HEART AND HEAD.
Balder easily found his way to the conservatory, but it was empty,—Gnulemah, at least, was not there! The tapestry curtain in her doorway was pushed aside, the door itself open. Where should he seek her?
As he stood in doubt, he saw lying at his feet a violet. Picking it up, he saw another some distance beyond it, and still another on the threshold which he had just crossed. They were Gnulemah's footsteps,—the scent of this sweet quarry, teaching him how to follow her. So he followed, nor let one fragrant trace escape him; and presently he had a nosegay of them.
She was out of doors, then. Truly, on such a day as this, where else should she be? What walls could presume to hold her? Her loveliness was at one with nature's, and they attracted each other. To the solitary nymph, her mighty playmate had been all-sufficient; for she saw not the earth and sky as they appear nowadays to mankind, but the divine meaning which they clothe. Thus she could converse with animals, and could read plants and stones more profoundly than botanist or geologist. She followed inward to her own fresh and beautiful soul the sympathies which allied her to outward things, and found there their true prototypes.
But when the strong magnetism of a new human spirit began to act upon her, these fine communings with nature suffered disturbance. In such thunderstorms as the meeting of the electric forces must engender, there was need of a trustworthier safeguard than simple perception of a divine purpose underlying creation. Only the personal God is strong enough to govern the relations of soul with soul. Barren of Eve, Adam would not have fallen; but with her he will one day not only retrieve his fall, but climb to a sublimer height than any to which he could have aspired alone.
Balder strolled out on the wide lawn. Southwestward wound an avenue of great trees, overshadowing the narrow footpath that stole beneath them. To the right, round the northern corner of the house, he could see far off the white tops of the blossoming apple-trees; and beyond, the river. The orchard perfume came riding on the untamed breeze, and whispered a fragrant secret in the young man's ear. Orchardward he pursued his search.
As he went on, Gnulemah grew every moment nearer. At length he caught the flutter of her mantle amidst the foliage, and presently saw her on the brink of the precipice, looking out across the broad blue river. Thus had he, through his glass, darkly, seen her stand the day before. Were the crossing a river and the flight of a day all that divided his past life from what he thought awaited him now!
While yet at a distance, he called to her,—not from impatience, but because he stood in awe of the meeting, and wanted the first moments over. His voice touched Gnulemah like a beloved hand, and turned her towards him. Her face, which had not learned to be the mask of emotion, but was instead the full and immediate index thereof, brightened with joy; and as he came near, the joy increased. Yet a seriousness deep down in her eyes, marked the shadow of a night and the dawn of another day. A spiritual chemistry had been working in her.
She did not move forward to meet him but stood delighting in the sense of his ever-growing nearness. When at length he stood close before her, she drew a long, pleasant breath and said,—
"A beautiful morning!"
This was no commonplace greeting, for it was not made in a commonplace manner. It said that his coming had consummated the else imperfect beauty of nature, and won its expression from Gnulemah's lips. The commonplace wondered to find itself transmuted into a compliment of fine gold!
Gnulemah's attire to-day was more Diana-like than yesterday's, and looked as appropriate to her as leaves to trees or clouds to the sky. Her dress, indeed, was not so much a conventional appendage as a living, sensitive part of her, which might be supposed to change its color and style in sympathy with her shifting moods and surroundings, yet never losing certain distinctive traits which had their foundation in her individual nature.
"A beautiful morning!" returned Balder, taking her hand. "Were you expecting me?"
"I feared you might not show yourself to me again," she answered, with sudden tears twinkling on her eyelashes. She seemed more tenderly human and approachable to-day than heretofore. Had she found her mountain-height of unmated solitude untenable?—found in herself a yielding woman, and in Balder the strength that is a man? This descent, which was a sweet ascent, made her endlessly more lovable.
"I come here always when I feel lonely," continued she. "If it had not been for this place, with its great outlook, I should often have been too lonely to stay in the world."
"We all need an outlook to a larger, world, Gnulemah."
"Besides, you came to me from the other side!" said she glancing in his face.
"Did you see me there?" Balder was on the point of asking; but he was wise enough to refrain. If he could believe it true, let him not tempt his happiness; if faith were weak, why build a barrier against it? So he kept silence.
"You found my violets!" whispered Gnulemah, with a shy smile. "You understand all I do and am; it is happiness to be with you."
They sat down by mutual consent beneath a crooked old apple-tree, which yet blossomed as pure and fresh as did the youngest in the orchard. From beneath this white and perfumed tent was a view of the distant city.
Gnulemah could not be called talkative, yet in giving her thoughts expression she outdid vocabularies. Many fine muscles there were around her eyes, at the corners of her mouth, and especially in the upper lip,—whose subtile curvings and contractions spoke volumes of question, appeal, observation. Her form by its endless shiftings uttered delicate phrases of pleasure, surprise, or love; her hands and fingers were orators, and eloquent were the curlings and tappings of her Arab feet.
This kind of language would be blank to one used rather to hear words than to feel them; but Balder, in, his present exalted mood, delighted in it. Was there any enjoyment more refined than to see his thought, before he had given it breath, lighten in the eyes of this daughter of fire? and with his own eyes to catch the first pure glimmer of her yet unborn fancies? A language genial of intimacy, for the talkers must feel in order to utterance,—must meet each other, from the heart outward, at every point. The human form is made of meanings. It is the full thought of its Creator, comprising all other thoughts. Is it blind chance or lifeless expediency that moulds the curves of woman's bosom, builds up man's forehead like a citadel, and sets his head on his shoulders? Is beauty beautiful, or are we cozened by congenial ugliness? But Balder's philosophic scepticism should never have braved a test like Gnulemah!
Except music, painting, sculpture,—all the arts and inspiration of them,—waited on the nib of the pen, such talk as passed between these two could not be written. Some things—and those not the least profound and admirable of life—transcend the cunning of man to interpret them, unless to an apprehension as fine as they! We are fain to content ourselves with the husks.
"It must be happy there!" said Gnulemah, looking cityward. "So many Balders and Gnulemahs!"
"Why happy?" asked the man of the world, with a faint smile.
"We are only two, and have known each other to-day and yesterday. But they, you said, are as many as the stars, and have been together many yesterdays."
Such was the woman's unclinched argument, leaving her listener to draw the inference. He would not forestall her enlightenment from the grim page of his own experience. But do not many pure and loving souls pass through the world without once noticing how bad most of the roads are, and how vexed the climates? So might not the earthly heaven of Gnulemah's imagination tenderly blind her to the unheavenly earth of Balder's knowledge?
Through his abstraction Balder felt on his hand a touch soft as the flowing of a breath, yet pregnant of indefinite apprehension. When two clouds meet, there is a hush and calm; but the first seeming-trifling lightning-flash brings on the storm whereby earth's face is altered. So Balder, full-charged as the thunder-cloud, awaited fearfully the first vivid word which should light the way for those he had resolved to speak.
"I see you with my open eyes, Balder, and touch you and hear you. Is this the end I thought would come? Balder, are you greatest?" With full trust she appealed to him to testify concerning himself. This was the seriousness he had marked beneath the smile.
"Are you content it should be so?"
She plucked a blade of grass and tied it in a knot, and began, drawing a trembling breath between each few words,—
"O Balder,—if I must kneel to you as to the last and greatest of all,—if there is nothing too holy to be seen and touched,—if there is no Presence too sublime for me to comprehend—"
"What then?" asked he, meeting her troubled look with a strong, cheerful glance.
"Then the world is less beautiful than I thought it; the sun is less bright, and I am no more pleasing to myself." Tears began to flow down her noble cheeks; but Balder's eyes grew brighter, seeing which, Gnulemah was encouraged to continue.
"How could I be happy? for either must I draw myself apart from you—O Balder!—or else live as your equal, and so degrade you; for I am not a goddess!"
"Then there are no goddesses on earth, nor gods! Gnulemah, you need not shrink from me for that."
The beautiful woman smiled through her sparkling eyelashes. She could love and reverence the man who, as a deity, bewildered and disappointed her. But was the intuition therefore false which had revealed to her the grand conception of a supreme, eternal God?
They sat silent for a while, and neither looked in the other's face. They had struck a sacred chord, and the sweet, powerful sound thrilled Balder no less than Gnulemah. But presently he looked up; his cheeks warmed, and his heart swelled out. He was about to put in jeopardy his most immediate jewel, and the very greatness of the risk gave him courage. Not to the world, that could not judge him righteously, would he confess his crime,—but to the woman he loved and who loved him. Her verdict could not fail to be just and true.
Could a woman's judgment of her lover be impartial? Yes, if her instincts be pure and harmonious, and her worldly knowledge that of a child. Her discrimination between right and wrong would be at once accurate and involuntary, like the test of poison. Love for the criminal would but sharpen her intuition. The sentence would not be spoken, but would be readable in eyes untainted alike by prejudice or sophistry.
Gnulemah was thus made the touchstone of Balder's morality. He stood ready to abide by her decision. Her understanding of the case should first be made full; then, if condemned by her look, he would publish his crime to the world, and suffer its penalty. But should her eyes absolve him, then was crime an illusion, evil but undeveloped good, the stain of blood a prejudice, and Cain no outcast, but the venerable forefather of true freedom.
Unsearchable is the heart of man. Balder had looked forward to condemnation with a wholesome solemnity which cheered while it chastened him. But the thought of acquittal, and at Gnulemah's hands, appalled him. The implicit consequences to humanity seemed more formidable than the worst which condemnation could bring upon himself. So much had he lately changed his point of view, that only the fear of seeing his former creed confirmed could have now availed to stifle his confession.
But that fear did not much disquiet him; he trusted too deeply in his judge to believe that she would justify it. In short, Gnulemah was in his opinion right-minded, exactly in proportion as she should convict him of being in the wrong. Balder resigned the helm of his vessel, laden as she was with the fruits of years of thought and speculation, at the critical moment of her voyage,—resigned her to the guidance of a woman's unreasoning intuition. He might almost as well have averred that the highest reach of intellect is to a perception of the better worth and wisdom of an unlearned heart.
BALDER TELLS AN UNTRUTH.
By way of enheartening himself for what he was to do, Balder kissed the posy of Gnulemah's fragrant footsteps. He kept his eyes down, lest she should see something in them to distract her attention from his story. He must go artfully to work,—gain her assent to the abstract principles before marshalling them against himself.
Meanwhile Gnulemah had picked up a gold beetle, and was examining it with a certain grave interest.
"I never told you how I came by this ring of Hiero's. It was the night before I first saw you, Gnulemah."
"The ring guided you to me!" said she, glancing at his downcast visage.
"Perhaps it did!" he muttered, struck by the ingenious superstition; and he eyed the keen diamond half suspiciously. How fiercely the little serpents were struggling for it! "But Hiero—he has lost it, and you will see him no more!"
"You are with me!" returns she, shining out at him from beneath her level brows. What should she know of death and parting?
Balder still forbore to raise his face. Gnulemah was in a frolicsome humor, the reaction of her foregoing solemnity. But Balder, who deemed this hour the gravest of his life, was taken aback by her unseasonable gayety. Casting about for means to sober her,—an ungracious thing for a lover to do!—he hit upon the gold beetle.
"Dead; the poor little beetle! Do you know what death is, Gnulemah?"
"It is what makes life. The sun dies every night, to get life for the morning. And trees die when cold comes, so as to smile out in green leaves again,—greener than if there had been no death. So it is with all things."
"Not with everything," said Balder, taking her light-heartedness very gravely. "That gold beetle in your hand is dead, and will never live or move again."
But at that Gnulemah smiled; and bringing her hand, with the beetle in it, near her perfect lips, she lent it a full warm breath,—enough to have enlivened an Egyptian scarabaeus,—and behold! the beetle spread its wings and whizzed away. Before Balder could recover from this unexpected refutation, the lovely witch followed up her advantage.
"You thought, perhaps, that Hiero was as dead as the little beetle; but he lives more beautifully in you!"
He looked startled up, his large eyes glittering blackly in the paleness of his face. Gnulemah, with the serenity of a victorious disputant willing to make allowances, continued,—
"It may be different in the outside world from which you come; but here death ends nothing, but makes life new and strong."
After a silence of some duration, poor Balder renewed his attack from another quarter.
"What would you think of one who put to death a creature you loved?"
She smiled, and shook her glowing pendants.
"Only God puts to death; and no one would hurt a thing I love!"
"What should you think of one who put to death a man?"
Gnulemah looked for a moment perplexed and indignant. Then, to Balder's great discomfiture, she laughed like a bird-chorus.
"Why do you imagine what cannot be? Would you and Hiero kill each other? The gray owl kills little mice, but that is to eat them. Would you eat Hiero—"
"Don't laugh, Gnulemah!" besought he. "I should kill him, not as animals kill one another, but from rage and hatred."
"Hatred!" repeated Gnulemah, dislikingly; "hatred,—what is it?"
"A passion of men's hearts,—the wish that evil may befall others. When the hatred is bitter enough, and the opportunity fair, they kill!"
Gnulemah shuddered slightly and looked sad. Then she leaned towards Balder and touched his shoulder persuasively.
"Never think of such things, or talk of them! Could you hate anyone, Balder? or kill him if you did?"
With that glorious presence so near him,—her voice so close to his ear,—how could he answer her? His heart awoke, and beat and drove the tingling blood tumultuously forth to the remotest veins. She saw the flush, and caught the passionate brilliancy of his eyes. Happy and afraid, she drew back, saying in haste,—
"You have not told me yet about the ring!"
That was not wisely said! Balder checked himself with a sudden, strong hand, and held still,—his brows lowered down and his lips settled together,—until his pulses were quiet and his cheeks once more pale.
"I will tell you," he said; "but to understand, you must first hear some other things." He hesitated, face to face with an analysis of murder. The position was at once stimulating and appalling. To dissect and reduce to its elements that grisly murder-devil which had once possessed his own soul, and whose writhings beneath the scalpel he would therefore feel as his own—here loomed a prospect large and terrible! Nevertheless, Balder took up the knife.
The white petal of an apple-blossom, part from its calyx, came floating earthwards; but a breeze caught it and wafted it aloft. It sank again, and was again arrested and borne skywards. Finally is disappeared over the cliff-edge.
"The weight that made it fall is of the earth," said Balder (both he and Gnulemah had been watching the petal's course). "The breeze that buoyed it up was from heaven, and so it is with man. Were there no heavenly support, he would fall at once, but whether or not, he always tends to fall."
Gnulemah objected, "It loves the air better than the earth!"
"When man begins to fall, he becomes mad, and thinks he is not falling, but that earth is heaven, to which he is rising. But since earth is not like heaven, infinite, he does not wish others to enjoy it, lest his own pleasure be marred."
"How can that be?" said the unwilling Gnulemah. "What can make men so happy on earth as other men?"
"Each wants all power for himself," rejoined Balder, his voice growing stern as he pursued his theme. "They want to hurl their fellows out of the world, even to annihilation. Every moment this hatred is let grow in the heart's garden, it spreads and strengthens, till it gains dominion and makes men slaves, and madder than before. Each will be above his rival,—his enemy! he will be absolute master over him. And from that resolve is born murder!"
"Why do you tell Gnulemah this?" she asked, lifting her head like a majestic serpent. But she could not stop him now. His voice, measured at first, was now driven by emotion.
"Murder comes next; and many a man, had fear or impotence not withheld him, would have done murder a thousand times. But sometimes the demon leaps up and masters impotence and fear. The man is drunk with immeasurable selfishness,—greater than the universe can satisfy; which would fain make one victim after another, till all the human race should be destroyed; and then would it turn against Heaven and God. Save for man's mortal frailty, the population of the world would ever and anon be swept away by some giant murderer.
"Wickedness grows faster, the wickeder it is; he who has been wicked once will easily be so again,—the more easily as his crime was great. Even though through all his mortal life he sin no more, yet his drift is thitherward! Only the air of Heaven breathing through his soul after death can make him pure."
Balder was speaking out all the gloom and terror which had been silently gathering within him since his fatal night. As he spoke, his mind expanded, and perceived things before unknown. As the reasons for condemnation multiplied, he did but push on the harder, striking at each tender spot in his own armor. And as the day turned fatally against him, his face looked great and heroic, and his voice sounded almost triumphant.
Thus far, he had only generalized; now, he was come to his own plight. On several points he had been painfully in doubt: whether he had done the deed in self-defence; whether he had meant to do it; whether it had not been a blind, mad accident, since swollen by fevered imagination into the likeness of wilful crime. But against such doubts arrayed itself the ineffaceable memory of that wild joy which had filled his soul, when he had felt his enemy in his power! Had the man survived, Balder might still have doubted; being dead, doubts were but cowardly sophistry.
But during the brief pause he made, came a backward recoil of that impulse which had swept him on. All at once he was cold, and wavered. Gnulemah was sitting with her elbow on her knee, her strange eyes fixed upon him. Had he duly considered what effect all this might have on her? In aiming at his own life, might not the sword pass also through hers? Abruptly to behold sin,—to find in the first man she had learnt to know, the sinner,—to be left this burden on her untried soul,—might this not ruin more than her earthly happiness? Did she still love him, such love could end only in misery; should she hate him who of all men was bound to protect her defencelessness,—that were misery indeed!
This misgiving, arresting his hand at the instant of delivering the final blow, almost discouraged the much-tried man. He glanced sullenly toward the edge of the cliff, only a few yards off. A new thought jarred through his nerves! He got up and walked to the brink. Full sixty feet to the bottom.
Gnulemah also rose slowly, and stretched herself like a tired child, sending a lazy tension through every noble limb and polished muscle. She sighed with a deep breathing in and out, and pressed her hands against her temples.
"I was not made to understand such things. Tell me of what you have done or seen—I shall understand that. The things my love does not enter only trouble me and make me sad."
As she spoke, she turned away towards the house. She saw, or thought she saw, a man's figure stealing cautiously behind a clump of bushes near the north-eastern corner. Her listlessness fell from, her like a mantle, and she watched, motionless!
Her last words had goaded Balder past bearing. As she turned away, his face looked grim and forlorn. He balanced with half-raised arms on the cliff's brink. The river slumbered bluely on below, peace was aloft in the sky, and joy in the trees and grass. But in the man were darkness and despair and loathing of his God-given life!
The thing he meditated was not to be, however. Close in shore a little boat glided into view, beating up against stream. In the stern, the sheet in one hand and the tiller in the other, sat Balder's old friend Charon. He nodded up at the young man with a recognizing grin. Then he laid his tiller-hand aside his brown cheek and sang out,—
"Look out there, Capt'n! Davy Jones's got back,—run foul of you!"
The next moment he put down the helm and ran out.
Meantime Balder, coloring from shame, had stepped back from his dangerous position; and the peril was past. But the paltering irresolution which he had at all points displayed urged him to redeem himself,—else was he lower than a criminal. He went towards Gnulemah,—knelt down,—caught her dress,—he knew not what he did! In a blind dance of sentences he told her that he was a murderer, that all he had said pointed at himself, that with his own hands he had killed Hiero, whose body now lay at the bottom of the sea; many frantic words he spoke. Thus, without art or rhetoric, roughly dragged forth by head and ears, came his momentous confession into the world. Gnulemah had more than once striven to check it, but in vain. When he had come to an end, and stood tense and quivering as a bowstring whose arrow has just flown, these words reached him:—
"Hiero is not dead; he is there behind the trees."
Stiffly he turned and stared bewildered. Landscape, sky, Gnulemah, swam before his eyes in fragments, like images in troubled water. She put out her arm and tenderly supported him.
"Where?" said he at length.
"Near the house,—there!" she pointed.
Balder began to walk forward doubtfully. But, suddenly realizing what lay before him, clearness and vigor ebbed back. He saw a figure turn the corner of the house. Then he leapt out and ran like a stag-hound!
UNCLE HIERO AT LAST.
In a couple of minutes Balder was at the house, breathless: the figure was nowhere to be seen. He sprang across the broad portico, and hurried with sounding feet through the oaken hall. Should he go up stairs, or on to the conservatory? The sound of a softly shutting door from the latter direction decided him. The place looked as when he left it a half-hour before. Gnulemah's curtain had not been moved. The other door was closed; he ran up the steps between the granite sphinxes, and found it locked. Butting his shoulder against the panel with impatient force, the hinges broke from their rotten fastenings, and the door gave inwards. Balder stepped past it, and found himself in the sombre lamp-lit interior of the temple.
He could discern but little; the place seemed vast; the corners were veiled in profound shadow. At the farther end a huge lamp was suspended, by a chain from the roof, over a triangular altar of black marble. The architecture of the room was strange and massive as of Egyptian temples. Strong, dark colors met the eye on all sides; in the panels of the walls and distant ceiling fantastic devices showed obscurely forth. Nine mighty columns, of design like those in the doorway, were ranged along the walls, their capitals buried in the upward gloom.
Becoming used to the dusk, Balder now marked an array of colossal upright forms, alternating between the pillars. Their rough resemblance to human figures drew him towards one of them: it was an Egyptian sarcophagus covered with hieroglyphic inscriptions, and probably holding an immemorial mass of spiced flesh and rags. These silent relics of a prehistoric past seemed to be the only company present. In view of his uncle's well-known tastes, the nephew was not unprepared to meet these gentry.
But he was come to seek the living, not the dead. The figure that he had seen outside must be within these four walls, there being no other visible outlet besides the door through which Balder had entered. Was old Hiero Glyphic lurking in one of these darksome corners, or behind some thick-set column? The young man looked about him as sharply as he could, but nothing moved except the shadows thrown by the lamp, which was vibrating pendulum-like on its long chain.
He approached this lamp, his steps echoing on the floor of polished granite. What had set the thing swinging? It had a leisurely elliptical motion, as from a moderate push sideways. The lamp was wrought in bronze, antique of fashion and ornament. It had capacity for gallons of oil, and would burn for weeks without refilling. The altar beneath was a plain black marble prism, highly polished, resting upon a round base of alabaster. A handful of ashes crowned its top. Between the altar and the wall intervened a space of about seven feet.
The glare of the lamp had blinded Balder to what was beyond it; but, on stepping round it, he was confronted by an old-fashioned upright clock, such as were in vogue upon staircase-landings and in entrance-halls a hundred years ago. With its broad, white, dial-plate, high shoulders, and dark mahogany case, it looked not unlike a tall, flat-featured man, holding himself stiffly erect. But whether man or clock, it was lifeless; the hands were motionless,—there was no sound of human or mechanical heart-beat within though Balder held his yet panting breath to listen. Was it Time's coffin, wherein his corpse had lain still many a silent year,—only that years must stand still without Time to drive them on! But this still had had no part in the moving world,—knew naught of life and change, day and night. Here dwelt a moveless present,—a present at once past and to come, yet never here! No wonder the mummies felt at home! though even they could only partially appreciate the situation.
The clock was fastened against the wall. The longer Balder gazed at it, the more human-like did it appear. Its face was ornamented with colored pictures of astronomical processes, sufficiently resembling a set of shadowy features, of a depressed and insignificant type. The mahogany case served for a close-fitting brown surtout, buttoned to the chin. The slow vibration of the lamp produced on the countenance the similitude of a periodically recurring grimace.
Not only did the clock look human, but—or so Balder fancied—it bore a grotesque and extravagant likeness to a certain elderly relative of his, whose portrait he had carried in an inner pocket of his haversack,—now in Long Island Sound. It reminded him, in a word, of poor old Uncle Hiero, whom he had—no, no!—who was alive and well, and was perhaps even now observing his dear nephew's perplexity, and maliciously chuckling over it!
The young man glanced uneasily over his shoulder, but all beyond the lamp was a gloomy blank, The same moment he trod upon some tough, thick substance, which yielded beneath his foot! Thoroughly startled, he jumped back. It lay near the foot of the clock. He stooped, picked it up, and held in his hands the well-known haversack, from which he had parted on board the "Empire State." How his heart beat as he examined it! It was stained and whitened with salt water, and the strap was broken in two. Opening it, there were his toilet articles and all his other treasures,—even the cherished miniature,—not much the worse for their wetting. So there could no longer be any doubt that his uncle had come back. Where was he?
That queer fancy about the clock stuck in Balder's head! Somehow or other it must be connected with Doctor Glyphic. The haversack, dropped at its foot, was direct evidence. Yet, did ever wise man harbor notion so irrational! Its manifest absurdity only excuse for thinking it.
With no declared object in view, Balder grasped the clock by its high shoulders and shook it, but with no result. He next struck the smartly with clenched fist: the blow sounded,—not hollow, but close and muffled! The case either solid, or filled with something that deadened the echo. Filled with what? who would think of putting anything in a clock? It was big enough to be sure, to hold a man, if he could find a way to get in!
The sequence of thoughts is often obscure, but Balder's next idea, wild as it was, could hardly be called incoherent. A man might be conceived to be in the clock; perhaps a man was in it; but if so, the man could be none other than Doctor Hiero Glyphic!
This conclusion once imagined, suspense was unendurable. The logician tried to open the front of the case, but it was riveted fast. With impetuous fingers he then wrenched at the disc. With a sound like a rusty screech, it came off in his hands. The lamp so flickered that Balder feared it was going out, and even at this epoch had to look round to reassure himself. Meanwhile, a pungent, but not unpleasant odor saluted his nostrils: he turned back to the clock,—a clock no longer!—and beheld the unmistakable lineaments of his worthy uncle peeping forth with half-shut eyes from the place where the dial-plate had been.
The nephew dropped the dial-plate, and it was shattered on the granite floor. He was badly frightened. There was no delusion about the face,—it was a sufficiently peculiar one; and the miniature portrait, though doing the Doctor's beauty at least justice, was accurate enough to identify him by. This was no unsubstantial apparition,—no brain phantom, to waver and vanish, leaving only an uncomfortable doubt whether it had been at all. Stolid, undeniable matter was, peering phlegmatically between its wrinkled eyelids.
But admitting that now, at last, we have lighted upon the genuine and authentic Doctor Glyphic, why should the sight of him so oddly affect Balder Helwyse, whose avowed object in pulling off the dial-plate had been to justify a suspicion that Uncle Hiero was behind it? Why, moreover, did the young man not address his relative, congratulating himself upon their meeting, and rallying the old gentleman on his attempt to escape his nephew's affectionate solicitude? There had, indeed, been a misunderstanding at their last encounter, and Balder had so far forgotten himself as to throw Hiero into the sea; but it was the part of good-breeding, as well as of Christianity, to forget such errors, and heal the bruise with an extra application of balsamic verbiage.
Why so speechless, Balder? Do you wait for your host to speak first? Nay, never stand on ceremony. He is an eccentric recluse, unused to the ways of society, while a man of the world like you has at his tongue's tip a score of phrases just suited to the occasion. Speak up, therefore, in your most genial tone, and tell the Doctor how glad you are to find him in such wonderful preservation! Put him at his ease by feigning that his position appears to you the most natural in the world,—just what befits a gentleman of his years and honors! Flatter him, if only from self-interest, for he has a deep pocket, and may be induced to let you put a hand in it.
Not a word in response to all this eloquence, Balder? Positively your behavior appears rather curmudgeonly than heroic! You stand gazing at your relative with almost as much fixedness as he returns your stare withal. There is something odd about this.
What is that pungent odor? Is the Doctor a dandy, that he should use perfumes? And where did he get so peculiar a scent as this? It is commonly in vogue only at that particular toilet which no man ever performed for himself, but which never needs to be done twice,—a kind of toilet, by the way, especially prevalent amongst the ancient Egyptians. Since, then, Doctor Glyphic is so ardent an Egyptologist, perhaps we have hit upon the secret of his remarkable odoriferousness. But to shut one's self up in a box that looks so uncommonly like a coffin,—is not that carrying the antiquarian whim a trifle too far?
This face of his,—one fancies there is a curiously dry look about it! The unnaturally yellow skin resembles a piece of good-for-nothing wrinkled parchment. The lips partake of the prevailing sallow tint, and the mouth hangs a little awry. From the cloth in which the head is so elaborately bandaged up strays forth, here and there, an arid lock of hair. The lack of united expression in his features produces an effect seldom observable in a living face. The eyes are lustreless, and densely black; or possibly (the suspicion is a startling one) we are looking into empty eye-sockets! No eyes, no expression, parchment skin, swathed head, odor of myrrh and cassia, and, dominating all, this ghastly immobility! Has Doctor Glyphic even now escaped, leaving us to waste time and sentiment over some worn-out disguise of his? Nay, if he be not here, we need not seek him further. Having forsaken this, he can attain no other earthly hiding-place. We must pause here, and believe either that this dry time-husk is the very last of poor Hiero, or that a living being which once bore his name has vanished inward from our reach, and now treads a more real earth than any that time and space are sovereign over.
Balder (whose perceptions were unlimited by artistic requirements) probably needed no second glance to assure him that his uncle was a mummy of many years' standing. But no effort of mental gymnastics could explain him the fact. Were this real, then was his steamboat adventure a dream, the revelation of the ring a delusion, and his water-stained haversack a phantom. He wandered clewless in a maze of mystery. Nor was this the first paradox he had encountered since overleaping the brick wall. He began to question whether supernaturalism had not teen too hastily dismissed by lovers of wisdom!
Thus do the actors in the play of life plod from one to another scene, nor once rise to a height whence a glance might survey past and future. Memory and prophecy are twin sisters,—nay, they are essentially one muse, whom mankind worships on this side and slights on that. This is well, for had she but one aspect, the world would be either too confident or too helpless. But in reviewing a life, one is apt to make less than due allowance for the helplessness. Thus it is no prejudice to Balder's intellectual acumen that he failed for a moment to penetrate the thin disguises of events, and to perceive relations obvious to the comprehensive view of history. We will take advantage of his bewildered pause to draw attention to some matters heretofore neglected.
THE HAPPINESS OF MAN.
When Manetho,—who shall no longer perplex us with his theft of a worthier man's name,—when Manetho felt himself worsted in the brief strenuous struggle, he tried to drag his antagonist overboard with him. But his convulsive fingers seized only the leathern strap of the haversack. Balder—his Berserker fury at white heat—flung the man with such terrible strength as drove him headlong over the taffrail like a billet of wood, the stout strap snapping like thread!
Manetho struck the water in sorry plight, breathless, bruised, half strangled. He sank to a chilly depth, but carried his wits down with him, and these brought him up again alive, however exhausted. Too weak to swim, he yet had strength left to keep afloat. But for the collision, he had drowned, after all!
The cool salt bath presently helped him to a little energy, and by the time the steamer was under way, he could think of striking out. It was with no small relief that he heard near voices sounding through the black fog. Partly by dint of feeble struggles, partly shouldered on by waves,—ready to save as to drown him,—he managed to accomplish the short distance to the schooner. With all his might he shouted for a rope, and amidst much yo-heave-ho-ing, cursing, and astonishment, was at length hauled aboard, the haversack in his grasp.
The skipper and his crew were kind to him; for men still have compassion upon one another, and give succor according to the need of the moment,—not to the balance of good and evil in the sufferer. The wind freshened, an impromptu, bowsprit was rigged, and the "Resurrection" limped towards New York. Manetho's partial stupor was relieved by hot grog and the cook's stove. He gave no further account of himself than that he had fallen overboard at the moment of collision; adding a request to be landed in New York, since he had left some valuable luggage on the steamer.
The skipper gave the stranger his own bunk, the off-watch turned in, and Manetho was left to himself. He lay for a long while thinking over what had happened. Bewitched by the spell of night, he had spoken to Helwyse things never before distinctly stated even to his own mind. The subtle, perverse devil who had discoursed so freely to his unknown hearer had scarcely been so unreserved to Manetho's private ear; and the devilish utterances had stirred up the latter not much less than the former.
Both men had been wrought, according to their diverse natures, to the pitch of frenzy. But similar crazy seizures had been incident to the Egyptian from boyhood. He had anxiously watched against them, and contrived various means to their mitigation,—the most successful being the music of his violin, which he seldom let beyond his reach. Yet, again and again would the fit steal a march on him. Hence, in part, his retired way of life, varied only by the brief journeys demanded by the twofold craving—for gambling and for news of Thor, who figured in his morbid imagination as the enemy of his soul!
The news never came, but all the more brooded Manetho over his hatred and his fancied wrongs. His mind had never been entirely sound, and years tinged it more and more deeply with insanity. His philosophy of life—obscure indeed if tried by sane standards—emits a dusky glimmer when read by this. He would creep through miles of subterranean passages to achieve an end which one glance above ground would have argued vain!
Lying on the bunk in the close cabin, lighted by a dirty lantern pendent from the roof, the Reverend Manetho began to fear that not his worst misfortune was the having been thrown overboard. At the moment when madness was smouldering to a blaze within him, the lantern flash had revealed to him the face which, for twenty years, he had seen in visions. Often had he rehearsed this meeting, varying his imaginary behavior to suit all conceivable moods and attitudes of his enemy, but never thinking to provide for perversity in himself! So far from veiling his designs with the soft-voiced cunning of his Oriental nature, he had been a wild beast! A misgiving haunted him, moreover, that he had babbled something in the false security of darkness, which might give Helwyse a clew to his secret.
But here Manetho asked himself a question that might have suggested itself before. Was it really his enemy, Thor Helwyse, whose face he had seen? or only some likeness of him?
Thor must be threescore years old by this,—the senior by ten years of Manetho himself; while his late antagonist had the strength and aspect of half that age. Yet how could he be mistaken in the face which had haunted him during more than the third part of his lifetime? He had recognized it on the instant!
"I will ask the haversack!" said he. He sat up, and, bracing himself against the roll of the vessel, he opened the bag and carefully examined its contents. In an inner pocket he found an old letter of Doctor Glyphic's to Thor; another from Thor to his son, dated three years back; and finally a diary kept by Balder Helwyse, which gave Manetho all the information he wanted.
He had so arranged matters that at Glyphic's death he had got the control of the money into his own hands, and had made such diligent use of it that enough was not now left to pay for his prosecution as a thief and forger. In fact, had Balder delayed his return another year, he would have found the enchanted castle in possession of the auctioneer; and as to the fate of its inhabitants, one does not like to speculate!
Having read the papers, Manetho replaced them, and next pulled out the miniature of Doctor Glyphic. He studied this for a long time. It was the portrait of a man to whom—so long as their earthly relations had continued—the Egyptian renegade had been faithful. Perhaps there was some secret germ of excellence in poor Hiero, unsuspected by the rest of the world, but revealed to Manetho, from whom in turn it had drawn the best virtues that his life had to show. Doctor Glyphic had never been a comfortable companion; but Manetho was always patient and honest with him. This integrity and forbearance were the more remarkable, since the Doctor seldom acknowledged a kindness, and knew so little of business that he might have been robbed of his fortune at any moment with impunity.
Either from physical exhaustion or for some worthier reason, the Egyptian cried over this miniature, as an affectionate girl might have cried over the portrait of her dead lover. For a time he was all tears and softness. His emotion had not the convulsiveness which, with men of his age, is apt to accompany the exhibition of much feeling. He wept with feminine fluency, nor did his tearfulness seem out of character. There was a great deal of the woman in him.
Having wept his fill, he tenderly wiped his eyes, and returned the picture to its receptacle; and first assuring himself that nothing else was concealed in the haversack, he shut it up and resumed his meditations.
It was the son, then, whom he had met,—and Thor was dead. Dead!—that was a hard fact for Manetho to swallow. His enemy had escaped him,—was dead! Through all the years of waiting, Manetho had not anticipated this. How should Thor die before revenge had been wreaked upon him?—But he was dead!
By degrees, however, his mind began to adjust itself to the situation. The son, at all events, was left him. He cuddled the thought, whispering to himself and slyly smiling. Did not the father live again in the son? he would lose nothing, therefore,—not lose, but gain! The seeming loss was a blessing in disguise. The son,—young, handsome, hot of blood! Already new schemes began to take shape in the Egyptian's brain. His dear revenge!—it should not starve, but feed on the fat of the land,—yea, be drunk with strong wine.
He lay hugging himself, his long narrow eyes gleaming, his full lips working together. He was revolving a devilish project,—the flintiest criminal might have shuddered at it. But there was nothing flinty nor unfeeling about Manetho. His emotions were alert and moist, his smile came and went, his heart beat full; he was now the girl listening to her lover's first passionate declaration!
He had gathered from Balder's diary that the young man was in search of his uncle, and had been on his way to the house at the time of their encounter. There was a chance that this unlucky episode might frighten him away. He no doubt supposed himself guilty of manslaughter at least; how gladly would the clergyman have reassured him! And indeed there was no resentment in Manetho's heart because of his rough usage at Balder's hands. His purposes lay too deep to influence shallower moods. He presented a curious mixture of easy forgiveness and unmitigable malice.
The only other anxiety besetting him arose from the loss of the ring. He looked upon it as a talisman of excellent virtue, and moreover perceived that in case Balder should pick it up, it might become the means of identifying its owner and obstructing his plans. But these were mere contingencies. The probability was that young Helwyse would ultimately appear at his uncle's house, and would there be ensnared in the seductive meshes of Manetho's web. The ring was most likely at the bottom of the Sound. So, smiling his subtle feminine smile, the Egyptian fell asleep, to dream of the cordial welcome he would give his expected guest.
Towards midnight of the same day he approaches the house by way of the winding avenue, his violin-case safe in hand. He steps out joyfully beneath the wide-spread minuet of twinkling stars. On his way he comes to a moss-grown bench at the foot of a mighty elm,—the bench on which he sat with Helen during the stirring moments of their last interview. Manetho's soul overflows to-night with flattering hopes, and he has spare emotion for any demand. He drops on his knees beside this decayed old bench, and kisses it twice or thrice with tender vehemence; stretches out his arms to embrace the air, and ripples forth a half-dozen sentences,—pleading, insinuating, passionate. He can love her again as much as ever, now that the wrong done him is on the eve of requital.
But his mood is no less fickle than melting. Already he is up and away, almost dancing along the shadowed, romantic tree-aisle, his eyes glistening black in the starlight,—no longer with a lover's luxurious sorrow, but with the happy anticipation of an artless child, promised a holiday and playthings. So lightsome and expansive is Manetho's heart, the hollow hemisphere of heaven seems none too roomy for it!
Evil as well as good knows its moments of bliss,—its hours! Hell is the heaven of devils, and they want no better. Often do the wages of sin come laden with a seeming blessing that those of virtue lack. The sinner looks upon Satan's face, and it is to him as the face of God!
But from the womb of this grim truth is born a noble consolation. Were hell mere torment, and joy in heaven only, where were the good man's merit? Only when the choice lies between two heavens—the selfish and the unselfish—is the battle worthy the fighting! No human soul dies from earth that attains not heaven,—that heaven which the heart chiefly sought while in this world; and herefrom is the genesis of virtue. Sin brings its self-inflicted penalties there as here; but hell is still the happiness of man, heaven of God!
Reaching the house, Manetho passed through the open door, crossed the hall with his customary noiselessness, and entered the conservatory. Despite the darkness, he was at once aware of the motionless group beneath the palm-trees. A stranger in the house was something so unprecedented that he could not repress a throb of alarm. Nurse looked up and beckoned him. Drawing near, he heard the long, deep breathing of the sleeper. With a sudden fore-glimpse of the truth, he knelt down, and bent over the upturned countenance.
Though the beard was close-shaven and the hair cropped short, there could be no doubt about the face. His guest had come before him, and was lying defenceless at his feet; but Manetho harbored no thought of violence. He pressed his slender hands together with an impulse of sympathy. "Poor fellow!" he whispered, "how he has suffered! How the horror of blood-guiltiness must have tortured him! The noble Helwyse hair,—all gone! Too dear a price to pay for the mere sacrifice of a human life! And pain and all might have been spared him,—poor fellow! poor fellow!" Manetho lacked but little of shedding true tears over the evidence of his dearest foe's useless dread and anguish. Did he wish Balder to bring undulled nerves to his own torture-chamber?
His lament over, Manetho turned to Nurse for such information regarding the guest's arrival and behavior as she might have to communicate. Of his own affair with Balder he made no mention. The conversation was carried on by signs, according to a code long since grown up between the two. When the tale was told, Nurse was despatched to make ready Helen's room for the new-comer, and thither did the two laboriously bear him, and laid him, still sleeping, on his mother's bed.
MUSIC AND MADNESS.
Before leaving Balder to his repose, Manetho paused to regain his breath, and to throw a glance round the room. It was a place he seldom visited. He had seen Helen's dead body lie on that bed, and the sight had bred in him an animosity against the chamber and everything it contained. After Doctor Glyphic's death he had gratified this feeling in a characteristic manner. Possessing a genius for drawing second only to that for music, he had exercised it on the walls of the room, originally modelled and tinted to represent a robin's egg. He mixed his colors with the bitter distillations of his heart, and created the beautiful but ill-omened vision which long afterwards so disquieted Balder.—
From the chamber he now repaired to the kitchen, which was in some respects the most attractive place in the house. The smoky ceiling; the cavernous cupboards opening into the walls; the stanch dressers, polished by use and mottled with many an ancient stain; the great black range, which would have cooked a meal for a troop of men-at-arms,—all spoke of homely comfort. Nurse had Manetho's meal ready for him, and, having set it out on the table, she retired to her position in the chimney-corner. The Egyptian's spare body was ordinarily nourished with little more than goes to the support of an Arab, and Nurse's monotonous life must have been unfavorable to large appetite. As for Gnulemah,—although young women are said to thrive and grow beautiful on a diet of morning dew, noonday sunshine, and evening mist,—it seems quite likely that she ate no less than the health and activity of a Diana might naturally require.
Manetho made a gleeful repast, and Nurse looked on from her corner, externally as unattractive-looking a woman as one would wish to see. Nevertheless, had she been made as some clocks are, with a plate of glass over her inner movements, she would have monopolized the clergyman's attention and impaired his appetite. He did not sit down to the table, but took up one viand after another, and ate as he walked to and fro the floor. Supper over, he crowned it with an unheard-of excess,—for Manetho was commonly a very temperate man. He brought from a cupboard a dusty bottle of priceless wine, which had once enriched the cellar of a king of Spain. Drawing the cork, he poured some of the golden liquor into a slender glass, while the spiritual aroma flowed invisible along the air, visiting every darksome nook, and even saluting Nurse, who had long been a stranger to any such delicate attention.
Manetho filled two glasses, and then beckoned Nurse to come from her corner, and drink with him. Forth she hobbled accordingly, looking more than usually ugly by reason of her surprise and embarrassment at the unexpected summons. Manetho, on the other hand, seemed to have cast aside his years, and to be once more the graceful, sinuous, courteous youth, whose long black eyes had, long ago, seen Salome's heart. With an elegant gesture he handed her the brimming wineglass, accompanying it with a smile which well-nigh shook it from between her fingers. He took up his own glass, and said,—
"I seldom drink wine, Nurse,—never, unless a lady, joins me! Once I drank with her whose chamber our guest now occupies; and once with another—" Manetho paused. "I never speak her name, Nurse; but we loved each other. I did not treat her well!" He murmured with a sigh, tears in his eyes. "Were she here to-night, at her feet would I sue for pardon,—the renewal of our love. By my soul!" he cried, suddenly, "I had thought to drink a far different toast; but let this glass be drained to the memory of the sweet moments she and I have known together! Drink!"
He tossed off the wine. But poor Nurse, strangely agitated, dropped hers on the floor; the precious liquor was spilled, and the glass shivered. She gazed beseechingly at Manetho. Could he not penetrate that mask to the face behind it? Is flesh so miserably opaque that no spark of the inwardly burning soul can make itself felt or seen without? Manetho saw only the broken glass and its wasted contents!
"You are as clumsy as you are ugly!" said he, "Go back to your corner. I must converse with my violin."
She returned heavily to her place, feeling the darker and colder because that wine had been spilled before she could raise it to her lips. One taste, she fancied, might have begun a transformation in her life! But we know not the weight of the chains we lay upon our limbs.
The Egyptian's buoyant humor had dismissed the whole matter in another moment. He opened his violin-case, lovingly caressing the instrument as he took it out. Then he tucked it fondly under his chin, and resumed his walking. The delicately potent wine warbled through his nerves, and tinted memory with imagination.
The bow, traversing the strings, drew forth from them a sweet and plaintive note, like the tender remonstrance of a neglected friend. No language says so much in so short space as music, nor will, till we banish those dead bones, consonants, and adopt the pure vowel speech of infants and angels.
"Ay, long have we been apart, my beloved one, and much have I needed thee!" murmured Manetho. "I yearned for thy soothing and refreshing voice; yea, death walked near me, because thou, my preserver, wast not by to guard me. But, rejoice! all is again well with us,—the hour of our triumph is near!"
The fine instrument responded, carolling forth an exquisite paean,—an ascending scale, mounting to a breathless ecstasy, and falling in slower melody along gliding waves of fortunate sound. The player drank each perfect note, till his pulses beat in unison with the rhythm. His violin and he were wedded lovers since his youth, nor had discord ever come between them.
"Two little children weaving flower-chains for each other in the grass. I said, 'The one that first comes to me shall be mine!' And the little maiden arose, leaving her brother among the flowers. So one was taken and the other left. But, behold! the brother has come to play with his sister once more!"
Again the music—a divine philosopher's stone—touched the theme into fine-spun golden harmony. The dusky kitchen, with its one dull lamp glimmering on the table, broadened with marble floors, and sprang aloft in airy arches! Twinkling stars hung between the columns, burning with a fragrance like flowers. It was a summer morning, just before sunrise. The clear faces of children peeped from violet-strewn recesses where they had passed the night; and, as their sweet eyes met, they shouted for joy, and ran to embrace one another.
"Oh! my beloved," softly burst forth the Egyptian, "how blessed are we to-night!" He touched the strings to a measured tune, following with a minuet-step up and down the floor. A fantastic spectacle! for as he passed and repassed the lamp, an elastic shadow crept noiselessly behind him, dodged beneath his feet, and anon outstretched itself like a sudden pit yawning before him. "This night repays the dreary years that lie behind. How have I outlasted them! What had I fallen on the very threshold of requital?—all I had hoped and labored for, a failure!"
Here paused the tune and the dance, and arose a weird dirge of compassion over what might have been! So moving was it, the player himself was melted. His dark nature showed its fairest side,—sensitive refinement, grace of expression, flowing ease of manner. Quick was he in fancy, emotional, soft and strong, gentle and fiery. In this hour he bloomed, like some night-flowering plant, of perfume sweet but poisonous. This was Manetho's apogee!
Again his humor changed, and he became playful and frivolous. Had old Nurse in the corner been little more personable, he might have caught her round the waist, and forced her to tread a wild measure with him. But this unfolding of his faculties in the shower of good fortune had refined his aesthetic susceptibility. The withered, disfigured woman was no partner for him!
She sat, following, with the intentness of her single eye, his every motion, her head swaying in unconscious sympathy. Although her body sat so stiff and awkward in the chimney-seat, her spirit, inspired with the grace of love, was dancing with Manetho's. But the body kept its place, knowing that erelong he too must come to rest. In the light of a vivid recollection, the long tract between fades and foreshortens, till only the Then and the Now are notable. However, the light will pale, the dusty miles outstretch their length once more, and the pilgrim find himself wearier than ever.
But meanwhile the clergyman floats hither and thither like a wreath of black smoke blown about by a draught of air. One might have expected to see him all at once vanish up the wide-mouthed chimney. The music seems to emanate less from the instrument than from the player; it interprets and colors every motion and expression. His chanting and his playing answer and supplement each other, like strophe and antistrophe.
"Let me tell thee why I rejoice, that thy sympathy may increase my joy!
"A beautiful woman, young, a fountain of fresh life, an ivory vase filled with earthly flowers. The eye that gazes on her form is taken captive; yea, her face intoxicates the senses. But she is poisonous, a queen of death, and her feet walk towards destruction!
"Supple and strong is she as the serpent, quick and graceful as the panther. Food has she for nourishment, for the warming of the blood; exercises for the body, to keep her healthful and fair. Her triumph is in the flesh,—she finds it perfect. The flesh she deems divine,—the earth, a heaven!
"Books, the world of men,—she knows not: sees in herself Creation's cause and centre; in God, but the myriad reflex of her beauty. Self is her God, whom she worships in thunder and lightning, in sun and stars, in fire and water. Dreaming and waking are alike real to her: she knows not to divide truth from falsehood.
"Whom should she thank for health, for life and birth? She is born of the fire that burns in her own bosom. To her is nothing lawful nor unlawful. No tie binds her soul to salvation. A fair ship is she, but rudderless, and the wind blows on the rocks. Let God save her if He will—and can!"
The inspiration of the Arab improvisatore would have seemed tame beside Manetho's nervous exaltation. Save for the tingling satire of the violin-strings, his rhapsody might easily have lapsed to madness. From this point, however, his rapture somewhat abated, and he began to descend towards prose, his music clothing him downwards.
"As for me, I have bowed down before her, pampering her insolent majesty, preserving her poison to rancor first in her father's heart. Of him, death robbed me; but the son,—the brother is left. Even death spared brother and sister to each other!
"A handsome man! worthy to stand by her. Never fairer couple sprang from one stem. They love each other,—and shall love!—more than ever brother and sister loved before. But they shall be bound by a tie so close that the mere tie of blood hangs loose beside it! Then shall night come down on them,—a night no rising sun shall ever chase away. In that; darkness will I speak—"
This devilish monologue ended abruptly here. The faithful instrument, whose responsive sympathy had failed him, jarringly snapped a string! A sting of anguish pricked through Manetho's every nerve. His fictitious buoyancy evaporated like steam,—he barely made shift to totter to a chair. Laying the violin with tremling hands on the table, his head dropped on his arms beside it; and there was a long, feverish silence.
At length he raised his haggard face, and, supporting it upon his hands, he gazed at the figure in the chimney-corner; and began, in a tone sullen and devoid of animation as November rain,—
"Why did you force yourself upon me?—not for Gnulemah's sake, I think. Not for money,—you had none. Not for love of me either, I fancy,—grisly harpy!
"Once I suspected you of being a spy. You walked among pitfalls then! But what spy would sit for eighteen years without speech or movement? You have been useful too. No one could have filled your place,—with your one eye and dumb mouth!
"Did you hate Thor? were you my secret ally against him? But how could you fathom my purposes enough even to help me? And what wrong has he done you terrible enough for such revenge as mine? What human being, except Manetho, could hold an unwavering purpose so many years? Have you never pitied or relented? Sometimes I have almost wavered myself!
"What name and history have you buried, and never shown me? Why have you spent your dumb life in this seclusion? You are a mystery,—yet a mystery of my own making! I might as wisely dissect my violin to find where lurks the music. A mass of wood and strings,—the music is from me!
"Have you a thought of preventing the scheme I spoke of to-night?" The Egyptian leaned far across the table, the better to scrutinize the unanswering woman's face. Her eye met his with a steady intelligence that disconcerted him.
"Are you a woman?" he muttered, drawing back, "and have you no pity on the children whom you nursed in their infancy?—not any pity! as implacable—almost more implacable than I? But think of her beauty and innocence,—for is she not innocent as yet? Would you see her forever ruined,—and stretch forth no saving hand?" Nurse moved her head up and down, as in slow, deliberate assent. Manetho, beholding the reflection in her of his own moral deformity, was filled with abhorrence!
"More hideous within than without,—you demon! come to haunt me and make me wicked as yourself. It was you snapped the chord of my music,—that better spirit which had till then saved me from your spells! My evil genius! I know you now, though never until this moment."
This madman was not the first sinner who, happening to catch an outside glimpse of his interior grime, has tried to cheat his scared conscience by an outcry of "Devil!—devil!" Is there not a touch of pathos in the vanity of the situation? For the cry is in part sincere; no man can be so wholly evil, while in this world, as quite to divorce the better angel from his soul. But alas! for the poor righteous indignation.
PEACE AND GOOD-WILL.
Balder Helwyse, dumfounded before the revelation of the clock, might have stared himself into imbecility, had not he heard his name spoken in sweet human music, and, turning, beheld Gnulemah peeping through the doorway down the hall.
There was no great distance between them, yet she seemed immeasurable spaces away. Against the bright background of the conservatory her form stood dark, the outlines softened by semi-transparent edges of drapery. But the dull red lamplight lit duskily up the folds of her robe, her golden ornaments, and the black tarns, her eyes. She appeared to waver between the light of heaven and the lurid gloom of heaven's opposite.
Balder came hastily towards her, waving her back. He was superstitiously anxious that she should return unshadowed to the clear outer sunshine, instead of joining him in this tomb of dead bones and darkness. Darkness might indeed befriend his own imperfections; but should Gnulemah be dimmed to soothe his vanity?
Such emblematic fancies are common to lovers, whose ideal passion tends always to symbolism. But to those who have never loved, it will be enough to say that the young man felt an instinctive desire to spare Gnulemah the ugly spectacle in the clock, and was perhaps not unwilling to escape from it himself!
She awaited him, in the bright doorway, like an angel come to lead him to a better world. "Do not leave me any more!" she said, putting her hand in his. "You did not do the thing you thought. Let us be together, and dream no more such sadness!"
"Is her innocence strong enough to protect her against that sinful deluge of confession I poured out upon her?" thought Helwyse, glancing at her face. "Has it fallen from her harmless, like water from a bird's breast? And am I after all no murderer?"
Doubt nor accusation was in her eyes, but soft feminine faith. Her eyes,—rather than have lost the deep intelligence of their dark light, Balder would have consented to blotting from heaven its host of stars! Through them shone on him,—not justice, but the divine injustice of woman's love. That wondrous bond, more subtile than light, and more enduring than adamant, had leagued her to him. Consecrated by the blessing of her trust, he must not dare distrust himself. If the past were blindly wrong, she was the God-given clew to guide him right.
An unspeakable tenderness melted them both,—him for what he received, her for what she gave. The rich bud of their love bloomed at once in full, fragrant stateliness. Their hearts, left unprotected by their out-opened arms, demanded shelter, and found it in nestling on each other. Heaven touched earth in the tremulous, fiery calm of their meeting lips,—magnets whose currents flowed from the mysterious poles of humanity.
At such moments—the happiest life counts but few—angels draw near, but veil their happy eyes. Spirits of evil grind their teeth and frown; and, for one awful instant, perceive their own deformity!
Before yet that dear embrace had lasted an eternity, the man felt the woman shiver in his arms. The celestial heights and spaces dwindled, the angelic music fainted. Heaven rolled back and left them alone on earth. Manetho stood on the threshold between the sphinxes, wearing such a smile as God has never doomed us to see on a child's face!
To few men comes the opportunity of facing in this life those whom they believed they had put out of it. One might expect the palpable assurance of the victim's survival would electrify the fancied murderer. But to Balder's mind, his personal responsibility could not be thus lightened; and any emotion of selfish relief was therefore denied him. On the other hand, such inferences as he had been able to draw from things seen and heard were not to Manetho's advantage. While he could not but rejoice to have been spared actually hurrying a soul from the life of free will to an unchangeable eternity, yet his dominant instinct was to man himself for the hostile issues still to arise. He looked at the being through whom his own life had received so dark a stain with stern, keen eyes.
Gnulemah remained within the circle of her lover's arm. She seemed but little interested in Manetho's appearance, save in so far as he invaded the sanctity of her new immortal privilege. She had never known anxiety on his account; he had never appealed to her feeling for himself. If she loved him, it was with an affection unconscious because untried. She had shivered in Balder's embrace at the moment of the Egyptian's presence, but before having set eyes on him. Had the nearness of his discordant spirit—his familiar face unseen—made her conscious of an evil emanation from him, else unperceived?
Manetho, to do him justice, assumed anything but a hostile attitude. His pleasure at seeing the pair so well affected towards each other was plainly manifested. He clasped his hands together, then extended them with a gesture of benediction and greeting, and came forward. His swarthy face, narrowing from brow to chin, if it could not be frank and hearty, at least expressed a friendliness which it had been ungracious to mistrust.
"Yes, son of Thor, I live! God has been merciful to both of us. Let one who knew your father take your hand. Believe that whatever I have felt for him, I now feel for you,—and more!"
The speaker had cast aside the fashionable clothes which he was in the habit of wearing during his journeys abroad, probably with a view to guard against being conspicuous, and was clad in antique priestly costume. A curiously figured and embroidered robe fell to his feet, and was confined at the waist by a long girdle, which also passed round his shoulders, after the manner of a Jewish ephod. It invested him with a dignity of presence such as ordinary garments would not have suggested. This, combined with the unexpectedly pacific tone of his address (its somewhat fantastic formality suiting well with that of his appearance), was not without effect on Balder. He gave his hand with some cordiality.
"Yours, also?" continued the other, addressing Gnulemah with an involuntary deference that surprised her lover. She complied, as a princess to her subject. This incident seemed to indicate their position relatively to each other. Had the wily Egyptian played the slave so well, as finally in good earnest to have become one?
The three stood for a moment joined in a circle, through which what incongruous passions were circulating! But Gnulemah soon withdrew the hand held by Manetho, and sent it to seek the one clasped by Balder. The priest turned cold, and stepped back; and, after an appearance of mental struggle, said huskily,—
"Hiero is forgotten; you are all for the stranger!"
"You never told me who lived beyond the wall," returned Gnulemah, with simple dignity; and added, "You are no less to me than before, but Balder is—my love!" The last words came shyly from her lips, and she swayed gently, like a noble tree, towards him she named.
Manetho's lips worked against each other, and his body twitched. He was learning the difference between theory and practice,—dream and fact. His subtle schemes had been dramas enacted by variations of himself. No allowance had been made for the working of spirit on spirit; even his special part had been designed too narrowly, with but a single governing emotion, whereas he already found himself assailed by an anarchic host of them.
"Gnulemah!" he cried at length, "my study,—my thought,—my purpose,—body of my hopes and prayers!" He knelt and bowed himself at her feet, in the Oriental posture of worship, and went on with rising passion:—"My secrets have bloomed in thy beauty,—been music in thy voice,—darkened in thine eyes! O my flower—fascinating, terrible!—the time is ripe for the gathering, for the smelling of the perfume, for the kissing of the petals! I must yield thee up, O my idol! but in thy hand are my life and my reason,—yea, Gnulemah, thou art all I am!"
The tears, gestures, voice, with which Manetho thus delivered himself, shocked the Northern taste of Helwyse. Through the semi-scriptural, symbolic language, he fancied he could discern a basis of materialism so revolting that the man of the world—the lover now!—listened with shame and anger. Here was a professed worshipper of Gnulemah, who ascribed to her no nobler worth than to be the incarnation of his own desires and passions! It was abject self-idolatry, thought Balder, masquerading as a lofty form of idealization.
The priest's mind was in a more complex condition than Balder imagined. His absorption in Gnulemah, if only as she was the instrument of his dominant purpose, must have been complete; the success (as he deemed it) of his life was staked on her. But, in addition to this, the unhappy man had, unwittingly, and with the vehemence of his ill-ordered nature, grown to love the poison-draught brewed for his enemy! When the enemy's lips touched the cup, did Manetho first become aware that it brimmed with the brewer's own life-blood!
Yet it might have been foreseen. He loved her, not because she was identified with his aims, nor even because she was beautiful, but (and not inconsistently with his theoretical belief in her devilishness) because she was pure and true. Under the persuasion that he was influencing her nature in a manner only possible, if at all, to a moral and physical despot, he had himself been ruled by her stronger and loftier spirit. The transcendent cunning on which he had prided himself, as regarded his plan of educating Gnulemah, had amounted to little more than imbecile inaction.
As Manetho prostrated himself, and even touched the hem of Gnulemah's robe to his forehead, Balder looked to see her recoil; but she maintained a composure which argued her not unused to such homage. So much evil (albeit unintentionally) had the Egyptian done her, that she could suffer, while she slighted, his worship. Yet, in the height of her proud superiority to him, she turned with sweet submission to her lover, and, obedient to his whisper, gathered up her purple mantle and passed through the green conservatory to her own door, through which, with a backward parting glance at her master, she superbly vanished. Balder had disliked the scene throughout, yet his love was greater than before. An awe of the woman whose innate force could command a nature like this priest's seemed to give his passion for her a more vigorous fibre.
The two men were now left alone to come to what understanding they might. Manetho rose to his feet, obliquely eying Helwyse, and spoke with the manner and tone of true humility,—
"You have seen me in my weakness. I am but a broken man, Balder Helwyse."
"We had better speak the plain truth to each other," said Balder, after a pause. "You can have no cause to be friendly to me. I cannot extenuate what I did. I think I meant to kill you."
"You were not to blame!" exclaimed the other, vehemently, holding up his hands. "You had to deal with a madman!"
"It is a strange train of chances has brought us together again; it ought to be for some good end. I came here unawares, and, but for this ring, should not have known that we had met before."
"I lie under your suspicion on more accounts than one," observed Manetho, glancing in the other's face. "I have assumed your uncle's name, and the disposal of his property; and I have concealed his death; but you shall be satisfied on all points. The child, too, Gnulemah!—I have kept her from sight and knowledge of the world, but not without reason and purpose, as you shall hear. Ah! I am but a poor broken man, liable, as you have seen, to fits of madness and extravagance. You shall hear everything. And listen,—as a witness that I shall speak truth, I will say my say before the face of Hiero Glyphic yonder, and upon the steps of his altar! See, I desire neither to palliate nor falsify. Shall we go in?"
With some repugnance Helwyse followed the priestly figure through the low-browed door, He had seen too much of men to allow any instinctive aversion to influence him, in the absence of logical evidence. And this man's words sounded fair; his frank admission of occasional insanity accounted for many anomalies. Nevertheless, and apart from any question of personal danger, Balder felt ill at ease, like animals before a thunder-storm. As he sat down beside his companion on the steps of the black altar, and glanced up at the yellow visage that presided over it, he tried to quiet his mind in vain; even the thought of Gnulemah yielded a vague anxiety!
The ring, which Balder had taken off with the intention of returning it to its owner, still remained between his thumb and finger; and as he sat under the gloom of the altar, its excellent brilliancy caught his eye. He had never examined it minutely. It was pure as virtue, and possessed similar power to charm the dusky air into seven-hued beauty. A fountain of lustre continually welled up from its interior, like an exhaustless spring of wisdom. From amidst the strife of the little serpents it shone serenely forth, with, divine assurance of good,—eternal before the battle began, and immortal after it should cease. The light refreshed the somewhat jaded Helwyse, and during the ensuing interview he ever and anon renewed the draught.
But the Egyptian seemed to address a silent invocation to the mummy. The anti-spiritual kind of immortality belonging to mummies may have been congenial to Manetho's soul. Awful is that loneliness which even the prospect of death has deserted, and which must prolong itself throughout a lifeless and hopeless Forever! If Manetho could imagine any bond of relationship between this perennial death's-head and himself, no marvel that he cherished it jealously.
"You shall hear first about myself," said the priest; "yet, truly, I know not how to begin! No mind can know another, nor even its own essential secrets. My time has been full of visions and unrealities. I am the victim of a thing which, for lack of a better name, I call myself!"
"Not a rare sickness," remarked Balder.
"A ghost no spell can lay! It grasps the rudder, and steers towards gulfs the will abhors. A crew of unholy, mutinous impulses fling abroad words and thoughts unrecognizable. Not Manetho talked in the blackness of that night; but a devil, to whom I listened shuddering, unable to control him!"
"The Reverend Manetho Glyphie, my cousin by adoption,—and sometimes a devil!" muttered Balder, musingly. "I had forgotten him."
People are more prone to err in fancying themselves righteous, than the reverse; nevertheless, the course and limits of self-deception are indefinite. It is within possibility for a man to believe himself wicked, while his actual conduct is ridiculously blameless, even praiseworthy! Although intending to mislead Balder, Manetho's utterances were true to a degree unsuspected by himself. He was more true than had he tried to be so, because truth lay too profound for his recognition!
"A shallower man," he resumed, "would bear a grudge against the hand that clutched his throat; but I own no relationship to the madman you chastised. And there are deep reasons why I must set your father's son above all other men in my regard."
"My father seldom spoke of you, and never as of an especial friend," interposed the ingenuous Balder.
"He knew not my feeling towards him, nor would he have comprehended it. It is a thing I myself can scarce understand. To the outward eye there is juster cause for hatred than for love.
"I will speak openly to you what has hitherto lain between my heart and God. Before Thor saw your mother, I had loved her. My life's hope was to marry her. Thor came,—and my hope lingered and died. For it, was no resurrection." Here Manetho broke all at once into sobs, covering his face with his hands; and when he continued, his voice was softened with tears.
"Thor called her to him, and she gladly went. He stormed and carried with ease the fortress which, at best, I could hope only slowly to undermine. She loved him as women love a conqueror; she might have yielded me, at most, the grace of a condescending queen. I kept silence: to whom could I speak? I had felt great ambitions,—to become honored and famous,—to preach the gospel as it had not yet been preached,—all ambitions that a lover may feel. But the tree died for lack of nourishment. See what is left!"
He opened out his arms with a gesture wanting neither in pathos nor dignity. Balder could not but sympathize with what he felt to be a genuine emotion.
"Amidst the ruins of my Memphis, I kept silence. I hated—myself! for my powerlessness to keep her. In my hours of madness I hated her too, and him; but that was madness indeed! Deeper down was a sanity that loved him. Since he had made my love his, I must love him. So only might I still love her. The only beauty left my ruins was that!
"She died; and with her would have died all sanity,—all love, but that her children kept me back from worse ruin than was mine already. They were a link to bind me to the good. Now Thor is dead, but still his son—her son—survives. Hence is it that you are more to me than other men."
"Did Doctor Glyphic know nothing of this?"
"I never told him of either my hope or my despair. My beloved master! he lived and died without suspicion that I had striven to be a brother as well as son to him."
"When did he die?"
"Eighteen years ago," said Manetho, solemnly. "You are the first to whom his death has been revealed. Beloved master! have I not obeyed thy will?" And he looked up to his master's parchment visage.
"I discovered his death for myself, you know," observed Helwyse. "But it could not have been more than eighteen years since my father, then on the point of departure for Europe, saw Hiero Glyphic alive!"
"Yes, yes! Did he ever tell you what passed in that interview?" demanded Manetho, eagerly.
"Little more than a farewell, I think. There was some talk about the estate. At my uncle's death, the house was to come to you, the property to my father or his heirs. But neither expected at that time that it was to be their last meeting."
"Was no one mentioned beside Thor's children and myself?" asked the priest, looking askant at Balder as he spoke.
"No my uncle neither had nor expected children, as far as I know!"
"Thor did not see her,—Gnulemah?"
"Gnulemah?—how should he have seen her?" exclaimed Balder, in surprise.
"Then her mystery remains!" said Manetho, looking up.
He had perhaps doubted whether any suspicion of who Gnulemah really was had found its way to the young man's mind. The latter's reception of his question reassured him. There could be no risk in catering to his aroused curiosity. The account Manetho now gave was true, though falsehood lurked in the pauses.
"That day Thor came, I left the house early in the morning. It was night when I returned; and Thor was gone. The house was dark, and at first there was no sound. But presently I heard the voice of a child, murmuring and babbling baby words. I passed through the outer hall and the conservatory, and came to where we now are. The lamp was burning as it has burned ever since.
"I saw him lying on the altar steps,—lying so!" Marrying act to word, the Egyptian slid down and lay prostrate at the altar's foot. "He was dead and cold!" he added; and gave way to a shuddering outburst of grief.
Balder's nerves were a little staggered at this tale with its heightening of dramatic action and morbid circumstance; and he was silent until the actor (if such he were) was in some degree repossessed of himself. Then he asked,—
"What of the child?"
"I have named her Gnulemah. She played about the dead body, bright and careless as the flame of the lamp. Whence she came she could not tell, nor had I seen her before that day. It seemed that, at the moment my master's life burned out, hers flamed up; and since that day it has lighted and warmed my solitude."
"And Doctor Glyphic—"
"I embalmed him!" cried Manetho, clasping his hands in grotesque enthusiasm. "It was my privilege and my consolation to render his body immortal. In my grief I rejoiced at the opportunity of manifesting my devotion. Not the proudest of the Pharaohs was more sumptuously preserved than he! In that labor of love there was no cunning secret of the art that I did not employ. Night and day I worked alone; and while he lay in the long nitre bath, I watched or slept beside him. Then I enwound him thousand-fold in finest linen smeared with fragrant gum, and hid his beloved form in the coffin he had chosen long before."
"Did my uncle choose this form of burial?"
"He lived in hopes of it! It was his wish that his body might be disposed as became his name, and the passion that had ruled his life. Me only did he deem worthy of the task, and equal to it. Had I died before him, his fairest hope would have been blighted, his life a failure!"
"A dead failure, truly!" muttered Balder, impelled by the very grewsomeness of the subject to jest about it. "Was his loftiest aspiration to mummy and be mummied?—But yours was a dangerous office to fulfil, Cousin Manetho. Had the death got abroad, you might have been suspected of foul play!"
"The cause was worth the risk," replied the other, sententiously.
Helwyse shot a keen look at his companion, but could discern in him none of the common symptoms of guilt. The priest, however, was a mine of sunless riddles, one lode connecting with another; it was idle attempting to explore them all at once. So the young man recurred to that vein which was of most immediate interest to himself.