His voice broke, . . his head drooped, . . while Theos, whose every nerve throbbed in responsive sympathy with the passion of his despair, strove to think of some word of comfort, that like soothing balm might temper the bitterness of his chafed and wounded spirit, but could find none. For it was a case in which the truth must be told, . . and truth is always hard to bear if it destroys, or attempts to destroy, any one of our cherished self- delusions!
"My friend, my friend!" he said presently with gentle earnestness,—"Control this fury of thy heart! ... Why such unmanly sorrow for one who is not worthy of thee?"
Sah-luma looked up,—his black, silky lashes were wet with tears.
"Not worthy! ... Oh, the old poor consolation!" he exclaimed, quickly dashing the drops from his eyes, . . "Not worthy?—No! ... what mortal woman IS ever worthy of a poet's love?—Not one in all the world! Nevertheless, worthy or unworthy, true or treacherous, naught can make Lysia otherwise than fair! Fair beyond all fairness! ... and I—I was sole possessor of her beauty!—for me her eyes warmed into stars of fire,—for me her kisses ripened in their pearl and ruby nest, . . all—all for me!—and now! ... "He flung himself desolately on his couch, and fixed his wistful gaze on his companion's grave, pained countenance,—till all at once a hopeful light flashed across his features, . . a light that seemed to shine through him like an inwardly kindled flame.
"Ah! what a querulous fool am I!" he cried, joyously,—so joyously that Theos knew not whether to be glad or sorry at his sudden and capricious change of mood.. "why should I thus bemoan myself for fancied wrong?—Good, noble Theos, thou hast been misled!—My Lysia's words were but to try thy mettle! ... to test thee to the core, and prove thee truly faithful as Sah-luma's friend! She bade thee slay me! ... Even so!—but hadst thou rashly undertaken such a deed, thine own life would have paid the forfeit! Now I begin to understand it all—'tis plain!"—and his face grew brighter and brighter, as he cheated himself into the pleasing idea his own fancy had suggested.. "She tried thee,—she tempted thee, . . she found thee true and incorruptible.. Ah! 'twas a jest, my friend!" —and entirely recovering from his depression, he clapped his hand heartily on Theos's shoulder—"'Twas all a jest!—and she the fair inquisitor will herself prove it so ere long, and make merry with our ill-omened fears! Why, I can laugh now at mine own despondency!—come, look thou also more cheerily, gentle Theos,— and pardon these uncivil fingers that so nearly gripped thee into silence!"—and he laughed—"Thou art the best and kindest of loyal comrades, and I will so assure Lysia of thy merit, that she shall institute no more torture-trials upon thy frank and trusting nature. Heigho!"—and stretching out his arms lazily, he heaved a sigh of tranquil satisfaction—"Methought I was wounded into death! but 'twas the mere fancied prick of an arrow after all, and I am well again! What, art thou still melancholy! ... still sombre! ... Nay, surely thou wilt not be a veritable kill-joy!"
Theos stood mute and sorely perplexed. He saw at once how useless it was now to try and convince Sah luma of any danger threatening him through the instigation of the woman he loved,—he would never believe it! And yet ... something must be done to put him on his guard. Taking up the scroll of the public news, where the account of the finding of the body of Nir-jalis was written with all that exaggerated attention to repulsive details which seems to be a special gift of the cheap re-porters, Theos pointed to it.
"His was a cruel end!"—he said in a low, uncertain voice,—"Sah- luma, canst thou expect mercy from a woman who has once been so merciless?"
"Bah!" returned the Laureate lightly. "Who and what was Nir-jalis? A hewer of stone images—a no-body!—he will not be missed! Besides, he is only one of many who have perished thus."
"Only one of many!" ejaculated Theos with a shudder of aversion.. "And yet, . . O thou most reckless and misguided soul! ... thou dost love this wanton murderess!"
A warm flush tinted Sah-luma's olive skin,—his hands clenched and unclenched slowly as though he held some struggling, prisoned thing, and raising his head he looked at his companion full and steady with a singularly solemn and reproving expression in his luminous eyes.
"Hast THOU not loved her also?" he demanded, a faint, serious smile curving his lips as he spoke, . . "If only for the space of some few passing moments, was not thy soul ravished, thy heart enslaved, thy manhood conquered by her spell? ... Aye! ... Thou dost shrink at that!" And his smile deepened as Theos, suddenly conscience-stricken, avoided his friend's too-scrutinizing gaze.. "Blame ME not, therefore, for THINE OWN weakness!"
He paused.. then went on slowly with a meditative air.. "I love her, ... yes!—as a man must always love the woman that baffles him, ... the woman whose moods are complex and fluctuating as the winds on the sea,—and whose humor sways between the softness of the dove and the fierceness of the tiger. Nothing is more fatally fascinating to the masculine sense than such a creature,—more especially if to this temperament is united rare physical grace, combined with keen intellectual power. 'Tis vain to struggle against the irresistible witchery exercised over us by the commingling of beauty and ferocity,—we see it in the wild animals of the forest and the high-soaring birds of the air,—and we like nothing better than to hunt it, capture it, tame it.. or.. kill it—as suits our pleasure!"
He paused again,—and again smiled, . . a grave, reluctant, doubting smile such as seemed to Theos oddly familiar, suggesting to his bewildered fancy that he must have seen it before, ON HIS OWN FACE, reflected in a mirror!
"Even thus do I love Lysia!" continued Sah-luma—"She perplexes me, . . she opposes her will to mine, ... the very irritation and ferment into which I am thrown by her presence adds fire to my genius, . . and but for the spur of this never-satiated passion, who knows whether I should sing so well!"
He was silent for a little space—then he resumed in a more ordinary tone:
"The wretched Nir-jalis, whose fate thou dost so persistently deplore, deserved his end for his presumption, ... didst thou not hear his insolent insinuation concerning the King?"
"I heard it—yes!" replied Theos—"And I saw no harm in the manner of his utterance."
"No harm!" exclaimed Sah-luma excitedly—"No harm! Nay, but I forget! ... thou art a stranger in Al-Kyris, and therefore thou art ignorant of the last words spoken by the Sacred Oracle some hundred years or more ago. They are these:
"'When the High Priestess Is the King's mistress Then fall Al-Kyris!'
'Tis absolute doggerel, and senseless withal,—nevertheless, it has caused the enactment of a Law, which is to the effect that the reigning monarch of Al-Kyris shall never, under any sort of pretext, confer with the High Priestess of the Temple on any business whatsoever,—and that, furthermore, he shall never be permitted to look upon her face except at times of public service and state ceremonials. Now dost thou not at once perceive how vile were the suggestions of Nir-jalis, . . and also how foolish was thy fancy last night with regard to the armed masquerader thou didst see in Lysia's garden?"
Theos made no reply, but sat absorbed in his own reflections. He began now to understand much that had before seemed doubtful and mysterious,—no wonder, he thought, that Zephoranim's fury against the audacious Khosrul had been so excessive! For had not the crazed Prophet called Lysia an "unvirgined virgin and Queen- Courtesan"? ... and, according to Sah-luma's present explanation, nothing more dire and offensive in the way of open blasphemy could be uttered! Yet the question still remained—, was Khosrul right or wrong? This was a problem which Theos longed to investigate and yet recoiled from,—instinctively he felt that upon its answer hung the fate of Al-Kyris,—and also, what just then seemed more precious than anything else,—the life of Sah-luma. He could not decide with himself WHY this was so,—he simply accepted his own inward assurance that so it was. Presently he inquired:
"How comes it, Sah-luma, that the corpse of Nir-jalis was found on the shores of the river? Did we not see it weighted with iron and laid elsewhere ... ?"
"O simpleton!" laughed Sah-luma—"Thinkest thou Lysia's lake of lilies is a common grave for criminals? The body of Nir-jalis sank therein, 'tis true, . . but was there no after-means of lifting it from thence, and placing it where best such carrion should be found? Hath not the High Priestess of Nagaya slaves enough to work her will? ... Verily thou dost trouble thyself overmuch concerning these trivial every-day occurences,—I marvel at thee!—Hundreds have drained the Silver Nectar gladly for so fair a woman's sake, —hundreds will drain it gladly still for the mere privilege of living some brief days in the presence of such peerless beauty! ... But,—speaking of the river—didst thou remark it on thy way hither?"
"Aye!" responded Theos dreamily—"'Twas red as blood"!"
"Strange!" and Sah-luma looked thoughtful for an instant, then rousing himself, said lightly, "'Tis from some simple cause, no doubt—yet 'twill create a silly panic in the city—and all the fanatics for Khosrul's new creed will creep forth, shouting afresh their prognostications of death and doom. By my faith, 'twill be a most desperate howling! ... and I'll not walk abroad till the terror hath abated. Moreover, I have work to do,—some lately budded thoughts of mine have ripened into glorious conclusion,— and Zabastes hath orders presently to attend me that he may take my lines down from mine own dictation. Thou shalt hear a most choice legend of love an thou wilt listen—" here he laid his hand affectionately on Theos's shoulder—"a legend set about, methinks, with wondrous jewels of poetic splendor! ... 'tis a rare privilege I offer thee, my friend, for as a rule Zabastes is my only auditor,—but I would swear thou art no plagiarist, and wouldst not dishonor thine own intelligence so far as to filch pearls of fancy from another minstrel! As well steal my garments as my thoughts!—for verily the thoughts are the garments of the poet's soul,—and the common thief of things petty and material is no whit more contemptible than he who robs an author of ideas wherein to deck the bareness of his own poor wit! Come, place thyself at ease upon this cushioned couch, and give me thy attention, ... I feel the fervor rising within me, ... I will summon Zabastes, ... " Here he pulled a small silken cord which at once set a clanging bell echoing loudly through the palace, ... "And thou shalt freely hear, and freely judge, the last offspring of my fertile genius,—my lyrical romance 'Nourhalma!'" Theos started violently, ... he had the greatest difficulty to restrain the anguished cry that arose to his lips. "Nourhalma!" O memory! ... slow-filtering, reluctant memory! ... why, why was his brain thus tortured with these conflicting pang, of piteous recollection! Little by little, like sharp deep stabs of nervous suffering, there came back to him a few faint, fragmentary suggestions which gradually formed themselves into a distinct and comprehensive certainty, . . "Nourhalma" was the title of HIS OWN POEM,—the poem HE had written, surely not so very long ago, among the mountains of the Pass of Dariel!
His first emotion on making this new mental rediscovery was, as it had been before in the King's audience-hall, one of absolute TERROR, ... feverish, mad terror which for a few moments possessed him so utterly that, turning away, he buried his aching head among the cushion where he reclined, in order to hide from his companion's eyes any outward sign that might betray his desperate misery. Clenching his hands convulsively, he silently, and with all his strength, combated the awful horror of himself that grew up spectrally within him,—the dreadful, distracting uncertainty of his own identity that again confused his brain and paralyzed his reason.
At last, he thought wildly, at last he knew the meaning of Hell! ... the frightful spiritual torment of a baffled intelligence set adrift among the wrecks and shadows of things that had formerly been its pride and glory! What was any physical suffering compared to such a frenzy of mind-agony? Nothing! ... less than nothing! This was the everlasting thirst and fire spoken of so vaguely by prophets and preachers,—the thirst and fire of the Soul's unquenchable longing to unravel the dismal tangle of its own bygone deeds, . . the striving forever in vain to steadfastly establish the wavering mystery of its own existence!
"O God! ... God!—what hast Thou made of me!" he groaned inwardly, as he endeavored to calm the tempest of his unutterable despair,— "Who am I? ... Who WAS I in that far Past which, like the pale spirit of a murdered friend, haunts me so indistinctly yet so threateningly! Surely the gift of Poesy was mine! ... surely I too could weave the harmony of words and thoughts into a sweet and fitting music, . . how comes it then that all Sah-luma's work is but the reflex of my own? O woeful, strange, and bitter enigma! ... when shall it be unraveled? 'Nourhalma!' 'Twas the name of what I deemed my masterpiece! ... O silly masterpiece, if it prove thus easy of imitation! ... Yet stay.. let me be patient! ... titles are often copied unconsciously by different authors in different lands, . . and it may chance that Sah-luma's poem is after all his own,—not mine. Not mine, as were the ballads and the love-ode he chanted to the King last night! ... O Destiny! ... inscrutable, pitiless Destiny! ... rescue my tortured soul from chaos! ... declare unto me who,—WHO is the plagiarist and thief of Song.. MYSELF or SAH-LUMA?"
The more he perplexed his mind with such questions, the deeper grew the darkness of the inexplicable dilemma, to which a fresh obscurity was now added in his suddenly distinct and distressful remembrance of the "Pass of Dariel." Where was this place, he wondered wearily?—When had he seen it? whom had he met there?— and how had he come to Al-Kyris from thence? No answer could his vexed brain shape to these demands, . . he recollected the "Pass of Dariel" just as he recollected the "Field of Ardath"—without the least idea as to what connection existed between them and his own personal adventures. Presently controlling himself, he raised his head and ventured to look up,—Sah-luma stood beside him, his fine face expressive of an amiable solicitude.
"Was the sunshine too strong, my friend, that thou didst thus bury thine eyes in thy pillow?" he inquired ... "Pardon my discourteous lack of consideration for thy comfort! ... I love the sun myself so well that methinks I could meet his burning rays at full noon- day and yet take pleasure in the warmth of such a golden smile! But thou perchance art unaccustomed to the light of Eastern lands,—wherefore thy brows must not be permitted to ache on, uncared for. See!—I have lowered the awnings, . . they give a pleasant shade,—and in very truth, the heat to-day is greater far than ordinary; one would think the gods had kindled some new fire in heaven!"
And as he spoke he took up a long palm-leaf fan and waved it to and fro with an exquisitely graceful movement of wrist and arm, while Theos gazing at him in mute admiration, forgot his own griefs for the time in the subtle, strange, and absorbing spell exercised upon him by his host's irresistible influence. Just then, too, Sah-luma appeared handsomer than ever in the half- subdued tints of radiance that flickered through the lowered pale- blue silken awnings: the effect of the room thus shadowed was as of a soft azure mountain mist lit sideways by the sun,—a mist through which the white-garmented, symmetrical figure of the Laureate stood forth in curiously brilliant outlines, as though every curve of supple shoulder and proud throat was traced with a pencil of pure light. Scarcely a breath of air made its way through the wide-open casements—the gentle dashing noise of the fountains in the court alone disturbed the deep, warm stillness of the morning, or the occasional sweeping rustle of peacocks' plumes as these stately birds strutted majestically up and down, up and down, on the marble terrace outside.
Soothed by the luxurious peace of his surroundings, the delirium of Theos's bewildering affliction gradually abated,—his tempest- tossed mind regained to a certain extent its equilibrium,—and falling into easy converse with his fascinating companion, he was soon himself again,—that is, as much himself as his peculiar condition permitted him to be. Yet he was not altogether free from a certain eager and decidedly painful suspense with regard to the "Nourhalma" problem,—and he was conscious of what he in his own opinion considered an absurd and unnecessary degree of excitement, when the door of the apartment presently opened to admit Zabastes, who entered, carrying several sheets of papyrus and other material for writing.
The old Critic's countenance was expressively glum and ironical,— he, however, was compelled, like all the other paid servants of the household, to make a low and respectful obeisance as soon as he found himself in Sah-luma's presence,—an act of homage which, he performed awkwardly, and with evident ill-will. His master nodded condescendingly in response to his reluctant salute, and signed to him to take his place at a richly carved writing-table adorned with the climbing figures of winged cupids exquisitely wrought in ivory. He obeyed, shuffling thither uneasily, and sniffing the rose-fragrant air as he went like an ill-conditioned cur scenting a foe,—and seating himself in a high-backed chair, he arranged his garments fussily about him, rolled up his long embroidered sleeves to the elbow, and spread his writing implements all over the desk in front of him with much mock-solemn ostentation. Then, rubbing his lean hands together, he gave a stealthy glance of covert derision round at Sah-luma and Theos,—a glance which Theos saw and in his heart resented, but which Sah- luma, absorbed in his own reflections, apparently failed to notice.
"All is in readiness, my lord!" he announced in his disagreeable croaking tones,—"Here are the clean and harmless slips of river- reed waiting to be soiled and spotted with my lord's indelible thoughts,—here also are the innocent quills of the white heron, as yet unstained by colored writing-fluid whether black, red, gold, silver, or purple! Mark you, most illustrious bard, the touching helplessness and purity of these meek servants of a scribbler's fancy! ... Blank papyrus and empty quills! Bethink you seriously whether it were not better to leave them thus unblemished, the simple products of unfaulty Nature, than use them to indite the wondrous things of my lord's imagination, whereof, all wondrous though they seem, no man shall ever be the wiser!"
And he chuckled, stroking his stubbly gray beard the while with a blandly suggestive, yet malign look directed at Sah-luma, who met it with a slight, cold smile of faintly amused contempt.
"Peace, fool!" he said,—"That barbarous tongue of thine is like the imperfect clapper of a broken bell that strikes forth harsh and undesired sounds suggesting nothing! Thy present duty is to hear, and not to speak,—therefore listen discerningly and write with exactitude, so shall thy poor blank scrolls of reed grow rich with gems, . . gems of high poesy that the whole world shall hoard and cherish miser-like when the poet who created their bright splendor is no more!"
He sighed—a short, troubled sigh,—and stood for a moment silent in an attitude of pensive thought. Theos watched him yearningly,— waiting in almost breathless suspense till he should dictate aloud the first line of his poem. Zabastes meanwhile settled himself more comfortably in his chair, and taking up one of the long quills with which he was provided, dipped it in a reddish-purple liquid which at once stained its point to a deep roseate hue, so that when the light flickered upon it from time to time, it appeared as though it were tipped with fire. How intense the heat was, thought Theos!—as with one hand he pushed his clustering hair from his brow, not without noticing that his action was imitated almost at once by Sah-luma, who also seemed to feel the oppressiveness of the atmosphere. And what a blaze of blue pervaded the room! ... delicate ethereal blue as of shimmering lakes and summer skies melted together into one luminous radiance, ... radiance that, while filmy, was yet perfectly transparent, and in which the Laureate's classic form appeared to be gloriously enveloped like that of some new descended god!
Theos rubbed his eyes to cure them of their dazzled ache, . . what a marvellous scene it was to look upon, he mused! ... would he,— could he ever forget it? Ah no!—never, never! not till his dying day would he be able to obliterate it from his memory,—and who could tell whether even after death he might not still recall it! Just then Sah-luma raised his hand by way of signal to Zabastes, . . his face became earnest, pathetic, even grand in the fervent concentration of his thoughts, ... he was about to begin his dictation, ... now ... now! ... and Theos leaned forward nervously, his heart beating with apprehensive expectation ... Hush! ... the delicious, suave melody of his friend's voice penetrated the silence like the sweet harmonic of a harp-string..
"Write—" said he slowly.. "write first the title of my poem thus: 'Nourhalma: A Love-Legend of the Past.'"
There was a pause, during which the pen of Zabastes traveled quickly over the papyrus for a moment, then stopped. Theos, almost suffocated with anxiety, could hardly maintain even the appearance of calmness,—the title proclaimed, with its second appendage, was precisely the same as that of his own work—but this did not now affect him so much. What he waited for with such painfully strained attention was the first line of the poem. If it was his line he knew it already!—it ran thus:
"A central sorrow dwells in perfect joy!—"
Scarcely had he repeated this to himself inwardly, than Sah-luma, with majestic grace and sweetness of utterance, dictated aloud:
"A central sorrow dwells in perfect joy!"
The sharp cry, half fierce, half despairing, broke from Theos's quivering lips in spite of all the efforts he made to control his agitation, and the Laureate turned toward him with a surprised and somewhat irritated movement that plainly evinced annoyance at the interruption.
"Pardon, Sah-luma!" he murmured hastily. "'Twas a slight pang at the heart troubled me,—a mere nothing!—I take shame to myself to have cried out for such a pin's prick! Speak on!—thy first line is as soft as honey dew,—as suggestive as the light of dawn on sleeping flowers!"
And, leaning dizzily back on his couch, he closed his eyes to shut in the hot and bitter tears that welled up rebelliously and threatened to fall, notwithstanding his endeavor to restrain them. His head throbbed and burned as though a chaplet of fiery thorns encircled it, instead of the once desired crown of Fame he had so fondly dreamed of winning!
Fame? ... Alas! that bright, delusive vision had fled forever,— there were no glory-laurels left growing for him in the fields of poetic art and aspiration,—Sah-luma, the fortunate Sah-luma, had gathered and possessed them all! Taking everything into serious consideration, he came at last to the deeply mortifying conclusion that it must be himself who was the plagiarist,—the unconscious imitator of Sah-luma's ideas and methods, . . and the worst of it was that his imitation was so terribly EXACT!
Oh, how heartily he despised himself for his poor and pitiful lack of originality! Down to the very depths of humiliation he sternly abased his complaining, struggling, wounded, and sorely resentful spirit, . . he then and there became the merciless executioner of his own claims to literary honor,—and deliberately crushing all his past ambition, mutinous discontent and uncompliant desires with a strong master-hand he lay quiet...as patiently unmoved as is a dead man to the wrongs inflicted on his memory...and forced himself to listen resignedly to every glowing line of his, . . no, not his, but Sah-luma's poem, . . the lovely, gracious, delicate, entrancing poem he remembered so well! And by and by, as each mellifluous stanza sounded softly on his ears, a strangely solemn tranquillity swept over him,—a most soothing halcyon calm, as though some passing angel's hand had touched his brow in benediction.
He looked at Sah-luma, not enviously now but all admiringly,—it seemed to him that he had never heard a sweeter, tenderer music than the story of "Nourhalma" as recited by his friend. And so to that friend he silently awarded his own wished-for glory, praise, and everlasting fame!—that glory, praise, and fame which had formerly allured his fancy as being the best of all the world could offer, but which he now entirely and willingly relinquished in favor of this more deserving and dear comrade, whose superior genius he submissively acknowledged!
There was a great quietness everywhere,—the rising and falling inflections of Sah-luma's soft, rich voice rather, deepened than disturbed the stillness,—the pen of Zabastes glided noiselessly over the slips of papyrus,—and the small sounds of the outer air, such as the monotonous hum of bees among the masses of lily-bloom that towered in white clusters between the festooned awnings, the thirsty twitterimg of birds hiding under the long palm leaves to shelter themselves from the heat, and the incessant splash of the fountains, ... all seemed to be, as it were, mere appendages to enhance the breathless hush of nature. Presently Sah-luma paused, —and Zabastes, heaving a sigh of relief, looked up from his writing, and laid down his pen.
'The work is finished, most illustrious?" he demanded, a curious smile playing on his thin, satirical lips.
"Finished?" echoed Sah-luma disdainfully—"Nay,—'tis but the end of the First Canto"
The scribe gave vent to a dismal groan.
"Ye gods!" he exclaimed—"Is there more to come of this bombastic ranting and vile torturing of phrases unheard of and altogether unnatural! O Sah-luma!—marvellous Sah-luma! twaddler Sah-luma! what a brain box is thine! ... How full of dislocated word-puzzles and similes gone mad! Now, as I live, expect no mercy from me this time!".. and he shook his head threateningly,—"For if the public news sheet will serve me as mine anvil, I will so pound thee in pieces with the sledge-hammer of my criticism, that, by the Ship of the Sun! ... for once Al-Kyns shall be moved to laughter at thee! Mark me, good tuner-up of tinkling foolishness! ... I will so choose out and handle thy feeblest lines that they shall seem but the doggerel of a street ballad monger! I will give so bald an epitome of this sickly love-tale that it shall appeal to all who read my commentary the veriest trash that ever poet penned! ... Moreover, I can most admirably misquote thee, and distort thy meanings with such excellent bitter jesting, that thou thyself shall scarcely recognize thine own production! By Nagaya's Shrine! what a feast 'twill be for my delectation!"—and he rubbed his hands gleefully—"With what a weight of withering analysis I can pulverize this idol of 'Nourhalma' into the dust and ashes of a common sense contempt!"
While Zabastes thus spoke, Sah-luma had helped himself, by way of refreshment, to two ripe figs, in whose luscious crimson pulp his white teeth met, with all the enjoying zest of a child's healthy appetite. He now held up the rind and stalks of these devoured delicacies, and smiled.
'Thus wilt thou swallow up my poem in thy glib clumsiness, Zabastes!" he said lightly—"And thus wilt them hold up the most tasteless portions of the whole for the judgment of the public! 'Tis the manner of thy craft,—yet see!"—and with a dexterous movement of his arm he threw the fruit-peel through the window far out into the garden beyond—"There goes thy famous criticism!" and he laughed.. "And those that taste the fruit itself at first hand will not soon forget its flavor! Nevertheless I hope indeed that thou wilt strive to slaughter me with thy blunt paper sword! I do most mirthfully relish the one-sided combat, in which I stand in silence to receive thy blows, myself unhurt and tranquil as a marble god whom ruffians rail upon! Do I not pay thee to abuse me? ... here, thou crusty soul!—drink and be content!"—And with a charming condescension he handed a full goblet of wine to his cantankerous Critic, who accepted it ungraciously, muttering in his beard the necessary words of thanks for his master's consideration,—then, turning to Theos, the Laureate continued:
"And thou, my friend, what dost thou think of 'Nourhalma' so far? Hath it not a certain exquisite smoothness of rhythm like the ripple of a woodland stream clear-winding through the reeds? ... and is there not a tender witchery in the delineation of my maiden-heroine, so warmly fair, so wildly passionate? Methinks she doth resemble some rich flower of our tropic fields, blooming at sunset and dead at moonrise!"
Theos waited a moment before replying. Truth to tell, he was inwardly overcome with shame to remember how wantonly he had copied the description of this same Nourhalma! ... and plaintively he wondered how he could have unconsciously committed so flagrant a theft! Summoning up all his self-possession, however, he answered bravely.
"Thy work, Sah-luma, is worthy of thyself! ... need I say more? ... Thou hast most aptly proved thy claim upon, the whole world's gratitude, ... such lofty thoughts, . . such noble discourse upon love,—such high philosophy, wherein the deepest, dearest dreams of life are grandly pictured in enduring colors,—these things are gifts to poor humanity whereby it MUST become enriched and proud! Thy name, bright soul, shall be as a quenchless star on the dark brows of melancholy Time, . . men gazing thereat shall wonder and adore,—and even I, the least among thy friends, may also win from thee a share of glory! For, simply to know thee,—to listen to thy heaven-inspired utterance, might bring the most renownless student some reflex of thine honor! Yes, thou art great, Sah-luma! ... great as the greatest of earth's gifted sons of song!—and with all my heart I offer thee my homage, and pride myself upon the splendor of thy fame!"
And as the eager, enthusiastic words came from his lips, he beheld Sah-luma's beautiful countenance brighten more and more, till it appeared mysteriously transfigured into a majestic Angel-face that for one brief moment startled him by the divine tenderness of its compassionate smile! This expression, however, was transitory,—it passed, and the dark eyes of the Laureate gleamed with a merely serene and affectionate complacency as he said:
"I thank thee for thy praise, good Theos!—thou art indeed the friendliest of critics! Hadst thou THYSELF been the author of 'Nourhalma' thou couldst not have spoken with more ardent feeling! Were Zabastes like thee, discerningly just and reasonable, he would be all unfit for his vocation,—for 'tis an odd circumstance that praise in the public news-sheet does a writer more harm than good, while ill-conditioned and malicious abuse doth very materially increase and strengthen his reputation. Yet, after all, there is a certain sense in the argument,—for if much eulogy be penned by the cheap scribes, the reading populace at once imagine these fellows have been bribed to give their over-zealous approval, or that they are close friends and banquet-comrades of the author whom they arduously uphold, . . whereas, on the contrary, if they indulge in bitter invective, flippant gibing, or clumsy satire, like my amiable Zabsastes here..." and he made an airy gesture toward the silent yet evidently chafing Critic, .."(and, mark you!-HE is not bribed, but merely paid fair wages to fulfil his chosen and professed calling)—why, thereupon the multitude exclaim—'What! this poet hath such enemies?—nay, then, how great a genius he must be!"—and forthwith they clamor for his work, which, if it speak not for itself, is then and only then to be deemed faulty, and meriting oblivion. 'Tis the People's verdict which alone gives fame."
"And yet the people are often ignorant of what is noblest and best in literature!" observed Theos musingly.
"Ignorant in some ways, yes!" agreed Sah-luma—"But in many others, no! They may be ignorant as to WHY they admire a certain thing, yet they admire it all the same, because their natural instinct leads them so to do. And this is the special gift which endows the uncultured masses with an occasional sweeping advantage over the cultured few,—the superiority of their INSTINCT. As in cases of political revolution for example,—while the finely educated orator is endeavoring by all the force of artful rhetoric to prove that all is in order and as it should be, the mob, moved by one tremendous impulse, discover for themselves that everything is wrong, and moreover that nothing will come right, unless they rise up and take authority, . . accordingly, down go the thrones and the colleges, the palaces, the temples, and the law-assemblies, all like so many toys before the resistless instinct of the people, who revolt at injustice, and who feel and know when they are injured, though they are not clever enough to explain WHERE their injury lies. And so, as they cannot talk about it coherently, any more than a lion struck by an arrow can give a learned dissertation on his wound, they act, . . and the heat and fury of their action upheaves dynasties! Again,—reverting to the question of taste and literature,—the mob, untaught and untrained in the subtilties of art, will applaud to the echo certain grand and convincing home-truths set forth in the plays of the divine Hyspiros,—simply because they instinctively FEEL them to be truths, no matter how far they themselves may be from acting up to the standard of morality therein contained. The more highly cultured will hear the same passages unmoved, because they, in the excess of artificially gained wisdom, have deadened their instincts so far, that while they listen to a truth pronounced, they already consider how best they can confute it, and prove the same a lie! Honest enthusiasm is impossible to the over- punctilious and pedantic scholar,—but on the other hand, I would have it plainly understood that a mere brief local popularity is not Fame, . . No! for the author who wins the first never secures the last. What I mean is, that a book or poem to be great, and keep its greatness hereafter, must be judged worthy by the natural instinct of PEOPLES. Their decision, I own, may be tardy,—their hesitation may be prolonged through a hundred or more years,—but their acceptance, whether it be declared in the author's life-time or ages after his death, must be considered final. I would add, moreover, that this world-wide decision has never yet been, and never will be, hastened by any amount of written criticism,—it is the responsive beat of the enormous Pulse of Life that thrills through all mankind, high and low, gentle and simple,—its great throbs are slow and solemnly measured,—yet if once it answers to a Poet's touch, that Poet's name is made glorious forever!"
He spoke with a rush of earnestness and eloquence that was both persuasive and powerful, and he now stood silent and absorbed, his dreamy eyes resting meditatively on the massive bust of the immortal personage he called Hyspiros, which smiled out in serene, cold whiteness from the velvet-shadowed shrine it occupied. Theos watched him with fascinated and fraternal fondness, . . did ever man possess so dulcet a voice, he thought? ... so grave and rich and marvellously musical, yet thrilling with such heart-moving suggestions of mingled pride and plaintiveness?
"Thou art a most alluring orator, Sah-luma!" he said suddenly— "Methinks I could listen to thee all day and never tire!"
"I' faith, so could not I!" interposed Zabastes grimly. "For when a bard begins to gabble goose-like platitudes which merely concern his own vocation, the gods only know when he can be persuaded to stop! Nay, 'tis more irksome far than the recitation of his professional jingle—for to that there must in time come a merciful fitting end, but, as I live, if 'twas my custom to say prayers, I would pray to be delivered from the accursed volubility of a versifier's tongue! And perchance it will not be considered out of my line of duty if I venture to remind my most illustrious and renowned MASTER—" this with a withering sneer,—"that if he has any more remarkable nothings to dictate concerning this particularly inane creation of his fancy 'Nourhalma,' 'twill be well that we should proceed therewith, for the hours wax late and the sun veereth toward his House of Noon."
And he spread out fresh slips of papyrus and again prepared his long quill.
Sah-luma smiled, as one who is tolerant of the whims of a hired buffoon,—and, this time seating himself in his ebony chair, was about to commence dictating his Second Canto when Theos, yielding to his desire to speak aloud the idea that had just flashed across his brain said abruptly:
"Has it ever seemed to thee, Sah-luma, as it now does to me, that there is a strange resemblance between thy imaginative description of the ideal 'Nourhalma,' and the actual charms and virtues of thy strayed singing-maid Niphrata?"
Sah-luma looked up, thoroughly astonished, and laughed.
"No!—Verily I have not traced, nor can I trace the smallest vestige of a similarity! Why, good Theos, there is none!—not the least in the world,—for this heroine of mine, Nourhalma, loves in vain, and sacrifices all, even her innocent and radiant life, for love, as thou wilt hear in the second half of the poem,—moreover she loves one who is utterly unworthy of her faithful tenderness. Now Niphrata is a child of delicate caprice ... she loves ME,—me, her lord,—and methinks I am not negligent or undeserving of her devotion! ... again, she has no strength of spirit,—her timorous blood would freeze at the mere thought of death,—she is more prone to play with flowers and sing for pure delight of heart than perish for the sake of love! 'Tis an unequal simile, my friend!— as well compare a fiery planet with a twinkling dewdrop, as draw a parallel between the heroic ideal maid 'Nourhalma'—and my fluttering singing-bird, Niphrata!"
Theos sighed involuntarily,—but forcing a smile, let the subject drop and held his peace, while Sah-luma, taking up the thread of his poetical narrative, went on reciting. When the story began to ripen toward its conclusion he grew more animated, ... rising, he paced the room as he declaimed the splendid lines that now rolled gloriously one upon another like deep-mouthed billows thundering on the shore,—his gestures were all indicative of the fervor of his inward ecstasy,—his eyes flashed,—his features glowed with that serene, proud light of conscious power and triumph that rests on the calm, wide brows of the sculptured Apollo,—and Theos, leaning one arm in a half-sitting posture, contemplated him with a curious sensation of wistful eagerness and passionate pain, such as might be felt by some forgotten artist mysteriously permitted to come out of his grave and wander back to earth, there to see his once-rejected pictures hung in places of honor among the world's chief treasures.
A strange throb of melancholy satisfaction stirred his pulses as he reflected that he might now, without any self-conceit, at least ADMIRE the poem!—since he had decided that was no longer his, but another's, he was free to bestow on it as much as he would of unstinting praise! For it was very fine,—there could be no doubt of that, whatever Zabastes might say to the contrary,—and it was not only fine, but intensely, humanly pathetic, seeming to strike a chord of passion such as had never before been sounded,—a chord to which the world would be COMPELLED to listen,—yes,—COMPELLED! thought Theos exultingly,—as Sah-luma drew nearer and nearer the close of his dictation ... The deep quiet all around was so heavy as to be almost uncomfortable in its oppressiveness,—it exercised a sort of strain upon the nerves ...
Hark! what was that? Through the hot and silent air swept a sullen surging noise as of the angry shouting of a vast multitude,—then came the fast and furious gallop of many horses,—and again that fierce, resentful roar of indignation, swelling up as it seemed from thousands of throats. Moved, all three at once, by the same instinctive desire to know what was going on, Theos, Sah-luma, and Zabastes sprang from their different places in the room, and hurried out on the marble terrace, dashing aside the silken awnings as they went in order the better to see the open glimpses of the city thoroughfares that lay below. Theos, leaning far out over the western half of the balustrade, was able to command a distant view of the great Square in which the huge white granite Obelisk occupied so prominent a position, and, fixing his eyes attentively on this spot, saw that it was filled to overflowing with a dense mass of people, whose white-raimented forms, pressed together in countless numbers, swayed restlessly to and fro like the rising waves of a stormy sea.
Lifted above this troubled throng, one tall, dark figure was distinctly outlined against the dazzling face of the Obelisk—a figure that appeared to be standing on the back of the colossal Lion that lay couchant beneath. And as Theos strained his sight to distinguish the details of the scene more accurately, he suddenly beheld a glittering regiment of mounted men in armor, charging straightly and with cruelly determined speed, right into the centre of the crowd, apparently regardless of all havoc to life and limb that might ensue. Involuntarily he uttered an exclamation of horror at what seemed to him so wanton and brutal an act, when just then Sah-luma caught him eagerly by the arm,—Sah-luma, whose soft, oval countenance was brilliant with excitement, and in whose eyes gleamed a mingled expression of mirth and ferocity.
"Come, come, my friend!" he said hastily—"Yonder is a sight worth seeing! 'Tis the mad Khosrul who is thus entrenched and fortified by the mob,—as I live, that sweeping gallop of His Majesty's Royal Guards is magnificent! They will seize the Prophet this time without fail! Aye, if they slay a thousand of the populace in the performance of their duty! Come!—let us hasten to the scene of action—'twill be a struggle I would not miss for all the world!"
He sprang down the steps of the loggia, accompanied by Theos, who was equally excited,—when all at once Zabastes, thrusting out his head through a screen of vine-leaves, cried after them:
"Sah-luma!—Most illustrious! What of the poem? It is not finished!"
"No matter!" returned Sah-luma—"'Twill be finished hereafter!"
And he hastened on, Theos treading close in his footsteps and thinking as he went of the new enigma thus proposed to puzzle afresh the weary workings of his mind. HIS poem of Nourhalma— or rather the poem he had fancied was his—had been entirely completed down to the last line; now Sah-luma's was left "TO BE FINISHED HEREAFTER."
Strange that he should find a pale glimmering of consolation in this!—a feeble hope that perhaps after all, at some future time, he might be able to produce a few, a very few lines of noble verse that should be deemed purely original! ... enough perchance, to endow him with a faint, far halo of diminished glory such as plodding students occasionally win, by following humbly yet ardently ... even as he now followed Sah-luma ... in the paths of excellence marked out by greater men!
THE FALL OF THE OBELISK.
In less time than he could have imagined possible, he found himself in the densely crowded Square, buffeting and struggling against an angry and rebellious mob, who half resentful and half terrified, had evidently set themselves to resist the determined charge made by the mounted soldiery into their midst. For once Sah-luma's appearance created no diversion,—he was pushed and knocked about as unceremoniously as if he were the commonest citizen of them all, He seemed carelessly surprised at this, but nevertheless took his hustling very good humoredly, and, keeping his shoulders well squared forced his way with Theos by slow degrees through the serried ranks of people, many of whom, roused to a sort of frenzy threw themselves in front of the advancing horses of the guard, and seizing the reins held on to these like grim death, reckless of all danger.
As yet no weapons were used either by the soldiers or the populace,—the former seemed for the present contented to simply ride down those who impeded their progress,—and that they had done so in terrible earnest was plainly evident from the numbers of wounded creatures that lay scattered about on every side in an apparently half dying condition. Yet there was surely a strange insensibility to suffering among them all, inasmuch as in spite of the contention and confusion there were no violent shrieks of either pain or fury,—no exclamations of rage or despair,—no sound whatever indeed, save a steady, sullen, monotonous snarl of opposition, above which the resonant voice of the Prophet Khosrul rang out like a silver clarion.
"O people doomed and made desolate!" he cried.. "O nation once mighty, brought low to the dust of destruction! Hear me, ye strong men and fair women!—and you, ye poor little children who never again shall see the sun rise on the thousand domes of Al-Kyris! Lift up the burden of bitter lamentation!—lift it up to the Heaven of Heavens, the Throne of the All-Seeing Glory, the Giver of Law, the Destroyer of Evil! Weep! ... weep for your sins and the sins of your sons and your daughters—cast off the jewels of pride,—rend the fine raiment, ... let your tears be abundant as the rain and dew! Kneel down and cry aloud on the great and terrible Unknown God—the God ye have denied and wronged,—the Founder of worlds, who doth hold in His Hand the Sun as a torch, and scattereth stars with the fire of His breath! Mourn and bend ye all beneath the iron stroke of Destiny!—for know ye not how fierce a thing has come upon Al-Kyris? ... a thing that lips cannot utter nor words define,—a thing more horrible than strange sounds in thick darkness,—more deadly than the lightning when it leaps from Heaven with intent to slay! O City stately beyond all cities! Thy marble palaces are already ringed round with a river of blood!—the temples of thy knowledge wherein thy wise men have studied to exceed all wisdom, begin to totter to their fall,—thou shalt be swept away even as a light heap of ashes, and what shall all thy learning avail thee in that brief and fearful end! Hear me, O people of Al-Kyris!—Hear me and cease to strive among yourselves, ... resist not thus desperately the King's armed minions, for to them I also speak and say,—Lo! the time approaches when a stronger hand than that of the mighty Zephoranim shall take me prisoner and bear me hence where most I long to go! Peace, I command you! ... in the Name of that God whose truth I do proclaim ... Peace!"
As he uttered the last word an instantaneous hush fell upon the crowd,—every head was turned toward his grand, gaunt, almost spectral figure; and even the mounted soldiery reined up their plunging, chafing steeds and remained motionless as though suddenly fixed to the ground by some powerful magnetic spell. Theos and Sah-luma took immediate advantage of this lull in the conflict, to try and secure for themselves a better point of vantage, though there was much difficulty in pressing through the closely packed throng, inasmuch as not a man moved to give them passage-room.
Presently, however, Sah-luma managed to reach the nearest one of the two great fountains, which adorned either side of the Obelisk, and, springing as lightly as a bird on its marble edge, he stood erect there, his picturesque form presenting itself to the view like a fine statue set against the background of sun-tinted foaming water that dashed high above him and sprinkled his garments with drops of sparkling spray. Theos at once joined him, and the two friends, holding each other fast by the arm, gazed down on the silent, mighty multitude around them,—a huge concourse of the citizens of Al-Kyris, who, strange as this part of their behavior seemed, still paid no heed to the presence of their Laureate, but with pale, rapt faces and anxious, frightened eyes, riveted their attention entirely on the sombre, black- garmented Prophet whose thin ghostly arms, outstretched above them, appeared to mutely invoke in their behalf some special miracle of mercy.
"See you not".. whispered Sah-luma to his companion,—"how yon aged fool wears upon his breast the Symbol of his own Prophecy? 'Tis the maddest freak to thus display his death-warrant!—Only a month ago the King issued a decree, warning all those whom it might concern, that any one of his born subjects presuming to carry the sign of Khosrul's newly invented Faith should surely die! And that the crazed reprobate carries it himself makes no exemption from the rule!"
Theos shuddered. His eyes were misty, but he could very well see the Emblem to which Sah-luma alluded,—it was the Cross again! ... the same sacred Prefigurement of things "to come," according to the perplexing explanation given by the Mystic Zuriel whom he had met in the Passage of the Tombs, though to his own mind it conveyed no such meaning. What was it then? ... if not a Prototype of the future, was it a Record of the Past? He dared not pursue this question,—it seemed to send his brain reeling on the verge of madness! He made no answer to Sah-luma's remark,—but fixed his gaze wistfully on the tall, melancholy Shape that like a black shadow darkened the whiteness of the Obelisk,—and his sense of hearing became acute almost to painfulness when once more Khosrul's deep vibrating tones peeled solemnly through the heavy air.
"God speaks to Al-Kyris!" and as the Prophet enunciated these words with majestic emphasis a visible thrill ran through the hushed assemblage.. "God saith: Get thee up, O thou City of Pleasure, from thy couch of sweet wantonness,—get thee up, gird thee with fire, and flee into the desert of forgotten things! For thou art become a blot on the fairness of My world, and a shame to the brightness of My Heaven!—thy rulers are corrupt,—thy teachers are proud of heart and narrow in judgment,—thy young men and maidens go astray and follow each after their own vain opinions,—in thy great temples and holy places Falsehood abides, and Vice holds court in thy glorious palaces. Wherefore because thou hast neither sought nor served Me, and because thou hast set up gold as thy god, and a multitude of riches as thy chief good, lo! now mine eyes have grown weary of beholding thee, and I will descend upon thee suddenly and destroy thee, even as a hill of sand is destroyed by the whirlwind,—and thou shalt be known in the land of My creatures no more! Woe to thee that thou hast taken pride in thy wisdom and learning, for therein lies thy much wickedness! If thou wert truly wise thou wouldst have found Me,— if thou wert nobly learned thou wouldst have understood My laws,— but thou art proved altogether gross, foolish, and incapable,—and the studies whereof thou hast boasted, the writings of thy wise men, the charts of sea and land, the maps of thy chief astronomers, the engraved tablets of learning, in gold, in silver, in ivory, in stone, thy chronicles of battle and conquest, the documents of thine explorers in far countries, the engines of thine invention whereby thou dost press the lightning into thy service, and make the air respond to the messages of thy kings and councillors,—all these shall be thrust away into an everlasting silence, and no man hereafter shall be able to declare that such things have ever been!"
Here the speaker paused,—and Theos, surveying the vast listening crowds, fancied they looked like an audience of moveless ghosts rather than human beings,—so still, so pallid, so grave were they, one and all. Khosrul continued in softer, more melancholy accents, that, while plaintive, were still singularly impressive.
"O my ill-fated, my beloved fellow-countrymen!" he exclaimed, extending his arms with a vehemently pleading gesture as though in the excess of emotion he would have drawn all the people to his heart.—"Ye unhappy ones? ... have I not given ye warning? Have I not bidden ye beware of this great evil which should come to pass?—Evil for which there is no remedy,—none,—neither in the earth, nor the sea, nor the invisible comforts of the air! ... for God hath spoken, and who shall contradict the thunder of His voice! Behold the end is at hand of all the pleasant things of Al- Kyris,—the feasting and the musical assemblies, the cymbal- symphonies and the choir-dances, the labors of students and the triumphs of sages,—all these shall seem but the mockery of madness in the swift-descending night of overwhelming destruction! Woe is me that ye would not listen when I called, but turned every man to his own devices and the following after idols? Nay now, what will ye do in extremity?—Will ye chant hymns to the Sun? Lo, he is deaf and blind for all his golden glory, and is but a taper set in the window of the sky, to be extinguished at God's good pleasure! Will ye supplicate Nagaya? O fools and desperate!—how shall a brute beast answer prayer!—Vain, vain is all beseeching, —shut forever are the doors of escape,—therefore cover yourselves with the garments of burial,—prepare each one his grave and rich funeral things,—gather together the rosemary and myrrh, the precious ointments and essences, the strings of gold and the jewelled talismans whereby ye think to fight against corruption,— and fall down, every man in his own wrought hollow in the ground, face turned to earth and die—for Death hath broken through the strong gates of Al-Kyris, and hath taken the City Magnificent captive unknowingly! Alas, alas! that ye would not follow whither I led,—that ye would not hearken to the Vision of the Future, dimly yet gloriously revealed! ... the Future! ... the Future!" ...
He broke off suddenly, and raising his eyes to the deep blue sky above him, seemed for a moment as though he were caught up in the cloud of some wondrous dream. Still the enormous throng of people stood hushed and motionless,—not a word, not a sound escaped them,—there was something positively appalling in such absolute immobility,—at least it appeared so to Theos, who could not understand this dispassionate behavior on the part of so large and lately excited a multitude. All at once a voice marvellously tender, clear, and pathetic trembled on the silence,—was it, could it be the voice of Khosrul? Yes! but so changed, so solemn, so infinitely sweet, that it might have been some gentle angel speaking:
"Like a fountain of sweet water in the desert, or the rising of the moon in a gloomy midnight," he said slowly,—"Even so is the hope and promise of the Supremely Beloved! Through the veiling darkness of the coming ages His Light already shines upon my soul! O blessed Advent! ... O happy Future! ... O days when privileged Humanity shall bridge by Love the gulf between this world and Heaven! What shall be said of Him who cometh to redeem us, O my foreseeing spirit! What shall be told concerning His most marvellous Beauty? Even as a dove that for pity of its helpless younglings doth battle soft-breasted with a storm, even so shall He descend from out His glory sempiternal, and teach us how to conquer Sin and Death,—aye, even with the meekness of a little child He shall approach, and choose His dwelling here among us. O heavenly Child! O wisdom of God contained in innocence! ... happy the learning that shall learn from Thee!—noble the pride that shall humble itself before Thy gentleness! [Footnote: The idea of a Saviour who should be born as Man to redeem the world was prevalent among all nations and dates from the remotest ages. Coming down to what must be termed quite a modern period compared to that in which the city of Al-Kyris had its existence, we find that the Romans under Octavius Caesar were wont to exclaim at their sacred meetings, "The times FORETOLD BY THE SYBIL are arrived; may a new age soon restore that Saturn? SOON MAY THE CHILD BE BORN WHO SHALL BANISH THE AGE OF IRON?" Tacitus and Suetonius both mention the prophecies "in the sacred books of the priests" which declare that the "East shall be in commotion," and that "MEN FROM JUDEA" shall subject "everything to their dominion."] O Prince of Manhood and Divinity entwined! Thou shalt acquaint Thyself with human griefs, and patiently unravel the perplexities of human longings!—to prove Thy sacred sympathy with suffering, Thou shalt be content to suffer,—to explain the mystery of Death, Thou shalt even be content to die. O people of Al-Kyris, hear ye all the words that tell of this Wonderful, Inestimable King of Peace,—mine aged eyes do see Him now, far, far off in the rising mist of unformed future things!—the Cross— the Cross, on which His Man's pure Life dissolves itself in glory, stretches above me in spreading beams of light! ... Ah! 'tis a glittering pathway in the skies whereon men and the angels meet and know each other! He is the strong and perfect Spirit, that shall break loose from Death and declare the insignificance of the Grave,—He is the lingering Star in the East that shall rise and lighten all spiritual darkness—the unknown, unnamed Redeemer of the World, ... the Man-God Saviour that SHALL COME?"
"SHALL come?" cried Theos, suddenly roused to the utmost pitch of frenzied excitement, and pronouncing each word with loud and involuntary vehemence ... "Nay! ... for He HAS come! HE DIED FOR US, AND ROSE AGAIN FROM THE DEAD MORE THAN EIGHTEEN HUNDRED YEARS AGO!"
* * * * *
A frightful silence followed,—a breathless cessation of even the faintest quiver of sound. The mighty mass of people, apparently moved by one accord, turned with swift, stealthy noiselessness toward the audacious speaker, ... thousands of glittering eyes were fixed upon him in solemnly inquiring wonderment, while he himself, now altogether dismayed at the effect of his own rash utterance, thought he had never experienced a more awful moment! For it was as though all the skeletons he had lately seen in the Passage of the Tombs had suddenly clothed themselves with spectral flesh and hair and the shadowy garments of men, and had advanced into broad daylight to surround him in their terrible lifeless ranks, and wrench from him the secret of an after-existence concerning which THEY were ignorant!
How ghostly and drear seemed that dense crowd in this new light of his delirious fancy! A clammy dew broke out on his forehead,—he saw the blue skies, the huge buildings in the Square, the Obelisk, the fountains, the trees, all whirling round him in a wild dance of the dizziest distraction, ... when Sah-luma's rich voice close to his ear recalled his wandering senses:
"Why, man, art thou drunk or mad?" and the Laureate's face expressed a kind of sarcastic astonishment,—"What a fool thou hast made of thyself, good comrade! ... By my soul, how shall thy condition be explained to these open-mouthed starers below! See how they gape upon thee! ... thou art most assuredly a noticeable spectacle! ... and yon maniac Prophet doth evidently judge thee as one of his craft, a fellow professional howler of marvels, else he would scarcely deign to fix his eyes so obstinately on thy countenance! Nay, verily thou dost outrival him in the strangeness of thy language! ... What moved thee to such frenzied utterance? Surely thou hast a stroke of the sun!—thy words were most absolutely devoid of reason! ... as senseless as the jabber of an idiot to his own shadow on the wall!"
Theos was mute,—he had no defense to offer. The crowd still stared upon him,—and his heart beat fast with a mingled sense of fear and pride—fear of his present surroundings,—pride that he had spoken out his conviction boldly, reckless of all consequences. And this pride was a most curious thing to analyze, because it did not so much consist in the fact of his having openly confessed his inward thought, as that he felt he had gained some special victory in thus ACKNOWLEDGING HIS BELIEF IN THE POSITIVE EXISTENCE OF THE "Saviour" who formed the subject of Khosrul's prophecy. Full of a singular sort of self-congratulation which yet had nothing to do with selfishness, he became so absorbed in his own reflections that he started like a man brusquely aroused from sleep when the Prophet's strong grave voice apostrophized him personally over the heads of the throng:
"Who and what art thou, that dost speak of the FUTURE as though it were the PAST? Hast thou held converse with the Angels, and is Past and Future ONE with thee in the dream of the departing Present? Answer me, thou stranger to the city of Al-Kyris! ... Has God taught THEE the way to Everlasting Life?"
Again that awful silence made itself felt like a deadly chill on the sunlit air,—the quiet, patient crowds seemed waiting in hushed suspense for some reply which should be as a flash of spiritual enlightenment to leap from one to the other with kindling heat and radiance, and vivify them all into a new and happier existence. But now, when Theos most strongly desired to speak, he remained dumb as stone! ... vainly he struggled against and contended with the invisible, mysterious, and relentless despotism that smote him on the mouth as it were, and deprived him of all power of utterance, ... his tongue was stiff and frozen, ... his very lips were sealed! Trembling violently, he gazed beseechingly at Sah-luma, who held his arm in a firm and friendly grasp, and who, apparently quickly perceiving that he was distressed and embarrassed, undertook himself to furnish forth what he evidently considered a fitting response to Khosrul's adjuration.
"Most venerable Seer!" he cried mockingly, his bright face radiant with mirth and his dark eyes flashing a careless contempt as he spoke—"Thou art as short-sighted as thine own auguries if thou canst not at once comprehend the drift of my friend's humor! He hath caught the infection of thy fanatic eloquence, and, like thee, knows naught of what he says: moreover he hath good wine and sunlight mingled in his blood, whereby he hath been doubtless moved to play a jest upon thee. I pray thee heed him not! He is as free to declare thy Prophecy is of the PAST, as thou art to insist on its being of the FUTURE,—in both ways 'tis a most foolish fallacy! Nevertheless, continue thy entertaining discourse, Sir Graybeard! . . . and if thou must needs address thyself to any one soul in particular, why let it be me,—for though, thanks to mine own excellent good sense, I have no faith in angels nor crosses, nor everlasting life, nor any of the strange riddles wherewith thou seekest to perplex and bewilder the brains of the ignorant, still am I Laureate of the realm, and ready to hold argument with thee,—yea!—until such time as these dumfounded soldiers and citizens of Al-Kyris shall remember their duty sufficiently to seize and take thee captive in the King's great name!"
As he ceased a deep sigh ran, like the first sound of a rising wind among trees, through the heretofore motionless multitude,—a faint, dawning, yet doubtful smile reflected itself on their faces,—and the old familiar shout broke feebly from their lips:
"Hail, Sah-luma! Let us hear Sah-luma!"
Sah-luma looked down upon them all in airy derision.
"O fickle, terror-stricken fools!" he exclaimed—"O thankless and disloyal people! What!—ye WILL see me now? ... ye WILL hear me? ... Aye! but who shall answer for your obedience to my words! Nay, is it possible that I, your country's chosen Chief Minstrel, should have stood so long among ye disregarded! How comes it your dull eyes and ears were fixed so fast upon yon dotard miscreant whose days are numbered? Methought t'was but Sah-luma's voice that could persuade ye to assemble thus in such locust-like swarms.. since when have the Poet and the People of Al-Kyris ceased to be as one?"
A vague, muttering sound answered him, whether of shame or dissatisfaction it was difficult to tell. Khosrul's vibrating accent struck sharply across that muffled murmur.
"The Poet and the People of Al-Kyris are further asunder than light and darkness!" he cried vehemently—"For the Poet has been false to his high vocation, and the People trust in him no more!"
There was an instant's hush, ... a hush as it seemed of grieved acquiescence on the part of the populace,—and during that brief pause Theos's heart gave a fierce bound against his ribs as though some one had suddenly shot at him with a poisoned arrow. He glanced quickly at Sah-luma,—but Sah-luma stood calmly unmoved, his handsome head thrown back, a cynical smile on his lips and his eyes darker than ever with an intensity of unutterable scorn.
"Sah-luma! ... Sah-luma!" and the piercing, reproachful voice of the Prophet penetrated every part of the spacious square like a sonorous bell ringing over a still landscape: "O divine Spirit of Song pent up in gross clay, was ever mortal more gifted than thou! In thee was kindled the white fire of Heaven,—to thee were confided the memories of vanished worlds, . . for thee God bade His Nature wear a thousand shapes of varied meaning,—the sun, the moon, the stars were appointed as thy servants,—for thou wert born POET, the mystically chosen Teacher and Consoler of Mankind! What hast thou done, Sah-luma, . . what hast thou done with the treasures bestowed upon thee by the all-endowing Angels? ... How hast thou used the talisman of thy genius? To comfort the afflicted? ... to dethrone and destroy the oppressor? ... to uphold the cause of Justice? ... to rouse the noblest instincts of thy race? ... to elevate and purify the world? ... Alas, alas!— thou hast made Thyself the idol of thy muse, and thou being but perishable, thy fame shall perish with thee! Thou hast drowsed away thy manhood in the lap of vice, . . thou hast slept and dreamed when thou should have been awake and vigilant! Not I, but THOU shouldst have warned the people of their coming doom! ... not I, but THOU shouldst have marked the threatening signs of the pregnant hour,—not I, but THOU shouldst have perceived the first faint glimmer of God's future scheme of glad salvation,—not I, but THOU shouldst have taught and pleaded, and swayed by thy matchless sceptre of sweet song, the passions of thy countrymen! Hadst thou been true to that first flame of Thought within thee, O Sah-luma, how thy glory would have dwarfed the power of kings! Empires might have fallen, cities decayed, and nations been absorbed in ruin,—and yet thy clear-convincing voice, rendered imperishable by its faithfulness should have sounded forth in triumph above the foundering wrecks of Time! O Poet unworthy of thy calling! ... How thou hast wantoned with the sacred Muse! ... how thou hast led her stainless feet into the mire of sensual hypocrisies, and decked her with the trumpery gew-gaws of a meaningless fair speech!—How thou hast caught her by the virginal hair and made her chastity the screen for all thine own licentiousness! ... Thou shouldst have humbly sought her benediction,—thou shouldst have handled her with gentle reverence and patient ardor,—from her wise lips thou shouldst have learned how best to PRACTICE those virtues whose praise thou didst evasively proclaim, ... thou shouldst have shrined her, throned her, worshiped her, and served her, . . yea! ... even as a sinful man may serve an Angel who loves him!"
Ah, what a strange, cold thrill ran through Theos as he heard these last words! 'As a sinful man may serve an Angel who loves him!' How happy the man thus loved! ... how fortunate the sinner thus permitted to serve! ... WHO WAS HE? ... Could there be any one so marvellously privileged? He wondered dimly,—and a dull, aching pain throbbed heavily in his brows. It was a very singular thing too, that he should find himself strongly and personally affected by Khosrul's address to Sah-luma, yet such was the case, ... so much so, indeed, that he accepted all the Prophet's reproaches as though they applied solely TO HIS OWN PAST LIFE! He could not understand his emotion, ... nevertheless he kept on dreamily regretting that things WERE as Khosrul had said, ... that he had NOT fulfilled his vocation,—and that he had neither been humble enough nor devout enough nor unselfish enough to deserve the high and imperial name of POET.
Round and round like a flying mote this troublesome idea circled in his brain, ... he must do better in future, he resolved, supposing that any future remained to Him in which to work, . . HE MUST REDEEM THE PAST! ... Here he roused his mental faculties with a start and forced himself to realize that it was SAH-LUMA to whom the Prophet spoke, . . Sah-luma, ONLY Sah-luma,—not himself!
Then straightway he became indignant on his friend's behalf,—why should Sah-luma be blamed? ... Sah-luma was a glorious poet!—a master-singer of singers! ... his fume must and should endure forever! ... Thus thinking, he regained his composure by degrees, and strove to assume the same air of easy indifference as that exhibited by his companion, when again Khosrul's declamatory tones thundered forth with an absoluteness of emphasis that was both startling and convincing:
"Hear me, Sah-luma, Chief Minstrel of Al-Kyris!—hear me, thou who hast willfully wasted the golden moments of never-returning time! THOU ART MARKED OUT FOR DEATH!—death sudden and fierce as the leap of the desert panther on its prey! ... death that shall come to thee through the traitorous speech of the evil woman whose beauty has sapped thy strength and rendered thy glory inglorious!... death that for thee, alas! shall be mournful and utter oblivion! Naught shall it avail to thee that thy musical weaving of words hath been graven seven times over, on tablets of stone and agate and ivory, of gold and white silex and porphyry, and the unbreakable rose-adamant,—none of these shall suffice to keep thy name in remembrance,—for what cannot be broken shall be melted with flame, and what cannot be erased shall be buried miles deep in the bosom of earth, whence it never again shall be lifted into the light of day! Aye! thou shalt be FORGOTTEN!—forgotten as though thou hadst never sung,—other poets shall chant in the world, yet maybe none so well as thou!—other laurel and myrtle wreaths shall be given by countries and kings to bards unworthy, of whom none perchance shall have thy sweetness! ... but thou,— thou the most grandly gifted, gift-squandering Poet the world has ever known, shalt be cast among the dust of unremembered nothings, and the name of Sah-luma shall carry no meaning to any man born in the coming here-after! For thou hast cherished within Thyself the poison that withers thee, ... the deadly poison of Doubt, the Denial of God's existence, ... the accursed blankness of Disbelief in the things of the Life Eternal! ... wherefore, thy spirit is that of one lost and rebellious,—whose best works are futile,— whose days are void of example,—and whose carelessly grasped torch of song shall be suddenly snatched from thy hand and extinguished in darkness! God pardon thee, dying Poet! ... God give thy parting soul a chance of penance and of sweet redemption! ... God comfort thee in that drear Land of Shadow whither thou art bound! ... God bring thee forth again from Chaos to a nobler Future! ... Sin-burdened as thou art, my blessing follows thee in thy last agony! Sah-luma! ... FALLEN ANGEL, SELF-EXILED FROM THY PEERS! ... FAREWELL!"
The effect of these strange words was so extraordinarily impressive, that for one instant the astonished and evidently affrighted crowds pressed round Sah-luma eagerly, staring at him in morbid fear and wonder, as though they expected him to drop dead before them in immediate fulfillment of the Prophet's solemn valediction. Theos, oppressed by an inward sickening sense of terror, also regarded him with close and anxious solicitude, but was almost reassured at the first glance.
Never was a greater opposition offered to Khosrul's gloomy prognostications, than that contained in the handsome Laureate's aspect at that moment,—his supple, graceful figure alert with life, . . his glowing face flushed by the sun, and touched with that faintly amused look of serene scorn, . . his glorious eyes, brilliant as jewels under their drooping amorous lids, and the regal poise of his splendid shoulders and throat, as he lifted his head a little more haughtily than usual, and glanced indifferently down from his foothold on the edge of the fountain at the upturned, questioning faces of the throng, ... all even to the careless balance and ease of his attitude, betokened his perfect condition of health, and the entire satisfaction he had in the consciousness of his own strength and beauty.
He seemed about to speak, and raised his hand with the graceful yet commanding gesture of one accustomed to the art of elegant rhetoric, ... when suddenly his expression changed, . . shrugging his shoulders lightly as who should say.. "Here comes the conclusion of the matter,—no time for further argument"—he silently pointed across the Square, while a smile dazzling yet cruel played on his delicately parted lips, . . a smile, the covert meaning of which was soon explained. For all at once a brazen roar of trumpets split the silence into torn and discordant echoes,— the crowd turned swiftly, and seeing who it was that approached, rushed hither and thither in the wildest confusion, making as though they would have fled, . . and in less than a minute, a gleaming cohort of mounted and armed spearmen galloped furiously into the thick of the melee.
Following these came a superb car drawn by six jet-black horses that plunged and pranced through the multitude with no more heed than if these groups of living beings had been mere sheafs of corn, . . a car flashing from end to end with gold and precious stones, in which towered the erect, massive form of Zephoranim, the King. His dark face was ablaze with wrath, ... tightly grasping the reins of his reckless steeds, he drew himself haughtily upright and turned his rolling, fierce black eyes indignantly from side to side on the scared people, as he drove through their retreating ranks, smiting down and mangling with the sharp spikes of his tall chariot-wheels men, women, and children without care or remorse, till he forced his terrible passage straight to the foot of the Obelisk. There he came to an abrupt standstill, and, lifting high his strong hand and brawny arm glittering with jewels, he cried:
"Soldiers! Seize yon traitorous rebel! Ten thousand pieces of gold for the capture of Khosrul!"
There was an instant of hesitation, ... not one of the populace stirred to obey the order. Then suddenly, as though released by their monarch's command from some mesmeric spell, the before inactive mounted guards started into action, cantered sharply forward and surrounded the Obelisk, while the armed spearsmen closed together and made a swift advance upon the venerable figure that stood alone and defenseless, tranquilly awaiting their approach. But there was evidently some unknown and mysterious force pent up within the Prophet's feeble frame, for when the soldiers were just about an arm's length from him, they seemed all at once troubled and irresolute, and turned their looks away, as though fearing to gaze too steadfastly upon that grand, thought- furrowed countenance in which the eyes, made young by inward fervor, blazed forth with unearthly lustre beneath a silvery halo of tossed white hair. Zephoranim perceived this touch of indecision on the part of his men, and his black brows contracted in an ominous frown.
"Halt!" he shouted fiercely, apparently to make it seem to the mob that the pause in the action of the soldiery was in compliance with his own behest, . . "Halt! ... Bind him, and bring him hither, . . I myself will slay him!"
"Halt!" echoed a voice, discordantly sharp and wild.. "Halt thou also, great Zephoranim! for Death bars thy further progress!"
And Khosrul, manifestly possessed by some superhuman access of frenzy, leaped from his position on the back of the stone Lion, and slipping agilely through the ranks of the startled spearmen and guards, who were all unprepared for the suddenness and rapidity of his movements, he sprang boldly on the edge of the Royal chariot, and there clung to the jewelled wheel, looking like a gaunt aerial spectre, an ambassador of coming ruin. The King, speechless with amazement and fury, dragged at his huge sword till he wrenched it out of its sheath, . . raising it, he whirled it round his head so that it gave a murderous hiss in the air, ... and yet.. was his strong arm paralyzed that he forbore to strike!
"Zephoranim!" Khosrul, in terms that were piercing and dolorous as the whistling of the wind among hollow reeds,—"Zephoranim, THOU SHALT DIE TO-NIGHT! ART THOU READY? Art thou ready, proud King? ... ready to be made less than the lowest of the low? Hush! ... Hush!" and his aged face took upon itself a ghastly greenish pallor— "Hear you not the muttering of the thunder underground? There are strange powers at work! ... powers of the undug earth and unfathomed sea! ... hark how they tear at the stately foundations of Al-Kyris! ... Flame! flame! it is already kindled!—it shall enwrap thee with more closeness than thy coronation robe, O mighty Sovereign! ... with more gloating fondness than the serpent- twining arms of thy beloved! Listen, Zephoranim, listen!"
Here he stretched out his skinny hand and pointed upwards,—his eyes grew fixed and glassy,—his throat rattled convulsively. At that moment the monarch, recovering his self-possession, once more lifted his sword with direct and deadly aim, but the Prophet, uttering a wild shriek, caught at his descending wrist and gripped it fast.
"See.. See!" he exclaimed.. "Put up thy weapon! ... Thou shalt never need it where thou art summoned! ... Lo! how yon. blood-red letters blaze against the blue of heaven! ... There! ... there it comes!—Read.. read! 'tis written plain.. 'AL-KYRIS SHALL FALL, AND THE KING SHALL DIE!'.. Hist ... hist! ... Dumb oracles speak and dead voices find tongue! ... hark how they chant together the old forgotten warning:
'When the High Priestess Is the King's mistress Then fall Al-Kyris!'
Fall Al-Kyris! ... Aye! ... the City of a thousand palaces shall fall to-night! ... TO-NIGHT! ... O night of desperate horror! ... and thou, O King, SHALT DIE!"
And as he shrilled the last word on the air with terrific emphasis, he threw up his arms like a man suddenly shot, and reeling backward fell heavily on the ground,—a corpse.
A great cry went up from the crowd, . . the King leaned eagerly out of his car.
"Is the fool dead, or feigning death?" he demanded, addressing one of a group of soldiers standing near.
The officer stooped and felt the motionless body.
"O great King, live forever! He is dead!"
Zephoranim hesitated. Cruelty and clemency struggled for the mastery in the varying expression of his frowning face, but cruelty conquered. Grasping his sword firmly, he bent still further forward out of his chariot, and with one swift, keen stroke, severed the lifeless Prophet's head from its trunk, and taking it up on, the point of his weapon, showed it to the multitude. A smothered, shuddering sigh that was half a groan rippled through the dense throng—a sound that evidently added fresh irritation to the already heated temper of the haughty sovereign. With a savage laugh, he tossed his piteous trophy on the pavement, where it lay in a pool of its own blood, the white hair about it stained ruddily, and the still open eyes upturned as though in dumb appeal to heaven. Then, without deigning to utter another word, or to bestow another look upon the surrounding crowd of his disconcerted subjects, he gathered up his coursers' reins and prepared to depart.
Just then the sun went behind a cloud, and only a side-beam of radiance shot forth, pouring itself straight down on the royally attired figure of the monarch and the headless body of Khosrul, and at the same time bringing into sudden and prominent relief the silver Cross that glittered on the breast of the bleeding corpse, and that seemed to mysteriously offer itself as the Key to some unsolved Enigma. As if drawn by one strangely mutual attraction, all eyes, even those of Zephoranim himself, turned instinctively toward the flashing Emblem, which appeared to burn like living fire on that perished mass of stiffening clay, . . and there was a brief silence,—a pause, during which Theos, who had watched everything with curiously calm interest, such as may be felt by a spectator watching the progress of a finely acted tragedy, became conscious of the same singular sensation he had already several times experienced,—namely, THAT HE HAD WITNESSED THE WHOLE OF THIS SCENE BEFORE!
he remembered it quite well,—particularly that apparently trifling incident of the sunlight happening to shine so brilliantly on the dead man and his cross while the rest of the vast assemblage were in comparative shadow. It was very odd! ... his memory was like a wonderful art-gallery in which some pictures were fresh of tint, while others were dim and faded, . . but this special "tableau" in the Square of Al-Kyris was very distinctly painted in brilliant and vivid colors on the sombre background of his past recollections, and he found the circumstance so remarkable that he was on the point of saying something to Sah- luma about it,—when the sun came out again in full splendor, and Zephoranim's spirited steeds started forward at a canter.
The King, controlling them easily with one hand, extended the other majestically by way of formal salutation to his people, . . his tall, muscular form was displayed to the best advantage,—the narrow jewelled fillet that bound his rough dark locks emitted a myriad scintillations of light, . . his close-fitting coat-of-mail, woven from thousands of small links of gold, set off his massive chest and shoulders to perfection,—and as he moved along royally in his sumptuous car, the effect of his striking presence was such, that a complete change took place in the before sullen humor of the populace. For seeing him thus alive and well in direct opposition to Khosrul's ominous prediction,—even as Sah-luma also stood unharmed in spite of his having been apostrophized as a "dying" Poet,—the mob, always fickle and always dazzled by outward show, suddenly set up a deafening roar of cheering. The pallid hue of terror vanished from faces that had but lately looked spectrally thin with speechless dread, and crowds of servile petitioners and place-hunters began to press eagerly round their monarch's chariot, ... when all at once a woman in the throng gave a wild scream and rushed away shrieking "THE OBELISK! ... THE OBELISK!"
Every eye was instantly turned toward the stately pillar of white granite that sparkled in the sunlight like an immense carven jewel, ... great Heaven! ... It was tottering to and fro like the unsteadied mast of a ship at sea! ... One look sufficed,—and a frightful panic ensued—a horrible, brutish stampede of creatures without faith in anything human or divine save their own wretched personalities,—the King, infected by the general scare, urged his horses into furious gallop, and dashed through the cursing, swearing, howling throng like an embodied whirlwind,—and for a few seconds nothing seemed distinctly visible But a surging mass of infuriated humanity, fighting with itself for life.
Theos alone remained singularly calm,—his sole consideration was for his friend Sah-luma, whom he entwined with one arm as he sprang down from the position they had hitherto occupied on the brink of the fountain, and made straight for the nearest of the six broad avenues that opened directly into the Square. Sah-luma looked pale, but was apparently unafraid,—he said nothing, and passively allowed himself to be piloted by Theos through the madly raging multitude, which, oddly enough, parted before them like mist before the wind, so that in a magically short interval they successfully reached a place of safety.
And they reached it not a moment too soon. For the Obelisk was now plainly to be seen lurching forward at an angle of several degrees, . . strange muffled, roaring sounds were heard at its base, as though demons were digging up its foundations, . . then, seemingly shaken by underground tremors, it began to oscillate violently,—a terrific explosion was heard as of the bursting of a giant bomb,—and immediately afterward the majestic monolith toppled over and fell!—with the crash of a colossal cannonade that sent its thunderous reverberations through and through the length and breadth of the city! Hundreds of persons were killed and wounded,—many of the mounted guards and spearmen, who were striving to force a way of escape through the crowd, were struck down and crushed pell-mell with their horses as they rode,—the desperate people trampled each other to death in their frenzied efforts to reach the nearest outlet to the river embankment, . . but when once the Obelisk had actually fallen, all this turmoil was for an instant checked, and the gasping, torn, and bleeding survivors of the struggle stopped, as it were to take breath, and stared in blank dismay upon the strange ruin before them.
Theos, still holding Sah-luma by the arm, with the protecting fondness of an elder brother guarding a younger, gazed also at the scene with quiet, sorrowfully wondering eyes. For it meant something to him he was sure, because it was so familiar,—yet he found it impossible to grasp the comprehension of that meaning! It was a singular spectacle enough; the lofty four-sided white pillar, that had so lately been a monumental glory of Al-Kyris, had split itself with the violence of its fall into two huge desolate-looking fragments, which now lay one on each side of the square, as though flung thither by a Titan's hand,—the great lion had been hurled from its position and overturned like a toy, while the shield it had supported between its paws had entirely disappeared in minutely scattered atoms, . . the fountains had altogether ceased playing. Now and then a thin, vaporous stream of smoke appeared to issue between the crannies of the pavement,— otherwise there was no visible sign of the mysterious force that had wrought so swift and sudden a work of destruction,—the sun shone brilliantly, and over all the havoc beamed the placid brightness of a cloudless summer sky!
The most prominent object of all amid the general devastation, and the one that fascinated Theos more than the view of the destroyed monolith and the debased Lion, was the uninjured head of the Prophet Khosrul. There it lay, exactly between the sundered halves of the Obelisk, . . pale rays of light glimmered on its bloodstained silvery hair and open glazed eyes,—a solemn smile seemed graven on its waxen-pallid features. And at a little distance off, on the breast of the black-robed headless corpse that remained totally uncrushed in an open space by itself, among the surrounding heaps of slain and wounded, glistened the CROSS like a fiery gem, . . an all-significant talisman that, as he beheld it, filled Theos's heart with a feverish craving,—an inexplicable desire mingled with remorse far greater than any fear!
Instinctively he drew Sah-luma away. ... away! ... still keeping his wistful gaze fixed on that uncomprehended, yet soul-recognized Symbol, till gradually the drooping branches of trees interrupted and shadowed the vista, and, as he moved further and further backward, closed their soft network of green foliage like the closing curtain on the strange but awfully remembered scene, shutting it out from his bewildered sight.. forever!
A GOLDEN TRESS.
Once clear of the Square the two friends apparently became mutually conscious of the peril they had just escaped, . . and coming to a sudden standstill they looked at each other in blank, stupefied silence. Crowds of people streamed past them, wandering hither and thither in confused, cloudy masses,—some with groans and dire lamentations bearing away their dead and wounded,—others rushing frantically about, beating their breasts, tearing their hair, calling on the gods and lamenting Khosrul, while not a few muttered curses on the King. And ever and anon the name of "Lysia," coupled with heavy execrations, was hissed from mouth to mouth, which Theos, overhearing, began to foresee might serve as a likely cause for Sah-luma's taking offence and possibly resenting in his own person this public disparagement of the woman he loved,—therefore, without more ado he roused himself from his momentarily dazed condition, and urged his comrade on at a quick pace toward the safe shelter of his own palace, where at any rate he could be kept out of the reach of immediate harm.