"Love teaches her all she knows!" interrupted Theos quickly and with a meaning glance.
Sah-luma laughed languidly, a faint color warming the clear olive pallor of his complexion.
"Aye,—poor tender little soul, she loves me,".. he said carelessly—"That is no secret! But then all women love me,—I am more like to die of a surfeit of love than of anything else" He moved towards the open window "Come!—" he added—"It is the hour of sunset,—there is a green hillock in my garden yonder from whence we can behold the pomp and panoply of the golden god's departure. 'Tis a sight I never miss,—I would have thee share its glory with me."
"But art thou then indifferent to woman's tenderness?" asked Theos half banteringly, as he took his arm—"Dost thou love no one?"
"My friend"—replied Sah-luma seriously—"I love Myself! I see naught that contents me more than my own Personality,—and with all my heart I admire the miracle and beauty of my own existence! There is nothing even in the completest fairness of womanhood that satisfies me so much as the contemplation of my own genius,— realizing as I do its wondrous power and perfect charm! The life of a poet such as I am is a perpetual marvel!—the whole Universe ministers to my needs,—Humanity becomes the merest bound slave to the caprice of my imperial imagination,—with a thought I scale the stars,—with a wish I float in highest ether among spheres undiscovered yet familiar to my fancy—I converse with the spirits of flowers and fountains,—and the love of women is a mere drop in the deep ocean of my unfathomed delight! Yes,—I adore my own Identity! ... and of a truth Self-worship is the only Creed the world has ever followed faithfully to the end!"
He glanced up with a bright, assured smile,—Theos met his gaze wonderingly, doubtfully,—but made no reply,—and together they paced slowly across the marble terrace, and out into the glorious garden, rich with the riotous roses that clambered and clustered everywhere, their hues deepening to flame-like vividness in the burning radiance of the sinking sun.
THE SUMMONS OF THE SIGNET.
They walked side by side for some little time without speaking, through winding paths of alternate light and shade, sheltered by the latticework of crossed and twisted green boughs where only the amorous chant of charming birds now and then broke the silence with fitful and tender sweetness. All the air about them was fragrant and delicate,—tiny rainbow-winged midges whirled round and danced in the warm sunset-glow like flecks of gold in amber wine,—while here and there the distant glimmer of tossing fountains, or the soft emerald sheen of a prattling brook that wound in and out the grounds, amongst banks of moss and drooping fern, gave a pleasant touch of coolness and refreshment to the brilliant verdure of the luxuriant landscape.
"Speaking of creeds, Sah-luma"—said Theos at last, looking down with a curious sense of compassion and protection at his companion's slight, graceful form—"What religion is it that dominates this city and people? To-day, through want of knowledge, it seems I committed a nearly unpardonable offence by gazing at the beauty of the Virgin Priestess when I should have knelt face- hidden to her benediction,—thou must tell me something of the common laws of worship, that I err not thus blindly again."
"The common laws of worship are the common laws of custom,"—he replied—"No more,—no less. And in this we are much like other nations. We believe in no actual Creed,—who does? We accept a certain given definition of a supposititious Divinity, together with the suitable maxims and code of morals accompanying that definition, ... we call this Religion, . . and we wear it as we wear our clothing for the sake of necessity and decency, though truly we are not half so concerned about it as about the far more interesting details of taste in attire. Still, we have grown used to our doctrine, and some of us will fight with each other for the difference of a word respecting it,—and as it contains within itself many seeds of discord and contradiction, such dissensions are frequent, especially among the priests, who, were they but true to their professed vocation, should be able to find ways of smoothing over all apparent inconsistencies and maintaining peace and order. Of course we, in union with all civilized communities, worship the Sun, even as thou must do,—in this one leading principle at least, our faith is universal!"
Theos bent his head in assent. He was scarcely conscious of the action, but at that moment he felt, with Sah-luma, that there was no other form of Divinity acknowledged in the world than the refulgent Orb that gladdens and illumines earth, and visibly controls the seasons.
"And yet—" went on Sah-luma thoughtfully,—"the well-instructed know through our scientists and astronomers (many of whom are now languishing in prison for the boldness of their researches and discoveries) that the Sun is no divinity at all, hut simply a huge planet,—a dense body surrounded by a luminous, flame-darting atmosphere,—neither self-acting nor omnipotent, but only one of many similar orbs moving in strict obedience to fixed mathematical laws. Nevertheless this knowledge is wisely kept back as much as possible from the multitude,—for, were science to unveil her marvels too openly to semi-educated and vulgarly constituted minds, the result would be, first Atheism, next Republicanism, and finally Anarchy and Ruin. If these evils,—which like birds of prey continually hover about all great kingdoms,—are to be averted, we must, for the welfare of the country and people, hold fast to some stated form and outward observance of religious belief."
He paused. Theos gave him a quick, searching glance.
"Even if such a belief should have no shadow of a true foundation?" he inquired—"Can it be well for men to cling superstitiously to a false doctrine?"
Sah-luma appeared to consider this question in his own mind for some minutes before replying.
"My friend, it is difficult to decide what is false and what is true—"he said at last with a little shrug of his shoulders—"But I think that even a false religion is better for the masses than none at all. Men are closely allied to brutes, . . if the moral sense ceases to restrain them they at once leap the boundary line and give as much rein to their desires and appetites as the hyenas and tigers. And in some natures the moral sense is only kept alive by fear,—fear of offending some despotic, invisible Force that pervades the Universe, and whose chief and most terrible attribute is not so much creative as destructive power. To propitiate and pacify an unseen Supreme Destroyer is the aim of all religions,— and it is for this reason we add to our worship of the Sun that of the White Serpent, Nagaya the Mediator. Nagaya is the favorite object of the people's adoration,—they may forget to pay their vows to the Sun, but never to Nagaya, who is looked upon as the emblem of Eternal Wisdom, the only pleader whose persuasions avail to soften the tyrannic humor of the Invincible Devourer of all things. We know how men hate Wisdom and cannot endure to be instructed, and yet they prostrate themselves in abject crowds before Wisdom's symbol every day in the Sacred Temple yonder,— though I much doubt whether such constant devotional attendance is not more for the sake of Lysia than the Deified Worm!"
He laughed with a little undercurrent of scorn in his laughter,— and Theos saw as it were, the lightning of an angry or disdainful thought flashing through the sombre splendor of his eyes.
"And Lysia is..—?" began Theos suggestively.
"The High Priestess of Nagaya," responded Sah-luma slowly— "Charmer of the god, as well as of the hearts of men! The hot passion of love is to her a toy, clasped and unclasped so! in the pink hollow of her hand..." and as he spoke he closed his fingers softly on the air and unclosed them again with an expressive gesture—"And so long as she retains the magic of her beauty, so long will Nagaya worship hold Al-Kyris in check. Otherwise ... who knows!—there have been many disturbances of late,—the teachings of the Philosophers have aroused a certain discontent,—and there are those who are weary of perpetual sacrifices and the shedding of innocent blood. Moreover this mad Khosrul of whom Niphrata spoke lately, thunders angry denunciations of Lysia and Nagaya in the open streets, with so much fervid eloquence that they who pass by cannot choose but hear, . . he hath a strange craze,—a doctrine of the future which he most furiously proclaims in the language prophets use. He holds that far away in the centre of a Circle of pure Light, the true God exists,—a vast all glorious Being who with exceeding marvellous love controls and guides Creation toward some majestic end—even as a musician doth melodize his thought from small sweet notes to perfect chord-woven harmonies. Furthermore, that thousands of years hence, this God will embody a portion of his own Existence in human form and will send hither a wondrous creature, half-God, half-Man, to live our life, die our death, and teach us by precept and example, the surest way to eternal happiness. 'Tis a theory both strange and wild!—hast ever heard of it before?"
He put the question indifferently, but Theos was mute. That horrible sense of a straining desire to speak when speech was forbidden again oppressed him,—he felt as though he were being strangled with his own unfalling tears. What a crushing weight of unutterable thoughts burdened his brain!—he gazed up at the serenely glowing sky in aching, dumb despair,—till slowly ... very slowly, words came at last like dull throbs of pain beating between his lips ...
"I think ... I fancy ... I have heard a rumor of such doctrine ... but I know as little of it as ... as THOU, Sah-luma! ... I can tell thee no more ... than THOU hast said! ..." He paused and gaining more firmness of tone went on—"It seems to me a not altogether impossible conception of Divine Benevolence,—for if God lives at all, He must be capable of manifesting Himself in many ways both small and great, common and miraculous, though of a truth there are no miracles beyond what APPEAR as such to our limited sight and restricted intelligence. But tell me"—and here his voice had a ring of suppressed anxiety within it—"tell me, Sah-luma, thine own thought concerning it!"
"I?—I think naught of it!" replied Sah-luma with airy contempt— "Such a creed may find followers in time to come,—but now, of what avail to warn us of things that do not concern our present modes of life? Moreover in the face of all religion, my own opinion should not alter,—I have studied science sufficiently well to know that there is NO God!—and I am too honest to worship an unproved and merely supposititious identity!"
A shudder, as of extreme cold, ran through Theos's veins, and as if impelled on by some invisible monitor he said almost mournfully:
"Art thou sure, Sah-luma, thou dost not instinctively feel that there is a Higher Power hidden behind the veil of visible Nature? —and that in the Far Beyond there may be an Eternity of Joy where thou shalt find all thy grandest aspirations at last fulfilled?"
Sah-luma laughed,—a clear, vibrating laugh as mellow as the note of a thrush in spring-time.
"Thou solemn soul!" he exclaimed mirthfully—"My aspirations ARE fulfilled!—I aspire to no more than fame,—and that I hold,—that I shall keep so long as this world is lighted by the sun!"
"And what use is Fame to thee in Death!" demanded Theos with sudden and emphatic earnestness.
Sah-luma stood still,—over his beautiful face came a shadow of intense melancholy,—he raised his brilliant eyes full of wistful pathos and pleading.
"I pray thee do not make me sad, my friend!" he murmured tremulously—"These thoughts are like muttering thunder in my heaven! Death!".. and a quick sigh escaped him—"'Twill be the breaking of my harp and heart! ... the last note of my failing voice and eversilenced song!"
A moisture as of tears glistened on the silky fringe of his eyelids,—his lips quivered,—he had the look of a Narcissus regretfully bewailing his own perishable loveliness. On a swift impulse of affection Theos threw one arm round, his neck in the fashion of a confiding school-boy walking with his favorite companion.
"Nay, thou shalt never die, Sah-luma!" he said with a sort of passionate eagerness,—"Thy bright soul shall live forever in a sunshine sweeter than that of earth's fairest midsummer noon! Thy song can never be silenced while heaven pulsates with the unwritten music of the spheres,—and even were the crown of immortality denied to lesser men, it is, it must be the heritage of the poet! For to him all crowns belong, all kingdoms are thrown open, all barriers broken down,—even those that divide us from the Unseen,—and God Himself has surely a smile to spare for His Singers who have made the sad world joyful if only for an hour!"
Sah-luma looked up with a pleased yet wondering glance.
"Thou hast a silvery and persuasive tongue!" he said gently—"And thou speakest of God as if thou knewest one akin to Him. Would I could believe all thou sayest! ... but alas!—I cannot. We have progressed too far in knowledge, my friend, for faith. ... yet..." He hesitated a moment, then with a touch of caressing entreaty in his tone went on. ... "Thinkest thou in very truth that I shall live again? For I confess to thee, it seems beyond all things strange and terrible to feel that this genius of mine,—this spirit of melody which inhabits my frame, should perish utterly without further scope for its abilities. There have been moments when my soul, ravished by inspiration, has, as it were, seized Earth like a full goblet of wine, and quaffed its beauties, its pleasures, its loves, its glories all in one burning draught of song! ... when I have stood in thought on the shadowy peaks of time, waiting for other worlds to string like beads on my thread of poesy,—when wondrous creatures habited in light and wreathed with stars have floated round and round me in rosy circles of fire,—and once, methought ... 'twas long ago now—I heard a Voice distinct and sweet that called me upward, onward and away, I know not where,—save that a hidden Love awaited me!" He broke off with a rapt almost angelic expression in his eyes, then sighing a little he resumed: "All dreams of course! ... vague phantoms,— creations of my own imaginative brain,—yet fair enough to fill my heart with speechless longings for ethereal raptures unseen, unknown! Thou hast, methinks, a certain faith in the unsolved mysteries,—but I have none,—for sweet as the promise of a future life may seem, there is no proof that it shall ever be. If one died and rose again from the dead, then might we all believe and hope.. but otherwise ..."
Oh, miserable Theos!—What would he not have given to utter aloud the burning knowledge that ate into his mind like slow-devouring fire! Again mute! ... again oppressed by that strange swelling at the heart that threatened to break forth in stormy sobs of penitence and prayer! Instinctively he drew Sah-luma closer to his side—his breath came thick and fast.. he struggled with all his might to speak the words ... "One HAS died and risen from the dead!"—but not a syllable could he form of the desired sentence!
"Thou shalt live again, Sah-luma!" was all he could say in low, half-smothered accents—"Thou hast within thee a flame that cannot perish!"
Again Sah-luma's eyes dwelt upon him with a curious, appealing tenderness.
"Thy words savor of sweet consolation! ..." he said half gayly, half sadly. "May they be fulfilled! And if indeed there is a brighter world than this beyond the skies, I fancy thou and I will know each other, there as here, and be somewhat close companions! See!"—and he pointed to a small green hillock that rose up like a shining emerald from the darker foliage of the surrounding trees— "Yonder is my point of vantage whence we shall behold the sun go down like a warrior sinking on the red field of battle, the chimes are ringing even now for his departure,—listen!"
They stood still for a space, while the measured, swinging cadence of bells came pealing through the stillness,—bells of every tone, that smote the air with soft or loud resonance as the faint wind wafted the sounds toward them,—and then they began to climb the little hill, Sah-luma walking somewhat in advance, with a tread as light and elastic as that of a young fawn.
Theos, following, watched his movements with a strange affection, —every turn of his head, every gesture of his hand seemed fraught with meanings as yet inexplicable. The grass beneath their feet was soft as velvet and dotted with a myriad wild flowers,—the ascent was gradual and easy, and in a few minutes they had reached the summit, where Sah-luma, throwing himself indolently on the smooth turf, pulled Theos gently down by his side. There they rested in silence, gazing at the magnificent panorama laid out before them,—a panorama as lovely as a delicately pictured scene of fairy-land. Above, the sky was of a dense yet misty rose- color,—the sun, low on the western horizon appeared to rest in a vast, deep, purple hollow, rifted here and there with broad gashes of gold,—long shafts of light streamed upwards in order like the waving pennons of an angel-army marching,—and beyond, far away from this blaze of splendid color, the wide ethereal expanse paled into tender blue, whereon light clouds of pink and white drifted like the fluttering blossoms that fall from apple-trees in spring.
Below, and seen through a haze of rose and amber, lay the city of Al-Kyris,—its white domes, towers and pinnacled palaces rising out of the mist like a glorious mirage afloat on the borders of a burning desert. Al-Kyris the Magnificent!—it deserves its name, Theos thought, as shading his eyes from the red glare he took a wondering and gradually comprehensive view of the enormous extent of the place. He soon perceived that it was defended by six strongly fortified walls, each placed within the other at long equal distances apart, so that it might have been justly described as six cities all merged together in one,—and from where he sat he could plainly discern the great square where he had rested in the morning, by reason of the white granite obelisk that lifted itself sheer up against the sky, undwarfed by any of the surrounding buildings.
This gigantic monument was the most prominent object in sight, with the exception of the sacred temple, which Sah-luma presently pointed out,—a round, fortress-like piece of architecture ornamented with twelve gilded towers from which bells were now clashing and jangling in a storm of melodious persistency. The hum of the city's traffic and pleasure surged on the air like the noise made by swarming bees, while every now and then the sweet, shrill tones of some more than usually clear girl's voice, crying out the sale of fruit or flowers, soared up song-wise through the luminous, semi-transparent vapor that half-veiled the clustering house-tops, tapering spires and cupolas in a delicate, nebulous film.
Completely fascinated by the wizard-like beauty of the scene, Theos felt as though he could never look upon it long enough to master all its charms, but his eyes ached with the radiance in which everything seemed drenched as with flame, and turning his gaze once more toward the sun, he saw that it had nearly disappeared. Only a blood-red rim peered spectrally above the gold and green horizon-and immediately overhead, a silver rift in the sky had widened slowly in the centre and narrowed at its end, thus taking the shape of a great outstretched sword that pointed directly downward at the busy, murmuring, glittering city beneath. It was a strange effect, and made on the mind of Theos a strange impression,—he was about to call Sah-luma's attention to it, when an uncomfortable consciousness that they were no longer alone came over him,—instinctively he turned round, uttered a hasty exclamation, and springing erect, found himself face to face with a huge black,—a man of some six feet in height and muscular in proportion, who, clad, in a vest and tunic of the most vivid scarlet hue, leered confidentially upon him as their eyes met. Sah-luma rising also, but with less precipitation, surveyed the intruder languidly and with a certain haughtiness.
"What now, Gazra? Always art thou like a worm in the grass, crawling on thine errand with less noise than the wind makes in summer, . . I would thy mistress kept a fairer messenger!"
The black smiled,—if so hideous a contortion of his repulsive countenance might be called a smile, and slowly raising his jetty arms hung all over with strings of coral and amber, made a curious gesture, half of salutation, half of command. As he did this, the clear, olive cheek of Sah-luma flushed darkly red,—his chest heaved, and linking his arm through that of Theos, he bent his head slightly and stood like one in an enforced attitude of attention. Then Gazra spoke, his harsh, strong voice seeming to come from some devil in the ground rather than from a human throat.
"The Virgin Priestess of the Sun and the Divine Nagaya hath need of thee to-night, Sah-luma!" he said, with a sort of suppressed derision underlying his words,—and taking from his breast a ring that glittered like a star, he held it out in the palm of one hand—"And also"—he added—"of thy friend the stranger, to whom she desires to accord a welcome. Behold her signet!"
Theos, impelled by curiosity, would have taken the ring up to examine it, had not Sah-luma restrained him by a warning pressure of his arm,—he was only just able to see that it was in the shape of a coiled-up serpent with ruby eyes, and a darting tongue tipped with small diamonds. What chiefly concerned him however was the peculiar change in Sah-luma's demeanor,—something in the aspect or speech of Gazra had surely exercised a remarkable influence upon him. His frame trembled through and through with scarcely controlled excitement, . . his eyes shot forth an almost evil fire, . . and a cold, calm, somewhat cruel smile played on the perfect outline of his delicate month. Taking the signet from Gazra's palm, he kissed it with a kind of angry tenderness, . . then replied..
"Tell thy mistress we shall obey her behest! Doubtless she knows, as she knows all things, that to-night. I am summoned by express command, to the Palace of our sovereign lord the King.. I am bound thither first as is my duty, but afterwards ..." He broke off as if he found it impossible to say more, and waved his hand in a light sign of dismissal. But Gazra did not at once depart. He again smiled that lowering smile of his which resembled nothing so much as a hung criminal's death-grin, and returned the jewelled signet to his breast.
"Afterwards! ... yes.. afterwards!" he said in emphatic yet mock solemn tones.. "Even so!" Advancing a little he laid his heavy, muscular hand on Theos's chest, and appeared mentally to measure his height and breadth—"Strong nerves! ... iron sinews! ... goodly flesh and blood! ..'twill serve!"—and his great, protruding eyes gleamed maliciously as he spoke,—then bowing profoundly he added, addressing both Sah-luma and Theos.. "Noble sirs, to-night out of all men in Al-Kyris shall you be the most envied! Farewell!"—and once more making that curious salutation which had in it so much imperiousness and so little obeisance, he walked backward a few paces in the full lustre of the set sun's after-glow, which intensified the vivid red of his costume and lit up all the ornaments of clear-cut amber that glittered against his swarthy skin,—then turning, he descended the hillock so swiftly that he seemed to have melted out of sight as utterly as a dark mist dissolving in air.
"By my word, a most sooty and repellent bearer of a lady's greeting!" laughed Theos lightly, as he sauntered arm in arm with his host on the downward path leading to the garden and palace— "And I have yet to learn the true meaning of his message!"
"'Tis plain enough!" replied Sah-luma somewhat sulkily, with the deep flush still coming and going on his face—"It means that we are summoned, . . thou as well as I, . . to one of Lysia's midnight banquets,—an honor that falls to few,—a mandate none dare disobey! She must have spied thee out this morning—the only unkneeling soul in all the abject multitude-hence, perhaps, her present desire for thy company."
There was a touch of vexation in his voice, but Theos heeded it not. His heart gave a great bound against his ribs as though pricked by a fire-tipped arrow,—something swift and ardent stirred in his blood like the flowing of quicksilver, . . the picture of the dusky-eyed, witchingly beautiful woman he had seen that morning in her gold-adorned ship, seemed to float between him and the light,—her face shone out like a growing glory-flower in the tangled wilderness of his thoughts, and his lips trembled a little as he replied:
"She must be gracious and forgiving then, even as she is fair! For in my neglect of reverence due, I merited her scorn, . . not her courtesy. But tell me, Sah-luma, how could she know I was a guest of thine?"
Sah-luma glanced at him half-pityingly, half disdainfully.
"How could she know? Easily!—inasmuch as she knows all things. 'Twould have been strange indeed had she NOT known!" and he caught at a down-drooping rose and crushed its fragrant head in his hand with a sort of wanton petulance—"The King himself is less acquainted with his people's doings than the wearer of the All- Reflecting Eye! Thou hast not yet seen that weird mirror and potent dazzler of human sight, . . no,—but thou WILT see it ere long,—the glittering Fiend-guarding of the whitest breast that ever shut in passion!" His voice shook, and he paused,—then with some effort continued—"Yes,—Lysia has her secret commissioners everywhere throughout the length and breadth of the city, who report to her each circumstance that happens, no matter how trifling,—and doubtless we were followed home,—tracked step by step as we walked together, by one of her stealthy-footed servitors,—in this there would be naught unusual."
"Then there is no freedom in Al-Kyris,—" said Theos wonderingly— "if the whole city thus lies under the circumspection of a woman?"
Sah-luma laughed rather harshly.
"Freedom! By the gods, 'tis a delusive word embodying a vain idea! Where is there any freedom in life? All of us are bound in chains and restricted in one way or the other,—the man who deems himself politically free is a slave to the multitude and his own ambition —while he who shakes himself loose from the trammels of custom and creed, becomes the tortured bondsman of desire, tied fast with bruising cords to the rack of his own unbridled sense and appetite. There is no such thing as freedom, my friend, unless haply it may be found in death! Come,—let us in to supper,—the hour grows late, and my heart aches with an unsought heaviness,—I must cheer me with a cup of wine, or my songs to-night will sadden rather than rouse the King. Come,—and thou shalt speak to me again of the life that is to be lived hereafter,"—and he smiled with certain pathos in his smile,—"for there are times, believe me, when in spite of all my fame and the sweetness of existence, I weary of earth's days and nights, and find them far too brief and mean to satisfy my longings. Not the world,—but worlds—should be the Poet's heritage."
Theos looked at him, with a feeling of unutterable yearning affection, and regret, but said nothing, . . and together they ascended the steps of the stately marble terrace and paced slowly across it, keeping as near to each other as shadow to substance, and thus reentered the palace, where the sound of a distant harp alone penetrated the perfumed stillness. It must be Niphrata who was playing, thought Theos, ... and what strange and plaintive chords she swept from the vibrating strings! ... They seemed laden with the tears of broken-hearted women dead and buried ages upon ages ago!
As they left the garden the night fell, or appeared to fall, with almost startling suddenness, and at the same time, in swift defiance of the darkness, Sah-luma's palace was illuminated from end to end by thousands of colored lamps, all apparently lit at once by a single flash of electricity. A magnificent repast was spread for the Laureate and his guest, in a lofty, richly frescoed banqueting-hall,—a repast voluptuous enough to satisfy the most ardent votary that ever followed the doctrines of Epicurus. Wonderful dainties and still more wonderful wines were served in princely profusion—and while the strangely met and sympathetically united friends ate and drank, delicious music was played on stringed instruments by unseen performers. When, at intervals, these pleasing sounds ceased, Sah-luma's conversation, brilliant, witty, refined, and sparkling with light anecdote and lighter jest, replaced with admirable sufficiency, the left-off harmonies,—and Theos, keenly alive to the sensuous enemy of his own emotions, felt that he had never before enjoyed such an astonishing, delightful, and altogether fairy-like feast. Its only fault was that it came to an end too soon, he thought, when, the last course of fruit and sweet comfits being removed, he rose reluctantly from the glittering board, and prepared to accompany his host, as agreed, to the presence of the King.
In a very short time, so bewilderingly short as to seem a mere breathing-space,—he found himself passing through the broad avenues and crowded thoroughfares of Al-Kyris on his way to the Royal abode. He occupied a place in Sah-luma's chariot,—a gilded car, shaped somewhat like the curved half of a shell, deeply hollowed, and set on two high wheels that as they rolled made scarcely any sound; there was no seat, and both he and Sah-luma stood erect, the latter using all the force of his slender brown hands to control the spirited prancing of the pair of jet-black steeds which, harnessed tandem-wise to the light-vehicle, seemed more than once disposed to break loose into furious gallop regardless of their master's curbing rein.
The full moon was rising gradually in a sky as densely violet as purple pansy-leaves—but her mellow lustre was almost put to shame by the brilliancy of the streets, which were lit up on both sides by vari-colored lamps that diffused a peculiar, intense yet soft radiance, produced, as Sah-luma explained, from stored-up electricity. On the twelve tall Towers of the Sacred Temple shone twelve large, revolving stars, that as they turned emitted vivid flashes of blue, green, and amber flame like light-house signals seen from ships veering shorewards,—and the reflections thus cast on the mosaic pavement, mingling with the paler beams of the moon, gave a weird and most fantastic effect to the scene. Straight ahead, a blazing arch raised like a bent bow against heaven, and having in its centre the word
written in scintillating letters of fire, indicated to all beholders the name and abode of the powerful Monarch under whose dominion, according to Sah-luma, Al-Kyris had reached its present height of wealth and prosperity.
Theos looked everywhere about him, seeing yet scarcely realizing the wonders on which he gazed,—leaning one arm on the burnished edge of the car, he glanced now and then up at the dusky skies growing thick with swarming worlds, and meditated dreamily whether it might not be within the range of possibility to be lifted with Sah-luma, chariot, steeds and all into that beautiful, fathomless empyrean, and drive among planets as though they were flowers, reining in at last before some great golden gate, which unbarred should open into a lustrous Glory-Land fairer than all fair regions ever pictured!
How like a god Sah-luma looked, he mused! ... his eyes resting tenderly on the light, glittering form he was never weary of contemplating. Could there be a more perfect head than that dark one crowned with myrtle? ... could there be a more dazzling existence than that enjoyed by this child of happy fortune, this royal Laureate of a mighty King? How many poets starving in garrets and waiting for a hearing, would not curse their unlucky destinies when comparing themselves with such a Prince of Poesy, each word of whose utterance was treasured and enshrined in the hearts of a grateful and admiring people!
This was Fame indeed, . . Fame at its utmost best,—and Theos sighed once or twice restlessly as he inwardly reflected how poor and unsatisfying were his own poetical powers, and how totally unfitted he was to cope with a rival so vastly his superior. Not that he by any means desired to cross swords with Sah-luma in a duel of song,-that was an idea that never entered his mind; he was simply conscious of a certain humiliated feeling,—an impression that it' he would be a poet at all, he must go back to the very first beginning of the art and re-learn all he had ever known, or thought he knew.
Many strange and complex emotions were at work within him, . . emotions which he could neither control nor analyze,—and though he felt himself fully alive,—alive to his very finger-tips, he was ever and anon aware of a curious sensation like that experienced by a suddenly startled somnambulist, who, just on the point of awaking, hesitates reluctantly on the threshold of dreamland, unwilling to leave one realm of shadows for another more seeming true, yet equally transient. Entangled in perplexed reveries he scarcely noticed the brilliant crowds of people that were flocking hither and thither through the streets, many of whom recognizing Sah-luma waved their hands or shouted some gay word of greeting,—he saw, as it were without seeing. The whirling pageant around him was both real and unreal,—there was always a deep sense of mystery that hung like a cloud over his mind,—a cloud that no resolution of his could lift,—and often he caught himself dimly speculating as to what lay BEHIND that cloud. Something, he felt sure,—something that like the clew to an. intricate problem, would explain much that was now altogether incomprehensible,— moreover he remorsefully realized that he had formerly known that clew and had foolishly lost it, but how he could not tell.
His gaze wandered from the figure of Sah-luma to that of the attendant harp-bearer who, perched on a narrow foothold on the back of the chariot, held his master's golden instrument aloft as though it were a flag of song,—the signal of a poet's triumph, destined to float above the world forever!
Just then the equipage—arrived at the Kings palace. Turning the horses' heads with a sharp jerk so that the mettlesome creatures almost sprang erect on their haunches, Sah-luma drove them swiftly into a spacious courtyard, lined with soldiers in full armor, and brilliantly illuminated, where two gigantic stone Sphinxes, with lit stars ablaze between their enormous brows, guarded a flight of steps that led up to what seemed to be an endless avenue of white marble columns. Here slaves in gorgeous attire rushed forward, and seizing the prancing coursers by the bridle rein, held them fast while the Laureate and his companion alighted. As they did so, a mighty and resounding clash of weapons struck the tesselated pavement,—every soldier flung his drawn sword on the ground and doffed his helmet, and the cry of
rose in one brief, mellow, manly shout that echoed vibratingly through the heated air. Sah-luma meanwhile ascended half-way up the steps, and there turning round, smiled and bowed with an exquisite grace and infinite condescension,—and again Theos gazed at him yearningly, lovingly, and somewhat enviously too. What a picture he made standing between the great frowning sculptured Sphinxes! ... contrasted with those cold and solemn visages of stone he looked like a dazzling butterfly or stray bird of paradise. His white garb glistened at every point with gems, and from his shoulders, where it was fastened with large sapphire elasps, depended a long mantle of cloth of gold, bordered thickly with swansdown,—this he held up negligently in one hand as ho remained for a moment in full view of the assembled soldiery, graciously acknowledging their enthusiastic greetings, . . then with easy and unhasting tread he mounted the rest of the stairway, followed by Theos and his harp-bearer, and passed into the immense outer entrance hall of the Royal Palace, known, as he explained to his guest, as the Hall of the Two Thousand Columns.
Here among the massively carved pillars which looked like straight, tall, frosted trunks of trees, were assembled hundreds of men young and old,—evident aristocrats and nobles of high degree, to judge from the magnificence of their costumes, while in and out their brilliant ranks glided little pages in crimson and blue,—black slaves, semi-nude or clothed in vivid colors,—court officials with jewelled badges and insignias of authority,— military guards clad in steel armor and carrying short, drawn scimetars,—all talking, laughing, gesticulating and elbowing one another as they moved to and fro,—and so thickly were they pressed together that at first sight it seemed impossible to penetrate through so dense a crowd: but no sooner did Sah-luma appear, than they all fell back in orderly rows, thus making an open avenue-like space for his admittance.
He walked slowly, with proudly-assured mien and a confident smile,—bowing right and left in response to the respectful salutations he received from all assembled,—many persons glanced inquisitively at Theos, but as he was the Laureate's companion he was saluted with nearly equal courtesy. The old critic Zabastes, squeezing his lean, bent body from out the throng, hobbled after Sah-luma at some little distance behind the harp-bearer, muttering to himself as he went, and bestowing many a side-leer and malicious grin on those among his acquaintance whom he here and there recognized. Theos noted his behavior with a vague sense of amusement,—the man took such evident delight in his own ill- humor, and seemed to be so thoroughly convinced that his opinion on all affairs was the only one worth having.
"Thou must check thy tongue today, Zabastes!" said a handsome youth in dazzling blue and silver, who, just then detaching himself from the crowd, laid a hand on the Critic's arm and laughed as he spoke—"I doubt me much whether the King is in humor for thy grim fooling! His Majesty hath been seriously discomposed since his return from the royal tiger-hunt this morning, notwithstanding that his unerring spear slew two goodly and most furious animals. He is wondrous sullen,-and only the divine Sah- luma is skilled in the art of soothing his troubled spirit. Therefore,—if thou hast aught of crabbed or cantankerous to urge against thy master's genius, thou hadst best reserve it for another time, lest thy withered head roll on the market-place with as little reverence as a dried gourd flung from a fruiterer's stall!"
"I thank thee for thy warning, young jackanapes!" retorted Zabastes, pausing in his walk and leaning on his staff while he peered with his small, black, bad-tempered eyes at the speaker- "Thou art methinks somewhat over well-informed for a little lacquey! What knowest thou of His Majesty's humors? Hast been his fly-i'-the-ear or cast-off sandal-string? I pray thee extend not thy range of learning beyond the proper temperature of the bath, and the choice of rare unguents for thy skin-greater knowledge than this would injure the tender texture of thy fragile brain! Pah!"—and Zabastes sniffed the air in disgust—"Thou hast a most vile odor of jessamine about thee! ... I would thou wert clean of perfumes and less tawdry in attire!"
Chuckling hoarsely he ambled onward, and chancing to, catch the wondering backward glance of Pheos, he made expressive signs with his fingers in derision of Sah-luma's sweeping mantle, which now, allowed to fall to its full length, trailed along the marble floor with a rich, rustling sound, the varied light sparkling on it at every point and making it look like a veritable shower of gold.
On through the seemingly endless colonnades they passed, till they came to a huge double door formed of two glittering, colossed winged figures holding enormous uplifted shields. Here stood a personage clad in a silver coat-of-mail, so motionless that at first he appeared to be part of the door, .. but at the approach of Sah-luma he stirred into life and action, and touching a spring beside him, the arms of the twin colossi moved, the great double shields were slowly lowered, and the portals slid asunder noiselessly, thus displaying the sumptuous splendor of the Royal Presence-Chamber.
It was a spacious and lofty saloon, completely lined with gilded columns, between which hung numerous golden lamps having long, pointed, amber pendants, that flashed down a million sparkles as of sunlight on the magnificent mosaic floor beneath. On the walls were rich tapestries storied with voluptuous scenes of love as well as ghastly glimpses of warfare, ... and languishing beauties reposing in the arms of their lovers, or listening to the songs of passion, were depicted side by side with warriors dead on the field of battle, or struggling hand to hand in grim and bleeding conflict. The corners of this wonderful apartment were decked with all sorts of flags and weapons, and in the middle of the painted ceiling was suspended a huge bird with the spread wings of an eagle and the head of an owl, that held in its curved talons a superb girandole formed of a hundred extended swords, each bare blade having at its point a bright lamp in the shape of a star, while the clustered hilts composed the centre.
Officers in full uniform were ranged on both sides of the room, and a number of other men richly attired stood about, conversing with each other in low tones, ... but though Theos took in all these details rapidly at a glance, his gaze soon became fixed on the glittering Pavilion that occupied the furthest end of the saloon, where on a massive throne of ivory and silver sat the chief object of attraction, ... Zephoranim the King. The steps of the royal dais were strewn ankle-deep with flowers, ... . on either hand a bronze lion lay couchant, ... . and four gigantic black statues of men supported the monarch's gold-fringed canopy, their uplifted arms being decked with innumerable rows of large and small pearls. The King's features were not just then visible— he was leaning back in an indolent attitude, resting on his elbow, and half covering his face with one hand. The individual in the silver coat-of-mail whispered something in Sah-luma's ear either by way of warning or advice, and then advanced, prostrating himself before the dais and touching the ground humbly with his forehead and hands. The King stirred slightly, but did not alter his position, ... he was evidently wrapped in a deep and seemingly unpleasant reverie.
"Dread my lord. ... !" began the Herald-in-Waiting. A movement of decided impatience on the part of the monarch caused him to stop short.
"By my soul!" said a rich, strong voice that made itself distinctly audible throughout the spacious hall—"Thou art ever shivering on the edge of thy duty when thou shouldst plunge boldly into the midst thereof! How long wilt mouth thy words? ... Canst never speak plain?"
"Most potent sovereign!" went on the stammering herald—"Sah-luma waits thy royal pleasure!"
"Sah-luma!" and the monarch sprang erect, his eyes flashing fire— "Nay, that HE should wait, bodes ill for thee, thou knave! How darest thou bid him wait?—Entreat him hither with all gentleness, as befits mine equal in the realm!"
As he thus spoke, Theos was able to observe him more attentively; indeed it seemed as though a sudden and impressive pause had occurred in the action of a drama in order to allow him as spectator, to thoroughly master the meaning of one special scene. Therefore he took the opportunity offered, and, looking full at Zephoranim, thought he had never beheld so magnificent a man. Of stately height and herculean build, he was most truly royal in outward bearing,—though a physiognomist judging him from the expression of his countenance would at once have given him all the worst vices of a reckless voluptuary and utterly selfish sensualist. His straight, low brows indicated brute force rather than intellect,—his eyes, full, dark, and brilliant, had in them a suggestion of something sinister and cruel, despite their fine clearness and lustre, while the heavy lines of his mouth, only partly concealed by a short, thick black beard, plainly betokened that the monarch's tendencies were by no means toward the strict and narrow paths of virtue.
Nevertheless he was a splendid specimen of the human animal at its best physical development, and his attire, which was a mixture of the civilized and savage, suited him as it certainly would not have suited any less stalwart frame. His tunic was of the deepest purple broidered with gold,—his vest of pale amber silk was thrown open so as to display to the greatest advantage his broad muscular chest and throat glittering all over with gems,—and he wore, flung loosely across his left shoulder, a superb leopard skin, just kept in place by a clasp of diamonds. His feet were shod with gold-colored sandals,—his arms were bare and lavishly decked with jewelled armlets,—his rough, dark hair was tossed carelessly about his brow, whereon a circlet of gold studded with large rubies glittered in the light,—from his belt hung a great sheathed sword, together with all manner of hunting implements,— and beside him, on a velvet-covered stand, lay a short sceptre, having at its tip one huge egg-shaped pearl set in sapphires.
Noting the grand poise of his figure, and the statuesque grace of his attitude, a strange, hazy, far-off memory began to urge itself on Theos's mind,—a memory that with every second grew more painfully distinct, ... HE HAD SEEN ZEPHORANIM BEFORE! Where, he could not tell,—but he was as positive of it as that he himself lived! ... and this inward conviction was accompanied by a certain undefinable dread,—a vague terror and foreboding, though he knew no actual cause for fear.
He had however no time to analyze his emotion,—for just then the Herald-in-Waiting, having performed a backward evolution from the throne to the threshold of the audience-chamber, beckoned impatiently to Sah-luma, who at once stepped forward, bidding Theos keep close behind him. The harp-bearer followed, . . and thus all three approached the dais where the King still stood erect, awaiting them. Zabastes the Critic glided in also, almost unnoticed, and joined a group of courtiers at the furthest end of the long, gorgeously lighted room, while at sight of the Laureate the assembled officers saluted, and all conversation ceased. At the foot of the throne Sah-luma paused, but made no obeisance,— raising his glorious eyes to the monarch's face he smiled,—and Theos beheld with amazement, that here it was not the Poet who reverenced the King, but the King who reverenced the Poet!
What a strange state of things! he thought,—especially when the mighty Zephoranim actually descended three steps of his flower- strewn dais, and grasping Sah-luma's hands raised them to his lips with all the humility of a splendid savage paying homage to his intellectual conqueror! It was a scene Theos was destined never to forget, and he gazed upon it as one gazes on a magnificently painted picture, wherein two central figures fascinate and most profoundly impress the beholder's imagination. He heard, with a vague sense of mingled pleasure and sadness, the deep, mellow tones of the monarch's voice vibrating through the silence, ... .
"Welcome, my Sah-luma!—Welcome at all times, but chiefly welcome when the heart is weighted by care! I have thought of thee all day, believe me! ... aye, since early dawn, when on my way to the chase I heard in the depths of the forest a happy nightingale singing, and deemed thy voice had taken bird-shape and followed me! And that I sent for thee in haste, blame me not!—as well blame the desert athirst for rain, or the hungry heart agape for love to come and fill it!" Here his restless eye flashed on Theos, who stood quietly behind Sah-luma, passive, yet expectant of he knew not what.
"Whom hast thou there? ... A friend?" This as Sah-luma apparently explained something in a low tone, ... "He is welcome also for thy sake"—and he extended one hand, on which a great ruby signet burned like a red star, to Theos, who, bending over it, kissed it with the grave courtesy he fancied due to kings. Zephoranim appeared good-naturedly surprised at this action, and eyed him somewhat scrutinizingly as he said: "Thou art not of Sah-luma's divine calling assuredly, fair sir, else thou wouldst hardly stoop to a mere crowned head like mine! Soldiers and statesmen may bend the knee to their chosen rulers, but to whom shall poets bend? They, who with arrowy lines cause thrones to totter and fall,— they, who with deathless utterance brand with infamy or hallow with honor the most potent names of kings and emperors,—they by whom alone a nation lives in the annals of the future,—what homage do such elect gods owe to the passing holders of one or more earthly sceptres? Thou art too humble, methinks, for the minstrel-vocation,—dost call thyself a Minstrel? or a student of the art of song?"
Theos looked up, his eyes resting full on the monarch's countenance, as he replied in low, clear tones:
"Most noble Zephoranim, I am no minstrel! ... nor do I deserve to be called even a student of that high, sweet music-wisdom in which Sah-luma alone excels! All I dare hope for is that I may learn of him in some small degree the lessons he has mastered, that at some future time I may approach as nearly to his genius as a common flower on earth can approach to a fixed star in the furthest blue of heaven!"
Sah-luma smiled and gave him a pleased, appreciative glance,— Zephoranim regarded him somewhat curiously.
"By my faith, thou'rt a modest and gentle disciple of Poesy!" he said—"We receive thee gladly to our court as suits Sah-luma's pleasure and our own! Stand thee near thy friend and master, and listen to the melody of his matchless voice,—thou shalt hear therein the mysteries of many things unravelled, and chiefly the mystery of love, in which all other passions centre and have power."
Re-ascending the steps of the dais, he flung himself indolently back in his throne,—whereupon two pages brought a magnificent chair of inlaid ivory and placed it near the foot of the dais at his right hand. In this Sah-luma seated himself, the pages arranging his golden mantle around him in shining, picturesque folds,—while Theos, withdrawing slightly into the background, stood leaning against a piece of tapestry on which the dead figure of a man was depicted lying prone on the sward with a great wound in his heart, and a bird of prey hovering above him expectant of its grim repast. Kneeling on one knee close to Sah-luma, the harp- bearer put the harp in tune, and swept his fingers lightly over the strings,—then came a pause. A clear, small bell chimed sweetly on the stillness, and the King, raising himself a little, signed to a black slave who carried a tall silver wand emblematic of some office.
"Let the women enter!" he commanded—"Speak but Sah-luma's name and they will gather like waves rising to the moon,—but bid them be silent as they come, lest they disturb thoughts more lasting than their loveliness."
This with a significant glance toward the Laureate, who, sunk in his ivory chair, seemed rapt in meditation.
His beautiful face had grown grave, . . even sad, ... he played idly with the ornaments at his belt, ... and his eyes had a drowsy yet ardent light within them, as they flashed now and then from under the shade of his long curling lashes. The slave departed on his errand ... and Zabastes edging himself out from the hushed and attentive throng of nobles stood as it were in the foreground of the picture, his thin lips twisted into a sneer. and his lean hands grasping his staff viciously as though he longed to strike somebody down with it.
A moment or so passed, and then the slave returned, his silver rod uplifted, marshalling in a lovely double procession of white- veiled female figures that came gliding along as noiselessly as fair ghosts from forgotten tombs, each one carrying a garland of flowers. They floated, rather than walked, up to the royal dais, and there prostrated themselves two by two before the King, whose fiery glance rested upon them more carelessly than tenderly,—and as they rose, they threw back their veils, displaying to full view such exquisite faces, such languishing, brilliant eyes, such snow- white necks and arms, such graceful voluptuous forms, that Theos caught at the tapestry near him in reeling dazzlement of sight and sense, and wondered how Sah-luma seated tranquilly in the reflective attitude he had assumed, could maintain so unmoved and indifferent a demeanor.
Indifferent he was, however, even when the unveiled fair ones, turning from the King to the Poet, laid all their garlands at his feet,—he scarcely noticed the piled-up flowers, and still less the lovely donors, who, retiring modestly backwards, took their places on low silken divans, provided for their accommodation, in a semicircle round the throne. Again a silence ensued,—Sah-luma was evidently centred like a spider in a web of his own thought- weaving,—and his attendant gently swept the strings of the harp again to recall his wandering fancies. Suddenly he looked up, . . his eyes were sombre, and a musing trouble shadowed the brightness of his face.
"Strange it is, O King"—he said in low, suppressed tones that had in them a quiver of pathetic sweetness,—"Strange it is that to- night the soul of my singing dwells on sorrow! Like a stray bird flying 'mid falling leaves, or a ship drifting out from sunlight to storm, so does my fancy soar among drear, flitting images evolved from the downfall of kingdoms,—and I seem to behold in the distance the far-off shadow of Death..."
"Talk not of death!" interrupted the King loudly and in haste,— "'Tis a raven note that hath been croaked in mine ears too often and too harshly already! What! ... hast thou been met by the mad Khosrul who lately sprang on me, even as a famished wolf on prey, and grasping my bridle-rein bade me prepare to die! 'Twas an ill jest, and one not to be lightly forgiven! 'Prepare to die, O Zephoranim?' he cried—'For thy time of reckoning is come!' By my soul!" and the monarch broke into a boisterous laugh—"Had he bade me prepare live 'twould have been more to the purpose! But yon frantic graybeard prates of naught but death, ... 'twere well he should be silenced." And as he spoke, he frowned, his hand involuntarily playing with the jewelled hilt of his sword.
"Aye,—death is an unpleasing suggestion!" suddenly said Zabastes, who had gradually moved up nearer and nearer till he made one of the group immediately round Sah-luma—"'Tis a word that should never be mentioned in the presence of Kings! Yet, . . notwithstanding the incivility of the statement, . . it is most certain that His Most Potent Majesty as well as His Majesty's Most Potent Laureate, MUST..DIE.. !" And he accompanied the words "must..die..." with two decisive taps of his staff, smacking his withered lips meanwhile as though he tasted something peculiarly savory.
"And thou also, Zabastes!" retorted the King with a dark smile, jestingly drawing his sword and pointing it full at him,—then, as the old Critic shrank slightly at the gleam of the bare steel, replacing it dashingly in its sheath,—"Thou also! ... and thine ashes shall be cast to the four winds of heaven as suits thy vocation, while those of thy master and thy master's King lie honorably urned in porphyry and gold!"
Zabastes bowed with a sort of mock humility.
"It may be so, most mighty Zephoranim," he returned composedly— "Nevertheless ashes are always ashes,—and the scattering of them is but a question of time! For urns of gold and porphyry do but excite the cupidity of the vulgar-minded, and the ashes therein sealed, whether of King or Poet, stand as little chance of reverent handling by future generations as those of many lesser men. And 'tis doubtful whether the winds will know any difference in the scent or quality of the various pinches of human dust tossed on their sweeping circles,—for the substance of a man reduced to earth-atoms is always the same,—and not a grain of him can prove whether he was once a Monarch crowned, a Minstrel pampered, or a Critic contemned!"
And he chuckled, as one having the best of the argument. The King deigned no answer, but turned his eyes again on Sah-luma, who still sat pensively silent.
"How long wilt thou be mute, my singing-emperor?" he demanded gently—"Canst thou not improvise a canticle of love even in the midst of thy soul's sudden sadness?"
At this, Sah-luma roused himself,—signing to his attendant he took the harp from him, and resting it lightly on one knee, passed his hands over it once or twice, half musingly, half doubtfully. A ripple of music answered his delicate touch,—music as soft as the evening wind murmuring among willows. Another instant and his voice thrilled on the silence,—a voice wonderful, far-reaching, mellow, and luscious as with suppressed tears, containing within it a passion that pierced to the heart of the listener, and a divine fullness such as surely was never before heard in human tones!
Theos leaned forward breathlessly, his pulses beating with unwonted rapidity, . . what.. WHAT was it that Sah-luma sang? ... A Love-song! in those caressing vowel-sounds which composed the language of Al-Kyris, . . a love-song, burning as strong wine, tender as the murmur of the sea on mellow, moon-entranced evenings,—an arrowy shaft of rhyme tipped with fire and meant to strike home to the core of feeling and there inflict delicious wounds! ... but, as each well-chosen word echoed harmoniously on his ears, Theos shrank back shuddering in every limb, . . a black, frozen numbness seemed to pervade his being, an awful, maddening terror possessed his brain and he felt as though he were suddenly thrown into a vast, dark chaos where no light should ever shine! For Sah-luma's song was HIS song! ... HIS OWN, HIS VERY OWN! ... He knew it well? He had written it long ago in the hey-day of his youth when he had fancied all the world was waiting to be set to the music of his inspiration, . . he recognized every fancy, . . every couplet.. every rhyme! ... The delicate glowing ballad was HIS, . . HIS ALONE! ... and Sah-luma had no right to it! He, Theos, was the Poet, . . not this royally favored Laureate who had stolen his deas and filched his jewels of thought...aye! and he would tell him so to his face! ... he would speak! ... he would cry aloud his claims in the presence of the King and demand instant justice! ... .
He strove for utterance,—his voice was gone! ... his lips were moveless as the lips of a stone image! Stricken absolutely mute, but with his sense of hearing quickened to an almost painful acuteness, he stood erect and motionless,—rage and fear contending in his heart, enduring the torture of a truly terrific mystery of mind-despair, . . forced, in spite of himself, to listen passively to the love-thoughts of his own dead Past revived anew in his Rival's singing!
THE PROPHET OF DOOM.
A few slow, dreadful minutes elapsed, . . and then,—then the first sharpness of his strange mental agony subsided. The strained tension of his nerves gave way, and a dull apathy of grief inconsolable settled upon him. He felt himself to be a man mysteriously accurst,—banished as it were out of life, and stripped of all he had once held dear and valuable. HOW HAD IT HAPPENED? Why was he set apart thus, solitary, poor, and empty of all worth, WHILE ANOTHER REAPED THE FRUITS OF HIS GENIUS? ... He heard the loud plaudits of the assembled court shaking the vast hall as the Laureate ended his song—and, drooping his head, some stinging tears welled up in his eyes and fell scorchingly on his clasped hands—tears wrung from the very depth of his secretly tortured soul. At that moment the beautiful Sah-luma turned toward him smiling, as one who looked for more sympathetic approbation than that offered by a mixed throng,—and meeting that happy self- conscious, bland, half-inquiring gaze, he strove his best to return the smile. Just then Zephoranim's fiery glance swept over him with a curious expression of wonder and commiseration.
"By the gods, yon stranger weeps!" said the monarch in a half- bantering tone...then with more gentleness he added.. "Yet 'tis not the first time Sah-luma's voice hath unsealed a fountain of tears! No greater triumph can minstrel have than this,—to move the strong man's heart to woman's tenderness! We have heard tell of poets, who singing of death have persuaded many straightway to die,—but when they sing of sweeter themes, of lover's vows, of passion-frenzies, and languorous desires, cold is the blood that will not warm and thrill to their divinely eloquent allurements. Come hither, fair sir!" and he beckoned to Theos, who mechanically advanced in obedience to the command—"Thou hast thoughts of thine own, doubtless, concerning Love, and Love's fervor of delight, . . hast aught new to tell us of its bewildering spells whereby the most dauntless heroes in every age have been caught, conquered, and bound by no stronger chain than a tress of hair, or a kiss more luscious than all the honey hidden in lotus-flowers?"
Theos looked up dreamily...his eyes wandered from the King to Sah- luma as though in wistful search for some missing thing, . . his lips were parched and burning and his brows ached with a heavy weight of pain, . . but he made an effort to speak and succeeded, though his words came slowly and without any previous reflection on his own part.
"Alas, most potent Sovereign!" he murmured.. "I am a man of sad memories, whose soul is like the desert, barren of all beauty! I may have sung of love in my time, but my songs were never new,— never worthy to last one little hour! And whatsoever of faith, passion, or heart-ecstasy my fancy could with devious dreams devise, Sah-luma knows, . . and in Sah-luma's song all my best thoughts are said!"
There was a ring of intense pathos in his voice as he spoke,—and the King eyed him compassionately.
"Of a truth thou seemest to have suffered!" he observed in gentle accents.. "Thou hast a look as of one bereft of joy. Hast lost some maiden love of thine? ... and dost thou mourn her still?"
A pang bitter as death shot through Theos's heart, . . had the monarch suddenly pierced him with his great sword he could scarcely have endured more anguish! For the knowledge rushed upon him that he had indeed lost a love so faithful, so unfathomable, so pure and perfect, that all the world weighed in the balance against it would have seemed but a grain of dust compared to its inestimable value! ... but what that love was, and from whom it emanated, he could no more tell than the tide can tell in syllabled language the secret of its attraction to the moon. Therefore he made no answer, . . only a deep, half-smothered sigh broke from him, and Zephoranim apparently touched by his dejection continued good-naturedly:
"Nay, nay!—we will not seek to pry into the cause of thy spirit's heaviness...Enough! think no more of our thoughtless question,— there is a sacredness in sorrow! Nevertheless we shall strive to make thee in part forget thy grief ere thou leavest our court and city, . . meanwhile sit thou there"—and he pointed to the lower step of the dais, . . "And thou, Sah-luma, sing again, and this time let thy song he set to a less plaintive key."
He leaned hack in his throne, and Theos sat wearily down among the flowers at the foot of the dais as commanded. He was possessed by a strange, inward dread,—the dread of altogether losing the consciousness of his own identity,—and while he strove to keep a firm grasp on his mental faculties he at the same time abandoned all hope of ever extricating himself from the perplexing enigma in which he was so darkly involved. Forcing himself by degrees into comparative calmness, he determined to resign himself to his fate,—and the idea he had just had of boldly claiming the ballad sung by Sah-luma as his own, completely passed out of his mind.
How could he speak against this friend whom he loved, ..aye!—more than he had ever loved any living thing!—besides what could he prove? To begin with, in his present condition ho could give no satisfactory account of himself,—if he were asked questions concerning his nation or birth-place he could not answer them, . . he did not even know where he had come from, save that his memory persistently furnished him with the name of a place called "ARDATH." But what was this "Ardath" to him, he mused?—What did it signify? ... what had it to do with his immediate position? Nothing, so far as he could tell! His intellect seemed to be divided into two parts—one a total blank, . . the other filled with crowding images that while novel were yet curiously familiar. And how could he accuse Sah-luma of literary theft, when he had none of his own dated manuscripts to bear out his case? Of course he could easily repeat his boyhood's verses word for word, ... but what of that? He, a stranger in the city, befriended and protected by the Laureate, would certainly be considered by the people of Al-Kyris as far more likely to steal Sah-luma's thoughts than that Sah-luma should steal his!
No!—there was no help for it,—as matters stood he could say nothing,—he could only feel as though he were the sorrowful ghost of some long-ago dead author returned to earth to hear others claiming his works and passing them off as original compositions. And thus he was scarcely moved to any fresh surprise when Sah- luma, giving back the harp to his attendant, rose up, and standing erect in an attitude unequalled for grace and dignity, began to recite a poem he remembered to have written when he was about twenty years of age,—a poem daringly planned, which when published had aroused the bitterest animosity of the press critics on account of what they called its "forced sublimity." The sublimity was by no means "forced"—it was the spontaneous outcome of a fresh and ardent nature full of enthusiasm and high-soaring aspiration, but the critics cared nothing for this, . . all they saw was a young man presuming to be original, and down they came upon him accordingly.
He recollected all the heart-sore sufferings he had endured through that ill-fated and cruelly condemned composition,—and now he was listlessly amazed at the breathless rapture and excitement it evoked here in this marvellous city of Al-Kyris, where everything seemed more strange and weird than the strangest dream! It was a story of the gods before the world was made,—of love deep buried in far eternities of light, . . of vast celestial shapes whose wanderings through the blue deep of space were tracked by the birth of stars and suns and wonder-spheres of beauty, . . a fanciful legend of transcendent heavenly passion, telling how all created worlds throbbed amorously in the purple seas of pure ether, and how Love and Love alone was the dominant cloud of the triumphal march of the Universe...And with what matchless eloquence Sah-luma spoke the glowing lines! ..with what clear and rounded tenderness of accent! ... how exquisitely his voice rose and fell in a rhythmic rush like the wind surging through many leaves, . . while ever and anon in the very midst of the divinely entrancing joy that chiefly characterized the poem, his musicianly art infused a touch of minor pathos,—a suggestion of the eternal complaint of Nature which even in the happiest moments asserts itself in mournful under-tones. The effect of his splendid declamation was heightened by a few soft, running passages dexterously played on the harp by his attendant harpist and introduced just at the right moments; and Theos, notwithstanding the peculiar position in which he was placed, listened to every well-remembered word of his own work thus recited with a gradually deepening sense of peace,—he knew not why, for the verses, in themselves, were strangely passionate and wild. The various impressions produced on the hearers were curious to witness—the King moved restlessly, his bronzed cheeks alternately flushing and paling, his hand now grasping his sword, now toying with the innumerable jewels that blazed on his breast—the women's eyes at one moment sparkled with delight and at the next grew humid with tears,—the assembled courtiers pressed forward, awed, eager, and attentive,—the very soldiers on guard seemed entranced, and not even a small side-whisper disturbed the harmonious fall and flow of dulcet speech that rippled from the Laureate's lips.
When he ceased, there broke forth such a tremendous uproar of applause that the amber pendents of the lamps swung to and fro in the strong vibration of so many uplifted voices,—shouts of frenzied rapture echoed again and again through the vaulted roof like thuds of thunder,—shouts in which Theos joined,—as why should he not? He had as good a right as any one to applaud his own poem! It had been sufficiently abused heretofore,—he was glad to find it now so well appreciated, at least in Al-Kyris,—though he had no intention of putting forward any claim to its authorship. No,—for it was evident he had in some inscrutable way been made an outcast from all literary honor,—and a sort of wild recklessness grew up within him,—a bitter mirth, arising from curiously mingled feelings of scorn for himself and tenderness for Sah-luma,—and it was in this spirit that he loudly cheered the triumphant robber of his stores of poesy, and even kept up the plaudits long after they might possibly have been discontinued. Never perhaps did any poet receive a grander ovation, . . but the exquisitely tranquil vanity of the Laureate was not a whit moved by it, . . his dazzling smile dawned like a gleam of sunshine all over his beautiful face, but, save for this, he gave no sign of even hearing the deafening acclamations that resounded about him on all sides.
"A new Ilyspiros!" cried the King enthusiastically, and, detaching a magnificently cut ruby from among the gems he wore, he flung it toward his favored minstrel. It flashed through the air like a bright spark of flame and fell, glistening redly, on the pavement just half-way between Theos and Sah-luma...Theos eyed it with faintly amused indifference, . . the Laureate bowed gracefully, but did not stoop to raise it,—he left that task to his harp-bearer, who, taking it up, presented it to his master humbly on one knee. Then, and only then Sah-luma received it, kissed it lightly and placed it negligently among his other ornaments, smiling at the King as he did so with the air of one who graciously condescends to accept a gift out of kindly feeling for the donor. Zabastes meanwhile had witnessed the scene with an expression of mingled impatience, malignity, and disgust written plainly on his furrowed features, and as soon as the hubbub of applause had subsided, he struck his staff on the ground with an angry clang, and exclaimed irritably:
"Now may the god shield us from a plague of fools! What means this throaty clamor? Ye praise what ye do not understand, like all the rest of the discerning public! Many is the time, as the weariness of my spirit witnesseth, that I have heard Sah-luma rehearse,—but never in all my experience of his prolix multiloquence, hath he given utterance to such a senseless jingle-jangle of verse-jargon as to-night! Strange it is that the so-called 'poetical' trick of confusedly heaping words together regardless of meaning, should so bewilder men and deprive them of all wise and sober judgment! By my faith! ... I would as soon listen to the gabble of geese in a farmyard as to the silly glibness of such inflated twaddle, such mawkish sentiment, such turgid garrulity, such ranting verbosity..."
A burst of laughter interrupted and drowned his harsh voice,— laughter in which no one joined more heartily than Sah-luma himself. He had resumed his seat in his ivory chair, and leaning back lazily, he surveyed his Critic with tolerant good-humor and complete amusement, while the King's stentorian "Ha, ha, ha!" resounded in ringing peals through the great audience-chamber.
"Thou droll knave!" cried Zephoranim at last, dashing away the drops his merriment had brought into his eyes—"Wilt kill me with thy bitter-mouthed jests? ... of a truth my sides ache at thee! What ails thee now? ... Come,—we will have patience, if so be our mirth can be restrained,—speak!—what flaw canst thou find in our Sah-luma's pearl of poesy?—what spots on the sun of his divine inspiration? As the Serpent lives, thou art an excellent mountebank and well deservest thy master's pay!"
He laughed again,—but Zabastes seemed in nowise disconcerted. His withered countenance appeared to harden itself into lines of impenetrable obstinacy,—tucking his long staff under his arm he put his fingers together in the manner of one who inwardly counts up certain numbers, and with a preparatory smack of his lips he began: "Free speech being permitted to me, O most mighty Zephoranim, I would in the first place say that the poem so greatly admired by your Majesty, is totally devoid of common sense. It is purely a caprice of the imagination,—and what is imagination? A mere aberration of the cerebral nerves,—a morbidity of brain in which the thoughts brood on the impossible, —on things that have never been, and never will be. Thus, Sah- luma's verse resembles the incoherent ravings of a moon-struck madman,—moreover, it hath a prevailing tone of FORCED SUBLIMITY..." here Theos gave an involuntary start,—then, recollecting where he was, resumed his passive attitude—"which is in every way distasteful to the ears that love plain language. For instance, what warrant is there for this most foolish line:
"'The solemn chanting of the midnight stars.'
'Tis vile, 'tis vile! for who ever heard the midnight stars or any other stars chant? ... who can prove that the heavenly bodies are given to the study of music? Hath Sah-luma been present at their singing lesson?" Here the old critic chuckled, and warming with his subject, advanced a step nearer to the throne as he went on: "Hear yet another jarring simile:
"'The wild winds moan for pity of the world.'
Was ever a more indiscreet lie? A brazen lie!—for the tales of shipwreck sufficiently prove the pitilessness of winds,—and however much a verse-weaver may pretend to be in the confidence of Nature, he is after all but the dupe of his own frenetic dreams. One couplet hath most discordantly annoyed my senses—'tis the veriest doggerel:
"'The sun with amorous clutch Tears off the emerald girdle of the rose!'
O monstrous piece of extravagance!—for how can the Sun (his Deity set apart) 'clutch' without hands?—and as for 'the emerald girdle of the rose'—I know not what it means, unless Sah-luma considers the green calyx of the flower a 'girdle,' in which case his wits must be far gone, for no shape of girdle can any sane man descry in the common natural protection of a bud before it blooms! There was a phrase too concerning nightingales,—and the gods know we have heard enough and too much of those over-praised birds! ..." Here he was interrupted by one of his frequent attacks of coughing, and again the laughter of the whole court broke forth in joyous echoes.
"Laugh—laugh!" said Zabastes, recovering himself and eying the throng with a derisive smile—"Laugh, ye witless bantlings born of folly!—and cling as you will to the unsubstantial dreams your Laureate blows for you in the air like a child playing with soap- bubbles! Empty and perishable are they all,—they shine for a moment, then break and vanish,—and the colors wherewith they sparkled, colors deemed immortal in their beauty, shall pass away like a breath and be renewed no more!"
"Not so!" interposed Theos suddenly, unknowing why he spoke, but feeling inwardly compelled to take up Sah-luma's defence-"for the colors ARE immortal, and permeate the Universe, whether seen in the soap-bubble or the rainbow! Seven tones of light exist, co- equal with the seven tones in music, and much of what we call Art and Poesy is but the constant reflex of these never-dying tints and sounds. Can a Critic enter more closely into the secrets of Nature than a Poet? ... nay!—for he would undo all creation were he able, and find fault with its fairest productions! The critical mind dwells too persistently on the mere surface of things, ever to comprehend or probe the central deeps and well-springs of thought. Will a Zabastes move us to tears and passion? ... Will he make our pulses beat with any happier thrill, or stir our blood into a warmer glow? He may be able to sever the petals of a lily and name its different sections, its way of growth and habitude,— but can he raise it from the ground alive and fair, a perfect flower, full of sweet odors and still sweeter suggestions? No!— but Sah-luma with entrancing art can make us see, not one lily but a thousand lilies, all waving in the light wind of his fancy,—not one world but a thousand worlds, circling through the empyrean of his rhythmic splendor,—not one joy but a thousand joys, all quivering song-wise through the radiance of his clear illumined inspiration. The heart,—the human heart alone is the final touchstone of a poet's genius,—and when that responds, who shall deny his deathless fame!"
Loud applause followed these words, and the King, leaning forward, clapped Theos familiarly on the shoulder:
"Bravely spoken, sir stranger!" he exclaimed—"Thou hast well vindicated thy friend's honor! And by my soul!—thou hast a musical tongue of thine own!—who knows but that thou also may be a poet yet in time to come!—And thou, Zabastes—" here he turned upon the old Critic, who, while Theos spoke, had surveyed him with much cynical disdain—"get thee hence! Thine arguments are all at fault, as usual! Thou art thyself a disappointed author—hence thy spleen! Thou art blind and deaf, selfish and obstinate,—for thee the very sun is a blot rather than a brightness,—thou couldst, in thine own opinion, have created a fairer luminary doubtless had the matter been left to thee! Aye, aye!—we know thee for a beauty hating fool,—and though we laugh at thee, we find thee wearisome! Stand thou aside and be straightway forgotten!—we will entreat Sah-luma for another song."
The discomfited Zabastes retired, grumbling to himself in an undertone,—and the Laureate, whose dreamy eyes had till now rested on Theos, his self constituted advocate, with an appreciative and almost tender regard, once more took up his harp, and striking a few rich, soft chords was about to sing again, when a great noise as of clanking armor was heard outside, mingled with a steadily increasing, sonorous hum of many voices and the increased tramp, tramp of marching feet. The doors were flung open,—the Herald-in-Waiting entered in hot haste and excitement, and prostrating himself before the throne exclaimed:
"O great King, may thy name live forever! Khosrul is taken!"
Zephoranim's black brows drew together in a dark scowl and he set his lips hard.
"So! For once thou art quick tongued in the utterance of news!" he said half-scornfully—"Bring hither the captive,—an he chafes at his bonds we will ourselves release him..." and he touched his sword significantly—"to a wider freedom than is found on earth!"
A thrill, ran through the courtly throng at these words, and the women shuddered and grew pale. Sah-luma, irritated at the sudden interruption that had thus distracted the general attention from his own fair and flattered self, gave an expressively petulant glance toward Theos, who smiled back at him soothingly as one who seeks to coax a spoilt child out of its ill-humor, and then all eyes were turned expectantly toward the entrance of the audience- chamber.
A band of soldiers clad from head to foot in glittering steel armor, and carrying short drawn swords, appeared, and marched with quick, ringing steps, across the hall toward the throne—arrived at the dais, they halted, wheeled about, saluted, and parted asunder in two compact lines, thus displaying in their midst the bound and manacled figure of a tall, gaunt, wild-looking old man, with eyes that burned like bright flames beneath the cavernous shadow of his bent and shelving brows,—a man whose aspect was so grand, and withal so terrible, that an involuntary murmur of mingled admiration and affright broke from the lips of all assembled, like a low wind surging among leaf-laden branches. This was Khosrul,—the Prophet of a creed that was to revolutionize the world,—the fanatic for a faith as yet unrevealed to men,—the dauntless foreteller of the downfall of Al-Kyris and its King!
Theos stared wonderingly at him.. at his funereal, black garments which clung to him with the closeness of a shroud,—at his long, untrimmed beard and snow-white hair that fell in disordered, matted locks below his shoulders,—at his majestic form which in spite of cords and feathers he held firmly erect in an attitude of fearless and composed dignity. There was something supernaturally grand and awe-inspiring about him, ... something commanding as well as defiant in the straight and steady look with which he confronted the King,—and for a moment or so a deep silence reigned,—silence apparently born of superstitious dread inspired by the mere fact of his presence. Zephoranim's glance rested upon him with cold and supercilious indifference,—seated haughtily upright in his throne, with one hand resting on the hilt of his sword, he showed no sign of anger against, or interest in, his prisoner, save that, to the observant eye of Theos, the veins in his forehead seemed to become suddenly knotted and swollen, while the jewels on his bare chest heaved restlessly up and down with the unquiet panting of his quickened breath.
"We give thee greeting, Khosrul!" he said slowly and with a sinister smile—"The Lion's paw has struck thee down at last! Too long hast thou trifled with our patience,—thou must abjure thy heresies, or die! What sayest thou now of doom,—of judgment,—of the waning of glory? Wilt prophesy? ... wilt denounce the Faith? ... Wilt mislead the people? ... Wilt curse the King? ... Thou mad sorcerer!—devil bewitched and blasphemous! ... What shall hinder me from at once slaying thee?" And he half drew his formidable sword from its sheath.
Khosrul met his threatening gaze unflinchingly.
"Nothing shall hinder thee, Zephoranim," he replied, and his voice, deeply musical and resonant, struck to Theos's heart with a strange, foreboding chill—"Nothing—save thine own scorn of cowardice!"
The monarch's hand fell from his sword-hilt,—a flush of shame reddened his dark face. He bent his fiery eyes full on the captive—and there was something in the sorrowful grandeur of the old man's bearing, coupled with his enfeebled and defenceless condition, that seemed to touch him with a sense of compassion, for, turning suddenly to the armed guard, he raised his hand with a gesture of authority ...
"Unloose his fetters!" he commanded.
The men hesitated, apparently doubting whether they had heard aright.
Zephoranim stamped his foot impatiently.
"Unloose him, I say! ... By the gods! must I repeat the same thing twice? Since when have soldiers grown deaf to the voice of their sovereign? ... And why have ye bound this aged fool with such many and tight bonds? His veins and sinews are not of iron,—methinks ye might have tied him with thread and met with small resistance! I have known many a muscular deserter from the army fastened less securely when captured! Unloose him—and quickly too!—Our pleasure is that, ere he dies, he shall speak an he will, in his own defence as a free man."
In trembling haste and eagerness the guards at once set to work to obey this order. The twisted cords were untied, the heavy iron fetters wrenched asunder,—and in a very short space Khosrul stood at comparative liberty. At first he did not seem to understand the King's generosity toward him in this respect, for he made no attempt to move,—his limbs were rigidly composed as though they were still bound,—and so stiff and motionless was his weird, attenuated figure that Theos beholding him, began to wonder whether he were made of actual flesh and blood, or whether he might not more possibly be some gaunt spectre, forced back by mystic art from another world in order to testify, of things unknown, to living men. Zephoranim meanwhile called for his cup- bearer, a beautiful youth radiant as Ganymede, who at a sign from his royal master approached the Prophet, and pouring wine from a jewelled flagon into a goblet of gold, offered it to him with a courteous salute and smile. Khosrul started violently like one suddenly wakened from a deep dream,—shading his eyes with his lean and wrinkled hand he stared dubiously at the young and gayly attired servitor,—then pushed the goblet aside with a shuddering gesture of aversion.
"Away ... Away!" he muttered in a thrilling whisper that penetrated to every part of the vast hall—"Wilt force me to drink blood?" He paused,—and in the same low, horror-stricken tone, continued. "Blood ... Blood! It stains the earth and sky! ... its red, red waves swallow up the land! ... The heavens grow pale and tremble,—the silver stars blacken and decay, and the winds of the desert make lament for that which shall come to pass ere ever the grapes be pressed or the harvest gathered! Blood ... blood! The blood of the innocent! ... 'tis a scarlet sea, wherein, like a broken and empty ship, Al-Kyris founders ... founders ... never to rise again!"
These words, uttered with such hushed yet passionate intensity produced a most profound impression. Several courtiers exchanged uneasy glances, and the women half rose from their seats, looking toward the King as though silently requesting permission to retire. But an imperious negative sign from Zephoranim obliged them to resume their places, though they did so with obvious nervous reluctance.
"Thou art mad, Khosrul"—then said the monarch in calmly measured accents—"And for thy madness, as also for thine age, we have till now retarded justice, out of pity. Nevertheless, excess of pity in great Kings too oft degenerates into weakness—and this we cannot suffer to be said of us, not even for the sake of sparing thy few poor remaining years. Thou hast overstepped the limit of our leniency,—and madman as thou art, thou showest a madman's cunning,—thou dost break the laws and art dangerous to the realm,—thou art proved a traitor, and must straightway die. Thou art accused..."
"Of honesty!" interrupt Khosrul suddenly, with a touch of melancholy satire in his tone. "I have spoken Truth in an age of lies! 'Tis a most death-worthy deed!"
He ceased, and again seemed to retire within himself as though he were a Voice entering at will into the carven image of man. Zephoranim frowned angrily, yet answered nothing—and a brief pause ensued. Theos grew more and more painfully interested in the scene,—there was something in it that to his mind seemed fatefully suggestive and fraught with impending evil. Suddenly Sah-luma looked up, his bright face alit with laughter.
"Now by the Sacred Veil,"—he said gayly, addressing himself to the King—"Your Majesty considers this venerable gentleman with too much gravity! I recognize in him one of my craft,—a poet, tragic and taciturn of humor, and with a taste for melodramatic simile, . . marked you not the mixing of his word-colors in the picture he drew of Al-Kyris, foundering like a wrecked ship in a blood-red sea, whilst overhead trembled a white sky set thick with blackening stars? As I live, 'twas not ill-devised for a madman's brain! ... and so solemn a ranter should serve your Majesty to make merriment withal, in place of my poor Zabastes, whose peevish jests grow somewhat stale owing to the Critic's chronic want of originality! Nay, I myself shall be willing to enter into a rhyming joust with so disconsolately morose a contemporary, and who knows whether, betwixt us twain, the chords of the major and minor may not be harmonized in some new and altogether marvellous fashion of music such as we wot not of!" And turning to Khosrul he added—"Wilt break a lance of song with me, sir gray-beard? Thou shalt croak of death, and I will chant of love,—and the King shall pronounce judgment as to which melody hath the most potent and lasting sweetness!"
Khosrul lifted his head and met the Laureate's half-mirthful, half-mocking smile with a look of infinite compassion in his own deep, solemnly penetrating eyes.
"Thou poor deluded singer of a perishable day!" he said mournfully—"Alas for thee, that thou must die so, soon, and be so soon forgotten! Thy fame is worthless as a grain of sand blown by the breath of the sea! ... thy pride and thy triumph evanescent as the mists of the morning that vanish in the heat of the sun! Great has been the measure of thine inspiration,—yet thou hast missed its true teaching,—and of all the golden threads of poesy placed freely in thy hands thou hast not woven one clew whereby thou shouldst find God! Alas, Sah-lum! Bright soul unconscious of thy fate! ... Thou shalt be suddenly and roughly slain, and THERE sits thy destroyer!"