"The King should have slain him at once—" declared Ormaz emphatically, turning to Lysia as he spoke.. "I am surprised that His Majesty permitted so flagrant an impostor and trespasser of the law to speak one word, or live one moment in his royal presence."
"Thou art surprised, Ormaz, at most things, especially those which savor of simple good-nature and forbearance..." responded Lysia coldly. "Thou art a wolfish, youth, and wouldst tear thine own brother to shreds if he thwarted thy pleasure! For myself I see little cause for astonishment, that a soldier-hero like Zephoranim should take some pity on so frail and aged a wreck of human wit as Khosrul. Khosrul blasphemes the Faith, . . what then? ... do ye not all blaspheme?"
"Not in the open streets!" said Ormaz hastily.
"No—ye have not the mettle for that!"—and Lysia smiled darkly, while the great eye on her breast flashed forth a sardonic lustre— "Strong as ye all are, and young, ye lack the bravery of the weak old man who, mad as he may be, has at least the courage of his opinions! Who is there here that believes in the Sun as a god, or in Nagaya as a mediator? Not one, . . but ye are cultured hypocrites all, and careful to keep your heresies secret!"
"And thou, Lysia!" suddenly cried Nir-jalis, . . "Why if thou canst so liberally admire the valor of thy sworn enemy Khosrul, why dost not THOU step boldly forth, and abjure the Faith thou art Priestess of, yet in thy heart deridest as a miserable superstition?"
She turned her splendid flashing orbs slowly upon him, ... what an awful chill, steely glitter leaped forth from their velvet-soft depths!
"Prithee, be heedful of thy speech, good Nirjalis!" she said, with a quiver in her voice curiously like the suppressed snarl of her pet tigress.. "The majority of men are fools, ... like thee! ... and need to be ruled according to their folly!"
Ormaz broke into a laugh. "And thou dost rule them, wise Virgin, with a rod of iron!" he said satirically ... "The King himself is but a slave in thy hands!" "The King is a devout believer,"— remarked a dainty, effeminate-looking youth, arrayed in a wonderfully picturesque garb of glistening purple,—"He pays his vows to Nagaya three times a day, at sunrise, noon, and sunset,— and 'tis said he hath oft been seen of late in silent meditation alone before the Sacred Veil, even after midnight. Maybe he is there at this very moment, offering up a royal petition for those of his less pious subjects who, like ourselves, love good wine more than long prayers. Ah!—he is a most austere and noble monarch,—a very anchorite and pattern of strict religious discipline! "And he shook his head to and fro with an air of mock solemn fervor. Every one laughed, . . and Ormaz playfully threw a cluster of half-crushed roses at the speaker.
"Hold thy foolish tongue, Pharnim,—" he said,—"The King doth but show a fitting example to his people, . . there is a time to pray, and a time to feast, and our Zephoranim can do both as becomes a man. But of his midnight meditations I have heard naught, . . since when hath he deserted his Court of Love for the colder chambers of the Sacred Temple?"
"Ask Lysia!" muttered Nir-jalis drowsily, under his breath—"She knows more of the King than she cares to confess!"
His words were spoken in a low voice, and yet they were distinct enough for all present to hear. A glance of absolute dismay went round the table, and a breathless silence followed like the ominous hush of a heated atmosphere before a thunder-clap. Nir- jalis, apparently struck by the sudden stillness, looked lazily round from among the tumbled cushions where he reclined,—a vacant, tipsy smile on his lips.
"What a company of mutes ye are!" he said thickly..
"Did ye not hear me? I bade ye ask Lysia, . ." and all at once he sat bolt upright, his face crimsoning as with an access of passion.. "Ask Lysia!" he repeated loudly.. "Ask her why the mighty Zephoranim creeps in and out the Sacred Temple at midnight like a skulking slave instead of a King! ... at midnight, when he should be shut within his palace walls, playing the fool among his women! I warrant 'tis not piety that persuades him to wander through the underground Passage of the Tombs alone and in disguise! Sah-luma! ... pretty pampered hound as thou art! ... thou art near enough to Our Lady of Witcheries,—ask her, ... ask her! ... she knows, . . "and his voice sank into an incoherent murmur, . . "she knows more than she cares to confess!"
Another deep and death like pause ensued, ... and then Lysia's silvery cold tones smote the profound silence with calm, clear resonance.
"Friend Nir-jalis," she said, . . how tuneful were her accents, . . how chilly sweet her smile! ... "Methinks thou art grown altogether too wise for this world! ... 'tis pity thou shouldest continue to linger in so narrow and incomplete a sphere! ... Depart hence therefore! ... I shall frely excuse thine absence, since THY HOUR HAS COME! ..."
And, taking from the table at her side a tall crystal chalice fashioned in the form of a lily set on a golden stem, she held it up toward him. Starting wildly from his couch he looked at her, as though doubting whether he had heard her words aright, . . a strong shudder shook him from head to foot, . . his hands clenched themselves convulsively together,—and then slowly, slowly, he staggered to his feet and stood upright. He was suddenly but effectually sobered—the flush of intoxication died off his cheeks—and his eyes grew strained and piteous. Theos, watching him in wonder and fear, saw his broad chest heave with the rapid- drawn gasping of his breath, ..he advanced a step or two—then all at once stretched out his hands in imploring agony.
"Lysia!" he murmured huskily. "Lysia! ... pardon! ... spare me! ... For the sake of past love have pity!"
At this Sah-luma sprang up from his lounging posture on the dais, his hand on the hilt of his dagger, his whole face flaming with wrath.
"By my soul!" he cried, "what doth this fellow prate of? ... Past love? ... Thou profane boaster! ... how darest thou speak of love to the Priestess of the Faith?"
Nir-jalis heeded him not. His eyes were fixed on Lysia, like the eyes of a tortured animal who vainly seeks for mercy at the hand of its destroyer. Step by step he came hesitatingly to the foot of her throne, . . and it was then that Theos perceived rear at hand a personage he immediately recognized,—the black scarlet-clad slave Gazia, who had brought Lysia's message to Sah-luma that same afternoon. He had made his appearance now so swiftly and silently, that it was impossible to tell where he had come from,—and he stood close to Nir-jalis, his muscular firms folded tightly across his chest, and his hideous mouth contorted into a grin of cruel amusement and expectancy. Absolute quiet reigned within the magnificent banquet hall, . . the music had ceased,—and not a sound could be heard, save the delicate murmur of the wind outside swaying the water-lilies on the moonlit lake. Every one's attention was centred on the unhappy young man, who with lifted head and rigidly clasped hands, faced Lysia as a criminal faces a judge, . . Lysia, whose dazzling smile beamed upon him with the brightness of summer sunbeams,—Lysia, whose exquisite voice lost none of its richness as she spoke his doom.
"By the vow which thou hast vowed to me, Nir-jalis—" she said slowly.. "and by thine oath sworn on the Symbolic Eye of Raphon".. here she touched the dreadful Jewel on her breast—"which bound thy life to my keeping, and thy death to my day of choice, I herewith bestow on thee the Chalice of Oblivion—the Silver Nectar of Peace! Sleep, and wake no more!—drink and die! The gateways of the Kingdom of Silence stand open to receive thee! ... thy service is finished! ... ... fare-thee-well!"
With the utterance of the last word, she gave him the glittering cup she held. He took it mechanically,—and for one instant glared about him on all sides, scanning the faces of the attentive guests as though in the faint hope of some pity, some attempt at rescue. But not a single look of compassion was bestowed upon him save by Theos, who, full of struggling amazement and horror, would have broken out into indignant remonstrance, had not an imperative glance from Sah-luma warned him that any interference on his part would only make matters worse. He therefore, sorely against his will, and only for Sah-luma's sake, kept silence, watching Nir- jalis meanwhile in a sort of horrible fascination.
There was something truly awful in the radiant unquenchable laughter that lurked in Lysia's lovely eyes, . . something positively devilish in the grace of her manner, as with a negligent movement, she reseated herself in her crystal throne, and taking a knot of magnolia-flowers that lay beside her, idly toyed with their creamy buds, all the while keeping her basilisk gaze fixed immovably and relentlessly on her sentenced victim. He, grasping the lily-shaped chalice convulsively in his right hand, looked up despairingly to the polished dome of malachite, with its revolving globe of fire that shed a solemn blood-red glow upon his agonized young face, . . a smile was on his lips,—the dreadful smile of desperate, maddened misery.
"Oh, ye malignant gods!" he cried fiercely—"ye immortal Furies that made Woman for Man's torture, ... Bear witness to my death! ... bear witness to my parting spirit's malediction! Cursed be they who love unwisely and too well! ... cursed be all the wiles of desire and the haunts of dear passion!—cursed he all fair faces whose fairness lures men to destruction! ... cursed be the warmth of caresses, the beating of heart against heart, the kisses that color midnight with fire! Cursed be Love from birth unto death!—may its sweetness be brief, and its bitterness endless!— its delight a snare, and its promise treachery! O ye mad lovers!— fools all!" ... and he turned his splendid wild eyes round on the hushed assemblage,—"Despise me and my words as ye will, throughout ages to come, the curse of the dead Nir-jalis shall cling!"
He lifted the goblet to his lips, and just then his delirious glanced lighted on Sah-luma.
"I drink to thee, Sir Laureate!" he said hoarsely, and with a ghastly attempt at levity—"Sing as sweetly as thou wilt, thou must drain the same cup ere long!"
And without another second's hesitation he drank off the entire contents of the chalice at a draught. Scarcely had he done so, when with a savage scream he fell prone on the ground, his limbs twisted in acute agony,—his features hideously contorted,—his hands beating the air wildly, as though in contention with some invisible foe, ..while in strange and terrible dissonance with his tortured cries, Lysia's laughter, musically mellow, broke out in little quick peals, like the laughter of a very young child.
"Ah, ah, Nir-jalis!" she exclaimed. "Thou dost suffer! That is well! ... I do rejoice to see thee fighting for life in the very jaws of death! Fain would I have all men thus tortured out of their proud and tyrannous existence! ... their strength made strengthless, their arrogance brought to naught, their egotism and vain-glory beaten to the dust! Ah, ah! thou that wert the complacent braggart of love,—the self-sufficient proclaimer of thine own prowess, where is thy boasted vigor now? ... Writhe on, good fool! ... thy little day is done! ... All honor to the Silver Nectar whose venom never fails!"
Leaning forward eagerly, she clapped her hands in a sort of fierce ecstasy—and apparently startled by the sound, the tigress rose up from its couchant posture, and shaking itself with a snarling yawn, glared watchfully at the convulsed human wretch whose struggles became with each moment more and more frightful to witness. The impassive, cold-blooded calmness with which all the men present, even Sah-luma, looked on at the revolting spectacle of their late comrade's torture, filled Theos with shuddering abhorrence, ... sick at heart, he strove to turn away his eyes from the straining throat and upturned face of the miserable Nir- jalis,—a face that had a moment or two before been beautiful, but was now so disfigured as to be almost beyond recognition. Presently as the anguish of the poisoned victim increased, shriek after shriek broke from his pallid lips, . . rolling himself on the ground like a wild beast, he bit his hands and arms in his frenzy till he was covered with blood, ... and again and yet again the dulcet laughter of the High Priestess echoed through the length and breadth of the splendid hall,—and even Sah-luma, the poet Sah-luma, condescended to smile! That smile, so cold, so cruel, so unpitying, made Theos for a moment hate him, . . of what use, he thought, was it, to be a writer of soft and delicate verse, if the inner nature of the man was merciless, selfish, and utterly regardless of the woes of others? ... The rest of the guests were profoundly indifferent,—they kept silence, it is true, ... but they went on drinking their wine with perfectly unabated enjoyment.. they were evidently accustomed to such scenes. The attendant slaves stood all mute and motionless, with the exception of Gazra, who surveyed the torments of Nir-jalis with an air of professional interest, and appeared to be waiting till they should have reached that pitch of excruciating agony when Nature, exhausted, gives up the conflict and welcomes death as a release from pain.
But this desirable end was not yet. Suddenly springing to his feet, Nir-jalis tore open his richly jewelled vest, and pressed his two hands hard upon his heart, ... the veins in his flesh were swollen and blue,—his labored breath seemed as though it must break his ribs in its terrible, panting struggle,—his face, livid and lined with purple marks like heavy bruises, bore not a single trace of its former fairness, ... and his eyes, rolled up and fixed glassily in their quivering sockets, seemed to be dreadfully filled with the speechless memory of his lately spoken curse. He staggered toward Theos, and dropped heavily on his knees, . .
"Kill me!" he moaned piteously, feebly pointing to the sheathed dagger in the other's belt. "In mercy! ... Kill me! ... One thrust! ... release me! ... this agony is more than I can bear, ... Kill ... Kill. ... !"
His voice died away in an inarticulate, gasping cry,—and Theos stared down upon him in dizzy fear and horror! For...HE HAD SEEN THIS SAME NIR-JALIS DYING THUS CRUELLY BEFORE! Oh God! ... where, —where had this tragedy been previously enacted? Bewildered and overcome with unspeakable dread, he drew his dagger—he would at least, he thought, put the tortured sufferer out of his misery, ... but scarcely had his weapon left the sheath, when Lysia's clear, cold voice exclaimed:
"Disarm him!" and with the silent rapidity of a lightning-flash, Gazra glided to his side, and the steel was snatched from his hand. Full of outraged pride and wrath, he sprang up, a torrent of words rushing to his lips, but before he could utter one, two slaves pounced upon him, and holding his arms, dexterously wound a silk scarf tight about his mouth.
"Be silent!" whispered some one in his ear,—"As you value your life and the life of Sah-luma,—be silent!"
But he cared nothing for this warning, . . reckless of consequences, he tore the scarf away and breaking loose from the hands that held him, made a bound toward Lysia ... here he paused. Her eyes met his languidly, shedding a sombre, mysterious light upon him through the black shower of her abundant hair, ... the evil glitter of the great Symbolic Gem she wore fixed him with its stony yet mesmeric luster ... a delicious smile parted her roseate lips,—and breaking off a magnolia-bud from the cluster she held, she kissed and gave it to him...
"Be at peace, good Theos!" she said in a low, tender tone, . . "Beware of taking up arms in the defence of the unworthy, . . rather reserve thy courage for those who know how best to reward thy service!"
As one in a trance he took the flower she offered,—its fragrance, subtle and sweet, seemed to steal into his veins. and rob his manhood of all strength, ... sinking submissively at her feet he gazed up at her in wondering wistfulness and ardent admiration, . . never was there a woman so bewilderingly beautiful as she! What were the sufferings of Nir-jalis now? ... what was anything compared to the strangely enervating ecstasy he felt in letting his eyes dwell fondly on the fairness of her face, the whiteness of her half-veiled bosom, the delicate, sheeny dazzle of her polished skin, the soft and supple curves of her whole exquisite form, . . and spell-bound by the witchery of her loveliness, he almost forgot the very presence of her dying victim. Occasionally indeed, he glanced at the agonized creature where he lay huddled on the ground in the convulsive throes of his dreadful death- struggle,—but it was now with precisely the same quiet and disdainful smile as that for which he had momentarily hated Sah- luma! There was a sound of singing somewhere,—singing that had a mirthful under-throbbing in it, as though a thousand light-footed fairies were dancing to its sweet refrain! And Nir-jalis heard it! ... dying inch by inch as he was, he heard it, and with a last superhuman effort forced himself up once more to his feet, ... his arms stiffly outstretched, . . his anguished eyes full of a softened, strangely piteous glory.
"To die!" he whispered in awed accents that penetrated the air with singular clearness—"To die! ... nay...not so! ... There is no death! ... I see it all! ... I know! ... .To die is to live! ... to live again.. and to remember...to remember,—and repent, . . the past!"
And with the last word he fell heavily, face forward, a corpse. At the same moment a terrific roar resounded through the dome, and the tigress Aizif sprang stealthily down from the dais, and pounced upon the warm, lifeless body, mounting guard over it in an ominously significant attitude, with glistening eyes, lashing tail and nervously quivering claws. A slight thrill of horror ran through the company, but not a man moved.
"Aizif!—Aizif!" called Lysia imperiously.
The animal looked round with an angry snarl, and seemed for once disposed to disobey the summons of its mistress. She therefore rose from her throne, and stepping forward with a swift, agile grace, caught the savage beast by the neck, and dragged it from its desired prey. Then, with the point of her little, silver- sandaled foot, she turned the fallen face of the dead man slightly round, so that she might observe it more attentively, and noting its livid disfigurement, smiled.
"So much for the beauty and dignity of manhood!" she said with a contemptuous shrug of her snowy shoulders,—"All perished in the space of a few brief moments! Look you, ye fair sirs that take pride in your strength and muscular attainments! ... Ye shall not find in all Al-Kyris a fairer face or more nobly knit frame than was possessed by this dead fool, Nir-jalis, and yet, lo!—how the Silver Nectar doth make havoc on the sinews of adamant, the nerves of steel, the stalwart limbs! Tried by the touchstone of Death, ye are, with all your vaunted intelligence, your domineering audacity and self-love, no better than the slain dogs that serve vultures for carrion! ...—moreover, ye are less than dogs in honesty, and vastly shamed by them in fidelity!"
She laughed scornfully as she spoke, still grasping the tigress by the neck in one slight hand,—and her glorious eyes flashed a mocking defiance on all the men assembled. Their countenances exhibited various expressions of uneasiness amounting to fear, . . some few smiled forcedly, others feigned a careless indifference, . . Sah-luma flushed an angry red, and Theos, though he knew not why, felt a sudden pricking sense of shame. She marked all these signs of disquietude with apparently increasing amusement, for her lovely face grew warm and radiant with suppressed, malicious mirth. She made a slight imperative gesture of command to Gazra, who at once approached, and, bending over the dead Nir-jalis, proceeded to strip off all the gold clasps and valuable jewels that had so lavishly adorned the ill-fated young man's attire,—then beckoning another slave nearly as tall and muscular as himself, they attached to the neck and feet of the corpse round, leaden, bullet-shaped weights, fastened by means of heavy iron chains. This done, they raised the body from the floor and carried it between them to the central and largest casement of all that stood open to the midnight air, and with a dexterous movement flung it out into the waters of the lake beneath. It fell with a sullen splash, the pale lilies on the surface rocking stormily to and fro as though blown by a gust of wind, while great circling ripples shone softly in the yellow gleam of the moonlight, as the dead man sank down, down, down like a stone into his crystal-quiet grave.
Lysia returned to her throne with a serene step and unruffled brow, followed by the sulky and disappointed Aizif, . . smiling gently on Theos and Sah-luma she reseated herself, and touched a small bell at her side. It gave a sharp kling-klang like a suddenly struck cymbal—and lo! ... the marble floor yawned asunder, and the banquet-table with all its costly fruits and flowers vanished underground with the swiftness of lightning! The floor closed again, . . the broad, circular centre-space of the hall was now clear from all obstruction,—and the company of revellers roused themselves a little from their drowsy postures of half- inebriated languor. The singing voices that had stirred Nir-jalis to sudden animation even in his dying agony, sounded nearer and nearer, and the globe of fire overhead changed its hue from that of crimson to a delicate pink. At the extreme end of the glittering vista of pale-green, transparent columns, a door suddenly opened, and a flock of doves came speeding forth, their white, spread wings colored softly in the clear rose-radiance,— they circled round and round the dome three times, then fluttered in a palpitating arch over Lysia's head, and finally sped straight across the hall to the other end, where they streamed snowily through another aperture and disappeared. Still nearer rippled the sound of singing, . . and all at once a troop of girls came dancing noiselessly as fire-flies into the full, quivering pinkness of the jewel-like light that floated about them, . . girls as lovely, as delicate, as dainty as cyclamens that wave in the woods in the early days of an Italian spring. Their garments were so white, so transparent, so filmy and clinging, that they looked like elves robed in mountain-vapor rather than human creatures, . . there were fifty of them in all, and as they tripped forward, they, like the doves that had heralded their approach, surrounded Lysia flutteringly, saluting her with gestures of exquisite grace and devout humility, while she, enthroned in supreme fairness, with her tigress crouched beside her, looked down on them like a goddess calmly surveying a crowd of vestal worshippers. Their salutations done, they rushed pell-mell, like a shower of white rose-leaves drifting before a gale, into the exact centre of the hall, and there poising bird-like, with their snowy arms upraised as though about to fly, they waited, . . their lovely faces radiant with laughter, their eyes flashing dangerous allurement, their limbs glistening like polished alabaster through the gauzy attire that betrayed rather than concealed their exquisite forms. Then came the soft pizzicato of pulled strings, ... and a tinkling jangle of silver bells beating out a measured, languorous rhythm, —and with one accord, they all merged together in the voluptuous grace of a dance more ravishing, more wild and wondrous than ever poet pictured in his word-fantasies of fairy-land! Theos drank in the intoxicating delight of the scene with eager, dazzled eyes and heavily beating heart, ..the mysterious passion of mingled love and hatred he felt for Lysia stole over him more strongly than ever in the sultry air of this strange night, . . this night of sweet delirium, in which all that was most dangerous and erring in his nature woke into life and mastered his better will! A curious, instinctive knowledge swept across his mind,—namely THAT SAH- LUMA'S EMOTIONS WERE THE FAITHFUL REFLEX OF HIS OWN,—but as he had felt no anger against his rival in fame, so now he had no jealousy of his possible rival in love. Their sympathies were too closely united for distrust to mar the friendship so ardently begun, ... nevertheless, as he fell resistlessly deeper and deeper into the glittering snares that were spread for his destruction, he was CONSCIOUS OF EVIL THOUGH HE LACKED FORCE TO OVERCOME IT. At any rate, he would save Sah-luma from harm, he resolved, if he could not save himself! Meantime he watched the bewildering evolutions and witching entanglements of the gliding maze of fair faces, snowy bosoms and twining limbs, that palpitated to and fro under the soft rose-light of the dome like white flowers colored by the sunset, and, glancing ever and again at Lysia's imperial sorceress-beauty, he thought dreamily ... "Better the love that kills than no love at all!" And he thereupon gave himself up a voluntary captive to the sway of his own passions, determining to enjoy the immediate present, no matter what the future might have in store. Outside, the water-lilies nodded themselves to sleep in their shrouding, dark leaves, . . and the unbroken smoothness of the lake spread itself out in the moon like a sheet of molten gold over the spot where Nir-jalis had found his chilly rest. "THE CURSE OF THE DEAD NIR-JALIS SHALL CLING!" Yes,—possibly!—in the hereafter! ... but now his parting malison seemed but a foolish clamor against destiny, ... he was gone! ... none of his late companions missed him, ... none regretted him—like all dead men, once dead he was soon forgotten!
A STRANGE TEMPTATION.
On went the dance, ... faster, faster, and ever faster! Only the pen of some mirth-loving, rose-crowned Greek bard could adequately describe the dazzling, wild beauty and fantastic grace of those whirling fairy forms, that now inspired to a bacchante-like ardor, urged one another to fresh speed with brief soft cries of musical rapture! Now advancing,—now retreating ... now intermingling all together in an undulating garland of living loveliness, ... now parting asunder with an air of sweet coquettishness and caprice, ...—anon meeting again, and winding arm within arm,—till bending forward in attitudes of the tenderest entreaty, they seemed, with their languid, praying eyes and clasped hands, to be waiting for Love to soothe the breathless sweetness of their parted lips with kisses! The light in the dome again changed its hue,—from pale rose-pink it flickered to delicate amber-green, flooding the floor with a radiance as of watery moonbeams, and softening the daintily draped outlines of that exquisite group of human blossoms, till they looked like the dimly imagined shapes of Nereids floating on the glistening width of the sea.
And now the extreme end of the vast hall began to waver to and fro as though shaken at its foundation by subterranean forces,—a flaring shaft of flame struck through it like the sweeping blade of a Titan's sword,—and presently with a thunderous noise the whole wall split asunder, and recoiling backwards on either side, disclosed a garden, golden with the sleepy glory of the late moon, and peacefully fair in all the dreamy attractiveness of drooping foliage, soft turf, and star-sprinkled, violet sky. In full view, and lit up by the reflected radiance flung out from the dome, a rushing waterfall made sonorous surgy music of its own as it tumbled headlong into a rocky recess overgrown with lotus-lilies and plumy fern,—here and there, small, white and gold tents or pavilions glimmered invitingly through the shadows cast by the great magnolia trees, from whose lovely half-shut buds balmy odors crept deliciously through the warm air. The sound of sweet pipes and faintly tinkling cymbals echoed from distant shady nooks, as though elfin shepherds were guarding their fairy flocks in some hidden corner of this ambrosial pasturage, and ever by degrees the light grew warmer and more mellow in tint, till it resembled the deep hue of an autumn, yellow sunset, flecked through with emerald haze.
Another clash of cymbals! ... this time stormily persistent and convincing! ... another! ... yet another! ... and then, a chime of bells,—a steady ringing, persuasive chime, such as brings tears to the eyes of many a wanderer, who, hearing a similar sound when far away from home, straightway thinks of the village church of his earlier years, . . those years of the best happiness we ever know on earth, because we enjoy in them the bliss of ignorance, the glory of youth! A curious stifling sensation began to oppress Theos's heart as he listened to those bells, . . they reminded him of such strange things, ... things to which he could not give a name,—things foolish, yet sweet, . . odd suggestions of fair women who were wont to pray for those they loved, and who believed, . . alas, the pity of it!—that their prayers would be heard ... and granted! What was it that these dear, loving, credulous ones said, when in the silence of the night they offered up their patient supplications to an irresponsive Heaven? "LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION, BUT DELIVER US FROM EVIL!" Yes! ... he remembered,— those were the words,—the simple-wise words that for positive- practical minds had neither meaning nor reason,—and that yet were so infinitely pathetic in their perfect humility and absolute trust!
"LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION!" ... He murmured the phrase under his breath as he gazed with straining eyes out into the languorous beauty of that garden-scene that spread its dewy, emerald glamour before him,—and—"deliver us from evil!" broke from his lips in a half-sobbing sigh, as the peal of the chiming bells softened by degrees into a subdued tunefulness of indistinct and tremulous semitones, and the clarion-clearness of the cymbals again smote the still air with forceful and jarring clangor. Then...like a rainbow-garmented Peri floating easefully out of some far-off sphere of sky-wonders,—an aerial Maiden-Shape glided into the full lustre of the varying light,—a dancer, nude save for the pearly glistening veil that was carelessly cast about her dainty limbs, her white arms and delicate ankles being adorned with circlets of tiny, golden bells, which kept up a melodious jingle- jangle as she moved. And now began the strangest music,—music that seemed to hover capriciously between luscious melody and harsh discord,—a wild and curious medley of fantastic, minor suggestions in which the imaginative soul might discover hints of tears and folly, love and madness. To this uncertain yet voluptuous measure the glittering girl-dancer leaped forward with a startlingly beautiful abruptness,—and halting, as it were, on the boundary-line between the dome and the garden beyond, raised her rounded arms in a snowy arch above her head, and so for one brief instant, looked like an exquisite angel ready to soar upward to her native realm. Her pause was a mere breathing space in duration, ... dropping her arms again with a swift decision that set all the little bells on them clashing stormily, she straightway hurled herself, so to speak, into the giddy paces of a dance that was more like an enigma than an exercise. Round and round she floated wildly, like an opal-winged butterfly in a net of sunbeams,—now seemingly shaken by delicate tremors as aspen leaves are shaken by the faintest wind, ..now assuming the most voluptuous eccentricities of posture, . . sometimes bending wistfully toward the velvet turf on which she trod, as though she listened to the chanting of demon voices underground, . . and again, with her waving white hands, appearing to summon spirits downward from their wanderings in upper air. Her figure was in perfect harmony with the seductive grace of her gestures,—not only her twinkling feet, but her whole body danced,—her very features bespoke entire abandonment to the frenzy of rapid movement,—her large black eyes flashed with something of fierceness as well as languor; her raven hair streamed behind her like a dark spread wing, . . her parted lips pouted and quivered with excitement and ardor while ever and anon she turned her beautiful head toward the eagerly attentive group of revelers who watched her performance, with an air of indescribable sweetness, malice, and mockery. Again and again she whirled,—she flew, she sprang,—and wild cries of "Hail, Nelida!" "Triumph to Nelida!" resounded uproariously through the dome. Suddenly the character of the music changed, ... from an appealing murmurous complaint and persuasion, it rose to a martial and almost menacing fervor; the roll of drums and the shrill, reedy warbling of pipes and other fluty minstrelsy crossed the silvery thread of strung harps and viols, ... the light from the fiery globe shot forth a new effulgence, this time in two broad rays, one a dazzling, pale azure, the other a clear, pearly white. Nelida's graceful movements grew slower and slower, till she merely seemed to sway indolently to and fro like a mermaid rocking herself to sleep on the summit of a wave, ... and then,— from among the veiling shadows of the trees, there stepped forth a man,—beautiful as a sculptured god, of magnificently moulded form and noble stature, clothed from chest to knee in a close fitting garb of what seemed to be a thick network of massively linked gold. His dark hair was crowned with ivy, and at his belt gleamed an unsheathed dagger. Slowly and with courtly grace he approached the panting Nelida, who now, with half-closed eyes and slackening steps, looked as though she were drowsily footing her way into dreamland. He touched her snowy shoulder,—she started with an inimitable gesture of surprise, ... a smile, brilliant as morning, dawned on her face,—withdrawing herself slightly, she assumed an air of haughtily sweet disdain and refusal, ... then capriciously relenting, she gave him her hand, and in another instant, to the sound of a joyous melody that seemed to tumble through the air as billows tumble on the beach, the dazzling pair whirled away in a giddy waltz like two bright flames blown suddenly together by the wind. No language could give an adequate idea of the marvelous bewitchment and beauty of their united movements, and as they flew over the dark smooth turf, with the flower-laden trees drooping dewily about them, and the yellow moonbeams like melted amber beneath their noiseless feet, ... while the pale sapphire and white radiations from the dome, sparkling upon them aureole-wise, gave them the appearance of glittering birds circling through a limitless space of luminous and never-clouded ether. On, on! ... and they scarcely touched the earth as they spun dizzily round and round, their gracefully entwined limbs shining like polished ivory in the light, ... on, on!—with ever-increasing swiftness they sped, till their two forms seemed to merge into one, ... when as though oppressed by their own abandonment of joy they paused hoveringly, their embracing arms closing round one another, their lips almost touching, ... their eyes reflecting each other's ardent looks, ... then, ... their figures grew less and less distinct, ... they appeared to melt mysteriously into the azure, pearly light that surrounded them, and finally, like faint clouds fading on the edge of a sea-horizon, they vanished! The effect of this brief voluptuous dance, and its equally voluptuous end, was simply indescribable,—the young men, who had watched it through in silence and flushed ecstasy, now sprang from their couches with shouts of rapture and unrestrained excitement, and seizing the other dancing-maidens who had till now remained in clustered, half-hidden groups behind the crystalline columns of the hall, whirled them off into the inviting pleasaunce beyond, where the little white and gold pavilions peeped through the heavy foliage, —and before Theos, in the picturesque hurry and confusion of the scene, could quite realize what had happened, the great globe in the dome was suddenly extinguished, ... a firm hand closed imperiously on his own, and he was drawn along swiftly, he knew not whither!
A slight tremor shook him as he discovered that Sah-luma was no longer by his side ... the friend whom he so ardently desired to protect had gone,—and he could not tell where. He glanced about him,—in the semi-obscurity he was able to discern the sheen of the lake with its white burden of water-lilies, and the branchy outlines of the moonlit garden, ... and ... yes! it was Lysia whose grasp lay so warmly on his arm, ... Lysia whose lovely, tempting face was so perilously near his own,—Lysia whose smile colored the soft gloom with such alluring lustre! ... His heart beat,—his blood burned,—he strove in vain to imagine what fate was now in store for him. He was conscious of the beauty of the night that spread its star-embroidered splendors about him,— conscious too of the vital youth and passion that throbbed amorously in his veins, endowing him with that keenly sweet, headstrong rapture which is said to come but once in a lifetime, and which in the very excess of its fond folly is too often apt to bring sorrow and endless remorse in its train. One moment more and he found himself in an exquisitely adorned pavilion of painted silk, faintly lit by one lamp of tenderest rose lustre, and carpeted with gold-spangled tissue. It was surrounded by a thicket of orange trees in full bloom, and the fragrance of the waxen- white flowers clung heavily to the air, breathing forth delicate suggestions of languor and sleep. The measured rush of the near waterfall alone disturbed the deep silence, with now and then the subdued and plaintive trill of a nightingale soothing itself to rest with its own song in some deep shadowed copse. Here, on a couch of heaped-up, stemless roses, such as might have been prepared for the repose of Titania, Lysia seated herself, while Theos stood gazing at her in fascinated wonderment and gradually increasing masterfulness of passion. She looked lovelier than ever in that dim, soft, mingled light of rosy lamp and silver moonbeams,—her smile was no longer cold but warmly sweet,—her eyes had lost their mocking glitter, and swam in a soft languor that was strangely bewitching,—even the Orbed Symbol on her white bosom seemed for once to drowse. Her lips parted in a faint sigh,— a glance like fire flashed from beneath her black, silken lashes, ...
"Theos!" she said tremulously. "Theos!" and waited.
He, mute and oppressed by indistinct, hovering recollections, fed his gaze on her seductive fairness for one earnest moment longer, —then suddenly advancing he knelt before her, and took her unresisting hands in his.
"Lysia!"—and his voice, even to his own ears, had a solemn as well as passionate thrill,—"Lysia, what wouldst thou have with me? Speak! ... for my heart aches with a burden of dark memories, —memories conjured up by the wizard spell of thine eyes,—those eyes so cruel-sweet that seem to lure me to my soul's ruin! Tell me—have we not met before? ... loved before? ... wronged each other and God before? ... parted before? ... Maybe 'tis but a brain sick fancy,—nevertheless my spirit knows thee,—feels thee,—clings to thee,—and yet recoils from thee as one whom I did love in by-gone days of old! My thoughts of thee are strange, fair Lysia!"—and he pressed her warm, delicate fingers with unconscious fierceness,—"I would have sworn that in the Past thou didst betray me!"
Her low laugh stirred the silence into a faint, tuneful echo.
"Thou foolish dreamer!" she murmured half mockingly, half tenderly ... "Thou art dazed with wine, steeped in song, bewitched with beauty, and knowest nothing of what thou sayest! Methinks thou art a crazed poet, and more fervid than Sah-luma in the mystic nature of thine utterance,—thou shouldst be Laureate, not he! What if thou wert offered his place? ... his fame?"
He looked at her, surprised and perplexed, and paused an instant before replying. Then he said slowly:
"So strange a thing could never be ... for Sah-luma's place, once empty, could not again be filled! I grudge him not his glory- laurels,—moreover, ... what is Fame compared to Love!" He uttered the last words in a low tone as though he spoke them to himself, ... she heard,—and a flash of triumph brightened her beautiful face.
"Ah! ..." and she drooped her head lower and lower till her dark, fragrant tresses touched his brow ... "Then, ... thou dost love me?"
He started. A dull pang ached in his heart,—a chill of vague uncertainty and dread. Love! ... was it love indeed that he felt? ... love, ... or ... base desire? Love ... The word rang in his ears with the same sacred suggestiveness as that conveyed by the chime of bells,—surely, Love was a holy thing, ... a passion pure, impersonal, divine, and deathless,—and it seemed to him that somewhere it had been written or said ... "Wheresoever a man seeketh himself, there he falleth from Love" And he, ... did he not seek himself, and the gratification of his own immediate pleasure? Painfully he considered, ... it was a supreme moment with him,—a moment when he felt himself to be positively held within the grasp of some great Archangel, who, turning grandly reproachful eyes upon him, demanded ...
"Art thou the Servant of Love or the Slave of Self?" And while he remained silent, the silken sweet voice of the fairest woman he had ever seen once more sent its musical cadence through his brain in that fateful question:
"Thou dost love me?"
A deep sigh broke from him, ... he moved nearer to her, ... he entwined her warm waist with his arms, and stared upon her as though he drank her beauty in with his eyes. Up to the crowning masses of her dusky hair where the little serpents' heads darted forth glisteningly,—over the dainty curve of her white shoulders and bosom where the symbolic Eye seemed to regard him with a sleepy weirdness,—down to the blue-veined, small feet in the silvery sandals, and up again to the red witchery of her mouth and black splendor of those twin fire-jewels that flashed beneath her heavy lashes—his gaze wandered hungrily, searchingly, passionately,—his heart beat with a loud, impatient eagerness like a wild thing struggling in its cage, but though his lips moved, he said no word,—she too was silent. So passed or seemed to pass some minutes,—minutes that were almost terrible in the weight of mysterious meaning they held unuttered. Then, with a half-smothered cry, he suddenly released her and sprang erect.
"Love!" he cried, ... "Nay!—'tis a word for children and angels! —not for me! What have I to do with love? ... what hast thou? ... thou, Lysia, who dost make the lives of men thy sport and their torments thy mockery! There is no name for this fever that consumes me when I look upon thee, ... no name for this unquiet ravishment that draws me to thee in mingled bliss and agony! If I must perish of mine own bitter-sweet frenzy, let me be slain now and most utterly, ... but Love has no abiding-place 'twixt me and thee, Lysia! ... Love! ... ah, no, no! ... speak no more of love ... it hath a charmed sound, recalling to my soul some glory I have lost!"
He spoke wildly, incoherently, scarcely knowing what he said, and she, half lying on her couch of roses, looked at him curiously, with somber, meditative eyes. A smile of delicate derision parted her lips.
"Of a truth, our late feasting hath roused in thee a most singular delirium!" she murmured indolently with a touch of cold amusement in her accents—"Thou dost seem to dwell in the Past rather than the Present! What ails thee? ... Come hither—closer!"—and she stretched out her lovely arms on which the twisted diamond snakes glittered in such flashing coils,—"Come! ... or is thy manful guise mere feigning, and dost thou fear me?"
"Fear thee!"—and stung to a sudden heat Theos made one bound to her side and seizing her slim wrists, held them in a vise-like grip—"So little do I fear thee, Lysia, so well do I know thee, that in my very caresses I would slay thee, couldst thou thus be slain! Thou art to me the living presence of an unforgotten Sin,— a sin most deadly sweet and unrepented of, . . ah! why dost thou tempt me!"—and he bent over her more ardently—"must I not meet my death at thy hands? I must,—and more than death!—yet for thy kiss I will risk hell,—for one embrace of thine I will brave perdition! Ah, cruel enchantress!"—and winding his arms about her, he drew her close against his breast and looked down on the dreamy fairness of her face,—"Would there WERE such a thing as Death for souls like mine and thine! Would we might die most absolutely thus, heart against heart, never to wake again and loathe eathtypo or archaism? other! Who speaks of the cool sweetness of the grave,—the quiet ending of all strife,—the unbreaking seal of Fate, the deep and stirless rest? ... These things are not, and never were, . . for the grave gives up its dead,—the strife is forever and ever resumed,—the seal is broken, and in all the laboring Universe there shall be found no rest, and no forgetfulness, . . ah, God! ... no forgetfulness!" A shudder ran through his frame,—and clasping her almost roughly, he stooped toward her till his lips nearly touched hers, . . "Thou art accursed, Lysia,—and I share thy curse! Speak—how shall we cheer each other in the shadow-realm of fiends? Thou shall be Queen there, and I thy servitor,—we will make us merry with the griefs of others,—our music shall be the dropping of lost women's tears, and the groans of betrayed and tortured men,—and the light around us shall be quenchless fire! Shall it not be so, Lysia? ... and thinkest thou that we shall ever regret the loss of Heaven?"
The words rushed impetuously from his lips; he thought little and cared less what he said, so long as he could, by speech, no matter how incoherent, relieve in part, the terrible oppression of vague memories that burdened his brain. But she, listening, drew herself swiftly from his embrace and stood up,—her large eyes fixed full upon him with an expression of wondering scorn and fear.
"Thou art mad!" she said, a quiver of alarm in her voice ... "Mad as Khosrul, and all his evil-croaking brethren! I offer thee Love,— and thou pratest of death,—life is here in all the fulness of the now, for thy delight, and thou ravest of an immortal Hereafter which is not, and can never be! Why talk thus wildly? ... why gaze on me with so distraught a countenance? But an hour agone, thou wert the model of a cold discretion and quiet valor,—thus I had judged thee worthy of my favor—favor sought by many, and granted to few, . . but an thou dost wander amid such chaotic and unreasoning fancies, thou canst not serve me,—nor therefore canst thou win the reward that would otherwise have awaited thee."...
Here she paused,—a questioning, keen under-glance flashed from beneath her dark lashes, . . he, however, with pained, wistful eyes raised steadfastly to hers, gave no sign of apology or contrition for the disconnected strangeness of his recent outburst. Only he became gradually conscious of an inward, growing calm,—as though the Divine Voice that had once soothed the angry waves of Galilee were now hushing his turbulent emotions with a soft "Peace be still!" She watched him closely, . .and all at once apparently rendered impatient by his impassive attitude, she came coaxingly toward him, and laid one soft hand on his shoulder.
"Canst thou not be happy, Theos?" she whispered gently—"Happy as other men are, when loved as thou art loved?"
His upturned gaze rested on the glittering serpents' heads that crowned her dusky tresses,—then on the great Eye that stared watchfully between her white breasts. A strong tremor shook him, and he sighed.
"Happy as other men are, when they love and are deceived in love!"—he said.. "Yes, even so, Lysia,—I can be happy!"
She threw one arm about him. "Thou shalt not be deceived"—she murmured quickly,—"Thou shalt be honored above the noblest in the realm, . . thy dearest hopes shall be fulfilled, . . thy utmost desires shall be granted, . . riches, power, fame,—all shall be thine,—IF THOU WILT DO MY BIDDING!"
She uttered the last words with slow and meaning emphasis. He met her eager, burning looks quietly, almost coldly,—the curious numb apathy of his spirit increased, and when he spoke, his voice was low and faint like the voice of one who speaks unconsciously in his sleep.
"What canst thou ask that I will not grant?" he said listlessly.. "Is it not as it was in the old time,—thou to command, and I to obey? ... Speak, fair Queen!—how can I serve thee?"
Her answer came, swift and fierce as the hiss of a snake:
The brief sentence leaped into his brain with the swift, fiery action of some burning drug,—a red mist rose to his eyes,— pushing her fiercely from him, he started to his feet in a bewildered, sick horror. KILL SAH-LUMA! ... kill the gracious, smiling, happy creature whose every minute of existence was a joy,—kill the friend he loved,—the poet he worshipped! ... Kill him! ... ah God! ... never! ... never! ... He staggered backward dizzily,—and Lysia with a sudden stealthy spring, like that of her favorite tigress, threw herself against his breast and looked up at him, her splendid eyes ablaze with passion, her black hair streaming, her lips curved in a cruel smile, and the hateful Jewel on her breast seeming to flash with ferocious vindictiveness.
"Kill him!" she repeated eagerly—"Now—in his sottish slumber,— now when he hath lost sight of his Poetmission in the hot fumes of wine,—now, when, despite his genius, he hath made of himself a thing lower than the beasts! Kill him! ...—I will keep good council, and none shall ever know who did the deed! He loves me, and I weary of his love, . . I would have him dead—dead as Nir- jalis! ... but were he to drain the Silver Nectar, the whole city would cry out upon me for his loss,—therefore he may not perish so. But an thou wilt slay him, . . see!" and she clung to Theos with the fierce tenacity of some wild animal—"All this beauty of mine, is thine!—thy days and nights shall be dreams of rapture,—thou shalt be second to none in Al-Kyris,—thou shalt rule with me over King and people,—and we will make the land a pleasure-garden for our love and joy! Here is thy weapon.."—and she thrust into his hand a dagger,—the very dagger her slave Gazra, had deprived him of, when by its prompt use he might have mercifully ended the cruel torments of Nir-jalis,—"Let thy stroke be strong and unfaltering, . . stab him to the heart,—the cold, cold, selfish heart that has never ached with a throb of pity! ... kill him!— 'tis an easy task,—for lo! how fast he sleeps!"
And suddenly throwing back a rich gold curtain that depended from one side of the painted pavilion, she disclosed a small interior chamber hung with amber and crimson, where, on a low, much-tumbled couch covered with crumpled glistening draperies, lay the King's Chief Minstrel,—the dainty darling of women,—the Laureate of the realm, sunk in a heavy, drunken stupor, so deep as to be almost death-like. Theos stared upon him amazed and bewildered, . . how came he there? Had he heard any of the conversation that had just passed between Lysia and himself? ... Apparently not, . . he seemed bound as by chains in a stirless lethargy. His posture was careless, yet uneasy,—his brilliant attire was torn and otherwise disordered,—and some of his priceless jewels had fallen on the couch, and gleamed here and there like big stray dewdrops. His face was deeply flushed, and his straight dark brows were knit frowningly, his breathing was hurried and irregular, . . one arm was thrown above his head,—the other hung down nervelessly, the relaxed fingers hovering immediately above a costly jewelled cup that had dropped from his clasp,—two emptied wine flagons lay cast on the ground beside him, and he had evidently experienced the discomfort and feverous heat arising from intoxication, for his silken vest was loosened as though for greater ease and coolness, thus leaving the smooth breadth of his chest bare and fully exposed. To this Lysia pointed with a fiendish glee, as she pulled Theos forward.
"Strike now!" she whispered.. "Quick.. why dost thou hesitate?"
He looked at her fixedly, . . the previous hot passion he had felt for her froze like ice within his veins, ... her fairness seemed no longer so distinctly fair, . . the witching radiance of her eyes had lost its charm, . . ... and he motioned her from him with a silent gesture of stern repugnance. Catching sight of the sheeny glimmer of the lake through the curtained entrance of the tent, he made a sudden spring thither—dashed aside the draperies, and flung the dagger he held, far out towards the watery mirror. It whirled glittering through the air, and fell with a quick splash into the silver-rippled depths,—and, gravely contented, he turned upon her, dauntless and serene in the consciousness of power.
"Thus do I obey thee!" he said, in firm tones that thrilled through and through with scorn and indignation,—"Thou evil Beauty! ... thou fallen Fairness! ... Kill Sah-luma? ... Nay, sooner would I kill myself...or thee! His life is a glory to the world, . . his death shall never profit thee!"...
For one instant a lurid anger blazed in her face,—the next her features hardened themselves into a rigidly cold expression of disdain, though her eyes widened with wrathful wonder. A low laugh broke from her lips.
"Ah!" she cried—"Art thou angel or demon that thou darest defy me? Thou shouldst be either or both, to array thyself in opposition against the High Priestess of Nagaya, whose relentless Will hath caused empires to totter and thrones to fall! HIS life a glory to the world? ..." and she pointed to Sah-luma's recumbent figure with a gesture of loathing and contempt, . . "HIS? ... the life of a drunken voluptuary? ... a sensual egotist? ... a poet who sees no genius save his own, and who condemns all vice, save that which he himself indulges in! A laurelled swine! ... a false god of art! ... and for him thou dost reject Me! ... ah, thou fool!" and her splendid eyes shot forth resentful fire.. "Thou rash, unthinking, headstrong fool! thou knowest not what thou hast lost! Aye, guard thy friend as thou wilt,—thou dost guard him at thine own peril! ... think not that he, . . or thou, ... shall escape my vengeance! What!—dost thou play the heroic with me? ... thou who art Man, and therefore NO hero? ... For men are cowards all, except when in the heat of battle they follow the pursuit of their own brief glory! ... poltroons and knaves in spirit, incapable of resisting their own passions! ... and wilt THOU pretend to be stronger than the rest? ... Wilt thou take up arms against thyself and Destiny? Thou madman!"—and her lithe form quivered with concentrated rage—"Thou puny wretch that dost first clutch at, and then refuse my love!—thou who dost oppose thy miserable force to the Fate that hunts thee down!—thou who dost gaze at me with such grave, child-foolish eyes! ... Beware, . . beware of me! I hate thee as I hate ALL men! ... I will humble thee as I have humbled the proudest of thy sex! ..—wheresoever thou goest I will track thee out and torture thee! ... and thou shalt die—miserably, lingeringly, horribly,—as I would have every man die could I fulfil my utmost heart's desire! To-night, be free! ... but to-morrow as thou livest, I will claim thee!"
Like an enraged Queen she stood,—one white, jewelled arm stretched forth menacingly,—her bosom heaving, and her face aflame with wrath, but Theos, leaning against Sah-luma's couch, heard her with as much impassiveness as though her threatening voice were but the sound of an idle wind. Only, when she ceased, he turned his untroubled gaze calmly and full upon her,—and then,—to his own infinite surprise she shivered and shrank backwards, while over her countenance flitted a vague, undefinable, almost spectral expression of terror. He saw it, and swift words came at once to his lips,—words that uttered themselves without premeditation.
"To-morrow, Lysia, thou shalt claim nothing!" he said in a still, composed voice that to himself had something strange and unearthly in its tone ... "Not even a grave! Get thee hence! ... pray to thy gods if thou hast any,—for truly there is need of prayer! Thou shalt not harm Sah-luma, . . his love for thee may be his present curse,—but it shall not work his future ruin! As for me, . . though canst not slay me, Lysia,—seeing that to myself I am dead already! ... dead, yet alive in thought, . . and thou dost now seem to my soul but the shadow of a past Crime, . . the ghost of a temptation overcome and baffled! Ah, thou sweet Sin!" here he suddenly moved toward her and caught her hands hard, looking fearlessly the while at her flushed half-troubled face,—"I do confess that I have loved thee, . . I do own that I have found thee fair! ... but now—now that I see thee as thou art, in all the nameless horror of thy beauty, I do entreat,".. and his accents sank to a low yet fervent supplication—"I do entreat the most high God that I may be released from thee forever!"
She gazed upon him with dilated, terrified eyes, ... and he dimly wondered, as he looked, why she should seem to fear him?—Not a word did she utter in reply, . . step by step she retreated from him, . . her glittering, exquisite form grew paler and more indistinct in outline—and presently, catching at the gold curtain that divided the two pavilions, she paused...still regarding him steadfastly. An evil smile curved her lips, . . a smile of cold menace and derisive scorn, . . the iris-colored jewel on her breast darted forth vivid flashes of azure, and green and gray, . . the snakes in her hair seemed to rise and hiss at him, . . and then,— with an awful unspoken threat written resolvedly on every line of her fair features, . . she let the gold draperies fall softly,—and so disappeared, . . leaving him alone with Sah-luma! He stood for a moment half amazed, half perplexed,—then, drawing a deep breath, he pushed the clustering hair off his forehead with an unconscious gesture of relief. She was gone! ... and he felt as though he had gained a victory over something, though he knew not what. The cold air from the lake blew refreshingly on his heated brow, . . and a thousand odors from orange-flowers and jessamine floated caressingly about him. The night was very still,—and approaching the opening of the tent, he looked out. There, in the soft sky gloom, moved the majestic procession of the Undiscovered Worlds seeming to be no more than bright dots on the measureless expanse of pure ether, . . there, low on the horizon, the yellow moon swooned languidly downwards in a bed of fleecy cloud,—the drowsy chirrup of a dreaming bird came softly now and again from the deep-branched shadows of the heavy foliage,—and the lilies on the surface of the lake nodded mysteriously among the slow ripples, like wise, white elves whispering to one another some secret of fairyland. And Sah-luma still slept, . . and still that puzzled and weary frown darkened the fairness of his broad brow, . . and, coming back to his side, Theos stood watching him with a yearning and sorrowful wistfulness. Gathering up the jewels that had fallen out of his dress, he replaced them one by one,—and strove to re- arrange the tossed and tumbled garb as best he might. While he was thus occupied his hand happened to touch the tablet that hung by a silver chain from the Laureate's belt,—he glanced at it, . . it was covered with fine writing, and turning it more toward the light, he soon made out four stanzas, perfectly rhymed and smoothly flowing as a well-modulated harmony. He read them slowly with a faint smile,—he recognized them as HIS OWN!—they were part of a poem he had long ago begun, yet have never finished! And now Sah- luma had the same idea! ... moreover he had chosen the same rhythm, the same words! ... well! ... after all, what did it matter? Nothing, he felt, so far as he was concerned,—he had ceased to care for his own personality or interests,—Sah-luma had become dearer to him than himself!
His immediate anxiety was centered in the question of how to rouse his friend from the torpor in which he lay, and get him out of this voluptuous garden of delights, before any lurking danger could overtake him. Full of this intention, he presently ventured to draw aside the curtain that concealed Lysia's pavilion, . . and looking in, he saw to his great relief, that she was no longer there. Her couch of crushed roses scented the place with heavy fragrance, and the ruby lamp was still burning, . . but she herself had departed. Now was the time for escape!—thought Theos—now,— while she was absent,—now, if Sah-luma could be persuaded to come away, he might reach his own palace in safety, and once there, he could be warned of the death that threatened him through the treachery of the woman he loved. But would he believe in, or accept, the warning? At any rate some effort must be made to rescue him, and Theos, without more ado, bent above him and called aloud:
"Sah-luma! ... Wake! Sah-luma!"
THE PASSAGE OF THE TOMBS.
Sah-luma stirred uneasily and smiled in his sleep.
"More wine!" he muttered thickly—"More, . . more I say! What! wilt thou stint the generous juice that warms my soul to song? Pour, . . pour out lavishly! I will mix the honey of thy luscious lips with the crimson bubbles on this goblet's brim, and the taste thereof shall be as nectar dropped from paradise! Nay, nay! I will drink to none but Myself,—to the immortal bard Sah-luma,—Poet of poets,—named first and greatest on the scroll of Fame! ... aye, 'tis a worthy toast and merits a deeper draught of mellow vintage! Fill...fill again!—the world is but the drunken dream of a God Poet and we but the mad revellers of a shadow day! 'Twill pass— 'twill pass, . . let us enjoy ere all is done,—drown thought in wine, and love, and music, . . wine and music..."
His voice broke in a short, smothered sigh,—Theos surveyed him with mingled impatience, pity, and something of repulsion, and there was a warm touch of indignant remonstrance in his tone when he called again:
"Sah-luma! Rouse thee, man, for very shame's sake! Art thou dead to the honor of thy calling, that thou dost wilfully consent to be the victim of wine-bibbing and debauchery? O thou frail soul! how hast thou quenched the heavenly essence within thee! ... why wilt thou be thus self-disgraced and all inglorious? Sah-luma! Sah- luma!"—and he shook him violently by the arm—"Up,—up, thou truant to the faith of Art! I will not let thee drowse the hours away in such unseemliness, . . wake! for the night is almost past,— the morning is at hand, and danger threatens thee,—wouldst thou be found here drunk at sunrise?"
This time Sah-luma was thoroughly disturbed, and with a half uttered oath he sat up, pushed his tumbled hair from his brows, and stared at his companion in blinking, sleepy wonderment.
"Now, by my soul! ... thou art a most unmannerly ruffian!" he said pettishly, yet with a vacant smile,—"what question didst thou bawl unmusically in mine ear? Will I be drunk at sunrise? Aye! ... and at sunset too, Sir Malapert, if that will satisfy thee! Hast thou been grudged sufficient wine that thou dost envy me my slumber? What dost thou here? ... where hast thou been?".. and, becoming more conscious of his surroundings he suddenly stood up, and catching hold of Theos to support himself, gazed upon him suspiciously with very dim and bloodshot eyes ... "Art thou fresh from the arms of the ravishing Nelida? ... is she not fair? a choice morsel for a lover's banquet? ... Doth she not dance a madness into the veins? ... aye, aye!—she was reserved for thee, my jolly roysterer! but thou art not the first nor wilt thou be the last that hath revelled in her store of charms! No matter!"— and he laughed foolishly ... "Better a wild dancer than a tame prude!" Here he looked about him in confused bewilderment.. "Where is Lysia? Was she not here a moment since? ..." and he staggered toward the neighboring pavilion, and dashed the dividing curtain aside ... "Lysia! ... Lysia! ..." he shouted noisily,—then, receiving no answer, he flung himself down on the vacant couch of roses, and gathering up a handful of the crumpled flowers, kissed them passionately,—"The witch has flown!" he said, laughing again that mirthless, stupid laugh as he spoke—"She doth love to tantalize me thus! ... Tell me! what dost thou think of her? Is she not a peerless moon of womanhood? ... doth she not eclipse all known or imaginable beauty? ... Aye! ... and I will tell thee a secret,—she is mine!—mine from the dark tresses down to the dainty feet! ... mine, all mine, so long as I shall please to call her so! ...—notwithstanding that the foolish people of Al-Kyris think she is impervious to love, self-centered, holy and 'immaculate'! Bah! ... as if a woman ever was 'immaculate'! But mark you! ... though she loves me,—me, crowned Laureate of the realm, she loves no other man! And why? Because no other man is found half so worthy of love! All men must love her, . . Nirjalis loved her, and he is dead because of overmuch presumption, . . and many there be who shall still die likewise, for love of her, but I am her chosen and elected one,—her faith is mine!—her heart is mine,—her very soul is mine!—mine I would swear though all the gods of the past, present, and future denied her constancy!"
Here his uncertain, wandering gaze met the grave, pained, and almost stern regard of Theos. "Why dost thou stare thus owl-like upon me?"—he demanded irritably.. "Art thou not my friend and worshipper? Wilt preach? Wilt moralize on the folly of the time,— the vices of the age? Thou lookest it,—but prithee hold thy peace an thou lovest me!—we can but live and die and there's an end, . . all's over with the best and wisest of us soon,—let us be merry while we may!"
And he tossed a cluster of roses playfully in the air, catching them as they fell again in a soft shower of severed fluttering pink and white petals. Theos listened to his rambling, unguarded words with a sense of acute personal sorrow. Here was a man, young, handsome, and endowed with the rarest gift of nature, a great poetic genius,—a man who had attained in early manhood the highest worldly fame together with the friendship of a king, and the love of a people, . . yet what was he in himself? A mere petty Egoist, . . a poor deluded fool, the unresisting prey of his own passions, . . the besotted slave of a treacherous woman and the voluntary degrader of his own life! What was the use of Genius, then, if it could not aid one to overcome Self, . . what the worth of Fame, if it were not made to serve as a bright incentive and noble example to others of less renown? As this thought passed across his mind, Theos sighed, . . he felt curiously conscience- stricken, ashamed, and humiliated, THROUGH Sah-luma, and solely for Sah-luma's sake! At present, however, his chief anxiety was to get his friend safely out of Lysia'a pavilion before she should return to it, and his spirit chafed within him at each moment of enforced delay.
"Come, come, Sah-luma!" he said at last, gently, yet with persuasive earnestness.. "Come away from this place, . . the feast is over,—the fair ones are gone, . . why should we linger? Thou art half-asleep,—believe me 'tis time thou wert home and at rest. Lean upon me, ... so! that is well!"—this, as the other rose unsteadily to his feet and lurched heavily against him, . . "Now let me guide thee,—though of a truth I know not the way through this wondrous woodland maze, . . canst tell me whither we should turn? ... or hast thou no remembrance of the nearest road to thine own dwelling?"—
Thus speaking, he managed to lead his stupefied companion out of the tent into the cool, dewy garden, where, feeling somewhat refreshed by the breath of the night wind blowing on his face, Sah-luma straightened himself, and made an absurd attempt to look exceedingly dignified.
"Nay, an thou wilt depart with such scant ceremony"—he grumbled peevishly—"get thee thence and find out the road as best thou mayest! ... why should I aid thee? For myself I am well contented here to remain and sleep,—no better couch can the Poet have than this violet-scented moss"—and he waved his arm with a grandiloquent gesture,—"no grander canopy than this star- besprinkled heaven! Leave me,—for my eyes are wondrous heavy, and I would fain slumber undisturbed till the break of day! By my soul, thou art a rough companion! ..." and he struggled violently to release himself from Theos's resolute and compelling grasp.. "Where wouldst thou drag me?"
"Out of danger and the shadow of death!" replied Theos firmly.. "Thy life is threatened, Sah-luma, and I will not see thee slain! If thou canst not guard thyself, then I must guard thee! ... Come, delay no longer, I beseech thee!—do I not love thee, friend?—and would I urge thee thus without good reason? O thou misguided soul! thou dost most ignorantly court destruction, but if my strength can shield thee, thou shalt not die before thy time!"
And he hurried his pace, half leading, half carrying the reluctant poet, who, however, was too drowsy and lethargic to do more than feebly resent his action,—and thus they went together along a broad path that seemed to extend itself in a direct line straight across the grounds, but which in reality turned and twisted about through all manner of perplexing nooks and corners,—now under trees so closely interwoven that not a glimpse of the sky could be seen through the dense darkness of the crossed boughs,—now by gorgeous banks of roses, pale yellow and white, that looked like frozen foam in the dying glitter of the moon,—now beneath fairy- light trellis work, overgrown with jasamine, and peopled by thousands of dancing fire-flies,—while at every undulating bend or sharp angle in the road, Theos's heart beat quickly in fear lest they should meet some armed retainer or spy of Lysia's, who might interrupt their progress, or perhaps peremptorily forbid their departure. Nothing of the kind happened, or seemed likely to happen,—the splendid gardens were all apparently deserted,—and not a living soul was anywhere to be seen. Presently through an archway of twisted magnolia stems, Theos caught a glimpse of the illuminated pool with the marble nymph in its centre which had so greatly fascinated him on his first arrival,—and he pressed forward eagerly, knowing that now they could not be very far from the gates of exit. All at once the tall figure of a man clad in complete armor came into sudden view between some heavily drooping boughs,—it stood out for a second, and then hurriedly disappeared, muffling its face in a black mantle as it fled. Not, however, before Theos had recognized those dark, haughty features, those relentless brows, and that, stern almost lurid smile! ... and with a quick convulsive movement he grasped his companion's arm.
"Hist, Sah-luma!" he whispered ... "Saw you not the King?"
Sah-luma started as though he had received a dagger thrust, . . his very lips turned pale in the moonlight.
"The KING?" he echoed, with an accent of incredulous amazement ... "The King? ... thou art mad! ... it could not be! Where didst thou see him?"
In silence Theos pointed to the dark shrubbery. Sahluma shook himself free of his friend's hold, and, standing erect, gazed in the direction indicated, with an expression of mingled fear, distrust, bewilderment, and wrath on his features, . . he was suddenly but effectually sobered, and all the delicate beauty of his face came back like the rich tone of a fine picture restored. His hand fell instinctively toward the jewelled hilt of the poniard at his belt.
"The King?" he muttered under his breath, ... "The King? ... Then.. is Khosrul right after all, and must one learn wisdom from a madman? ... By my soul! ... If I thought..." Here he checked himself abruptly and turned upon Theos ... "Nay, thou art deceived!" he said with a forced smile.. "'Twas not the King! ... 'twas some rash, unknown intruder whose worthless life must pay the penalty of trespass!"—and he drew his flashing weapon from his sheath.. "THIS shall unmask him! ... And thou, my friend, get thee away and home, . . fear nothing for my safety! ... go hence and quickly; I'll follow thee anon!"
And before Theos could utter a word of warning, he plunged impetuously into the innermost recess of the dense foliage behind which the mysterious armed figure had just vanished, and was instantly lost to sight.
"Sah-luma! ... Sah-luma!"—called Theos passionately ... "Come back! Whether wilt thou go? ... Sah-luma!"
Only silence answered him,—silence rendered even more profound by the subdued, faint rustling of the wind among the leaves,—and agitated by all manner of vague alarms and dreary forebodings, he stood still for a moment hesitating as to whether he should follow his friend or no. Some instinct stronger than himself, however, persuaded him that it would be best to continue his road,—he therefore went on slowly, hoping against hope that Sah-luma might still rejoin him,—but herein he was disappointed. He waited a little while near the illuminated water, dreamily eying the beautiful marble nymph crowned with her wreath of amethystine flame, . . she resembled Lysia somewhat, he thought,—only this was a frozen fairness, while the peerless charms of the cruel High Priestess were those of living flesh and blood. Yet the remembrance of all the tenderly witching loveliness that might have been his, had he slain Sah-luma at her bidding, now moved him neither to regret nor lover's passion, but only touched his spirit with a sense of bitter repulsion, . . while a strange pity for the Poet Laureate's infatuation awoke in him,—pity that any man could he so reckless, blind, and desperate as to love a woman for her mere perishable beauty of body, and never care to know whether the graces of her mind were equal to the graces of her form.
"We men have yet to learn the true meaning of love,"—he mused rather sadly—"We consider it from the selfish standpoint of our own unbridled passions,—we willingly accept a fair face as the visible reflex of a fair soul, and nine times out of ten, we are utterly mistaken! We begin wrongly, and we therefore end miserably,—we should love a woman for what she IS, and not for what she appears to be. Yet, how are we to fathom her nature? how shall we guess, . . how can we decide? Are we fooled by an evil fate?—or do we in our loves and marriages deliberately fool ourselves?"
He pondered the question hazily without arriving at any satisfactory answer, . . and as Sah-luma still did not return, he resumed his slow, unguided, and solitary way. He presently found himself in a close boscage of tall trees straight as pines, and covered with very large, thick leaves that exhaled a peculiarly faint odor,—and here, pausing abruptly, he looked anxiously about him. This was certainly not the avenue through which he had previously come with Sah-luma, . . and he soon felt uncomfortably convinced that he had somehow taken the wrong path. Perceiving a low iron gate standing open in front of him, he went thither and discovered a steep stone staircase leading down, down into what seemed to be a vast well, black and empty as a starless midnight. Peering doubtfully into this gloomy pit, he fancied he saw a small, blue flame wavering to and fro at the bottom, and, pricked by a sudden impulse of curiosity, he made up his mind to descend.
He went down slowly and cautiously, counting each step as he placed his foot upon it, . . there were a hundred steps in all, and at the end the light he had seen completely vanished, leaving him in the most profound darkness. Confused and startled, he stretched out his hands instinctively as a blind man might do, and thus came in contact with something sharp, pointed, and icy cold like the frozen talon of a dead bird. Shuddering at the touch, he recoiled,—and was about to try and grope his way up the stairs again, when the light once more appeared, this time casting a thin, slanting, azure blaze through the dense shadows,—and he was able gradually to realize the horrors of the place into which he had unwittingly adventured. One faint cry escaped his lips,—and then he was mute and motionless,—chilled to the very heart. A great awe and speechless dread overwhelmed him, . . for he—a living man and fully conscious of life—stood alone, surrounded by a ghastly multitude of skeletons, skeletons bleached white as ivory and glistening with a smooth, moist polish as of pearl. Shoulder to shoulder, arm against arm, they stood, placed upright, and as close together as possible,—every bony hand held a rusty spear,— and on every skull gleamed a small metal casque inscribed with hieroglyphic characters. Thousands of eyeless sockets seemed to turn toward him in blank yet questioning wonder, suggesting awfully to his mind that the eyes might still be there, fallen far back into the head from whence they yet SAW, themselves unseen,— thousands of grinning jaws seemed to mock at him, as he leaned half-fainting against the damp, weed-grown portal,—he fancied he could hear the derisive laugh of death echoing horribly through those dimly distant arches! This, . . this, he thought wildly, was the sequel to his brief and wretched history! ... for this one end he had wandered out of the ways of his former life, and forgotten almost all he had ever known,—here was the only poor finale an all-wise and all-potent God could contrive for the close of His marvelous symphony of creative Love and Light! ... Ah, cruel, cruel! Then there was no justice, no pity, no compensation in all the width and breadth of the Universe, if Death indeed was the end of everything!—and God or the great Force called by that name was nothing but a Tyrant and Torturer of His helpless creature, Man! So thinking, dully and feebly, he pressed his hand on his aching eyes, to shut out the sight of that grim crowd of fleshless, rigid Shapes that everywhere confronted him, . . the darkness of the place seemed to descend upon him crushingly, and, reeling forward, he would have fallen in a swoon, had not a strong hand suddenly grasped his arm and supported him firmly upright.
"How now, my son!"—said a grave, musical voice that had in it a certain touch of compassion, . . "What ails thee? ... and why art thou here? Art thou condemned to die! ... or dost thou seek an escape from death?"
Making an effort to overcome the sick giddiness that confused his brain, he looked up,—a bright lamp flared in his eyes, contrasting so dazzlingly with the surrounding gloom that for a moment he was half-blinded by its brilliancy, but presently steadying his gaze he was able to discern the dark outline of a tall, black-garmented figure standing beside him,—the figure of an old man, whose severe and dignified aspect at first reminded him somewhat of the prophet Khosrul. Only that Khosrul's rugged features had borne the impress of patient, long-endured, bitter suffering, and the personage who now confronted him had a face so calm and seriously impassive that it might have been taken for that of one newly dead, from whose lineaments all traces of earthly passion had forever been smoothed away.
"Art thou condemned to die, or dost thou seek an escape from death?" The question had, or seemed to have, a curious significance,—it reiterated itself almost noisily in his ears,— his mind was troubled by vague surmises and dreary forebodings,— speech was difficult to him, and his lips quivered pathetically, when he at last found force to frame his struggling thoughts into language.
"Escape from death!" he murmured, gazing wildly around as he spoke, on the vast skeleton crowd that encircled him.. "Old man, dost thou also talk of dream-like impossibilities? Wilt thou also maintain a creed of hope when naught awaits us but despair? Art thou fooled likewise with the glimmering Soul-mirage of a never- to-be-realized future? ... Escape from death? ... How?—and where! Art not these dry and vacant forms sufficiently eloquent of the all-omnipotence of Decay?" ... and he caught his unknown companion almost fiercely by the long robe, while a sound that was half a sob and half a sigh came from his aching throat.. "Lo you, how emptily they stare upon us! ... how frozen-piteous is their smile! ... Poor, poor frail shapes! ... nay!—who would think these hollow shells of bone had once been men! Men with strong hearts, warm-flowing blood, and throbbing pulses, . . men of thought and action, who maybe did most nobly bear themselves in life upon the earth, and yet are now forgotten, . . men—ah, great Heaven! can it be that these most rueful, loathly things have loved, and hoped, and labored through all their days for such an end as this! Escape from death! ... alas, there is no escape, . . 'tis evident we all must die, . . die, and with dust-quenched eyes unlearn our knowledge of the sun, the stars, the marvels of the universe,—for us no more shall the flowers bloom or the sweet birds sing; the poem of the world will write itself anew in every roseate flushing of the dawn,—but we,—we who have joyed therein,—we who have sung the praises of the light, the harmonies of wind and sea, the tunefulness of woods and fields,—we whose ambitious thoughts have soared archangel-like through unseen empyreans of space, there to drink in a honeyed hope of Heaven,—we shall be but DEAD! ... mute, cold, and stirless as deep, undug stones, . . dead! ... Ah God, thou Utmost Cruelty!"—and in a sudden access of grief and passion he raised one hand and shook it aloft with a menacing gesture—"Would I might look upon Thee face to face, and rebuke Thee for Thy merciless injustice!"
He spoke wildly as though possessed by a sort of frenzy,—his unknown companion heard him with an air of mild and pitying patience.
"Peace—peace! Blaspheme not the Most High, my son!" he said gently, yet reproachfully. "Distraught as thou dost seem with some strange misery, and sick with fears, forbear thine ignorant fury against Him who hath for love's dear sake alone created thee. Control thy soul in patience!—surely thou art afflicted by thine own vain and false imaginings, which for a time contort and darken the clear light of truth. Why dost thou thus disquiet thyself concerning the end of life, seeing that verily it hath NO end? ... and that what we men call death is not a conclusion but merely a new beginning? Waste not thy pity on these skeleton forms,—the empty dwellings of martial spirits long since fled, . . as well weep over fallen husks of corn from which the blossoms have sprung right joyously upward! This world is but our roadside hostelry, wherein we heaven-bound sojourners tarry for one brief, restless night,—why regret the loss of the poor refreshment offered thee here, when there are a thousand better feasts awaiting thee elsewhere on thy way? Come,—let me lead thee hence, . . this place is known as the Passage of the Tombs,—and communicates with the Inner Court of the Sacred Temple,—and if, as I fear, thou art a stray fugitive from the accursed Lysia's band of lovers, thou mayest be tracked hither and quickly slain. Come,—I will show thee a secret labyrinth by which thou canst gain the embankment of the river, and from thence betake thyself speedily home, . . if thou hast a home..." here he paused, and a keen, questioning glance flashed in his dark eyes. "But,—notwithstanding thy fluency of speech and fashion of attire, methinks thou hast the lost and solitary air of one who is a stranger in the city of Al-Kyris?"