer, but I had no words wherewith to match that silver-toned, far-reaching utterance; and once again the rich vibrating notes pealed through the vaporous fire-tinted air—'THEOS, MY BELOVED! HIGHER! ... HIGHER! ... All my being thrilled and quivered to that call. I yearned to obey, ... I struggled to rise—my efforts were in vain; when, to my joy and wonder, a small, invisible hand, delicate yet strong, clasped mine, and I was borne aloft with breathless, indescribable, lightning-like rapidity—on ... on ... and ever upward, till at last, alighting on a smooth, fair turf, thick-grown with fragrant blossoms of strange loveliness and soft hues, I beheld Her! ... and she bade me welcome."
"And who," questioned Heliobas, in tones of hushed reverence, "Who was this Being that thus enchants your memory?"
"I know not!" replied Alwyn, with a dreamy smile of rapture on his lips and in his eyes. "And yet her face ... oh! the entrancing beauty of that face! ... was not altogether unfamiliar. I felt that I must have loved and lost her ages upon ages ago! Crowned with white flowers, and robed in a garb that seemed spun from midsummer moonbeams, she stood ... a smiling Maiden-Sweetness in a paradise of glad sights and sounds, ... ah! Eve, with the first sunrise radiance on her brows, was not more divinely fair! ... Venus, new-springing from the silver sea-foam, was not more queenly glorious! 'I WILL REMIND THEE OF ALL THOU HAST FORGOTTEN,' she said, and I understood her soft, half-reproachful accents. 'IT IS NOT YET TOO LATE! THOU HAST LOST MUCH AND SUFFERED MUCH, AND THOU HAST BLINDLY ERRED, BUT NOTWITHSTANDING ALL THESE THINGS, THOU ART MY BELOVED SINCE THESE MANY THOUSAND DAYS!'"
"Days—which the world counts as years!" murmured Heliobas. "You saw no one but her?"
"No one—we were alone together. A vast woodland stretched before us, she took my hand and led me beneath broad-arching trees to where a lake, silvered by some strange radiance, glittered diamond-like in the stirring of a balmy wind. Here she bade me rest—and sank gently on the flowery bank beside me. Then viewing her more closely I greatly feared her beauty—for I saw a wondrous halo wide and dazzling—a golden aureole that spread itself around her in scintillating points of light—light that reflected itself also on me and bathed me in its luminous splendor. And as I gazed at her in speechless awe, she leaned toward me nearer and nearer, her deep, pure eyes burning softly into mine ... her hands touched me—her arms closed round me ... her bright head lay in all its shining loveliness on my breast! A tremulous ecstasy thrilled me as with fire ... I gazed upon her as one might gaze on some fluttering, rare-plumaged bird ... I dare not move or speak ... I drank her sweetness down into my soul! Now and then a sound as of distant harps playing broke the love-weighted silence ... and thus we remained together a heavenly breathing-space of wordless rapture; till suddenly and swiftly, as though she had received an invisible summons, she arose, her looks expressing a saintly patience, and laying her two hands upon my brows—'Write,' she said, 'WRITE AND PROCLAIM A MESSAGE OF HOPE TO THE SORROWFUL STAR! WRITE AND LET THINE UTTERANCE BE A TRUE ECHO OF THE ETERNAL MUSIC WITH WHICH THESE SPHERES ARE FILLED! WRITE TO THE RHYTHMIC BEAT OF THE HARMONIES WITHIN THEE ... FOR LO! ONCE MORE AS IN AFORETIME MY CHANGELESS LOVE RENEWS IN THEE THE POWER OF PERFECT SONG!' With that she moved away serenely and beckoned me to follow ... I obeyed in haste and trembling ... long rays of rosy light swept after her like trailing wings, and as she walked, the golden nimbus round her form glowed with a thousand brilliant and changeful hues like the rainbows seen in the spray of falling water! Through lush green grass thick with blossom,—under groves heavy with fragrant leaves and laden with the songs of birds ... over meadows cool and mountain-sheltered, on we went—she, like the goddess of advancing Spring, I eagerly treading in her radiant footsteps ... and presently we came to a place where two paths met, ... one all overgrown with azure and white flowers, that ascended away and away into undiscerned distance, ... the other sloping deeply downward, and full of shadows, yet dimly illumined by a pale, mysterious splendor like frosty moonlight streaming on sad-colored seas. Here she turned and faced me, and I saw her divine eyes droop with the moisture of unshed tears. 'THEOS! ... THEOS!' ... she cried, and the passionate cadence of her voice was as the singing of a nightingale in lonely woodlands ... 'AGAIN ... AGAIN WE MUST PART! ... PART! ... OH, MY BELOVED! ... MY BELOVED! HOW LONG WILT THOU SEVER ME FROM THY SOUL AND LEAVE ME ALONE AND SORROWFUL AMID THE JOYS OF HEAVEN?' As she thus spoke a sense of utter shame and loss and failure overwhelmed me, ... pierced to the very core of my being by an unexplained yet most bitter remorse, I cast myself down in deep abasement before her, ... I caught her glittering robe ... I strove to say 'Forgive!' but I was speechless as a convicted traitor in the presence of a wronged queen! All at once the air about us was rent by a great noise of thunder intermingled with triumphal music,—she drew her sheeny garment from my touch in haste, and stooping to me where I knelt, she kissed my forehead ... 'THY ROAD LIES THERE'—she murmured in quick, soft tones, pointing to the vista of varying light and shadow,—'MINE, YONDER!' and she looked toward the flower- garlanded avenue—'HASTEN! ... IT IS TIME THOU WERT FAR HENCE! ... RETURN TO THINE OWN STAR LEST ITS PORTALS BE CLOSED ON THEE FOREVER AND THOU BE PLUNGED INTO DEEPER DARKNESS! SEEK THOU THE FIELD OF ARDATH!—AS CHRIST LIVES, I WILL MEET THEE THERE! FAREWELL!' With these words she left me, passing away, arrayed in glory, treading on flowers, and ever ascending till she disappeared! ... while I, stricken with a great repentance, went slowly, as she bade me, down into the shadow, and a rippling breeze-like melody, as of harps and lutes most tenderly attuned, followed me as I descended. And now," said Alwyn, interrupting his narrative and speaking with emphatic decision, "surely there remains but one thing for me to do—that is, to find the 'Field of Ardath.'"
Heliobas smiled gravely. "Nay, if you consider the whole episode a dream," he observed, "why trouble yourself? Dreams are seldom realized, ... and as to the name of Ardath, have you ever heard it before?"
"Never!" replied Alwyn. "Still—if there is such a place on this planet I will most certainly journey thither! Maybe YOU know something of its whereabouts?"
"Finish your story," said Heliobas, quietly evading the question. "I am curious to hear the end of your strange adventure."
"There is not much more to tell," and Alwyn sighed a little as he spoke. "I wandered further and further into the gloom, oppressed by many thoughts and troubled by vague fears, till presently it grew so dark that I could scarcely see where I was going, though I was able to guide myself in the path that stretched before me by means of the pale luminous rays that frequently pierced the deepening obscurity, and these rays I now noticed fell ever downwards in the form of a cross. As I went on I was pursued as it were by the sound of those delicate harmonies played on invisible, sweet strings; and after a while I perceived at the extreme end of the long, dim vista a door standing open, through which I entered and found myself alone in a quiet room. Here I sat down to rest,— the melody of the distant harps and lutes still floated in soft echoes on the silence ... and presently words came breaking through the music, like buds breaking from their surrounding leaves.. words that I was compelled to write down as quickly as I heard them ... and I wrote on and on, obeying that symphonious and rhythmical dictation with a sense of growing ease and pleasure, ... when all suddenly a dense darkness overcame me, followed by a gradual dawning gray and golden light ... the words dispersed into fragmentary half-syllables ... the music died away, ... I started up amazed ... to find myself here! ... here in this monastery of Lars, listening to the chanting of the Angelus!"
He ceased, and looked wistfully out through the window at the white encircling rim of the opposite snow-mountains, now bathed in the full splendor of noon. Heliobas advanced and laid one hand kindly on his shoulder. ...
"And do not forget," he said, "that you have brought with you from the higher regions a Poem that will in all probability make your fame! 'Fame! fame! next grandest word to God!' ... so wrote one of your craft, and no doubt you echo the sentiment! Have you not desired to blazon your name on the open scroll of the world? Well! ... now you can have your wish—the world waits to receive your signature!"
"That is all very well!" and Alwyn smiled rather dubiously as he glanced at the manuscript on the table beside him. "But the question is,—considering how it was written,—can I, dare I call this poem MINE?"
"Most assuredly you can," returned Heliobas. "Though your hesitation is a worthy one, and as rare as it is worthy. Well would it be for all poets and artists were they to pause thus, and consider before rashly calling their work their own! Self- appreciation is the death-blow of genius. The poem is as much yours as your life is yours—no more and no less. In brief, you have recovered your lost inspiration; the lately dumb oracle speaks again:—and are you not satisfied?"
"No!" said Alwyn quickly, with a sudden brightening of his eyes as he met the keenly searching glance that accompanied this question. "No! for I love! ... and the desire of love burns in me as ardently as the desire of fame!" He paused, and in quieter tones continued, "You see I speak freely and frankly to you as though— ," and he laughed a little, "as though I were a good Catholic, and you my father-confessor! Good heavens! if some of the men I know in London were to hear me, they would think me utterly crazed! But craze or no craze, I feel I shall never be satisfied now till I find out whether there IS anywhere is the world a place called Ardath. Can you, will you help me in the search? I am almost ashamed to ask you, for you have already done so much for me, and I really owe to your wonderful power my trance or soul-liberty, or whatever it may be called. ..."
"You owe me nothing," interposed Heliobas calmly, "not even thanks. Your own will accomplished your freedom, and I am not responsible for either your departure or your return. It was a predestined occurrence, yet perfectly scientific and easy of explanation. Your inward force attracted mine down upon you in one strong current, with the result that your Spirit instantly parted asunder from your body, and in that released condition you experienced what you have described. But I had no, more to do with that experience than I shall have with your journey to the 'field of Ardath,' should you decide to go there."
"There IS an Ardath then!" cried Alwyn excitedly.
Heliobas eyed him with something of scorn. "Naturally! Are you still so much of a sceptic that you think an ANGEL would have bidden you seek a place that had no existence? Oh, yes! I see you are inclined to treat your ethereal adventure as a mere dream,— but I know it was a reality, more real than anything in this present world." And turning to the loaded bookshelves he took down a large volume, and spread it open on the table.
"You know this book?" he asked.
Alwyn glanced at it. "The Bible! Of course!" he replied indifferently. "Everybody knows it!"
"Pardon!" and Heliobas smiled. "It would be more correct to say nobody knows it. To read is not always to understand. There are meanings and mysteries in it which have never yet been penetrated, and which only the highest and most spiritually gifted intellects can ever hope to unravel. Now" ... and he turned over the pages carefully till he came to the one he sought, "I think there is something here that will interest you—listen!" and he read aloud, "'The Angel Uriel came unto me and said: Go into a field of flowers where no house is builded and eat only the flowers of the field—taste no flesh, drink no wine, but eat flowers only. And pray unto the Highest continually, and then will I come and talk to thee. So I went my way into the field which is called ARDATH, ... '"
"The very place!" exclaimed Alwyn, eagerly bending over the sacred book; then drawing back with a gesture of disappointment he added, "But you are reading from Esdras, the Apocrypha! an utterly unreliable source of information!"
"On the contrary, as reliable as any history ever written," rejoined Heliobas calmly. "Study it for yourself, ... you will see that the prophet was at that time resident in Babylon; the field he mentions was near the city ..."
"Yes—WAS!" interrupted Alwyn incredulously.
"Was and IS," continued Heliobas. "No earthquake has crumbled it, no sea has invaded it, and no house has been 'builded' thereon. It is, as it was then, a waste field, lying about four miles west of the Babylonian ruins, and there is nothing whatever to hinder you from journeying thither when you please."
Alwyn's expression as he heard this was one of stupefied amazement. Part of his so-called "dream" had already proved itself true—a "field of Ardath" actually existed!
"You are certain of what you say?" he demanded.
"Positively certain!" returned Heliobas.
There was a silence, during which a little tinkling bell resounded in the outer corridor, followed by the tread of sandaled feet on the stone pavement. Heliobas closed the Bible and returned it to its shelf.
"That was the dinner-bell," he announced cheerfully. "Will you accompany me to the refectory, Mr. Alwyn? ... we can talk further of this matter afterwards." Alwyn roused himself from the fit of abstraction into which he had fallen, and gathering together the loose sheets of his so strangely written manuscript, he arranged them all in an orderly heap without speaking. Then he looked up and met the earnest eyes of Heliobas with an expression of settled resolve in his own.
"I shall set out for Babylon to-morrow," he said quietly. "As well go there as anywhere! ... and on the result of my journey I shall stake my future! In the mean time—" He hesitated, then suddenly extending his hand with a frank grace that became him well," In spite of my brusquerie last night, I trust we are friends?"
"Why, most assuredly we are!" returned Heliobas, heartily pressing the proffered palm. "You had your doubts of me and you have them still; but what of that! I take no offence at unbelief. I pity those who suffer from its destroying influence too profoundly to find room in my heart for anger. Moreover, I never try to convert anybody. ... it is so much more satisfactory when sceptics convert themselves, as you are unconsciously doing! Come, ... shall we join the brethren?"
Over Alwyn's face flitted a transient shade of uneasiness and hauteur.
"I would rather they knew nothing about all this," he began.
"Make your mind quite easy on that score," rejoined Heliobas. "None of my companions here are aware of your recent departure, except my very old personal friend Hilarion, who, with myself, saw your body while in its state of temporary death. But he is one of those remarkably rare wise men who know when it is best to be silent; then again, he is ignorant as to the results of your soul- transmigration, and will, as far as I am concerned, remain in ignorance. Your confidence I assure you is perfectly safe with me —as safe as though it had been received under the sacred seal of confession."
With this understanding Alwyn seemed relieved and satisfied, and thereupon they left the apartment together.
"NOURHALMA" AND THE ORIGINAL ESDRAS.
Later on in the afternoon of the same day, when the sun, poised above the western mountain-range, appeared to be lazily looking about him with a drowsy, golden smile of farewell before descending to his rest, Alwyn was once more alone in the library. Twilight shadows were already gathering in the corners of the long, low room, but he had moved the writing-table to the window, in order to enjoy the magnificence of the surrounding scenery, and sat where the light fell full upon his face as he leaned back in his chair, with his hands clasped behind his head, in an attitude of pleased, half-meditative indolence. He had just finished reading from beginning to end the poem he had composed in his trance ... there was not a line in it he could have wished altered,—not a word that would have been better omitted,—the only thing it lacked was a title, and this was the question on which he now pondered. The subject of the poem itself was not new to him—it was a story he had known from boyhood, ... an old Eastern love-legend, fantastically beautiful as many such legends are, full of grace and passionate fervor—a theme fitted for the nightingale-utterance of a singer like the Persian Hafiz—though even Hafiz would have found it difficult to match the exquisitely choice language and delicately ringing rhythm in which this quaint idyll of long past ages was now most perfectly set like a jewel in fine gold. Alwyn himself entirely realized the splendid literary value of the composition—he knew that nothing more artistic in conception or more finished in treatment had appeared since the St. Agnes Eve of Keats—and as he thought of this, he yielded to a growing sense of self-complacent satisfaction which gradually destroyed all the deeply devout humility he had at first felt concerning the high and mysterious origin of his inspiration. The old inherent pride of his nature reasserted itself—he reviewed all the circumstances of his "trance" in the most practical manner—and calling to mind how the poet Coleridge had improvised the delicious fragment of Kubla Khan in a dream, he began to see nothing so very remarkable in his own unconscious production of a complete poem while under mesmeric or magnetic influences.
"After all," he mused, "the matter is simple enough when one reasons it out. I have been unable to write anything worth writing for a long time, and I told Heliobas as much. He, knowing my apathetic condition of brain, employed his force accordingly, though he denies having done so, ... and this poem is evidently the result of my long pent-up thoughts that struggled for utterance yet could not before find vent in words. The only mysterious part of the affair is this 'Field of Ardath,' ... how its name haunts me! ... and how HER face shines before the eyes of my memory! That SHE should be a phantom of my own creation seems impossible—for when have I, even in my wildest freaks of fancy, ever imagined a creature half so fair!"
His gaze rested dreamily on the opposite snow-clad peaks, above which large fleecy clouds, themselves like moving mountains, were slowly passing, their edges glowing with purple and gold as they neared the sinking sun. Presently rousing himself, he took up a pen and first of all addressing an envelope to
"THE HONBLE. FRANCIS VILLIERS, "Constitutional Club, "LONDON"
he rapidly wrote off the following letter:
"MONASTERY OF LARS, "PASS OF DARIEL, CAUCASUS."
"MY DEAR VILLIERS:—Start not at the above address! I am not yet vowed to perpetual seclusion, silence or celibacy! That I of all men in the world should be in a Monastery will seem to you, who know my prejudices, in the last degree absurd—nevertheless here I am,—though here I do not remain, as it is my fixed intention to- morrow at daybreak to depart straightway from hence en route for the supposed site and ruins of Babylon. Yes,—Babylon! why not? Perished greatness has always been a more interesting subject of contemplation to me than existing littleness—and I dare say I shall wander among the tumuli of the ancient fallen city with more satisfaction than in the hot, humanity-packed streets of London, Paris, or Vienna—all destined to become tumuli in their turn. Moreover. I am on the track of an adventure,—on the search for a new sensation, having tried nearly all the old ones and found them NIL. You know my nomadic and restless disposition ... perhaps there is something of the Greek gipsy about me—a craving for constant change of scene and surroundings,—however, as my absence from you and England is likely to be somewhat prolonged, I send you in the mean time a Poem—there! 'Season your admiration for a while,' and hear me out patiently. I am perfectly aware of all you would say concerning the utter folly and uselessness of writing poetry at all in this present age of milk-and-watery-literature, shilling sensationals, and lascivious society dramas,—and I have a very keen recollection too of the way in which my last book was maltreated by the entire press—good heavens! how the critics yelped like dogs about my heels, snapping, sniffing, and snarling! I could have wept then like the sensitive fool I was. ... I can laugh now! In brief, my friend—for you ARE my friend and the best of all possible good fellows—I have made up my mind to conquer those that have risen against me—to break through the ranks of pedantic and pre-conceived opinions—and to climb the heights of fame, regardless of the little popular pipers of tame verso that obstruct my path and blow their tin whistles in the public ears to drown, if possible, my song. I WILL be heard! ... and to this end I pin my faith on the work I now transmit to your care. Have it published immediately and in the best style—I will cover all expenses. Advertise sufficiently, yet with becoming modesty, for 'puffery' is a thing I heartily despise,—and were the whole press to turn round and applaud me as much as it has hitherto abused and ridiculed me, I would not have one of its penny lines of condescendingly ignorant approval quoted in connection with what must be a perfectly unostentatious and simple announcement of this new production from my pen. The manuscript is exceptionally clear, even for me who do not as a male write a very bad scrawl—so that you can scarcely have much bother with the proof-correcting—though even were this the case, and the printers turned out to be incorrigible blockheads and blunderers, I know you would grudge neither time nor trouble expended in my service. Good Frank Villiers! how much I owe you!—and yet I willingly incur another debt of gratitude by placing this matter in your hands, and am content to borrow more of your friendship, but only believe me, in order to repay it again with the truest interest! By the way, do you remember when we visited the last Paris Salon together, how fascinated we were by one picture—the head of a monk whose eyes looked out like a veritable illumination from under the folds of a drooping white cowl? ... and on referring to our catalogues we found it described as the portrait of one 'Heliobas,' an Eastern mystic, a psychist formerly well known in Paris, but since retired into monastic life? Well! I have discovered him here; he is apparently the Superior or chief of this Order—though what Order it is and when founded is more than I can tell. There are fifteen monks altogether, living contentedly in this old, half-ruined habitation among the barren steeps of the frozen Caucasus,—splendid, princely looking fellows all of them, Heliobas himself being an exceptionally fine specimen of his race. I have just dined with the whole community, and have been fairly astonished by the fluent brilliancy and wit of their conversation. They speak all languages. English included, and no subject comes amiss to them, for they are familiar with the latest political situations in all countries,—they know all about the newest scientific discoveries (which, by-the-by, they smile at blandly, as though these last were mere child's play), and they discuss our modern social problems and theories with a Socratic-like incisiveness and composure such as our parliamentary howlers would do well to imitate. Their doctrine is.. but I will not bore you by a theological disquisition,—enough to say it is founded on Christianity, and that at present I don't quite know what to make of it! And now, my dear Villiers, farewell! An answer to this is unnecessary; besides I can give you no address, as it is uncertain where I shall be for the next two or three months. If I don't get as much pleasure as I anticipate from the contemplation of the Babylonian ruins, I shall probably take up my abode in Bagdad for a time and try to fancy myself back in the days of 'good Haroun Alrascheed'. At any rate, whatever becomes of me, I know I have entrusted my Poem to safe hands—and all I ask of you is that it may be brought out with the least possible delay,—for its IMMEDIATE PUBLICATION seems to me just now the most vitally important thing in the world, except ... except the adventure on which I am at present engaged, of which more hereafter, ... when we meet. Until then think as well of me as you can, and believe me "Ever and most truly your friend, "THEOS ALWYN."
This letter finished, folded, and sealed, Alwyn once more took up his manuscript and meditated anew concerning its title. Stay! ... why not call it by the name of the ideal heroine whose heart- passion and sorrow formed the nucleus of the legend? ... a name that he in very truth was all unconscious of having chosen, but which occurred frequently with musical persistence throughout the entire poem. "NOURHALMA!" ... it had a soft sound ... it seemed to breathe of Eastern languor and love-singing,—it was surely the best title he could have. Straightway deciding thereon, he wrote it clearly at the top of the first page, thus: "Nourhalma; A Love Legend of the Past," ... then turning to the end, he signed his own name with a bold flourish, thus attesting his indisputable right to the authorship of what was not only destined to be the most famous poetical masterpiece of the day, but was also to prove the most astonishing, complex, and humiliating problem ever suggested to his brain. Carefully numbering the pages, he folded them in a neat packet, which he tied strongly and sealed—then addressing it to his friend, he put letter and packet together, and eyed them both somewhat wistfully, feeling that with them went his great chance of immortal Fame. Immortal Fame!—what a grand vista of fair possibilities those words unveiled to his imagination! Lost in pleasant musings, he looked out again on the landscape. The sun had sunk behind the mountains so far, that nothing was left of his glowing presence but a golden rim from which great glittering rays spread upward, like lifted lances poised against the purple and roseate clouds. A slight click caused by the opening of the door disturbed his reverie,—he turned round in his chair, and half rose from it as Heliobas entered, carrying a small richly chased silver casket.
"Ah, good Heliobas! here you are at last," he said with a smile. "I began to think you were never coming. My correspondence is finished,—and, as you see, my poem is addressed to England—where I pray it may meet with a better fate than has hitherto attended my efforts!"
"You PRAY?" queried Heliobas, meaningly, "or you HOPE? There is a difference between the two."
"I suppose there is," he returned nonchalantly. "And certainly—to be correct—I should have said I HOPE, for I never pray. What have you there?"—this as Heliobas set the casket he carried down on the table before him. "A reliquary? And is it supposed to contain a fragment of the true cross? Alas! I cannot believe in these fragments,—there are too many of them!"
Heliobas laughed gently.
"You are right! Moreover, not a single splinter of the true cross is in existence. It was, like other crosses then in general use, thrown aside as lumber,—and had rotted away into the earth long before the Empress Helena started on her piously crazed wanderings. No, I have nothing of that sort in here,"—and taking a key from a small chain that hung at his girdle he unlocked the casket. "This has been in the possession of the various members of our Order for ages,—it is our chief treasure, and is seldom, I may say never, shown to strangers,—but the mystic mandate you have received concerning the 'field of Ardath' entitles you to see what I think must needs prove interesting to you under the circumstances." And opening the box he lifted out a small square volume bound in massive silver and double-clasped. "This," he went on, "is the original text of a portion of the 'Visions of Esdras,' and dates from the thirteenth year after the downfall of Babylon's commercial prosperity."
Alwyn uttered an exclamation of incredulous amazement. "Not possible!" he cried. ... then he added eagerly, "May I look at it?"
Silently Heliobas placed it in his outstretched hand. As he undid the clasps a faint odor like that of long dead rose-leaves came like a breath on the air, ... he opened it, and saw that its pages consisted of twelve moderately thick sheets of ivory, which were covered all over with curious small characters finely engraved thereon by some evidently sharp and well-pointed instrument. These letters were utterly unknown to Alwyn: he had seen nothing like them in any of the ancient tongues, and he examined them perplexedly.
"What language is this?" he asked at last, looking up. "It is not Hebrew—nor yet Sanskrit—nor does it resemble any of the discovered forms of hieroglyphic writing. Can YOU understand it?"
"Perfectly!" returned Heliobas. "If I could not, then much of the wisdom and science of past ages would be closed to my researches. It is the language once commonly spoken by certain great nations which existed long before the foundations of Babylon were laid. Little by little it fell into disuse, till it was only kept up among scholars and sages, and in time became known only as 'the language of prophecy.' When Esdras wrote his Visions they were originally divided into two hundred and four books,—and, as you will see by referring to what is now called the Apocrypha,[Footnote: Vide 2 Esdras xiv.44-48.] he was commanded to publish them all openly to the 'worthy and unworthy' all except the 'seventy last,' which were to be delivered solely to such as were 'wise among the people.' Thus one hundred and thirty-four were written in the vulgar tongue,—the remaining seventy in the 'language of prophecy,' for the use of deeply learned and scientific men alone. The volume you hold is one of those seventy."
"How did you come by it?" asked Alwyn, curiously turning the book over and over.
"How did our Order come by it, you mean," said Heliobas. "Very simply. Chaldean fraternities existed in the time of Esdras, and to the supreme Chief of these, Esdras himself delivered it. You look dubious, but I assure you it is quite authentic,—we have its entire history up to date."
"Then are you all Chaldeans here?"
"Not all—but most of us. Three of the brethren are Egyptians, and two are natives of Damascus. The rest are, like myself, descendants of a race supposed to have perished from off the face of the earth, yet still powerful to a degree undreamed of by the men of this puny age."
Alwyn gave an upward glance at the speaker's regal form—a glance of genuine admiration.
"As far as that goes," he said, with a frank laugh, "I'm quite willing to believe you and your companions are kings in disguise, —you all have that appearance! But regarding this book,"—and again he turned over the silver-bound relic—"if its authenticity can be proved, as you say, why, the British Museum would give, ah! ... let me see!—it would give ..."
"Nothing!" declared Heliobas quietly, "believe me, nothing! The British Government would no doubt accept it as a gift, just as it would with equal alacrity accept the veritable signature of Homer, which we also possess in another retreat of ours on the Isle of Lemnos. But our treasures are neither for giving nor selling, and with respect to this original 'Esdras,' it will certainly never pass out of our hands."
"And what of the other missing sixty-nine books?" asked Alwyn.
"They may possibly be somewhere in the world,—two of them, I know, were buried in the coffin of one of the last princes of Chaldea,—perhaps they will be unearthed some day. There is also a rumor to the effect that Esdras engraved his 'Last Prophecy' on a small oval tablet of pure jasper, which he himself secreted, no one knows where. But to come to the point of immediate issue, ... shall I find out and translate for you the allusions to the 'field of Ardath' contained in this present volume?"
"Do!" said Alwyn, eagerly, at once returning the book to Heliobas, who, seating himself at the table, began carefully looking over its ivory pages—"I am all impatience! Even without the vision I have had, I should still feel a desire to see this mysterious Field for its own sake,—it must have some very strange associations to be worth specifying in such a particular manner!"
Heliobas answered nothing—he was entirely occupied in examining the small, closely engraved characters in which the ancient record was written; the crimson afterglow of the now descended sun flared through the window and sent a straight, rosy ray on his bent head and white robes, lighting to a more lustrous brilliancy the golden cross and jeweled star on his breast, and flashing round the silver clasps of the time-honored relic before him. Presently he looked up...
"Here we have it!" and he placed his finger on one especial passage—it reads as follows:
"'And the Angel bade me enter a waste field, and the field was barren and dry save of herbs, and the name of the field was ARDATH.
"'And I wandered therein through the hours of the long night, and the silver eyes of the field did open before me and I saw signs and wonders:
"'And I heard a voice crying aloud, Esdras, Esdras.
"'And I arose and stood on my feet and listened and refrained not till I heard the voice again.
"'Which said unto me, Behold the field thou thoughtest barren, how great a glory hath the moon unveiled!
"'And I beheld and was sore amazed: for I was no longer myself but another.
"'And the sword of death was in that other's soul, and yet that other was but myself in pain;
"'And I knew not those things that were once familiar,—and my heart failed within me for very fear.
"'And the voice cried aloud again saying: Hide thee from the perils of the past and the perils of the future, for a great and terrible thing is come upon thee, against which thy strength is as a reed in the wind and thy thoughts as flying sand ...
"' [Footnote: See 2 Esdras x. 30-32.] And, lo, I lay as one that had been dead and mine understanding was taken from me. And he (the Angel) took me by the right hand and comforted me and set me upon my feet and said unto me:
"'What aileth thee? and why art thou so disquieted? and why is thine understanding troubled and the thoughts of thine heart?
"'And I said, Because thou hast forsaken me and yet I did according to thy words, and I went into the field and lo! I have seen and yet see that I am not able to express.'"
Here Heliobas paused, having read the last sentence with peculiarly impressive emphasis.
"That is all"—he said—"I see no more allusions to the name of Ardath. The last three verses are the same as those in the accepted Apocrypha."
AN UNDESIRED BLESSING.
Alwyn had listened with an absorbed yet somewhat mystified air of attention.
"The venerable Esdras was certainly a poet in his own way!" he remarked lightly. "There is something very fascinating about the rhythm of his lines, though I confess I don't grasp their meaning. Still, I should like to have them all the same,—will you let me write them out just as you have translated them?"
Willingly assenting to this, Heliobas read the extract over again, Alwyn taking down the words from his dictation.
"Perhaps," he then added musingly, "perhaps it would be as well to copy a few passages from the Apocrypha also."
Whereupon the Bible was brought into requisition, and the desired quotations made, consisting of verses xxiv. to xxvi. in the [Footnote: The reader is requested to refer to the parts of "Esdras" here indicated.] ninth chapter of the Second Book of Esdras, and verses xxv. to xxvi. in the tenth chapter of the same. This done, Heliobas closed and clasped the original text of the Prophet's work and returned it to its casket; then addressing his guest in a kindly, yet serious tone, he said: "You are quite resolved to undertake this journey, Mr. Alwyn?"
Alwyn looked dreamily out of the window at the flame of the sunset hues reflected from the glowing sky on the white summit of the mountains.
"Yes, ... I ... I think so!" The answer had a touch of indecision in it.
"In that case," resumed Heliobas, "I have prepared a letter of introduction for you to one of our Order known as Elzear of Melyana,—he is a recluse, and his hermitage is situated close to the Babylonian ruins. You will find rest and shelter there after the fatigues of travel. I have also traced out a map of the district, and the exact position of the field you seek, . . here it is," and he laid a square piece of parchment on the table; "you can easily perceive at a glance how the land lies. There are a few directions written at the back, so I think you will have no difficulty. This is the letter to Elzear,"—here he held out a folded paper—"will you take it now?"
Alwyn received it with a dubious smile, and eyed the donor as if he rather suspected the sincerity of his intentions.
"Thanks very much!" he murmured listlessly. "You are exceedingly good to make it all such plain sailing for me,—and yet ... to be quite frank with you, I can't help thinking I am going on a fool's errand!"
"If that is your opinion, why go at all?" queried Heliobas, with a slight disdain in his accents. "Return to England instead—forget the name of 'Ardath,' and forget also the one who bade you meet her there, and who has waited for you 'these many thousand days!'"
Alwyn started as if he had been stung.
"Ah!" he exclaimed. "If I could be certain of seeing her again! ... if ... good God! the idea seems absurd! ... if that Flower- Crowned Wonder of my dream should actually fulfill her promise and keep her tryst ..."
"Well!" demanded Heliobas—"If so, what then?"
"Well then I will believe in anything!" he cried—"No miracle will seem miraculous.. no impossibility impossible!"
Heliobas sighed, and regarded him thoughtfully.
"You THINK you will believe!" he said somewhat sadly—"But doubts such as yours are not easily dispelled. Angels have ere now descended to men, men have neither received nor recognized them. Angels walk by our side through crowded cities and lonely woodlands,—they watch us when we sleep, they hear us when we pray, ... and yet the human eye sees nothing save the material objects within reach of its vision, and is not very sure of those, while it can no more discern the spiritual presences than it can without a microscope discern the lovely living creatures contained in a drop of dew or a ray of sunshine. Our earthly sight is very limited—it can neither perceive the infinitely little nor the infinitely great. And it is possible,—nay, it is most probable, that even as Peter of old denied his Divine Master, so you, if brought face to face with the Angel of your last night's experience, would deny and endeavor to disprove her identity."
"Never!" declared Alwyn, with a passionate gesture—"I should know her among a thousand!"
For one instant Heliobas bent upon him a sudden, searching, almost pitiful glance, then withdrawing his gaze he said gently:
"Well, well! let us hope for the best—God's ways are inscrutable —and you tell me that now—now after your strange so-called 'vision'—you believe in God?"
"I did say so, certainly..." and Alwyn's face flushed a little.. "but..."
"Ah! ... you hesitate! there is a 'but' in the case!" and Heliobas turned upon him with a grand reproach in his brilliant eyes.. "Already stepping backward on the road! ... already rushing once again into the darkness! ..." He paused, then laying one hand on the young man's shoulder, continued in mild yet impressive accents: "My friend, remember that the doubter and opposer of God, is also the doubter and opposer of his own well-being. Let this unnatural and useless combat of Human Reason, against Divine Instinct cease within you—you, who as a poet are bound to EQUALIZE your nature that it may the more harmoniously fulfil its high commission. You know what one of your modern writers says of life? ... that it is a 'Dream in which we clutch at shadows as though they were substances, and sleep deepest when fancying ourselves most awake.'[Footnote: Carlyle's Sartor Resartus.] Believe me, YOU have slept long enough—it is time you awoke to the full realization of your destinies."
Alwyn heard in silence, feeling inwardly rebuked and half ashamed —the earnestly spoken words moved him more than he cared to show— his head drooped—he made no reply. After all, he thought, he had really no more substantial foundation for his unbelief than others had for their faith. With all his studies in the modern schools of science, he was not a whit more advanced in learning than Democritus of old—Democritus who based his system of morals on the severest mathematical lines, taking as his starting-point a vacuum and atoms, and who after stretching his intellect on a constant rack of searching inquiry for years, came at last to the unhappy conclusion that man is absolutely incapable of positive knowledge, and that even if truth is in his possession he can never be certain of it. Was he, Theos Alwyn, wiser than Democritus? ... or was this stately Chaldean monk, with the clear, pathetic eyes and tender smile, and the symbol of Christ on his breast, wiser than both? ... wiser in the wisdom of eternal things than any of the subtle-minded ancient Greek philosophers or modern imitators of their theories? Was there, COULD there be something not yet altogether understood or fathomed in the Christian creed? ... as this idea occurred to him he looked up and met his companion's calm gaze fixed upon him with a watchful gentleness and patience.
"Are you reading my thoughts, Heliobas?" he asked, with a forced laugh. "I assure you they are not worth the trouble."
Heliobas smiled, but made no answer. Just then one of the monks entered the room with a large lighted lamp, which he set on the table, and the conversation thus interrupted was not again resumed.
The evening shadows were now closing in rapidly, and already above the furthest visible snow-peak the first risen star sparkled faintly in the darkening sky. Soon the vesper bell began ringing as it had rung on the previous night when Alwyn, newly arrived, had sat alone in the refectory, listlessly wondering what manner of men he had come amongst, and what would be the final result of his adventure into the wilds of Caucasus. His feelings had certainly undergone some change since then, inasmuch as he was no longer disposed to ridicule or condemn religious sentiment, though he was nearly as far from actually believing in Religion itself as ever. The attitude of his mind was still distinctly skeptical—the immutable pride of what he considered his own firmly rooted convictions was only very slightly shaken—and he now even viewed the prospect of his journey to the "field of Ardath" as a mere fantastic whim—a caprice of his own fancy which he chose to gratify just for the sake of curiosity.
But notwithstanding the stubbornness of the materialistic principles with which he had become imbued, his higher instincts were, unconsciously to himself, beginning to be aroused—his memory involuntarily wandered back to the sweet, fresh days of his earliest manhood before the poison of Doubt had filtered through his soul—his character, naturally of the lofty, imaginative, and ardent cast, re-asserted its native force over the blighting blow of blank Atheism which had for a time paralyzed its efforts—and as he unwittingly yielded more and more to the mild persuasions of these genial influences, so the former Timon-like bitterness of his humor gradually softened. There was no trace in him now of the dark, ironic, and reckless scorn that, before his recent visionary experience, had distinguished his whole manner and bearing—the smile came more readily to his lips—and he seemed content for the present to display the sunny side of his nature—a nature impassioned, frank, generous, and noble, in spite of the taint of overweening, ambitions egotism which somewhat warped its true quality and narrowed the range of its sympathies. In his then frame of mind, a curious, vague sense of half-pleasurable penitence was upon him,—delicate, undefined, almost devotional suggestions stirred his thoughts with the refreshment that a cool wind brings to parched and drooping flowers,—so that when Heliobas, taking up the silver "Esdras" reliquary and preparing to leave the apartment in response to the vesper summons, said gently, "Will you attend our service, Mr. Alwyn?" he assented at once, with a pleased alacrity which somewhat astonished himself as he remembered how, on the previous evening, he had despised and inwardly resented all forms of religious observance.
However, he did not stop to consider the reason of his altered mood, . . he followed the monks into chapel with an air of manly grace and quiet reverence that became him much better than the offensive and defensive demeanor he had erewhile chosen to assume in the same prayer-hallowed place,—he listened to the impressive ceremonial from beginning to end without the least fatigue or impatience,—and though when the brethren knelt, he could not humble himself so far as to kneel also, he still made a slight concession to appearances by sitting down and keeping his head in a bent posture—"out of respect for the good intentions of these worthy men," as he told himself, to silence the inner conflict of his own opposing and contradictory sensations. The service concluded, he waited as before to see the monks pass out, and was smitten with a sudden surprise, compunction, and regret, when Heliobas, who walked last as usual, paused where he stood, and confronted him, saying:
"I will bid you farewell here, my friend! ... I have many things to do this evening, and it is best I should see you no more before your departure."
"Why?" asked Alwyn astonished—"I had hoped for another conversation with you."
"To what purpose!" inquired Heliobas mildly. "That I should assert ... and you deny ... facts that God Himself will prove in His own way and at His own appointed time? Nay, we should do no good by further arguments."
"But," stammered Alwyn hastily, flushing hotly as he spoke, "you give me no chance to thank you ... to express my gratitude."
"Gratitude?" questioned Heliobas almost mournfully, with a tinge of reproach in his soft, mellow voice. "Are you grateful for being, as you think, deluded by a trance? ... cheated, as it were, into a sort of semi-belief in the life to come by means of mesmerism? Your first request to me, I know, was that you might be deceived by my influence into a state of imaginary happiness,—and now you fancy your last night's experience was merely the result of that pre-eminently foolish desire. You are wrong! ... and, as matters stand, no thanks are needed. If I had indeed mesmerized or hypnotized you, I might perhaps have deserved some reward for the exertion of my purely professional skill, but ... as I have told you already ... I have done absolutely nothing. Your fate is, as it has always been, in your own hands. You sought me of your own accord ... you used me as an instrument, an unwilling instrument, remember! ... whereby to break open the prison doors of your chafed, and fretting spirit,—and the end of it all is that you depart from hence tomorrow of your own free-will and choice, to fulfill the appointed tryst made with you, as you believe, by a phantom in a vision. In brief"—here he spoke more slowly and with marked emphasis—"you go to the field of Ardath to solve a puzzling problem ... namely, as to whether what we call life is not a Dream—and whether a Dream may not perchance be proved Reality! In this enterprise of yours I have no share—nor will I say more than this ... God speed you on your errand!"
He held out his hand—Alwyn grasped it, looking earnestly meanwhile at the fine intellectual face, the clear pathetic eyes, the firm yet sensitive mouth, on which there just then rested a serious yet kindly smile.
"What a strange man you are, Heliobas!" he said impulsively ... "I wish I knew more about you!"
Heliobas gave him a friendly glance.
"Wish rather that you knew more about yourself"—he answered simply—"Fathom your own mystery of being—you shall find none deeper, greater, or more difficult of comprehension!"
Alwyn still held his hand, reluctant to let it go. Finally releasing it with a slight sigh, he said:
"Well, at any rate, though we part now it will not be for long. We MUST meet again!"
"Why, if we must, we shall!" rejoined Heliobas cheerily. "MUST cannot be prevented! In the mean time ... farewell!"
"Farewell!" and as this word was spoken their eyes met. Instinctively and on a sudden impulse, Alwyn bowed his head in the lowest and most reverential salutation he had perhaps ever made to any creature of mortal mold, and as he did so Heliobas paused in the act of turning away.
"Do you care for a blessing, gentle Skeptic!" he asked in a soft tone that thrilled tenderly through the silence of the dimly-lit chapel,—then, receiving no reply, he laid one hand gently on the young man's dark, clustering curls, and with the other slowly traced the sign of the cross upon the smooth, broad fairness of his forehead.—"Take it, my son! ... the only blessing I can give thee,—the blessing of the Cross of Christ, which in spite of thy desertion claims thee, redeems thee, and will yet possess thee for its own!"
And before Alwyn could recover from his astonishment sufficiently to interrupt and repudiate this, to him, undesired form of benediction, Heliobas had gone, and he was left alone. Lifting his head he stared out into the further corridor, down which he just perceived a distant glimmer of vanishing white robes,—and for a moment he was filled with speechless indignation. It seemed to him that the sign thus traced on his brow must be actually visible like a red brand burnt into his flesh,—and all his old and violent prejudices against Christianity rushed back upon him with the resentful speed of once baffled foes returning anew to storm a citadel. Almost as rapidly, however, his anger cooled,—he remembered that in his vision of the previous night, the light that had guided him through the long, shadowy vista had always preceded him in the form of a Cross,—and in a softer mood he glanced at the ruby Star shining steadily above the otherwise darkened altar. Involuntarily the words "We have seen His Star in the East and have come to worship Him"—occurred to his memory, but he dismissed them as instantly as they suggested themselves, and finding his own thoughts growing perplexing and troublesome he hastily left the chapel.
Joining some of the monks who were gathered in a picturesque group round the fire in the refectory he sat chatting with them for about half an hour or so, hoping to elicit from them in the course of conversation some particulars concerning the daily life, character, and professing aims of their superior,—but in this attempt he failed. They spoke of Heliobas as believing men may speak of saints, with hushed reverence and admiring tenderness— but on any point connected with his faith, or the spiritual nature of his theories, they held their peace, evidently deeming the subject too sacred for discussion. Baffled in all his inquiries Alwyn at last said good-night, and retired to rest in the small sleeping-apartment prepared for his accommodation, where he enjoyed a sound, refreshing, and dreamless slumber.
The next morning he was up at daybreak, and long before the sun had risen above the highest peak of Caucasus, he had departed from the Lars Monastery, leaving a handsome donation in the poor-box toward the various charitable works in which the brethren were engaged, such as the rescue of travellers lost in the snow, or the burial of the many victims murdered on or near the Pass of Dariel by the bands of fierce mountain robbers and assassins, that at certain seasons infest that solitary region. Making the best of his way to the fortress of Passanaur, he there joined a party of adventurous Russian climbers who had just successfully accomplished the assent of Mount Kazbek, and in their company proceeded through the rugged Aragua valley to Tiflis, which he reached that same evening. From this dark and dismal-looking town, shadowed on all sides by barren and cavernous hills, he dispatched the manuscript of his mysteriously composed poem, together with the letter concerning it, to his friend Villiers in England,—and then, yielding to a burning sense of impatience within himself,— impatience that would brook no delay,—he set out resolutely, and at once, on his long pilgrimage to the "land of sand and ruin and gold"—the land of terrific prophecy and stern fulfilment,—the land of mighty and mournful memories, where the slow river Euphrates clasps in its dusky yellow ring the ashes of great kingdoms fallen to rise no more.
BY THE WATERS OF BABYLON.
It was no light or easy journey he had thus rashly undertaken on the faith of a dream,—for dream he still believed it to be. Many weary days and nights were consumed in the comfortless tedium of travel, . . and though he constantly told himself what unheard-of folly it was to pursue an illusive chimera of his own imagination,—a mere phantasm which had somehow or other taken possession of his brain at a time when that brain must have been acted upon (so he continued to think) by strong mesmeric or magnetic influence, he went on his way all the same with a sort of dogged obstinacy which no fatigue could daunt or lessen. He never lay down to rest without the faint hope of seeing once again, if only in sleep, the radiant Being whose haunting words had sent him on this quest of "Ardath,"—but herein his expectations were not realized. No more flower-crowned angels floated before him—no sweet whisper of love, encouragement, or promise came mysteriously on his ears in the midnight silences,—his slumbers were always profound and placid as those of a child and utterly dreamless.
One consolation he had however, ... he could write. Not a day passed without his finding some new inspiration ... some fresh, quaint, and lovely thought, that flowed of itself into most perfect and rhythmical utterance,—glorious lines of verse glowing with fervor and beauty seemed to fall from his pencil without any effort on his part,—and if he had had reason in former times to doubt the strength of his poetical faculty, it was now very certain he could do so longer. His mind was as a fine harp newly strung, attuned, and quivering with the consciousness of the music pent-up within it,—and as he remembered the masterpiece of poesy he had written in his seeming trance, the manuscript of which would soon be in the hands of the London publishers, his heart swelled with a growing and irrepressible sense of pride. For he knew and felt—with an undefinable yet positive certainty—that however much the public or the critics might gainsay him, his fame as a poet of the very highest order would ere long be asserted and assured. A deep tranquillity was in his soul ... a tranquillity that seemed to increase the further he went onward,—the restless weariness that had once possessed him was past, and a vaguely sweet content pervade his being like the odor of early roses pervading warm air ... he felt, he hoped, he loved! ... and yet his feelings, hopes, and longings turned to something altogether undeclared and indefinite, as softly dim and distant as the first faint white cloud-signal wafted from the moon in heaven, when, on the point of rising, she makes her queenly purpose known to her waiting star-attendants.
Practically considered, his journey was tedious and for the most part dull and uninteresting. In these Satan-like days of "going to and fro in the earth and walking up and down in it" travelling has lost much of its old romantic charm, . . the idea of traversing long distances no more fills the expectant adventurer with a pleasurable sense of uncertainty and mystery—he knows exactly what to anticipate.. it is all laid out for him plainly on the level lines of the commonplace, and nothing is left to his imagination. The Continent of Europe has been ransacked from end to end by tourists who have turned it into a sort of exhausted pleasure-garden, whereof the various entertainments are too familiarly known to arouse any fresh curiosity,—the East is nearly in the same condition,—hordes of British and American sight-seers scamper over the empire-strewn soil of Persia and Syria with the unconcerned indifference of beings to whom not only a portion of the world's territory, but the whole world itself, belongs,—and soon there will not be an inch of ground left on the narrow extent of our poor planet that has not been trodden by the hasty, scrambling, irreverent footsteps of some one or other of the ever-prolific, all-spreading English-speaking race.
On his way Alwyn met many of his countrymen,—travellers who, like himself, had visited the Caucasus and Armenia and were now en route, some for Damascus, some for Jerusalem and the Holy Land— others again for Cairo and Alexandria, to depart from thence homeward by the usual Mediterranean line, . . but among these birds- of-passage acquaintance he chanced upon none who were going to the Ruins of Babylon. He was glad of this—for the peculiar nature of his enterprise rendered a companion altogether undesirable,—and though on one occasion he encountered a gentleman-novelist with a note-book, who was exceedingly anxious to fraternize with him and discover whither he vas bound, he succeeded in shaking off this would-be incubus at Mosul, by taking him to a wonderful old library in that city where there were a number of French translations of Turkish and Syriac romances. Here the gentleman- novelist straightway ascended to the seventh heaven of plagiarism, and began to copy energetically whole scenes and descriptive passages from dead-and-gone authors, unknown to English critics, for the purpose of inserting them hereafter into his own "original" work of fiction—and in this congenial occupation he forgot all about the "dark handsome man, with the wide brows of a Marc Antony and the lips of a Catullus," as he had already described Alwyn in the note-book before-mentioned. While in Mosul, Alwyn himself picked up a curiosity in the way of literature,—a small quaint volume entitled "The Final Philosophy Of Algazzali The Arabian." It was printed in two languages—the original Arabic on one page, and, facing it, the translation in very old French. The author, born A.D. 1058, described himself as "a poor student striving to discern the truth of things"—and his work was a serious, incisive, patiently exhaustive inquiry into the workings of nature, the capabilities of human intelligence, and the deceptive results of human reason. Reading it, Alwyn was astonished to find that nearly all the ethical propositions offered for the world's consideration to-day by the most learned and cultured minds, had been already advanced and thoroughly discussed by this same Algazzali. One passage in particular arrested his attention as being singularly applicable to his own immediate condition, . . it ran as follows,—
"I began to examine the objects of sensation and speculation to see if they could possibly admit of doubt. Then, doubts crowded upon me in such numbers that my incertitude became complete. Whence results the confidence I have in sensible things? The strongest of all our senses is sight,—yet if we look at the stars they seem to be as small as money-pieces—but mathematical proofs convince us that they are larger than the earth. These and other things are judged by the SENSES, but rejected by REASON as false. I abandoned the senses therefore, having seen my confidence in their ABSOLUTE TRUTH shaken. Perhaps, said I, there is no assurance but in the notions of reason? ... that is to say, first principles, as that ten is more than three? Upon this the SENSES replied: What assurance have you that your confidence in REASON is not of the same nature as your confidence in US? When you relied on us, reason stepped in and gave us the lie,—had not reason been there you would have continued to rely on us. Well, nay there not exist some other judge SUPERIOR to reason who, if he appeared, would refute the judgments of reason in the same way that reason refuted us? The non-appearance of such a judge is no proof of his non-existence. ... I strove to answer this objection, and my difficulties increased when I came to reflect on sleep. I said to myself: During sleep you give to visions a reality and consistence, and on awakening you are made aware that they were nothing but visions. What assurance have you that all you feel and know does actually exist? It is all true as respects your condition at the moment,—but it is nevertheless possible that another condition should present itself which should be to your awakened state, that which your awakened state is now to your sleep,—SO THAT, AS RESPECTS THIS HIGHER CONDITION YOUR WAKING IS BUT SLEEP."
Over and over again Alwyn read these words and pondered on the deep and difficult problems they suggested, and he was touched to an odd sense of shamed compunction, when at the close of the book he came upon Algazzali's confession of utter vanquishment and humility thus simply recorded:
"I examined my actions and found the best were those relating to instruction and education, and even there I saw myself given up to unimportant sciences all useless in another world. Reflecting on the aim of my teaching, I found it was not pure in the sight of the Lord. And that all my efforts were directed toward the acquisition of glory to myself. Having therefore distributed my wealth I left Bagdad and retired into Syria, where I remained in solitary struggle with my soul, combating my passions and exercising myself in the purification of my heart and in preparation for the other world."
This ancient philosophical treatise, together with the mystical passage from the original text of Esdras and the selected verses from the Apocrypha, formed all Alwyn's stock of reading for the rest of his journey,—the rhapsodical lines of the Prophet he knew by heart, as one knows a favorite poem, and he often caught himself unconsciously repeating the strange words: "Behold the field thou thoughtest barren: how great a glory hath the moon unveiled!
"And I beheld, and was sore amazed, for I was no longer myself but another.
"And the sword of death was in that other's soul: and yet that other was but myself, in pain.
"And I knew not the things that were once familiar and my heart failed within me for very fear..."
What did they mean, he wondered? or had they any meaning at all beyond the faint, far-off suggestions of thought that may occasionally and with difficulty be discerned through obscure and reckless ecstasies of language which, "full of sound and fury, signify nothing"? Was there, could there, be anything mysterious or sacred in this "wiste field" anciently known as "Ardath"? These questions flitted hazily from time to time through his brain, but he made no attempt to answer them either by refutation or reason, ... indeed sober, matter-of-fact reason, he was well aware, played no part in his present undertaking.
It was late in the afternoon of a sultry parching day when he at last arrived at Hillah. This dull little town, built at the beginning of the twelfth century out of the then plentifully scattered fragments of Babylon, has nothing to offer to the modern traveller save various annoyances in the shape of excessive heat, dust, or rather fine blown sand,—dirt, flies, bad food, and general discomfort; and finding the aspect of the place not only untempting, but positively depressing, Alwyn left his surplus luggage at a small and unpretentious hostelry kept by a Frenchman, who catered specially for archaeological tourists and explorers, and after an hour's rest, set out alone and on foot for the "eastern quarter" of the ruins,—namely those which are considered by investigators to begin about two miles above Hillah. A little beyond them and close to the river-bank, according to the deductions he had received, dwelt the religious recluse for whom he brought the letter of introduction from Heliobas,—a letter bearing on its cover a superscription in Latin which translated ran thus:—"To the venerable and much esteemed Elzear of Melyana, at the Hermitage, near Hillah. In faith, peace, and good-will. Greeting." Anxious to reach Elzear's abode before nightfall, he walked on as briskly as the heat and heaviness of the sandy soil would allow, keeping to the indistinctly traced path that crossed and re-crossed at intervals the various ridges of earth strewn with pulverized fragments of brick, bitumen, and pottery, which are now the sole remains of stately buildings once famous in Babylon.
A low red sun was sinking slowly on the edge of the horizon, when, pausing to look about him, he perceived in the near distance, the dark outline of the great mound known as Birs-Nimroud, and realized with a sort of shock that he was actually surrounded on all sides by the crumbled and almost indistinguishable ruins of the formerly superb all-dominant Assyrian city that had been "as a golden cup in the Lord's hand," and was now no more in very truth than a "broken and an empty vessel." For the words, "And Babylon shall become heaps," have certainly been verified with startling exactitude—"heaps" indeed it has become,—nothing BUT heaps,— heaps of dull earth with here and there a few faded green tufts of wild tamarisk, which while faintly relieveing the blankness of the ground, at the same time intensify its monotonous dreaminess. Alwyn, beholding the mournful desolation of the scene, felt a strong sense of disappointment,—he had expected something different,—his imagination had pictured these historical ruins as being of larger extent and more imposing character. His eyes rested rather wearily on the slow, dull gleam of the Euphrates, as it wound past the deserted spaces where "the mighty city the astonishment of nations" had once stood, ... and poet though he was to the very core of his nature, he could see nothing poetical in these spectral mounds and stone heaps, save in the significant remembrance they offered of the old Scriptual prophecy—"Babylon is fallen—is fallen! Her princes, her wise men, her captains, her rulers, and her mighty men shall sleep a perpetual sleep and not wake, saith the King who is the Lord of Hosts." And truly it seemed as if the curse which had blighted the city's bygone splendor had doomed even its ruins to appear contemptible.
Just then the glow of the disappearing sun touched the upper edge of Birs-Nimroud, giving it for one instant a weird effect, as though the ghost of some Babylonian watchman were waving a lit torch from its summit,—but the lurid glare soon faded and a dead gray twilight settled solemnly down over the melancholy landscape. With a sudden feeling of dejection and lassitude upon him, Alwyn, heaving a deep sigh, went onward, and soon perceived, lying a little to the north of the river, a small, roughly erected tenement with a wooden cross on its roof. Rightly concluding that this must be Elzear of Melyana's hermitage, he quickly made his way thither and knocked at the door.
It was opened to him at once by a white-haired, picturesque old man, who received him with a mute sign of welcome, and who at the same time laid one hand lightly but expressively on his own lips to signify that he was dumb. This was Elzear himself. He was attired in the same sort of flowing garb as that worn by the monks of Dariel, and with his tall, spare figure, long, silvery beard and deep-sunken yet still brilliant dark eyes, he might have served as a perfect model for one of the inspired prophets of bygone ancient days. Though Nature had deprived him of speech, his serene countenance spoke eloquently in his favor, its mild benevolent expression betokening that inward peace of the heart which so often renders old age more beautiful than youth. He perused with careful slowness the letter Alwyn presented to him,— and then, inclining his head gravely, he made a courteous and comprehensive gesture, to intimate that himself and all that his house contained were at the service of the newcomer. He proceeded to testify the sincerity of this assurance at once by setting a plentiful supply of food and wine before his guest, waiting upon him, moreover, while he ate and drank, with a respectful humility which somewhat embarrassed Alwyn, who wished to spare him the trouble of such attendance and told him so many times with much earnestness. But all to no purpose—Elzear only smiled gently and continued to perform the duties of hospitality in his own way ... it was evidently no use interfering with him. Later on he showed his visitor a small cell-like apartment containing a neat bed, together with a table, a chair, and a large Crucifix, which latter object was suspended against the wall, . . and indicating by eloquent signs that here the weariest traveller might find good repose, he made a low salutation and departed altogether for the night.
What a still place the "Hermitage" was, thought Alwyn, as soon as Elzear's retreating steps had died away into silence. There was not a sound to be heard anywhere, ... not even the faint rustle of leaves stirred by the wind. And what a haunting, grave, wistfully tender expression filled the face of that sculptured Image on the Cross, which in intimate companionship with himself seemed to possess the little room! He could not bear the down-drooping appealing, penetrating look in those heavenly-kind yet piteous Eyes, ... turning abruptly away he opened the narrow window, and folding his arms on the sill surveyed the scene before him. The full moon was rising slowly, ... round and large, she hung like a yellow shield on the dark, dense wall of the sky. The Rums of Babylon were plainly visible.. the river shone like a golden ribbon,—the outline of Birs-Nimoud was faintly rimmed with light, and had little streaks of amber radiance wandering softly up and down its shadowy slopes.
"'AND I WENT INTO THE FIELD CALLED ARDATH AND THERE I SAT AMONG THE FLOWERS!'" mused Alwyn half aloud, his dreamy gaze fixed on the gradually brightening heavens ... "Why not go there at once ... NOW!"
THE FIELD OF FLOWERS.
This idea had no sooner entered his mind than he prepared to act upon it,—though only a short while previously, feeling thoroughly overcome by fatigue, he had resolved to wait till next day before setting out for the chief goal of his long pilgrimage. But now, strangely enough, all sense of weariness had suddenly left him,—a keen impatience burned in his veins,—and a compelling influence stronger than himself seemed to urge him on to the instant fulfillment of his purpose. The more he thought about it the more restless he became, and the more eagerly desirous to prove, with the least possible delay, the truth or the falsity of his mystic vision at Danel. By the light of the small lamp left on the table he consulted his map,—the map Heliobas had traced,—and also the written directions that accompanied it—though these he had read so often over and over again that he knew them by heart. They were simply and concisely worded thus: "On the east bank of the Euphrates, nearly opposite the 'Hermitage,' there is the sunken fragment of a bronze Gate, formerly belonging to the Palace of the Babylonian Kings. Three miles and a half to the southwest of this fragment and in a direct line with it, straight across country, will be found a fallen pillar of red granite half buried in the earth. The square tract of land extending beyond this broken column is the field known to the Prophet Esdras as the 'FIELD OF ARDATH'"
He was on the east bank of the Euphrates already,—and a walk of three miles and a half could surely be accomplished in an hour or very little over that time. Hesitating no longer he made his way out of the house, deciding that if he met Elzear he would say he was going for a moonlight stroll before retiring to rest. That venerable recluse, however, was nowhere to be seen,—and as the door of the "Hermitage" was only fastened with a light latch he had no difficulty in effecting a noiseless exit. Once in the open air he stopped, . . startled by the sound of full, fresh, youthful voices singing in clear and harmonious unison ... "KYRIE ELEISON! CHRISTE ELEISON! KYRIE ELEISON!" He listened, . . looking everywhere about him in utter amazement. There was no habitation in sight save Elzear's,—and the chorus certainly did not proceed from thence, but rather seemed to rise upward through the earth, floating in released sweet echoes to and fro upon the hushed air. "KYRIE ELEISON! ... CHRISTE ELEISON!" How it swayed about him like a close chime of bells!
He stood motionless, perplexed and. wondering, ... was there a subterranean grotto near at hand where devotional chants were sung?—or, . . and a slight tremor ran through him at the thought, . . was there something supernatural in the music, notwithstanding its human-seeming speech and sound? Just then it ceased, ... all was again silent as before, . . and angry with himself for his own foolish fancies, he set about the task of discovering the "sunken fragment" Heliobas had mentioned. Very soon he found it, driven deep into the soil and so blackened and defaced by time that it was impossible to trace any of the elaborate carvings that must have once adorned it. In fact it would not have been recognizable as a portion of a gate at all, had it not still possessed an enormous hinge which partly clung to it by means of one huge thickly rusted nail, dose beside it, grew a tree of weird and melancholy appearance—its trunk was split asunder and one half of it was withered. The other half leaning mournfully on one side bent down its branches to the ground, trailing a wealth of long, glossy green leaves in the dust of the ruined city. This was the famous tree called by the natives Athel, of which old legends say that it used to be a favorite evergreen much cultivated and prized by the Babylonian nobility, who loving its pleasant shade, spared no pains to make it grow in their hanging gardens and spacious courts, though its nature was altogether foreign to the soil. And now, with none to tend it or care whether it flourishes or decays, it faithfully clings to the deserted spot where it was once so tenderly fostered, showing its sympathy with the surrounding desolation, by growing always in split halves, one withered and one green—a broken-hearted creature, yet loyal to the memory of past love and joy. Alwyn stood under its dark boughs, knowing nothing of its name or history,—every now and then a wailing whisper seemed to shudder through it, though there was no wind,— and he heard the eerie lamenting sigh with an involuntary sense of awe. The whole scene was far more impressive by night than by day,—the great earth mounds of Babylon looked like giant graves inclosing a glittering ring of winding waters. Again he examined the imbedded fragment of the ancient gate,—and then feeling quite certain of his starting-point he set his face steadily toward the southwest,—there the landscape before him lay flat and bare in the beamy lustre of the moon. The soil was sandy and heavy to the tread,—moreover it was an excessively hot night,—too hot to walk fast. He glanced at his watch,—it was a few minutes past ten o'clock. Keeping up the moderate pace the heat enforced, it was possible he might reach the mysterious field about half-past eleven, . . perhaps earlier. And now his nerves began to quiver with strong excitement, . . had he yielded to the promptings of his own feverish impatience, he would most probably have run all the way in spite of the sultriness of the air,—but he restrained this impulse, and walked leisurely on purpose, reproaching himself as he went along for the utter absurdity of his expectations.
"Was ever madman more mad than I!" he murmured with some self- contempt—"What logical human being in his right mind would be guilty of such egregious folly! But am I logical? Certainly not! Am I in my right mind? I think I am,—yet I may be wrong. The question remains, ... what IS logic? ... and what IS being in one's right mind? No one can absolutely decide! Let me see if I can review calmly my ridiculous position. It comes to this,—I insist on being mesmerized ... I have a dream, ... and I see a woman in the dream"—here he suddenly corrected himself ... "a woman did I say? No! ... she was something far more than that! A lovely phantom—a dazzling creature of my own imagination ... an exquisite ideal whom I will one day immortalize ... yes!— IMMORTALIZE in song!"
He raised his eyes as he spoke to the dusky firmament thickly studded with stars, and just then caught sight of a fleecy silver- rimmed cloud passing swiftly beneath the moon and floating downwards toward the earth,—it was shaped like a white-winged bird, and was here and there tenderly streaked with pink, as though it had just travelled from some distant land where the sun was rising. It was the only cloud in the sky,—and it had a peculiar, almost phenomenal effect by reason of its rapid motion, there being not the faintest breeze stirring. Alwyn watched it gliding down the heavens till it had entirely disappeared, and then began his meditations anew.
"Any one,—even without magnetic influence being brought to bear upon him, might have visions such as mine! Take an opium-eater, for instance, whose life is one long confused vista of visions,— suppose he were to accept all the wild suggestions offered to his drugged brain, and persist in following them out to some sort of definite conclusion,—the only place for that man would be a lunatic asylum. Even the most ordinary persons, whose minds are never excited in any abnormal way, are subject to very curious and inexplicable dreams,—but for all that, they are not such fools as to believe in them. True, there is my poem,—I don't know how I wrote it, yet written it is, and complete from beginning to end— an actual tangible result of my vision, and strange enough in its way, to say the least of it. But what is stranger still is that I LOVE the radiant phantom that I saw ... yes, actually love her with a love no mere woman, were she fair as Troy's Helen, could ever arouse in me! Of course,—in spite of the contrary assertions made by that remarkably interesting Chaldean monk Heliobas,—I feel I am the victim of a brain-delusion,—therefore it is just as well I should see this 'field of Ardath' and satisfy myself that nothing comes of it—in which case I shall be cured of my craze."
He walked on for some time, and presently stopped a moment to examine his map by the light of the moon. As he did so, he became aware of the extraordinary, almost terrible, stillness surrounding him. He had thought the "Hermitage" silent as a closed tomb—but it was nothing to the silence here. He felt it inclosing him like a thick wall on all sides,—he heard the regular pulsations of his own heart—even the rushing of his own blood—but no other sound was audible. Earth and the air seemed breathless, as though with some pent-up mysterious excitement,—the stars were like so many large living eyes eagerly gazing down on the solitary human being who thus wandered at night in the land of the prophets of old—the moon itself appeared to stare at him in open wonderment. He grew uncomfortably conscious of this speechless watchfulness of nature,—he strained his ears to listen, as it were to the deepening dumbness of all existing things,—and to conquer the strange sensations that were overcoming him, he proceeded at a more rapid pace,—but in two or three minutes came again to an abrupt halt. For there in front of him, right across his path, lay the fallen pillar which, according to Heliobas, marked the boundary to the field he sought! Another glance at his map decided the position ... he had reached his journey's end at last! What was the time? He looked—it was just twenty minutes past eleven.
A curious, unnatural calmness suddenly possessed him, ... he surveyed with a quiet, almost cold, unconcern the prospect before him,—a wide level square of land covered with tufts of coarse grass and clumps of wild tamarisk, ... nothing more. This was the Field of Ardath ... this bare, unlovely wilderness without so much as a tree to grace its outline! From where he stood he could view its whole extent,—and as he beheld its complete desolation he smiled,—a faint, half-bitter smile. He thought of the words in the ancient book of "Esdras:" "And the Angel bade me enter a waste field, and the field was barren and dry save of herbs, and the name of the field was Ardath. And I wandered therein through the hours of the long night, and the silver eyes of the field did open before me and therein I saw signs and wonders."
"Yes,—the field is 'barren and dry' enough in all conscience!" he murmured listlessly—"But as for the 'silver eyes' and the 'signs and wonders,' they must have existed only in the venerable Prophet's imagination, just as my flower-crowned Angel-maiden exists in mine. Well! ... now, Theos Alwyn" ... he continued, apostrophizing himself aloud,—"Are you contented? Are you quite convinced of your folly? ... and do you acknowledge that a fair Dream is as much of a lie and a cheat as all the other fair- seeming things that puzzle and torture poor human nature? Return to your former condition of reasoning and reasonable skepticism,— aye, even atheism if you will, for the materialists are right, ... you cannot prove a God or the possibility of any purely spiritual life. Why thus hanker after a phantom loveliness? Fame—fame! Win fame! ... that is enough for you in this world, ... and as for a next world, who believes in it?—and who, believing, cares?"
Soliloquizing in this fashion, he set his foot on Ardath itself, determining to walk across and around it from end to end. The grass was long and dry, yet it made no rustle beneath his tread ... he seemed to be shod with the magic shoes of silence. He walked on till he reached about the middle of the field, where perceiving a broad flat stone near him, he sat down to rest. There was a light mist rising,—a thin moonlit-colored vapor that crept slowly upward from the ground and remained hovering like a wide, suddenly-spun gossamer web, some two or three inches above it, thus giving a cool, luminous, watery effect to the hot and arid soil.
"According to the Apocrypha, Esdras 'sat among the flowers,'" he idly mused—"Well! ... perhaps there were flowers in those days,— but it is very evident there are none now. A more dreary, utterly desolate place than this famous 'Ardath' I have never seen!"
At that moment a subtle fragrance scented the still air, ... a fragrance deliciously sweet, as of violets mingled with myrtle. He inhaled the delicate odor, surprised and confounded.
"Flowers after all!" he exclaimed. ... "Or maybe some aromatic herb..." and he bent down to examine the turf at his feet. To his amazement he perceived a thick cluster of white blossoms, star- shaped and glossy-leaved, with deep golden centres, wherein bright drops of dew sparkled like brilliants, and from whence puffs of perfume rose like incense swung at unseen altars! He looked at them in doubt that was almost dread, ... were they real? ... were these the "silver eyes" in which Esdras had seen "signs and wonders"? ... or was he hopelessly brain-sick with delusions, and dreaming again?
He touched them hesitatingly ... they were actual living things, with creamy petals soft as velvet,—he was about to gather one of them,—when all at once his attention was caught and riveted by something like a faint shadow gliding across the plain. A smothered cry escaped his lips, ... he sprang erect and gazed eagerly forward, half in hope,—half in fear. What slight Figure was that, pacing slowly, serenely, and all alone in the moonlight? ... Without another instant's pause he rushed impetuously toward it,—heedless that as he went, he trod on thousands of those strange starry blossoms, which now, with sudden growth, covered and whitened every inch of the ground, thus marvellously fulfilling the words spoken of old: . . "Behold the field thou thoughest barren; how great a glory hath the moon unveiled!"
GOD'S MAIDEN EDRIS.
He ran on swiftly for a few paces,—then coming more closely in view of the misty Shape he pursued, he checked himself abruptly and stood still, his heart sinking with a bitter and irrepressible sense of disappointment. Here surely was no Angel wanderer from unseen spheres! ... only a girl, clad in floating gray draperies that clung softly to her slim figure, and trailed behind her as she moved sedately along through the snow-white blossoms that bent beneath her noiseless tread. He had no eyes for the strange flower-transfiguration of the lately barren land,—all his interest was centered on the slender, graceful form of the mysterious Maiden. She, meanwhile, went on her way, till she reached the western boundary of the field,—there she turned, ... hesitated a moment, ... and then came back straight toward him. He watched her approach as though she were some invisible fate,—and a tremor shook his limbs as she drew nearer ... still nearer! He could see her distinctly now, all but her face,—that was in shadow, for her head was bent and her eyes were downcast. Her long, fair hair flowed in a loose rippling mass over her shoulders ... she wore a wreath of the Ardath flowers, and carried a cluster of them clasped between her small, daintily shaped hands. A few steps more, and she was close beside him—she stopped as if in expectation of some word or sign ... but he stood mute and motionless, not daring to speak or stir. Then—without raising her eyes—she passed, ... passed like a flitting vapor,—and he remained as though rooted to the spot, in a sort of vague, dumb bewilderment! His stupefaction was brief however—rousing himself to swift resolution, he hastened, after her.
"Stay! stay!" he cried aloud.
Obedient to his call she paused, but did not turn. He came up with her. ... he caught at her robe, soft to the touch as silken gauze, and overwhelmed by a sudden emotion of awe and reverence, he sank on his knees.
"Who, and what are you?" he murmured in trembling tones—"Tell me! If you are mortal maid I will not harm you, I swear! ... See! ... I am only a poor crazed fool that loves a Dream, ... that stakes his life upon a chance of Heaven, ... pity me as you are gentle! ... but do not fear me ... only speak!"
No answer came. He looked up—and now in the rich radiance of the moon beheld her face ... how like, and yet how altogether unlike it was to the face of the Angel in his vision! For that ethereal Being had seemed dazzlingly, supremely beautiful beyond all mortal power of description,—whereas this girl was simply fair, small, and delicate, with something wistful and pathetic in the lines of her sweet mouth, and shadows as of remembered sorrows slumbering in the depths of her serene, dove-like eyes. Her fragile figure drooped wearily as though she were exhausted by some long fatigue, ... yet, ... gazing down upon him, she smiled, ... and in that smile, the faint resemblance she bore to his Spirit-ideal flashed out like a beam of sunlight, though it vanished again as quickly as it had shone. He waited eagerly to hear her voice, ... waited in a sort of breathless suspense,—but as she still kept silence, he sprang up from his kneeling attitude and seized her hands ... how soft they were and warm!—he folded them in his own and drew her closer to himself ... the flowers she held fell from her grasp, and lay in a tumbled fragrant heap between them. His brain was in a whirl—the Past and the Future—the Real and the Unreal— the Finite and the Infinite—seemed all merging into one another without any shade of difference or division!
"We have met very strangely, you and I!"—he said, scarcely conscious of the words he uttered—"Will you not tell me your name?"
A faint sigh escaped her.
"My name is Edris," she answered, in low musical accents, that carried to his sense of hearing a suggestion, of something sweet and familiar.
"Edris!" he repeated—"Edris!" and gazing at her dreamily he raised her hands to his lips and kissed them gently—"My fairest Edris! From whence do you come?"
She met his eyes with a mild look of reproach and wonderment.
"From a far, far country, Theos!" and he started as she thus addressed him—"A land where no love is wasted and no promise forgotten!"
Again that mystic light passed over her pale face—the blossom- coronal she wore seemed for a moment to glitter like a circlet of stars. His heart beat quickly—could he believe her? ... was she in very truth that shining Peri whose aerial loveliness had so long haunted his imagination? Nay!—it was impossible! ... for if she were, why should she veil her native glory in such simple maiden guise?
Searchingly he studied every feature of her countenance, and as he did so his doubts concerning her spirit-origin became more and more confirmed. She was a living, breathing woman—an actual creature of flesh and blood,—yet how account for her appearance on the field of Ardath? This puzzled him ... till all at once a logical explanation of the whole mystery dawned upon his mind. Heliobas had sent her hither on purpose to meet him! Of course! how dense he had been not to see through so transparent a scheme before! The clever Chaldean had resolved that he, Theos Alwyn, should somehow be brought to accept his trance as a real experience, so that henceforth his faith in "things unseen and eternal" might be assured. Many psychological theorists would uphold such a deceit as not only permissible, but even praise- worthy, if practiced for the furtherance of a good cause. Even the venerable hermit Elzear might have shared in the conspiracy, and this "Edris," as she called herself, was no doubt perfectly trained in the part she had to play! A plot for his conversion! ... well! ... he would enter into it himself, he resolved! ... why not? The girl was exquisitely fair,—a veritable Psyche of soft charms!—and a little lovemaking by moonlight would do no harm, . . ... here he suddenly became aware that while these thoughts were passing through his brain he had unconsciously allowed her hands to slip from his hold, and she now stood apart at some little distance, her eyes fixed full upon him with an expression of most plaintive piteousness. He made a hasty step or two toward her,— and as he did so, his pulses began to throb with an extraordinary sensation of pleasure,—pleasure so keen as to be almost pain.
"Edris!".. he whispered,—"Edris..." and stopped irresolutely.
She looked up at him with the appealing wistfulness of a lost and suffering child, and a slight shudder ran through all her delicate frame.
"I am cold, Theos!" she murmured half beseechingly, stretching out her hands to him once more,—hands as fine and fair as lily- leaves,—little white hands which he gazed at wonderingly, yet did not take.. "Cold and very weary! The way has been long, and the earth is dark!"