And as he spoke he raised his shrunken, skeleton-like hand and pointed steadfastly to—the King! There was a momentary hush...a stillness as of stupefied amazement and horror, . . then, to the apparent relief of all present, Zephoranim burst out laughing.
"By all the virtues of Nagaya!" he cried—"This is most excellent fooling! I, Zephoranim, the destroyer of my friend and first favorite in the realm? ... Old man, thy frenzy exceeds belief and exhausts patience,—though of a truth I am sorry for the shattering of thy wits,—'tis sad that reason should be lacking to one so revered and grave of aspect. Dear to me as my royal crown is the life of Sah-luma, through whose inspired writings alone my name shall live in the annals of future history—for the glory of a great poet must ever surpass the renown of the greatest King. Were Al-Kyris besieged by a thousand enemies, and these strong palace-walls razed to the ground by the engines of warfare, we would ourselves defend Sah-luma!—aye, even cry aloud in the heat of combat that he, the Chief Minstrel of our land, should be sheltered from fury and spared from death, as the only one capable of chronicling our vanquishment of victory!"
Sah-luma smiled and bowed gracefully in response to this enthusiastic assurance of his sovereign's friendship,—but nevertheless there was a slight shadow of uneasiness on his bold, beautiful brows. He had evidently been uncomfortably impressed by Khosrul's words, and the restless anxiety reflected in his face communicated itself by a sort of electric thrill to Theos, whose heart began to beat heavily with a sense of vague alarm. "What is this Khosrul?" he thought half resentfully—"and how dares he predict for the adored, the admired Sah-luma so dark and unmerited an end? ... "Hark! ... what was that low, far-off rumbling as of underground wheels rolling at full speed? ... He listened,—then glanced at those persons who stood nearest to him, . . no one seemed to hear anything unusual. Moreover all eyes were fixed fearfully on Khosrul, whose before rigidly sombre demeanor had suddenly changed, and who now with raised head, tossed hair, outstretched arms, and wild gestures looked like a flaming Terror personified.
"Victory... Victory!" he cried, catching at the King's last word ... "There shall be no more victory for thee, Zephoranim! ... Thy conquests are ended, and the flag of thy glory shall cease to wave on the towers of thy strong citadels! Death stands behind thee! ... Destruction clamors at thy palace-gates! ... and the enemy that cometh upon thee unawares is an enemy that none shall vanquish or subdue, not even they who are mightiest among the mighty! Thy strong men of war shall be trodden down as wheat,—thy captains and rulers shall tremble and wail as children bewildered with fear:—thy great engines of battle shall be to thee as naught,—and the arrows of thy skilled archers shall be useless as straws in the gathering tempest of fire and fury! Zephoranim! Zephoranim! ..." and his voice shrilled with terrific emphasis through the vaulted chamber ... "The days of recompense are come upon thee,—swift and terrible as the desert-wind! ... The doom of Al-Kyris is spoken, and who shall avert its fulfilment! Al-Kyris the Magnificent shall fall.. shall fall! ... its beauty, its greatness, its pleasantness, its power, shall be utterly destroyed.. and ere the waning of the midsummer moon not one stone of its glorious buildings shall be left to prove that here was once a city? Fire! ... Fire! ..." and here he ran abruptly to the foot of the royal dais, his dark garments brushing against Theos as he passed,—and springing on the first step, stood boldly within hand-reach of the King, who, taken aback by the suddenness of his action, stared at him with a sort of amazed and angry fascination.. "To arms, Zephoranim! ... To arms! ... take up thy sword and shield.. get thee forth and fight with fire! Fire! ... How shall the King quench it? ... how shall the mighty monarch defend his people against it? See you not how it fills the air with red devouring tongues of flame! ... the thick smoke reeks of blood! ... Al-Kyris the Magnificent, the pleasant city of sin, the idolatrous city, is broken in pieces and is become a waste of ashes! Who will join with me in a lament for Al-Kyris? I will call upon the desert of the sea to hear my voice, . . I will pour forth my sorrows on the wind, and it shall carry the burden of grief to the four quarters of the earth,—all nations shall shudder and be astonished at the direful end of Al-Kyris, the city beautiful, the empress of kingdoms! Woe unto Al-Kyris, for she hath suffered herself to be led astray by her rulers! ... she hath drunken deep of the innocent blood and hath followed after idols, . . her abominations are manifold and the hearts of her young men and maidens are full of evil! Therefore because Al-Kyris delighteth in pride and despiseth repentance, so shall destruction descend furiously upon her, even as a sudden tempest in the mid-watches of the night,—she shall be swept away from the surface of the earth, ... wolves shall make their lair in her pleasant gardens, and the generations of men shall remember her no more! Oh ye kings, princes, and warriors!—Weep, weep for the doom of Al-Kyris!" and now his wild voice sank by degrees into a piteous plaintiveness— "Weep!—for never again on earth shall be found a fairer dwelling- place for the lovers of joy! ... never again shall be builded a grander city for the glory and wealth of a people! Al-Kyris! Al- Kyris! Thou that boastest of ancient days and long lineage! ... thou art become a forgotten heap of ruin! ... the sands of the desert shall cover thy temples and palaces, and none hereafter shall inquire concerning thee! None shall bemoan thee, . . none shall shed tears for the grievous manner of thy death, . . none shall know the names of thy mighty heroes and men of fame,—for thou shalt vanish utterly and be lost far out of memory even as though thou hadst never been!"
Here he stopped abruptly and caught his breath hard,—his blazing eyes preternaturally large and brilliant fixed themselves steadfastly on the sculptured ivory shield that surmounted the back of the King's throne, and over his drawn and wrinkled features came an expression of such ghastly horror that instinctively every one present turned their looks in the same direction. Suddenly a shriek, piercing and terrible, broke from his lips,—a shriek that like a swiftly descending knife seemed to saw the air discordantly asunder.
"See ... See!" he cried in fierce haste and eagerness ... "See how the crested head gleams! ... How the soft, shiny throat curves and glistens! ... how the lithe body twists and twines! ... Hence!— Hence, accursed Snake! ..thou poisoner of peace! ... thou quivering sting in the flesh!—thou destroyer of the strength of manhood! What hast thou to do with Zephoranim, that thou dost wind thy many coils about his heart? ... Lysia ... Lysia! ..." here the King started violently, his face flushing darkly red, "Thou delicate abomination! ... Thou tyrannous treachery.. what shall be done unto thee in the hour of darkness! Put off, put off the ornaments of gold and the jewels wherewith thou adornest thy beauty, and crown thyself with the crown of an endless affliction! ... for thou shalt be girdled round about with flame, and fire shall be thy garment! ... thy lips that have drunken sweet wine shall be steeped in bitterness!—vainly shalt thou make thyself fair and call aloud on thy legion of lovers, . . they shall be as dead men, deaf to thine entreaties, and none shall answer thee,—no, not one! None shall hide thee from shame or offer thee comfort,—in the midst of thy lascivious delights shalt thou suddenly perish! ... and my soul shall be avenged on thy sins, thou unvirgined Virgin!—thou Queen-Courtesan!"
Scarcely had he uttered the last word, when the King with a furious oath sprang upon him, grasped him by the throat, and thrusting him fiercely down on the steps of the dais, placed one foot on his prostrate body. Then drawing his gigantic sword he lifted it on high, . . the blight blade glittered in air...an audible gasp of terror broke from the throng of spectators, . . another second and Khosrul's life would have paid the forfeit for his temerity...when crash! ... a sudden and tremendous clap of thunder shook the hall, and every lamp was extinguished! Impenetrable darkness reigned, . . thick, close, suffocating darkness, . . the thunder rolled away in sullen, vibrating echoes, and there was a short, impressive silence. Then piercing through the profound gloom came the clamorous cries and shrieks of frightened women, . . the horrible, selfish scrambling, pushing and struggling of a bewildered, panic-stricken crowd, . . the helpless, nerveless, unreasoning distraction that human beings exhibit when striving together for escape from some imminent deadly peril,—and though the King's stentorian voice could be heard above all the tumult loudly commanding order, his alternate threats and persuasions were of no avail to calm the frenzy of fear into which the whole court was thrown. Groans and sobs, . . wild entreaties to Nagaya and the Sun-God.. curses from the soldiery, who intent on saving themselves were brutally trying to force a passage to the door regardless of the wailing women, whose frantic appeals for rescue and assistance were heart-rending to hear, . . all these sounds increased the horror of the situation,—and Theos, blind, giddy, and confused, listened to the uproar around him with something of the affrighted compassion that a stranger in Hell might be supposed to feel when hearkening to the ceaseless plaints of the self-tortured wicked. He endeavored to grope his way to Sah-luma's side,—and just then lights appeared, . . lights that were not of earth's kindling, . . strange, wandering flames that danced and flitted along the tapestried walls like will-o'-the- wisps on a dark morass, and flung a ghastly blue glare on the pale, uneasy faces of the scared people, till gathering in a sort of lurid ring round the throne, they outlined in strong relief the enraged, Titanesque figure of Zephoranim whose upraised sword looked in itself like an arrested flash of lightning. Brighter and brighter grew the weird lustre, illumining the whole scene.. the vast length of the splendid hall, . . the shining armor of the soldiers...the white robes of the women...the flags and pennons that hung from the roof and swayed to and fro as though blown by a gust of wind.. every object near and distant was soon as visible as in broad day,—and then...a terrible cry of rage burst from the King,—the cry of a maddened wild beast.
"Death and fury!" he shouted, striking his sword with a fierce clang against the silver pedestal of the throne, . . "Where is Khosrul?"
The silence of an absolute dismay answered him, ... Khosrul had fled! Like a cloud melting in air, or a ghost vanishing into the nether-world, he had mysteriously disappeared! ... he had escaped, no one knew how, from under the very feet and out of the very grasp of the irate monarch, whose baffled wrath now knew no bounds.
"Dolts, idiots, cowards!".. and he hurled these epithets at the timorous crowd with all the ferocity of a giant hurling stones at a swarm of pigmies.. "Babes that are frighted by a summer thunder- storm! ... Ye have let yon accursed heretic slip from my hands ere I had choked him with his own lie! O ye fools! Ye puny villains! ... I take shame to myself that I am King of such a race of weaklings! Lights! ... Bring lights hither, ye whimpering slaves, —ye shivering poltroons! ... What! call yourselves men! Nay, ye are feeble girls prankt out in men's attire, and your steel corselets cover the faintest hearts that ever failed for dastard fear! Shut fast the palace-gates! ... close every barrier! ... search every court and corner, lest haply this base false Prophet be still here in hiding,—he that blasphemed with ribald tongue the High Priestess of our Faith, the holy Virgin Lysia! ... Are ye all turned renegades and traitors that ye will suffer him to go free and triumph in his lawless heresy? Ye shameless knaves! Ye milk-veined rascals! ... What abject terror makes ye thus quiver like aspen-leaves in a storm? ... this darkness is but a conjurer's trick to scare women, and Khosrul's followers can so play with the strings of electricity that ye are duped into accepting the witch-glamour as Heaven's own cloud-flame! By the gods! If Al-Kyris falls, as yon dotard pronounceth, her ruins shall bury but few heroes! O superstitious and degraded souls! ... I would ye were even as I am—a man dauntless,—a soldier unafraid."
His powerful and indignant voice had the effect of partially checking the panic and restoring something like order,—the pushing and struggling for an immediate exit ceased,—the armed guards in shamed silence began to marshal themselves together in readiness to start on the search for the fugitive,—and several pages rushed in with flaring torches, which cast a wondrous fire- glow on the surging throng of eager and timid faces, the brilliant costumes, the flash of jewels, the glimmer of swords and the dark outlines of the fluttering tapestry,—all forming together a curious chiaroscuro, from which the massive figure of Zephoranim stood out in bold and striking prominence against the white and silver background of his throne. Vaguely bewildered and lost in a dim stupefaction of wonderment, Theos looked upon everything with an odd sense of strained calmness, . . the glittering saloon whirled before his eyes like a passing picture in a magic glass...and then...an imperative knowledge forced itself upon his mind,—HE HAD WITNESSED THIS SELF-SAME SCENE BEFORE! Where? and when? ... Impossible to say,—but he distinctly remembered each incident! This impression however left him as rapidly as it had come, before he had any time to puzzle himself about it, . . and just at that moment Sah-luma's hand caught his own,—Sah-luma's voice whispered in his ear:
"Let us away, my friend,—there will be naught now but mounting of guards and dire confusion,—the King is as a lion roused, and will not cease growling till his vengeance be satisfied! A plague on this shatter-pated Prophet!—he hath broken through my music, and jarred poesy into discord!—By the Sacred Veil!—Didst ever hear such a hideous clamor of contradictory tongues! ... all striving to explain what defies explanation, namely, Khosrul's flight, for which, after all, no one is to blame so much as Zephoranim himself,—but 'tis the privilege of monarchs to shift their own mistakes and follies on to the shoulders of their subjects! Come! Lysia awaits us, and will not easily pardon our tardy obedience to her summons,—let us hence ere the gates of the palace close."
Lysia! ... The "unvirgined Virgin"—the "Queen Courtesan"! So had said Khosrul. Nevertheless her name, like a silver clarion, made the heart of Theos bound with indescribable gladness and feverish expectation, and without an instant's pause he readily yielded to Sah-luma's guidance through the gorgeously colored confusion of the swaying crowd. Arm-in-arm, the twain,—one a POET RENOWNED, the other a POET FORGOTTEN,—threaded their rapid way between the ranks of nobles, officers, slaves, and court-lacqueys, who were all excitedly discussing the recent scare, the Prophet's escape, and the dread wrath of the King,—and hurrying along the vast Hall of the Two Thousand Columns, they passed together out into the night.
A VIRGIN UNSHRINED.
Under the cloudless, star-patterned sky, in the soft, warm air that brimmed with the fragrance of roses, they drove once more together through the spacious streets of Al-Kyris—streets that were now nearly deserted save for a few late passers-by whose figures were almost as indistinct and rapid in motion as pale, flitting shadows. There was not a sign of storm in the lovely heavens, though now and again a sullen roll as of a distant cannonade hinted of pent-up anger lurking somewhere behind that clear and exquisitely dark-blue ether, in which a million worlds blazed luminously like pendulous drops of white fire. Sah-luma's chariot whirled along with incredible swiftness, the hoofs of the galloping horses occasionally striking sparks of flame from the smooth mosaic-pictured pavement; but Theos now began to notice that there was a strange noiselessness in their movements—that the whole CORTEGE appeared to be environed by a magic circle of silence—and that the very night itself seemed breathlessly listening in entranced awe to some unlanguaged warning from the gods invisible.
Compared with the turbulence and terror just left behind at the King's palace, this weird hush was uncomfortably impressive, and gave a sense of fantastic unreality to the scene. The sleepy, mesmeric radiance of the full moon, shining on the delicate traceries of the quaintly sculptured houses on either hand, made them look brittle and evanescent; the great heavy, hanging orange- boughs and the feathery frondage of the tall palms seemed outlined in mere mist against the sky; and the glimpses caught from time to time of the broad and quietly flowing river were like so many flashes of light seen through a veil of cloud. Theos, standing beside his friend with one hand resting familiarly on his shoulder, dreamily admired the phantom-like beauty of the city thus transfigured in the moonbeams, and though he vaguely wondered a little at the deep, mysterious stillness that everywhere prevailed, he scarcely admitted to himself that there was or could be anything unusual in it. He took his position as he found it— indeed he could not well do otherwise, since he felt his fate was ruled by some resolute, unseen force, against which all resistance would be unavailing. Moreover, his mind was now entirely possessed by the haunting vision of Lysia—a vision half-human, half-divine —a beautiful, magical, irresistible Sweetness that allured his soul, and roused within him a wordless passion of infinite desire.
He exchanged not a syllable with Sah-luma—an indefinable yet tacit understanding existed between them,—an intuitive foreknowledge and subtle perception of each other's character, intentions, and aims, that for the moment rendered speech unnecessary. And there was something, after all, in the profound silence of the night that, while strange, was also eloquent— eloquent of meanings, unutterable, such as lie hidden in the scented cups of flowers when lovers gather them on idle summer afternoons and weave them into posies for one another's wearing. How fleetly the gilded, shell-shaped car sped on its way!—trees, houses, bridges, domes, and cupolas, seemed to fly past in a varied whirl of glistening color! Now and again a cluster of fire- flies broke from some thicket of shade and danced drowsily by in sparkling tangles of gold and green; here and there from great open squares and branch-shadowed gardens gleamed the stone face of an obelisk, or the white column of a fountain; while over all things streamed the long prismatic rays flung forth from the revolving lights in the Twelve Towers of the Sacred Temple, like flaming spears ranged lengthwise against the limitless depth of the midnight horizon. With straining necks, tossed manes, and foam flying from their nostrils, Sah-luma's fiery coursers dashed onward at almost lightning speed, and the journey became a wild, headstrong rush through the dividing air—a rush toward some voluptuous end, dimly discerned, yet indefinite!
At last they stopped. Before them rose a lofty building, crested with fantastic pinnacles such as are formed by ice on the roof in times of intense cold; a great gate stood open, and pacing slowly up and down in front of it was a tall slave in white tunic and turban, who, turning his gleaming eyeballs on Sah-luma, nodded by way of salutation, and then uttered a sharp, peculiar whistle. This summons brought out two curious, dwarfish figures of men, whose awkward misshapen limbs resembled the contorted branches of wind-blown trees, and whose coarse and repulsive countenances betokened that malignant delight in evil-doing which only demons are supposed to know. These ungainly servitors possessed themselves of the Laureate's chafing steeds, and led them and the chariot away into some unseen courtyard; while the Laureate himself, still saying no word, kept fast hold of his companion's arm, and hurried him along a dark avenue overshadowed with thick boughs that drooped heavily downward to the ground—a solitary place where the intense quiet was disturbed only by the occasional drip, drip of dewy moisture trickling tearfully from the leaves, or the sweet, faint, gurgling sound of fountains playing somewhere in the distance.
On they went for several paces, till at a sharp bend in the moss- grown path, an amethystine light broke full between the arched green branches; directly in front of them glimmered a broad piece of water, and out of the purple-tinted depths rose the white, nude, lovely form of a woman, whose rounded, outstretched arms appeared to beckon them, . . whose mouth smiled in mingled malice and sweetness, . . and round whose looped-up tresses sparkled a diadem of sapphire flame. With a cry of astonishment and ecstacy Theos sprang forward: Sah-luma held him back in laughing remonstrance.
"Wilt drown for a statue's sake?" he inquired mirthfully. "By my soul, good Theos, if thy wits thus wander at sight of a witching, marble nymph illumed by electric glamours, what will become of thee when thou art face to face with living, breathing loveliness! Come, thou hotheaded neophyte! thou shalt not waste thy passion on images of stone, I warrant thee! Come!"
But Theos stood still. His eyes roved from Sah-luma to the glittering statue and from the statue back again to Sah-luma in mingled doubt and dread. A vague foreboding filled his mind, he fancied that a bevy of mocking devils peered at him from out the wooded labyrinth, ... and that Sin was the name of the white siren yonder, whose delicate body seemed to palpitate with every slow ripple of the surrounding waters. He hesitated,—with that often saving hesitation a noble spirit may feel ere willfully yielding to what it instinctively knows to be wrong,—and for the briefest possible space an imperceptible line was drawn between his own self-consciousness and the fascinating personality of his lately found friend—a line that parted them asunder as though by a gulf of centuries.
"Sah-luma," he said, in a tremulous, low tone, "tell me truly,—is it good for us to be here?"
Sah-luma regarded him in wide-eyed amazement.
"Good? good?" he repeated with a sort of impatient disdain. "What dost thou mean by 'good'? What is good? What is evil? Canst thou tell? If so, thou art wiser than I! Good to be here? If it is good to drown remembrance of the world in draughts of pleasure; if it is good to love and be beloved; if it is good to ENJOY, aye! enjoy with burning zest every pulsation of the blood and every beat of the heart, and to feel that life is a fiery delight, an exquisite dream of drained-off rapture, then it is good to be here! If," and he caught Theos's hand in his own warm palm and pressed it, while his voice sank to a soft and infinitely caressing sweetness, "if it is good to climb the dizzy heights of joy and drowse in the deep sunshine of amorous eyes, . . to slip away on elfin wings into the limitless freedom of Love's summerland, ... to rifle rich kisses from warm lips even as rosebuds are rifled from the parent rose, and to forget! ...—to forget all bitter things that are best forgotten—"
"Enough, enough!" cried Theos, fired with a reckless impulse of passionate ardor. "On, on, Sah-luma! I follow thee! On! let us delay no more!"
At that moment a far-off strain of music saluted his ears—music evidently played on stringed instruments. It was accompanied by a ringing clash of cymbals; he listened, and listening, saw a smile lighten Sah-luma's features—a smile sweet, yet full of delicate mockery. Their eyes met; a wanton impetuosity flashed like reflected flame from one face to the other, and then, without another instant's pause, they hurried on.
Across a broad, rose-marbled terrace garlanded with a golden wealth of orange-trees and odorous oleanders.. ... under a trellis-work covered with magnolias whose half-shut, ivory-tinted buds glistened in the moonlight like large suspended pearls, . . then through a low-roofed stone-corridor, close and dim, lit only by a few flickering oil-lamps placed at far intervals, . . then on they went, till at last, ascending three red granite steps on which were carved some curious hieroglyphs, they plunged into what seemed to be a vast jungle enclosed in some dense tropical forest. What a strange, unsightly thicket of rank verdure was here, thought Theos! ... it was as though Nature, grown tired of floral beauty, had, in a sudden malevolent mood, purposely torn and blurred the fair green frondage and twisted every bud awry! Great, jagged leaves covered with prickles and stained all over with blotches as of spilt poison, . . thick brown stems glistening with slimy moisture and coiled up like the sleeping bodies of snakes, . . masses of purple and blue fungi, . . and blossoms seemingly of the orchid species, some like fleshy tongues, others like the waxen yellow fingers of a dead hand, protruded spectrally through the matted foliage,—while all manner of strange, overpowering odors increased the swooning oppressiveness of the sultry, languorous air.
This uncouth botanical garden was apparently roofed in by a lofty glass dome, decorated with hangings of watery-green silk, but the grotesque trees and plants grew to so enormous a height that it was impossible to tell which were the falling draperies and which the straggling leaves. Curious birds flew hither and thither, voiceless creatures, scarlet and amber winged; a huge gilded brazier stood in one corner from whence ascended the constant smoke of burning incense, and there were rose-shaded lamps all about, that shed a subdued mysterious lustre on the scene, and bestowed a pale glitter on a few fantastic clumps of arums and nodding lotus-flowers that lazily lifted themselves out of a greenish pool of stagnant water sunk deeply in on one side of the marble flooring. Theos, holding Sah-luma's arm, stepped eagerly across the threshold; he was brimful of expectation: . . and what mattered it to him whether the weed-like things that grew in this strange pavilion were pure or poisonous, provided he might look once more upon the witching face that long ago had so sweetly enticed him to his ruin! ... Stay! what was he thinking of? Long ago? Nay, that was impossible,—since he had only seen the Priestess Lysia for the first time that very morning! How piteously perplexing it was to be thus tormented with these indistinct ideas!—these half-formed notions of previous intimate acquaintance with persons and places he never could have known before!
All at once he drew back with a startled exclamation; an enormous tigress, sleek and jewel-eyed, bounded up from beneath a tangled mass of red and yellow creepers and advanced toward him with a low savage snarl.
"Peace, Aizif, peace;" said Sah-luma, carelessly patting the animal's head. "Thou art wont to be wiser in distinguishing 'twixt thy friends and foes." Then turning to Theos he added—"She is harmless as a kitten, this poor Aizif! Call her, good Theos, she will come to thy hand—see!" and he smiled, as Theos, not to be outdone by his companion in physical courage, bent forward and stroked the cruel-looking beast, who, while submitting to his caress, never for a moment ceased her smothered snarling. Presently, however, she was seized with a sudden fit of savage playfulness,—and throwing herself on the ground before him, she rolled her lithe body to and fro with brief thirsty roars of satisfaction, . . roars that echoed through the whole pavilion with terrific resonance: then rising, she shook herself vigorously and commenced a stealthy, velvet-footed pacing up and down, lashing her tail from side to side, and keeping those sly, emerald-like eyes of hers watchfully fixed on Sah-luma, who merely laughed at her fierce antics. Leaning against one of the dark, gnarled trees, he tapped his sandaled foot with some impatience on the marble pavement, while Theos, standing close beside him, wondered whether the mysterious Lysia knew of their arrival.
Sah-luma appeared to guess his thoughts, for he answered them as though they had been spoken aloud.
"Yes," he said, "she knows we are here—she knew the instant we entered her gates. Nothing is or can be hidden from her! He who would have secrets must depart out of Al-Kyris and find some other city to dwell in, . . for here he shall be unable to keep even his own counsel. To Lysia all things are made manifest; she reads human nature as one reads an open scroll, and with merciless analysis she judges men as being very poor creatures, limited in their capabilities, disappointing and monotonous in their passions, unproductive and circumscribed in their destinies. To her ironical humor and icy wit the wisest sages seem fools; she probes them to the core, and discovers all their weaknesses; . . she has no trust in virtue, no belief in honesty. And she is right! Who but a madman would be honest in these days of competition and greed of gain? And as for virtue, 'tis a pretty icicle that melts at the first touch of a hot temptation! Aye! the Virgin Priestess of Nagaya hath a most profound comprehension of mankind's immeasurable brute stupidity; and, strong in this knowledge, she governs the multitude with iron will, intellectual force, and dictative firmness: . . when she dies I know not what will happen."
Here he interrupted himself, and a dark shadow crossed his brows. "By my soul!" he muttered, "how this thought of death haunts me like the unburied corpse of a slain foe! I would there were no such thing as Death; 'tis a cruel and wanton sport of the gods to give us life at all if life must end so utterly and so soon!"
He sighed deeply. Theos echoed the sigh, but answered nothing. At that moment the restless Aizif gave another appalling roar, and pounced swiftly toward the eastern side of the pavilion, where a large painted panel could be dimly discerned, the subject of the painting being a hideous idol, whose long, half-shut, inscrutable eyes leered through the surrounding foliage with an expression of hateful cunning and malevolence. In front of this panel the tigress lay down, licking the pavement thirstily from time to time and giving vent to short purring sounds of impatience: . . then all suddenly she rose with ears pricked, in an attitude of attention. The panel slowly moved, it glided back,—and the great brute leaped forward, flinging her two soft paws on the shoulders of the figure that appeared—the figure of a woman, who, clad in glistening gold from head to foot, shone in the dark aperture like a gilded image in a shrine of ebony. Theos beheld the brilliant apparition in some doubt and wonder. Was this Lysia? He could not see her face, as she wore a thick white veil through which only the faintest sparkle of dark eyes glimmered like flickering sunbeams; nor was he able to discern the actual outline of her form, as it was completely enveloped and lost in the wide, shapeless folds of her stiff, golden gown. Yet every nerve in his body thrilled at her presence! ... every drop of blood seemed to rush from his heart to his brain in a swift, scorching torrent that for a second blinded his eyes with a red glare and made him faint and giddy.
Woman and tigress! They looked strangely alike, he thought, as they stood mutually caressing each other under the great drooping masses of fantastic leaves. Yet where was the resemblance? What possible similarity could there he between a tawny, treacherous brute of the forests, full of sly malice and voracious cruelty, and that dazzling, gold-garmented creature, whose small white hand, flashing with jewels, now tenderly smoothed the black, silken stripes on the sleek coat of her savage favorite?
"Down, sweet Aizif, down!" she said, in a grave, dulcet voice as softly languorous as the last note of a love-song. "Down, my gentle one! thou art too fond, down! so!" this as the tigress instantly removed its embracing paws from her neck, and, trembling in every limb, crouched on the ground in abjectly submissive obedience. Another moment, and she advanced leisurely into the pavilion, Aizif slinking stealthily along beside her and seeming to imitate her graceful gliding movements, till she stood within a few paces of Theos and Sah-luma, just near the spot where the lotus-flowers swayed over the grass-green, stagnant pool. There she paused, and apparently scrutinized her visitors intently through the folds of her snowy veil. Sah-luma bent his head before her in a half haughty, half humble salutation.
"The tardy Sah-luma!" she said, with an undercurrent of laughter in her musical tones, "the poet who loves the flattery of a foolish king, and the applause of a still more foolish court! And so Khosrul disturbed the flood of thine inspiration to-night, good minstrel? Nay, for that he should die, if for no other crime! And this," here she turned her veiled features toward Theos, whose heart beat furiously as he caught a luminous flash from those half-hidden, brilliant eyes, "this is the unwitting stranger who honored me by so daring a scrutiny this morning! Verily, thou hast a singularly venturesome spirit of thine own, fair sir! Still, we must honor courage, even though it border on rashness, and I rejoice to see that the wrathful mob of Al-Kyris hath yet left thee man enough to deserve my welcome! Nevertheless thou were guilty of most heinous presumption!" Here she extended her jewelled hand. "Art thou repentant? and wilt thou sue for pardon?"
Scarcely conscious of what he did, Theos approached her, and kneeling on one knee took that fair, soft hand in his own and kissed it with passionate fervor.
"Criminal as I am," he murmured tremulously, "I glory in my crime, nor will I seek forgiveness? Nay, rather will I plead, with thee that I may sin so sweet a sin again, and blind myself with beauty unreproved!"
Slowly she withdrew her fingers from his clasp.
"Thou art bold!" she said, with a touch of indolent amusement in her accents. "But in thy boldness there is something of the hero. Knowest thou not that I, Lysia, High Priestess of Nagaya, could have thee straightway slain for that unwise speech of thine?— unwise because over-hasty and somewhat over-familiar. Yes, I could have thee slain!" and she laughed,—a rippling little laugh like that of a pleased child. "Howbeit thou shalt not die this time for thy foolhardiness—thy looks are too much in thy favor! Thou art like Sah-luma in his noblest moods, when tired of verse-stringing and sonnet-chanting he condescends to remember that he is not quite divine! See how he chafes at that!" and plucking a lotus-bud she threw it playfully at the Laureate, whose handsome face flushed vexedly at her words. "And thou art prudent, Sir Theos—do I not pronounce thy name aptly?—thou wilt be less petulant than he, and less absorbed in self-adoration, for here men—even poets —are deemed no more than men, and their constant querulous claim to be considered as demi-gods meets with no acceptance! Wilt 'blind thyself with beauty' as thou say'st? Well then, lose thine eyes, but guard thy heart!"
And with a careless movement she loosened her veil; it fell from her like a soft cloud, and Theos, springing to his feet, gazed upon her with a sense of enraptured bewilderment and passionate pain. It was as though he saw the wraith of some fair, dead woman he had loved of old, risen anew to redemand from him his former allegiance. O, unfamiliar yet well-known face! ... O, slumbrous, starry eyes that seemed to hold the memory of a thousand love- thoughts! ... O, sweet curved lips whereon a delicious smile rested as softly as sunlight on young rose-petals! Where, . . where, in God's name, had he seen all this marvelous, witching, maddening loveliness BEFORE? His heart beat with heavy, laboring thuds, . . his brain reeled, . . a dim, golden, suffused radiance seemed to hover like an aureole above that dazzling white brow, adorned with a clustering wealth of raven-black tresses, whose massive coils were crowned with the strangest sort of diadem—a wreath of small serpents' heads cunningly fashioned in rubies and rose brilliants, and set in such a manner that they appeared to lift themselves erect from out the dusky hair as though in darting readiness to sting. Full of a vague, wild longing, he instinctively stretched out his arms, . . then on a sudden impulse turned swiftly away, in a dizzy effort to escape from the basilisk fire-gleam of those sombre, haunting eyes that plunged into his inmost soul, and there aroused such dark desires, such retrospective evil, such wild weakness as shamed the betterness of his nature! Sah-luma's clear, mocking laugh just then rang sharply through the perfumed stillness.
"Thou mad Theos! Whither art thou bound?" cried the Laureate mirthfully. "Wilt leave our noble hostess ere the entertainment has begun? Ungallant barbarian! What frenzy possesses thee?"
These words recalled him to himself. He came back slowly step by step, and with bowed head, to where Lysia stood—Lysia, whose penetrating gaze still rested upon him with strangely fixed intensity.
"Forgive me," he said, in a low, unsteady voice that to his own ears sounded full of suppressed yet passionate appeal. "Forgive me, lady, that for one moment I have seemed discourteous. I am not so, in very truth. Sad fancies fret my brain at times, and—and there is that within thine unveiled beauty which sword-like wounds my soul! I am not joyous natured: ...unlike Sah-luma, chosen favorite of fortune, I have lost all, all that made my life once seem fair. I am dead to those that loved me, ... forgotten by those that honored me, . . a wanderer in strange lands, a solitary wayfarer perplexed with many griefs to which I cannot give a name! Nevertheless," and he drew a quick, hard breath, "if I may serve thee, fairest Lysia,—as Sah-luma serves thee,—subject to thy sovereign favor,—thou shalt not find me lacking in obedience! Command me as thou wilt; let me efface myself to worship thee! Let me, if it be possible, drown thought,—slay memory,—murder conscience,—so that I may once more, as in the old time, be glad with the gladness that only love can give and only death can take away!"
As he finished this unpremeditated, uncontrollable outburst his eyes wistfully sought hers. She met his look with a languid indifference and a half-disdainful smile.
"Enough! restrain thine ardor!" she said coldly, her dark dilating orbs shining like steel beneath the velvet softness of her long lashes. "Thou dost speak ignorantly, unknowing what thy words involve—words to which I well might bind thee, were I less forbearing to thine inconsiderate rashness. How like all men thou art! How keen to plunge into unfathomed deeps, merely to snatch the pearl of present pleasure! How martyr-seeming in thy fancied sufferings, as though THY little wave of personal sorrow swamped the world! O wondrous human Egotism! that sees but one great absolute 'I' scrawled on the face of Nature! 'I' am afflicted, let none dare to rejoice! 'I' would be glad, let none presume to grieve!" ... She laughed, a little low laugh of icy satire, and then resumed: "I thank thee for thy proffered service, sir stranger, albeit I need it not,—nor do I care to claim it at thy hands. Thou art my guest—no more! Whether thou wilt hereafter deserve to be enrolled my bondsman depends upon thy prowess and— my humor!"
Her beautiful eyes flashed scornfully, and there was something cruel in her glance. Theos felt it sting him like a sharp blow. His nerves quivered,—his spirit rose in arms against the cynical hauteur of this woman whom he loved; yes,—LOVED, with a curious sense of revived passion—passion that seemed to have slept in a tomb for ages, and that now suddenly sprang into life and being, like a fire kindled anew on dead ashes!
Acting on a sudden proud impulse he raised his head and looked at her with a bold steadfastness,—a critical scrutiny,—a calmly discriminating valuation of her physical charms that for the moment certainly appeared to startle her self-possession, for a deep flush colored the fairness of her face and then faded, leaving her pale as marble. Her emotion, whatever it was, lasted but a second,—yet in that second he had measured his mental strength against hers, and had become aware of his own supremacy! This consciousness filled him with peculiar satisfaction. He drew a long breath like one narrowly escaped from close peril. He had now no fear of her—only a great, all-absorbing, all-evil love, and to that he was recklessly content to yield. Her eyes dwelt glitteringly first upon him and then on Sah-luma, as the eyes of a falcon dwell on its prey, and her smile was touched with a little malice, as she said, addressing them both:
"Come, fair sirs! we will not linger in this wilderness of wild flowers. A feast awaits us yonder—a feast prepared for those who, like yourselves obey the creed of sweet self indulgence, ... the world-wide creed wherein men find no fault, no shadow of inconsistency! The truest wisdom is to enjoy,—the only philosophy that which teaches us how best to gratify our own desires! Delight cannot satiate the soul, nor mirth engender weariness! Follow me!—" and with a lithe movement she swept toward the door, her pet tigress creeping closely after her; then suddenly looking back she darted a lustiously caressing glance over her shoulder at Sah-luma and stretched out her hand. He at once caught it in his own and kissed it with an almost brusque eagerness.
"I thought you had forgotten me!" he murmured in a vexed, half- reproachful tone.
"Forgotten you? Forgotten Sah-luma? Impossible!" and her silvery laughter shook the air into little throbs of music. "When the greatest poet of the age is forgotten, then fall Al-Kyris! ... for there shall be no more need of kingdoms!"
Laughing still and allowing her hand to remain in his, she passed out of the pavilion, and Theos followed them both as a man might follow the beckoning sylphs in a fairy dream.
A mellow, luminous, witch-like radiance seemed to surround them as they went—two dazzling figures gliding on before him with the slow, light grace of moonbeams flitting over a smooth ocean. They seemed made for each other, ... he could not separate them in his thoughts; but the strangest part of the matter was the feeling he had, that he himself somehow belonged to them and they to him. His ideas on the subject, however, were very indefinite; he was in a condition of more or less absolute passiveness, save when strong shudders of grief, memory, remorse or roused passion shook him with sudden force like a storm blast shaking some melancholy cypress whose roots are in the grave. He mused on Lysia's scornful words with a perplexed pain. Was he then so selfish? "The one great absolute 'I' scrawled on the face of Nature!" Could that apply to him? Surely not! since in his present state of mind he could hardly lay claim to any distinct personality, seeing that that personality was forever merging itself and getting lost in the more clearly perfect identity of Sah-luma, whom he regarded with a species of profound hero-worship such as one man seldom feels for another. To call himself a Poet NOW seemed the acme of absurdity; how should such an one as he attempt to conquer fame with a rival like Sah-luma already in the field and already supremely victorious?
Full of these fancies, he scarcely heeded the wonders through which he passed, as he followed his two radiant guides along. His eyes were tired, and rested almost indifferently on the magnificence that everywhere surrounded him, though here and there certain objects attracted his attention as being curiously familiar. These lofty corridors, gorgeously frescoed, . . these splendid groups of statuary, . . these palm-shaded nooks of verdure where imprisoned nightingales warbled plaintive songs that were all the sweeter for their sadness, ... these spacious marble loggias cooled by the rising and falling spray of myriad fountains—did he not dimly recognize all these things? He thought so, yet was not sure,—for he had arrived at a pass when he could neither rely on his reason nor his memory. Naught of deeper humiliation could he have than this, to feel within himself that he was still AN INTELLECTUAL, THINKING, SENTIENT HUMAN BEING, and that yet at the same time, his INTELLIGENCE COULD DO NOTHING TO EXTRICATE HIM from the terrific mystery which had engulfed him like a huge flood, and wherein he was now tossed to and fro as helplessly as a floating straw.
On, still on he went, treading closely in Sah-luma's footsteps and wistfully noting how often the myrtle-garlanded head of his friend drooped caressingly toward Lysia's dusky perfumed locks, whence those jewelled serpents' fangs darted flashingly upward like light from darkness. On, still on, till at last he found himself in a grand vestibule, built entirely of sparkling red granite. Here were ten sphinxes, so huge in form that a dozen men might have lounged at ease on each one of their enormous paws; they were ranged in rows of five on each side, and their coldly meditative eyes appeared to dwell steadfastly on the polished face of a large black Disc placed conspicuously on a pedestal in the exact centre of the pavement. Strange letters shone from time to time on this ebony tablet, . . letters that seemed to be written in quicksilver; they glittered for a second, then ran off like phosphorescent drops of water, and again reappeared, but the same signs were never repeated twice over. All were different, . . all were rapid in their coming and going as flashes of lightning. Lysia, approaching the Disc, turned it slightly; at her touch it revolved like a flying wheel, and for a brief space was literally covered with mysterious characters, which the beautiful Priestess perused with an apparent air of satisfaction. All at once the fiery writing vanished, the Disc was left black and bare,—and then a silver ball fell suddenly upon it, with a clang, from some unseen height, and rolling off again instantly disappeared. At the same moment a harsh voice, rising as it were from the deepest underground, chanted the following words in a monotonous recitative:
"Fall, O thou lost Hour, into the dreadful Past! Sink, O thou Pearl of Time, into the dark and fathomless abyss! Not all the glory of kings or the wealth of empires can purchase thee back again! Not all the strength of warriors or the wisdom of sages can draw thee forth from the Abode of Silence whither thou art fled! Farewell, lost Hour!—and may the gods defend us from thy reproach at the Day of Doom! In the name of the Sun and Nagaya, ... Peace!"
The voice died away in a muffled echo, and the slow, solemn boom of a brazen-tongued bell struck midnight. Then Theos, raising his eyes, saw that all further progress was impeded by a great wall of solid rock that glistened at every point with flashes of pale and dark violet light—a wall composed entirely of adamantine spar, crusted thick with the rough growth of oriental amethyst. It rose sheer up from the ground to an altitude of about a hundred feet, and apparently closed in and completed the vestibule.
Surely there was no passing through such a barrier as this? ... he thought wonderingly; nevertheless Lysia and Sah-luma still went on, and he—as perforce he was compelled—still followed. Arrived at the foot of the huge erection that towered above him like a steep cliff of molten gems, he fancied he heard a faint sound behind it as of clinking glasses and boisterous laughter, but before he had time to consider what this might mean, Lysia laid her hand lightly on a small, protruding knob of crystal, pressed it, and lo! ... the whole massive structure yawned open suddenly without any noise, suspending itself as it were in sparkling festoons of purple stalactites over the voluptuously magnificent scene disclosed.
At first it was difficult to discern more than a gorgeous maze of swaying light and color as though a great field of tulips in full bloom should be seen waving to and fro in the breath of a soft wind; but gradually this bewildering dazzle of gold and green, violet and crimson, resolved itself into definite form and substance; and Theos, standing beside his two companions on the elevated threshold of the partition through which they had entered, was able to look down and survey with tolerable composure the wondrous details of the glittering picture—a picture that looked like a fairy-fantasy poised in a haze of jewel-like radiance as of vaporized sapphire.
He saw beneath him a vast circular hall or amphitheatre, roofed in by a lofty dome of richest malachite, from the centre of which was suspended a huge globe of fire, that revolved with incredible swiftness, flinging vivid, blood-red rays on the amber-colored silken carpets and embroideries that strewed the floor below. The dome was supported by rows upon rows of tall, tapering crystal columns, clear as translucent water and green as the grass in spring, . . and between and beyond these columns on the left-hand side there were large, oval-shaped casements set wide open to the night, through which the gleam of a broad lake laden with water- lilies could be seen shimmering in the yellow moon. The middle of the hall was occupied by a round table covered with draperies of gold, white, and green, and heaped with all the costly accessories of a sumptuous banquet such as might have been spread before the gods of Olympus in the full height of their legendary prime. Here were the lovely hues of heaped-up fruit,—the tender bloom of scattered flowers,—the glisten of jewelled flagons and goblets, the flash of massive golden dishes carried aloft by black slaves attired in white and crimson,—the red glow of poured-out wine; and here, in the drowsy warmth, lounging on divans of velvet and embroidered satin, eating, drinking, idly gossiping, loudly laughing, and occasionally bursting into wild snatches of song, were a company of brilliant-looking personages,—all men, all young, all handsome, all richly clad, and all evidently bent on enjoying the pleasures offered by the immediate hour. Suddenly, however, their noisy voices ceased—with one accord, as though drawn by some magnetic spell, they all turned their heads toward the platform where Lysia had just silently made her appearance,— and springing from their seats they broke into a boisterous shout of acclamation and welcome. One young man whose flushed face had all the joyous, wanton, effeminate beauty of a pictured Dionysius, reeled forward, goblet in hand, and tossing the wine in air so that it splashed down again at his feet, staining his white garments as it fell with a stain as of blood, he cried, tipsily:
"All hail, Lysia! Where hast thou wandered so long, thou Goddess of Morn? We have been lost in the blackness of night, sunk in the depths of a hell-like gloom—but lo! now the clouds have broken in the east, and our hearts rejoice at the birth of day! Vanish, dull moon, and be ashamed! ... for a fairer planet rules the sky! Hence, ye stars! ... puny glow-worms lazily crawling in the fields of ether! Lysia invests the heaven and earth, and in her smile we live! Ha! art thou there, Sah-luma? Come, praise me for my improvised love-lines; they are as good as thine, I warrant thee! Canst compose when thou art drunk, my dainty Laureate? Drain a cup then, and string me a stanza! Where is thy fool Zebastes? I would fain tickle his long ears with ribald rhyme, and hearken to the barbarous braying forth of his asinine reflections! Lysia! what, Lysia! ... dost thou frown at me? Frown not, sweet queen, but rather laugh! ... thy laughter kills, 'tis true, but thy frown doth torture spirits after death! Unbend thy brows! Night looms between them like a chaos! ... we will have no more night, I say, but only noon! ... a long, languorous, lovely noon, flower-girdled and sunbeam-clad!
"'With roses, roses, roses crown my head, For my days are few! And remember, sweet, when I am dead, That my heart was true!'"
Singing unsteadily, with the empty goblet upside-down in his hand, he looked up laughing,—his bright eyes flashing with a wild feverish fire, his fair hair tossed back from his brows and entangled in a half-crushed wreath of vine-leaves,—his rich garments disordered, his whole demeanor that of one possessed by a semi-delirium of sensuous pleasure...when all at once, meeting Lysia's keen glance, he started as though he had been suddenly stabbed,—the goblet fell from his clasp, and a visible shudder ran through his strong, supple frame. The low, cold, merciless laughter of the beautiful Priestess cut through the air hissingly like the sweep of a scimetar.
"Thou art wondrous merry, Nir-jalis," she said, in languid, lazily enunciated accents. "Knowest thou not that too much mirth engenders weeping, and that excessive rejoicing hath its fitting end in grievous lamentation? Nay, even now already thou lookest more sadly! What sombre cloud has crossed thy wine-hued heaven? Be happy while thou mayest, good fool! ... I blame thee not! Sooner or later all things must end! ... in the mean time, make thou the most of life while life remains; 'tis at its best an uncertain heritage, that once rashly squandered can never be restored,— either here or hereafter."
The words were gently, almost tenderly, spoken; but Nir-jalis hearing them, grew white as death—his smile faded, leaving his lips set and stern as the lips of a marble mask. Stooping, he raised his fallen goblet and held it out almost mechanically to a passing slave, who re-filled it with wine, which he drank off thirstily at a draught, though the generous liquid brought no color back to his drawn and ashy features.
Lysia paid no further heed to his evident discomfiture; bidding Sah-luma and Theos follow her, she descended the few steps that led from the raised platform into the body of the brilliant hall; the rocky screen of amethyst closed behind her as noiselessly as it had opened, and in another moment she stood among her assembled guests, who at once surrounded her with eager salutations and gracefully worded flatteries. Smiling on them all with that strange smile of hers that was more scornful than sweet, and yet so infinitely bewitching, she said little in answer to their greetings, . . she moved as a queen moves through a crowd of courtiers, the varied light of crimson and green playing about her like so many sparkles of living flame, . . her dark head, wreathed with those jewelled serpents, lifting itself proudly erect from her muffling golden mantle, and her eyes shining with that frosty gleam of mockery which made them look so lustrous yet so cold. And now Theos perceived that at one end of the splendid banquet table a dais was erected, draped richly in carnation-colored silk, and that on this dais a throne was placed—a throne composed entirely of BLACK crystals, whose needle-like points sparkled with a dark flash as of bayonets seen through the smoke of battle. It was cushioned in black velvet, and above it was a bent arch of ivory on which glittered a twisted snake of clustered emeralds.
With that slow, superb ease that distinguished all her actions, Lysia, attended closely by her tigress, mounted the dais,—and as she did so a loud clash of brazen bells rang out from some invisible turret beyond the summit of the great dome. At the sound of the jangling chime four negresses appeared—goblin creatures that looked as though they had suddenly sprung from some sooty, subterranean region of gnomes—and humbly prostrating themselves before Lysia, kissed the ground at her feet. This done, they rose, and began to undo the fastenings of her golden, domino-like garment; but either they were slow, or the fair priestess was impatient for she suddenly shook herself free of their hands, and, loosening the gorgeous mantle herself from its jewelled clasps, it fell slowly from her symmetrical form on the perfumed floor with a rustle as of falling leaves.
A sigh quivered audibly through the room—whether of grief, joy, hope, relief, or despair it was difficult to tell. The pride and peril of a matchless loveliness was revealed in all its fatal seductiveness and invincible strength—the irresistible perfection of woman's beauty was openly displayed to bewilder the sight and rouse the reckless passions of man! Who could look on such delicate, dangerous, witching charms unmoved? Who could gaze on the exquisite outlines of a form fairer than that of any sculptured Venus and refuse to acknowledge its powerfully sweet attraction?
The Virgin Priestess of the Sun had stepped out of her shrine; . . no longer a creature removed, impersonal, and sacred, she had become most absolutely human. Moreover, she might now have been taken for a bacchante, a dancer, or any other unsexed example of womanhood inasmuch as with her golden mantle she had thrown off all disguise of modesty. Her beautiful limbs, rounded and smooth as pearl, could be plainly discerned through the filmy garb of silvery tissue that clung like a pale mist about the voluptuous curves of her figure and floated behind her in shining gossamer folds; her dazzling white neck and arms were bare; and from slim wrist to snowy shoulder, little twining diamond snakes glistened in close coils against the velvety fairness of her flesh. A silver serpent with a head of sapphires girdled her waist, and just above the full wave of her bosom, that rose and fell visibly beneath the transparent gathers of her gauzy drapery, shone a large, fiery jewel, fashioned in the semblance of a human Eye. This singular ornament was so life-like as to be absolutely repulsive, and as it moved to and fro with its wearer's breathing it seemed now to stare aghast,—anon to flash wickedly as with a thought of evil,— while more often still it assumed a restlessly watchful expression as though it were the eye of a fiend-inquisitor intent on the detection of some secret treachery. Poised between those fair white breasts it glared forth a glittering Menace; . . a warning of unimaginable horror; and Theos, gazing at it fixedly, felt a curious thrill run through him, as if, so to speak, a hook of steel had been suddenly thrust into his quivering veins to draw him steadily and securely on toward some pitfall of unknown tortures. Then he remembered what Sah-luma had said about the "all-reflecting Eye, the weird mirror and potent dazzler of human sight," and wondered whether its mystical properties were such as to compel men to involuntarily declare their inmost thoughts, for it seemed to him that its sinister glow penetrated into the very deepest recesses of his mind, and there discovered all the hidden weaknesses, follies, and passions of the worst side of his nature!
He trembled and grew faint,—his dazed eyes wandered over the dainty grace and marvel of Lysia's almost unclad loveliness with mingled emotions of allurement and repugnance. Fascinated, yet at the same time repelled, his soul yearned toward her as the soul of the knight in the Lore-lei legend yearned toward the singing Rhine-siren, whose embrace was destruction; and then.. ... he became filled with a strange, sudden fear; fear, not for himself, but for Sah-luma, whose ardent glance burned into her dark, languid-lidded, amorous orbs with the lustre of flame meeting flame—Sah-luma, whose beautiful flushed face was as that of a god inspired, or lover triumphant. What could he do to shield and save this so idolized friend of his?—this dear familiar for whom he had such close and ever-increasing sympathy! Might he not possibly guard him in some way and ward off impending danger? But what danger? What spectral shadow of dread hovered above this brilliant scene of high feasting and voluptuous revelry? None that he could imagine or define, and yet he was conscious, of an omimous, unuttered premonition of peril in the very air—peril for Sah- luma, always for Sah-luma, never for himself, ... Self seemed dead and entombed forever! Involuntarily lifting his eyes to the great green dome where the globe of fire twirled rapidly like a rolling star, he saw some words written round it in golden letters, they were large and distinct, and ran thus:
"Live in the Now, but question not the Afterwards!"
A wise axiom! ... yet almost a platitude, for did not every one occupy themselves exclusively with the Now, regardless of future consequences? Of course! Who but sages—or fools—would stop to question the Afterwards!
Just then Lysia ascended her black crystal throne in all her statuesque majesty, and sinking indolently amid its sable cushions, where she shone in her wonderful whiteness like a glistening pearl set in ebony, she signed to her guests to resume their places at table. She was instantly obeyed. Sah-luma took what was evidently his accustomed post at her right hand, while Theos found a vacant corner on her left, next to the picturesque, lounging figure of the young man Nir jahs, who looked up at him with a half smile as he seated himself, and courteously made more room for him among the tumbled emerald silk diapers of the luxurious divan, they now shared together. Nir jahs was by no means sober, but he had recovered a little of his self-possession since Lysia's sleepy eyes had darted such cold contempt upon him, and he seemed for the present to be on his guard against giving any further possible cause of offence.
"Thou art a new comer,—a stranger, if I mistake not?" he inquired in a low, abrupt, yet kindly tone.
"Yes," replied Theos in the same soft sotto-voce. "I am a mere sojourner in Al-Kyris for a few days only, ... the guest of the divine Sah-luma."
Nir-jahs raised his eyebrows with an expression of amused wonder.
"Divine!" he ejaculated "By my faith! what neophyte have we here!" and supporting himself on one elbow he stared at his companion as though he saw in him some singular human phenomenon. "Dost thou really believe," he went on jestingly, "in the divinity of poets? Dost thou think they write what they mean, or practice what they preach? Then art thou the veriest innocent that ever wore the muscular semblance of man! Poets, my friend, are the most absolute impostors, . . they melodize their rhymed music on phases of emotion they have never experienced; as for instance our Lameate yonder will string a pretty sonnet on the despair of love, he knowing nothing of despair, . . he will write of a broken heart, his own being unpricked by so much as a pin's point of trouble; and he will speak in his verso of dying for love when he would not let his little finger ache for the sake of a woman who worshipped him! Look not so vaguely! 'tis so, indeed! and as for the divine part of him, wait but a little, and thou shalt see thy poet-god become a satyr!"
He laughed maliciously, and Theos felt an angry flush rising to his brows. He could not bear to hear Sah-luma thus lightly maligned even by this half-drunken reveller, it stung him to the quick, as if he personally were included in the implied accusation of unworthiness. Nir-jalis perceived his annoyance, and added good naturedly:
"Tush, man! Vex not thy soul as to thy friend's virtues or vices— what are they to thee? And of truth Sah-luma is no worse than the rest of us. All I maintain is that he is certainly no better. I have known many poets in my day, and they are all more or less alike—petulant as babes, peevish as women, selfish as misers, and conceited as peacocks. They SHOULD be different? Oh, yes!—they SHOULD be the perpetual youth of mankind, the faithful singers of love idealized and made perfect. But then none of us are what we ought to be! Besides, if we were all virtuous, . . by the gods! the world would become too dull a hole to live in! Enough! Wilt drink with me?" and beckoning a slave, he had his own goblet and that of Theos filled to the brim with wine.
"To our more intimate acquaintance!" he said smilingly, and Theos, somewhat captivated by the easy courtesy of his manner, could do no less than respond cordially to the proffered toast. At that moment a triumphant burst of music, like the sound of mingled flutes, hautboys, and harps, pushed through the dome like a strong wind sweeping in from the sea, and with it the hum and buzz of conversation began in good earnest. Theos, lifting his gaze toward Lysia's seat, saw that she was now surrounded by the four attendant negresses, who, standing two on each side of her throne, held large fans of peacock plumes, which, as they were waved slowly to and fro, emitted a thousand scintillations of jewel-like splendor. A slave, attired in scarlet, knelt on one knee before her, proffering a golden salver loaded with the choicest fruits and wines; a lazy smile played on her lips—lips that outrivaled the dewy tint of half-opening roses; the serpents in her hair and on her rounded arms quivered in the light like living things; the great Symbolic Eye glanced wickedly out from the white beauty of her heaving breast; and as he surveyed her, thus resplendent in all the startling seductiveness of her dangerous charms, her loveliness entranced and intoxicated him like the faint perfume of some rare and powerful exotic, ... his senses seemed to sink drowningly in the whelming influence of her soft and dazzling grace; and though he still resented, he could not resist her mesmeric power. No wonder, he thought, that Sah-luma's eyes darkened with passions as they dwelt on her! ... and no wonder that he, like Sah-luma, was content to be gently but surely drawn within the glittering web of her magic spell—a spell fatal, yet too bewilderingly sweet for human strength to fight against. The mysterious sense he had of danger lurking somewhere for Sah-luma applied, so he fancied, in no way to himself—it did not much matter what happened to HIM—HE was a mere nobody. He could be of no use anywhere; he was as one banished into strange exile; his brain—that brain he had once deemed so clear, so subtle, so eminently reasoning and all-comprehensive—was now nothing but a chaotic confusion of vague suggestions, and only served to very slightly guide him in the immediate present, giving him no practical clue at all as to the past through which he had lived, or the circumstances he most wished to remember. He was a fool—a dreamer—ungifted—unfamous! ... were he to die, not a soul would regret his loss. His own fate therefore concerned him little—he could handle fire recklessly and not feel the flame; he could, so he believed, run any risk, and yet escape, comparatively free of harm.
But with Sah-luma it was different! Sah-luma must be guarded and cherished; his was a valuable life—the life of a genius such as the world sees but once in a century—and it should not, so Theos determined,—be emperilled or wasted; no! not even for the sake of the sensuous, exquisite, conquering beauty of this dazzling Priestess of the Sun—the fairest sorceress that ever triumphed over the frail yet immortal Spirit of Man!
THE LOVE THAT KILLS.
How the time went he could not tell; in so gay and gorgeous a scene hours might easily pass with the swiftness of unmarked moments. Peals of laughter echoed now and again through the vaulted dome, and excited voices were frequently raised in clamorous disputations and contentious arguments that only just sheered off the boundary-line of an actual quarrel. All sorts of topics were discussed—the laws, the existing mode of government, the latest discoveries in science, and the military prowess of the King—but the conversation chiefly turned on the spread of disloyalty, atheism, and republicanism among the population of Al- Kyris,—and the influence of Khosrul on the minds of the lower classes. The episode of the Prophet's late capture and fresh escape seemed to be perfectly well known to all present, though it had occurred so recently; one would have thought the detailed account of it had been received through some private telephone, communicating with the King's palace.
As the banquet progressed and the wine flowed more lavishly, the assembled guests grew less and less circumspect in their general behavior; they flung themselves full length on their luxurious couches, in the laziest attitudes, now pulling out handfuls of flowers from the tall porcelain jars that stood near, and pelting one another with them for mere idle diversion, . . now summoning the attendant slaves to refill their wine-cups while they lay lounging at ease among their heaped-up cushions of silk and embroidery; and yet with all the voluptuous freedom of their manners, the picturesque grace that distinguished them was never wholly destroyed. These young men were dissolute, but not coarse; bold, but not vulgar; they took their pleasure in a delicately wanton fashion that was infinitely more dangerous in its influence on the mind than would have been the gross mirth and broad jesting of a similar number of uneducated plebeians. The rude licentiousness of an uncultivated boor has its safety-valve in disgust and satiety, . . but the soft, enervating sensualism of a trained and cultured epicurean aristocrat is a moral poison whose effects are so insidious as to be scarcely felt till all the native nobility of character has withered, and naught is left of a man but the shadow-wreck of his former self.
There was nothing repulsive in the half-ironical, half-mischievous merriment of these patrician revellers; their witticisms were brilliant and pointed, but never indelicate; and if their darker passions were roused, and ready to run riot, they showed as yet no sign of it. They ENJOYED—yes! with that selfish animal enjoyment and love of personal indulgence which all men, old and young without exception, take such delight in—unless indeed they be sworn and sorrowful anchorites, and even then you may be sure they are always regretting the easy license and libertinage of their bygone days of unbridled independence when they could foster their pet weaknesses, cherish their favorite vices, and laugh at all creeds and all morality as though Divine Justice were a mere empty name, and they themselves the super-essence of creation. Ah, what a ridiculous spectacle is Man! the two-legged pigmy of limited brain, and still more limited sympathies, that, standing arrogantly on his little grave the earth, coolly criticises the Universe, settles law, and measures his puny stature against that awful Unknown Force, deeply hidden, but majestically existent, which for want of ampler designation we call GOD—God, whom some of us will scarcely recognize, save with the mixture of doubt, levity, and general reluctance; God, whom we never obey unless obedience is enforced by calamity; God, whom we never truly love, because so many of us prefer to stake our chances of the future on the possibility of His non-existence!
Strangely enough, thoughts of this God, this despised and forgotten Creator, came wandering hazily over Theos's mind at the present moment when, glancing round the splendid banquet-table, he studied the different faces of all assembled, and saw Self, Self, Self, indelibly impressed on every one of them. Not a single countenance was there that did not openly betray the complacent hauteur and tranquil vanity of absolute Egotism, Sah-luma's especially. But then Sah-luma had something to be proud of—his genius; it was natural that he should be satisfied with himself— he was a great man! But was it well for even a great man to admire his own greatness? This was a pertinent question, and somewhat difficult to answer. A genius must surely be more or less conscious of his superiority to those who have no genius? Yet why? May it not happen, on occasions, that the so-called fool shall teach a lesson to the so-called wise man? Then where is the wise man's superiority if a fool can instruct him? Theos found these suggestions curiously puzzling; they seemed simple enough, and yet they opened up a vista of intricate disquisition which he was in no humor to follow. To escape from his own reflections he began to pay close attention to the conversation going on around him, and listened with an eager, almost painful interest, whenever he heard Lysia's sweet, languid voice chiming through the clatter of men's tongues like the silver stroke of a small bell ringing in a storm at sea.
"And how hast thou left thy pale beauty Niphrata?" she was asking Sah-luma in half-cold, half-caressing accents. "Does her singing still charm thee as of yore? I understand thou hast given her her freedom. Is that prudent? Was she not safer as thy slave?"
Sah-luma glanced up quickly in surprise. "Safer? She is as safe as a rose in its green sheath," he replied. "What harm should come to her?"
"I spoke not of harm," said Lysia, with a lazy smile. "But the day may come, good minstrel, when thy sheathed rose may seek some newer sunshine than thy face! ... when thy much poesy may pall upon her spirit, and thy love-songs grow stale! ... and she may string her harp to a different tune than the perpetual adoration- hymn of Sah-luma!"
The handsome Laureate looked amused.
"Let her do so then!" he laughed carelessly. "Were she to leave me I should not miss her greatly; a thousand pieces of gold will purchase me another voice as sweet as hers,—another maid as fair! Meanwhile the child is free to shape her own fate,—her own future. I bind her no longer to my service; nevertheless, like the jessamine-flower, she clings,—and will not easily unwind the tendrils of her heart from mine."
"Poor jessamine-flower!" murmured Lysia negligently, with a touch of malice in her tone. "What a rock it doth embrace; how little vantage-ground it hath wherein to blossom!" And her drowsy eyes shot forth a fiery glance from under their heavily fringed drooping white lids.
Sah-luma met her look with one of mingled vexation and reproach; she smiled and raising a goblet of wine to her lips, kissed the brim, and gave it to him with an indescribably graceful, swaying gesture of her whole form that reminded one of a tall white lily bowing in the breeze. He seized the cup eagerly, drank from it and returned it,—his momentary annoyance, whatever it was, passed, and a joyous elation illumined his fine features. Then Lysia, refilling the cup, kissed it again and handed it to Theos with so much soft animation and tenderness in her face as she turned to him, that his enforced calmness nearly gave way, and he had much ado to restrain himself from falling at her feet in a transport of passion, and crying out! ... "Love me, O thou sorceress-sovereign of beauty! ... love me, if only for an hour, and then let me die! ... for I shall have lived out all the joys of life in one embrace of thine!" His hand trembled as he took the goblet, and he drank half its contents thirstily,—then imitating Sah-luma's example, he returned it to her with a profound salutation. Her eyes dwelt meditatively upon him.
"What a dark, still, melancholy countenance is thine, Sir Theos!" she said abruptly—"Thou art, for sure, a man of strongly repressed and concentrated passions, ... 'tis a nature I love! I would there were more of thy proud and chilly temperament in Al- Kyris! ... Our men are like velvet-winged butterflies, drinking honey all day and drowsing in sunshine—full to the brows of folly,—frail and delicate as the little dancing maidens of the King's seraglio, . . nervous too, with weak heads, that art apt to ache on small provocation, and bodies that are apt to fail easily when but slightly fatigued. Aye!—thou art a man clothed complete in manliness,—moreover..."
She paused, and leaning forward so that the dark shower of her perfumed hair brushed his arm ... "Hast ever heard travellers talk of volcanoes? ... those marvellous mountains that oft wear crowns of ice on their summits and yet hold unquenchable fire in their depths? ... Methinks thou dost resemble these,—and that at a touch, the flames would leap forth uncontrolled!"
Her magical low voice, more melodious in tone than the sound of harps played by moonlight on the water, thrilled in his ears and set his pulses beating madly,—with an effort he checked the torrent of love-words that rushed to his lips, and looked at her in a sort of wildly wondering appeal. Her laughter rang out in silvery sweet ripples, and throwing herself lazily back in her throne, she called..
"Aizif! ... Aizif!"
The great tigress instantly bounded forward like an obedient hound, and placed its fore-paws on her knees, while she playfully held a sugared comfit high above its head.
"Up, Aizif! up!" she cried mirthfully.. "Up! and be like a man for once! ... snatch thy pleasure at all hazards!"
With a roar, the savage brute leaped and sprang, its sharp white teeth fully displayed, its sly green eyes glisteningly prominent, —and again Lysia's rich laughter pealed forth, mingling with the impatient snarls of her terrific favorite. Still she held the tempting morsel in her little snowy hand that glittered all over with rare gems,—and still the tigress continued to make impotent attempts to reach it, growing more and more ferocious with every fresh effort,—till all at once she shut her palm upon the dainty so that it could not be seen, and lightly catching the irritated beast by the throat brought its eyes on a level with her own. The effect was instantaneous, ... a strong shudder passed through its frame—and it cowered and crouched lower and lower, in abject fear,—the sweat broke out, and stood in large drops on its sleek hide, and panting heavily, as the firm grasp its mistress slowly relaxed, it sank down prone, in trembling abasement on the second step of the dais, still looking up into those densely brilliant gazelle eyes that were full of such deadly fascination and merciless tyranny.
"Good Aizif!" said Lysia then, in that languid, soft voice, that while so sweet, suggested hidden treachery.. "Gentle fondling! ... Thou hast fairly earned thy reward! ... Here! ... take it!"—and unclosing her roseate palm, she showed the desired bonne-bouche, and offered it with a pretty coaxing air,—but the tigress now refused to touch it, and lay as still as an animal of painted stone.
"What a true philosopher she is, my sweet Aizif!" she went on amusedly stroking the creature's head,—"Her feminine wit teaches her what the dull brains of men can never grasp, . . namely, that pleasures, no matter how sweet, turn to ashes and wormwood when once obtained,—and that the only happiness in this world is the charm of DESIRE! There is a subject for thee, Sah-luma! ... write an immortal Ode on the mysteries, the delights, the never-ending ravishment of Desire! ... but carry not thy fancy on to desire's fulfilment, for there thou shalt find infinite bitterness! The soul that wilfully gratifies its dearest wish, has stripped life of its supremest joy, and stands thereafter in an emptied sphere, sorrowful and alone,—with nothing left to hope for, nothing to look forward to, save death, the end of all ambition!"
"Nay, fair lady,"—said Theos suddenly,—"We who deem ourselves the children of the high gods, and the offspring of a Spirit Eternal, may surely aspire to something beyond this death, that, like a black seal, closes up the brief scroll of our merely human existence! And to us, therefore, ambition should be ceaseless,— for if we master the world, there are yet more worlds to win: and if we find one heaven, we do but accept it as a pledge of other heavens beyond it! The aspirations of Man are limitless,—hence his best assurance of immortality, ... else why should he perpetually long for things that here are impossible of attainment? ... things that like faint, floating clouds rimmed with light, suggest without declaring a glory unperceived?"
Lysia looked at him steadfastly, an under-gleam of malice shining in her slumbrous eyes.
"Why? ... Because, good sir, the gods love mirth! ... and the wanton Immortals are never more thoroughly diverted, than, when leaning downward from their clear empyrean, they behold Man, their Insect-Toy, arrogating to himself a share in their imperishable Essence! To keep up the Eternal Jest, they torture him with vain delusions, and prick him on with hopes never to be realized; aye! and the whole vast Heaven may well shake with thunderous laughter at the pride with which he doth put forth his puny claim to be elected to another and fairer state of existence! What hath he done? ... what does he do, to merit a future life? ... Are his deeds so noble? ... is his wisdom so great? ... is his mind so stainless? He, the oppressor of all Nature and of his brother man,—he, the insolent, self-opinionated tyrant, yet bound slave of the Earth on which he dwells ... why should he live again and carry his ignoble presence into the splendors of an Eternity too vast for him to comprehend? ..Nay, nay! ... I perceive thou art one of the credulous, for whom a reasonless worship to an unproved Deity is, for the sake of state-policy, maintained, . . I had thought thee wiser! ... but no matter! thou shalt pay thy vows to the shrine of Nagaya to-morrow, and see with what glorious pomp and panoply we impose on the faithful, who like thee believe in their own deathless and divinely constituted natures, and enjoy to the full the grand Conceit that persuades them of their right to Immortality!"
Her words carried with them a certain practical positiveness of meaning, and Theos was somewhat impressed by their seeming truth. After all, it WAS a curious and unfounded conceit of a man to imagine himself the possessor of an immortal soul,—and yet ... if all things were the outcome of a divine Creative Influence, was it not unjust of that Creative Influence to endow all humanity with such a belief if it had no foundation whatever? And could injustice be associated with divine law? ...
He, Theos, for instance, was certain of his own immortality,—so certain that, surrounded as he was by this brilliant company of evident atheists, he felt himself to be the only real and positive existing Being among an assembly of Shadow-figures,—but it was not the time or the place to enter into a theological discussion, especially with Lysia, . . and for the moment at least, he allowed her assertions to remain uncontradicted. He sat, however, in a somewhat stern silence, now and then glancing wistfully and anxiously at Sah-luma, on whom the potent wines were beginning to take effect, and who had just thrown himself down on the dais at Lysia's feet, close to the tigress that still lay couched there in immovable quiet. It was a picture worthy of the grandest painter's brush, ... that glistening throne black as jet, with the fair form of Lysia shining within it, like a white sea-nymph at rest in a grotto of ocean-stalactites, . . the fantastically attired negresses on each side, with their waving peacock-plumes,—the vivid carnation-color of the dais, against which the black and yellow stripes of the tigress showed up in strong and brilliant contrast, . . and the graceful, jewel-decked figure of the Poet Laureate, who, half sitting, half reclining on a black velvet cushion, leaned his handsome head indolently against the silvery folds of Lysia's robe, and looked up at her with eyes in which burned the ardent admiration and scarcely restrained passion of a privileged lover.
Suddenly and quite involuntarily Theos thought of Niphrata, ... alas, poor maiden! how utterly her devotion to Sah-luma was wasted! What did he care for her timid tenderness, . . her unselfish worship? Nothing? ... less than nothing! He was entirely absorbed by the sovereign-peerless beauty of this wonderful High Priestess,—this witch-like weaver of spells more potent than those of Circe; and musing thereon, Theos was sorry for Niphrata, he knew not why. He felt that she had somehow been wronged,—that she suffered, ... and that he, as well as Sah-luma, was in some mysterious way to blame for this, though he could by no means account for his own share in the dimly suggested reproach. This peculiar, remorseful emotion was transitory, like all the vaguely incomplete ideas that travelled mistily through his perplexed brain, and he soon forgot it in the increasing animation and interest of the scene that immediately surrounded him.
The general conversation was becoming more and more noisy, and the laughter more and more boisterous,—several of the young men were now very much the worse for their frequent libations, and Nir- jalis, particularly, began again to show marked symptoms of an inclination to break loose from all the bonds of prudent reserve. He lay full length on his silk divan, his feet touching Theos, who sat upright,—and, singing little snatches of song to himself, he pulled the vine-wreath from his tumbled fair locks as though he found it too weighty, and flung it on the ground among the other debris of the feast. Then folding his arms lazily behind his head, he stared straight and fixedly before him at Lysia, seeming to note every jewel on her dress, every curve of her body, every slight gesture of her hand, every faint, cold smile that played on her lovely lips. One young man whom the others addressed as Ormaz, a haughty, handsome fellow enough, though with rather a sneering mouth just visible under his black mustache, was talking somewhat excitedly on the subject of Khosrul's cunningly devised flight, . . for it seemed to be universally understood that the venerable Prophet was one of the Circle of Mystics,—persons whose knowledge of science, especially in matters connected with electricity, enabled them to perform astonishing juggleries, that were frequently accepted by the uninitiated vulgar as almost divine miracles. Not very long ago, according to Ormaz, who was animatedly recalling the circumstance for the benefit of the company, the words "FALL, AL-KYRIS!" had appeared emblazoned in letters of fire on the sky at midnight, and the phenomenon had been accompanied by two tremendous volleys of thunder, to the infinite consternation of the multitude, who received it as a supernatural manifestation. But a member of the King's Privy Council, a satirical skeptic and mistruster of everybody's word but his own, undertook to sift the matter,—and adopting the dress of the Mystics, managed to introduce himself into one of their secret assemblies, where with considerable astonishment, he saw them make use of a small wire, by means of which they wrote in characters of azure flame on the whiteness of a blank wall,— moreover, he discovered that they possessed a lofty turret, built secretly and securely in a deep, unfrequented grove of trees, from whence, with the aid of various curious instruments and reflectors, they could fling out any pattern or device they chose on the sky, so that it should seem to be written by the finger of Lightning. Having elucidated these mysteries, and become highly edified thereby, the learned Councillor returned to the King, and gave full information as to the result of his researches, whereupon forty Mystics were at once arrested and flung into prison for life, and their nefarious practices were made publicly known to all the inhabitants of the city. Since then, no so-called "spiritual" demonstrations had taken place till now, when on this very night Zephoranim's Presence-Chamber had been suddenly enveloped in the thunderous and terrifying darkness which had so successfully covered Khosrul's escape.