"I am the first since he—eh?"
"Well, yer are; and, Captain,—no offence to you,—but allowing for a lot of hair he had, he was like enough to you to be yer twin brother!"
"Or even myself! So Davy Jones goes by the name of Doctor Glyphic in these parts, does he?" said Balder, with a sudden, incisive smile, which almost cut through the old ferryman's self-possession. The boat at the same moment glided into a little cove, and the passenger jumped ashore. Charon stood deferentially touching his weather-stained hat, too much mystified to speak. But the fare which Helwyse handed him restored his voice.
"Thank yer, Captain,—thank yer kindly!—hope no offence, Captain,—a chap picks up a deal of gossip in twenty year, and—"
"No offence in the world!" cried Helwyse; "I take you for a powerful enchanter, who seems to steer one way, when he is in fact taking his passenger in another. Where are you bound?"
"Well, I was dropping down a bit to see if the schooner ain't around yet. She'd ought to be in by now, if nothing ain't runned into her in the fog."
Helwyse paused a moment, eying Charon sharply. "The schooner 'Resurrection,'" he began, and, seeing he had hit the mark, continued, "was run into last night on Long Island Sound, and had her bowsprit carried away. But no serious damage was done, and she'll be in by night, if the wind holds."
With this he bade the awe-stricken old yarn-spinner farewell, and, with secret laughter at his bewilderment, turned to the narrow zigzag path that climbed the bank, passing the birch-stump champion without a glance of recognition. A few vigorous minutes brought him to the summit, whence, facing round, he saw the broad river crawl beneath him; the little boat, with Charon in the stern, drift downwards; and beyond, the whole rough length of Manhattan Island.
A few days before Thor Helwyse's departure for Europe (some four years after his wife's death) he had left a certain little boy and girl in charge of the nurse,—a woman in whose faithfulness he placed the utmost confidence,—and had crossed from Brooklyn to New Jersey, to say good by to Brother Hiero. Returning at night he found one of the children—his son Balder—locked up in the nursery; the nurse and the little girl had disappeared, nor did Thor again set eyes on either of them.
Balder, as he grew up, often questioned his father concerning various events which had happened beyond the reach of his childish memory; and among other stories, no doubt this of the farewell visit to Uncle Glyphic had been often told with all the details. By no miracle, therefore, but simply by an acute mental process, associating together time, place, and description, was Balder enabled so to dumfounder old Charon.
Embarking on a phantom quest, his brain full of whimsical visions, Balder had thus unexpectedly stepped into the path of his legitimate affair. The accident (for no better reason than that it was such) inspired him with a superficial cheerfulness. He had landed some distance below his uncle Glyphic's house,—for such indeed it was,—and he now took his way towards it through trees and underbrush. It was so situated, and so thickly surrounded with foliage, as to be visible from no point in the vicinity. Had the site been chosen with a view to concealment, the builder could not have succeeded better. Remembering the eccentricity of his uncle's character, as portrayed in many an anecdote, Balder would not have been surprised to find him living under ground, or in a pyramid.
On arriving at the wall whereof the ferryman had told him, he found it a truly formidable affair, some twelve feet high and built of brick. To scale it without a ladder was impossible; but Balder, never doubting that there was a gate somewhere, set out in search of it.
It was tiresome walking over the uneven ground and through obstructing bushes, branches, and stumps. The tall brick barrier seemed as interminable as unbroken. How many houses, thought Balder, might have been built from the material thus wasted! If ever he came into possession of the place, he resolved to present the brick to his friend Charon, that he might replace his wooden shanty with something more durable and convenient, and perhaps build a dock for the schooner "Resurrection" to lie in. It must have taken a fortune to put up such a wall; were the enclosure proportionally valuable, it was worth while crossing the ocean to see it. Still more wall! fully a mile of it already, and yet further it rambled on through leafy thickets. But no signs of a gate!
"I believe the Devil really does live here!" exclaimed Balder, in impatient heat; "and the only way in or out is on a broomstick,—or by diving under ground, as Charon said!"
Stumbling onwards awhile farther, he suddenly came again upon the river-bank, having skirted the whole length of the wall. There was actually no getting in! The castle was impregnable.
Helwyse sat down at the foot of a birch-tree which grew a few yards from the wall.
"How does my uncle manage about his butcher and baker, I wonder! He might at least have provided a derrick for victualling his stronghold. Perhaps he hauls up provisions by ropes over the face of the cliff. No doubt, Charon knew about it. Shall I go down and look?"
It was provoking—having come so far to call on a relative—to be put off with a mile or two of brick wall. The gate must have been walled up since his father's time, for Thor had never mentioned any deficiency in that respect. But Balder's determination was piqued,—not to mention his curiosity. Had the path from Mr. MacGentle's office to Doctor Glyphic's door been straight and unobstructed, the young man might have wandered aside and never reached the end. As it was, he was goaded into the resolution to see his uncle at all hazards. An additional spur was the thought of the gracious apparition which he had seen—or dreamt he saw—from the farther bank. Was she indeed but an apparition?—or the single reality amidst the throng of fantasies evoked by his overwrought mind?—beaconing him through misty errors to a fate better than he knew! In all seriousness, who could she be? Had Doctor Glyphic crowned his eccentricities by marrying, and begetting a daughter?
These speculations were interrupted by the clear, joyous note of a bird, just above Balder's head. It was such a note as might have been uttered by a paradisical cuckoo with the breath of a brighter world in his throat. Looking up, he saw a beautiful little fowl perched on the topmost twig of the birch-tree. It had a slender bill, and on its head a crest of splendid feathers, which it set up at Balder in a most coquettish manner. The next moment it flew over the wall, and from the farther side warbled an invitation to follow.
Although he could not fly, Balder reflected that he could climb, and that the top of the tree would show him more than he could see now. The birch looked tolerably climbable and was amply high; as to toughness, he thought not about it. Beneath what frivolous disguises does destiny mask her approach! Discretion is a virtue; yet, had Balder been discreet enough to examine the tree before getting into it, the ultimate consequences are incalculable!
As it was (and marvelling why he had not thought of doing it before) he set stoutly to work, and, despite his jack-boots, was soon among the upper branches. The birch trembled and groaned unheeded. The bird (an Egyptian bird,—a hoopoe,—descendant of a pair brought by Doctor Glyphic from the Nile a quarter of a century ago),—the hoopoe was fluttering and warbling and setting its brilliant cap at the young man more captivatingly than ever. A glance over the enclosure showed a beautifully fertile and luxurious expanse, damasked with soft green grass and studded with flowers and trees. A few hundred yards away billowed the white tops of an apple-orchard in full bloom. Southward, half seen through boughs and leaves, rose an anomalous structure of brick, glass, and stone, which could only be the famous house on whose design and decoration old Hiero Glyphic had spent years and fortunes.
The tract was like an oasis in a forbidding land. The soil had none of the sandy and clayey consistency peculiar to New Jersey, but was deep and rich as an English valley. The sunshine rested more warmly and mellowly here than elsewhere. The southern breeze acquired a tropical flavor in loitering across it. The hoopoe had seemed out of place on the hither side the wall, but now looked as much at home as though the Hudson had been the Nile indeed.
"My uncle," said Balder to himself, as he swayed among the branches of his birch-tree, "has really succeeded very well in transporting a piece of Egypt to America. Were I on the other side of the wall, no doubt I might appreciate it also!"
The hoopoe responded encouragingly, the tree cracked, and Balder felt with dismay that it was tottering beneath him. There was no time to climb down again. With a dismal croak, the faithless birch leaned slowly through the air. There was nothing to be done but to go with it; and Balder, even as he descended, was able to imagine how absurd he must appear. The tree fell, but was intercepted at half its height by the top of the wall. The upper half of the stem, with its human fruit still attached to it, bent bow-like towards the earth, the trunk not being quite separated from the root.
Helwyse had thus far managed to keep his presence of mind, and now, glancing downwards, he saw the ground not eight feet below. He loosed his hold, and the next instant stood in the soft grass. The birch had been his broomstick. Meanwhile the hoopoe, with a triumphant note, flew off towards the house to tell the news.
LEGEND AND CHRONICLE.
Hiero Glyphic's house came not into the world complete at a birth, but was the result of an irregular growth, progressing through many years. Originally a single-gabled edifice, its only peculiarity had been that it was brick instead of wooden. Here, red and unornamented as the house itself, the future Egyptologist was born. The parallel between him and his dwelling was maintained more or less closely to the end.
He was the first pledge of affection between his mother and father, and the last also; for shortly after his advent the latter parent, a retired undertaker by profession, failed from this world. The widow was much younger than her husband, and handsome to boot. Nevertheless, several years passed before she married again. Her second lord was likewise elderly, but differed from the first in being enormously wealthy. The issue of this union was a daughter, the Helen of our story, a pretty, dark-eyed little thing, petted and indulged by all the family, and reigning undisputed over all.
Meanwhile the old brick house had been deserted, Mrs. Glyphic having accompanied her second husband to his sumptuous residence in Brooklyn. But in process of time Hiero (or, as he was then called, Henry) took it into his head to return to the original family mansion and live there. No objection was made; in truth, Henry's oddities, awkwardnesses, and propensity to dabble in queer branches of research and experiment may have allayed the parting pangs. Back he blundered, therefore, to the banks of the Hudson, and established himself in his birthplace. What he did there during the next few years will never be known. Grisly stories about the man in the brick house were current among the country people. A devil was said to be his familiar friend; nay, it was whispered that he himself was the arch-fiend! But nothing positively supernatural, or even unholy, was ever proved to have taken place. The recluse had the command of as much money as he could spend, and no doubt he wrought with it miracles beyond the vulgar comprehension. His mind had no more real depth than a looking-glass with a crack in it, and its images were disjointed and confused. There are many such men, but few possess unlimited means of carrying their crack-brained fancies into fact.
During this—which may be called the second—period of Glyphic's career, he made several anomalous additions to the brick house, all after designs of his own. He moreover furnished it anew throughout, in a manner that made the upholsterers stare. Each room—so reads the legend—was fitted up in the style of a different country, according to Glyphic's notion of it! He was said to live in one apartment or another according as it was his whim to be Spaniard, Turk, Russian, Hindoo, or Chinaman. He also applied himself to gardening, and enclosed seven hundred acres of ground adjoining the house with a picket-fence, forerunner of the famous brick wall. The whole tract was dug out and manured to the depth of many feet, till it was by far the most fertile spot in the State. The larger trees were not disturbed, but the lesser were forced to give place to new and rare importations from foreign countries. Gorgeous were the hosts of flowers, like banks of sunset clouds; the lawns showed the finest turf out of England; there was a kitchen-garden rich and big enough to feed an army of epicures all their lives. In short, the place was a concentrated extract of the world at large, where one might at the same moment be a recluse and a cosmopolitan. Here might one live independent of the world, yet sipping the cream thereof; and might persuade himself that all beyond these seven hundred enchanted acres was but a diffused reflection of the concrete existence between the cliff and the fence.
But to this second period succeeded finally the third,—that which witnessed the birth and growth of the Egyptian mania. Its natal moment has not been precisely determined; perhaps it was a gradual accretion. Mr. Glyphic's relatives in Brooklyn were one day electrified by the news that the quondam Henry—now Hiero—purposed instant departure for Europe and Egypt. Before starting, however, he built the brick wall round his estate, shutting it out forever from human eyes. Then he vanished, and for nine years was seen no more.
His return was heralded by the arrival at the port of New York of a mountain of freight, described in the invoice as the property of Doctor Hiero Glyphic of New Jersey. The boxes, as they stood piled together on the wharf, might have furnished timber sufficient to build a town. They contained the fruits of Doctor Glyphic's antiquarian researches.
The Doctor himself—where he picked up his learned title is unknown—was accompanied by a slender, swarthy young factotum who answered to the name of Manetho. He was introduced to the Brooklyn relatives as the pupil, assistant, and adopted son of Hiero Glyphic. The latter, physically broadened, browned, and thickened by his travels, was intellectually the same good-natured, fussy, flighty original as ever; shallow, enthusiastic, incoherent, energetic.
He and his adopted son shut themselves up behind the brick wall; but it soon transpired that extensive additions were making to the old house. Beyond this elementary fact conjecture had the field to itself. Both architects and builders were imported from another State and sworn to secrecy, while the high wall and the hedge of trees baffled prying eyes. Quantities of red granite and many blocks of precious marbles were understood to be using in the work. The opinion gained that such an Oriental palace was building as never had been seen outside an Arabian fairy-tale.
By and by the work was done, the workmen disappeared. But whoever hoped that now the mystery would be revealed, and the Oriental palace be made the scene of a gorgeous house-warming, was disappointed. The dwellers behind the wall emerged not from their seclusion, nor were others invited to relieve it. In due course of time Doctor Glyphic's worthy step-father died. The widow and her daughter continued to live in Brooklyn until the former's death, which took place a few years afterwards. Then Helen came to her brother, and the Brooklyn house was put under lock and key, and so remained till Helen's marriage, when it was set in order for the bridal pair. But Thor's wife died as they were on the point of moving thither, and he sold it four years later and left America forever.
After his departure less was known, than before of how things went on behind the brick wall. The gateway was filled in with masonry. No one was ever seen entering the enclosure or leaving it; though it was supposed that, somehow or other, communication was occasionally had with the outside world. As knowledge dwindled, legend grew, and wild were the tales told of the invisible Doctor and his foster-son. In his youth, the former had been suspected of simple witchcraft, but he was not let off so easily now. Manetho was first dubbed a genie whom the Doctor had brought out of Egypt. Afterwards it was hinted that these two worthies were in fact one and the same demon, who by some infernal jugglery was able to appear twain during the daytime, but resumed his proper shape at night, and cut up all manner of unholy capers.
By another version, Doctor Glyphic died in Egypt, not before bargaining with the Prince of Darkness that his body should return home in charge of a condemned soul under the guise of Manetho. During the day, affirmed these theorists, the body was inspired by the soul with phantom life; but became a mummy at night, when the condemned soul suffered torments till morning. With sunrise the ghastly drama began anew. This state of things must continue until the sun shone all night long within the brick wall enclosure.
A third, more moderate account is that to which we have already listened from Charon's lips. And he perhaps built on a broader basis of truth than did the other yarn-spinners. But under whatever form the legend appeared, there was always mingled with it a vaguely mysterious whisper relating to the alleged presence in the Doctor's Den (so the enclosure was nicknamed) of an apparition in female form. What or whence she was no one pretended soberly to conjecture. Even her personal aspect was the subject of vehement dispute; some maintaining her to be of more than human beauty, while others swore by their heads that she was so hideous fire would not burn her! These damned her for a malignant witch; those upheld her as a heavenly angel, urged by love divine to expiate, through voluntary suffering, the nameless crimes of the demoniac Doctor. But unless the redemption were effected within a certain time, she must be swallowed up with him in common destruction. Were the how and wherefore of these alternatives called in question, the answer was a wise shake of the head!
The gentle reader will believe no one of the fantastic legends here recorded; possibly they were not believed by their very fabricators. They are useful only as tending to show the moral atmosphere of the house and its occupants. There is sometimes a subtile symbolic element inwoven with such tales, which—though not the truth—helps us to apprehend the truth when we come to know it. Moreover, the fanciful parts of history are to the facts as clouds to a landscape; a picture is incomplete without them; they aid in bringing out the distances, and cast lights and shadows over tracts else harsh and bare.
Beyond what he had gathered from the ancient mariner, Balder Helwyse knew nothing of these fearful fables. This perhaps accounted for the boldness wherewith he pursued his way towards the mysterious house, following in the airy wake of the clear-throated little hoopoe.
FACE TO FACE.
The ground-plan of the house was like a capital H placed endwise towards the river. The northern side consisted of the original brick building and the additions of the second period; the southern was that stone edifice which so few persons had been lucky enough to see. The centre or cross-piece comprised the grand entrance-hall and staircase, heavily panelled with dark oak, and the floor flagged with squares of black and white marbles.
This entrance-hall opened eastward into a generous conservatory, filling the whole square court between the wings at that end. The corresponding western court was devoted to the roomy portico. Two or three broad steps mounted to a balcony twenty feet deep and nearly twice as wide, protected by a lofty roof supported on slender Moorish columns. Crossing this, one came to the hall-door, likewise Moorish in arch and ornamentation. Considered room by room and part by part, the house was good and often beautiful; taken as a whole, it was the craziest amalgamation of incongruities ever conceived by human brain.
Balder, approaching from the north, trod enjoyingly the silken grass. No misgiving had he; his uncle would hardly be from home, nor would he be apt to discredit his nephew's identity. His face had already been evidence to more than one former knower of his father, and why not also to his uncle?
The house was more than half a mile in a direct line from the birch-tree, and presented an imposing appearance; but on drawing near, the odd architectural discrepancies became noticeable. Side by side with the prosy Americanism of the northern wing, sprang gracefully the Moorish columns of the portico; beyond, uprose in massive granite, quaintly inscribed and carved, and strengthened by heavy pilasters, the ponderous Egyptian features of the southern portion. The latter was neither storied nor windowed, and, as Balder conjectured, probably contained but a single vast room, lighted from within.
Meanwhile there were no signs of an inhabitant, either in the house or out of it. It wore in parts an air of emptiness and neglect, not exactly as though gone to seed, but as if little human love and care had been expended there. The deep-set windows of the brick wing, like the sunken eyes of an old woman, peered at the visitor with dusky forlornness. Lonely and stern on the other side stood the Egyptian pilasters, as though unused to the eye of man; the hieroglyphics along the cornice intensified the impression of desertion. As the young man set foot beneath the portico, he laid a hand on one of the slender pillars, to assure himself that it was real, and not a vision. Cool, solid marble met his grasp; the building did not vanish in a peal of thunder, with an echo of demoniac laughter. Yes, all was real!
But the stillness was impressive, and Balder struck the pillar sharply with his palm, merely for the sake of hearing a noise. There was no answering sound, so, after a moment's hesitation, he walked to the door,—which stood ajar,—purposing to call in the aid of bell and knocker. Neither of these civilized appliances was to be found. While debating whether to use his voice or to enter and use his eyes, the note of the hoopoe fell on his ear. An instant after came an answering note, deeper, sweeter, and stronger,—it thrilled to Balder's heart, bringing to his mind, by some subtile process, the goddess of the cliff.
He crossed the oak-panelled hall (where the essence of mediaeval England lingered) and came to the threshold of the conservatory. It was a scene confusedly beautiful. The air, as it touched his face, was tropically warm and indolent with voluptuous fragrance of flowers and plants. Luxuriant shrubs, with broad-drooping leaves, stood motionless in the heat. Two palm-trees uplifted their heavy plumes forty feet aloft, on slender stalks, brushing the high glass roof. In the midst of the conservatory a pool slumbered between rocky margins, overgrown with a profusion of reeds, grasses, and water-plants. There floated the giant leaves and blossoms of the tropic water-lily; and on a fragment of rock rising above the surface dozed a small crocodile, not more than four feet long, but looking as old, dried up, and coldly cruel as sin itself!
The place looked like an Indian jungle, and Balder half expected to see the glancing spits of a tiger crouching beneath the overarching leaves; or a naked savage with bow and arrows. But amid all this vegetable luxuriance appeared no human being,—no animal save the evil crocodile. Whence, then, that melodious voice,—clear essence of nature's sweetest utterances?
At the left of the conservatory was a door, the entrance to the Egyptian temple. It was square and heavy-browed, flanked by short thick columns rising from a base of sculptured papyrus-leaves, and flowering in lotus capitals. Three marble steps led to the threshold, while on either side reclined a sphinx in polished granite, softened, however, by a delicate flowering vine, which had been trained to cling round their necks. On the deep panels of the door were mystic emblems carved in relief. A line of hieroglyphics inscribed the lintel in deep blue, red, and black,—to what purport Balder could not divine.
At the opposite side of the conservatory was a corresponding door, veiled by an ample fold of silken tapestry, cunningly hand-worked in representation of a moon half veiled in clouds, shining athwart a stormy sea. By her light a laboring ship was warned off the rocks to leeward. The room (one of the later additions) by its external promise might have been the bower of some fashionable beauty thousands of years ago.
Balder looked from one of these doors to the other, doubting at which to apply. The tapestry curtain was swept aside at the base, leaving a small passage clear to the room beyond. In this opening now appeared the bright-crested head and eyes of the hoopoe, peeping mischievously at the intruder, who forthwith stepped down into the conservatory, holding forth to the little bird a friendly finger. The bird eyed him critically, then launched itself on the air, and, alighting on a spray above his head, warbled out a brilliant call.
Hereupon was heard within a quick rustling movement; the curtain was thrust aside, and a youthful woman issued forth amongst the warm plants. She was within a few feet of Balder Helwyse before seeming to realize his presence. She caught herself motionless in an instant. The sparkle of laughter in her eyes sank in a black depth of wonder. Her eyes filled themselves with Balder as a lake is filled with sunshine; and he, the man of the Wilie and philosopher, could only return her gaze in voiceless admiration.
Were a face and form of primal perfection to appear among men, might not its divine originality repel an ordinary observer, used to consider beautiful such abortions of the Creator's design as sin and degeneration have produced? Not easily can one imagine what a real man or woman would look like. Painting nor sculpture can teach us; we must learn, if at all, from living, electric flesh and blood.
This young woman was tall and erect with youthful majesty. She stood like the rejoicing upgush of a living fountain. Her contour was subtile with womanly power,—suggesting the spring of the panther, the glide of the serpent. Warm she seemed from the bosom of nature. One felt from her the influence of trees, the calm of meadows, the high freedom of the blue air, the happiness of hills. She might have been the sister of the sun.
The moulding finger of God seemed freshly to have touched her face. It was simple and harmonious as a chord of music, yet inexhaustible in its variety. It recalled no other face, yet might be seen in it the germs of a mighty nation, that should begin from her and among a myriad resemblances evolve no perfect duplicate. No angel's countenance, but warmest human clay, which must undergo some change before reaching heaven. The sphinx, before the gloom of her riddle had dimmed her primal joy,—before men vexed themselves to unravel God's webs from without instead of from within,—might have looked thus; or such perhaps was Isis in the first flush of her divinity,—fresh from Him who made her immortally young and fair.
Her black hair was crowned with a low, compact turban,—a purple and white twist of some fine cottony substance, striped with gold. Round her wide, low brow fitted a band of jewelled gold, three fingers' breadth, from which at each temple depended a broad, flat chain of woven coral, following the margin of the cheeks and falling loose on the shoulders. A golden serpent coiled round her smooth throat and drooped its head low down in her bosom. Her elastic feet, arched like a dolphin's back, were sandalled; the bright-colored straps, crossing one another half-way to the knee, set dazzlingly off the clear, dusky whiteness of the skin.
From her shoulders fell a long full robe of purple byssus, over an underdress of white which readied the knee. This tunic was confined at the waist by a hundred-fold girdle, embroidered with rainbow flowers and fastened in a broad knot below the bosom, the low-hanging ends heavy with fringe. The outer robe, with its long drooping sleeves falling open at the elbow, was ample enough wholly to envelop the figure, but was now girded up and one fold brought round and thrust beneath the girdle in front, to give freedom of motion. A rare perfume emanated from her like the evening breath of orange-blossoms.
Balder was no unworthy balance to this picture, though his else stately features showed too much the stimulus of modern thought. He was eminent by culture; she by nature only. But Balder's culture had not greatened him. Greatness is not of the brain, save as allied to the deep, pure chords which thrill at the base of the human symphony. He might have stood for our age; she, for that more primitive but profounder era which is at once man's beginning and his goal.
Balder's eyes could not frankly hold their own against her gaze of awful simplicity. All he had ever done amiss arose and put him to the blush. Nevertheless, he would not admit his inferiority; instead of dropping his eyes he closed the soul behind them, and sharpened them with a shallow, out-striking light. Without understanding the change, she felt it and was troubled. Loftily majestic as were her form and features, she was feminine to the core,—tender and finely perceptive. The incisive masculine gaze abashed her. She raised one hand deprecatingly, and her lips moved, though without sound.
He relented at this, and straightway her expression again shifted, and she smiled so radiantly that Balder almost looked to see whence came the light! The wondrous lines of her face curved and softened; all that was grave vanished. A tree standing in the sober beauty of shadow, when suddenly lit by the sun, changes as she changed; for sunshine is the laughter of the world.
The smile refreshed her courage, for she came nearer and made a sideways movement with her arm, apparently with the expectation that it would pass through the stalwart young man as readily as through the air. On encountering solid substance, she drew startled back, half in alarm and wholly in surprise. Balder had felt her touch, first as a benediction; then it chilled him, through remembrance of a deed forever debarring him from aught so pure and innocent as she. The subtleties of his philosophy might have cajoled him anywhere save in her presence. There, he felt unmistakably guilty; yet from irrational dread that she, whose intuitions seemed so swift and deep, might grasp the cause of his discomposure, he strove to hide it. Last of all the world should she know his crime!
Scarce two minutes since their meeting, yet perhaps a large proportion of their lives had meanwhile been charmed away. No word had been spoken,—eyes had superseded tongues. Nay, was ordinary conversation possible with a young goddess such as this? So perfect seemed her mastery over those profounder elements of intercourse underlying speech, which are higher and more direct than the mechanism of articulate words, that perhaps the latter method was unknown to her.
Nevertheless, one must say something. But what?—with what sentence of supreme significance should he begin? Moreover, what language should he use? for she, whose look and bearing were so alien to the land and age, might likewise be a stranger to modern dialects. But Aryan or Semitic was not precisely at the tip of Balder's tongue!
In the midst of his embarrassment, the startling note of the hoopoe pierced his ear, and precipitated him into asking that great elemental question which all created things are forever putting to one another,—
"What is your name?"
THE HOOPOE AND THE CROCODILE.
"Gnulemah!" she answered, laying a finger on the head of her golden serpent, and uttering the name as though it were of the only woman in the world.
But the next moment she found time to realize that something unprecedented had occurred, and her wonder trembled on the brink of dismay.
"Speaks in my language!" she exclaimed below her breath; "but is not Hiero."
Until Balder's arrival, then, Hiero would seem to have been the only talking animal she had known. The singularity of this did not at first strike the young man. Gnulemah was the arch-wonder; yet she so fully justified herself as to seem very nature; and by dint of her magic reality, what else had been wonderful seemed natural. Balder was in fairy-land.
He fell easily into the fairy-land humor.
"I am a being like yourself," said he, with a smile; "and not dumb like your plants and animals."
"Understood!—answered!" exclaimed Gnulemah again, in a tremor. As morning spreads up the sky, did the sweet blood flow outward to warm her face and neck. As the blush deepened, her eyelids fell, and she shielded her beautiful embarrassment with her raised hands. A pathos in the simple grace of this action drew tears unawares to Balder's eyes.
What was in her mind? what might she be? Had she lived always in this enchanted spot, companionless (for poor old Hiero could scarcely serve her turn) and ignorant perhaps that the world held other beings endowed like herself with human gifts? Had she vainly sought throughout nature for some kinship more intimate than nature could yield her, and thus at length fancied herself a unique, independently created soul, imperial over all things? Since her whole world was comprised between the wall and the river, no doubt she believed the reality of things extended no further.
In Balder she had found a creature like, yet pleasingly unlike herself, palpable to feeling as to sight, and gifted with that articulate utterance which till now she had accounted her almost peculiar faculty. Delightful might be the discovery, but awesome too, frightening her back by its very tendency to draw her forward.
Whether or not this were the solution of Gnulemah's mystery, Balder recognized quiet to be his cue towards her. Probably he could not do better than to get the ear of Doctor Hiero, and establish himself upon a footing more conventional than the present one. His next step accordingly was to ask after him by name.
She peeped at the questioner between her fingers, but ventured not quite to emerge from behind them, as she answered,—her primary attempt at description,—
"And how long have you been here?" inquired Balder with a smile.
Gnulemah forgot her embarrassment in wondering how so remarkable a creature happened to ask questions whose answers her whole world knew!
"We are always here!" she exclaimed; and added, after a moment's doubtful scrutiny, "Are you a spirit?"
"An embodied spirit,—yes!" answered he, smiling again.
"One of those I see beyond,"—she pointed towards the cliff,—"that move and seem to live, but are only shadows in the great picture? No! for I cannot touch them nor speak with them; they never answer me; they are shadows." She paused and seemed to struggle with her bewilderment.
"They are shadows!" repeated Helwyse to himself.
Though no Hermetic philosopher, he was aware of a symbolic truth in the fanciful dogma. Outside his immediate circle, the world is a shadow to every man; his fellow-beings are no more than apparitions, till he grasps them by the hand. So to Gnulemah the cliff and the garden wall were her limits of real existence. The great picture outside could be true for her only after she had gone forth and felt as well as seen it.
Fancy aside, however, was not hers a condition morally and mentally deplorable? Exquisitely developed in body, must not her mind have grown rank with weeds,—beautiful perhaps, but poisonous? Herein Balder fancied he could trace the one-sided influence of his crack-brained uncle.—Whether his daughter or not, Gnulemah was evidently a victim of his experimental mania. What particular crotchet could he have been humoring in this case? Was it an attempt to get back to the early sense of the human race?
The materials for such an evolution were certainly of tempting excellence. In point of beauty and apparent natural capacity, Gnulemah might claim equality with the noblest daughter of the Pharaohs. The grand primary problem of how to isolate her from all contact with the outside world was, under the existing circumstances, easy of solution. Beyond this there needed little positive treatment. Her creed must arise from her own instinctive and intuitive impressions. Of all beyond the reach of her hands, she trust to her eyes alone for information; no marvel, therefore, if her conclusions concerning the great intangible phenomena of the universe were fantastic as the veriest heathen myths. The self-evolved feelings and impulses of a black-eyed nymph like Gnulemah were not likely to be orthodox. She was probably no better than a worshipper of vain delusions and idols of the imagination.
Her attire—a style of costume such as might have been the fashion in the days of Cheops or Tuthmosis—showed a carrying out of the Doctor's whim,—a matching of the external to the internal conditions of the age he aimed to reproduce. The project seemed, on the whole, to have been well conceived and consistently prosecuted. It was seldom that Uncle Hiero achieved so harmonious a piece of work; but the idea showed greater moral obliquity than Balder would have looked for in the old gentleman.
But there was no deep sincerity in the young man's strictures. There before him stood the woman Gnulemah,—purple, white, and gold; a vivid, breathing, warm-hued life; a soul and body rich with Oriental splendor. There she stood, her hair flowing dark and silky from beneath her twisted turban, her eyes,—black melted loadstones; the broad Egyptian pendants gleaming and glowing from temple to shoulder. The golden serpent seemed to writhe on her bosom, informed from its wearer with a subtile vitality. Through all dominated a grand repose, like the calm of nature, which storms may prove but not disthrone!
There she stood,—enchanted princess, witch, goddess,—woman at all events, palpable and undeniable. She must be accepted for what she was, civilized or uncivilized, heathen or Christian. She was a perfected achievement,—vain to argue how she might have been made better. Who says that an evening cloud, gorgeous in purple and heavenly gold, were more usefully employed fertilizing a garden-patch?
Balder Helwyse, moreover, was not a simple utilitarian; he was almost ready to make a religion of beauty. If he blamed his uncle for shutting up this superb creature within herself, he failed not to admire the result of the imprisonment. He knew he was beholding as rare a spectacle as ever man's eyes were blessed withal; nor was he slow to perceive the psychological interest of the situation. To a student of mankind, if to no one else, Gnulemah was beyond estimation precious. But had Balder forgotten what fruit his tree of philosophy had already yielded him?
At all events, he forbore to press his question as to the whereabouts of Uncle Hiero, who would turn up sooner or later. It was enough for the present to know that he still existed. Meanwhile he would sound the depths of this fresh nature, undisturbed.
The hoopoe (who had played an important part in promoting the acquaintance thus far) forsook his perch above Balder's head, and after hovering for a moment in mid-air, as if to select the best spot, he alighted on the mossy cushion at the foot of the twin palm-trees. Such a couch might Adam and Eve have rejoiced to find in Paradise. Balder took the hint, and without more ado threw himself down there, while Gnulemah half knelt, half sat beside him, propped on her arm, her warm fingers buried in the cool moss. The little master-of-ceremonies remained, with a fine sense of propriety, between the two, preening and fluttering his brilliant feathers and casting diamond glances sidelong.
"You remember nothing before coming to this place, Gnulemah?"
"Only dream-memories, that grow dimmer. Before this, I was a spirit in the great picture, and when my lamp goes out I shall return thither."
"Your lamp, Gnulemah?—what lamp?"
"How can you understand me and yet not know what I know? My lamp is the light of my life; it burns always in the temple yonder; when it goes out my life will become a darkness, for I am Gnulemah, the daughter of fire!"
"I knew not that my uncle was a poet," muttered Balder to himself. "A daughter of fire,—yes, there is lightning in her eyes!" Aloud he said, secretly alluding to the manner of his descent into the garden,—
"I dropped from the sky into your world, Gnulemah. Though we can talk together, whatever we tell each other will be new."
She caught the idea of a lifetime spent instructing this delightful being, and receiving in return instruction from him. She entered at once the charming vista.
"Tell me," she began, bending towards him in her earnestness, "are there others like you?—are they bright and beautiful as you are?—or do they look like Hiero?"
Balder laughed, and flushed, and his heart warmed pleasurably. Here was a compliment from the very soul of nature. And albeit the lovely flatterer's experience of men was avowedly most limited, yet her taste was unvitiated as her sincerity, and her judgment may therefore have been more valuable than that of the most practised belle of fashion. But he answered modestly,—
"Hiero and I are both men, and there are as many men as stars in heaven, and as many women as men, myriads of men and women, Gnulemah!"
She lifted her face and hand in eloquent astonishment.
"O, what a world!" she exclaimed in her low-toned way. "But are the women all like me?"
"There is not one like you," answered Balder, with the quiet emphasis of conviction. How refreshing was it thus to set aside conventionalism! Her ingenuousness brought forth the like from him.
"Have you never wished to go beyond the wall?" he asked her.
"Yes, often!" she said, fingering the golden serpent thoughtfully. "But that could not be unless I put out the lamp. Sometimes I get tired of this world,—it has changed since I first came to it."
"Is it less beautiful?"
"It is smaller than it used to be," said Gnulemah, pensively. "Once the house was so high, it seemed to touch heaven;—see how it has dwindled since then! And so with other things that are on earth. The stars and the sun and clouds, they have not changed!"
"That is a consolation, is it not?" observed Balder, between a smile and a sigh. Gnulemah was not the first to charge upon the world the alterations in the individual; nor the first, either, to find comfort in the constancy of Heaven.
She went on, won to further confidence by her listener's sympathy,—
"I used to hope the wall would one day become so low that I might pass over it. But it has ceased to change, and is still too high. Shall I ever see the other side?"
"It can be broken down if need be. But you might go far before finding a world so fair as this. Perhaps it would be better to stand on the cliff, and only look forth across the river."
"I cannot stay always here," returned Gnulemah, shaking her turbaned head, with its gleaming bandeau and rattling pendants. "But no wall is between me and the sky; the flame of my lamp goes upward, and why should not Gnulemah?"
"A friend is the only world one does not tire of," he replied after a pause. "You have lacked companions."
Gnulemah glanced down at the hoopoe, who forthwith warbled aloud and fluttered up to her shoulder. The bird was her companion, and so, likewise, were the plants and flowers. Gnulemah could converse with them in their own language. Nature was her friend and confidant, and intimately communed with her.
All this was conveyed to Balder's apprehension, not by words, but by some subtile expressiveness of eye and gesture. Gnulemah could give voiceless utterances in a manner pregnant and felicitous almost beyond belief.
"I meet also a beautiful maiden in the looking-glass," she added; "her face and motion are always the same as my own. But though she seems to speak, her voice never reaches me; and she smiles, but only when I smile; and mourns only when I mourn. We can never reach each other; but there is more in her than in my birds and flowers."
"She is the shadow of yourself; no reality, Gnulemah."
"Are we shadows of each other, then? is she weary of her world, as I of mine? shall we both escape to some other,—or only pass each into the other's, and be separated as before?"
Balder, like wise men before him, was at some loss how to bring his wisdom to bear here. He could not in one sentence explain the complicated phenomena in question. Fortunately, however, Gnulemah (who had apparently not yet learned to appeal from her own to another's judgment) seemed hardly to expect a solution to problems upon which she had expended much private thought.
"I have come to look on her as though she were myself, and she tells me secrets which no one else can know. Some things she tells me that I do not care to hear, but they are always true. I can see changes in; her face that I feel in my own heart."
"Does she teach you that you grow every day more beautiful?" He was willing to prove whether Gnulemah could thus be disconcerted. Many a woman had he known, surprisingly innocent until a chance word or glance betrayed profoundest depths.
"Our beauty is like the garden, which is beautiful every day, though no day is just like another. But the changes I mean are in the spirit that looks back at me from her eyes, when I enter deeply into them."
What connection could, after all, subsist between beauty and vanity in one who neither had rivals nor aught to rival for? Doubtless she enjoyed her beauty,—the more, as her taste was pure of conventional falsities. How much of worldly experience would it take to vitiate that integrity in her? Would it not be better to leave her to end her life, restricted to the same innocent and lovely companionship which had been hers thus far? Here the hoopoe, startled at some movement that Balder made, abandoned his perch on his mistress's shoulder, and flew to the top of the palm-tree. Had the day when such friends would suffice her needs gone by?
Yes, it was now too late. No one who has beheld the sun can thenceforth dispense with it. Balder had shone across the beautiful recluse's path, and linked her to outside realities by a chain which, whether he went or stayed, would never break. Flowers, birds, shadows in the mirror,—less than nothing would these things be to her from this hour on.
Heretofore the intercourse between the two had been tentative and incoherent,—a doubtful, aimless grappling with strange conditions which seemed delightful, but might mask unknown dangers. No solid basis of mutual acquaintanceship had been even approached. Balder, accustomed though he was to woman's society, knew not how to apply his experience here; while Gnulemah had not yet perhaps decided whether her visitor were natural or supernatural. The man was probably the less at ease of the two, finding himself in a pass through which tradition nor culture could pilot him. Gnulemah, being used to daily communion with things mysterious to her understanding, would scarcely have altered her demeanor had Balder turned out to be a genie!
But the first step towards fixing the relations between them was already taken. The young man's abrupt movement of his hand to his face (probably with purpose to stroke the beard no longer growing there) had not only scared away the hoopoe, but had flashed on Gnulemah a ray from the diamond ring.
She rose to her feet suddenly, yet easily as a startled serpent rears erect its body. Vivid emotion lightened in her face. Balder knew not what to make of the look she gleamed at him.
"What are you?" she asked, her voice sunk to almost a whisper. "Hiero?—are you Hiero?"
Balder stared confounded,—partly inclined to smile!
"Come back,—transfigured!" she went on, her eyes deepening with awe. What did it mean? Somewhat disturbed, Balder got also on his feet. As he did so, Gnulemah crouched before him, holding out her hands like a suppliant. An on-looker might have fancied that the would-be God had found his worshipper at last!
"My name is Balder," his Deityship managed to say. As he spoke, the sun rounded the corner of the house, and the light fell brightly on him, Gnulemah kneeling in shadow. The glory of his splendid youth seemed to have shone out from within him in sudden effulgence.
"Balder!" she slowly repeated, still gazing up at him.
"There is a relationship between us," said he, a vague uneasiness urging him to take refuge behind the quaint fantasy, "You are the daughter of fire, and I the descendant of the sun!"
He spoke the unpremeditated notion which the sunburst had created in his brain,—spoke not seriously nor yet lightly. He had as much right to his genealogy as she to hers.
But what a strange effect his words wrought on her! She clasped her hands together quickly in a kind of ecstasy.
"The sun,—Balder! I have prayed to him,—he as come to me,—Balder, my God!" With how divine an accent did her full low voice give him the name to which he had dared aspire! He was God—and her God!
He perhaps divined one part of the process through which her mind must have gone; but he could not find a word to answer, whether of acceptance or disclaimer. He turned pale,—his heart sick. Had the recognition of his Godhood been too tardy? Gnulemah fancied he repulsed her, and her passion kindled,—only religious passion, but it seared him!
"Do not be cold to me, Balder!"—his name as she uttered it moved him as a blasphemy. "In my lonely kneelings I have felt you! my eyes close, my hands grow together, my breath flutters, every breath is joy and fear! I think 'He is with me,—the Being I adore!' but when I opened my eyes, He was gone,—Balder!"
Still motionless and seeming-deaf stood the Divinity, bathed in mocking sunlight. He was powerless to stop her from unveiling to him, as to a visible God the sacred places of her maiden heart. That sublime office whose reversion he had boldly courted, in the possession shrivelled his soul to nothing and left him dead. It was not easy to be God,—even over one human being!
But Gnulemah, in her mighty earnestness, knelt nearer, so that the edge of Balder's sunlight smote the golden ornaments that clung round her outstretched arms. She almost touched him, but though his spirit recoiled, the doltish flesh would not be moved.
"It was not to be always so," she continued, an appealing vehemence quivering through her tones. "Some day I was to see Him and know Him more clearly. Shine on me, Balder! am not I your priestess? in the morning do not I worship you, and at noon, and in the evening? At night do not I kneel at your altar and pray you to care for me while I sleep? Hear me, Balder! I see you in all things,—they are your thoughts and meet again in you! The sun himself is but your shadow! Do not I know you, my Balder? Be not clouded from your servant! Leave me not,—take me with you where you go!"
It was at this moment that the young man's mind, stumbling stupidly hither and thither, chanced to encounter that picture of the courtesan, leaning from the open window in the city street, beckoning him to come. She took Gnulemah's place, beckoning, making a hateful parody of Gnulemah's expression and gestures. Could a devil take the consecrated place of angels? or was the angel a worse devil in disguise? In the same day, to him the same man, could two such voices speak,—such faces look? And could the germ of Godhead abide in a soul liable to the irony of such vicarious solicitation?
Speech or motion was still denied him. His priestess, strengthened by religious passion, was bold to touch with hers his divine hand, on the finger of which demoniacally glittered the murder-token. The hand was so cold and lax that even the smooth warmth of her soft fingers failed to put life in it.
"You have taken Hiero to yourself,—take me also! be my God as well as his, for I shall be alone now he is gone. This ring which he always wore—"
Balder roughly snatched back his hand.
"Why do you look so?—is it not a sign to me from him?"
"Hiero's ring?—tell me, Gnulemah, is this Hiero's ring?—Stop—stand up! No—call me Satan!—Hiero's ring!"
"Where is Hiero, then?" demanded Gnulemah, rising and dilating. "You wear his ring,—what have you done with him?—Is there no God?"
The words came riding on the waves of deep-drawn breaths, for her soul was in a tumult. Her life had thus far been like a quiet sequestered pool, reflecting only the sky, and the ferns and flowers that bent above its margin; ignorant, moreover, of its own depth and nature. Now, invaded by storm, God and nature seemed swept away and lost, and a terror of loneliness darkened over it.
"Is there no Balder?" reiterated Gnulemah. But all at once the fierceness in her eyes melted, as lightning is followed by summer rain. She came so near,—he standing dulled with horror of his discovery,—came so near that her breath touched him, and he could hear the faint rustling of the white byssus on her bosom, and the soft tinkle of the broad pendants that glowed against her black hair; and could see how profoundly real her beauty was. Mighty and beneficent must be the force or the law which could combine the rude elements into such a form of life as this!
"Let me live for you and serve you! Though the world has no Balder, may not I have mine? You shall be everything to me! Without you I cannot be; but I want no other God if I have my Balder!"
This was another matter! Nevertheless,—so subtle is the boundary between love human and divine,—Gnulemah in these first passionate moments may easily have deemed the one no less sublime than the other.
But there was no danger of Balder's falling into such an error. The distinction was clear to him. Yet with remorse and abasement strove the defiant impulse to pluck and eat—forgetful of this world and the next the royal fruit so fairly held to his lips! For herein fails the divinity of nature,—she can minister as well to man's depravity as to his exaltation; which could not happen were she one with God. Nay, man had need be strong with Divine inspiration, before communing unharmed with nature's dangerous loveliness.
His hand in Gnulemah's was now neither cold nor lax. She raised it in impetuous homage to her forehead. The diamond left a mark there; first white, then red. For a breath or two, their eyes saw depths in each other beyond words' fathoming....
A door was closed above; and the echo stole down stairs and crept with a hollow whisper into the conservatory. The little lord chamberlain fluttered down from his lofty perch and hovered between the two faces, his penetrating note sounding like a warning, Gnulemah drew back, and a swift blush let fall its rosy veil from the golden gleam of her jewelled forehead-band to below the head of the serpent which twisted round her neck.
One parting look she gave Balder, pregnant of new wonder, fear, and joy. Then she turned and glided with quick ophidian grace to the doorway from which she had first appeared, and was eclipsed by the curtain. The inner door shut; she was gone. Dull, dull and colorless was the conservatory. The hoopoe had flown out through the hall to the open air. Only the crocodile continued to keep Balder company.
After standing a few moments, he once more threw himself down on the moss couch beneath the palm-trees. There he reclined as before, supported on his elbow, and turned the diamond ring this way and that on his finger in moody preoccupation.
Was the crocodile asleep, or stealthily watching him?
If Balder Helwyse had been in a vein for self-criticism at this juncture, the review might probably have dissatisfied him. He possessed qualities which make men great. He could have discharged august offices, for he saw things in large relations and yet minutely. His mind and courage could rise to any enterprise, and carry it with ease and cheerfully. His nature was even more receptive than active. He had force of thought to electrify nations.
But his was the old story of the star-gazer walking into the well, who might have studied the stars in the well, but could not be warned of the well by the stars. He had whistled grand chances down the wind, reaching after what was superhuman. His hunger had been vast, but the food wherewith he had filled himself nourished him not, and suddenly he had collapsed. His first actual step towards realizing his lofty aspirations had landed him low amongst earth's common criminals,—nor had the harm stopped there. That defiant impulse to which he had just now been on the point of yielding had not dared so much as to have shown its face before his unvitiated will. He was disorganized and at the mercy of events, because without law sufficient to keep and guide himself.
Though fallen, there was in him somewhat giant-like, perhaps easier to see now than before,—as the ruin seems vaster than the perfect building. The travail of a soul like Balder's must issue greatly, whether for good or ill. He could not remain long inchoate, but the elements would combine to make something either darker or fairer than had been before. Meanwhile, in the uncrystallized solution the curious analyst might detect traits bright or sinister, ordinarily invisible. Here were softness, impetuosity, romantic imagination, and tender fire, enough to set up half a dozen poets. Again, there was a fund of malignity, coldness, and subtlety adequate to the making an Iago. Here, too, were the clear sceptical intellect, the fertility and versatile power of brain, which only the loftier minds of the world have shown.
Such seemingly incongruous qualities are, in the human crucible, so mingled, proportioned, and refined, as to form a seeming simple and transparent whole. We may feel the presence of a spirit weighty, strong, deep, without understanding the how and why of impression. Only at critical moments, such as this in Balder's life, can we point out the joining lines.
Balder's present attitude, viewed from whatever side, was no less irksome than ignoble. One misfortune was with diabolic ingenuity dovetailed into another. It was bad enough to have killed a man; but the victim was his own uncle, and the father—at least the foster-father—of Gnulemah. And she, forsooth, must idolize the murderer; and, finally, his heart must leap forth in passionate response to hers at the moment—partly perhaps for the reason—that every honest motive forbade it. That look and touch, at the molten point of various emotions, had welded their spirits together at once and lastingly.
What next? For Gnulemah and for himself what course was least disastrous?—the heroic line,—to leave her without a word?—or, concealing what he was, should he stay and be happy in her arms? Was there a third alternative?
"To part would be yet worse for her than for me. She would think I had deceived her. And, love apart, how can I leave her whose only protector I have killed? That deed puts me in his place; so love and duty are at one for once. Her Balder,—her God,—she calls me. She is my universe; the depth and limit of my knowledge and power are gauged by her. Such is the issue of my aspirations!"
He breathed out a half-laugh, ending in a sigh. "But loving her is sweeter than to inform creation!" he added, aloud.
The crocodile made no reply. Balder went on, fingering the telltale ring and talking with himself; the earth, meanwhile, slowly turning her warm shoulder to the western sun. A still half-light filled the conservatory as with a clear mellow liquor, and the rich leaves, and blossoms stood breathless with delight. The painfully rigid contraction of Balder's features was softening away; he was coming into harmony with the sensuous beauty of the scene, or its refined voluptuousness—serene, unambitious, content with time and careless of eternity—interpreted his altered temper.
Be happy in the sunlight, O men and women! Love and kiss,—bow down and worship each the other! Who can tell of another joy like this? Everlasting knows it not, for only the flavor of death can give it perfection! Save for the foreshadow of midnight, noonday were not beautiful. But when night comes, sink ye in one another's arms, and sleep! Heaven on earth is a richer, stronger draught than Heaven; but pray that in vouchsafing death, it cheat ye not of annihilation!
He had forgotten that there was anything ugly in the world, or that the blindest cannot always escape the Gorgon. He recked not the risk of bringing a being such as Gnulemah face to face with modern life, nor bethought him that the secret in his heart would still be nearer it than love could come. Neither, during this fortunate moment, did fear of discovery harass him.
Oddly, too, it was not to domestic comforts,—the love of wife, children, and friends,—nor yet to the absorbing duties of a profession, that Balder looked for a shield against inward trouble. Hope held him no more than fear; his happiness must consist in freedom from both. He thought only of the Gnulemah of to-day,—unique, beautiful, untamed, divinely ignorant; but whose heart walked before, leading the giddy mind by paths the wisest dared not tempt. The sounds of her voice, the shiftings of her expression, her look, her touch,—he recalled them all. He centred time and space in her. Change, new conditions, succession of events,—these came not near her. Their life should know neither past nor future, but abide a constant Now,—until the end!
His lips followed his thought with soundless movement. Handsome lips they were,—the under, full, but sharply defined from the bulwark-chin; the upper, slender, boldly curved, firm, yet sensitive;—the mouth was a compendium of the man's physical nature. His eyes, large and almost as dark as Gnulemah's, albeit far different in effect,—were now in-looking; the pupils, always extraordinarily large and brilliant, almost filled the space between the eyelids. His hair clung round his head in yellow curls; the dark dense eyebrows arched at ease. With velvet doublet and well-moulded limbs, in the enchanted evening-glow, he looked the ideal fairy prince,—noble, wise, and valiant; conquering fate for love's sake. They were brave princes,—they of old time. But one wonders whether the giants and enchanters, nowadays, are not stronger and subtler than they used to be!
BETWEEN WAKING AND SLEEPING.
There was an old woman in the house who went by the name of Nurse; her duties being to cook the meals and preserve a sort of order in such of the rooms as were occupied by the family. Since the greater part of the house was uninhabited, and there were only two mouths to feed beside her own, Nurse was not without leisure moments. How were they employed?
Not in gossiping, for she had no cronies. Not in millinery and dressmaking, for there were no admiring eyes to reward such labors. Not in gadding, for she might not pass the imprisoning wall. Not even in reading, perhaps because she was not much of a proficient in that art.
The truth is that—to the outward eye at least—she was uniformly idle. For years past she had spent many hours of each night in the corner of the kitchen fireplace, which was as large, roomy, and smoke-seasoned as any in story-books or mediaeval halls. Here sat she, winter and summer, her body bent forward over her knees, her disfigured face supported on one hand, while the other lay across her breast. This was her common position, and she seldom moved to change it. She hummed tunes to herself sometimes,—not hymn tunes,—but never was heard to utter an articulate word. Often you might have thought her asleep,—but no! when you least expected it a shining black eye was fixed oh you; an eye which, two hundred years ago, would have convicted its owner of witchcraft. It was the only bright thing about the poor woman.
Whenever the master of the house came to the kitchen, Nurse's witch-eye followed him animal-like; no movement of his, no expression, seemed to escape it. A curious observer might sometimes have remarked in her, during the few moments after the man's entrance, a muffled agitation, an irregularity of the breath, an obscure anxiety and suspense. This, however, would soon subside, and rarely recur during his stay. The phenomenon had been observable daily for nearly a score of years, yet nothing had meantime happened to explain or justify it. Had an original dread—groundless or not—prolonged its phantom existence precisely because it had never met with justification?
Often for weeks at a time, complete silence would obtain between master and Nurse. He would enter and ramble hither and thither the ample kitchen; eat what had been prepared for him, and be off again without a word or glance of acknowledgment. Or, again, pacing irregularly to and fro before the fireplace, he would pour forth long disjointed rhapsodies, wild speculations, hopes, and misgivings; his mood changing from solemn to gay, and round through gusty passion to morbid gloom. But never did he address his words to Nurse so much as to himself or to some imaginary interlocutor; and she for her part never answered him a syllable, but sat in silence through it all. Yet was she ever alert to listen, and sometimes the subdued trembling would come on and the obstruction of breath. But when the talker, in mid-excitement of speech, snatched his violin and drew from it melodies weirdly exquisite, soothing his diseased thoughts and harmonizing them, Nurse would become once more composed; the phantom danger was again put off, and the violinist would presently fall into silence,—sometimes into sleep. But still, while he slept, the witch-eye watched him; though with an expression of yearning, uncouth intensity which seldom ventured forth while he was awake.
With Gnulemah, Nurse's intercourse became yearly more and more infrequent. As the child arose to womanhood, she grew apart from the voiceless creature who had cared for her infancy. It was not Gnulemah's fault, whose heart was never barren of loving impulses. But mother, father, were words whose meaning she had never been taught; and had Nurse comprehended the unconscious thirst and hunger of the girl's soul,—unconscious, but not therefore harmless,—she might have tried, by dint of affectionate observances and companionship, to represent the motherly office which she had filled in the beginning. But this was not to be. Some hidden agency had forced the two ever farther asunder. Moreover, Gnulemah developed rapidly, while Nurse underwent a process of gradual congealment,—her wits and emotions became torpid. Besides this, she was the victim of disfigurement, physical as well as spiritual; while Gnulemah, both naturally and by training, was sensitive to beauty and ugliness. Other surface causes no doubt there were, in addition to the hidden one, which was perhaps the most potent of all.
A considerable time had passed since Gnulemah's departure, when Balder became aware that he was not alone in the conservatory. His thoughts were all of Gnulemah, and he looked quickly round in expectation of seeing her. The apparition of a widely different object startled him to his feet.
A female figure stood before him, wrapped in sad-colored garments of anomalous description, her head tied up in dark turban-like folds of cloth. A lock of rusty black hair escaped from beneath this head-dress and hung down beside her face. She might once have been tall and erect, but her form now sagged to the left, losing both height and dignity. Her visage, seamed and furrowed by the scar of some terrible calamity, had lost its natural contour. The left eye was extinguished, but the right remained,—the only feature in its original state. It was dark and bright, and possessed, by very virtue of its disfigured environment, a repulsive kind of beauty. Its influence was peculiar. In itself, it postulated an owner in the prime of life, handsome and graceful. But, one's attention wandering, the woman's actual ugliness impressed itself with an intensity enhanced by the imaginary contrast.
A grotesque analogy was thus brought to light. The woman was dual. Her right side lived; the left—blind, inert, and soulless—was dragged about a dead weight. It was an unnatural emphasizing of the spiritual-material composition of mankind. Observable, moreover, was her strange method of disguising emotion. There was no muscular constraint; she simply turned her blank left side to the spectator, with an effect like the interposition of a dead wall!
Such, on Balder's perhaps abnormally excited apprehension, was the impression the nurse produced. She, on her part, was perhaps more disconcerted than he. Her single eye settled upon him in a panic of surprise. The dressing of the scene gave Balder a grisly reminder of the first moments of Gnulemah's eloquent astonishment. There was as great an apparent difference between the superb Egyptian and this poor creature, as between good and evil; but there was also the disagreeable suggestion of a similar kind of relationship. Gnulemah, withered, stifled, and degraded by some unmentionable curse, might have become a thing not unlike this woman.
"Have we met before, madam?" asked Helwyse, impelled to the question by what he took for a bewildered recognition in her eye.
She moved her lips, but made no audible answer.
"I am Balder Helwyse," he added; for he had made up his mind that all concealments (save one) were unnecessary.
A grotesque quake of emotion travelled through the woman's body, and she gave utterance to a harsh inarticulate sound. She came confusedly forwards, groping with hands outstretched. Balder, though not wont to fail in courtesy to the sorriest hag, could scarce forbear recoiling; especially because he fancied that an expression of affectionate interest was struggling to get through the scarred incrustation of the woman's nature.
Perhaps she marked his inward shrinking, for she checked herself, and, slowly turning her lifeless screen, hid behind it. It was impotent deprecation translated into flesh,—at once ludicrous and painful. The young man found so much difficulty in restraining the manifestation of his distaste, that he blushed in the twilight at his own rudeness. He would do his best to redeem himself.
"Doctor Hiero Glyphic is my uncle," said he, moving to get on Nurse's right side, and speaking in his pleasantest tone. "Is he at home? I have come a long way to see him."
Preoccupied by his amiable purpose to reassure the woman, Helwyse had got to the end of this speech before realizing the ghastly mockery involved in it. Nevertheless, it was well. Even thus falsely and boldly must he henceforth speak and act. By a happy accident he had opened the path, and must see to it that his further steps did not retrograde.
Still Nurse answered not a word, which was the less surprising, inasmuch as she had been dumb for a quarter of a century past. But Balder, supposing her silence to proceed from stupidity or deafness, repeated more loudly and peremptorily,—
"Doctor Glyphic,—is he here? is he alive?"
He felt a morbid curiosity to hear what reply would be made to the question whose answer only he could know. But he was puzzled to observe that it appeared to throw Nurse into a state of agitation as great as though she had herself been the perpetrator of Balder's crime! She stood quaking and irresolute, now peeping for a moment from behind her screen, then dodging back with an increase of panic.
This display—rendered more uncouth by its voicelessness—revolted the aesthetic sensibilities of Helwyse. Besides, what was the meaning of it? Had it actually been Davy Jones with whom he had striven on the midnight sea? and had his adversary, instead of drowning, spread his bat-wings for home, and left his supposititious murderer to disquiet himself in vain? Verily, a practical joke worthy its author!
This conceit revealed others, as a lightning-flash the midnight landscape. Balder was encircled by witchcraft,—had been ferried by a real Charon to no imaginary Hades. The quaint secluded beauty of circumstance was an illusion, soon to be dispelled. Gnulemah herself—miserable thought!—was perhaps a thing of evil; what if this very hag were she in another form? Glancing round in the deepening twilight, Balder fancied the dark, still plants and tropic shrubs assumed demoniac forms, bending and crowding about him. The old witch yonder was muttering some infernal spell; already he felt numbness in his limbs, dizziness in his brain.
The devils are gathering nearer. A heavy, heated atmosphere quivers before his eyes, or else the witch and her unholy crew are uniting in a reeling dance. In vain does Balder try to shut his eyes and escape the giddy spectacle; they stare widely open and see things supernatural. Nor can he ward off these with his hands, which are rigid before him, and defy his will. The devilish jig becomes wilder, and careers through the air, Balder sweeping with it. In mid-whirl, he sees the crocodile,—cold, motionless, waiting with long, dry jaws—for what?
A cry breaks from him. With a wrench that strains his heart he bursts loose from the devil's bonds that confine his limbs. The witch has vanished, and Helwyse seems to himself to fall headlong from a vast height, striking the earth at last helpless and broken.
Gasping out that name, he becomes insensible.
Beneath an outside of respectable composure have turmoiled the tides of such remorse and pain as only a man at once largely and finely made can feel. Added to the mental excitement carried through many phases to the point of distraction, have been bodily exertion and want of food and sleep. The apparition of unnatural ugliness, of behavior strange as her looks, coming upon him in this untoward condition, needed not the heat of the conservatory and stupefying perfume of the flowers to bring on the brief delirium and final unconsciousness. As he lies there let us remember that his last word threw back the unworthy, dark misgiving, that beauty and deformity, good and bad, could by any jugglery become convertible.
As a mere matter of fact, Nurse was no witch, nor had she, of her own will and knowledge, done Balder any harm. On the contrary, she was already at work, with trembling hands and painfully thumping heart, to relieve his sad case. She was touched and agitated to a singular degree. It was not the first time in the patient's life that she had tended him. The reader has guessed her secret,—that she had known Balder before he knew himself, and cared for him when his only cares had been to eat and sleep. She knew her baby through his manly stature and mature features, less from his likeness to his father than from certain uneffaced traces of infantine form and expression. She was of gypsy blood, and had looked on few human faces since last seeing his. He did not recognize her until some time afterwards. All things considered, it was hardly possible he should do so.
It was curious to observe how awkwardly she now managed emotions that had once flowed but too readily. She was moved by impulses which she had long forgotten how to interpret. Her only outlet for tenderness was her solitary eye, which might well have given way under the strain thus put upon it.
But by and by the inward heat began to thaw the stiff outward crust, which had been hardening for so many years. Glimpses there were of the handy, affectionate, sympathizing woman, emerging from fossilization. Her withered heart once more hungered and thirsted, and the strange duality tended to melt back again into unity.
Balder's attack at length yielded, and a drowsy consciousness returned, memory and reason being still partly in abeyance. His heavy, half-closed eyes rested on darkness. A crooning sound was in his ear,—a nursery lullaby, wordless but soothing. Where was he? Had he been ill? Was he in his cradle at home? Was Salome sitting by to watch him and give him his medicine? Yes, very ill he was, but would be better in the morning; and meanwhile he would be a good boy, and not cry and make a fuss and trouble Salome.
"Nurse,—Sal!—I say, Sal!"
Salome bent over him as of old.
"Had such a funny dream, Sal! dreamt I was grown up, and—killed a man! What makes you shake so, Sal? it wasn't true, you know! And I'm going to be a good boy and go to sleep. Good night! give a kiss from me—to—my—little—"
So sinks he into slumber, profound as ever wooed his childhood; his head pillowed in Salome's lap, his funny dream forgotten.
WE PICK UP ANOTHER THREAD.
Darkness and silence reigned in the conservatory; the group of the sleeping man and attendant woman was lost in the warm gloom, and scarcely a motion—the low drawing of a breath—told of their presence.
A great gray owl, which had passed the daylight in some obscure corner, launched darkling forth on the air and winged hither and thither,—once or twice fanning the sleeper's face with silent pinions. The crocodile lazily edged off the stone, plumped quietly into the water, and clambered up the hither margin of the pool, there coming to another long pause. A snail, making a night-journey across the floor, found in its path a diamond, sparkling with a light of its own. The snail extended a cool cautious tentacle,—recoiled it fastidiously and shaped a new course. A broad petal from a tall flowering-shrub dropped wavering down, and seemed about to light on Balder's forehead; but, swerving at the last moment, came to rest on the scaly head of the crocodile. The night waited and listened, as though for something to happen,—for some one to appear! Salome, too, was waiting for some one;—was it for the dead?
Meantime, pictures from the past glimmered through her memory. When, in our magic mirror, we saw her struck down by the hand of her lover, she was far from being the repulsive object she is now. Indeed, but for that chance word let fall yesterday, about her having been badly burnt, we might be at a loss to justify our recognition of her.
After Manetho's rude dismissal of her, she fled—not knowing whither better—to Thor Helwyse, who was living widowed in his Brooklyn house, with his infant son and daughter. Because she had been Helen's attendant, she besought Helen's husband to give her a home. She was in sore trouble, but said no more than this; and Thor, suspecting nothing of her connection with Manetho, gladly received her as nurse to his children.
But past sins and imprudences would find out Salome no less than others. At the critical moment for herself and her fortunes, the house took fire. She risked her life to save Thor's daughter, was herself burned past recognition, and (one misfortune treading on another's heels) balanced on death's verge for a month or two. She got well, in part; but the faculty of speech had left her, and beauty of face and figure was forever gone.
In her manifold wretchedness, and after such devotion shown, it was not in Thor's warm heart to part with her; so, losing much, she gained something. She remained with her benefactor, whose manly courtesy ever forbore to probe the secret of her woman's heart, over which as over her face she always wore a veil. The world saw Salome no more. She sat in the nursery, watching year by year the dark-eyed little maiden playing with the fair-haired boy. Broad-shouldered Thor would come in, with his grand, kindly face and royal beard; would kiss the little girl and tussle with the boy, mightily laughing the while at the former's solicitude for her playmate; would throw himself on the groaning sofa, and exclaim in his deep voice,—
"God bless their dear little souls! Why, Nurse! when did a brother and sister ever love each other like that,—eh?"
Salome probably was not unhappy then; indeed,—whether she knew it or not,—she was at her happiest. But new events were at hand; Thor, growing yearly more restless, at length resolved to sell his house and go to Europe, taking with him Salome and both the children. Everything was ready, down to the packing of Salome's box. A day or two before the sailing, Thor went to New Jersey, to bid farewell to his eccentric brother-in-law. It was a warm summer day, and the children played from morning till night in the front yard, while Nurse sat in the window and kept her eye on them. Her thoughts, perhaps, travelled elsewhere.
Since her misfortune she had, no doubt, had more opportunity than most women for reflection: silence breeds thought. What she thought about, no one knew; but she could hardly have forgotten Manetho. On this last evening, when at the point of leaving America forever, it would have been strange had no memory of him passed through her mind.
She had not heard his name in the last four years, and she knew that he suspected nothing of her whereabouts. Had he ever wished to see her? she wondered and thought, "He would not know me if he did see me!" With that came a tumultuous longing once more to look upon him. Too late! Why had she not thought of this before? Now must her last memory of him be still as when, disfigured by sudden rage, he turned upon her and struck her on the bosom. There was the scar yet; the fire had spared it! It was a keepsake which, as time passed, Salome strangely learned to love!
It was growing dusk,—time for the children to come in. They were sitting deep in the abundant grass, weaving necklaces out of dandelion-stems. Nurse leaned out of window and beckoned to attract their attention. But either they were too much absorbed to notice her, or they were wilfully blind; so Nurse rose to go out and fetch them.
Before reaching the open front door, she stopped short and her heart seemed to turn over. A tall dark man was leaning over the fence, talking with the little girl. Nurse shrank within the shadow of the door, and thence peeped and listened,—as well as her beating pulses would let her.
"I know where fairy-land is," says the man, in the soft, engaging tone that the listener so well remembers. "Come! shall we go together and visit it?"
"He come too?" asks the little maiden, nodding towards the boy, who is portentously busy over his dandelions.
"He may if he likes," the man answers with a smile. "But we must make haste, or fairy-land will be shut up!"
It flashes into Salome's head what this portends. She had heard this man vow revenge on Thor long ago, and she now sees how he means to keep his oath. He has shrewdly improved the opportunity of Thor's absence, and has come intending to carry off either his son or his daughter. Fortune, it seems, had chosen for him the dark-eyed little girl. See! he stoops and lifts her gently over the wall, and they are off for fairy-land!
Rush out, Salome! alarm the neighborhood and force the kidnapper to give up his booty! After Thor's kindness to you, will you be false to him? Besides, what motive have you for unfaithfulness? Grant that you love Manetho,—what harm, save to his revengeful passion, could result from thwarting him?
Salome acted oddly on this occasion,—it would seem, irrationally. But that which appears to the spectator but a trivial modification may have vital weight with the actor. Had Manetho taken Balder, for example, Salome might have pursued another and more intelligible course than the one she actually took. She hurried out of the door and caught Manetho by the arm before he was twenty paces on his way. He turned, savage but frightened, setting down the little girl but not letting go her hand. She was in her happiest humor, and informed Nurse that she was to be queen of fairy-land!
Nurse lifted the veil from her face and looked steadfastly at Manetho with her one eye. It was enough,—he saw in her but a hideous object,—would never know her for the bright girl he had once professed to love. Salome gave one sob, containing more of womanly emotion than could be written down in many words, and then was quiet and self-possessed. Manetho did not offer to escape, but stood on his guard; half prepared, however,—from something in the woman's manner,—to find her a confederate.
"S'e come too?" chirped the unconscious little maiden.
But Manetho's attention was turned to some words that Salome was writing in a little blank-book which she always carried in her pocket She offered to help him carry off the child, on condition of being herself one of the party!
He looked narrowly at the woman, but could make nothing by his scrutiny. Was it love for the child that prompted her behavior? No; for she could easily have raised the neighborhood against him. She completely puzzled him, and she would give no explanations. What if he should accept her offer? She would be an advantage as well as an inconvenience. The child would have the care to which it had been accustomed, and Manetho would thus be spared much embarrassment. When the woman's help became superfluous, it would not be difficult to give her the slip.
There was small leisure for reflection. An agreement was made,—on Salome's part, with a secret sense of intense triumph, not unmixed with fear and pain. She caught up Master Balder and his dandelions, kissed and hugged him violently, and locked him into the nursery; where he was found some hours afterwards by his father, in a state of great hunger and indignation. But the little dark-haired maiden was no more. She was gone to her kingdom of fairy-land, and Nurse with her. Long mourned Balder for his vanished playmate!
Salome has kept her secret well. And now, there she sits, her long-lost baby's head in her lap, thinking of old times; and the longer she thinks, the more she softens and expands. Has she done a great wrong in her life? Surely she has suffered greatly, and in a manner that might well wither her to the core. But there must still have been a germ of life in the shrivelled seed, which this night—memorable in her existence—has begun to quicken.
By and by come a few tears, with a struggle at first, then more easily. Kind darkness lets us think of Salome bright and comely as in the old days, with the added grace of inward beauty wrought by sad experience. But, in truth, she is marred past earthly recovery. Nothing removes a soul so far from human sympathy as self-repression,—especially for any merely human end!
The night creeps reluctantly westward; the gray owl wings back to his shady corner; the adventurous snail, half-way up the palm-tree, glues himself to the bark and turns in for a nap. The crocodile has resumed his old position on the rock in the pool, and the flower petal floats on the water. Here comes the brilliant hoopoe with his smart crest and clear chirrup, impatient to bid Gnulemah good morning! All is as before, save that the group beneath the palm-trees has disappeared!
Balder slept late, yet, on awakening, he thought he must be dreaming still. He could not distinguish imagination from reality. His mind had temporarily lost its grasp, his will its authority. Where was he? Was it years or hours since he had entered Boston harbor?
Suddenly rose before him the vision of the deadly struggle on the midnight sea. Round this central point the rest crystallized in order. His heart sank, and he sighed most heavily. But presently he rose to his elbow and stared about in bewilderment. Had he ever seen this room before? How came he here?
He was lying on a carved bedstead, furnished with sheets of fine linen and a counterpane of blue embroidered satin; but all bearing an appearance of great age. The room was oval, like a bird's-egg halved lengthwise; the smoothly vaulted ceiling being frescoed with a crowd of figures. The rich and costly furniture harmonized with the bedstead, and bore the same marks of age. The chairs and lounge were satin-covered; the sumptuous toilet-table was fitted with a mirror of true crystal; the arched window was curtained with azure satin and lace. It was a chamber fit for a princess of the old regime, unaltered since its fair occupant last abode in it.
Balder now examined the frescos which covered wall and ceiling. The subject seemed at the first glance to be a Last Judgment, or something of that nature. A mingled rush of forms mounted on one side to the bright zenith, and thence lapsed confusedly down the opposite descent. The dark end of the room presented a cloud of gloomily fantastic shapes, swerved from the main stream, and becoming darker and more formless the farther they receded, till at the last they were lost in a murky shadow. Not entirely lost, however; for as Balder gazed awfully thitherward, the shadow seemed to resolve itself into a mass of intertwined and struggling beings, neither animal nor human, but combining the more unholy traits of both.
But from the centre of the upward stream shone forms and faces of angelic beauty; yet, on looking more narrowly, Balder discerned in each one some ghastly peculiarity, revealing itself just when enjoyment of the beauty was on the point of becoming complete. Such was the effect that the most angelic forms were translated into mocking demons, and where the light seemed brightest there was the spiritual darkness most profound.
In the zenith was a white lustre which obliterated distinction of form as much as did the cloudy obscurity at the end of the room. Now the design seemed about to unfold itself; then again it eluded the gazer's grasp. Suddenly at length it stood revealed. A gigantic face, with wide-floating hair and beard, looked down into Balder's own. Its expression was of infinite malignity and despair. The impersonation of all that is wicked and miserable, its place was at the top of Heaven; it was moulded of those aspiring forms of light, and was the goal which the brightest attained. Moreover, either by some ugly coincidence or how otherwise he could not conceive, this countenance of supreme evil was the very reflex of Balder's,—a portrait minutely true, and, despite its satanic expression, growing every moment more unmistakable.
Was this accident, or the contrivance of an unknown and unfathomable malice? Balder, Lord of Heaven, instinct with the essence of Hell! A grim satire on his religious speculations! But what satirist had been bitter enough so to forestall the years?—for the painting must have been designed while Balder was still an infant.
He threw himself off the bed and stepped to the window, and saw the blue sky and the river rhyming it. The breath of the orchard visited him, and he was greeted by the green grass and trees, He sighed with relief. There had been three mornings since his return to America. For the first he had blessed his own senses; the second had looked him out of countenance but the third came with a benediction, serene and mighty, such as Balder's soul had not hitherto been open to.
"This is more than a plaster heaven," said he, looking up; "but I fear, Balder Helwyse, your only heaven, thus far, has been of plaster. You have seen this morning how the God of such a heaven looks. How about the God of this larger Heaven, think you?"
Presently he turned away from the window; but he had quaffed so deeply of the morning glory, that the sinister frescos no longer depressed him. They were ridiculously unimportant,—nothing more than stains on the wall, in fact. Balder could not tell why he felt light-hearted. It was solemn light-heartedness,—not the gayety of sensuous spirits, such as he had experienced heretofore. It had little to do with physical well-being, for the young man was still faint and dizzy, and weak from hunger. Behold, then, at the foot of the bed, a carved table covered with a damask cloth and crowned with an abundant breakfast; not an ordinary breakfast of coffee, rolls, omelette, and beefsteak, but a pastoral breakfast,—fresh milk, bread and honey and fruit and mellow cheese,—such food as Adam might have begun the day with.
In face of the yet unsolved mystery of his own presence in the room, this new surprise caused Balder no special wonder. Beyond the apparition of the ugly dumb woman, he recollected nothing of the previous evening's experience. Could she have transported him hither? Well, he would not let himself be disturbed by apparent miracles. "No doubt the explanation is simple," thought he; and with that he began his toilet. The dressing-table displayed a variety of dainty articles such as a lady might be supposed to use,—pearl-handled brushes, enamelled powder-boxes, slender vases of Meissen porcelain, a fanciful ring-stand; from the half-open drawer a rich glimpse of an Indian fan; a pair of delicate kid gloves, which only a woman's hands could have worn, were thrown carelessly on the table. There were still the little wrinkles in the fingers, but time had changed the pristine white to dingy yellow.
"Whose hands could have worn them? whose chamber was this?" mused Balder. "Not Gnulemah's; she knows nothing of kid gloves and powder! and these things were in use before she was born. Whose face was reflected in this glass, when those gloves were thrown down here? Was that her marriage-bed? Were children born in it?"
His seizure of the night before must have dulled the edge of his wit, else he had scarce asked questions which chance now answered for him. A scratch on one corner of the polished mirror-surface showed, on closer inspection, a name and a date written with a diamond. Shading off the light with his hand, Balder read, "Helen, 1831."
"My mother's name; the year I was born. My mother!" he repeated softly, taking up the old yellow gloves. "And this room was my birthplace,—and my little sister's! My mother's things, as she left them; for father once told me that he never entered her room after she was buried. She died here; and here my little sister and I began to live. And here I am, again,—really the same little helpless innocent baby who cried on that bed so long ago. Only not innocent now! Perhaps, not helpless, either!
"How happy that barber was yesterday! prattled about being born again. Cannot I be born again,—to-day,—in this room? Here I first began, and have come round the world to my starting-point. I will begin afresh this morning."
And heavily as he was weighted in the new race, he would not be disheartened. Unuttered resolves brightened his eyes and made his courage high.
Before beginning breakfast, he returned to the window and drank again of the divine blue and green. From the branch of a near tree the hoopoe startled him and made him color. Was the bird an emissary from Gnulemah? Balder's mouth drew back, and his chin and eyes strengthened, as though some part of his unuttered resolves were recalled by the thought of her.
When he was ready to go, he turned at the door, and threw a parting glance round the dainty old-fashioned chamber, trying to gather into one all the thoughts, memories, and resolves connected with it. He had nearly forgotten the frescos; the victorious sunshine had reduced the figures, satanic or beautiful, to a meaningless agglomeration of wandering lines and faded colors. As for his own portrait, it was no longer distinguishable.