"Have you no knowledge concerns Gnulemah's origin?" he inquired.
Manetho laid his long brown hand on Balder's arm.
"If she be not Gnulemah, daughter of fire, it must rest with you to give her another name," said he.
"I care not who was her father or her mother," rejoined the lover, after a short silence; "Gnulemah is herself!"
The lithe fingers on his arm clutched it hard for a moment, and Manetho averted his face. When he turned again, his features seemed to express exultation, mingled with a sinister flavor of some darker emotion.
"Son of Thor, you have your father's frankness. Do you love her?"
"You saw that I loved her," returned Balder, his black eyes kindling somewhat intolerantly.
"If I can hasten by one hour the consummation of that love, my life will have been worth the living!"
"That's kindly spoken!" exclaimed Helwyse, heartily; and, opening his strong white hand, he took the narrow brown one into its grasp. He had not been prepared for so friendly a profession.
"When I have seen your soul tied to hers in a knot that even death may not loosen,—and if it be permitted me to tie the knot, I shall have drained the cup of earthly happiness!" He spoke with a deliberate intensity not altogether pleasant to the ear. He would not relinquish Balder's hand, as he continued in his high-strung vein,—
"I know at last for whom my flower has bloomed. Through the world, across seas, by strange accidents has Providence brought you safe to this spot; and has made you what you are, and her incomparable among women.—You love her with heart and soul, Balder Helwyse?"
"So that the world seems frail; and I—except for my love—insignificant!"
In the sudden emphasis of his question, Manetho had risen to his feet; and Balder likewise had started up, before giving his reply. As he spoke the words strongly forth, his swarthy companion seemed to catch them in the air, and breathe them in. Slowly an expression of joy, that could hardly be called a smile, welled forth from his long eyes, and forced its way, with dark persistency of glee, through all his face.
"By you only in the world would I have her loved!" he said; and repeated it more than once.
He remained a full minute leaning with one arm on the altar, his eyes abstracted. Then he said abruptly,—
"Why not be married soon?"
The lover looked up questioningly, a deep throb in his heart.
"Soon—soon!" reiterated Manetho. "Love is a thing of moments more than of years. I know it! Do you stand idle while Gnulemah awaits you? We may die to-morrow!"
"I have no right to hurry her," said Helwyse in a low voice. "She knows nothing of the world. I would marry her to-morrow—"
"To-morrow! why not to-day? Why wait? that she may learn the falsehoods of society,—to flirt, dress, gossip, crave flattery? Why do you hesitate? Speak out, son of Thor!"
"I have spoken. Do you doubt me? Were it possible, she should be my wife this hour!"
"Oh!" murmured Manetho, the incisiveness of his manner melting away as suddenly as it came; "now have you proved your love. You shall be made one,—one!—to-day. Four-and-twenty years ago this day, I married your parents on this very spot. The anniversary shall become a double one!"
The black eye-sockets of the mummy stared Balder in the face. But at a touch from Manetho, he turned, and saw Gnulemah, bright with beautiful enchantment, in the doorway.
"Yes, to-day!" he said impetuously.
"You shall wed her with that ring!" whispered the victorious tempter in his ear. "Go to her; tell her what marriage is! I will call you soon."
The lover went, and the woman, coming forward, sweetly met him half-way. But glancing back again before passing out, Balder saw that the priest had vanished; and the lamp, flickering above the mummy's dry features, wrought them into a shadowy semblance of emotion.
A CHAMBER OF THE HEART.
Manetho neither sank through the granite floor, nor ascended in the smoke of the lamp. He unlocked a door (to the panels of which the clock was affixed, and which it concealed) and let himself into his private study, a room scarce seven feet wide, though corresponding in length and height with the dimensions of the outer temple. Books and papers were kept here, and such other things of a private or valuable nature as Manetho wished should be inaccessible to outsiders. Against the wall opposite the door stood a heavy mahogany table; beside it, a deep-bottomed chair, in which the priest now sat down.
The room was destitute of windows, properly so called. The walls were full twenty feet high; and at a distance of some sixteen feet from the floor, a series of low horizontal apertures pierced the masonry, allowing the light of heaven to penetrate in an embarrassed manner, and hesitatingly to reveal the interior. Viewed from without, these narrow slits would be mistaken for mere architectural indentations. To the inhabitant they were of more importance, contracted though they were; and albeit one could not look out of them, they served as ventilators, and to distinguish between fine and cloudy weather.
In his earlier and more active days, Manetho had lived and worked throughout the whole extent of this study, and it had been kept clean and orderly to its remotest corner. But as years passed, and the range of his sympathies and activities narrowed, the ends of the room had gradually fallen into dusty neglect, till at length only the small space about the chair and table was left clear and available. The rest was impeded by books, instruments of science, and endless chaotic rubbish; while spiders had handed down their ever-broadening estates from father to child, through innumerable Araneidaean generations. A gray uniformity had thus come to overspread everything; and with the exceptions of a cracked celestial globe, and the end of a worm-eaten old ladder, there was nothing to catch the attention.
Here might the Egyptian indulge himself in whatever extravagances of word or act he chose, secure from sight or hearing; and here had he spent many an hour in such solitary exercises as no sane mind can conceive. To him the room was thick with associations. Here had he pursued his studies, or helped the Doctor in his erratic experiments and research; here, with Helen in his thoughts, he had shaped out a career,—not all of Christian humility and charity, perhaps, but at least unstained by positive sin, and not unmindful of domestic happiness. Here, again, had Salome visited him, bringing discord and delight in equal parts; for at times, with the strong heat of youth, he had vowed to love only her and to forsake ambition; and anon the bloodless counsels of worldly power and welfare banished her with a curse for having crossed his path. Head and heart were always at war in Manetho. The talismanic diamond flashed or waned, and fiercely wriggled the little fighting serpents.
At length Thor Helwyse's gauntlet was thrown into the ring; and peace—if still present to outward seeming—abode not in the feverish soul of the Egyptian. But it was his nature to dissemble. In this room he had often outwatched the night, chewing the cud of his wrongs, invoking vengeance upon the thwarter of his hopes, and swearing through his teeth to even the balance between them. The black serpent held the golden one helpless in his coils. The obtuse Doctor, blundering in at morning, would find his adopted son with pallid cheeks and glittering eyes, but ever ready with a smile and pleasant greeting, obedience and help. Hiero Glyphic, however wayward and cross-grained, never had cause to censure this creature of his,—to remind him that he might have been food for crocodiles.
Manetho's dissimulation was almost without flaw. Even Helen, whose fancy had played with him at first, but who in time had indolently yielded to the fascination exerted over her, and even gone so far as to permit his adulation, and accept in the ring the mystic pledge thereof (during all the countless ages of its experience it had never touched woman's hand before),—even she, when her lazy heart and overbearing spirit were at length aroused and quelled by the voice rather of a master than suitor, was deceived by forsaken Manetho's unruffled face, gentle voice, and downcast eyes. She told herself that his love had never dared be warmer than a kind of worship, like that of a pagan for his idol, apart from human passion; such, at all events, had been her understanding of his attentions. As to the ring, it had been tendered as an offering at the shrine of abstract womanhood; to return it too soon would imply a supposition of more personal sentiment. Neither must Thor see it, however; his rough sense would fail to appreciate her fine-drawn distinction. So she concealed it in her bosom, and Manetho's serpents were ever between Thor and his wife's heart. She was false both to husband and lover.
Great Thor, meanwhile, pitied the slender Egyptian, and in a kindly way despised him, with his supple manners, quiet words, and religious studies. To the young priest's timid yet earnest request for permission to pronounce the marriage-service of him and his bride, Thor assented with gruff heartiness.
"Marry us? Of course! marry us as fast as you can, if it gives you any pleasure, my friend of the crocodile. A good beginning for your ministerial career,—marrying a couple who love each other as much as Nell and I do. Eh, Nellie?"
The ceremony over, Manetho had retired to his study, and there passed the night,—their marriage-night! What words and tones, what twistings of face and body, did those passionless walls see and hear? How the smooth, studious, submissive priest yearned for power to work his will for one day! And as the cool, still morning sheared the lustre from his lamp-flame, how desolate he felt, with his hatred and despair and blaspheming rage! Evil passions are but poor company, in the early morning.
But was not Salome left him? The only sincerely tender words he had ever spoken to woman had been said to her: his humblest and happiest thoughts had been born of their early acquaintance,—before he had raised his eyes to the proud and languid mistress. Yet on her only did the evil passions of Manetho wreak themselves in harm and wrong; her only, on a later day, did he dastardly strike down. Poor Salome had given him her heart. These walls had seen their meetings.
Years afterwards, Manetho had here embalmed his foster-father: through long hours had he labored at his hateful task, with curious zest and conscientiousness. As regarded the strange place of sepulture, the Egyptian had perhaps imagined a symbolic fitness in enclosing his human immortal in the empty shell of time. Over this matter of Hiero Glyphic's death and burial, however, must ever brood a cloud of mystery. Undoubtedly Manetho loved the man,—but death was not always the worst of ills in Manetho's philosophy.
The clock had been affixed to the study door both as an additional concealment, and possibly as a congenial sentry over the interior associations. Since then the place had become the clergyman's almost daily resort. Pacing the contracted floor, sitting moodily in the chair,—many a brooding hour had gone over his barrenly busy head, and written its darkening record in his book of life. Here had been schemed that plan of revenge, whose insanity the insane schemer could not perceive. Nor could he understand that mightier powers than he could master worked against him, and even used his efforts to bring forth contrary results.
But not all hours had passed so. Spaces there had been wherein evil counsels had retired to a cloudy background, athwart which had brightened a rainbow, intangible, whose source was hidden, but whose colors were true before his eyes. The grace and aerial beauty of sunshine lightened through the rain,—the pleasing loveliness of essential life was projected on the gloom of evil imaginations. For Manetho's actual deeds were apt to be prompted by far gentler influences than governed his theories. The man was better than his mind: and goodness, perhaps, bears an absolute blessing; insomuch that the sinner, doing ignorant good, yet feels the benefit thereof; just as the rain, however dismal, cannot prevent the sun from making rainbows out of it.
On this particular morning Manetho sank into his deep-seated chair, and was quite still. A great part of what had hitherto made his daily life ended here. The activity of existence was over for him. Thought, feeling, hope, could live hereafter only as phantoms of memory. But to look back on evil done is not so pleasant as to plan it; the dead body of a foe moves us in another way than his living hostile person.
When, therefore, Manetho should have hurled to its mark the long-poised spear, he would have little to look forward to. That one moment of triumph must repay, both for what had been and was to come. To-day of all his days, then, must each sense and faculty be in exquisite condition. Unseasonably enough, however, he found himself in a perversely dull and callous state. Could Providence so cajole him as to mar the only joyful hour of his life! Then better off than he were savages, who could destroy their recusant idols. But nothing short of spiritual suicide would have destroyed the idol of Manetho!
He was wearing to-day the same priestly robe which he had put on when, for the first and last time, he performed a ministerial duty. In this robe had he married Helen to Thor. Itself a precious relic of antiquity, it had once dignified the shoulders of a contemporary of Manetho's remotest ancestors. Old Hiero Glyphic had counted it amongst his chiefest treasures; and on his sister's wedding-day had produced it from its repository, insisting that the minister should wear it instead of the orthodox sacerdotal costume. Since then it had lain untouched till to-day.
Manetho brooded over the dim magnificence of its folds, sitting amidst the cobwebbed rubbish, a narrow glint of sunshine creeping slope-downwards from the crevice above his head. He smoothed the fabric abstractedly with his hand, recalling the thoughts and scenes of four-and-twenty years ago.
"I joined them in the holy bonds of matrimony,—read over them that service, those sacred words heavy with solemn benediction. Rich, smooth, softly modulated was my voice, missing not one just emphasis or melodious intonation. Ah! had they seen my soul. But my eyes were half closed like the crocodile's, yet never losing sight of the two I was uniting in sight of God and man. The Devil too was there. He turned the blessings my lips uttered into blighting curses, that fell on the happy couple like pestilential rain!
"Laughable! Covered head to foot with curses, and felt them not! All was smiles, blushes, happiness, forward-looking to a long, joyful future. They knelt before me; I uplifted my hands and invoked the last blessing,—the final curse! My heart burned, and the smoke of its fire enveloped bride and groom, fouling his yellow beard, and smirching her silvery veil; shutting out heaven from their prayers, and blackening their path before them. They neither felt nor knew. They kissed,—I saw their lips meet,—as Balder and Gnulemah to-day. Then I covered my face and seemed to be in prayer!
"Gnulemah,—I hate her!—yes, but hatred sometimes touches the heart like love. I love her!—to marry her? Woe to him who becomes her husband! As a daughter?—no daughter is she of mine!—I hate her, then.
"Why am I childless?—how would I have loved a child! I would have left all else to love my child! I would have been the one father in the world! My life should have been full of love as it has been of hate. Why did not God send me a wife and a daughter?"
Men's ears have grown deaf to any save the most commonplace oracles. But there is ever a warning voice for who will listen. One may object that its language is unknown, or its whisper inaudible; but to the question, "Whence your ignorance and deafness?" what shall be the answer?
In Manetho's case it appears to have been the venerable robe that took on itself the task of remonstrance.
"You are unreasonable, friend," it interposed with a gentle rustle. "Gnulemah, if not your daughter, might, however, have stood you in place of one; and she would have done you just as much good, in the way of softening and elevating your nature, as though she had been the issue of your own loins. You have turned the milk and honey of your life into gall and wormwood; and I wish I could feel sure that only you would get the benefit of it!"
The reproof had as well been spared; it is doubtful whether the culprit heard so much as a word of it. His reverie rambled on.
"Keen,—that Balder! he half suspects me. Had I not so hurried him to a conclusion, he would have questioned me too closely. He shall know all presently, even as I promised him!—shall hear a sounder guess at Gnulemah's genealogy than was made to-day.
"Do I love her?—only as the means to my end! The end once gained, I shall hate her as I do him. But not yet,—and therefore must I love him as well as her. They shall be, to-day, my beloved children! To-morrow,—how shall I endure till to-morrow,—all the night through? O Gnulemah!—
"They love each other well,—seem made to make each other happy; yet have they come together from the ends of the earth to be each other's curse! Only if I keep silence might it be otherwise, for love might tame the devil that I have bred in Gnulemah. Even now she seems more angel than devil!—Am I mad?"
He straightened himself in his chair, and glanced up towards the crevice whence slanted the dusty sunshine. The old robe took the opportunity to deliver its final warning.
"Not yet mad beyond remedy, Manetho; but you look up too seldom at the sunshine, and brood too often over your own dusty depths. You have had no consciously unselfish thought during the last quarter of a century. You eat, drink, and breathe only Manetho! This room is yours, because it is fullest of rubbish, and least looks out upon the glorious universe. Break down your walls! take broom in hand without delay! Proclaim at once the crime you meditate. Go! there is still sunshine in this dust-hole of yours, and more of heaven in every man than he himself dreams of. The sun is passing to the other side. Go while it shines!"
But Manetho's dull ears heard not; and the aged garment of truth spoke no more.
It seems a pity that, with all imagination at our service, we should have to confine our excursions within so narrow a domain as this of Hiero Glyphic's. One tires of the best society, uncondimented with an occasional foreign relish, even of doubtful digestibility. Barring this, it only remains to relieve somewhat the monotony of our food, by variety in the modes of dishing it up.
Balder had been no whit disconcerted at the priest's abrupt evanishment. The divine sphere of Gnulemah had touched him with its sweet magnetism, and he was sensible of little beyond it. Their hands greeted like life-long friends. Drawing hers within his arm, he still kept hold of it, and her rounded shoulder softly pressed his, as they loitered out between the impenetrable sphinxes. The conservatory, however beautiful in itself and by association, was too small to hold their hearts at this moment. They passed on, and through the columns of the Moorish portico, into the fervent noon sunshine.
Grasshoppers chirped; fine buzzing flies darted swift circles and lit again; birds giggled and gossiped, bobbing and swinging among swaying boughs. Battalions of vast green trees stood grand in shadow-lakes of cooler green, their myriad leaves twinkling light and dark. Tender gleams of river topped the enamelled bank,—the further shore a slumbering El Dorado. The trees in the distant orchard wore bridal veils, and even Gnulemah's breath was not much sweeter than theirs!
Emerging arm in arm on the enchanted lawn the lovers turned southwards up the winding avenue. The fragrance, the light and warmth, the bird and insect voices, imperfectly expressed their own heart-happiness. The living turf softly pressed up their feet. This was the fortunate hour that comes not twice. Happy those to whom it comes at all! To live was such full bliss, every new movement overflowed the cup. Joy was it to look on earth and sky; but to behold each other was heaven! More life in a moment such as this, than in twenty years of scheming more successful than Manetho's.
They followed the same path Helen had walked the eve of her death; and presently arrived at the old bench. Shadow and sunshine wrestled playfully over it, while the green blood of the leaves overhead glowed vividly against the blue. Around the bench the grass grew taller, as on a grave; and crisp lichens, gray and brown, overspread its surface. Man had neglected it so long that Nature, overcoming her diffidence towards his handiwork, had at length claimed it for her own.
The glade was full of great golden dandelions, whose soft yellow crowns were almost too heavy for the slender necks. The prince and princess of the fairy-tale paused here, recognizing the spot as the most beautiful on earth,—albeit only since their love's arrival. They seated themselves not on the bench, but on the yet more primitive grass beside it. They had not spoken as yet. Balder plucked some dandelions, and proceeded to twist them into a chain; and Gnulemah, after watching him for a while followed his example.
"You and I have sat on the grass and woven such chains before," asserted she at length. "When was it?"
"I haven't done such a thing since I was a child not much taller than a dandelion," returned Balder. He was not ethereal enough to follow Gnulemah in her apparently fanciful flight, else might he have lighted on a discovery to which all the good sense and logic in the world would not have brought him.
"Yes; we have made these chains before!" reiterated Gnulemah, looking at her companion in a preoccupied manner. "They were to have chained us together forever."
"We should have made them of stronger stuff then. But which of us broke the chain?"
"They took us away from each other, and it was never finished. Do you remember nothing?"
"The present is enough for me," said her lover; and he finished his necklace with a handsome clasp of blossoms, and threw it over her neck. She gave a low sigh of satisfaction.
"I have been waiting for it ever since that time! And here is mine for you."
Thus adorned by each other's hands, their love seemed greater than before, and they laughed from pure delight. Their bonds looked fragile; yet it would need a stronger wrench to part them than had they been cables of iron or gold, unsustained by the subtile might of love.
"Let us link them together," proposed Balder; and, loosening a link of his chain, he reunited it inside Gnulemah's. "We must keep together," he continued with a smile, "or the marriage-bonds will break."
"Is this marriage, Balder? to be tied together with flowers?"
"One part of marriage. It shows the world that we belong only to each other."
"How could they help knowing that,—for to whom else could we belong? besides, why should they know?"
"Because," answered Balder after some consideration, "the world is made in such a way, that unless we record all we do by some visible symbol, everything would get into confusion."
"No no," protested Gnulemah, earnestly. "Only God should know how we love. Must the world know our words and thoughts, and how we have sat beneath these trees?—Then let us not be married!"
They were leaning side to side against the bench, along whose edge Balder had stretched an arm to cushion Gnulemah's head. As he turned to look at her, a dash of sunlight was quivering on her clear smooth cheek, and another ventured to nestle warmly below the head of the guardian serpent on her bosom, for Gnulemah and the sun had been lovers long before Balder's appearance. Where breathed such another woman? From the low turban that pressed her hair to the bright sandals on her fine bronze feet, there was no fault, save her very uniqueness. She belonged not to this era, but to the Golden Age, past or to come. Could she ever be conformed to the world of to-day? Dared her lover assume the responsibility of revealing to this noble soul all the meanness, sophistries, little pleasures, and low aims of this imperfect age? Could he change the world to suit her needs? or endure to see her change to suit the world? Moreover, changing so much, might she not change towards him? The Balder she loved was a grander man than any Balder knew. Might she not learn to abhor the hand which should unveil to her the Gorgon features of fallen humanity?—Much has man lost in losing Paradise!
Contemplating Gnulemah's entrance into the outer world, Manetho had anticipated her ruin from the flowering of the evil seed which he believed himself to have planted in her. Might not the same result issue from a precisely opposite cause? The Arcadian fashion in which the lovers' passion had ripened must soon change forever. It was perilous to advance, but to retreat was impossible. Balder was at bay; had he loved Gnulemah less, he would have regretted Charon's ferry-boat. But his love was greater for the danger and difficulty wherewith it was fraught. He could not summon the millennium; well, he might improve himself.
"If I could but shut her glorious eyes to all the shabby littleness they will have to see, we might hazard the rest," he sighed to himself. "If the pure visions of her maiden years might veil from her those gross realities of every-day life! With what face shall I meet her glance after it has suffered the first shock?"
Meanwhile her last objection remained unanswered, and Balder, distrustful of his capacity, was inspired to seek inspiration from her he would instruct.
"Tell me how you love me, Gnulemah," said he.
She roused herself, and bending her face to his, breathlessly kissed his lips. Then she drooped her warm cheek on his shoulder, and whispered the rest:—
"My love is to be near you, and to breathe when breathe; it is love to become you, as water becomes wave. And love would make me sweet to you, as honey and music and flowers. I love to be needed by you, as you need food and drink and sleep; and my love will be loved, as God loves the world."
To the lover these sentences were tender and sublime poetry. The tears came to his eyes, hearing her speak out her loving soul so simply. He had travelled through the world, while she had lived her life between a wall and a precipice. But not the noisy, gaudy, gloomy crust which is fresh to-day, and to-morrow hardens, and the next day crumbles, is the world; but the fire-globe within: and Gnulemah was nearer that fire than Balder. There was puissance in her simplicity,—in her ignorance of that crust which he had so widely studied. Her knowledge was more profound than his, for she had never learned to stultify it with reasons.
"It is true,—God only can know our love," said Balder, and, having said it, he felt his mind clear and strengthen. For it is the acknowledgment of God that lends the deepest seeing to the eye, and tunes the universe to man; and Balder, at this moment of mingled love, humility, and fear, made and confessed that supreme discovery.—"Only He knows what our love is, but the marriage-rite informs the world that He knows it."
"But why must the world know?" persisted Gnulemah, still seeming to shrink at the idea.
"Because it is wholesome for all men to know that we have made God party to our union. That our love may be pure and immortal, we must look through each other to Him; the acknowledgment will keep others as well as ourselves from misusing love's happiness."
"Then, after we have knelt together before Him, we shall be no longer two, but one!" Gnulemah spoke, after some pause, in a full tone of joy; yet her voice shrank at the last, from the feeling that she had penetrated all at once to a holy place. A delicious fear seized her, and she clung to her lover so that he could perceive the tremor that agitated her.
No more was said. Their confidence was in each other; with Balder at her side, Gnulemah was fearful of the world no longer. But her visions were all spiritual; even the kisses on her lips were to her a sacred miracle! Love makes children of men and women,—shows them the wisdom of unreason and the value of soap-bubbles. These lovers must meet the world, but the light and freshness of the Golden Age should accompany them. The man held the maiden's hand, and so faced the future with a smile.
Few as were the hours since they first had seen each other, it seemed as though they could hardly know each other better; then why put off the consummation a single hour? Manetho had been right, and Balder marvelled at having required the spur. He knew of no material hindrances; unlimited resources would be his, and these would render easier Gnulemah's introduction to society. Perhaps (for doubtless Manetho would desire it) they might begin housekeeping in this very house, and thus, by gradual approaches, make their way to life's realities,—vulgarly so called!
At this moment, Balder's respect for wealth was many fold greater than ever it had been before. It should be the sword and shield wherewith he would protect the woman of his heart. Gnulemah was not of the kind who need the discipline of poverty; her beauty and goodness would be best nurtured beneath an affluent sun. Wants and inconveniences would rather pain and mystify than educate her. How good was that God who had vouchsafed not only the blessing, but the means of enjoying it!
God gave Balder Helwyse opportunity to prove the soundness of his faith. Labor and poverty awaited him; what else and worse let time show. In anguish, fear, and humiliation had his love been born, but the birth-pangs had been as brief as they were intense. A brave soul's metal is more severely tried by crawling years of monotonous effort, discord of must with wish, and secret self-suppression and misgiving. Happily life is so ordered that no blow can crush unless dealt from within, nor is any sunshine worth having that shines only from without.
Balder's eyes were softer than their wont, and there was a tender and sweet expression about his mouth. Never had life been so inestimable a blessing,—never had nature looked so divinely alive. He could imagine nothing gloomy or forbidding; in darkness's self he would have found germs of light. His love was a panoply against ill of mind or body. He thought he perceived, once for all, the insanity of selfishness and sin.
Suddenly he was conscious through Gnulemah of the same shiver that had visited her in the conservatory that morning. Looking round, he was startled to see, beyond the near benison of her sumptuous face, the tall form of the Egyptian priest. He was not a dozen yards away, advancing slowly towards them. Balder sprang up.
"Our chain,—you have broken it!" exclaimed Gnulemah. It was only a flower chain, but flowers are the bloom and luxury of life.
Manetho came up with a smile.
"Come, my children!" said he. "This chain would soon have faded and fallen apart of itself, but the chain I will forge you is stronger than time and weightier than dandelions. Come!"
Gnulemah picked up the broken links, and they followed him to the house.
The significant part of most life histories is the record of a few detached hours, the rest being consequence and preparation. Helwyse had lived in constant mental and physical activity from childhood up; but though he had speculated much, and ever sought to prove the truth by practice, yet he had failed to create adequate emergencies, and was like an untried sword, polished and keen, but lacking still the one stern proof of use.
Thus, although a man of the world, in a deeper sense he was untouched by it. He had been the sentimental spectator of a drama wherein some shadow of himself seemed to act. The mimic scenes had sometimes moved him to laughter or to tears, but he had never quite lost the suspicion of an unreality under all. The best end had been—in a large sense—beauty. Beauty of love, of goodness, of strength, of wisdom,—beauty of every kind and degree, but nothing better! Beauty was the end rather than the trait of all desirable things. To have power was beautiful, and beautiful was the death that opened the way to freer and wider power. Most beautiful was Almightiness; yet, lapsing thence, it was beautiful to begin the round again in fresh, new forms.
This kind of spider-webs cannot outlast the suns and snows. Personal passion disgusts one with brain-spun systems of the universe, and may even lead to a mistrust of mathematics! One feels the overwhelming power of other than intellectual interests; and discovers in himself a hitherto unsuspected universe, profound as the mystery of God, where the cockle-shell of mental attainments is lost like an asteroid in the abyss of space.
What is the mind?—A little window, through which to gaze out upon the vast heart-world: a window whose crooked and clouded pane we may diligently clean and enlarge day by day; but, too often, the deep view beyond is mistaken for a picture painted on the glass and limited by its sash! Let the window by all means expand till the darksome house be transformed to a crystal palace! but shall homage be paid the crystal? Of what value were its transparency, had God not built the heavens and the earth?—
Though Helwyse had failed to touch the core of life, and to recognize the awful truth of its mysteries, he had not been conscious of failure. On the contrary he had become disposed to the belief that he was a being apart from the mass of men and above them: one who could see round and through human plans and passions; could even be separate from himself, and yield to folly with one hand, while the other jotted down the moral of the spectacle. He was calm in the conviction that he could measure and calculate the universe, and draw its plan in his commonplace book. God was his elder brother,—himself in some distant but attainable condition. He matched finity against the Infinite, and thereby cast away man's dearest hope,—that of eternal progress towards the image of Divine perfection.
Once, however, the bow had smitten his heart-strings with a new result of sound, awakening fresh ideas of harmony. When Thor was swept to death by that Baltic wave, Balder leapt after him, hopeless to save, but without demur! The sea hurled him back alone. For many a month thereafter, strange lights and shadows flashed or gloomed across his sky, and sounds from unknown abysses disquieted him. But all was not quite enough; perhaps he was hewn from too stanch materials lightly to change. Yet the sudden shock of his loss left its mark: the props of self-confidence were a little unsettled; and the events whose course we have traced were therefore able to shake them down.
For Destiny rained her sharpest blows on Balder Helwyse all at once, and the attack marks the turning-point of his life. She chose her weapons wisely. He was beaten by tactics which a coarser and shallower nature would have slighted. He sustained the onslaught for the most part with outward composure,—but bleeding inwardly.
His had been a vast egoism, rooted in his nature and trained by his philosophy. It must die, if at all, violently, painfully, and—in silence. The truer and more constant the soul, the more complete the destruction of its idol. Character is not always the slow growth of years: often do the elements mingle long in formless solution; some sudden jar causes them to spring at once to the definite crystal. There had, hitherto, been a kind of impersonality about Balder, having its ultimate ground in his blindness to the immutable unity of God. But so soon as his eye became single, he stood pronounced in his individuality, less broadly indifferent than of yore, but organized and firm.
In this inert world the body pursues but imperfectly the processes of the soul. These three days had made small change in Helwyse's face. His expression was less serene than of yore, but pithier as well as more joyful. The humorous indifference had given place to a kindlier humanity. Gone was the glance half satiric, half sympathetic; but in its stead was something warmer and more earnest. For the charity of scepticism was substituted a sentiment less broad, but deeper and truer. It would need an insight supernaturally keen to detect thus early these alterations in the page of Balder's countenance; but their germs are there, to develop afterwards.
During this pause in our narrative, Helwyse was sitting at his chamber window, awaiting the summons to the ceremony. The afternoon was far advanced, and the landscape lay breathless beneath the golden burden of the lavish sun. The bridegroom rose to his feet; surely the bride must be ready! Was that strange old Nurse delaying her? Did she herself procrastinate? Balder was waxing impatient!
The clear outcry of the hoopoe startled the calm air, and that good little messenger came fluttering in haste to the window. Bound its neck was twined a golden dandelion,—Gnulemah's love-token! With a knowing upturn of its bright little eye, the bird submitted to being robbed of its decoration; then warbled a keen good-by, and flew away.
The lover behaved as foolishly towards the dandelion as a lover should. At last he drew the stem through the button-hole of his velveteen jacket, and was ready to answer in person the shy invitation it conveyed. The bride waited!
His hand was on the latch, when some one knocked. He threw open the door,—and had to look twice before recognizing Nurse. Her dingy anomalous drapery had been exchanged for another sort of costume. Her scars strove to be hidden beneath the yellow lace and crumpled feathers of an antique head-dress. She wore a satin gown of an old fashion, whose pristine whiteness was much impaired by time. An aged fan, ragged, but of tasteful pattern, dangled at her wrist. She resembled some forgotten Ginevra, reappearing after an age's seclusion in the oaken chest. Her aspect was painfully repellent, the more for this pathetic attempt at good looks. The former unlovely garb had a sort of fitness to the blasted features; but so soon as she forsook that uncanny harmony and tried to be like other women, she became undesirably conspicuous.
"The bridesmaid!" came to Balder's lips,—but did not pass them. He would not hurt the poor creature's feelings by the betrayal of surprise or amusement. She was a woman,—and Gnulemah was no more. According to his love for his wife, must he be tender and gentle towards her sex.
When, therefore, Nurse gave him to understand that she was to marshal him to the altar, Balder, never more heroic than at that moment, offered her his arm, which she accepted with an air of scarecrow gentility. Either the change of costume had struck in, or it was the symbol of inward change. She seemed struggling against her torpor, her dimness and deadness. She tried, perhaps, to recall the day when that dress was first put on,—the day of Helen's marriage, when Salome had attended her mistress to the altar,—when she hoped before many weeks to stand at an altar on her own account.—Not yet, Salome, nor in this world. Perchance not in another; for they who maim their earthly lives may not enjoy in heaven the happiness whose seed was not planted here. The injury is justly irreparable; else had angels been immediately created.
But Salome was practising deception on herself. Airs and graces which might have suited a coquettish lady's-maid, but were in her a ghastly absurdity, did she revive and perpetrate. Struggling to repress the ugly truth, she was in continual dread of exposure. Fain would she dream for an hour of youth and beauty, knowing, yet veiling the knowledge, that it was a dream. Divining her desire, Balder helped out the masquerade as best he might. She was thankfully aware of his kindness, yet shunned acknowledgment, as a too bare betrayal of the cause of thanks.
As they passed a cracked cheval-glass in an intervening room, the bridesmaid stole a glance at her reflection, flirting her fan and giving an imposing whisk to the train of her gown. Helwyse, whom, three days before, this behavior would simply have amused, felt only pitying sympathy to-day. Gnulemah was always before him, and charmed his eyes and thoughts even to the hag on his arm. He brought himself to address courteous and pleasant remarks to his companion, and to meet unwincingly her one-eyed glance; and was as gallant as though her pretence had been truth.
On entering the conservatory, Nurse seemed as much agitated as though she, instead of Gnulemah, were to be chief actress in the coming ceremony. At the Sphinx door she relinquished Balder's arm, and, hurrying across the conservatory, vanished behind Gnulemah's curtain. As she passed out of sight she threw a parting glance over her shoulder. The action recalled Gnulemah's backward look of the day previous, when she had fled at the sound of the closing door. What ugly fatality suggested so fantastic a parallel between this creature and Balder's future wife!
He entered the temple, which glowed and sparkled like a sombre gem. Many-colored lamps were hung on wires passing round the hall from pillar to massive pillar. Their glare defined the strange character of the Egyptian architecture and ornament; nevertheless, the place looked less real and substantial than in the morning. It seemed the impalpable creation of an enchanter, which his wand would anon dissolve into air once more!
On each side the door sat a statue of polished red granite, with calm regular face and hands on knees. Helwyse, who had not observed them before, fancied them summoned as witnesses to the compact then to be solemnized. Doubtless they had witnessed ceremonies not less solemn or imposing.
On the black marble altar at the further end of the hall was burning some rich incense, whose perfumed smoke, clambering heavily upwards, mingled with that of the lamps beneath the ceiling. On the polished floor, in front, lay a rug of dark blue cloth, heavily bordered with gold; upon it were represented in conscientious profile a number of lank-limbed Egyptians performing some mystic rite. To the right of the altar stood the priest Manetho, apparently engaged in prayer. Balder spoke to him.
"This is more like a tomb than a wedding hall. Would not the conservatory have been more fitting?"
"Better make a tomb the starting-point of marriage than its goal!" smiled the holy man. "And is it not well that your posterity should begin from the spot which saw the union that gave you being? and beneath the eyes of him but for whom neither this hall nor we who here assemble would to-day have existed!" He pointed to the mummy of old Hiero Glyphic, the aspect of which might have left a bad taste in the mouth of Joy herself. Balder shrugged his shoulders.
"It matters little, perhaps, where the seed is sown, so that the flower reach the sunshine at last. But your mummy is an ill-favored wedding-guest, whatever honor we may owe the man who once lived in it. I would, not have Gnulemah—"
"Behold her!" interrupted Manetho, speaking as hough a handful of dust had suddenly got in his throat.
Yes, there she came, the old Nurse following her like a misshapen shadow. Daughter of sun and moon,—a modern Pandora endowed with the strength of a loftier nature! She was robed in creamy white; her pendants were woven pearls. Fine lines of virgin gold gleamed in her turban, and through her long veil, and along the folds of her girdle. But the serpent necklace had been replaced by the dandelion chain that Balder had made her. Her lips and cheeks were daintily aflame, and a tender fire flickered in her eyes, which saw only Balder. She was a bridal song such as had not been sung since Solomon.
As the two reached the altar, Salome stepped to one side, and Manetho's eye fell upon her; for a moment his gaze fixed, while a slight movement undulated through his body, as the wave travels along the cord. The old white dress, unseen for five-and-twenty years; some intangible trick of motion or attitude in the wearer; the occasion and circumstance recurring with such near similarity,—these and perhaps other trifles combined to recall long-vanished Salome. She had stood at that other wedding, just where Nurse was now,—bright, shapely, sparkling-eyed, full of love for him. What a grisly contrast was this!—Why had he thrown away that ardent, loving heart? How sweet and comfortable might life have been to-day, with Salome his wife, and sons and daughters at her side,—daughters beautiful as Gnulemah, sons tall as Balder! But Hatred had been his chosen mistress, and dismal was the progeny begotten on her! The pregnant existence that might have been his, and the scars and barrenness which had actually redounded to him, were symbolized in the remembered Salome and her of to-day.
The brief reminiscence passed, leaving Manetho face to face with his sacred duty. With the warning of the past in his ears and that of the future before his eyes, did he step unrelenting across the threshold of his crime? At all events he neither hesitated nor turned back. But there was no triumph in his eyes, and his tones and manner were heavy and mechanical; as though the Devil (having brought him thus far with his own consent and knowledge) had now to compel a frozen soul in a senseless body!
The service began, none the less hallowed for the lovers, because for Manetho it was the solemn perversion of a sacred ceremony. His voice labored through the perfumed air, and recoiled in broken echoes from gloomy corners and deep-tinted walls. The encircling lamps glowed in serried lines of various light; the fantastic incense-flame rustled softly on the altar. The four figures seemed a group of phantoms,—a momentary rich illusion of the eye. And save for their viewless souls, what were they more? Earth is a phantom; but what we cannot grasp is real and remains!—
The rite was over, the diamond gleamed from Gnulemah's finger, and the priest with uplifted hands had bade man not part whom God had united. Husband and wife gazed at each other with freshness and wonder in their eyes; as having expected to see some change, and anew delighted at finding more of themselves than ever!
Male and female pervades the universe, and marriage is the end and fulfilment of creation. God has builded the world of love and wisdom, woman and man; truly to live they must unite, she yielding herself to his form, he moulding himself of her substance. As love unquickened by wisdom is barren, and knowledge impotent unkindled by affection, so are the unmarried lifeless.
Ill and bitter was it, therefore, for Manetho and Salome, after the married ones had departed, taking their happiness with them. The priest's, eyes were dry and dull, as he leaned wearily against the smoking altar.
"You did not speak!" he said to the woman; "you saw her betrayed to ruin and pollution, and spoke not to save her!—Dumb? the dead might have moved their tongues in such need as this! She will abhor and curse me forever! may you share her curse weighted with mine!—O Gnulemah!"—
Salome cowered and trembled in her satin dress, beneath the burden of that heavy anathema. She had risen that day determined to reveal the secret of her life before night. She had been awaiting a favorable moment, but opportunity or decision still had failed her. Nevertheless, another morning should not find her the same nameless, forsaken creature that she was now.—Manetho had bowed his face upon the altar, and so remained without movement. With one hand fumbling at the bosom of her dress—(the scar of her lover's blow should be the talisman to recall his allegiance),—Salome made bold to approach him and timidly touch his arm.
"Unhand me! whatever you are,—devil! my time is not yet come!"
He raised a threatening arm, with a gleam of mad ferocity beneath his brows. But the woman did not shrink; the man was her god, and she preferred death at his hands to life without him. Ignorant of the cause of her firmness, it seemed to cow him. He slunk behind the altar, hurriedly unlocked the secret door, and let himself into the study. His haste had left the key in the lock outside. The door slammed together, the spring-bolt caught, and the swathed head of old Hiero Glyphic shook as though the cold of twenty winters had come on him at once.
Left alone, Salome was taken with a panic; she fancied herself deserted in a giant tomb, with dead men gathering about her. She herself was in truth the grisliest spectre there, in her white satin gown and feathers, and the horror of her hideous face. But she took to flight, and the key remained unnoticed in the lock.
We, however, must spend an hour with Manetho in his narrow and prison-like retreat. There is less day and more night between these high-shouldered walls than elsewhere; for though the sun is scarce below the horizon, cobwebs seem to pervade the air, making the evening gray before its time. Yonder seated figure is the nucleus of the gloom. The room were less dark and oppressive, but for him!
Does he mean to spend the night here? He sits at ease, as one who, having labored the day long hard and honestly, finds repose at sundown grateful. Such calm of mind and body argues inward peace—or paralysis!
But Manetho has food for meditation, for his work is still incomplete. Ah, it has been but a sour and anxious work after all! when it is finished, let death come, since Death-in-life will be the sole alternative. Yet will death bring rest to your weariness, think you? Would not Death's eyes look kindlier on you, if you had used more worthily Death's brother,—Life? What would you give, Manetho, to see all that you have done undone? if to undo it were possible!
One picture is ever before you,—you see it wherever you look, and whether your eyes be shut or open,—two loving souls, standing hand in hand before you to be married. How happy they look! how nobly confident is their affection! with what clear freedom their eyes sound one another's depths! Neither cares to have a thought or feeling unshared by the other.—What have you done, Manetho?—shall the deed stand? O dark and distorted soul! the minutes are slipping fast away, and you are slipping with them to a black eternity. Will you stir hand nor foot to save yourself, to break your fall? not raise your voice, for once to speak the truth? Even yet the truth may save!—
The night of your life will this be, Manetho. Will you dream of those whose few hours of bliss will stamp Forever on the seal of your damnation? Think,—through what interminable aeons the weight of their just curse will pile itself higher and heavier on your miserable soul! Fain would you doubt the truth of immortality: but the power of unbelief is gone; devil-like, you believe and tremble. And where is the reward which should recompense you for this large outlay? Does the honey of your long-awaited triumph offend your lips like gall?—Then woe for him whose morning dreams of vengeance become realities in the evening!—
How stands it between you and Gnulemah, Manetho? She has never loved you ardently, perhaps; but how will you face her hatred? It is late to be asking such questions,—but has not her temperate affection been your most precious possession? have you not yearned and labored for it? have you not loved her with more than a father's tenderness? Under mask of planning her ruin, have not all the softer and better impulses of your nature found exercise and sustenance? Conceiving a devil, have you brought forth an angel, and unawares tasted angelic joy?—If this be true, Manetho, your guilty purpose towards her is not excused, but how much more awful becomes the contemplation of her fate! Rouse up! sluggard, rush forth! you may save her yet. Up! would you risk the salvation of three souls to glut a meaningless spite? You have been fighting shadows with a shadow. Up!—it is the last appeal.—
You stir,—get stiffly to your feet,—put hand to forehead,—stare around. The twilight has deepened apace; only by glancing upwards can you distinguish a definite light. You are uncertain and lethargic in your movements, as though the dawning in you of a worthy resolution had impaired the evil principle of your vitality. You are as a man nourished on poison, who suddenly tastes an antidote,—and finds it fatal!
You halt towards the door and put forth a hand to open it. You will save Gnulemah; her innocence will save her from the knowledge of her loss. As for Balder,—his suffering will satisfy a reasonable enemy. No wife, no fortune, the cup dashed from his lips just as the aroma was ravishing his nostrils!—O, enough! Open the door, therefore, and go forth.
In your magnanimity you feel for the key, but it is not in its accustomed place. Try your pockets; still in vain! Startled, you turn to the table, and feel carefully over it from end to end. You raise the heavy chair like a feather, and shake it bottom downwards. Nothing falls. You are down on your knees groping affrighted amongst the dust and rubbish of the floor. The key is lost! You spring up,—briskly enough now,—and stand with your long fingers working against one another, trying to think. That key,—where had you it last?—
A blank whirl is your memory,—nothing stands clearly out. How came you here? With whom did you speak just now? What was said?—Two persons there seemed to be, oddly combined in one,—most unfamiliar in their familiarity. Or was it your evil genius, Manetho? who by devilish artifice has at this last hour shut the door against your first good impulse; locked the door against soul and body; shut you in and carried off the key of your salvation.
Do not give way yet; review your situation carefully.—Your voice would be inaudible through these massive walls, were the listener but a yard away.—Be quick with your thinking, for the unmitigable minutes are dying fast and forever.—Were it known that you were here, could you be got out? No, for the secret of the door is known only to yourself. Those who once shared the knowledge with you are dead, or many years gone! Your evil genius no doubt knows it, and all your secrets; but dream not that she will liberate you. She has been awaiting this opportunity. You shall remain here to-night and many nights. Your bones shall lie gaunt on this cobwebbed floor. Only the daily sunbeam shall know of your tomb. And Gnulemah?...
Your knees falter beneath you, and you sink in wretched tears to the floor,—tears that bring no drop of comfort. To be shut up alone with a soul like yours, at the moment when the sin so long tampered with has escaped your control, and is pitilessly doing its devilish work on the other side your prison-walls, near, yet inaccessible,—who can measure the horror of it? Till now you have made your will the law of right and wrong, and read your life by no higher light than your own. You read it otherwise to-night, lying here helpless and alone. That lost key has unlocked the fair front of your complacency and revealed the wizened deformity behind it. You have been insane; but the anguish that would craze a sane man clears the mist from your reason. You behold the truth at last; but as the drowning man sees the ship pass on and leave him.
But we care not to watch too curiously the writhings of your imprisoned soul, Manetho; the less, because we doubt whether the agony will be of benefit to you. Forgiveness of enemies is perhaps beyond your scope; even your rage to save Gnulemah was kindled chiefly by your impotence to do so. God forbid we do you less than justice! but hope seems dim for such as you; nor will a death-bed repentance, however sincere, avail to wipe away the sins of a lifetime. Jealousy of Balder, rather than desire for Gnulemah's eternal weal, awoke your conscience. For the thought of their spending life in happy ignorance of their true relationship inflames—does not allay—your agony!
Your womanish outburst of despairing tears over, a hot fever of restlessness besets you. The space is narrow for disquiet such as yours,—you hunt up and down the strip of floor like a caged beast. No way out,—no way out!—Face to face with lingering death, why not hasten it? No moral scruple withholds you. Yet will you not die by your own hand. Through all your suffering you will cling to life and worship it. Never will you open your arms to death,—which seems to you no grave, compassionate angel, but a malignant fiend lying in ambush for your soul. And such a fiend will your death be; for to all men death is the reflection of their life in the mind's mirror.—Still to and fro you fare, a moving shadow through a narrow gloom, walled in with stone.
Awful is this unnatural sanity of intellect: it is like the calm in the whirlwind's centre, where the waves run higher though the air is deadly still, and the surly mariner wishes the mad wind back again.—To and fro you flit, goaded on and strengthened by untiring anguish. You are but the body of a man; your thought and emotion are abroad, haunting the unconscious, happy lovers!—
Suddenly you stop short in your blind walk, throw up your arms, and break into an irrepressible chuckle. Has your brain given way at last?—No, your laugh is the outcome of a genuine revulsion of feeling, intense but legitimate. What is the cause of it?—You plunge into the rubbish-heap at one end of the room, and grasp and draw forth the rickety old ladder which has been lying there these twenty years. You have seen it almost daily, poking out amidst the cobwebs, and probably for that very reason have so long failed to perceive that it was susceptible of a better use than to be food for worms. You set it upright against the wall; its top round falls three feet below the horizontal aperture. Enough, if you tread with care. Narrow, steep, and rickety is the path to deliverance; but up! for your time is short.
Upward, with cautious eagerness! The ladder is warped and rests unevenly, and once or twice a round cracks beneath the down-pressing foot; the thing is all unsound and might fall to pieces at any moment. However, the top is gained, and your nervous hands are on the sill at last. Easing yourself a little higher, you look forth on the world once more.
Not so late after all! Red still lingers along the western horizon, but against it is mounting and expanding a black cloud, glancing ever and anon with dangerous lightning. In a clear sky-lake above the cloud, steadily burns a planet. The gentle twilight rests lovingly on earth's warm bosom—
Hark! look! what moves yonder beneath the trees?—
Your parched, eager face strained forwards, your hungry eyes eating through the gloom,—see emerge from the avenue two figures, sauntering lover-like side to side! How forgetful of the world they seem! Little think they of you, of the rack on which you have been outstretched. But their hour has come. This moment shall be their last of peace,—their last of happy love.
* * * * *
—What sound was that?—Was it a yell of triumph,—a shout for help,—a scream of terror?—It does not come again; but the silence is more terrible than the cry.
THE BLACK CLOUD.
"Hiero,—it was his voice!" said Gnulemah. She looked in her lover's face, trusting to his wisdom and strength. She rested her courage on his, but her eyes stirred him like a trumpet-call. The burden of that cry had been calamity. Love is protean, makes but a step from dalliance to grandeur. Balder, no longer a sentimental bridegroom, stood forth ready, brief, energetic,—but more a lover than before!
The voice had at the first moment sounded startlingly clear, then it had seemed distant and muffled. As Helwyse swiftly skirted the granite wall of the temple, his mind was busy with conjecture; but he failed to hit upon any reasonable explanation. The cry had come from the direction of the temple, and had he known of the existence of the apertures through the masonry, he might partly have solved the mystery. As it was, he thought only of getting inside, feeling sure that, explainably or not, Manetho must be there.
In the oaken hall he met Nurse, who had also heard the cry, but knew not whence it proceeded.
"In the temple, I think," said Helwyse, answering her agitated gesture.
The clew was sufficient; she sped along towards the door whence she had so lately fled panic-stricken, Helwyse following. Beneath the solemn excitement and perplexity, lay warm and secure in his heart the thought of Gnulemah,—his wife. Blessed thought! which the whips and scorns of time should make but more tenderly dear and precious.
As he breathed the incense-laden air of the temple, Balder's face grew stern. At each step he thought to see death in some ghastly form. In the joy of this his marriage night he had wished all the world might have rejoiced with him; but already was calamity abroad. Birth and death, love and hate, happiness and woe, are borne on every human breath, and mingled with daily meat and drink. So be it!—They were parodies of humanity who should live on a purer diet or inhale a rarer atmosphere.
All the lights in the great hall, except the altar lamp, were burnt out, and the place was very dusky. Nurse went straight towards the secret door, looking neither to the right nor left; while Helwyse, who did not suspect its existence, was prying into each dark nook and corner. An inarticulate exclamation from the woman arrested him. She was standing behind the altar, close to the clock. As he approached she pointed to the wall. She had found the key in the lock, but dared not be first to brave the sight of what might be within. She appealed to the strength of the man, yet with a morbid jealousy of his precedence.
Helywse saw the key, and, turning it, the seeming-solid wall disclosed a door, opening outwards, a single slab of massive granite. Within all was dark, and there was no sound. Was anything there?
He looked round to address Nurse, but her appearance checked him. She was staring into the darkness; he could feel her one-eyed glance pass him, fastening on something beyond. He moved to let the lamplight enter the doorway; and then in the illuminated square that fell on the floor he saw Manetho's upturned face. The fallen priest lay with one arm doubled under him, the other thrown across his breast. Nurse stared at her broken idol, motionless, with stertorous breathing.
But was Manetho dead? Helwyse, the physician, stepped across the threshold, and stooped to examine the body. The dumb creature followed and lay down, animal-like, close beside the deity of her worship. Presently the physician said,—
"There's life in him, but he's hurt internally. We must find a way to move him from here."
"Life!"—the woman heard, nor cared for more. Her dry fixedness gave way with a gasp, and she broke into hysteric tears, rocking herself backwards and forwards, crooning over the insensible body, or stooping to kiss it. She had no sense nor heed for the lover of her youth.
"Could such a creature have been his wife? even his mistress?" questioned Helwyse of himself. But he spoke out sharply:—
"You must stop this. He must be revived at once. Go and make ready a bed, and I will carry him to it."
As he spoke, a silent shadow fell across the body, and Gnulemah stood in the doorway. Balder's first impulse was to motion her away from a spectacle so unsuited to her eyes. But though the shadow made her face inscrutable, the lines of her figure spoke, and not of weak timidity or effeminate consternation. Womanly she was,—instinct with that tender, sensitive power, the marvellous gift of God to woman only, which almost moves the sick man to bless his sickness. A holy gift,—surely the immediate influx of Christ's spirit. Man knows it not, albeit when he and woman have become more closely united than now, he may attain to share the Divine prerogative. Study nor skill can counterfeit it; but in the true woman it is perfect at the first appeal as at the last.
"He shall have my bed," said this young goddess Isis; "it is ready, and my lamp is burning."
Balder stooped to uplift his insensible burden.
"O, not so!—more tenderly than that," she interposed, softly. A moment's hesitation, and then she unfastened the golden shoulder-clasp, and shook off her ample mantle. This was Manetho's litter.
"I will help you carry him.—Why do you-weep, Nurse? he will awake, or Balder would have told us."
Never, since Diana stooped to earth to love Endymion, was seen a nobler sight than Gnulemah in her simple, clinging tunic, whose heavy golden hem kissed her polished knee, while her round and clear-cut arms were left bare. After the first glance, her lover lowered his eyes, lest he should forget all else in gazing at her. But the blood mounted silently to his cheeks and burned there. As for her,—she trusted Balder more freely than herself.
Manetho was laid gently on the broad robe, and so upraised and borne forwards; Balder at the head, Gnulemah at the foot. Heavy, heavy is a lifeless body; but the man had cause to wonder at the woman's fresh and easy strength. What a contrast was she to the disfigured creature who hobbled moaning beside the litter, the relaxed hand clutched in both hers, kissing it again and again with grotesque passion! Yet both were women, and loved as women love.
The granite statues sitting serene at the doorway maintained the stony calm which, only, deserves the name of supernatural. These passed, the flowery heat of the dim conservatory brought them to Gnulemah's room. The curtain was looped up and the passage clear. Thus first did the wedded pair enter what should have been their bridal chamber, and laid the lifeless body on the nuptial bed.
A fair, pure room; the clear walls frescoed with graceful wreaths of floating figures. In the eastern window, through which the earliest sunbeams loved to fall, stood an alabaster altar; on it a chain of faded dandelions. The bed was a lovely nest, the lines flowing in long curves,—a barge of Venus for lovers to voyage to heaven in. On a table near at hand lay some embroidered work at which Gnulemah's magic needle had been busy of late. Balder glanced at these things with a reverence almost timid; and, turning back to what lay so inert and doltish on the sacred bed, he could not but sigh.
Every means was employed to rally the Egyptian from his swoon. He bore no external marks of injury, but there could be no doubt that he had sustained a terrible shock, and possibly concussion of the brain; the amount of the internal damages could not yet be estimated.—Meanwhile the black cloud from the west was muttering drowsily overhead, and an occasional lightning-flash dulled the mild radiance of the lamp. As consciousness ebbed back to the patient, the storm increased, and the trembling roll of heavy thunder drowned the first gasps of returning life. Had that vast cloud come to shut out his soul from heaven, and was its mighty voice uttering the sentence of his condemnation? The air was thick with the inconsolable weeping of the rain, and gusty sighs of wind drove its cold tear-drops against the window.
How was it with Manetho?—During the instant after the ladder had given way and he was rushing through the air and clutching vainly at the dark void, every faculty had violently expanded, so that he seemed to see and think at every pore. The next instant his rudely battered body refused to bear the soul's messages; light and knowledge sank into bottomless darkness!
By and by—for aught he knew it might have been an eternity—a brief gleam divided the night; then another, and others; he seemed to be moving through air, upborne on a cloud. He strove to open his eyes, and caught a glimpse of reeling walls,—of a figure,—figures. A deep rumbling sound was in his ears, as of the rolling together of chaotic rocks, gradually subsiding into stillness.
He felt no pain, only dreamy ease. He was resting softly on a bank of flowers, in the heart of a summer's day. He was filled with peace and love, and peace and love were around him. Some one was nestling beside him; was it not the woman,—the bright-eyed, smiling gypsy with whom he had plighted troth?—surely it was she.
"Salome,—Salome, are you here? Touch me,—lay your cheek by mine. So,—give me your hand. I love you, my pretty pet,—your Manetho loves you!"
The slow sentences ended. Nurse had laid her unsightly head beside his on the pillow, and the two were happy in each other. O piteous, revolting, solemn sight! Those faces, grief-smitten, old; long ago, in passionate and lawless youth, they had perchance lain thus and murmured loving words. And now for a moment they met and loved again,—while death knocked at their chamber door!
But Balder had perceived a startling significance in Manetho's words. He took Gnulemah by the hand and led her to the eastern window. A flash greeted them, creating a momentary world, which started from the womb of night, and vanished again before one could say "It is there!" Then followed a long-drawn, intermittent rumble, as if the fragments of the spectre world were tumbling avalanche-wise into chaos.
"I remember now about the dandelions," Balder said. "Was not Nurse with us then?"
"Yes," answered Gnulemah; "and it was she and Hiero who took me from you. But why does he call her Salome? and who is Manetho?"
Balder did not reply. He leant against the window-frame and gazed out into the black storm. Knowing what he now did, it required no great stretch of ingenuity to unravel Manetho's secret.—He turned to Gnulemah, and, taking her in his arms, kissed her with a defiant kind of ardor.
"What is it?" she whispered, clinging to him with a reflex of his own unspoken emotion.
"We are safe!—But that man shall not die without hearing the truth," he added, sternly.
Again there was a dazzling lightning-flash, and the thunder seemed to break at their very ears. By a quick, sinuous movement, Gnulemah freed herself from his arm and looked at him with her grand eyes,—night-black, lit each with a sparkling star. Her feminine intuition perceived a change in him, though she could not fathom its cause. It jarred the fineness of their mutual harmony.
"Our happiness should make others' greater," said she.
He looked into her eyes with a gaze so ardent that their lids drooped; and the tone of his answer, though lover-like, had more of masculine authority in it than she had yet heard from him.
"My darling, you do not know what wrong he has done you—and others. It is only justice that he should learn how God punishes such as he!"
"Will not God teach him?" said Gnulemah, trembling to oppose the man she loved, yet by love compelled to do so.
Balder paused, and looked towards the bed. There was a flickering smile on Manetho's face; he seemed to be reviving. His injuries were perhaps not fatal after all. Should he recover, he must sooner or later receive his so-called punishment; meanwhile, Balder was inclined to regard himself as the chosen minister of Divine justice. Why not speak now?
This was the second occasion that he had held Manetho in his power, at a time when the Egyptian had been attempting his destruction. In the previous encounter he had retaliated in kind. Would the bitter issue of that self-indulgence not make him wary now? Here was again the murderous lust of power, albeit disguised as love of justice. Had Balder's penitent suffering failed to teach him the truth of human brotherhood, and equality before God? Love, typified by Gnulemah, would fain dissuade him from his purpose: but love (as often happens when it stands in the way of harsh and ignoble impulses) appeared foolishly merciful.
Once again his glance met Gnulemah's,—lingered a moment,—and then turned away. It was for the last time. At that moment he was less noble than ever before. But the expression of her eyes he never forgot; the love, the entreaty, the grandeur,—the sorrow!—
He turned away and approached the bedside, while Gnulemah went to kneel at her maiden altar. Manetho's eyes were closed; his features wore a singularly childlike expression. In truth, he was but half himself; the shock he had sustained had paralyzed one part of his nature. The subtle, evil-plotting Egyptian was dormant; his brain interpreted nothing save the messages of the heart; only the affectionate, emotional Manetho was awake. The evil he had done and the misery of it were forgotten.—All this Balder divined; yet his assumption of godlike censorship would not permit him to relent. It is when man deems himself most secure that he falls, in a worse way than ever.
"Do you know me, Manetho?" demanded the young man.
The priest opened his eyes dreamily, and smiled, but made no further answer.
"I am Balder Helwyse,—the son of Thor," continued the other, speaking with incisive deliberation, better to touch the stunned man's apprehension, "I once had a twin sister. You believe that Gnulemah is she."
The priest's features were getting a bewildered, plaintive expression. Either he was beginning to comprehend the purport of Balder's words, or else the sternness of the latter's tone and glance agitated him.
Bader concentrated all his force into the utterance of the final sentences, vowing to himself that his fallen enemy should understand! Did he think of Gnulemah then? or of Salome—partly for whose; sake, he feigned, he had assumed the scourge?
"My sister died,—was burned to death before she was a year old. In trying to save her, the nurse almost lost her own life. On that same night, this nurse gave birth to a daughter,—whose name you have called Gnulemah. Salome is her mother. Who her father is, Manetho, you best know!"
The words were spoken,—but had the culprit heard them? Salome (who from the first had shrunk back to the head of the bed, beyond the possible range Manetho's vision) burst into confused hysteric cries. Gnulemah had risen from her altar and was looking at Balder: he felt her glance,—but though he told himself that he had done but justice, he dared not meet it!—He kept his eyes fastened on the pallid countenance of the Egyptian. The latter's breath came feebly and irregularly, but the anxious expression was gone, and there was again the flickering smile. All at once there was an odd, solemn change.—
The man was dying. Balder saw it,—saw that his enemy was escaping him unpunished! There yet remained one stimulant that might rouse him, and in the passion of the moment this self-appointed lieutenant of the Almighty applied it.
"Come forward here, Salome!" cried he; "let him look on the face that his sins have given you. As there is a God in Heaven, your wrongs shall be set right!"
Salome moved to obey; but Gnulemah glided swiftly up and held her back. Balder stepped imperiously forward to enforce his will. Had he but answered his wife's eyes even then!—He came forward one step.
Then burst a thunder-clap like the crashing together of heaven and earth! At the same instant a blinding, hot glare shut out all sight. Balder was hurled back against the wall, a shock like the touch of death in every nerve.
He staggered up, all unstrung, his teeth chattering. He saw,—not the lamp, flickering in the draught from the broken window,—not Manetho, lying motionless with the smile frozen on his lips,—not Salome, prostrate across the body of him she had worshipped.
He saw Gnulemah—his wife whom he loved—rise from the altar's step against which she had been thrown; stand with outstretched arms and blank, wide-open eyes; grope forwards with outstretched arms and uncertain feet; grope blindly this way and that, moaning,—
"Balder,—Balder,—where are you?"
Shivering and desperate,—not yet daring for his life to understand,—he came and stood before her, almost within reach of those groping hands.
"I am here,—look at me, Gnulemah!—I am here—your husband!"
There was a pause. The storm, having spent itself in that last burst, was rolling heavily away. There was silence in the nuptial chamber, infringed only by the breathing of the newly married lovers.
"I hear you, Balder," said Gnulemah at length, tremulously, while her blank eyes rested on his face, "but I cannot see you. My lamp must have gone out. Will not you light it for me?"—
Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord: I will repay!
* * * * *
The storm-cloud moved eastward and was dispersed. Black though had been its shadow, it endured but for a moment; the echo of its fury passed away, and its deadly thunderbolt left behind a purer atmosphere. So sweeps and rages over men's heads the storm of calamity; and so dissolves, though seeming for the time indissoluble.
But the distant planet comes forth serene from its brief eclipse, and as night deepens, bears its steady fire yet more aloft. Like God's love, its radiance embraces the world, yet forgets not the smallest flower nor grain of sand. From its high station it beholds the infinite day surround the night, and knows the good before and beyond the ill. Great is its hope, for causes are not hidden from its quiet eternal eye.
No journal of a life has been our tale; rather a glimpse of a beginning! We have traversed an alpine pass between the illimitable lands of Past and Future. We have felt the rock rugged beneath our feet; have seen the avalanche and mused beside the precipice, and have taken what relief we might in the scanty greensward, the few flowers, and the brief sunshine. Now, standing on the farewell promontory, let us question the magic mirror concerning the further road,—as, before, of that from the backward horizon hitherwards.
Mr. MacGentle's quiet little office: himself—more venerable by a year than when we saw him last—in his chair: opposite him, Dr. Balder Helwyse. The latter wears a thick yellow beard about six inches in length, is subdued in dress and manner, and his smile, though genial, has something of the sadness of autumn sunshine. The two have been conversing earnestly, and now there is a short silence.
"We must give up hoping it, then," says Mr. MacGentle at last, in a more than usually plaintive murmur. "It is hard,—very hard, dear Balder."
"Now that I know there is no hope, I can acknowledge the good even while I feel the hardship. Her dreams have been of a world such as no real existence could show; to have been awakened would permanently have saddened her, if no worse. But she is great enough to believe without seeing; and in the deepest sense, her belief is true. She still remains in that ideal fairy-land in which I found her; and no doubt, as time goes on, her visions grow more beautiful!"
Thus Balder Helwyse, in tones agreeably vigorous, though grave and low.
"Yes—yes; and perhaps, dear Balder, the denial of this one great boon may save her from much indefinite disquiet; and certainly, as you say, from the great danger of disappointment and its consequences. Yes,—and you may still keep her lamp alight, with a more lasting than Promethean fire!—But how is it with you, dear boy?"
"Let none who love me pray for my temporal prosperity," returns Helwyse, turning his strong, dark gaze on the other's aged eyes. "I have met with many worshippers of false gods, but none the germs of whose sin I found not in myself. The I to whom was confided this excellent instrument of faculties and senses is a poor, weak, selfish creature, who fancied his gifts argued the possession of the very merits whose lack they prove. God, in His infinite mercy, deals sternly with me; and I know how to thank Him!"—
Mr. MacGentle does not reply in words; but a grave smile glimmers in his faded eyes, and, smiling, he slowly shakes his venerable head.
One more brief glimpse, and then we are done.—
A pleasant parlor of southern aspect, looking through a deep bay-window over a spacious garden. Here sits a stalwart gentleman of middle age, with a little boy and girl on either knee, who play bo-peep with his wide-spreading yellow beard. How they all laugh! and what a pleasant laugh has the stalwart, dark-eyed gentleman,—so deep-toned and yet so boyish! But presently all three pause to take breath.
"Thor," then says the gentleman, "whose portrait did I tell you that was?" And he points to an oil-painting hanging over the piano.
"Grandpapa MacGentle, papa!"
"What did he do for all of us?"
As Master Thor hesitates a moment, the little golden-haired lady breaks in,—"I know, papa! He made uth rich, and gave uth our houthe, and he thaw me when I wath a wee, wee baby, and then he—he—"
"He went to Heaven, papa!" says Thor, recovering himself.
Hereupon there was a silence, because the two children, glancing up in their father's face, saw that it was grave and thoughtful.
But suddenly the little girl pricks up her small ears, and scrambles to the carpet, and sets off for the door at full speed, without a word. Thor is close behind, but just too late to be first in opening the door.
And Balder Helwyse springs up, and as she enters with the rejoicing children at each hand, he meets her with the thrilling smile which, in this world, she will never see!
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