The twain walked side by side, exchanging scarcely a word,—Sah- luma seemed in a manner stunned by the violence of the late catastrophe, and Theos was too busy with his own thoughts to speak. On their way they were overtaken by the King's chariot,—it flew by with a glittering whirl and clatter, amid sweeping clouds of dust, through which the dark face of Zephoranim loomed out upon them like an almost palpable shadow. As it vanished Sah-luma stopped short, and stared at his companion in utter amazement.
"By my soul!" he exclaimed indignantly.. "The whole world must he going mad! 'Tis the first time in all my days of Laureateship that Zephoranim hath failed to reverently salute me as he passed!"
And he looked far more perturbed than when the falling Obelisk had threatened him with imminent destruction.
Theos caught his arm with a quick movement of vexed impatience.
"Tush, man, no matter!" he said hastily—"What are Kings to thee? ... thou who art an Emperor of Song? These little potentates that wield earth's sceptres are as fickle in their moods as the very mob they are supposed to govern, . . moreover, thou knowest Zephoranim hath had enough to-day to startle him out of all accustomed rules of courtesy. Be assured of it, his mind is like a ship at sea, storm-tossed and at the mercy of the winds,—thou canst not surely blame him, that for once after so strange a turbulence, and unwonted a disaster, he hath no eyes for thee whose sole sweet mission, is to minister to pleasure."
"To minister to pleasure!".. echoed Sah-luma petulantly.. "Nay, have I done nothing more than this? Art thou already grown so disloyal a friend that thou wilt half repeat the jargon of yon dead fanatic Khosrul who dared to tell me I had served my Art unfittingly? Have I not ministered to grief as well as joy? To hours of pain and bitterness, as well as to long days of ease and amorous dreaming? ... Have I not..." here he paused and a warm flush crept through the olive pallor of his skin,—his eyes grew plaintive and wistful and he threw one arm round Theos's neck as he continued: "No I.. after all 'tis vain to deny it...I have hated grief,—I have loathed the very suggestion of care,—I have thrust sorrow out of my sight as a thing vile and unwelcome,—and I have chosen to sing to the world of rapture more than pain,— inasmuch as methinks Humanity suffers enough, without having its cureless anguish set to the music of a poet's rhythm to incessantly haunt and torture its already breaking heart."
"Say rather to soothe and tranquillize"—murmured Theos, more to himself than to his friend—"For suppressed sorrow is hardest to endure, and when grief once finds apt utterance 'tis already half consoled! So should the world's great singers tenderly proclaim the world's most speechless miseries, and who knows but vexed Creation being thus relieved of pent-up woe may not take new heart of grace and comfort?"
The words were spoken in a soft SOTTO-VOCE, and Sah-luma seemed not to hear. He leaned, however, very confidingly and affectionately against Theos's shoulder as he walked along, and appeared to have speedily forgotten his annoyance at the recent slighting conduct of the King.
"I marvel at the downfall of the Obelisk!" he said presently ... "'Twas rooted full ten feet deep in solid earth, . . maybe the foundations were ill-fitted,—nevertheless, if history speaks truly, it hath stood unshaken for two thousand years! Strange that it should be now hurled forth thus desperately! ... I would I knew the hidden cause! Many, alas! have met their death to-day, . . pushed out of life in haste, . . all unprepared.. One wonders where such souls have fled! Something there is that troubles me, . . methinks I am more than half disposed to leave Al-Kyris for a time, and wander forth into a world of unknown things—"
"With me!" cried Theos impetuously—"Come with me, Sah-luma! ... Come now, this very day! I too have been warned of evil.. evil undeclared, yet close at hand, ..let us escape from danger while time remains! ... Let us depart!"
"Whither should we go?"...and Sah-luma, pausing in his walk, fixed his large, soft eyes full on his companion as he put the question.
Theos was mute. Covered with confusion, he asked himself the same thing. "Whither should we go?" He had no knowledge of the country that lay outside Al-Kyris, . . he had no distinct remembrance of any other place than this in which he was. All his past existence was as blotted and blurred as a child's spoiled and discarded copybook, . . true, he retained two names in his thoughts,—namely "ARDATH" and "THE PASS OF DARIEL" but he was hopelessly ignorant as to what these meant or how he had become connected with them! He was roused from his distressful cogitation by Sah-luma's voice speaking again half gayly, half sadly:
"Nay, nay, my friend! ... we cannot leave the City, we two alone and unguided, for beyond the gates is the desert wide and bare, with scarce a spring of cool water in many weary miles,—and beyond the desert is a forest, gloomy and tiger haunted, wherein the footsteps of man have seldom penetrated. To travel thus far we should need much preparation, . . many servants, many beasts of burden, and many months' provision.. moreover, 'tis a foolish, fancy crossed my mind at best,—for what should I, the Laureate of Al-Kyris, do in other lands? Besides, my departure would indeed be the desolation of the city,—well may Al-Kyris fall when Sah-luma no longer abides within it! Seawards the way lies open,—maybe, in days to come, we twain may take ship and sail hence for a brief sojourn to those distant western shores, whence thou, though thou sayest naught of them, must assuredly have come; I have often dreamed idly of a gray coast washed with dull rain and swathed in sweeping mists, where ever and anon the sun shines through,—a country cheerless, where a poet's fame like mine might ring the darkness of the skies with light, and stir the sleepy silence into song!"
Still Theos said nothing,—there were hot tears in his throat that choked his utterance. He gazed up at the glowing sky above him,— it was a burning vault of cloudless blue in which the sun glared forth witheringly like a scorching mass of flame, . . Oh for the freshness of a "gray coast washed with dull rain and swathed in sweeping mists" ... such as Sah-luma spoke of! ... and what a strange sickening yearning suddenly filled his soul for the unforgotten sonorous dash of the sea! He drew a quick breath and pressed his friend's arm with unconscious fervor, . . why, why could he not take this dear companion away out of possible peril? ... away to those far lands dimly remembered, yet now so completely lost sight of, that they seemed to him but as a delusive mirage faintly discerned above the rising waters of Lethe! Sighing deeply, he controlled his emotion and forced himself to speak calmly though his voice trembled..
"Not now then, but hereafter, thou'lt be my fellow-traveller, Sah- luma? ... 'twill be a joyous time when we, set free of present hindrance, may journey through a myriad glorious scenes together, sharing such new and mutual gladness that perchance we scarce shall miss the splendor of Al-Kyris left behind! Meanwhile I would that thou couldst promise me one thing,".. here he paused, but, seeing Sah-luma's inquiring look, went on in a low, eager tone! "Go not to the Temple to-night!—absent thyself from this Sacrifice, which, though it be the law of the realm, is nevertheless mere murderous barbarity,—and—inasmuch as the King is wrathful—I pray thee avoid his presence!"
Sah-luma broke into a laugh.. "Now by my faith, good comrade, as well ask me for my head as demand such impossibilities! Absent myself from the temple to-night of all nights in the world, when owing to these late phenomenal occurrences in the city, every one who is of repute and personal distinction will be present to assist at the Service and offer petitions to the fabulous gods that haply their supposititious indignation may be averted? My friend, if only for the sake of custom I must be there, . . moreover, I should be liable to banishment from the realm for so specially marked a breach of religious discipline! And as for the King, he is my puppet; were he savage as a starving bear my voice could tame him,—and concerning his late churlishness 'twas no doubt mere heat of humor, and thou shalt see him sue to me for pardon as only monarchs can sue to the bards who keep them in their thrones! Knowest thou not that were I to string three stanzas of a fiery republican ditty, and set it floating on the lips of the people, that song would sing down Zephoranim from his royal estate more surely than the fury of an armed conqueror! Believe it!—WE, the poets, rule the nation, . . A rhyme has oft had power to kill a king!"
Theos smiled at the proud boast, but made no reply, as by this time they had reached the Laureate's palace, and were ascending the steps that led into the entrance-hall. A young page advanced to meet them, and, dropping on one knee before his master, held out a small scroll tied across and across with what appeared to be a thick strand of amber-colored floss silk.
"For the most illustrious Chief of Poets, Sah-luma" ... said the little lad, keeping his head bent humbly as he spoke ... "It was brought lately by one masked, who rode in haste and fear, and, ere he could be questioned, swift departed."
Sah-luma took the missive carelessly, scarcely glancing at it, and crossed the hall toward his own apartment, Theos following him. On his way, however, he paused and turned round:
"Has Niphrata yet come home?" he demanded of the page who still lingered.
"No, my lord! ... naught hath been seen or heard concerning her."
Sah-luma gave a petulant gesture of annoyance and passed on. Arrived in his study he seated himself, and allowed his eyes to rest more attentively on the packet just given him. As he looked he uttered a slight exclamation, . . Theos hastened to his side. "What has happened, Sah-luma? ... hast thou ill news?"
"Ill news?—nay, of a truth I know not".. and the Laureate gazed up blankly into his friend's face.. "But this" ... and he touched the fair silken substance that tied the scroll he held, "this is Niphrata's hair!"
"Niphrata's hair!".. Theos was too much surprised to do more than repeat the words mechanically, while a strange pang shot through his heart as of inward shame or sorrow.
"Naught can deceive me in the color of that gold!" went on Sah- luma dreamily, as with careful, somewhat tremulous fingers, he gently loosened the twisted shining threads that were so delicately knotted together, and smoothing them out to their full length, displayed what was indeed a lovely tress of hair bright as woven sunlight with a rippling wave in it that, like the tendril of a vine caught and wound about his hand as though it were a fond and feeling thing.
"See you not, Theos, how warm and soft and shuddering a curl it is? ... It clings to me as if it knew my touch!—as if it half remembered how many and many a time it had been drawn with its companions to my lips and kissed full tenderly! ... How sad and desolate it seems thus severed and alone!"
He spoke gently, yet not without a touch of passion, and twined the fair tresses lingeringly round his fingers, ..then, with the air of one who is instinctively prepared for some unpleasing tidings, he opened the scroll and perused its contents in silence. As he read on, his face grew very grave, and full of pained and wondering regret.. quietly he passed the missive to Theos, who took it from his hand with a tremor of something like fear. The delicately traced characters with which it was covered floated for a moment in a faint blur before his eyes,—then they resolved themselves into legible shape and meaning, as follows:
"To the ever-worshiped and immortally renowned "Sah-luma. "Poet-Laureate of the Kingdom of Al-Kyris. "Blame me not, O my beloved Lord, that I have left thy dearest presence thus unwarnedly forever, staying no time to weary thee with my too fond and foolish tears and kisses of farewell! I owe to thee the gift of freedom, and while I thank thee for that gift, I do employ it now to serve me as a sacrifice to Love,—an immolation of myself upon the altars of my own desire! For thou knowest I have loved thee, O Sah-luma—not too well but most unwisely,—for what am I that thou shouldst stoop to cover my unworthiness with the royal purple of thy poet-passion? ... what could I ever be save the poor trembling slave-idolater, of whose endearments thou must needs most speedily tire! Nevertheless I cannot still this hunger of my heart,—this love that stings me more than it consoles,—and out of the very transport of my burning thoughts I have learned many and strange things,—things whereby I, a woman feebled and unlessoned, have grasped the glimmering foreknowledge of events to come,—events wherein I do perceive for thee, thou Chiefest among men, some dark and threatening disaster. When fore I have prayed unto the most high gods, that they will deign to accept me as thy hostage to misfortune, and set me as a bar between thy life and dawning peril, so that I, long valueless, may serve at least awhile to avert doom from thee who art unparagoned throughout the world!
"Thus I go forth alone to brave and pacify the wrath of the Immortals,—call me not back nor weep for my departure, . . thou wilt not miss me long! To die for thee, Sah-luma, is better than to live for thee, . . for living I must needs be conquered by my sin of love and lose myself and thee,—but in the quiet Afterwards of Death, no passion shall have strength to mar the peaceful, patient waiting of my soul on thine! Farewell thou utmost heart of my weak heart! ..thou only life of my frail life! ... think of me sometimes if thou will, but only as of a flower thou didst gather once in some past half-forgotten spring-time.. a flower that, as it slowly withered, blessed the dear hand in whose warm clasp it died! "NIPHRATA."
Tears rose to Theos's eyes as he finished reading these evidently unpremeditated pathetic words that suggested so much more than they actually declared. He silently returned the scroll to Sah- luma, who sat very still, thoughtfully stroking the long, bright curl that was twisted round his fingers like a glittering strand of spun glass,—and he felt all at once so unreasonably irritated with his friend, that he was even inclined to find fault with the very grace and beauty of his person, . . the mere indolence of his attitude was, for the moment, provoking.
"Why art thou so unmoved?" he demanded almost sternly.
"What hast thou done to Niphrata, to thus grieve her gentle spirit beyond remedy?"
Sah-luma looked up, like a surprised child.
"Done? ... Nay, what should I do? ... I have let her love me!"
O sublime permission! ... he had "LET HER LOVE" him! ... He had condescendingly allowed her, as it were, to waste all the treasures of her soul upon him! Theos stared at him in vague amazement,—while he, apparently tired of his own reflections, continued with some impatience:
"What more could she desire? ... I never barred her from my presence, ... nor checked the fervor of her greetings! I wore the flowers she chose,—I listened to the songs she sang, and when she looked more fair than ordinary I stinted not the warmth of my caresses. She was too meek and loving for my fancy ... no will save mine—no happiness save in my company,—no thought beyond my pleasure—one wearies of such a fond excess of sweetness! Nevertheless her sole delight was still to serve me,—could I debar her from that joy because I saw therein some danger for her peace? Slave as she was, I made her free—and lo! how capriciously she plays with her late-given liberty! 'Tis always the way with women,—no man shall ever learn how best to please them! She knew I loved her not as lovers love,—she knew my heart was elsewhere fixed and fated ... and if, notwithstanding this knowledge, she still chose to love me, then assuredly her grief is of her own creating! Methinks 'tis I who am most injured in this matter! ... all the day long I have tormented myself concerning the silly maiden's absence, while she, seized by some crazed idea of new adventure, has gone forth heedlessly, scarce knowing whither. Her letter is the exalted utterance of an overwrought, excited brain, —she has in all likelihood caught the contagion of superstitious alarm that seems just now to possess the whole city, and she knows naught of what she writes or what she means to do. To leave me forever, as she says, is out of her power,—for I will demand her back at the hands of Lysia or the King,—and no demand of mine has ever been refused. Moreover, with Lysia's aid, her hiding-place is soon and easily discovered!"
"How?" asked Theos mechanically, still surveying the beautiful, calm features of the charming egotist whose nature seemed such a curious mixture of loftiness and littleness.. "She may have left the city!"
"No one can leave the city without express permission,"—rejoined Sah-luma tranquilly—"Besides, . . didst thou not see the Black Disc last night in Lysia's palace?"
Theos nodded assent. He at once remembered the strange revolving thing that had covered itself with brilliant letters at the approach of the High Priestess, and he waited somewhat eagerly to hear the meaning of so singular an object explained.
"The Priest of the Temple of Nagaya,"—went on Sah-luma—"are the greatest scientists in the world, with the exception of the lately formed Circle of Mystics, who it must he confessed exceed them in certain new lines of discovery. But setting aside the Mystic School, which it behoves us not to speak of, seeing it is condemned by law,—there are no men living more subtly wise in matters pertaining to aerial force and light-phenomena, than the Servants of the Secret Doctrine of the Temple. All seeming- marvellous things are to them mere child's play,—and the miracles by which they keep the multitude in awe are not by any means vulgar, but most exquisitely scientific. As, for instance, at the great New Year Festival, called by us 'The Sailing-Forth of the Ship of the Sun,'—which takes place at the commencement of the Spring solstice, a fire is kindled on the summit of the highest tower, and a Ship of gold rises from the centre of the flames, carrying the body of a slain virgin eastwards, . . 'tis wondrously performed! ... and I, like others, have gaped upon the splendor of the scene half-credulous, and wholly dazzled! For the Ship doth rise aloft with excellent stateliness, plowing the air with as much celerity as sailing-vessels plow the seas; departing straightway from the watching eyes of thousands of spectators, it plunges deep, or so it seems, into the very heart of the rising Sun, which doth apparently absorb it in devouring flames of glory, for never again doth it return to earth, . . and none can solve the mystery of its vanishing! 'Tis a graceful piece of jugglery and perfectly accomplished, . . while as for Oracles [Footnote: The Phonograph was known and used for the utterance of Oracles by one Savan the Asmounian, a Priest-King of ancient Egypt.] that command and repeat their commands in every shade of tone, from mild to wrathful, there are only too many of these, . . moreover the secret of their manufacture is well known to all students of acoustic science. But concerning the Black Disc in Lysia's hall, it is a curiously elaborate piece of workmanship. It corresponds with an electric wheel in the Interior Chamber of the Temple, where all the priests and flamens meet and sum up the entire events of the day, both public and private, condensing the same into brief hieroglyphs. Setting their wheel in motion, they start a similar motion in the Disc, and the bright characters that flash upon it and disappear like quicksilver, are the reflection of the working electric wires which write what only Lysia is skilled to read. From sunset to midnight these messages keep coming without intermission,—and all the most carefully concealed affairs of Al- Kyris are discovered by the Temple Spies and conveyed to Lysia by this means. Whatever the news, it is repeated again and again on the Disc, till she, by rapidly turning it with a peculiar movement of her own, causes a small bell to ring in the Temple, which signifies to her informers that she has understood all their communications, and knows everything. Her inquisitorial system is searching and elaborate, . . there is no secret so carefully guarded that the Black Disc will not in time reveal!"
Theos listened wonderingly and with a sense of repugnance and fear, ... he felt as though the beautiful Priestess, with her glittering robes and the dreadful jewelled Eye upon her breast, were just then entering the room stealthily and rustling hither and thither like a snake beneath covering leaves. She was an ever- present Temptation,—a bewildering snare and distracting evil,— was it not possible to shake her trail off the life of his friend- and also to pluck from out his own heart the poison-sting of her fatal, terrible fascination? A red mist swam before his eyes—his lips were dry and feverish,—his voice sounded hoarse and faint in his own ears when he forced himself to speak again.
"So thou dost think that, wheresoever Niphrata hath strayed, Lysia can find her?" he said.
"Assuredly!" returned Sah-luma with easy complacency—"I would swear that, even at this very moment, Lysia could restore her to my arms in safety."
"Then why" ... suggested Theos anxiously—"why not go forth and seek her now?"
"Nay, there is time!" ... and Sah-luma half closed his languid lids and stretched himself lazily. "I would not have the child imagine I vexed myself too greatly for her unkind departure, . . she must have space wherein to weep and repent her of her folly. She is the strangest maiden!" ... and he brushed his lips lightly against the golden curl he held,—She loves me, . . and yet repulses all attempted passion,—I remember" ... here his face grew more serious—"I remember one night in the beginning of summer,—the moon was round and high in heaven,—we were alone together in this room,—the lamps burned low,—and she.. Niphrata, . . sang to me. Her voice was full, and withal tremulous,—her form, bent to her ebony harp was soft and yielding as an iris stem, her eyes turned upon mine seemed wonderingly to question me as to the worth of love! ... or so I fancied. The worth of love! ... I would have taught it to her then in the rapture of an hour!—but seized with sudden foolish fear she fled, leaving me dissatisfied, indifferent, and weary! No matter! when she returns again her mood will alter, . . and though I love her not as she would fain be loved, I shall find means to make her happy."
"Nay, but she speaks of dying".. said Theos quickly ... "Wilt thou constrain her back from death?"
"My friend, all women speak of dying when they are love-wearied" ... replied Sah-luma with a slight smile ... "Niphrata will not die, ... she is too young and fond of life, ... the world is as a garden wherein she has but lately entered, all ignorant of the pleasures that await her there. 'Tis an odd notion that she has of danger threatening me,—thou also, good Theos, art become full of omens,—and yet, . . there is naught of visible ill to trouble the fairness of the day."
He stepped out as he spoke on the terrace and looked up at the intense calm of the lovely sky. Theos followed him, and stood leaning on the balustrade among the clambering vines, watching him with earnest, half-regretful half-adoring eyes. He, meanwhile, gathered a scarcely opened white rosebud and loosening the tress of Niphrata's hair from his fingers, allowed it to hang to its full rippling length,—then laying the flower against it, he appeared dreamily to admire the contrast between the snowy blossom and shining curl.
"Many strange men there are in the world," he said softly—"lovers and fools who set priceless store on a rose and a lock of woman's hair! I have heard of some who, dying, have held such trifles as chiefest of all their worldly goods, and have implored that whereas their gold and household stuff can be bestowed freely on him who first comes to claim it, the faded flower and senseless tress may be laid on their hearts to comfort them in the cold and dreamless sleep from which they shall not wake again!" He sighed and his eyes darkened into deep and musing tenderness. "Poets there have been too and are, who would string many a canticle on this soft severed lock and gathered blossom,—and many a quaint conceit could I myself contrive concerning it, did I not feel more prone to tears to-day than minstrelsy. Canst thou believe it, Theos"— and he forced a laugh, though his lashes were wet, . . "I, the joyous Sah-luma, am for once most truly sad! ... this tress of hair doth seem to catch my spirit in a chain that binds me fast and draws me onward.. onward.. to some mournful end I may not dare to see!"
And as he spoke he mechanically wound the golden curl round and about the stem of the rosebud in the fashion of a ribbon, and placed the two entwined together in his breast. Theos looked at him wistfully, but was silent, . . he himself was too full of dull and melancholy misgivings to be otherwise than sad also. Instinctively he drew closer to his friend's side, and thus they remained for some minutes, exchanging no words, and gazing dreamily out on the luxurious foliage of the trees and the wealth of bright blossoms that adorned the landscape before them.
"Thou art confident Niphrata will return?" questioned Theos presently in a low tone.
"She will return,".. rejoined Sah-luma quietly—"because she will do anything for love of me."
"For love's sake she may die!" said Theos. Sah-luma smiled.
"Not so, my friend! ... for love's sake she will live!"
THE PRIEST ZEL.
As he uttered the last word the sound of an approaching light step disturbed the silence. It was one of the young girls of the household, . . a dark, haughty-looking beauty whom Theos remembered to have seen in the palace-hall when he first arrived, lying indolently among cushions, and playing with a tame bird which flew to and fro at her beckoning. She advanced now with an almost imperial stateliness,—her salute to Sah-luma was grateful, yet scarcely submissive,—while he, turning eagerly toward her, seemed gladdened and relieved at her appearance, his face assuming a gratified expression like that of a child who, having broken one toy, is easily consoled with another.
"Welcome, Irenya!" he exclaimed gayly—"Thou art the very bitter- sweetness I desire. Thy naughty pout and coldly mutinous eyes are pleasing contrasts to the overlanguid heat and brightness of the day! What news hast thou, my sweet? ... Is there fresh havoc in the city? ... more deaths? ... more troublous tidings? ... nay, then hold thy peace, for thou art not a fit messenger of woe— thou'rt much too fair!"
Irenya's red lips curled disdainfully, . . the "naughty pout" was plainly visible.
"My lord is pleased to flatter his slave!" she said with a touch of scorn in her musical accents, . . "Certes, of ill news there is more than enough,—and evil rumors have never been lacking these many months, as my lord would have known, had he deigned to listen to the common talk of those who are not poets but merely sad and suffering men. Nevertheless, though I may think, I speak not at all of matters such as these,—and for my present errand 'tis but to say that a Priest of the Inner Temple waits without, desirous of instant speech with the most illustrious Sah-luma."
"A Priest of the Inner Temple!" echoed the Laureate wonderingly, . . "By my faith, a most unwelcome visitor! ... What business can he have with me?"
"Nay, that I know not"—responded Irenya calmly—"He hath come hither, so he bade me say, by command of The Absolute Authority."
Sah-luma's face flushed and he looked annoyed. Then taking Theos by the arm he turned away from the terrace, and re-entered his apartment, where he flung himself full length on his couch, pillowing his handsome head against a fold of glossy leopard skin which formed a most becoming background for the soft, dark oval beauty of his features.
"Sit thee down, my friend!" he said glancing smilingly at Theos, and signing to him to take possession of a luxurious lounge-chair near him.. "If we must needs receive this sanctified professor of many hypocrisies, we will do it with suitable indifference and ease. Wilt thou stay here with us, Irenya," he added, stretching out one arm and catching the maiden round the waist in spite of her attempted resistance.. "Or art thou in a froward mood, and wilt thou go thine own proud way without so much as a consoling kiss from Sah-luma?"
Irenya looked full at him, a repressed anger blazing in her large black eyes.
"Let my lord save his kisses for those who value them!" she said contemptuously, "'Twere pity he should waste them upon me, to whom they are unmeaning and therefore all unwelcome!"
He laughed heartily, and instantly loosened her from his embrace.
"Off, off with thee, sweet virtue! ... fairest prude!" he cried, still laughing.. "Live out thy life an thou wilt, empty of love or passion—count the years as they slip by, leaving thee each day less lovely and less fit for pleasure, ... grow old,—and on the brink of death, look back, poor child, and see the glory thou hast missed and left behind thee! ... the light of love and youth that, once departed, can dawn again no more!"
And lifting himself slightly from his cushions he kissed his hand playfully to the girl, who, as though suddenly overcome by a sort of vague regret, still lingered, gazing at him, while a faint color crept through her cheeks like the deepening hue on the leaves of an opening rose. Sah-luma saw her hesitation, and his face grew yet more radiant with malicious mirth.
"Hence.. hence, Irenya!" he exclaimed—"Escape temptation quickly while thou mayest! Support thy virgin pride in peace! ... thou shalt never say again Sah-luma's kisses are unwelcome! The Poet's touch shall never wrong or sanctify thy name!—thou art safe from me as pillared icicles in everlasting snow! Dear little one, be happy without love if that be possible! ... nevertheless take heed thou do not weakly clamor in the after-years for once rejected joy!—Now bid yon waiting Priest attend me,—tell him I can but spare a few brief moments audience."
Irenya's head drooped,—Theos saw tears in her eyes,—but she managed to restrain them, and with something of a defiant air she made her formal obeisance and withdrew. She did not return again, but a page appeared instead, ushering in with ceremonious civility a tall personage, clad in flowing white robes and muffled up to the eyes in a mantle of silver tissue,—a majestic, mysterious, solemn-looking individual, who, pausing on the threshold of the apartment, described a circle in the air with a small staff he carried, and said in monotonous accents:
"By the going-in and passing-out of the Sun through the Gates of the East and the Gates of the West,—by the Vulture of Gold and White Lotus and the countless virtues of Nagaya, may peace dwell in this house forever!"
"Agreed to with all my heart!" responded Sah-luma, carelessly looking up from his couch but making no attempt to rise, . . "Peace is an excellent thing, most holy father!"
"Excellent!" returned the Priest slowly advancing and undoing his mantle so that his face became fully visible,—"So truly excellent indeed, that at times it is needful to make war in order to insure it."
He sat down, as he spoke, in a chair which was placed for him at Sah-luma's bidding by the page who had ushered him in, and he maintained a grave silence till that youthful servitor had departed. Theos meanwhile studied his countenance with some curiosity,—it was so strangely impassive, yet at the same time so full of distinctly marked intellectual power. The features were handsome but also singularly repulsive,—they were rendered in a certain degree dignified by a full, dark beard which, however, failed entirely to conceal the receding chin, and compressed, cruel mouth,—the eyes were keen and crafty and very clear,—the forehead was high and intelligent, and deeply furrowed with lines that seemed to be the result of much pondering over close and cunning calculation, rather than the marks of profound, unselfish, and ennobling thought. The page having left the room, Sah-luma began the conversation:
"To what unexpected cause, most righteous sir, am I indebted for the honor of this present visit? Methinks I recognize the countenance of the famous Zel, the High-Priest of the Sacrificial Altar—if so, 'tis marvellous so great a man should venture forth alone and unattended, to the house of one who loves not priestly company, and who hath at best for all professors of religion a somewhat indifferent welcome!"
The Priest smiled coldly.
"Most rightly dost thou speak, Sah-luma"—he answered, his measured, metallic voice seeming to strike a wave of chilling discord through the air, "and most frankly hast thou thus declared one of thy many deficiencies! Atheist as thou art and to that manner born, thou art in very deed outside the pale of all religious teaching and consolement, . . nevertheless there is much gentle mercy shown thee by the Virgin Priestess of Nagaya".. here he solemnly bent his head and made the rapid sign of a Circle on his breast, . . "who, knowing thy great genius, doth ever strive with thoughtful zeal to draw thee closely within the saving Silver Veil! Yet it is possible that even her patience with thy sins may tire at last,—wherefore while there is time, offer due penance to the offended gods and humble thy stiff heart before the Holy Maid, lest she expel thee from her sight forever." He paused, . . a satirical, half-amused smile hovered round Sah-luma's delicate mouth—his eyes flashed.
"All this is the mere common rhetoric of the Temple Craft"—he said indolently.. "Why not, good Zel, give plainer utterance to thine errand?—we know each other's follies well enough to spare formalities! Lysia has sent thee hither, . . what then? ... what says the beauteous Virgin to her willing slave?"
An undertone of mockery rang through the languid silvery sweetness of his accents, and the Priest's dark brows knitted in an irritated frown.
"Thou art over-flippant of speech, Sah-luma!" he observed austerely. "Take heed thou be not snared into misfortune by the glibness of thy tongue! Thou dost speak of the chaste Lysia with unseemly lightness.—learn to be reverent, and so shalt thou be wiser!"
Sah-luma laughed and settled himself more easily on his couch, turning in such a manner as to look the stately Zel full in the face. They exchanged one glance, expressive as it seemed of some mutual secret understanding,—for the Priest coughed as though he were embarrassed, and stroked his beard deliberately with one hand in an endeavor to hide the strange smile that, despite his efforts to conceal it, visibly lightened his cold eyes to a sudden tigerish brilliancy.
"The mission with which I am charged," he resumed presently,—"is to thee, Chief Laureate of the realm, and runs as followeth: Whereas thou hast of late avoided many days of public service in the Temple, so that those among the people who admire thee follow thine ill example, and absent themselves also with equal readiness,—the Priestess Undefiled, the noble Lysia, doth to- night command thy presence as a duty not to be foregone. Therefore come thou and take thy part in the Great Sacrifice, for these late tumults and disaster in the city, notably the perplexing downfall of the Obelisk, have caused all hearts to fail and sink for very fear. The river darkens in its crimson hue each hour by passing hour,—strange noises have been heard athwart the sky and in the deeper underground, . . and all these drear unwonted things are so many cogent reasons why we should in solemn unison implore the favor of Nagaya and the gods whereby further catastrophes may be perchance averted. Moreover for motives of most urgent state- policy it is advisable that all who hold place, dignity, and renown within the city should this night be seen as fervent supplicants before the Sacred Shrine,—so may much threatening rebellion be appeased, and order be restored out of impending confusion. Such is the message I am bidden to convey to thee,— furthermore I am required to bear back again to the High Priestess thy faithful promise that her orders shall be surely and entirely obeyed. Thou art not wont".. and a pale sneer flitted over his features.. "to set her mandate at defiance."
Sah-luma bit his lips angrily, and folded his arms above his head with a lazy yet impatient movement.
"Assuredly I shall be present at the Service," he said curtly.. "There needed no such weighty summoning! 'Twas my intention to join the ranks of worshippers to-night, though for myself I have no faith in worship, . . the gods I ween are deaf, and care not a jot whether we mortals weep or sing. Nevertheless I shall look on with fitting gravity, and deport myself with due decorum throughout the ceremonious Ritual, though verily I tell thee, reverend Zel, 'tis tedious and monotonous at best, . . and concerning the poor maiden-sacrifice, it is a shuddering horror we could well dispense with."
"I think not so,".. replied the Priest calmly. "Thou, who art well instructed in the capricious humors of men, must surely know how dearly the majority of them love the shedding of blood,—'tis a clamorous brute-instinct in them which must be satisfied. Better therefore that we, the anointed Priests, should slay one willing victim for the purposes of religion, than that they, the ignorant mob, should kill a thousand to gratify their lust of murder. An unresentful, all-loving Deity would be impossible of comprehension to a mutually hating and malignant race of beings,—all creeds must be accommodated to the dispositions of the million."
"Pardon me..." suddenly interrupted Theos, "I am a stranger, and in a great measure ignorant of this city's customs, . . but I confess I am amazed to hear a Priest uphold so specious an argument! What! ... must divine Religion be dragged down from its pure throne to pander to the selfish passions of the multitude? ... because men are vile, must a vile god be invented to suit their savage caprices? ... because men are so cruel, must the unseen Creator of things be delineated as even more barbarous than they, in order to give them some pietistical excuse for wickedness?—I ask these questions not out of wanton curiosity, but for the sake of instruction!"
The haughty Zel turned upon him in severe astonishment.
"Sir," he said—"Stranger undoubtedly thou art,—and so bold a manner of speech most truly savors of the utterly uneducated western barbarian! All wise and prudent governments have learned that a god fit for the adoration of men must be depicted as much like men as possible,—any absolutely superhuman attributes are unnecessary to the character of a useful deity, inasmuch as no man ever will, or ever can, understand the worth of superhuman qualities. Humanity is only capable of worshipping Self—thus, it is necessary, that when people are persuaded to pay honor to an elected Divinity, they should be well and comfortably assured in their own minds that they are but offering homage to an Image of Self placed before them in a deified or heroic form. This satisfies the natural idolatrous cravings of Egotism, and this is all that priests or teachers desire. Now in the worship of Nagaya, we have the natures of Man and Woman conjoined, . . the Snake is the emblem of male wisdom united with female subtilty—and the two essences, mingled in one, make as near an approach to what we may imagine the positive Divine capacity as can be devised on earth by earthly intelligences. If, on the other hand, such an absurd doctrine as that formulated in the fanatic madman Khosrul's 'Prophecy' could be imagined as actually admitted, and proclaimed to the nations, it would have very few followers, and the sincerity of those few might well be open to doubt. For the Deity it speaks of is supposed to be an immortal God disguised as Man,— a God who voluntarily rejects and sets aside His own glory to serve and save His perishable creatures,—thus the root of that religion would consist in Self-abnegation, and Self-abnegation is, as experience proves, utterly impossible to the human being."
"Why is it impossible?" asked Theos with a quiver of passionate earnestness in his voice,—"Are there none in all the world who would sacrifice their own interests to further another's welfare and happiness?"
The Priest smiled,—a delicately derisive smile.
"Certainly not!" he replied blandly.. "The very question strikes me as singularly foolish, inasmuch as we live in a planet where, if we do not serve ourselves and look after our own personal advantage, we may as well die the minute we are born, or, better still, never be born at all. There is no one living, . . at least not in the wide realm of Al-Kyris,—who would put himself to the smallest inconvenience for the sake of another, were that other his nearest and dearest blood-relation. And in matters of love and friendship, 'tis the same as in business,—each man eagerly pursues his own chance of enjoyment,—even when he loves, or fancies he loves, a woman, it is solely because her beauty or attractiveness gives HIM temporary pleasure, not because he has any tenderness or after-regard for the nature of HER feelings. How can it be otherwise? ... We elect friends that are useful to US personally,—we care little for THEIR intrinsic merit, and we only tolerate them as long as they happen to suit OUR taste. For generally, on the first occasion of a disagreement or difference of opinion, we shake ourselves free of them without either regret or remorse, and seek others who will be meek enough not to offer us any open contradiction. It is, and it must be always so: Self is the first person we are bound to consider, and all religions, if they are intended to last, must prudently recognize and silently acquiesce in this, the chief dogma of Man's constitution."
Sah-luma laughed. "Excellently argued, most politic Zel!" he exclaimed.. "Yet methinks it is easy to worship Self without either consecrated altars or priestly assistance!"
"Thou shouldst know better than any one with what facility such devotion can be practiced!" returned Zel ironically, rising as he spoke, and beginning to wrap his mantle round him preparatory to departure—"Thou hast a wider range of perpetual adoration than most men, seeing thou dost so fully estimate the value of thine own genius! Some heretics there are in the city, who say thy merit is but a trick of song shared by thee in common with the birds, . . who truly seem to take no pride in the particular sweetness of their unsyllabled language, . . but thou thyself art better instructed, and who shall blame thee for the veneration with which thou dost daily contemplate thine own intellectual powers? Not I, believe me!".. and his crafty eyes glittered mockingly, as he arranged his silver gauze muffler so that it entirely veiled the lower part of his features, . . "And though I do somewhat regret to learn that thou, among other noblemen of fashion, hast of late taken part in the atheistic discussions encouraged by the Positivist School of Thought, still, as a priest, my duty is not so much to reproach as to call thee to repentance. Therefore I inwardly rejoice to know thou wilt present thyself before the Shrine to-night, if only for the sake of custom ..."
"'Only' for the sake of custom!" repeated Sah-luma amusedly—"Nay, good Zel, custom should be surely classified as an exceeding powerful god, inasmuch as it rules all things, from the cut of our clothes to the form of our creeds!"
"True!" replied Zel imperturbably. "And he who despises custom becomes an alien from his kind,—a moral leper among the pure and clean."
"Oh, say rather a lion among sheep, a giant among pigmies!" laughed the Laureate,—"For by my soul, a man who had the courage to scorn custom, and set the small hypocrisies of society at defiance, would be a glorious hero! a warrior of strange integrity whom it would be well worth travelling miles to see!"
"Khosrul was such an one!" interposed Theos suddenly.
"Tush, man! Khosrul was mad!" retorted Sah-luma.
"Are not all men thought mad who speak the truth?" queried Theos gently.
The priest Zel looked at him with proud and supercilious eyes.
"Thou hast strange notions for one still young," he said ... "What art thou? ... a new disciple of the Mystics? ... or a student of the Positive Doctrines?"
Theos met his gaze unflinchingly. "What am I?" he murmured sadly, and his voice trembled, ... "Reverend Priest, I am nothing! ... Great are the sufferings of men who have lost their wealth, their home, their friends, ... but I ... I have lost Myself! Were I anything ... could I ever hope to be anything, I would pray to be accepted a servant of the Cross, ... that far-off unknown Faith to which my tired spirit clings!"
As he uttered these words, he raised his eyes, ... how dim and misty at the moment seemed the tall white figure of the majestic Zel! and in contrast to it, how brilliantly distinct Sah-luma's radiant face appeared, turned toward him in inquiring wonderment! ... He felt a swooning dizziness upon him, but the sensation swiftly passed, and he saw the haughty Priest's dark brows bent upon him in a frown of ominous disapproval.
"'Tis well thou art not a citizen of Al-Kyris"—he said scornfully—"To strangers we accord a certain license of opinion, —but if thou wert a native of these realms, thy speech would cost thee dear! As it is, I warn thee! ... dare not to make public mention of the Cross, the accursed Emblem of the dead Khosrul's idolatry, ... guard thy tongue heedfully!—and thou, Sah-luma if thou dost bring this rashling with thee to the Temple, thou must take upon thyself all measures for his safety. For in these days, some words are like firebrands, and he who casts them forth incautiously may kindle flames that only the forfeit of his life can quench."
There was a quiver of suppressed fury in his tone, and Sah-luma lifted his lazy lids, and looked at him with an air of tranquil indifference.
"Prithee, trouble not thyself, most eminent Zel!" he answered nonchalantly ... "I will answer for my friend's discretion! Thou dost mistake his temperament,—he is a budding poet, and utters many a disconnected thought which hath no meaning save to his own fancy-swarming brain,—he saw the frantic Khosrul die, and the picture hath impressed him for the moment—nothing more! I pledge my word for his demurest prudence at the Service to-night—I would not have him absent for the world, ... 'twere pity he should miss the splendor of a scene which doubtless hath been admirably contrived, by priestly art and skill, to play upon the passions of the multitude. Tell me, good Zel, what is the name of the self- offered Victim?"
The Priest flashed a strangely malevolent glance at him.
"'Tis not to be divulged," he replied curtly—"The virgin is no longer counted among the living ... she is as one already departed—the name she bore hath been erased from the city registers, and she wears instead the prouder title of 'Bride of the Sun and Nagaya.' Restrain thy curiosity until night hath fallen,—it may be that thou, who hast a wide acquaintance among fair maidens, wilt recognize her countenance."
"Nay, I trust I know her not"—said Sah-luma carelessly—"For, though all women die for me when once their beauty fades, still am I loth to see them perish ere their prime.
"Yet many are doomed to perish so"—rejoined the Priest impassively—"Men as well as women,—and methinks those who are best beloved of the gods are chosen first to die. Death is not difficult, ... but to live long enough for life to lose all savor, and love all charm, ... this is a bitterness that comes with years and cannot be consoled."
And retreating slowly toward the door, he paused as he had previously done on the threshold.
"Farewell, Sah-luma!" he said ... "Beware that nothing hinders thee from the fulfillment of thy promise! ... and let thy homage to the Holy Maid be reverent at the parting of the Silver Veil!"
He waited, but Sah-luma made no answer—he therefore raised his staff and described a circle with it in the same solemn fashion that had distinguished his entrance.
"By the coming-forth of the Moon through the ways of Darkness, . . by the shining of Stars, . . by the Sleeping Sun and the silence of Night, . . by the All-Seeing Eye of Raphon and the Wisdom of Nagaya may the protection of the gods abide in this house forever!"
As he pronounced these words he noiselessly departed, without any salutation whatever to Sah-luma, who heaved a sigh of relief when he had gone, and, rising from his couch came and placed one hand affectionately on Theos's shoulder.
"Thou foolish, yet dear comrade!" he murmured.. "What moves thee to blurt forth such strange and unwarrantable sayings? ... Why wouldst thou pray to be a servant of the Cross? ... or why, at any rate, if thou hast taken a fancy for the dead Khosrul's new doctrine, wert thou so rash as to proclaim thy sentiment to yon unprincipled, bloodthirsty Zel, who would not scruple to poison the King himself, if his Majesty gave sufficient cause of offence! Dost thou desire to be straightway slain?—Nay, I will not have thee run thus furiously into danger,—thou wilt be offered the Silver Nectar like Nir-jahs, and not even the intercession of my friendship would avail to save thee then!"
Theos smiled rather sadly.
"And thus would end for ever my mistakes and follies, . ." he answered softly.. "And I should perchance discover the small hidden secret of things—the little, simple unguessed clue, that would unravel the mystery and meaning of Existence! For can it be that the majestic marvel of created Nature is purposeless in its design?—that we are doomed to think thoughts which can never be realized?—to dream dreams that perish in the dreaming? ... to build up hopes without foundation? ... to call upon God when there is no God? ... to long for Heaven when there is no Heaven? ... Ah no, Sah-luma!—surely we are not the mere fools and dupes of Time, ... surely there is some Eternal Beyond which is not Annihilation, . . some greater, vaster sphere of soul-development where we shall find all that we have missed on earth!"
Sah-luma's face clouded, and a sigh escaped him.
"I would my thoughts were similar to thine!" he said sorrowfully.. "I would I could believe in an immortal destiny, ... but alas, my friend! there is no shadow of ground for such a happy faith,—none neither in sense nor science. I have reflected on it many a time till I have wearied myself with mournful musing, and the end of all my meditation has been a useless protest against the Great Inevitable, . . a clamor of disdain hurled at the huge, blind, indifferent Force that poisons the deep sea of Space with an ever- productive spawn of wasted Life! Anon I have flouted my own despair, and have consoled myself with the old wise maxim that was found inscribed on the statue of a smiling god some centuries ago.. 'Enjoy your lives, ye passing tribes of men ... take pleasure in folly, for this is the only wisdom that avails! Happy is he whose days are filled with the delight of love and laughter, for there is nothing better found on earth, and whatsoever ye do, whether wise or foolish, the same End comes to all!'.. Is not this true philosophy, my Theos? ... what can a man do better than enjoy?"
"Much depends on the particular form of enjoyment..." responded Theos thoughtfully. "Some there are, for example, who might find their greatest satisfaction in the pleasures of the table,—others in the gratification of sensual desires and gross appetites,—are these to be left to follow their own devices, without any effort being made to raise them from the brute-level where they lie?"
"Why, in the name of all the gods, SHOULD they be raised?" demanded Sah-luma impatiently—"If their choice is to grovel in mire, why ask them to dwell in a palace?—They would not appreciate the change!"
"Again," went on Theos—"there are others who are only happy in the pursuit of wisdom, and the more they learn, the more they seek to know. One wonders, . . one cannot help wondering.. are their aspirations all in vain? ... and will the grave seal down their hopes forever?"
Sah-luma paused a moment before replying.
"It seems so ..." he said at last slowly and hesitatingly ... "And herein I find the injustice of the matter,—because however great may be the imagination and fervor of a poet for instance, he never is able WHOLLY to utter his thoughts. Half of them remain in embryo, like buds of flowers that never come to bloom, . . yet they are THERE, burning in the brain and seeming too vast of conception to syllable themselves into the common speech of mortals! I have often marvelled why such ideas suggest themselves at all, as they can neither be written nor spoken, unless..." and here his voice sank into a dreamy softness, "unless indeed they are to be received as hints, . . foreshadowings.. of greater works destined for our accomplishment, hereafter!"
He was silent a minute's space, and Theos, watching him wistfully, suddenly asked:
"Wouldst thou be willing to live again, Sah-luma, if such a thing could be?"
"Friend, I would rather never die!"—responded the Laureate, half playfully, half seriously.. "But.. if I were certain that death was no more than a sleep, from which I should assuredly awaken to another phase of existence, ..I know well enough what I would do!"
"What?" questioned Theos, his heart beginning to beat with an almost insufferable anxiety.
"I would live a different life NOW!" answered Sah-luma steadily, looking his companion full in the eyes as he spoke, while a grave smile shadowed rather than lightened his features. "I would begin at once, . . so that when the new Future dawned for me, I might not be haunted or tortured by the remembrance of a misspent Past! For if we are to believe in any everlasting things at all, we cannot shut out the fatal everlastingness of Memory!" His words sounded unlike himself...his voice was as the voice of some reproving angel speaking,—and Theos, listening, shuddered, he knew not why, and held his peace.
"Never to be able to FORGET!" continued Sah-luma in the same grave, sweet tone ... "Never to lose sight of one's own bygone wilful sins, . . this would be an immortal destiny too terrible to endure! For then, inexorable Retrospection would forever show us where we had missed the way, and how we had failed to use the chances given us, . . moreover, we might haply find ourselves surrounded..." and his accents grew slower and more emphatic.. "by strange phantoms of our own creating, who would act anew the drama of our obstinate past follies, perplexing us thereby into an anguish greater than mortal fancy can depict. Thus if we indeed possessed the positive foreknowledge of the eternal regeneration of our lives, 'twould be well to free them from all hindrance to perfection HERE,—here, while we are still conscious of Time and opportunity." He paused, then went on in his customary gay manner: "But fortunately we are not positive, nothing is certain, no truth is so satisfactorily demonstrated that some wiseacre cannot be found to disprove it, . . hence it happens my friend..." and his face assumed its wonted careless expression ... "that we men whose common-sense is offended by priestly hypocrisy and occult necromantic jugglery,—we, who perhaps in our innermost heart of hearts ardently desire to believe in a supreme Divinity and the grandly progressive Sublime Intention of the Universe, but who, discovering naught but ignoble Cant and Imposture everywhere, are incontinently thrown back on our own resources, . . hence it comes, I say, that we are satisfied to accept ourselves, each man in his own personality, as the Beginning and End of Existence, and to minister to that Absolute Self which after all concerns us most, and which will continue to engage our best service until...well!— until History can show us a perfectly Selfless Example, which, if human nature remains consistent with its own traditions, will assuredly never be!"
This was almost more than Theos could bear, . . there was a tightening agony at his heart that made him long to cry out, to weep, or, better still, to fling himself on his knees and pray, . . pray to that far-removed mild Presence, that "Selfless Example" who he KNEW had hallowed and dignified the world, and yet whose Holy and Beloved Name, he, miserable sinner, was unworthy to even remember! His suffering at the moment was so intense that he fancied some reflection of it must be visible in his face. Sah- luma, however, apparently saw nothing,—he stepped across the room, and out to the vine-shaded loggia, where he turned and beckoned his companion to his side.
"Come!" he said, pushing his hair off his brows with a languid gesture, . . "The afternoon wears onward, and the very heavens seem to smoke with heat,—let us seek cooler air beneath the shade of yonder cypresses, whose dark-green boughs shut out the glaring sky. We'll talk of love and poesy and tender things till sunset, . . I will recite to thee a ballad of mine that Niphrata loved,—'tis called 'An Idyl of Roses,'...and it will lighten this hot and heavy silence, when even birds sleep, and butterflies drowse in the hollowed shelter of the arum-leaves. Come, wilt thou? ... To- night perchance we shall have little time for pleasant discourse!"
As he spoke, Theos obediently went toward him with the dazed sensations of one under the influence of mesmerism, ... the dazzling face and luminous eyes of the Laureate exercised over him an indescribable yet resistless authority,—and it was certain that, wherever Sah-luma led the way, he was bound to follow. Only, as he mechanically descended from the terrace into the garden, and linked his arm within that of his companion, he was conscious of a vague feeling of pity for himself...pity that he should have dwindled into such a nonentity, when Sah-luma was so renowned a celebrity, . . pity too that he should have somehow never been able to devise anything original in the Art of Poetry!
This last was evident, . . for he knew already that the "Idyl of Roses" Sah-luma purposed reciting could be no other than what he had fancied was HIS "Idyl of Roses" ... a poem he had composed, or rather had plagiarized in some mysterious fashion before he had even dreamt of the design of "Nourhalma"...However he had become in part resigned to the peculiar position he occupied,—he was just a little sorry for himself, and that was all. Even as the parted spirit of a dead man might hover ruthfully above the grave of its perished mortal body, so he compassionated his own forlorn estate, and heaved a passing sigh of regret, not only for all HE ONCE HAD BEEN, but also for all HE COULD NEVER BE!
IN THE TEMPLE OF NAGAYA.
The hours wore on with stealthy rapidity,—but the two friends, reclining together under a deep-branched canopy of cypress-boughs, paid little or no heed to the flight of time. The heat in the garden was intense—the grass was dry and brittle as though it had been scorched by passing flames,—and a singularly profound stillness reigned everywhere, there being no wind to stir the faintest rustle among the foliage. Lying lazily upon his back, with his arms clasped above his head, Theos looked dreamily up at the patches of blue sky seen between the dark-green gnarled stems and listened to the measured cadence of the Laureate's mellow voice as he recited with much tenderness the promised poem.
Of course it was perfectly familiar,—the lines were precisely the same as those which he, Theos, remembered to have written out, thinking them his own, in an old manuscript book he had left at home. "At-home!" ... Where was that? It must be a very long way off! ... He half-closed his eyes,—a sense of delightful drowsiness was upon him, . . the rise and fall of his friend's rhythmic utterance soothed him into a languid peace, . . the "Idyl of Roses" was very sweet and musical, and, though he knew it of old, he heard it now with special satisfaction, inasmuch as, it being no longer his, he was at liberty to bestow upon it that full measure of admiration which he felt it deserved!
Yet every now and then his thoughts wandered,—and though he anxiously strove to concentrate his attention on the lovely stanzas that murmured past his ears like the gentle sound of waves flowing beneath the mesmerism of the moon, his brain was in a continual state of ferment, and busied itself with all manner of vague suggestions to which he could give no name.
A great weariness weighed down his spirit—a dim consciousness of the futility of all ambition and all endeavor—he was haunted, too, by the sharp hiss of Lysia's voice when she had said, "KILL SAH-LUMA!"...Her look, her attitude, her murderous smile, troubled his memory and made him ill at ease,—the thing she had thus demanded at his hands seemed more monstrous than if she had bidden him kill himself! For there had been one moment, when, mastered by her beauty and the force of his own passion, he WOULD have killed himself had she requested it...but to kill his adored, his beloved friend! ... ah no! not for a thousand sorceress-queens as fair as she!
He drew a long breath, . . an irresistible desire for rest came over him, . . the air was heavy and warm and fragrant,—his companion's dulcet accents served as a lullaby to his tired mind,—it seemed a long time since he had enjoyed a pleasant slumber, for the previous night he had not slept at all. Lower and lower drooped his aching lids, . . he was almost beginning to slip away slowly into a blissful unconsciousness, . . when all at once Sah-luma ceased reciting, and a harsh, brazen clang of bells echoed through the silence, storming to and fro with a violent, hurried uproar suggestive of some sudden alarm. He sprang to his feet, rubbing his eyes,—Sah-luma rose also, a slightly petulant expression on his face.
"Canst thou do no better than sleep"—he queried complainingly, "when thou art privileged to listen to an immortal poem?"
Impulsively Theos caught his hand and pressed it fervently.
"Nay, dost thou deem me so indifferent, my noble friend?" he cried ... "Thou art mistaken, for though perchance mine eyes were closed, my ears were open; I heard thy every word,—I loved thy every line! What dost thou need of praise? ... thou, who canst do naught but work which, being perfect, is beyond all criticism!"
Sah-luma smiled, well satisfied, and the little lines of threatening ill-humor vanished from his countenance.
"Enough!" he said.. "I know that thou dost truly honor me above all poets, and that thou wouldst not willingly offend. Hearest thou how great a clamor the ringers of the Temple make to-night?— 'tis but the sunset chime, . . yet one would think they were pealing forth an angry summons to battle."
"Already sunset!" exclaimed Theos, surprised.. "Why, it seems scarce a minute since, that we came hither!"
"Aye!—such is the magic charm of poesy!" rejoined Sah-luma complacently.. "It makes the hours flit like moments, and long days seemed but short hours! ... Nevertheless 'tis time we were within doors and at supper,—for if we start not soon for the Temple, 'twill be difficult to gain an entrance, and I, at any rate, must be early in my place beside the King."
He heaved a short, impatient sigh,—and as he spoke, all Theos's old misgivings came rushing back upon him and in full force, filling him with vague sorrow, uneasiness, fear. But he knew how useless it was to try and impart any of his inward forebodings to Sah-luma,—Sah-luma, who had so lightly explained Lysia's treacherous conduct to his own entire satisfaction, . . Sah-luma, on whom neither the prophecies of Khosrul nor the various disastrous events of the day had taken any permanent effect, . . while no attempt could now be made to deter him from attending the Sacrificial Service in the Temple, seeing he had been so positively commanded thither by Lysia, through the medium of the priest Zel.
Feeling bitterly his own incompetency to exercise any protective influence on the fate of his companion, Theos said nothing, but silently followed him, as he thrust aside the drooping cypress boughs and made his way out to more open ground, his lithe, graceful figure looking even more brilliant and phantom-like than ever, contrasted with the deep green gloom spread about him by the hoary moss-covered trees that were as twisted and grotesque in shape as a group of fetich idols. As he bent back the last branchy barrier however, and stepped into the full light, he stopped short,—and, uttering a loud exclamation, lifted his hand and pointed westward, his dark eyes dilating with amazement and awe.
Theos at once came swiftly up beside him, and looked where he looked, . . what a scene of terrific splendor he beheld! ... Right across the horizon, that glistened with a pale green hue like newly frozen water, a cloud, black as the blackest midnight, lay heavy and motionless, in form resembling an enormous leaf, fringed at the edges with tremulous lines of gold.
This nebulous mass was absolutely stirless, . . it appeared as though it had been thrown, a ponderous weight, into the vault of heaven, and having fallen, there purposed to remain. Ever and anon beamy threads of lightning played through it luridly, veining it with long, arrowy flashes of orange and silver,—while poised immediately above it was the sun, looking like a dull scarlet seal, ... a ball of dim fire destitute of rays.
On all sides the sky was crossed by wavy flecks of pearl and sudden glimpses as of burning topaz,—and down toward the earth drooped a thin azure fog,—filmy curtain, through which the landscape took the strangest tints and unearthly flushes of color. A moment,—and the spectral sun dropped suddenly into the lower darkness, leaving behind it a glare of gold and green,—lowering purple shadows crept over across the heavens, darkening them as smoke darkens flame,—but the huge cloud, palpitating with lightning, moved not at all nor changed its shape by so much as a hair's breadth, . . it appeared like a vast pall spread out in readiness for the solemn state-burial of the world.
Fascinated by the aspect of the weird sky-phenomenon, Theos was at the same time curiously impressed by a sense of its UNREALITY, . . indeed he found himself considering it with the calm attentiveness of one who is brought face to face with a remarkable picture effectively painted. This peculiar sensation, however, was, like many others of his experience, very transitory, . . it passed, and he watched the lightnings come and go with a certain hesitating fear mingled with wonder. Sah-luma was the first to speak.
"Storm at last!" ... he said, forcing a smile though his face was unusually pale,—"It has threatened us all day...'twill break before the night is over. How sullenly yonder heavens frown! ... they have quenched the sun in their sable darkness as though it were a beaten foe! This will seem an ill sign to those who worship him as a god,—for truly he doth appear to have withdrawn himself in haste and anger. By my soul! 'Tis a dull and ominous eve!" ... and a slight shudder ran through his delicate frame, as he turned toward the white-pillared loggia garlanded with its climbing vines, roses, and passion-flowers, through which there now floated a dim golden, suffused radiance reflected from lamps lit within, . . "I would the night were past and that the new day had come!"
With these words, he entered the house, Theos accompanying him, and together they went at once to the banqueting-hall. There they supped royally, served by silent and attentive slaves,—they themselves, feeling mutually depressed, yet apparently not wishing to communicate their depression one to the other, conversed but little. After the repast was finished, they set forth on foot to the Temple, Sah-luma informing his companion, as they went, that it was against the law to use any chariot or other sort of conveyance to go to the place of worship, the King himself being obliged to dispense with his sumptuous car on such occasions, and to walk thither as unostentatiously as any one of his poorest subjects.
"An excellent rule!" ... observed Theos reflectively,—"For the pomp and glitter of an earthly potentate's display assorts ill with the homage he intends to offer to the Immortals,—and Kings are no more than commoners in the sight of an all-supreme Divinity."
"True, if there WERE an all-supreme Divinity!" rejoined Sah-luma dryly,—"But in the present state of well-founded doubt regarding the existence of any such omnipotent personage, thinkest thou there is a monarch living, who is sincerely willing to admit the possibility of any power superior to himself? Not Zephoranim, believe me! ... his enforced humility on all occasions of public religious observance serves him merely as a new channel wherein to proclaim his pride. Certes, in obedience to the Priests, or rather let us say in obedience to the High Priestess, he paces the common foot-path in company with the common folk, uncrowned and simply clad,—but what avails this affectation of meekness? All know him for the King—all make servile way for him,—all flatter him! ... and his progress to the Temple resembles as much a triumphal procession as though he were mounted in his chariot and returning from some wondrous victory. Besides, humility in my opinion is more a weakness than a virtue, . . and even granting it were a virtue, it is not possible to Kings,—not as long as people continue to fawn on royalty like grovelling curs, and lick the sceptred hand that often loathes their abject touch."
He spoke with a certain bitterness and impatience as though he were suffering from some inward nervous irritation, and Theos, observing this, prudently made no attempt to continue the conversation. They were just then passing down a narrow, rather dark street, lined on both sides by lofty buildings of quaint and elaborate architecture. Long, gloomy shadows had gathered in this particular spot, where for a short space the silence was so intense that one could almost hear one's own heart beat. Suddenly a yellowish-green ray of light flashed across the pavement, and lo! the upper rim of the moon peered above the house-tops, looking strangely large and rosily brilliant, . . the air seemed all at once to grow suffocating and sulphurous, and between whiles there came the faint plashing sound of water lapping against stone with a monotonous murmur as of continuous soft whispers.
The vast silence, the vast night, were full of a solemn weirdness,—the moon, curiously magnified to twice her ordinary size, soared higher and higher, firing the lofty solitudes of heaven with long, shooting radiations of rose and green, while still in the purple hollow of the horizon lay that immense, immovable Cloud, nerved as it were with living lightning which leaped incessantly from its centre like a thousand swords drawn and re-drawn from as many scabbards.
Presently the deep booming noise of a great bell smote heavily on the stillness, . . a sound that Theos, oppressed by the weight of unutterable forebodings, welcomed with a vague sense of relief, while Sah-luma, hearing it, quickened his pace. They soon reached the end of the street, which terminated in a spacious quadrangular court guarded on all sides by gigantic black statues, and quickly crossing this place, which was entirely deserted, they came out at once into a dazzling blaze of light, . . the Temple of Nagaya in all its stately magnificence towered before them, a stupendous pile of marvellously delicate architecture so fine as to seem like lace- work rather than stone.
It was lit up from base to summit with glittering lamps of all colors, . . the twelve revolving stars on its twelve tall turrets cast forth wide beams of penetrating radiance into the deepening darkness of the night, . . aloft in its topmost crown of pinnacles swung the prayer-commanding bell, . . while the enormous crowds swarming thick about it gave it the appearance of a brilliant Pharos set in the midst of a surging sea. The steps leading up to it were strewn ankle-deep with flowers, . . the doors stood open, and a thunderous hum of solemn music vibrated in wave-like pulsations through the heavy, heated air.
Half blinded by the extreme effulgence, and confused by the jostling to and fro of a multitude immeasurably greater than any he had ever seen or imagined, Theos instinctively stretched out his hand in the helpless fashion of one not knowing whither next to turn, . . Sah-luma immediately caught it in his own, and hurried him along without saying a word.
How they managed to glide through the close ranks of pushing, pressing people, and effect an entrance he never knew,—but when he recovered from his momentary dazed bewilderment, he found himself inside the Temple, standing near a pillar of finely fluted white marble that shot up like the stem of a palm-tree and lost its final point in the dim yet sparkling splendor of the immense dome above. Lights twinkled everywhere,—there was the odor of faint perfumes mingled with the fresher fragrance of flowers,— there were distant glimpses of jewelled shrines, and the leering faces of grotesque idols clothed in draperies of amber, purple, and green,—and between the multitudinous columns that ringed the superb fane with snowy circles, one within the other, hung glittering lamps, set with rare gems and swinging by long chains of gold.
But the crowning splendor of the whole was concentrated on the place of the secret Inner Shrine. There an Arch of pale-blue fire spanned the dome from left to right, . . there, from huge bronze vessels mounted on tall tripods the smoke of burning incense arose in thick and odorous clouds,—there children clad in white, and wearing garlands of vivid scarlet blossoms, stood about in little groups as still as exquisitely modelled statuettes, their small hands folded, and their eyes downcast, . . there, the steps were strewn with branches of palm, flowering oleander, rose-laurel, and olive-sprays,—but the Sanctuary itself was not visible.
Before that Holy of Holies hung the dazzling folds of the "Silver Veil," a curtain of the most wonderfully woven silver tissue, that seen in the flashing azure light of the luminous arch above it, resembled nothing so much as a suddenly frozen sheet of foam. Across it was emblazoned in large characters:
I AM THE PAST, THE PRESENT, THE FUTURE,
THE MIGHT-HAVE-BEEN, AND THE SHALL-NOT-BE,
THE EVER, AND THE NEVER,
NO MORTAL KNOWETH MY NAME.
As Theos with some difficulty, owing to the intense brilliancy of the Veil, managed to decipher these words, he heard a solitary trumpet sounded,—a clear-blown note that echoed itself many times among the lofty arches before it finally floated into silence. Recognizing this as an evident signal for some new and important phase in the proceedings, he turned his eyes away from the place of the Shrine, and looking round the building was surprised to see how completely the vast area was filled with crowds upon crowds of silent and expectant people. It seemed as though not the smallest wedge could have been inserted between the shoulders of one man and another, yet where he stood with Sah-luma there was plenty of room. The reason of this however was soon apparent,—they were in the place reserved for the King and the immediate officers of the Royal Household,—and scarcely had the sweet vibration of that clear trumpet-blast died away, when Zephoranim himself appeared, walking slowly and majestically in the midst of a select company of his nobles and courtiers.
He wore the simple white garb of an ordinary citizen of Al-Kyris, together with a silver belt and plain-sheathed dagger, . . not a jewel relieved the classic severity of his costume, and not even the merest fillet of gold in his rough dark hair denoted his royal rank. But the pride of precedence spoke in his flashing eyes,—the arrogance of authority in the self-conscious poise of his figure and haughtiness of his step,—his brows were knitted in something of a frown, and his face looked pale and slightly careworn. He spied out Sah-luma at once and smiled kindly,—there was not a trace of coldness in his manner toward his favored minstrel, and Theos noted this with a curious sense of sudden consolation and encouragement. "Why should I have feared Zephoranim?" he thought. "Sah-luma has no greater friend, . . except myself! The King would be the last person in the world to do him any injury!"
Just then a magnificent burst of triumphal music rolled through the Temple,—the music of some mighty instrument, organ-like in sound, but several tones deeper than the grandest organ ever made, mingled with children's voices singing. The King seated himself on a cushioned chair directly in front of the Silver Veil, . . Sah-luma took a place at his right hand, giving Theos a low bench close beside him, while the various distinguished personages who had attended Zephoranim disposed themselves indifferently wherever they could find standing-room, only keeping as near to their monarch as they were able to do in the extreme pressure of so vast a congregation.
For now every available inch of space was occupied,—as far as eye could see there were rows upon rows of men and white-veiled women, . . Theos imagined there must have been more then five thousand people present. On went the huge pulsations of melody, surging through the incense-laden air like waves thudding incessantly on a rocky shore, and presently out of a side archway near the Sanctuary-steps came with slow and gliding noiselessness a band of priests, walking two by two, and carrying branches of palm. These were all clad in purple and crowned with ivy-wreaths, —they marched sedately, keeping their eyes lowered, while their lips moved constantly, as though they muttered inaudible incantations. Waving their palm-boughs to and fro, they paced along past the King and down the centre aisle of the Temple,—then turning, they came back again to the lowest step of the Shrine and there they all prostrated themselves, while the children who stood near the incense-burners flung fresh perfumes on the glowing embers and chanted the following recitative:
"O Nagaya, great, everlasting and terrible! Thou who dost wind thy coils of wisdom into the heart! Thou, whose eyes, waking and sleeping, do behold all things! Thou who art the joy of the Sun and the Master of Virgins! Hear us, we beseech thee, when we call upon thy name!"
Their young treble voices were clear and piercing, and pealed up to the dome to fall again like the drops of distinct round melody from a lark's singing-throat,—and when they ceased there came a short impressive pause. The Silver Veil quivered from end to end as though swayed by a faint wind, and the flaming Arch above turned from pale blue to a strange shimmering green. Then, in mellow unison, the kneeling priests intoned:
"O thou who givest words of power to the dumb mouth of the soul in Hades; hear us, Nagaya! O thou who openest the grave and givest peace to the heart; plead for us, Nagaya! O thou who art companion of the Sun and controller of the East and of the West; comfort us, Nagaya!
Here they ended, and the children began again, not to chant but to sing.. a strange and tristful tune, wilder than any that vragrant winds could play on the strings of an aeolian lyre:
"O Virgin of Virgins, Holy Maid, to what shall we resemble thee? Chaste Daughter of the Sun, how shall we praise thy peerless beauty! Thou art the Gate of the House of Stars!—thou art the first of the Seven Jewels of Nagaya! Thou dost wield the sceptre of ebony, and the Eye of Raphon beholds thee with love and contentment! Thou art the Chiefest of Women, ... thou hast the secrets of earth and heaven, thou knowest the dark mysteries! Hail, Lysia! Queen of the Hall of Judgment! Hail, pure Pearl in the Sea of the Sun's glory! Declare unto us, we beseech thee, the Will of Nagaya!"
They closed this canticle softly and slowly, . . then flinging themselves prone, they pressed their faces to the earth, . . and again the glittering Veil waved to and fro suggestively, while Theos, his heart beating fast, watched its shining woof with straining eyes and a sense of suffocation in his throat, . . what ignorant fools, what mad barbarians, what blind blasphemers were these people, he indignantly thought, who could thus patiently hear the praise of an evil woman like Lysia publicly proclaimed with almost divine honors!
Did they actually intend to worship her, he wondered? If so, he at any rate would never bend the knee to one so vile! He might have done so once, perhaps, ... but now ...! At that instant a flute like murmur of melody crept upward as it seemed from the ground, with a plaintive whispering sweetness like the lament of some exiled fairy,—so exquisitely tender and pathetic, and yet withal so heart-stirring and passionate, that, despite himself, he listened with a strange, swooning sense of languor stealing insidiously over him,—a dreamy lassitude, that while it made him feel enervated and deprived of strength, was still not altogether unpleasing, . . a faint sigh escaped his lips,—and he kept his gaze fixed on the Silver Veil as pertinaciously as though behind it lay the mystery of his soul's ruin or salvation.
How the light flashed on its shimmering folds like the rippling phosphorescence on southern seas! ... as green and clear and brilliant as rays reflected from thousands and thousands of glistening emeralds! ... And that haunting, sorrowful, weird music! ... How it seemed to eat into his heart and there waken a bitter remorse combined with an equally bitter despair!
Once more the Veil moved, and this time it appeared to inflate itself in the fashion of a sail caught by a sudden breeze,—then it began to part in the middle very slowly and without sound. Further and further back on each side it gradually receded, and ... like a lily disclosed between folding leaves—a Figure, white, wonderful and angelically fair, shone out, the centre jewel of the stately shrine,—a shrine whose immense carven pillars, grotesque idols, bronze and gold ornaments, jewelled lamps and dazzling embroideries, only served as a sort of neutral-tinted background to intensify with a more lustrous charm the statuesque loveliness revealed! O Lysia, UNvirgined Priestess of the Sun and Nagaya, how gloriously art thou arrayed in sin! ... O singular Sweetness whose end must needs be destruction, was ever woman fairer than thou! ... O love, love, lost in the dead Long-Ago, and drowned in the uttermost darkness of things evil, wilt thou drag my soul with thee again into everlasting night!
Thus Theos inwardly raved, without any real comprehension of his own thoughts, but only stricken anew by a feverish passion of mingled love and hatred as he stared on the witching sorceress whose marvellous beauty was such wonder and torture to his eyes, . . what mattered it to him that King, Laureate, and people had all prostrated themselves before her in reverent humility? ... HE knew her nature, . . he had fathomed her inborn wickedness, . . and though his senses were attracted by her, his spirit loathingly repelled her, . . he therefore remained seated stiffly upright, watching her with a sort of passive, immovable intentness. As she now appeared before him, her loveliness was absolutely and ideally perfect,— she looked the embodiment of all grace,—the model of all chastity.
She stood quite still, . . her hands folded on her breast, . . her head slightly lifted, her dark eyes upturned, . . her unbound black hair streamed over her shoulders in loose glossy waves, and above her brows her diadem of serpents' heads sparkled like a coronal of flame. Her robe was white, made of some silky shining stuff that glistened with soft pearly hues; it was gathered about her waist by a twisted golden girdle. Her arms were bare, decked as before with the small jewelled snakes that coiled upward from wrist to shoulder,—and when after a brief pause she unfolded her hands and raised them with a slow, majestic movement above her head, the great Symbolic Eye flared from her bosom like a darting coal, seeming to turn sinister glances on all sides as though on the search for some suspected foe.
Fortunately no one appeared to notice Theos's deliberate non- observance of the homage due to her,—no one except.. Lysia, herself. She met the open defiance, scorn, and reluctant admiration of his glance, . . and a cold smile dawned on her features, . . a smile more dreadful in its very sweetness than any frown, . . then, turning away her beautiful, fathomless, slumberous eyes and still keeping her arms raised, she lifted up her voice, a voice mellow as a golden flute, that pierced the silence with a straight arrow of pure sound, and chanted:
"Give glory to the Sun, O ye people! for his Light doth illumine your darkness!"
And the murmur of the mighty crowd surged back in answer:
"We give him glory!"
Here came a brief clash of brazen bells, and when the clamor ceased, Lysia continued:
"Give glory to the Moon, O ye people! ... for she is the servant of the Sun and the Ruler of the House of Sleep!"
Again the people responded;
"We give her glory!'.. and again the bells jangled tempestuously.
"Give glory to Nagaya, O ye people! for he alone can turn aside the wrath of the Immortals!"
"We give him glory!".. rejoined the multitude,—and "We give him glory! seemed to be shouted high among the arches of the Temple with a strange sound as of the mocking laughter of devils."
This preliminary over, there came out of unseen doors on both sides of the Sanctuary twenty priests in companies of ten each; ten advancing from the left, ten from the right. These were clad in flowing garments of carnation-colored silk, heavily bordered with gold, and the leader of the right-hand group was the priest Zel. His demeanor was austere and dignified, . . he carried a square cushion covered in black, on which lay a long, thin cruel-looking knife with a jewelled hilt. The chief of the priests, who stood on the left, bore a very tall and massive staff of polished ebony, which he solemnly presented to the High Priestess, who grasped it firmly in one slight hand and allowed it to rest steadily on the ground, while its uppermost point reached far above her head.
Then followed the strangest, weirdest scene that even the pen of poets or brush of painter devised, . . a march round and round the Temple of all the priests, bearing lighted flambeaux and singing in chorus a wild Litany,—a confused medley of supplications to the Sun and Nagaya, which, accompanied as it was by the discordant beating drums and the clanging of bells, had an evidently powerful effect on the minds of the assembled populace, for presently they also joined in the maddening chant, and growing more and more possessed by the contagious fever of fanaticism, began to howl and shriek and clap their hands furiously, creating a frightful din suggestive of some fiendish clamor in hell.
Theos, half deafened by the horrible uproar, as well as roused to an abnormal pitch of restless excitement, looked round to see how Sah-luma comported himself. He was sitting quite still, in a perfectly composed attitude,—a faint, derisive smile played on his lips, . . his profile, as it just then appeared, had the firmness and the pure soft outline of a delicately finished cameo, . . his splendid eyes now darkened, now lightened with passion, as he gazed at Lysia, who, all alone in the centre of the Shrine, held her ebony staff as perpendicularly erect as though it were a tree rooted fathoms deep in earth, keeping herself too as motionless as a figure of frozen snow.
And the King? ... what of him? ... Glancing at that bronze-like brooding countenance, Theos was startled and at the same time half fascinated by its expression. Such a mixture of tigerish tenderness, servile idolatry, intemperate desire, and craven fear he had never seen delineated on the face of any human being. In the black thirsty eyes there was a look that spoke volumes,—a look that betrayed what the heart concealed,—and reading that featured emblazonment of hidden guilt, Theos knew beyond all doubt that the rumors concerning the High Priestess and the King were true, . . that the dead Khosrul had spoken rightly, . . that Zephoranim loved Lysia! ... Love? ... it seemed too tame a word for the pent-up fury of passion that visibly and violently consumed the man! What would be the result? ...
"When the High Priestess Is the King's mistress Then fall Al- Kyris!"
These foolish doggerel lines! ... why did they suggest themselves? ... they meant nothing. The question did not concern Al-Kyris at all,—let the city stand or fall as it list, who cared, so long as Sah-luma escaped injury! Such, at least, was the tenor of Theos's thoughts, as he rapidly began to calculate certain contingencies that now seemed likely to occur. If, for instance, the King were made aware of Sah-luma's intrigue with Lysia, would not his rage and jealousy exceed all bounds? ... and if, on the other hand, Sah-luma were convinced of the King's passion for the same fatally fair traitress, would not his wrath and injured self-love overbear all loyalty and prudence?
And between the two powerful rivals who thus by stealth enjoyed her capricious favors, what would Lysia's own decision be?—Like a loud hissing in his ears, he heard again the murderous command,—a command which was half a menace: "KILL SAH-LUMA!"
Faint shudders as of icy cold ran through him,—he nerved himself to meet some deadly evil, though he could not guess what that evil might be,—he was willing to throw away all the past that haunted him, and cut off all hope of a future, provided he could only baffle the snares of the pitiless beauty to whom the torture of men was an evident joy, and rescue his beloved and gifted friend from her perilous attraction! Making a strong effort to master the inward conflict of fear and pain that tormented him, he turned his attention anew to the gorgeous ceremony that was going on, . . the march of the priests had come to an abrupt end. They stood now on each side of the Shrine, divided in groups of equal numbers, tossing their flambeaux around and above them to the measured ringing of bells. At every upward wave of these flaring torches, a tongue of fire leaped aloft, to instantly break and descend in a sparkling shower of gold,—the effect of this was wonderful in the extreme, as by the dexterous way in which the flames were flung forth, it appeared to the spectator's eyes as though a luminous Snake were twisting and coiling itself to and fro in mid-air.
All loud music ceased, . . the multitude calmed down by degrees and left off their delirious cries of frenzy or rapture, . . there was nothing heard but a monotonous chanting in undertone, of which not a syllable was distinctly intelligible. Then from out a dark portal unperceived in the shadowed gloom of a curtained niche, there advanced a procession of young girls,—fifty in all, clad in pure white and closely veiled.
They carried small citherns, and arriving in front of the shrine, they knelt down in a semicircle, and very gently began to strike the short, responsive strings. The murmur of a lazy rivulet among whispering reeds, . . the sighing suggestions of leaves ready to fall in autumn,—the low, languid trilling of nightingales just learning to sing,—any or all these might be said to resemble the dulcet melody they played; while every delicate arpeggio, every rippling chord was muffled with a soft pressure of their hands ere the sound had time to become vehement. This elf-like harping continued for a short interval, during which the priests, gathering in a ring round a huge bronze font-shaped vessel hard by, dipped their flambeaux therein and suddenly extinguished them.
At the same moment the lights in the body of the Temple were all lowered, . . only the Arch spanning the Shrine blazed in undiminished brilliancy, its green tint appearing more intense in contrast with the surrounding deepening shadow. And now with a harsh clanging noise as of the turning of heavy bolts and keys, the back of the Sanctuary parted asunder in the fashion of a revolving double doorway,—and a golden grating was disclosed, its strong glistening bars welded together like knotted ropes and wrought with marvellous finish and solidity. Turning toward this semblance of a prison-cell Lysia spoke aloud—her clear tones floating with mellifluous slowness above the half-hushed quiverings of the cithern-choir:
"Come forth, O Nagaya, thou who didst slumber in the bosom of Space ere ever the world was made!
"Come forth, O Nagaya, thou who didst behold the Sun born out of Chaos, and the Earth enriched with ever-producing life!
"Come forth, O Nagaya, Friend of the gods and the people, and comfort us with the Divine Silence of thy Wisdom supernal!"
While she pronounced these words, the golden grating ascended gradually inch by inch, with the steady clank as of the upward winding of a chain,—and when she ceased, there came a mysterious, rustling, slippery sound, suggestive of some creeping thing forcing its way through wet and tangled grass, or over dead leaves, . . one instant more, and a huge Serpent—a species of python some ten feet in length—glided through the round aperture made by the lifted bars, and writhed itself slowly along the marble pavement straight to where Lysia stood.
Once it stopped, curving back its glistening body in a strange loop as though in readiness to spring—but it soon resumed its course, and arrived at the High Priestess's feet. There, its whole frame trembled and glowed with extraordinary radiance, . . the prevailing color of its skin was creamy white, marked with countless rings and scaly bright spots of silver, purple, and a peculiar livid blue,—and all these tints came into brilliant prominence, as it crouched before Lysia and twisted its sinuous neck to and fro with an evidently fawning and supplicatory gesture; while she, keeping her sombre dark eyes fixed full upon it, moved not an inch from her position, but, majestically serene, continued to hold the tall staff of ebony straight and erect as a growing palm.
The cithern-playing had now the soothing softness of a mother's lullaby to a tired child, and as the liquid notes quavered delicately on the otherwise deep stillness, the formidable reptile began to coil itself ascendingly round and round the ebony rod, . . higher and higher,—one glistening ring after another,—higher still, till its eyes were on a level with the "Eye of Raphon" that flamed on Lysia's breast, . . there it paused in apparent reflectiveness, and seemed to listen to the slumberous strains that floated toward it in wind-like breaths of sound, . . then, starting afresh on its upward way, it carefully, and with almost human tenderness, avoided touching Lysia's hand, which now rested on the staff between two thick twists of its body, . . and finally it reached the top, where fully raising its crested head, it displayed the prismatic tints of its soft, restless, wavy throat, which was adorned furthermore by a flexible circlet of magnificent diamonds.
Nothing more striking or more singular could Theos imagine than the scene now before him, . . the beautiful woman, still as sculptured marble, and the palpitating Snake coiled on that mast- like rod and uplifted above her,—while round the twain knelt the Priests, their faces covered in their robes, and from all parts of the Temple the loud shout arose:
"ALL HAIL, NAGAYA!" "Praise, Honor, and Glory be unto thee forever and ever!"
Then it was that the proud King flung himself to earth and kissed the dust in abject submission,—then Sah-luma, carelessly complaisant, bent the knee and smiled to himself mockingly as he performed the act of veneration, ... then the enormous multitude with clasped hands and beseeching looks fell down and worshipped the glittering beast of the field, whose shining, emerald-like, curiously sad eyes roved hither and thither with a darting yet melancholy eagerness over all the people who called it Lord!