"Dark?" repeated Alwyn mechanically, still absorbed in the dubious contemplation of her lovely yielding form, her sweet upturned face and gold-glistening hair—"Dark? ... here? ... beneath the brightness of the moon? Nay,—I have seen many a full day look less radiant than this night of stars!"
Her eyes dwelt upon him with a certain pathetic bewilderment,—she let her extended arms drop wearily at her sides, and a shadow of pained recollection crossed the fairness of her features.
"Ah, I forgot! ..." and she sighed deeply—"This is that strange, sad world where Darkness is called Light."
At these words uttered with so much sorrowful meaning, a quick thrill stirred Alwyn's blood, an inexplicable sharp thrill, that was like the touch of scorching flame. He gazed at her perplexedly ... his pride resented what he imagined to be the deception practiced upon him, but at the same time he was not insensible to the weird romance of the situation.
He began to consider that as this fair girl, trained so admirably in mystical speech and manner, had evidently been sent on purpose to meet him, he could scarcely be blamed for taking her as she presented herself, and enjoying to the full a thoroughly novel and picturesque adventure.
His eyes flashed as he surveyed her standing there before him, utterly unprotected and at his mercy—his old, languid, skeptical smile played on his proud lips,—that smile of the marble Antinous which says "Bring me face to face with Truth itself and I shall still doubt!".. An expression of reluctant admiration and awakening passion dawned on his countenance, ... he was about to speak,—when she whose looks were fastened on him with intense, powerful, watchful, anxious entreaty, suddenly wrung her hands together as though in despair, and gave vent to a desolate sobbing cry that smote him to the very heart.
"Theos! Theos!" and her voice pealed out on the breathless air in sweet, melodious, broken echoes.. "Oh, my unfaithful Beloved, what can I do for thee! A love unseen thou wilt not understand,—a love made manifest thou wilt not recognize! Alas!—my journey is in vain ... my errand hopeless! For while thine unbelief resists my pleading, how can I lead thee from danger into safety? ... how bridge the depths between our parted souls? ... how win for thee pardon and blessing from Christ the King!"
Bright tears filled her eyes and fell fast and thick through her long, drooping lashes, and Alwyn, smitten with remorse at the sight of such grief, sprang to her side overcome by shame, love, and penitence.
"Weeping? ... and for me?"—he exclaimed—"Sweet Edris! ... Gentlest of maidens! ... Weep not for one unworthy, . . but rather smile and speak again of love! ..." and now his words pouring forth impetuously, seemed to utter themselves independently of any previous thought,—"Yes! speak only of love,—and the discourse of those tuneful lips shall be my gospel, . . the glance of those, soft eyes my creed, . . and as for pardon and blessing I crave none but thine! I sought a Dream.. I have found a fair Reality ... a living proof of Love's divine omnipotence! Love is the only god—who would doubt his sovereignty, or grudge him his full measure of worship? ... Not I, believe me!"—and carried away by the force of a resistless inward fervor, he threw himself once more at her feet—"See!—here do I pay my vows at Love's high altar!—heart's desire shall be the prayer—heart's ecstasy the praise! ... together we will celebrate our glad service of love, and heaven itself shall sanctify this Eve of St. Edris and All Angels!"
She listened,—looking down upon him with grave, half timid tenderness,—her tears dried, and a sudden hope irradiated her fair face with a soft, bright flush, as lovely as the light of morning falling on newly opened flowers. When he ceased, she spoke—her accents breaking through the silence like clear notes of music sweetly sung.
"So be it!" she said ... "May Heaven truly sanctify all pure thoughts, and free the soul of my Beloved from sin!"
And slowly bending forward, as a delicate iris-blossom bends to the sway of the wind, she laid her hands about his neck, and touched his lips with her own...
Ah! ... what divine ecstasy,—what wild and fiery transport filled him then! ... Her kiss, like a penetrating lighting-flash, pierced to the very centre of his being,—the moonbeams swam round him in eddying circles of gold—the white field heaved to and fro, ... he caught her waist and clung to her, and in the burning marvel of that moment he forget everything, save that, whether spirit or mortal, she was in woman's witching shape, and that all the glamour of her beauty was his for this one night at least, . . this night which now in the speechless, glorious delirium of love that overwhelmed him, seemed like the Mahometan's night of Al-Kadr, "better than a thousand months!"
Drawn to her by some subtle mysterious attraction which he could neither explain nor control, and absorbed in a rapture beyond all that his highest and most daring flights of poetical fancy had ever conceived, he felt as though his very life were ebbing out of him to become part of hers, and this thought was strangely sweet, —a perfect consummation of all his best desires! ...
All at once a cold shudder ran freezingly through his veins,—a something chill and impalpable appeared to pass between him and her caressing arms—his limbs grew numb and heavy—his sight began to fail him ... he was sinking ... sinking, he knew not where, when suddenly she withdrew herself from his embrace. Instantly his strength came back to him with a rush—he sprang to his feet and stood erect, breathless, dizzy, and confused—his pulses beating like hammer-strokes and every fiber in his frame quivering with excitement.
Entranced, impassioned, elated,—filled with unutterable incomprehensible joy, he would have clasped her again to his heart,—but she retreated swiftly from him, and standing several paces off, motioned him not to approach her more nearly. He scarcely heeded her warning gesture, ... plunging recklessly through the flowers he had almost reached her side, when to his amazement and fear, his eager progress was stopped!
Stopped by some invisible, intangible barrier, which despite all his efforts, forcibly prevented him from advancing one step further,—she was close within an arm's length of him—and yet he could not touch her! ... Nothing apparently divided them, save a small breadth of the Ardath blossoms gleaming ivory-soft in the moonlight ... nevertheless that invincible influence thrust him back and held him fast, as though he were chained to the ground with weights of iron!
"Edris!". he cried loudly, his former transport of delight changed into agony.. "Edris! ... Come to me! I cannot come to you! What is this that parts us?"
"Death!" she answered.. and the solemn word seemed to toll slowly through the still air like a knell.
He stood bewildered and dismayed. Death! What could she mean? What in the name of all her beautiful, delicate, glowing youth, had she to do with death? Gazing at her in mute wonder, he saw her stoop and gather one flower from the clusters growing thickly around her—she held it shieldwise against her breast, where it shone like a large white jewel, and regarded him with sweet, wistful eyes full of a mournful longing.
"Death lies between us, my Beloved!" she continued—"One line of shadow ... only one little line! But thou mayest not pass it, save when God commands,—and I—I cannot! For I know naught of death, . . save that it is a heavy dreamless sleep allotted to over-wearied mortals, wherein they gain brief rest 'twixt many lives,—lives that, like recurring dawns, rouse them anew to labor. How often hast thou slept thus, my Theos, and forgotten me!"
She paused, ... and Alwyn met her clear, steadfast looks with a swift glance of something like defiance. For as she spoke, his previous idea concerning her came back upon him with redoubled force. He was keenly conscious of the vehement fever of love into which her presence had thrown him,—but all the same he was unable to dispossess himself of the notion that she was a pupil and an accomplice of Heliobas, thoroughly trained and practiced in his mysterious doctrine, and that therefore she most probably had some magnetic power in herself that at her pleasure not only attracted him TO her, but also held him thus motionless at a distance, FROM her.
She talked, of course, in an indefinite mystic way either to intimidate or convince him ... but, . . and he smiled a little.. in any case it only rested with himself to unmask this graceful pretender to angelic honors! And while he thought thus, her soft tones trembled on the silence again, ... he listened as a dreaming mariner might listen to the fancied singing of the sea-fairies.
"Through long bright aeons of endless glory," she said—"I have waited and prayed for thee! I have pleaded thy cause before the blinding splendors of God's Throne, I have sung the songs of thy native paradise, but thou, grown dull of hearing, hast caught but the echo of the music! Life after life hast thou lived, and given no thought to me—yet I remember and am faithful! Heaven is not all Heaven to me without thee, my Beloved, . . and now in this time of thy last probation, . . now, if thou lovest me indeed ..."
"Love thee?" suddenly exclaimed Theos, half beside himself with the strange passion of yearning her words awakened in him—"Love thee, Edris?—Aye! ... as the gods loved when earth was young! ... with the fullness of the heart and the vigor of glad life even so I love thee! What sayest thou of Heaven? ... Heaven is here—here on this bridal field of Ardath, o'er-canopied with stars! Come, sweet one, . . cease to play this mystic midnight fantasy—I have done with dreams! ... Edris, be thyself! ... for them art Woman, not Angel— thy kiss was warm as wine! Nay, why shrink from me? ." this, as she retreated still further away, her eyes flashing with unearthly brilliancy, . . "I will make thee a queen, fair Edris, as poets ever make queens of the women they love,—my fame shall be a crown for thee to wear,—a crown that the whole world, gazing on, shall envy!"
And in the heat and ardor of the moment, forgetful of the unseen barrier that divided her from him, he made a violent effort to spring forward—when lo! a wave of rippling light appeared to break from beneath her feet, . . it rolled toward him, and completely flooded the space between them like a glittering pool, —and in it the flowers of Ardath swayed to and fro as water-lilies on a woodland lake sway to the measured dash of passing oars! Starting back with a cry of terror, he gazed wildly on this miracle,—a voice richer than all music rang silvery clear across the liquid radiance.
"Fame!" said the voice ... "Wouldst thou crown Me, Theos, with so perishable a diadem?"
Paralyzed and speechless, he lifted his straining, dazzled eyes— was THAT Edris?—that lustrous figure, delicate as a sea-mist with the sun shining through? He stared upon her as a dying man might stare for the last time on the face of his nearest and dearest, ... he saw her soft gray garments change to glistening white, ... the wreath she wore sparkled as with a million dewdrops.. a roseate halo streamed above her and around her,—long streaks of crimson flared down the sky like threads of fire swung from the stars,—and in the deepening glory, her countenance, divinely beautiful, yet intensely sad, expressed the touching hope and fear of one who makes a final farewell appeal. Ah God! ... he knew her now! ... too late, too late he knew her! ... the Angel of his vision stood before him! ... and humbled to the very dust and ashes of despair he loathed himself for his unworthiness and lack of faith!
"O doubting and unhappy one!" she went on, in accents sweeter than a chime of golden bells—"Thou art lost in the gloom of the Sorrowful Star where naught is known of life save its shadow! Lost.. and as yet I cannot rescue thee—ah! forlorn Edris that I am, left lonely up in Heaven! But prayers are heard, and God's great patience never tires,—learn therefore 'FROM THE PERILS OF THE PAST, THE PERILS OF THE FUTURE'—and weigh against an immortal destiny of love the worth of fame!"
Wider and more dazzling grew the brilliancy surrounding her— raising her eyes, she clasped her hands in an attitude of impassioned supplication ... .
"O fair King Christ!" she cried, and her voice seemed to strike a melodious passage through the air.. "THOU canst prevail!" A burst of music answered her, . . music that rushed wind-like downwards and swept in strong vibrating chords over the land,—again the "KYRIE ELEISON! CHRISTE ELEISON! KYRIE ELEISON!" pealed forth in the same full youthful-toned chorus that had before sounded so mysteriously outside Elzear's hermitage—and the separate crimson rays glittering aurora-wise about her radiant figure, suddenly melted all together in the form of a great cross, which, absorbing moon and stars in its fiery redness, blazed from end to end of the eastern horizon!
Then, like a fair white dove or delicate butterfly she rose ... she poised herself above the bowing Ardath bloom ... anon, soaring aloft, she floated higher. ... higher! ... and ever higher, serenely and with aerial slow ease,—till drawn into the glory of that wondrous flaming cross whose outstretched beams seemed waiting to receive her,—she drifted straight up wards through its very centre. ... and so vanished! ...
Theos stared aghast at the glowing sky ... whither had she gone? Her words still rang in his ears,—the warmth of her kiss still lingered on his lips,—he loved her! ... he worshipped her! ... why, why had she left him "lost" as she herself had said, in a world that was mere emptiness without her? He struggled for utterance...
"Edris ... !" he whispered hoarsely—"Edris! ... My Angel-love! ... come back! Come back ... pity me! ... forgive! ... Edris!"
His voice died in a hard sob of imploring agony,—smitten to the very soul by a remorse greater than he could bear, his strength failed him, and he fell senseless, face forward among the flowers of the Prophet's field; . . flowers that, circling snowily around his dark and prostrate form, looked like fairy garlands bordering a Poet's Grave!
PART II.—IN AL-KYRIS.
"That which hath been, is now: and that which is to be, hath already been: . . and God requireth that which is past." ECCLESIASTES.
THE MARVELLOUS CITY.
Profound silence,—profound unconsciousness,—oblivious rest! Such are the soothing ministrations of kindly Nature to the overburdened spirit; Nature, who in her tender wisdom and maternal solicitude will not permit us to suffer beyond a certain limit. Excessive pain, whether it be physical or mental, cannot last long,—and human anguish wound up to its utmost quivering-pitch finds at the very height of desolation, a strange hushing, Lethean calm. Even so it was with Theos Alwyn,—drowned in the deep stillness of a merciful swoon, he had sunk, as it were, out of life,—far out of the furthest reach or sense of time, in some vast unsounded gulf of shadows where earth and heaven were alike forgotten! ...
How long he lay thus he never knew,—but he was roused at last.. roused by the pressure of something cold and sharp against his throat, . . and on languidly opening his eyes he found himself surrounded by a small body of men in armor, who, leaning on tall pikes which glistened brilliantly in the full sunlight, surveyed him with looks of derisive amusement. One of these, closer to him than the rest, and who seemed from his dress and bearing to be some officer in authority, held instead of a pike a short sword, the touch of whose pointed steel blade had been the effectual means of awakening him from his lethargy.
"How now!" said this personage in a rough voice as he withdrew his weapon—"What idle fellow art thou? ... Traitor or spy? Fool thou must be, and breaker of the King's law, else thou hadst never dared to bask in such swine-like ease outside the gates of Al- Kyris the Magnificent!"
Al-Kyris the Magnificent! What was the man talking about? Uttering a hasty exclamation, Alwyn staggered to his feet with an effort, and shading his eyes from the hot glare of the sun, stared bewilderedly at his interlocutor.
"What..what is this?" he stammered dreamily—"I do not understand you! ... I.. I have slept on the field of Ardath!"
The soldiers burst into a loud laugh, in which their leader joined.
"Thou hast drunk deep, my friend!" he observed, putting up his sword with a sharp clatter into its shining sheath,—"What name sayst thou? ... ARDATH? We know it not, nor dost thou, I warrant, when sober! Go to—make for thy home speedily! Aye, aye! the flavor of good wine clings to thy mouth still,—'tis a pleasant sweetness that I myself am partial to, and I can pardon those who, like thee, love it somewhat too well! Away!—and thank the gods thou hast fallen into the hands of the King's guard, rather then Lysia's priestly patrol! See! the gates are open,—in with thee! and cool thy head at the first fountain?"
"The gates?" ... What gates? Removing his hand from his eyes Alwyn gazed around confusedly. He was standing on an open stretch of level road, dustily-white, and dry, with long-continued heat,—and right in front of him was an enormously high wall, topped with rows of bristling iron spikes, and guarded by the gates alluded to,—huge massive portals seemingly made of finely molded brass, and embellished on either side by thick, round, stone watch towers, from whose summits scarlet pennons drooped idly in the windless air. Amazed, and full of a vague, trembling terror, he fixed his wondering looks once more upon his strange companions, who in their turn regarded him with cool military indifference."
"I must be mad or dreaming," he thought,—then growing suddenly desperate he stretched out his hands with a wild appealing gesture:
"I swear to you I know nothing of this place!" he cried—"I never saw it before! Some trick has been played on me ... who brought me here? Where is Elzear the hermit? ... the Ruins of Babylon? ... where is, ... Good God! ... what fearful freak of fate is this!"
The soldiers laughed again,—their commander looked at him a little curiously.
"Nay, art THOU one of the escaped of Lysia's lovers?" he asked, suspiciously—"And has the Silver Nectar failed of its usual action, and driven thy senses to the winds, that thou ravest thus? For if thou art a stranger and knowest naught of us, how speakest thou our language? ... Why wearest thou the garb of our citizens?"
Alwyn shrank and shivered as though he had received a deadening blow,—an awful, inexplicable chill horror froze his blood. It was true! ... he understood the language spoken! ... it was perfectly familiar to him,—more so than his own native tongue,—stop! what WAS his native tongue?
He tried to think—and, the sick fear at his heart grew stronger, —he could not remember a word of it! And his dress! ... he glanced at it dismayed and appalled,—he had not noticed it till now. It bore some resemblance to the costume of ancient Greece, and consisted of a white linen tunic and loose upper vest, both garments being kept in place by a belt of silver. From this belt depended a sheathed dagger, a square writing tablet, and a pencil- shaped implement which he immediately recognized as the antique form of stylus. His feet were shod with sandals—his arms were bare to the shoulder, and clasped at the upper part by two broad silver armlets richly chased.
Noting all these details, the fantastic awfulness of his position smote him with redoubled force,—and he felt as a madman may feel when his impending doom has not entirely asserted itself,—when only grotesque and leering suggestions of madness cloud his brain,—when hideous faces, dimly discerned, loom out of the chaos of his nightly visions,—and when all the air seems solid darkness, with one white line of fire cracking it asunder in the midst, and that the fire of his own approaching frenzy. Such a delirium of agony possessed Alwyn at that moment,—he could have shrieked, laughed, groaned, wept, and fallen down in the dust before these bearded armed men, praying them to slay him with their weapons there where he stood, and put him mercifully and at once out of his mysterious misery. But an invisible influence stronger than himself, prevented him from becoming altogether the victim of his own torturing emotions, and he remained erect and still as a marble figure, with a wondering, white piteous face of such unutterable affliction that the officer who watched him seemed touched, and, advancing, clapped his shoulder in a friendly manner.
"Come, come!" he said—"Thou need'st fear nothing,—we are not the men to blab of thy trespass against the city's edict,—for, of a truth, there is too much whispering away of young and goodly lives nowadays. What!—thou art not the first gay gallant, nor wilt thou be the last, that has seen the world turn upside down in a haze of love and late feasting! If thou hast not slept long enough, why sleep again an thou wilt,—but not here..."
He broke off abruptly,—a distant clatter of horses' hoofs was heard, as of one galloping at full speed. The soldiers started, and assumed an attitude of attention,—their leader muttered something like an oath, and seizing Alwyn by the arm, hurried him to the brass gates which, as he had said, stood open, and literally thrust him through.
"In, in, my lad!" he urged with rough kindliness,—"Thou hast a face fairer than that of the King's own minstrel, and why wouldst thou die for sake of an extra cup of wine? If Lysia is to blame for this scattering of thy wits, take heed thou do not venture near her more—it is ill jesting with the Serpent's sting! Get thee hence quickly, and be glad of thy life,—thou hast many years before thee yet in which to play the lover and fool!"
With this enigmatical speech he signed to his men to follow him,— they all filed through the gates, which closed after them with a jarring clang, ... a dark bearded face peered out of a narrow loophole in one of the watch-towers, and a deep voice called:
"What of the hour?"
The officer raised his gauntleted hand, and answered promptly:
"Peace and safety!"
"Salutation!" cried the voice again.
"Salutation!" responded the officer, and with a reassuring nod and smile to the bewildered Alwyn, he gathered his little band around him, and they all marched off, the measured clink-clank of their footsteps making metallic music, as they wheeled round a corner and disappeared from sight.
Left to himself Alwyn's first idea was to sit down in some quiet corner, and endeavor calmly to realize what strange and cruel thing had chanced to him. But happening to look up, he saw the bearded face in the watchtower observing him suspiciously,—he therefore roused himself sufficiently to walk away, on and on, scarce heeding whither he went, till he had completely lost sight of those great gold-glittering portals which had shut him, against his will, within the walls of a large, splendid, and populous City. Yes! ... hopelessly perplexing and maddening as it was, there could be no doubt of this fact,—and though he again and again tried to convince himself that he was laboring under some wild and exceptional hallucination, his senses all gave evidence of the actual reality of his situation,—he felt, he moved, he heard, he saw, ... he was even beginning to be conscious of hunger, thirst, and fatigue.
The further he went, the more gorgeous grew the surroundings, . . his unguided steps wandered as it seemed, of their own accord, into wide streets, paved entirely with mosaics, and lined on both sides with lofty, picturesque, and palace-like buildings,—he crossed and recrossed broad avenues, shaded by tall feathery palms, and masses of graceful flowering foliage,—he passed rows upon rows of brilliant shops, whose frontages glittered with the most costly and beautiful wares of every description,—and as he strolled about aimlessly, uncertain whither to go, he was constantly jostled by the pressing throngs of people that crowded the thoroughfares, all more or less apparently bent on pleasure, to judge from their animated countenances and frequent bursts of gay laughter.
The men were for the most part arrayed like himself,—though here and there he met some few whose garments were of soft silk instead of linen, who wore gold belts in place of silver, and who carried their daggers in sheaths that were literally encrusted all over with flashing jewels.
As he advanced more into the city's centre, the crowds increased, —so much so that the noise of traffic and clatter of tongues became quite deafening to his ears. Richly ornamented chariots drawn by spirited horses, and driven by personages whose attire seemed to be a positive blaze of gold and gems, rolled past in a continuous procession,—fruit-sellers, carrying their lovely luscious merchandise in huge gilded moss-wreathed baskets, stood at almost every corner,—flower-girls, fair as flowers, bore aloft in their gracefully upraised arms wide wicker trays, overflowing with odorous blossoms tied into clusters and wreaths,—and there were countless numbers of curious little open square carts to which mules, wearing collars of bells, were harnessed, the tinkle- tinkle of their constant passage through the throng making incessant merry music. These vehicles bore the names of traders,— purveyors in wine and dealers in all sorts of provisions,—but with the exception of such necessary business caterers, the streets were full of elegant loungers of both sexes, who seemed to have nothing whatever to do but amuse themselves.
The women were especially noticeable for their lazy grace of manner,—they glided to and fro with an indolent floating ease that was indescribably bewitching,—the more so as many of them were endowed with exquisite beauty of form and feature,—beauty greatly enhanced by the artistic simplicity of their costume.
This was composed of a straight clinging gown, slightly gathered at the throat, and bound about the waist with a twisted girdle of silver, gold, and, in some cases, jewels,—their arms, like those of the men, were bare, and their small, delicate feet were protected by sandals fastened with crossed bands of ribbon coquettishly knotted. The arrangement of their hair was evidently a matter of personal taste, and not the slavish copying of any set fashion,—some allowed it to hang in loosely flowing abundance over their shoulders,—others had it closely braided, or coiled carelessly in a thick soft mass at the top of the head,—but all without exception wore white veils,—veils, long, transparent, and filmy as gossamer, which they flung back or draped about them at their pleasure ... and presently, after watching several of these fairy creatures pass by and listening to their low laughter and dulcet speech, a sudden memory leaped into Alwyn's confused brain,—an old, old memory that seemed to have lain hidden among his thoughts for centuries,—the memory of a story called "LAMIA" told in verse as delicious as music aptly played. Who wrote the story? ... He could not tell,—but he recollected that it was about a snake in the guise of a beautiful woman. And these women in this strange city looked as if they also had a snake-like origin,—there was something so soft and lithe and undulating about their movements and gestures. Weary of walking, distracted by the ever-increasing clamor, and feeling lost among the crowd, he at last perceived a wide and splendid square, surrounded wild stately houses, and having in its centre a huge, white granite obelisk which towered like a pillar of snow against the dense blue of the sky. Below it a massively sculptured lion, also of white granite, lay couchant, holding a shield between its paws,—and on either side two fine fountains were in full play, the delicate spiral columns of water being dashed up beyond the extreme point of the obelisk, so that its stone face was wet and glistening with the tossing rainbow shower.
Here he turned aside out of the main thoroughfare,—there were tall, shady trees all about, and fantastically carved benches underneath them, ... he determined to sit down and rest, and steadily THINK OUT his involved and peculiar condition of mind.
As he passed the sculptured lion, he saw certain words engraved on the shield it held,—they were ... "THROUGH THE LION AND THE SERPENT SHALL AL-KYRIS FLOURISH."
There was no disorder in his intelligence concerning this sentence,—he was able to read it clearly and comprehensively, ... and yet ... WHAT was the language in which it was written, and how did he come to know it so thoroughly? ... With a sigh that was almost a groan, he sank listlessly on a seat, and burying his head in his hands to shut out all the strange sights which so direfully perplexed his reason, he began to subject himself to a patient, serious cross-examination.
In the first place ... WHO WAS HE? Part of the required answer came readily,—THEOS. Theos what? His brain refused to clear up this point,—it repeated THEOS—THEOS,—over and over again, but no more!
Shuddering with a vague dread, he asked himself the next question, ... FROM WHENCE HAD HE COME? The reply was direct and decisive— FROM ARDATH.
But what was ARDATH? It was neither a country nor a city—it was a "waste field," where he had seen. ... ah! WHOM had he seen? He struggled furiously with himself for some response to this, ... none came! Total dumb blankness was the sole result of the inward rack to which he subjected his thoughts!
And where had he been before he ever saw Ardath? ... had he NO recollection of any other place, any other surroundings?— ABSOLUTELY NONE!—torture his wits as he would,—ABSOLUTELY NONE! ... This was frightful ... incredible! ... Surely, surely, he mused piteously, there must have been something in his life before the name of "Ardath" had swamped his intelligence! ...
He lifted his head, ... his face had grown ashen gray and rigid in the deep extremity of his speechless trouble and terror,—there was a sick faintness at his heart, and rising, he moved unsteadily to one of the great fountains, and there dipping his hands in the spray, he dashed some drops on his brow and eyes. Then, making a cup of the hollowed palms, he drank thirstily several draughts of the cool, sweet water,—it seemed to allay the fever in his blood. ...
He looked around him with a wild, vague smile,—Al-Kyris! ... of course! ... he was in Al-Kyris!—why was he so distressed about it? It was a pleasant city,—there was much to see,—and also much to learn! ... At that instant a loud blast of silver-toned trumpets split the air, followed by a storm-roar of distant acclamation surging up from thousands of throats,—crowds of men and women suddenly flocked into the Square, across it, and out of it again, all pressing impetuously in one direction,—and urged forward by the general rush as well as by a corresponding impulse within himself, he flung all meditation to the winds, and plunged recklessly into the shouting, onsweeping throng. He was borne swiftly with it down a broad avenue lined with grand old trees and decked with flying flags and streamers, to the margin of a noble river, as still as liquid amber in the wide sheen and heat of the noonday sun. A splendid marble embankment, adorned with colossal statues, girdled it on both sides,—and here, under silken awnings of every color, pattern and design, an enormous multitude was assembled,—its white attired, closely packed ranks stretching far away into the blue distance on either hand.
All the attention of this vast concourse appeared to be centered on the slow approach of a strange, gilded vessel, that with great curved prow and scarlet sails flapping idly in the faint breeze, was gliding leisurely yet majestically over the azure blaze of the smooth water. Huge oars like golden fins projected from her sides and dipped lazily every now and then, apparently wielded by the hands of invisible rowers, whose united voices supplied the lack of the needful wind,—and as he caught sight of this cumbrously quaint galley, Theos, moved by sudden interest, elbowed his way resolutely though the dense crowd till he gained the edge of the embankment, where leaning against the marble balustrade, he watched with a curious fascination its gradual advance.
Nearer and nearer it came, ... brighter and brighter glowed the vivid scarlet of its sails, ... a solemn sound of stringed music rippled enchantingly over the glassy river, mingling itself with the wild shouting of the populace,—shouting that seemed to rend the hollow vault of heaven! ... Nearer ... nearer ... and now the vessel slid round and curtsied forward, ... its propelling fins moved more rapidly ... another graceful sweep,—and lo! it fronted the surging throng like a glittering, fantastic Apparition drawn out of dreamland! ...
Theos stared at it, dazzled and stricken with a half-blind breathless wonder,—was ever a ship like this he thought?—a ship that sparkled all over as though it were carven out of one great burning jewel? ... Golden hangings, falling in rich, loose folds, draped it gorgeously from stem to stern,—gold cordage looped the sails,—on the deck a band of young gals clad in white, and crowned with flowers, knelt, playing softly on quaintly shaped instruments,—and a cluster of tiny, semi-nude boys, fair as young cupids, were grouped in pretty reposeful attitudes along the edge of the gilded prow holding garlands of red and yellow blossoms which trailed down to the surface of the water beneath.
As a half-slumbering man may note a sudden brilliant glare of sunshine flashing on the wall of his sleeping-chamber, so Theos at first viewed this floating pageant in confused, uncomprehending bewilderment, ... when all at once his stupefied senses were roused to hot life and pulsing action,—with a smothered cry of ecstasy he fixed his straining, eager gaze on one supreme, fair Figure,—the central Glory of the marvellous picture! ...
A Woman or a Goddess?—a rainbow Flame in mortal shape?—a spirit of earth, air, fire, water? ... or a Thought of Beauty embodied into human sweetness and made perfect? ... Clothed in gold attire, and girdled with gems, she stood, leaning indolently against the middle mast of the vessel, her great, sombre, dusky eyes resting drowsily on the swarming masses of people, whose frenzied roar of rapture and admiration sounded like the breaking of billows.
Presently, with a slow, solemn smile on her haughtily curved lips, she extended one hand and arm, snow-white and glittering with jewels, and made an imperious gesture to command silence. Instantly a profound hush ensued. Lifting a long, slender, white wand, at the end of which could be plainly seen the gleaming silver head of a Serpent, she described three circles in the air with a perfectly even, majestic motion, and as she did this, her marvellous eyes turned toward Theos, and dwelt steadily upon him.
He met her gaze fully, absorbing into his inmost soul the mesmeric spell of her matchless loveliness,—he saw, without actually realizing the circumstance, that the whole vast multitude around him had fallen prostrate in an attitude of worship,—and still he stood erect, drinking in the warmth of those dark, witching, sleepy orbs that flashed at him half-resentfully, half- mockingly, . . and then, . . the beauty-burdened ship began to sway gently, and move onwards,—she, that wondrous Siren-Queen was vanishing,—vanishing!—she and her kneeling maidens, and music, and flowers,—vanishing ... Where?
With a start he sprang from his post of observation,—he felt he must go after her at all risks,—he must find out her place of abode,—her rank,—her title,—her name! ... All at once he was roughly seized by a dozen or more of hands,—loud, angry voices shouted on all sides.. "A traitor! ... a traitor!" ... "An infidel!"
"A spy!" "A malcontent!"
"Into the river with him!"
"He refuses worship!" "He denies the gods!"
"Bear him to the Tribunal!".. And in a trice of time, he was completely surrounded and hemmed in by an exasperated, gesticulating crowd, whose ominous looks and indignant mutterings were plainly significant of prompt hostility. With a few agile movements he succeeded in wrenching himself free from the grasp of his assailants, and standing among them like a stag at bay he cried:
"What have I done? How have I offended? Speak! Or is it the fashion of Al-Kyris to condemn a man unheard?"
No one answered this appeal,—the very directness of it seemed to increase the irritation of the mob, that pressing closer and closer, began to jostle and hustle him in a threatening manner that boded ill for his safety,—he was again taken prisoner, and struggling in the grasp of his captors, he was preparing to fight for his life as best he could, against the general fury, when the sound of musical strings, swept carelessly upwards in the ascending scale, struck sweetly through the clamor. A youth, arrayed in crimson, and carrying a small golden harp, marched sedately between the serried ranks that parted right and left at his approach,—thus clearing the way for another personage who followed him,—a graceful, Adonis-like personage in glistening white attire, who wore a myrtle-wreath on his dark, abundant locks, and whom the populace—forgetting for a moment the cause of their recent disturbance—greeted with a ringing and ecstatic shout of "HAIL! SAH-LUMA!"
Again and again this cry was uplifted, till far away on the extreme outskirts of the throng the joyous echo of it was repeated faintly yet distinctly ... "HAIL! HAIL, SAH-LUMA!"
The new-comer thus enthusiastically welcomed bowed right and left, with a condescending air, in response to the general acclamation, and advancing to the spot where Theos stood, an enforced prisoner in the close grip of three or four able-bodied citizens, he said:
"What turbulence is here? By my faith! ... when I heard the noise of quarrelsome contention jarring the sweetness of this nectarous noon, methought I was no longer in Al-Kyris, but rather in some western city of barbarians where music is but an unvalued name!"
And he smiled—a dazzling, child-like smile, half petulant, half- pleased—a smile of supreme self-consciousness as of one who knew his own resistless power to charm away all discord.
Several voices answered him in clamorous unison:
"A traitor, Sah-luma!" "A profane rebel!" ... "An unbeliever!" ... "A most insolent knave!"—"He refused homage to the High Priestess!" ... "A renegade from the faith!"
"Now, by the Sacred Veil!" cried Sah-luma impatiently—"Think ye I can distinguish your jargon, when like ignorant boors ye talk all at once, tearing my ears to shreds with such unmelodious tongue- clatter! Whom have ye seized thus roughly? ... Let him stand forth!"
At this command, the men who held Theos relaxed their grasp, and he, breathless and burning with indignation at the treatment he had received, shook himself quickly free of all restraint, and sprang forward, confronting his rescuer. There was a brief pause, during which the two surveyed each other with looks of mutual amazement. What mysterious indication of affinity did they read in one another's faces? ... Why did they stand motionless, spell- bound and dumb for a while, eying half-admiringly, half-enviously, each other's personal appearance and bearing? ...
Undoubtedly a curious, far-off resemblance existed between them,— yet it was a resemblance that had nothing whatever to do with the actual figure, mien, or countenance. It was that peculiar and often undefinable similarity of expression, which when noticed between two brothers who are otherwise totally unlike, instantly proclaims their relationship.
Theos realized his own superior height and superior muscular development,—but what were these physical advantages compared to the classic perfection of Sah-luma's beauty?—beauty combining the delicate with the vigorous, such as is shadowed forth in the artist-conceptions of the god Apollo. His features, faultlessly regular, were redeemed from all effeminacy by the ennobling impress of high thought and inward inspiration,—his eyes were dark, with a brilliant under-reflection of steel-gray in them, that at times flashed out like the soft glitter of summer- lightning in the dense purple of an August heaven,—his olive- tinted complexion was flushed warmly with the glow of health,—and he had broad, bold, intellectual brows over which the rich hair clustered in luxuriant waves,—hair that was almost black, with here and there a curious fleck of reddish gold brightening its curling masses, as though a stray sunbeam or two had been caught and entangled therein. He was arrayed in a costume of the finest silk,—his armlets, belt, and daggersheath were all of jewels,— and the general brilliancy of his attire was furthermore increased by a finely worked flexible collar of gold, set with diamonds. The first exchange of wondering glances over, he viewed Theos with a critical, half supercilious air.
"What art thou?" he demanded ... "What is thy calling?"
"Theos hesitated,—then spoke out boldly and unthinkingly—
"I am a Poet!" he said.
A murmur of irrepressible laughter and derision ran through the listening crowd. Sah-luma's lip curled haughtily—
"A Poet!" and his fingers played idly with the dagger at his belt —"Nay, not so! There is but one Poet in Al-Kyris, and I am he!"
Theos looked at him steadily,—a subtle sympathy attracted him toward this charming boaster,—involuntarily he smiled, and bent his head courteously.
"I do not seek to figure as your rival ..." he began.
"Rival!" echoed Sah-luma—"I have no rivals!"
A burst of applause from those nearest to them in the throng declared the popular approval of this assertion, and the boy bearing the harp, who had loitered to listen to the conversation, swept the strings of his instrument with a triumphant force and fervor that showed how thoroughly his feelings were in harmony with the expression of his master's sentiments. Sah-luma conquered, with an effort, his momentary irritation, and resumed coldly:
"From whence do you come, fair sir? We should know your name,— POETS are not so common!" This with an accent of irony.
Taken aback by the question, Theos stood irresolute, and uncertain what to say. For he was afflicted with a strange and terrible malady such as he dimly remembered having heard of, but never expected to suffer from,—a malady in which his memory had become almost a blank as regarded the past events of his life—though every now and then shadowy images of by-gone things flitted across his brain, like the transient reflections of wind-swept clouds on still, translucent water. Presently in the midst of his painful indecision, an answer suggested itself like a whispered hint from some invisible prompter:
"Poets like Sah-luma are no doubt as rare as nightingales in snow!" he said with a soft deference, and an increasing sense of tenderness for his haughty, handsome interlocutor—"As for me, I am a singer of sad songs that are not worth the hearing! My name is Theos,—I come from far beyond the seas, and am a stranger in Al-Kyris,—therefore if I have erred in aught, I must be blamed for ignorance, not malice!"
As he spoke Sah-luma regarded him intently,—Theos met his gaze frankly and unflinchingly. Surely there was some singular power of attraction between the two! ... for as their flashing eyes again dwelt earnestly on one another, they both smiled, and Sah-luma, advancing, proffered his hand. Theos at once accepted it, a curious sensation of pleasure tingling through his frame, as he pressed those slender blown fingers in his own cordial clasp.
"A stranger in Al-Kyris?—and from beyond the seas? Then by my life and honor, I insure thy safety and bid thee welcome! A singer of sad songs? ... Sad or merry, that thou are a singer at all makes thee the guest of the King's Laureate!" A look of conscious vanity illumined his face as he thus announced with proud emphasis his own title and claim to distinction. "The brotherhood of poets," he continued laughingly—"is a mystic and doubtful tie that hath oft been questioned,—but provided they do not, like ill-conditioned wolves, fight each other out of the arena, there should be joy in the relationship". Here, turning full upon the crowd, he lifted his rich, melodious voice to higher and more ringing tones:
"It is like you, O hasty and misjudging Kyrisians, that finding a harmless wanderer from far off lands, present at the pageant of the Midsummer Benediction, ye should pounce upon him, even as kites on a straying sea-bird, and maul him with your ruthless talons! Has he broken the law of worship! Ye have broken the law of hospitality! Has he failed to kneel to the passing Ship of the Sun? So have ye failed to handle him with due courtesy! What report shall he bear hence of your gentleness and culture to those dim and unjoyous shores beyond the gray green wall of ocean- billows, where the very name of Al-Kyris serves as a symbol for all that is great and wise and wondrous in the whole round circle of the world? Moreover ye know full well that foreigners and sojourners in the city are exempt from worship,—and the King's command is that all such should be well and nobly entertained, to the end that when they depart they may carry with them a full store of pleasant memories. Hence, scatterbrains, to your homes!— No festival can ye enjoy without a gust of contention!—ye are ill-made instruments all, whose jarring strings even I, crowned Minstrel of the King, can scarce keep one day in happy tune! Look you now! ... this stranger is my guest!—. Is there a man in Al- Kyris who will treat as an enemy one whom Sah-luma calls friend?"
A storm of applause followed this little extempore speech,— applause accompanied by an odorous rain of flowers. There were many women in the crowd, and these had pressed eagerly forward to catch every word that dropped from the Poet-Laureate's mellifluous lips,—now, moved by one common impulse, they hastily snatched off their posies and garlands, and flung them in lavish abundance at his feet. Some of the blossoms chancing to fall on Theos and cling to his garments, he quickly shook them off, and gathering them together, presented them to the personage for whom they were intended. He, however, gayly rejected them, moving his small sandalled foot playfully among the thick wealth of red and white roses that lay waiting to be crushed beneath his tread.
"Keep thy share!" he said, with an amused flash of his glorious eyes. "Such offerings are my daily lot! ... I can spare thee one handful from the overflowing harvest of my song!"
It was impossible to be offended with such charming self- complacency,—the naive conceit of the man was as harmless as the delight of a fair girl who has made her first conquest, and Theos smiling, kept the flowers. By this time the surrounding throng had broken up into little knots and groups,—all ill-humor on the part of the populace had completely vanished,—and large numbers were now leaving the embankment and dispersing in different directions to their several homes. All those who had been within hearing distance of Sah-luma's voice appeared highly elated, as though they had enjoyed some special privilege and pleasure, ... to be reproved by the Laureate was evidently considered better than being praised by any one else. Many persons pressed up to Theos, and shaking hands with him, offered their eager excuses and apologies for the misunderstanding that had lately taken place, explaining with much animation both of look and gesture, that the fact of his wearing the same style of dress as themselves had induced them to take it for granted that he must be one of their fellow-citizens, and therefore subject to the laws of the realm. Theos was just beginning to feel somewhat embarrassed by the excessive politeness and cordiality, of his recent antagonists, when Sah-luma, again interposing, cut all explanations short.
"Come, come! cease this useless prating!" he said imperatively yet good-naturedly—"In everything ye showed your dullard ignorance and lack of discernment. For, concerning the matter of attire, are not the fashions of Al-Kyris copied more or less badly in every quarter of the habitable globe?—even as our language and literature form the chief study and delight of all scholars and educated gentlemen? A truce to your discussions!—Let us get hence and home;" here he turned to Theos with a graceful salutation— "You, my good friend, will doubtless be glad to rest and recover from my countrymen's ungentle treatment of your person."
Thus saying, he made a slight commanding sign,—the clustering people drew back on either side,—and he, taking Theos by the arm, passed through their ranks, talking, laughing, and nodding graciously here and there as he went, with the half-kindly, half- indifferent ease of an affable monarch who occasionally bows to some of his poorest subjects. As he trod over the flowers that lay heaped about his path, several girls rushed impetuously forward, struggling with each other for possession of those particularly favored blossoms that had received the pressure of his foot, and kissing them, they tied them in little knots, and pinned them proudly on the bosoms of their white gowns.
One or two, more daring, stretched out their hands to touch the golden frame of the harp as it was carried past them by the youth in crimson,—a pretty fellow enough, who looked extremely haughty, and almost indignant at this effrontery on the part of the fair poet-worshippers, but he made no remonstrance, and merely held his head a little higher and walked with a more consequential air, as he followed his master at a respectful distance. Another long ecstatic shout of "Hail Sah-luma!" arose on all sides, rippling away,—away,—down, as it seemed, to the very furthest edge of echoing resonance,—and then the remainder of the crowd quickly scattered right and left, leaving the spacious embankment almost deserted, save for the presence of several copper-colored, blue- shirted individuals who were commencing the work of taking down and rolling up the silken awnings, accompanying their labors by a sort of monotonous chant that, mingling with the slow, gliding plash of the river, sounded as weird and mournful as the sough of the wind through leafless trees.
Meanwhile Theos, in the company of his new friend, began to express his thanks for the timely rescue he had received,—but Sah-luma waived all such acknowledgments aside.
"Nay, I have only served thee as a crowned Laureate should ever serve a lesser minstrel,"—he said, with that indescribably delicious air of self-flattery which was so whimsical, and yet so winning,—"And I tell thee in all good faith that, for a newly arrived visitor in Al-Kyris, thy first venture was a reckless one! To omit to kneel in the presence of the High Priestess during her Benediction, was a violation of our customs and ceremonies dangerous to life and limb! A religiously excited mob is merciless,—and if I had not chanced upon the scene of action, . ."
"I should have been no longer the man I am!" smiled Theos, looking down on his companion's light, lithe, elegant form as it moved gracefully by his side—"But that I failed in homage to the High Priestess was a most unintentional lack of wit on my part,—for if THAT was the High Priestess,—that dazzling wonder of beauty who lately passed in a glittering ship, on her triumphant way down the river, like a priceless pearl in a cup of gold..."
"Aye, aye!" and Sah-luma's dark brows contracted in a slight frown—"Not so many fine words, I pray thee! Thou couldst not well mistake her,—there is only one Lysia!"
"Lysia!" murmured Theos dreamily, and the musical name slid off his lips with a soft, sibilant sound,—"Lysia! And I forgot to kneel to that enchanting, that adorable being! Oh unwise, benighted fool!—where were my thoughts? Next time I see her I will atone! .—no matter what creed she represents,—I will kiss the dust at her feet, and so make reparation for my sin!"
Sah-luma glanced at him with a somewhat dubious expression.
"What!—art thou already persuaded?" he queried lightly, "and wilt thou also be one of us? Well, thou wilt need to kiss the dust in very truth, if thou servest Lysia, . . no half-measures will suit where she, the Untouched and Immaculate, is concerned,"—and here there was a faint inflection of mingled mockery and sadness in his tone—"To love her is, for many men, an absolute necessity,—but the Virgin Priestess of the Sun and the Serpent receives love, as statues may receive it,—moving all others to frenzy, she is herself unmoved!"
Theos listened, scarcely hearing. He was studying every line in Sah-luma's face and figure with fixed and wistful attention. Almost unconsciously he pressed the arm he held, and Sah-luma looked up at him with a half-smile.
"I fancy we shall like each other!" he said—"Thou art a western singing bird-of-passage, and I a nested nightingale amid the roses of the East,—our ways of making melody are different,—we shall not quarrel!"
"Quarrel!" echoed Theos amazedly—"Nay! ... I might quarrel with my nearest and dearest, but never with thee, Sah-luma! For I know thee for a very prince of poets! ... and would as soon profane the sanctity of the Muse herself, as violate thy proffered friendship!"
"Why, so!" returned Sah-luma, his brilliant eyes flashing with undisguised pleasure,—"An' thou thinkest thus of me we shall be firm and fast companions! Thou hast spoken well and not without good instruction—I perceive my fame hath reached thee in thine own ocean-girdled lands, where music is as rare as sunshine. Right glad am I that chance has thrown us together, for now thou wilt be better able to judge of my unrivalled master-skill in sweet word- weaving! Thou must abide with me for all the days of thy sojourn here. ... Art willing?"
"Willing? ... Aye! more than willing!" exclaimed Theos enthusiastically—"But,—if I burden hospitality.."
"Burden!" and Sah-luma laughed—"Talk not of burdens to me!—I, who have feasted kings, and made light of their entertaining! Here," he added as he led the way through a broad alley, lined with magnificent palms—"here is the entrance to my poor dwelling!" and a sparkling, mischievous smile brightened his features.—"There is room enough in it, methinks to hold thee, even if thou hadst brought a retinue of slaves!"
He pointed before him as he spoke, and Theos stood for a moment stock-still and overcome with astonishment, at the size and splendor of the palace whose gates they were just approaching. It was a dome-shaped building of the purest white marble, surrounded on all sides by long, fluted colonnades, and fronted by spacious court paved with mosaics, where eight flower-bordered fountains dashed up to the hot, blue sky, incessant showers of refreshing spray.
Into this court and across it, Sah-luma led his wondering guest, . . ascending a wide flight of steps, they entered a vast open hall, where the light poured in through rose-colored and pale blue glass, that gave a strange yet lovely effect of mingled sunset and moonlight to the scene. Here—reclining about on cushions of silk and velvet—were several beautiful girls in various attitudes of indolence and ease,—one laughing, black-haired houri was amusing herself with a tame bird which flew to and from her uplifted finger,—another in a half-sitting posture, played cup-and-ball with much active and graceful dexterity,—some were working at gold and silver embroidery,—others, clustered in a semicircle round a large osier basket filled with myrtle, were busy weaving garlands of the fragrant leaves,—and one maiden, seemingly younger than the rest, and of lighter and more delicate complexion, leaned somewhat pensively against an ebony-framed harp, as though she were considering what sad or suggestive chords she should next awaken from its responsive strings. As Sah-luma and Theos appeared, these nymphs all rose from their different occupations and amusements, and stood with bent heads and folded hands in statuesque silence and humility.
"These are my human rosebuds!" said Sah-luma softly and gayly, as holding the dazzled Theos by the arm he escorted him past these radiant and exquisite forms—"They bloom, and fade, and die, like the flowers thrown by the populace,—proud and happy to feel that their perishable loveliness has, even, for a brief while, been made more lasting by contact with my deathless poet-fame! Ah, Niphrata!" and he paused at the side of the girl standing by the harp—"Hast thou sung many of my songs to-day? ... or is thy voice too weak for such impassioned cadence? Thou art pale, . . I miss thy soft blush and dimpling smile,—what ails thee, my honey-throated oriole?"
"Nothing, my lord"—answered Niphrata in a low tone, raising a pair of lovely, dusky, violet eyes, fringed with long black lashes,—"Nothing,—save that my heart is always sad in thine absence!"
Sah-luma smiled, well pleased.
"Let it be sad no longer then!" he said, caressing her cheek with his hand,—and Theos saw a wave of rich color mounting swiftly to her fair brows at his touch, as though she were a white poppy warming to crimson in the ardent heat of the sun—"I love to see thee merry,—mirth suits a young and beauteous face like thine! Look you, Sweet!—I bring with me here a stranger from far-off lands,—one to whom Sah-luma's name is as a star in the desert!—I must needs have thy voice in all its full lusciousness of tune to warble for his pleasure those heart-entangling ditties of mine which thou hast learned to render with such matchless tenderness! ... Thanks, Gisenya," ... this as another maiden advanced, and, gently removing the myrtle-wreath he wore, placed one just freshly woven on his clustering curls, . . then, turning to Theos, he inquired—"Wilt thou also wear a minstrel-garland, my friend? Niphrata or Gisenya will crown thee!"
"I am not worthy"—answered Theos, bending his head in low salutation to the two lovely girls, who stood eying him with a certain wistful wonder—"One spray from Sah-luma's discarded wreath will best suffice me!"
Sah-luma broke into a laugh of absolute delight.
"I swear thou speakest well and like a true man!" he said joyously. "Unfamous as thou art, thou deservest honor for the frank confession of thy lack of merit! Believe me, there are some boastful rhymers in Al-Kyris who would benefit much by a share of thy becoming modesty! Give him his wish, Gisenya—" and Gisenya, obediently detaching a sprig of myrtle from the wreath Sah-luma had worn all day, handed it to Theos with a graceful obeisance— "For who knows but the leaves may contain a certain witchery we wot not of, that shall endow him with a touch of the divine inspiration!"
At that moment, a curious figure came shuffling across the splendid hall,—that of a little old man somewhat shabbily attired, upon whose wrinkled countenance there seemed to be a fixed, malign smile, like the smile of a mocking Greek mask. He had small, bright, beady black eyes placed very near the bridge of his large hooked nose,—his thin, wispy gray locks streamed scantily over his bent shoulders, and he carried a tall staff to support his awkward steps,—a staff with which he made a most disagreeable tapping noise on the marble pavement as he came along.
"Ah, Sir Gad-about!" he exclaimed in a harsh, squeaky voice as he perceived Sah-luma—"Back again from your self-advertising in the city! Is there any poor soul left in Al-Kyris whose ears have not been deafened by the parrot-cry of the name of Sah-luma?—If there is,—at him, at him, my dainty warbler of tiresome trills!—at him, and storm his senses with a rhodomontade of rhymes without reason!—at him, Immortal of the Immortals!—Bard of Bards!—stuff him with quatrains and sextains!—beat him with blank verse, blank of all meaning!—lash him with ballad and sonnet-scourges, till the tortured wretch, howling for mercy, shall swear that no poet save Sah-luma, ever lived before, or will ever live again, on the face of the shuddering and astonished earth!"
And breathless with this extraordinary outburst, he struck his staff loudly on the floor, and straightway fell into such a violent fit of coughing that his whole lean body shook with the paroxysm.
Sah-luma laughed heartily,—laughter in which he was joined by all the assembled maidens, including the gentle, pensive-eyed Niphrata. Standing erect in his glistening princely attire, with one hand resting familiarly on Theos's arm, and the sparkle of mirth lighting up his handsome features, he formed the greatest contrast imaginable to the little shrunken old personage, who, clinging convulsively to his staff, was entirely absorbed in his efforts to control and overcome his sudden and unpleasant attack of threatened suffocation.
"Theos, my friend,"—he said, still laughing—"Thou must know the admirable Zabastes,—a man of vast importance in his own opinion! Have done with thy wheezing,"—he continued, vehemently thumping the struggling old gentleman on the back—"Here is another one of the minstrel craft thou hatest,—hast aught of bitterness in thy barbed tongue wherewith to welcome him as guest to mine abode?"
Thus adjured, the old man peered up at Theos inquisitively, wiping away the tears that coughing had brought into his eyes, and after a minute or two began also to laugh in a smothered, chuckling way,—a laugh that resembled the croaking of frogs in a marshy pool.
"Another one of the minstrel-craft," he echoed derisively—"Aye, aye! ... Like meets like, and fools consorts with fool. The guest of Sah-luma, . . Hearken, young man,—" and he drew closer, the malign grin widening on his furrowed face,—"Thou shalt learn enough trash here to stock thee with idiot-songs for a century. Thou shalt gather up such fragments of stupidity, as shall provide thee with food for all the puling love-sick girls of a nation! Dost thou write follies also? ... thou shalt not write them here, thou shalt not even think them!—for here Sah-luma,—the great, the unrivalled Sah-luma,—is sole Lord of the land of Poesy. Poesy,—by all the gods!—I would the accursed art had never been invented ... so might the world have been spared many long-drawn nothings, enwoofed in obscure and distracting phraseology! ... THOU a would-be Poet?—go to!—make brick, mend sandals, dig entrenchments, fight for thy country,—and leave the idle stringing of words, and the tinkling of rhyme, to children like Sah-luma, who play with life instead of living it."
And with this, he hobbled off uneasily, grunting and grumbling as he went, and waving his staff magisterially right and left to warn the smiling maidens out of his way,—and once more Sah-luma's laughter, clear and joyous, pealed through the vaulted vestibule.
"Poor Zabastes!" he said in a tone of good-humored tolerance—"He has the most caustic wit of any man in Al-Kyris! He is a positive marvel of perverseness and ill-humor, well worth the four hundred golden pieces I pay him yearly for his task of being my scribe and critic. Like all of us he must live, eat and wear decent clothing,—and that his only literary skill lies in the abuse of better men than himself is his misfortune, rather than his fault. Yes! ... he is my paid Critic, paid to rail against me on all occasions public or private, for the merriment of those who care to listen to the mutterings of his discontent,—and, by the Sacred Veil! ... I cannot choose but laugh myself whenever I think of him. He deems his words carry weight with the people,—alas, poor soul! his scorn but adds to my glory,—his derision to my fame! Nay, of a truth I need him,—even as the King needs the court fool,—to make mirth for me in vacant moments,—for there is something grotesque in the contemplation of his cankered clownishness, that sees nought in life but the eating, the sleeping, the building, and the bargaining. Such men as he can never bear to know that there are others, gifted by heaven, for whom all common things take radiant shape and meaning,—for whom the flowers reveal their fragrant secrets,—for whom birds not only sing, but speak in most melodious utterance—for whose dreaming eyes, the very sunbeams spin bright fantasies in mid-air more lasting than the kingdoms of the world! Blind and unhappy Zabastes! ... he is ignorant as a stone, and for him the mysteries of Nature are forever veiled. The triumphal hero-march of the stars,—the brief, bright rhyme of the flashing comet,—the canticle of the rose as she bears her crimson heart to the smile of the sun,—the chorus of green leaves chanting orisons to the wind—the never completed epic of heaven's lofty solitudes where the white moon paces, wandering like a maiden in search of love,— all these and other unnumbered joys he has lost—joys that Sah- luma, child of the high gods and favorite of Destiny drinks in with the light and the air."
His eyes softened with a dreamy, intense lustre that gave them a new and almost pathetic beauty, while Theos, listening to each word he uttered, wondered whether there were ever any sounds sweeter than the rise and fall of his exquisite voice,—a voice as deliciously clear and mellow as a golden flute tenderly played.
"Yes!—though we must laugh at Zabastes we should also pity him," —he resumed in gayer accents—"His fate is not enviable. He is nothing but a Critic—he could not well be a lesser man,—one who, unable himself to do any great work, takes refuge in finding fault with the works of others. And those who abhor true Poesy are in time themselves abhorred,—the balance of Justice never errs in these things. The Poet wins the whole world's love, and immortal fame,—his adverse Critic, brief contempt, and measureless oblivion. Come,"—he added, addressing Theos—"we will leave these maidens to their duties and pastimes,—Niphrata!" here his dazzling smile flashed like a beam of sunlight over his face— "thou wilt bring us fruit and wine yonder,—we shall pass the afternoon together within doors. Bid my steward prepare the Rose Chamber for my guest, and let Athazel and Zimra attend there to wait upon him."
All the maidens saluted, touching their heads with their hands in token of obedience, and Sah-luma leading the way, courteously beckoned Theos to follow. He did so, conscious as he went of two distinct impressions,—first, that the mysterious mental agitation he had suffered from when he had found himself so unexpectedly in a strange city, was not completely dispelled,—and secondly, that he felt as though he must have known Sah-luma all his life! His memory still remained a blank as regarded his past career,—but this fact had ceased to trouble him, and he was perfectly tranquil, and altogether satisfied with his present surroundings. In short, to be in Al-Kyris, seemed to him quite in keeping with the necessary course of events,—while to be the friend and companion of Sah-luma was more natural and familiar to his mind, than all once natural and familiar things.
A POET'S PALACE.
Gliding along with that graceful, almost phantom-like swiftness of movement that was so much a part of his manner, Sah-luma escorted his visitor to the further end of the great hall. There,—throwing aside a curtain of rich azure silk which partially draped two large folding-doors,—he ushered him into a magnificent apartment opening out upon the terrace and garden beyond,—a garden filled with such a marvellous profusion of foliage and flowers, that looking at it from between the glistening marble columns surrounding the palace, it seemed as though the very sky above rested edge-wise on towering pyramids of red and white bloom. Awnings of pale blue stretched from the windows across the entire width of the spacious outer colonnade, and here two small boys, half nude, and black as polished ebony, were huddled together on the mosaic pavement, watching the arrogant deportment of a superb peacock that strutted majestically to and fro with boastfully spreading tail and glittering crest as brilliant as the gleam of the hot sun on the silver fringe of the azure canopies.
"Up, lazy rascals!" cried Sah-luma imperiously, as with the extreme point of his sandaled foot he touched the dimpled, shiny back of the nearest boy—"Up, and away! ... Fetch rose-water and sweet perfumes hither! By the gods! ye have let the incense in yonder burner smoulder!"—and he pointed to a massive brazen vessel, gorgeously ornamented, from whence rose but the very faintest blue whiff of fragrant smoke—"Off with ye both, ye basking blackamoors! bring fresh frankincense,—and palm-leaves wherewith to stir this heated air—hence and back again like a lightning-flash! ... or out of my sight forever!"
While he spoke, the little fellows stood trembling and ducking their woolly heads, as though they half expected to be seized by their irate master and flung, like black balls, out into the wilderness of flowers, but glancing timidly up and perceiving that even in the midst of his petulance he smiled, they took courage, and as soon as he had ceased they darted off with the swiftness of flying arrows, each striving to outstrip the other in a race across the terrace and garden. Sah-luma laughed as he watched them disappear,—and then stepping back into the interior of the apartment he turned to Theos and bade him be seated. Theos sank unresistingly into a low, velvet-cushioned chair richly carved and inlaid with ivory, and stretching his limbs indolently therein, surveyed with new and ever-growing admiration the supple, elegant figure of his host, who, throwing himself full length on a couch covered with leopard-skins, folded his arms behind his head, and eyed his guest with a complacent smile of vanity and self- approval.
"'Tis not an altogether unfitting retreat for a poet's musings"— he said, assuming an air of indifference, as he glanced round his luxurious, almost royally appointed room—"I have heard of worse! —But truly it needs the highest art of all known nations to worthily deck a habitation wherein the divine Muse may daily dwell, ... nevertheless, air, light, and flowers are not lacking, and on these methinks I could subsist, were I deprived of all other things!"
Theos sat silent, looking about him wistfully. Was ever poet, king, or even emperor, housed more sumptuously than this, he thought? ... as his eyes wandered to the domed ceiling, wreathed with carved clusters of grapes and pomegranates,—the walls, frescoed with glowing scenes of love and song-tournament,—the groups of superb statuary that gleamed whitely out of dusky, velvet-draped corners,—the quaintly shaped book-cases, overflowing with books, and made so as to revolve round and round at a touch, or move to and fro on noiseless wheels,—the grand busts, both in bronze and marble, that stood on tall pedestals or projecting bracket; and,—while he dimly noted all these splendid evidences of unlimited wealth and luxury,—the perfume and lustre of the place, the glitter of gold and azure, silver and scarlet, the oriental languor pervading the very air, and above all the rich amber and azure-tinted light that bathed every object in a dream-like and fairy radiance, plunged his senses into a delicious confusion,—a throbbing fever of delight to which he could give no name, but which permeated every fibre of his being.
He felt half blinded with the brilliancy of the scene,—the dazzling glow of color,—the sheen of deep and delicate hues cunningly intermixed and contrasted,—the gorgeous lavishness of waving blossoms that seemed to surge up like a sea to the very windows,—and though many thoughts flitted hazily through his brain, he could not shape them into utterance. He stared vaguely at the floor,—it was paved with variegated mosaic and strewn with the soft, dark, furry skins of wild animals,—at a little distance from where he sat there was a huge bronze lectern supported by a sculptured griffin with horns,—horns which curving over at the top, turned upward again in the form of candelabra,—the harp- bearer had brought in the harp, and it now stood in a conspicuous position decked with myrtle, some of the garlands woven by the maidens being no doubt used for this purpose.
Yet there was something mirage-like and fantastic in the splendor that everywhere surrounded him,—he felt as though he were one of the spectators in a vast auditorium where the curtain had just risen on the first scene of the play He was dubiously considering in his own perplexed mind, whether such princely living were the privilege, or right, or custom of poets in general, when Sah-luma spoke again, waving his hand toward one of the busts near him—a massive, frowning head, magnificently sculptured.
"There is the glorious Orazel!" he said—"The father, as we all must own, of the Art of Poesy, and indeed of all true literature! Yet there be some who swear he never lived at all—aye! though his poems have come down to us,—and many are the arguments I have had with so-called wise men like Zabastes, concerning his style and method of versification. Everything he has written bears the impress of the same master-touch,—nevertheless garrulous controversialists hold that his famous work the 'Ruva-Kalama' descended by oral tradition from mouth to mouth till it came to us in its 'improved' present condition. 'Improved!'" and Sah-luma laughed disdainfully,—"As if the mumbling of an epic poem from grandsire to grandson could possibly improve it! ... it would rather be deteriorated, if not altogether changed into the merest doggerel! Nay, nay!—the 'Ruva-Kalama,' is the achievement of one great mind,—not twenty Oruzels were born in succession to write it,—there was, there could be only one, and he, by right supreme, is chief of the Bards Immortal! As well might fools hereafter wrangle together and say there were many Sah-lumas! ... only I have taken good heed posterity shall know there was only ONE,— unmatched for love-impassioned singing throughout the length and breadth of the world!"
He sprang up from his recumbent posture and attracted Theos's attention to another bust even finer than the last,—it was placed on a pedestal wreathed at the summit and at the base with laurel.
"The divine Hyspiros!" he exclaimed pointing to it in a sort of ecstasy—"The Master from whom it may be I have caught the perfect entrancement of my own verse-melody! His fame, as thou knowest, is unrivalled and universal—yet—canst thou believe it! ... there has been of late an ass found in Al-Kyris who hath chosen him as a subject for his braying—and other asses join in the uneuphonius chorus. The marvellous Plays of Hyspiros! ... the grandest tragedies, the airiest comedies, the tenderest fantasies, ever created by human brain, have been called in question by these thistle-eating animals!—and one most untractable mule-head hath made pretence to discover therein a passage of secret writing which shall, so the fool thinks, prove that Hyspiros was not the author of his own works, but only a literary cheat, and forger of another and lesser man's inspiration! By the gods!—one's sides would split with laughter at the silly brute, were he not altogether too contemptible to provoke even derision! Hyspiros a traitor to the art he served and glorified? ... Hyspiros a literary juggler and trickster? ... By the Serpent's Head! they may as well seek to prove the fiery Sun in Heaven a common oil- lamp, as strive to lessen by one iota the transcendent glory of the noblest poet the centuries have ever seen!"
Warmed by enthusiasm, with his eyes flashing and the impetuous words coursing from his lips, his head thrown back, his hand uplifted, Sah-luma looked magnificent,—and Theos, to whose misty brain the names of Oruzel and Hyspiros carried no positively distinct meaning, was nevertheless struck by a certain suggestiveness in his remarks that seemed to bear on some discussion in the literary world that had taken place quite recently. He was puzzled and tried to fix the precise point round which his thoughts strayed so hesitatingly, but he could arrive at no definite conclusion. The brilliant, meteor-like Sah-luma meantime flashed hither and thither about the room, selecting certain volumes from his loaded book-stands, and bringing them in a pile, he set them on a small table by his visitor's side.
"These are some of the earliest editions of the plays of Hyspiros"—he went on, talking in that rapid, fluent way of his that was as musical as a bird's song—"They are rare and curious. See you!—the names of the scribes and the dates of issue are all distinct. Ah!—the treasures of poetry enshrined within these pages! ... was ever papyrus so gemmed with pearls of thought and wisdom?—If there were a next world, my friend,"—and here he placed his hand familiarly on his guest's shoulder, while the bright, steel-gray under-gleam sparkled in his splendid eyes— "'twould be worth dwelling in for the sake of Hyspiros,—as grand a god as any of the Thunderers in the empyrean!"
"Surely there is a next world"—murmured Theos, scarcely knowing what he said—"A world where thou and I, Sah-luma, and all the masters and servants of song shall meet and hold high festival!"
Sah-luma laughed again, a little sadly this time, and shrugged his shoulders.
"Believe it not!" he said, and there was a touch of melancholy in his rich voice—"We are midges in a sunbeam,—emmets on a sand- hill...no more! Is there a next world, thinkest thou, for the bees who die of surfeit in the nilica-cups?—for the whirling drift of brilliant butterflies that sleepily float with the wind unknowing whither, till met by the icy blast of the north, they fall like broken and colorless leaves in the dust of the high-road? Is there a next world for this?"—and he took from a tall vase near at hand a delicate flower, lily-shaped and deliciously odorous, . . "The expression of its soul or mind is in its fragrance,—even as the expression of ours finds vent in thought and aspiration,—have we more right to live again than this most innocently fair blossom, unsmirched by deeds of evil? Nay!—I would more easily believe in a heaven for birds and flowers, than for women and men!"
A shadow of pain darkened his handsome face as he spoke, . . and Theos, gazing full at him, became suddenly filled with pity and anxiety,—he passionately longed to assure him that there was in very truth a future higher and happier existence,—he, Theos, would vouch for the fact! But how? ... and why? ... What could he say? ... what could he prove? ...
His throat ached,—his eyeballs burned, he was, as it were, forbidden to speak, notwithstanding the yearning desire he felt to impart to the soul of his new-found friend something of that indescribable sense of EVERLASTINGNESS which he himself was now conscious of, even as one set free of prison is conscious of liberty. Mute, and with a feeling as of hot, unshed tears welling up from his very heart, he turned over the volumes of Hyspiros almost mechanically,—they were formed of sheets of papyrus artistically bound in loose leather coverings and tied together with gold-colored ribbon.
The Kyrisian language was, as has been before stated, perfectly familiar to him, though he could not tell how he had acquired the knowledge of it,—and he was able to see at a glance that Sah-luma had good cause to be enthusiastic in his praise of the author whose genius he so fervently admired. There was a ringing richness in the rush of the verse,—a wealth of simile combined with a simplicity and directness of utterance that charmed the ear while influencing the mind, and he was beginning to read in sotto-voce the opening lines of a spirited battle-challenge running thus:
"I tell thee, O thou pride enthroned King That from these peaceful fields, these harvest lands, Strange crops shall spring, not sown by thee or thine! Arm'd millions, bristling weapons, helmed men Dreadfully plum'd and eager for the fray, Steel crested myrmidons, toss'd spears, wild steeds, Uplifted flags and pennons, horrid swords, Death gleaming eyes, stern hands to grasp and tear Life from beseeching life, till all the heavens Strike havoc to the terror-trembling stars"...
when the two small, black pages lately dispatched in such haste by Sah-luma returned, each one bearing a huge gilded bowl filled with rose water, together with fine cloths, lace-fringed, and soft as satin.
Kneeling humbly down, one before Theos, the other before Sah-luma, they lifted these great, shining bowls on their heads, and remained motionless. Sah-luma dipped his face and hands in the cool, fragrant fluid,—Theos followed his example,—and when these light ablutions were completed, the pages disappeared, coming back almost immediately with baskets of loose rose-leaves, white and red, which they scattered profusely about the room. A delightful odor subtly sweet, and yet not faint, began to freshen the already perfumed air,—and Sah-luma, flinging himself again on his couch, motioned Theos to take a similar resting-place opposite.
He at once obeyed, yielding anew to the sense of indolent luxury and voluptuous ease his surroundings engendered,—and presently the aroma of rising incense mingled itself with the scent of the strewn rose-petals,—the pages had replenished the incense-burner, and now, these duties done so far, they brought each a broad, long stalked palm-leaf, and placing themselves in proper position, began to fan the two young men slowly and with measured gentleness, standing as mute as little black statues, the only movement about them being the occasional rolling of their white eyeballs and the swaying to and fro of their shiny arms as they wielded the graceful, bending leaves.
"This is the way a poet should ever live!" murmured Theos, glancing up from the soft cushions among which he reclined, to Sah-luma, who lay with his eyes half-closed and a musing smile on his beautiful mouth—"Self centered in a circle of beauty,—with naught but fair suggestions and sweet thoughts to break the charm of solitude. A kingdom of happy fancies should be his, with gates shut last against unwelcome intruders,—gates that should never open save to the conquering touch of woman's kiss! ... for the master-key of love must unlock all doors, even the doors of a minstrel's dreaming!"
"Thinkest thou so?" said Sah-luma lazily, turning his dark, delicate head slightly round on his glistening, pale-rose satin pillow—"Nay, of a truth there are times when I could bar out women from my thoughts as mere disturbers of the translucent element of poesy in which my spirit bathes. There is fatigue in love, . . whose pretty human butterflies too oft weary the flower whose honey they seek to drain. Nevertheless the passion of love hath a certain tingling pleasure in it, . . I yield to it when it touches me, even as I yield to all other pleasant things,—but there are some who unwisely carry desire too far, and make of love a misery instead of a pastime. Many will die for love,—fools are they all! To die for fame, . . for glory, . . that I can understand, . . but for love! ..." he laughed, and taking up a crushed rose-petal he flipped it into the air with his finger and thumb—"I would as soon die for sake of that perished leaf as for sake of a woman's transient beauty!"
As he uttered these words Niphrata entered, carrying a golden salver on which were placed a tall flagon, two goblets, and a basket of fruit. She approached Theos first, and he, raising himself on his elbow, surveyed her with fresh admiration and interest while he poured out the wine from the flagon into one of those glistening cups, which he noticed were rough with the quantity of small gems used in their outer ornamentation.
He was struck by her fair and melancholy style of loveliness, and as she stood before him with lowered eyes, the color alternately flushing and paling on her cheeks, and her bosom heaving restlessly beneath the loosely drawn folds of her prim rose-hued gown, an inexplicable emotion of pity smote him, as if he had suddenly been made aware of some inward sorrow of hers which he was utterly powerless to console. He would have spoken, but just then could find nothing appropriate to say, . . and when he had selected a fine peach from the heaped-up dainties offered for his choice, he still watched her as she turned to Sah-luma, who smiled, and bade her set down her salver on a low, bronze stand at his side. She did so, and then with the warm blood burning in her cheeks, stood waiting and silent. Sah-luma, with a lithe movement of his supple form, lifted himself into a half-sitting posture, and throwing one arm round her waist, drew her close to his breast and kissed her.
"My fairest moonbeam!" he said gayly—"Thou art as noiseless and placid as thy yet unembodied sisters that stream through heaven and dance on the river when the world is sleeping! Myrtle! ..." and he detached a spray from the bosom of her dress—"What hast thou to do with the poet's garland? By my faith, thou art like Theos yonder, and hast chosen to wear a sprig of my faded crown for thine adornment—is't not so?" A hot and painful blush crimsoned Niphrata's face,—a softness as of suppressed tears glistened in her eyes,—she made no answer, but looked beseechingly at the little twig Sah-luma held. "Silly child!" he went on laughingly, replacing it himself against her bosom, where the breath seemed to struggle with such panting haste and fear— "Thou art welcome to the dead leaves sanctified by song, if thou thinkest them of value, but I would rather see the rosebud of love nestled in that pretty white breast of thine, than the cast-off ornaments of fame!"
And filling himself a cup of wine he raised it aloft, looking at Theos smilingly as he did so.
"To your health, my noble friend!" he cried, "and to the joys of the passing hour!"
"A wise toast!" answered Theos, placing his lips to his own goblet's rim,—"For the past is past,—'twill never return,—the future we know not,—and only the present can be called our own! To the health of the divine Sah-luma, whose fame is my glory!— whose friendship is dear to me as life!"
And with this, he drained off the wine to the last drop. Scarcely had he done so, when the most curious sensation overcame him—a sensation of bewildering ecstasy as though he had drunk of some ambrosian nectar or magic drug which had suddenly wound up his nerves to an acute tension of indescribable delight. The blood coursed more swiftly through his veins,—he felt his face flush with the impulsive heat and ardor of the moment,—he laughed as he set the cup down empty, and throwing himself back on his luxurious couch, his eyes flashed on Sah-luma's with a bright, comprehensive glance of complete confidence and affection. It was strange to note how quickly Sah-luma returned that glance,—how thoroughly, in so short a space of time, their friendship had cemented itself into a more than fraternal bond of union! Niphrata, meanwhile, stood a little aside, her wistful looks wandering from one to the other as though in something of doubt or wonder. Presently she spoke, inclining her fair head toward Sah-luma.
"My lord goes to the Palace to-night to make his valued voice heard in the presence of the King?" she inquired timidly.
"Even so, Niphrata!" responded the Laureate, passing his hand carelessly through his clustering curls—"I have been summoned thither by the Royal command. But what of that, little one? Thou knowest 'tis a common occurrence,—and that the Court is bereft of all pleasure and sweetness when Sah-luma is silent."
"My lord's guest goes with him?" pursued Niphrata gently.
"Aye, most assuredly?" and Sah-luma smiled at Theos as he spoke— "Thou wilt accompany me to the King, my friend?" he went on—"He will give thee a welcome for my sake, and though of a truth His Majesty is most potently ignorant of all things save the arts of love and warfare, nevertheless he is man as well as monarch, and thou wilt find him noble in his greeting and generous of hospitality."
"I will go with thee, Sah-luma, anywhere!" replied Theos quickly— "For in following such a guide, I follow my own most perfect pleasure."
Niphrata looked at him meditatively, with a melancholy expression in her lovely eyes.
"My lord Sah-luma's presence indeed brings joy!" she said softly and tremulously—"But the joy is too sweet and brief—for when he departs, none can fill the place he leaves vacant!"
She paused,—Sah-luma's gaze rested on her intently, a half- amused, half-tender light leaping from under the drooping shade of his long, silky black lashes,—she caught the look, and a little shiver ran through her delicate frame,—she pressed one hand on her heart, and resumed in steadier and more even tones,—"My lord has perhaps not heard of the disturbances of the early morning in the city?"—she asked—"The riotous crowd in the marketplace—the ravings of the Prophet Khosrul? ... the sudden arrest and imprisonment of many,—and the consequent wrath of the King?"
"No, by my faith!" returned Sah-luma, yawning slightly and settling his head more comfortably on his pillows—"Nor do I care to heed the turbulence of a mob that cannot guide itself and yet resists all guidance. Arrests? ... imprisonments? ... they are common,—but why in the name of the Sacred Veil do they not arrest and imprison the actual disturbers of the peace,—the Mystics and Philosophers whose street orations filter through the mind of the disaffected, rousing them to foolish frenzy and disordered action?—Why, above all men, do they not seize Khosrul?—a veritable madman, for all his many years and seeming wisdom! Hath he not denounced the faith of Nagaya and foretold the destruction of the city times out of number? ... and are we not all weary to death of his bombastic mouthing? If the King deemed a poet's counsel worth the taking, he would long ago have shut this bearded ranter within the four walls of a dungeon, where only rats and spiders would attend his lectures on approaching Doom!"
"Nay, but my lord—" Niphrata ventured to say timidly—"The King dare not lay hands on Khosrul ..."
"Dare not!" laughed Sah-luma lazily stretching out his hand and helping himself to a luscious nectarine from the basket at his side—"Sweet Niphrata! ... settest thou a limit to the power of the King? As well draw a boundary-line for the imagination of the poet! Khosrul may be loved and feared by a certain number of superstitious malcontents who look upon a madman as a sort of sacred wild animal,—but the actual population of Al-Kyris,—the people who are the blood, bone, and sinew of the city,—these are not in favor of change either in religion, laws, manners, or customs. But Khosrul is old,—and that the King humors his vagaries is simply out of pity for his age and infirmity, Niphrata,—not because of fear! Our Monarch knows no fear."
"Khosrul prophesies terrible things!" ... murmured the girl hesitatingly—"I have often thought ... if they should come true. ..."
"Thou timid dove!" and Sah-luma, rising from his couch, kissed her neck lightly, thus causing a delicate flush of crimson to ripple through the whiteness of her skin—"Think no more of such folly— thou wilt anger me. That a doting graybeard like Khosrul should trouble the peace of Al-Kyris the Magnificent, ... by the gods— the whole thing is absurd! Let me hear no more of mobs or riots, or road-rhetoric,—my soul abhors even the suggestion of discord. Tranquillity! ... Divinest calm, disturbed only by the flutterings of winged thoughts hovering over the cloudless heaven of fancy! ... this, this alone is the sum and centre of my desires.—and to- day I find that even thou, Niphrata—" here his voice took upon itself an injured tone,—"thou, who art usually so gentle, hast somewhat troubled the placidity of my mind by thy foolish talk concerning common and unpleasant circumstances, ... "He stopped short and a line of vexation and annoyance made its appearance between his broad, beautiful brows, while Niphrata seeing this expression of almost baby-petulance in the face she adored threw herself suddenly at his feet, and raising her lovely eyes swimming in tears, she exclaimed:
"My lord! Sah-luma! Singing-angel of Niphrata's soul!—Forgive me! It is true, ... thou shouldst never hear of strife or contention among the coarser tribe of men,—and I, ... I, poor Niphrata, would give my life to shield thee from the faintest shadow of annoy! I would have thy path all woven sunbeams,—thou shouldst live like a fairy monarch embowered 'mid roses, sheltered from rough winds, and folded in loving arms, fairer maybe, hut not more fond than mine!" ... Her voice broke,—stooping, she kissed the silver fastening of his sandal, and springing up, rushed from the room before a word could be uttered to bid her stay.
Sah-luma looked after her with a pretty, half-pleased perplexity.
"She is often thus!" he said in a tone of playful resignation,— "As I told thee, Theos,—women are butterflies, hovering hither and thither on uneasy pinions, uncertain of their own desires. Niphrata is a woman-riddle,—sometimes she angers me,—sometimes she soothes, ... now she prattles of things that concern me not,— and anon converses with such high and lofty earnestness of speech, that I listen amazed, and wonder where she hath gathered up her store of seeming wisdom."