It was to be expected before the evening was over, that that conversation would ascend by natural gradations from the ordinary to the intellectual, yet no one could tell exactly how or when it began to do so, any more than they could describe the strange yet clear logic by which this one woman set to rights various perplexing problems, and gave the key as it were to a nobler and higher order of eclectic philosophy than they had yet ventured upon.
To Mrs Ray Jefferson, that discussion in the Baths had acted as the stimulus of an olive to the palate. She was all eagerness to resume it.
"I hope, Madame Zairoff," she said, in her brisk, lively, fashion, "that you will give me a little enlightenment about what you said yesterday. This is just a leisure time with most of us, and I suppose mental culture is not incompatible with hygienic pursuits."
"Assuredly not," said the Princess, smiling. "The more you cultivate the mind the less you feel or care for the ailments of the body, and to give those ailments even occasional insignificance, is to first forget, and then banish them. If you draw your mind away from the thought of pain, you cease to feel pain."
"But that would require a far stronger mental capacity than we possess," said Mrs Masterman. Then she suddenly remembered that she had not felt a single gouty twinge the whole evening, because her mental consciousness had been unusually excited. This remembrance made her grow suddenly thoughtful and attentive to the discussion.
"I think," said Princess Zairoff, gently; "that we all make a great mistake in setting any absolute limit to our mental capacity. It is quite within our own power to dwarf or extend it. If we are content to rest satisfied with a small amount of knowledge we can do so, and even cease to suffer in our own self-esteem by feeling we are stupid, or indolent, or ignorant. Our perceptions are gradually blunted, and society is kind enough to case most of its remarks and opinions in a sugar-coating, so that the real truth never reaches us. We gradually find, then, that an opinion that soothes our personal vanity and self-esteem is a very pleasant opinion. So long as we cherish that falsehood, so long do we blunt our faculties of progress. Now it seems a very extraordinary thing to me, who have long been accustomed to investigate and direct the psychic side of nature, to find such numbers and numbers of people who don't believe in any psychic laws at all, far less care to investigate them as knowledge. The reason is simply this, that they all are convinced that one trivial, petty earth-life is the one life for which they were created and are responsible, therefore the only one they feel bound to investigate."
She paused and looked at the circle of grave and wondering faces.
"You have heard of the law of Karma, I suppose?" she said.
There was a murmur, vague, spontaneous, or doubtful, according to the amount of comprehension excited by the question.
"It is a pity," resumed the Princess, "that it is not more generally understood. What is the difficulty? I learnt it in my childhood just as your English children learn their catechism. You have taken up the doctrine of Evolution very strongly, but Karma is its very leading law, so to speak. Man is perpetually working out and developing afresh the energies, aspirations, and character with which his spirit was originally endowed. He becomes, as it were, the product of the better part of himself, that struggles to the surface again and again during periods of incarceration in the flesh."
"Then you would convey that we all live over and over again?"
"Most certainly. It is the only rational way to account for the injustice, the sorrows, and the miseries of earth. It gives long opportunities for the modification of character; it acts as retribution to the evil and the vicious and the selfish; it gives a far deeper sense of responsibility than the shallow acceptance of mere creeds, because a man's good or evil deeds become a series of actions with inevitable consequences. If you teach him that he can throw off the results of a bad life, and of all it has entailed upon his fellow man, by a brief spell of penitence, or a blind, irrational faith in the sacrifice of a Being he has neglected and ignored during the greater part of that life, you really are only pandering to the selfish and cowardly side of his nature."
A little shudder ran through the group at these bold words. Mrs Ray Jefferson lifted her head and cast glances of triumph about, as one who should say, "I told you she would shock you all!"
There was scarcely a man or woman there who did not attend church on Sundays, and who had not managed to make a comfortable compact between the tenets of religion and the demands of social and worldly pleasures. Not one who, if taken to task on the momentous subject of a spiritual future, could have given any rational explanation of why he or she held certain vague ideas on the subject of salvation, or put off the deeper consideration of the subject to some indefinite period when they would have had their fill of vanities, and lost either the means or the desire to pursue them.
And yet there was a subtle frou-frou of rustling skirts as the women drew slightly away, and a decided appearance of discomfort on the faces of the men, to whom an unpleasant truth was suddenly and sharply conveyed, and who found themselves strangely powerless to combat, or argue out its real meaning.
Colonel Estcourt came to the rescue.
"No doubt," he said, "the subject and this view of the subject seems a little strange to our friends here. We must remember they have not been accustomed to hear it freely discussed, as we have."
"It is strange," said Mrs Jefferson, rallying her energies, "but we should not shirk its consideration for that reason. I quite agree with Madame Zairoff that people don't think half seriously enough of their real natures, the mysterious inner something which we all feel we possess, but whose voice we stifle in the din of the world. And yet," she added, sighing pathetically as she looked at the great Worth's 'creation,'—"the vanities are very pleasant. Why should we turn anchorites?"
"There is not the slightest necessity to do that," said the princess, smiling at the unuttered thought she had read in that glance. "Far from it. The gravest duties of life are generally those that meet us in the world, and are called forth by our actions in that world. All lives are not meant to be isolated, and certainly none for the whole period of earth life. A person would have to be very sure that he was free to cut himself adrift from his fellows before he would even be permitted to do it."
"Permitted!" echoed Mrs Jefferson, rather vaguely. "But by whom?"
"The teachers of occult science," answered the Princess Zairoff.
"But who are they?" exclaimed the little American.
"That I cannot tell you," she answered, gravely. "They exist, and their influence is already beginning to make itself felt. But it would be a poor triumph to unveil the highest wisdom that humanity can ever learn, in order to satisfy the idle and the curious, and the lovers of marvels. Those who desire to learn can always do so, but nothing is forced upon you, or even obtruded. I should not have opened my lips on the subject had you not expressed a desire to hear something about it."
"I suppose," said Mrs Jefferson, eagerly, "you yourself are a believer in occultism?"
"Madame Zairoff is a great deal more than that," said Colonel Estcourt; "she is one of its most earnest students and most ardent votaries. If you knew half of her marvellous powers you would congratulate yourselves upon being permitted to receive her, unless, indeed," he added, with a questioning glance at the beautiful woman beside him, "she has a fancy to make converts."
The men became eager of entreaties to her so made, but the women held back a little.
Princess Zairoff, however, assured them she had no intention of proselytising. "It is quite true I am deeply interested in this subject," she said, "but I should be sorry to bore you all with my views, or the reasons for my holding those views. Psychic inquiry demands a great deal more than cursory study. There are many mysteries of nature that men have looked upon as enigmas, until patience and research have solved them for them. Then they marvel how they could have been blind so long! Magnetism, spiritualism, and clairvoyance have all their mystical, as well as their explicable, side. It is only because they don't readily lend themselves to the comprehension of our material nature, that we try to scoff them into the limbo of absurdity and imposture."
"Ah," said Mrs Jefferson. "Talking of clairvoyance, that I do believe in. I knew a coloured woman in America—the way that woman would tell you things—it was enough to make your flesh creep! She'd just go quietly off to sleep, and you might ask her anything you liked, and she'd tell you; and it was all as true as possible."
The princess met Julian Estcourt's eyes, and smiled strangely. Mrs Jefferson caught the glance.
"Perhaps," she said, "you're a clairvoyant?"
"I used to be," she said, gravely. "Perhaps my faculties have grown blunted, for want of use. They are far from being as keen as they were in India. However," and she smiled at the circle of faces, "I wonder if any of you would believe me if I told you what you were talking about at dinner time. First of all, you must remember, your conversation could not have been betrayed to me by my friend, as he was not there, and that my rooms are on the opposite wing to the dining saloon. Well, you discussed different phases of spiritualism. This lady," she indicated Mrs Masterman, "gave her experiences of imposture; you," looking at Mrs Jefferson, "combated those experiences by your own, and this gentleman."—she smiled at the cynical individual, who was hovering on the outskirts of the circle—"silenced you all by reducing your theories to strong commonsense facts. Shall I quote his own words? After the rate people have been running after spiritual phenomena, they are absolutely refreshing. He said that it was an intensely humiliating idea to find oneself at the beck and call of any other human being when you imagined you had done with this life."
"Good gracious!" almost screamed Mrs Jefferson, "but how on earth did you hear all this? It's positively alarming."
"Well," said the princess, still smiling at the pale and conscience-stricken faces, "you see I have a—faculty shall I call it?— that enables me to hear and see anything I am curious about, or interested in. I don't believe I could even explain how I do it; but it seems easy and natural enough to myself. I only paid you a brief visit to-night, more that I might have a little bit of proof to give you, that the powers I spoke of do exist, and are capable of being trained to almost any extent, if the motives for developing them are good. Have I convinced you?"
She rose as she spoke, and stood facing them in her beautiful indolent grace. She was garbed in some white soft stuff, which floated round her like a cloud, the wide hanging sleeves were lined with faint shell-like pink, and fell away from her bare lovely arms to the hem of her floating draperies. She looked like some goddess of mythology, rather than a living woman, and as Julian Estcourt gazed at her he felt a sudden thrill of awe.
Could that more than mortal beauty ever really be his—his in the common prose of possession that can never be disassociated with marriage—the prose that is to the delicate subtle beauty of love, what the rough touch is to the wings of the butterfly, the bloom of the grape?
For a moment the thought seemed like sacrilege. He could have fallen at her feet in a sudden adoration of the divine beauty and purity of embodied womanhood. "If ever she has lived before," he said in his heart, "it must have been as a vestal virgin, or a martyred saint. Where in the world is such another woman?"
The voice of the cynical philosopher broke on his ear and disturbed his thoughts. "Madame, it is my humble opinion that you could convince us of anything you desired. Happy are those who have so charming a disciple to expound their doctrines, happier still the fortunate few to whom those doctrines are to be expounded by lips so lovely and a heart so wise."
Ere the circle had quite recovered from its astonishment at hearing a speech so flattering uttered by their surly Diogenes, they had parted to make way for the beautiful stranger, and the last gleam of her snowy robes had floated through the doorway, as a cloud melts into the darkness of descending night.
There was a sort of long-drawn breath, a feeling as of long tension suddenly set free, a turning as if by one accord to one another. Then— well, then all the tongues leaped into action, and for the remainder of that evening, like Thackeray's folk "At the Springs," they talked, and they talked, and they talked.
When the Princess Zairoff was in the privacy of her own boudoir, she turned to Colonel Estcourt in a sudden appeal:
"Why did you make me go, Julian?" she said. "I knew I should only shock them. I can't ever put up with that languid ignorant curiosity."
"I think it will do them good to be shocked," he said, with a smile. "Give them something to think of beside their ailments. And I had a special reason," he went on with a deeper note of tenderness in his voice—"I do not wish you to shut yourself away as you have been doing. You will grow morbid and dissatisfied with life. I want you to take a healthy interest in it once again."
She had thrown herself on a low cushioned lounge before the bright wood fire. He took a chair beside her. She seemed to lapse into profound thought, and he watched her beautiful grave face with adoring eyes.
"I wish," she said suddenly, "one could live a free, simple, uncriticised life. Do you remember the old days among the wild hills? The cool grey dawns... the sharp sweet air... the long gallops over the rough roads by the rice fields... the strange temples... the songs of the snake-charmers? Ah, we were happy then, Julian, happier than we ever realised."
"May we not be still happier?" he said earnestly. "Life has a graver and a wider meaning, it is true, but that should only give us a deeper power of appreciation."
A strange smile touched her lips; a smile of mystery, and of dreamy, unfathomable regret.
"We shall never be happier," she said, "than we were then. I have always felt that... yes, I know what you would ask. Did I love you then? Yes, Julian, with all my heart and soul... and yet—and yet—I could have been nothing more to you than a sister, a friend. There was a purpose in my marriage."
She ceased speaking. For a moment her eyes closed, her head sank back wearily on the soft cushions.
Presently she opened them, and met his anxious gaze. "No, I did not faint," she said. "But, why I know not, that sense of blankness and dizziness always comes over me when I speak on that subject. There is something I wish, yet dread, to remember—but, just as I am on the point of grasping it, there is a blank."
"Do not speak of that time," he said passionately. "I hate to think you were the wife of that man—it was sacrilege... you—my pure-souled goddess."
"He was a bad man," she said. "But, up to a certain point, I could always escape and defy him. He was a coward at heart, and he was afraid of me."
Then suddenly she stretched out her arm and touched his shoulder with a timid, caressing movement. "You need not be jealous of those years, my beloved," she said softly. "No man would, who knew them and valued them for what they were to me."
He sank on his knees, and folded his arms about her. "Ah, queen of mine," he said, "it is only natural that I should be jealous of the lightest touch, or look, or word, that were once another's privilege. Therein lies the only sting in my happiness—"
"Does not that prove it is of earth—earthly?" she said, as her deep mournful eyes looked back to his own. "I believe, Julian, it would be better, even now, if we were to part. I have always that dread upon my soul, that I am destined to bring you suffering—misfortune—"
"Bring me what you will," he interrupted passionately, "but do not speak of parting! Rather suffering and trial at your hands, oh, my life's love, than the greatest peace and prosperity from any other woman's!"
"I wish you loved me less," she said sadly. "But I am not forbidden to accept your love now; only, I have warned you, do not forget. And now—" she added suddenly: "Put me to sleep... it is so long, so long, since I have known real rest, such as you used to give me."
He rose slowly and stood beside her, as she nestled back amidst her cushions. A strange calm and chill seemed to fold him in its peace, and the throbbing fires of pain and longing died slowly out of vein and pulse. He laid one hand gently on the beautiful white brow; his eyes met hers, and the glance seemed like a command. The lids drooped, the long, soft lashes fell like a fringe on the delicate, flushed cheek. One long, sobbing breath left her lips; then a beautiful serenity and calm seemed to enfold her. Like a statue, she lay there, motionless, stirless; lifeless, one would have thought, save for the faint regular breath that stole forth from the parted lips.
Julian Estcourt stood for a moment in perfect silence by her side. Then he moved away, and, drawing aside the portieres which separated the boudoir from the adjoining room, he called softly to her maid. "Felicie," he said, "your mistress will sleep for two hours; see that she is not disturbed."
Once out in the cool night-air, Julian Estcourt gave the rein to thought and memory. The march of events had been rapid. It seemed difficult to realise that he really stood in the light of an accepted lover to the woman who, but the previous day, he deemed at the other end of the world... difficult to realise that she loved him—and had loved him through all the blank, desolate years of absence and suffering they had both endured.
Her warning came ever and again like a living voice across the fevered train of his thoughts. But he was no whit more inclined to listen to it here, in the calmness and soberness of solitude, than when her own lips had spoken it, and the charm of her own presence had swept away prudence and self-restraint.
"It may not be wise," he said in his heart, "but I have not the strength to deny myself the only happiness I have ever pictured as possible. It is not as if I had frittered away my life on other women—on mere sensual pleasures. From my boyhood up to the present hour her power has been the same—her charm for me the same, I love her. That says all, and yet not half enough. Human nature is weak. I had dreamt of another life—of a higher and nobler field of duty, apart from the selfish joys that are inseparable from mere human ties—but I can yield that dream up without a regret. I can turn back from the threshold I have crossed... May there not be a purpose in our meeting like this—in the prospect of our union? If the time has come to teach, and to speak out boldly what has long been veiled in mysticism and doubt, where could a teacher so eloquent be found, or one whose natural gifts and loveliness could make those teachings of so much weight? and I—I, too, can help and protect her. Our souls need not descend from the spiritual level they have attained—they may meet and touch, and yet expand in the duality of perfect love and perfect comprehension. It is a glorious thought," and he lifted his eyes to the starry heights, that to him held all the mystery of peopled worlds—and were no mere pin-pricks of light, created to illuminate one. "A beautiful thought—God grant it may be realised!"
But even as his eyes rested on the solemn splendour of the heavens—even as the human passions of the senses grew stilled beneath the loftier aspirations of the soul—even as that involuntary prayer sprang from heart to lips, some inner consciousness whispered like a warning voice—"it cannot be."
He started as if that sound were audible. A cold and sudden terror swept over his body like a chilling wind. "Bah," he cried. "What a nervous fool I am! Is this all my love has done for me—made me like a frightened child, starting at shadows?"
He turned abruptly, and went within to seek his own room.
It was just midnight. Lights were being extinguished in the public rooms and corridors—silence and sleep were settling down upon the vast building.
Colonel Estcourt exchanged his evening clothes for the comfort of dressing-gown and slippers, and then threw himself into an easy chair before the fire which was blazing brightly and cheerfully in the grate.
It was the conventional hotel bedroom. A dressing-table stood in the window; the bed, curtained and draped, looked inviting in its corner. A lamp stood on a small table littered with books and papers; an array of pipes and cigar-holders were strewn carelessly on the marble mantelpiece. A sense of brightness and commonplace comfort permeated the atmosphere, and were sensibly soothing after the chill of the cool December night.
He took a cigar from his case and lit it, and threw himself back and smoked at his ease.
As he did so, he heard a clock in the distance strike the quarter after midnight; mechanically he counted the strokes. "She will wake now," he said, half aloud. The sound of his voice startled himself in the stillness of the room. As its echoes died away he glanced nervously round. Then his face paled to the hues of death, his eyes dilated. Midway in the room a veiled misty figure seemed to float—transparent and yet distinct—and he saw its arm stretched out towards himself with a sudden impressive gesture.
He tossed the cigar into the grate, then bent his head as if in submission.
"Is it the summons—at last?" he said, faintly.
If answer there was, it was audible only to himself. To anyone looking on, it only seemed as if a sudden dreamy lassitude had overtaken him; his head sank back against the chair, his eyes closed, his face grew calm and peaceful, and, like a tired child, he fell asleep.
As Julian Estcourt's eyes closed, it seemed to him that with a sudden sharp spasm of pain he tore himself away from that sleeping sentient portion of humanity which was his representation, and then, without effort or consciousness of his own, he seemed floating swiftly along over a dark and misty space. A great sea tossed and moaned beneath him. He felt that someone was beside him, but he had no desire to question its personality. Now and then lights flashed through the dusky shadows which enveloped him, and as they flashed he saw vivid pictures of plains and cities and mountains.
Over one such city, bathed in the clear lucid flame of the full moon, he seemed to pause. He saw bridges, piles of buildings, dark flowing canals, a strange medley of streets, some broad and beautiful, others dark, narrow and pestilential, reeking with the fumes of dram-shops.
There was snow on the ground, sleighs were gliding swiftly to and fro. People spoke but seldom; an air of restraint, of fear, of rebellion impressed him, as the furtive glances and brief whispers became pregnant with meaning.
Gradually, as he moved through the hurrying crowd, he was conscious of a name constantly on their lips. It was muttered by the voices of tipsy men reeling from their vile dens of intoxication, by the lips of painted women as they drew their furs around their tawdry finery, by the artisans with their pinched faces and hungry eyes, by all the classes to whom life is a bitter struggle with poverty and necessity.
To and fro he seemed to move, without haste, and yet with the rapidity of thought. In the magnificence of gilded saloons, in the snow-covered street, in the haunts of poverty and vice, always and always that one word was tossed to and fro in every accent of hate and opprobrium. And when in wonder he turned to the shape floating still beside him, and would have questioned the meaning of that word, it stayed the question on his lips with a mute gesture of silence.
Then, strange to say, he seemed to gather into his own consciousness a sense of deep implacable hatred. A hatred that thrilled the air as with poisoned breath, and beat in the pulses of living men to whom existence was brutalised by tyranny and vice. The sense of this awful murderous Hate, at last grew terrible as a burden, so fully and consciously did he recognise it, so clearly did he see of what it was capable, and so mysteriously did it seem to breathe about the very air through which he moved.
It filled the pulses of the night with a horror from which he shrank aghast, it stretched a blood-red hand over the white drifts of unsullied snow, it painted out the brilliant hues of luxury, and threw yet darker shadows over the sad homes of want and misery and crime.
And more and more he strained every nerve to catch the meaning of that word which was its embodiment, and again and again he failed.
Suddenly the scene changed. He was in a poor chamber, barely and miserably furnished. It lay in the centre of a pile of buildings facing a half-frozen canal. It seemed to him that the building consisted of hosts of small tenements, all swarming with human life, but he had passed up the common stairway seemingly unnoticed, and entered this special room.
It was tenanted by two people. An old woman of some three-score years, with a thin worn face and grey hair banded over her hollow temples. She was thinly clad, and had an old tippet of yellow fur over her shoulders. She sat near the stove. Before her stood a young man in the dress of a Petersburg student. They were talking low and earnestly. Again that word reached him, again the full sense of its meaning eluded his grasp.
Suddenly the comprehension of the scene became clear to him. He saw they were mother and son, that he was relating some incident to her with a suppressed enthusiasm that yet made itself audible in his deep, thrilling tone, and visible in the glow and sparkle of his eye.
"She is an angel," he said at last. "We do well to trust her—but what a risk, think of it, mother—five hundred lives, and only a few hours to decide their fate."
The woman's face grew white, her feeble limbs shivered as with an ague fit. "My son," she moaned, "my only one—and you, too, may be sacrificed. Oh, unhappy country, unhappy fate that makes it ours! But you are right. The Princess is an angel of goodness; she will save us. She has said it."
They both turned involuntarily towards a small image, before which a lamp burned. He saw them kneel hand in hand before it; then the room faded into darkness—he was in another place now.
A sense of luxury, of perfume, of dreamy warmth, and then he saw, opening before him in a vista of exquisite colour, a suite of softly lighted chambers. They seemed to glow like jewels, each perfect in the richness and loveliness of its setting, and at the farthest end of one of them a woman reclined on a couch of white furs. She was wrapped in a loose gown of thick white silk, bordered also with snowy fur, and her lovely hair was unbound, and fell in a long trail of dusky splendour over the colourless purity of her surroundings.
Her eyes were wide open, and full of a fear that was almost horror, and, as if to account for it, he seemed suddenly to hear, coming through the fragrant stillness of those virginal chambers, the dull heavy step of a man. She raised herself on one lovely bare arm, her hand went to her heart, then slowly her eyes were upraised as if in some dumb prayer for strength. A strange frozen calm came over the perfect features. The face looked as if carved in marble.
Nearer and nearer came the heavy step, reeling and uncertain now, yet stumbling with drunken obstinacy towards some goal to which the leaden senses pointed their brutal desires.
Up to this time, Julian Estcourt had only been conscious of a passive blind submission to the force controlling him; but now power seemed to thrill him, desire seemed struggling to life, the will awakened from its lethargy, and a god-like strength and force seemed to spring into life, held in check but for a moment, as the increased vigilance of sense bade him watch yet a little longer.
With breath reeking of drink, with bloodshot eyes and reeling step, the satyr entered. Yet so great was the spell and charm of that womanly purity and dauntless pride, that even lust and tyranny sank abashed on the threshold, and a certain shame and hesitancy were visible in the flushed face and bloodshot eyes.
"Why are you here?" asked the woman calmly. "Have you mistaken your way?"
"No,"—and the intruder advanced with sudden boldness. "I have come to ask if you are still of the same mind—still intent on destroying your friends." His laugh rang out mockingly. "Fine friends truly for a Princess Zairoff. I gave you till to-night—come, which is to be sacrificed—your womanly scruples, or the five hundred lives you have fooled into security?"
Then she sprang to her feet, a statue no longer, but a living, passionate woman.
"I have borne enough," she cried. "Beware how you tempt the power that has been strong enough to keep me from you all these years. Beware, too, how, once again, you stain your soul with innocent blood. Thousands of voices are crying against you even now. Thousands of years of suffering on your part will not avail to buy you peace in the future. I have prayed for these unfortunates, I have begged their lives at your hands on my very knees. Do not tempt me too far. I say again—you do not know what it is you do."
He laughed brutally. "I know," he said, "that you shall pay for their lives, or sacrifice them. I have waited long enough. I am sick of hearing men rave about your beauty, and feeling that that beauty is no more to me than if I were a beggar at my own gates."
"Do you forget," she said solemnly, "the compact we made? I am not at any man's choice, or disposal. My life has a mission to accomplish, and you, with all your brutal desires and evil passions, cannot turn that life from its destined purpose. Do not forget the warnings you have already received."
So beautiful she looked, standing there in her floating, snowy draperies, with her solemn, mysterious eyes fixed upon that sullen, lowering face. Beautiful and mysterious as some vestal priestess defending the secrets of her Order. But that beauty, for once, seemed less to subjugate than to inflame the evil desires of that lower nature to which it was bound.
"I will listen no more to vague threats," he said fiercely. "I have paid a heavy enough price for you. I mean to enjoy my purchase. See, here is the list—they are fairly trapped—a word from you and they are safe—these impatient fools. Keep silence—and the knout, the mines, the slow torturing death of Siberia, awaits them all. Now, once again— your answer?"
He drew nearer—his eyes aflame—his arms outstretched.
Then a change, wild and fearful, as that of the tropical tornado to a southern landscape, swept over that lovely form.
Her eyes flashed, her figure seemed to dilate. Slowly she raised her arm and stretched it towards that brutal ravisher...
Struggling, panting, tearing, as it were, against a power that bade him hearken to that terrible answer, Julian Estcourt cried or seemed to cry aloud in an agony of entreaty.
Then a rushing noise as of an unloosed torrent was in his ears; a dull, confused pain beat like clanging hammers in his brain.
His eyes opened and he found himself, bathed in the cold sweat of more than mortal terror, lying face downwards on the floor of his own bedroom.
In a blind, dazed fashion he struggled to his feet and rushed to the window and let the cool night air blow over his face. Every limb was trembling; he could not think with any clearness.
In some dim, unconscious fashion he groped for his watch, found it, and looked at the time. A quarter-past one. Only an hour had passed—an hour—and he felt as if centuries had swept over his head in the vivid horrors of that awful dream.
"But it was only a dream," he cried aloud, drawing in deep panting breaths of the pine-scented air. "Oh! thank God. Thank God, it was only a dream!"
And he sank on his knees and sobbed like a child in the star-lit solitude of the night.
The next day, when Colonel Estcourt sent to know if the Princess Zairoff would receive him, he was informed she was ill, and could see no one.
Feeling strangely disinclined for mere ordinary society, he ordered his horse to be brought round and spent the greater portion of the day in long, fierce gallops over the miles of stretching sand that framed in the bay.
The sky was chill and grey; a cold wind blew from the sea and dashed the salt foam in his face as the waves swept stormily in. But the dull sky and the stormy sea suited his mood, and seemed to string up the relaxed tension of his nerves.
"Nature is man's best physician after all," he said to himself, reining in his beautiful Arab at last, and baring his brow to the fresh breeze. "Even as she is his best friend. Only we don't believe it. We live in the world and follow the ways of the world, until our faculties are blunted, our natures demoralised, our tastes vitiated, our energies enfeebled. How many lands I have travelled over, how many cities I have seen, and yet I verily believe that the wild Sioux in his prairies, and the wandering Bedouin of the desert, have more of real manhood than we. Yes; and get more real enjoyment out of life."
It was quite dusk before he reached the hotel. The country was all new and strange to him, and he had missed his way more than once. But though he was tired, and stiff, and hungry, he felt that his mental energies were braced, his mind at ease, and the disturbing and torturing memories of the previous night no longer tormented him.
At dinner he sat next to Mrs Ray Jefferson, who was radiant and voluble as ever.
She had a great deal to say about the Princess, who, it appeared, had again spent the morning in the Baths.
"She looked ill," said the little American. "Awfully white and languid. I asked her if she had seen a ghost. There was something scared and strange about her. I surmise it's nerves. It was odd, too," and she lowered her voice as if taking the Colonel into a special confidence. "But she went off to sleep in the hot room. Nothing could waken her. I got rather frightened."
His face looked disturbed. "To sleep?" he said. "That is rather unusual, is it not?"
"Oh, plenty of us go to sleep in the cooling-room," said Mrs Jefferson, "but I never saw anyone do it in any of the others. She was talking to me, and then quite suddenly she said 'I feel sleepy. Please do not speak. I shall wake in a quarter of an hour.' And so she did."
"You did not try to waken her, I suppose?" asked Colonel Estcourt anxiously.
"Well, I did, but it was no use, so I let her be. I saw she was all right, because she breathed naturally, and her heart beat quite regularly. Still, it seemed odd. I asked her maid afterwards about it. She's a pretty little Frenchwoman, and always waits in the cooling-room for her mistress. But she didn't seem to think anything of it. She said she very often does that, and it is best not to try and waken her. I must say she seemed much better afterwards. Brighter and more alert. What a lovely creature she is!" she added enthusiastically. "I suppose you know you're the most envied person in the hotel at this present moment?"
He smiled, but his face still looked anxious and disturbed.
"Because I have the privilege of being her friend?" he said. "Well, I am not going to deny that it is a privilege—a most enviable one."
"I should think," said Mrs Jefferson meaningly, "it is also one that has its dangers."
The calm grey eyes met her sharp inquisitive glance, but were utterly unrevealing.
"I will not affect to misunderstand you," he said, "but there are men who covet danger for its own sake. They may seem foolhardy, but they are only accountable to themselves for the risks they run."
"Well," said Mrs Jefferson warmly, "I'm only a woman, and yet if it's possible to fall in love with one of my own sex, I've done it. She's perfectly charmed me. I can't get her out of my head for a single moment. It's not only her wonderful beauty, but her mind. As for our poet," she added, laughing, "he's quite gone. He's done nothing all day but moon about under the pine trees. Writing sonnets, I guess, and hoping to catch a glimpse of her. All useless—she's not left the hotel to-day, and I suppose she'll not favour us to night."
Colonel Estcourt was silent. Conversation was more or less general, but it sounded vague and unmeaning to him. He heard a voice on his left holding forth with energy, but he did not heed it until Mrs Jefferson touched his arm and whispered an entreaty.
"Do listen," she said, "it's Diogenes. Isn't he coming out? I surmise it's her influence. You remember last night?"
"An atheist," said the dogmatic voice of the individual who had given that common-sense view of spiritualism the previous evening, "must be a fool of the most complete type. Because he doubts what men teach of God, is no reason for doubting the existence of God. I grant that the Reverend John Smith, with his high-falutin' trappings of Ritualism on one side, and the Reverend Josiah Stiggins, with his coarse and commonplace familiarity with the Almighty (whose personality he has the effrontery to expound as if he were discussing the characteristics of an ordinary mortal), on the other, are enough to drive hundreds of people out of the pale of Christianity, and force them to take refuge in defiance and opposition. But, all the same, the expectation of another life is a rooted belief in the minds of all men, quite apart from religion. Even the savage has it. If we call it human nature to eat, drink, fight, love, or desire, it must also be human nature that gives universal assent to this idea of an after existence. The fact of finding it in all races is but a proof that Man is the creation of a Power that intends him for a far wider range of existence than he sees before him. There are many things affirmed by man's consciousness that he cannot really or logically explain. Yet it is a narrow reasoning that bids us reject the inexplicable."
"Yet you reject spiritualism," said Mrs Jefferson quickly.
"Not at all, my dear madam. I only reject the humiliating and degrading trickery that is its sensational form. I only repeat what I said yesterday, that no lofty or educated mind could do anything but resent the idea of being subjugated to a mere material will, and being forced by that will to perform conjuring tricks in order that a small portion of the civilised world should gape, and gaze, and cry out 'How wonderful!' To deny that spirits exist, aye and work, would be to deny the very crudest faith in Christianity."
"There is no doubt," said Colonel Estcourt, "that everything is explicable, but we must wait for the growth and development of our higher natures before we can comprehend half the mysteries of the higher life. The great fault of the materialist and the scientist is, that they would fain bring everything down to the level of their present comprehension, instead of patiently waiting the completion of their future spiritual forces. It is quite evident that we are not meant to attain our full mental stature on the earth-plane, or what would be left to achieve in the countless ages of immortality? Man believes in immortality and yet seems to contemplate it as a state of stagnation and quiescence. Why he believes in it he cannot fully explain. It is, as you said before, a consciousness given to the races of humanity, but no more capable of commonplace analysis than time, or space, or thought."
"The beautiful is as the cloud that floats in radiant space," murmured the poet. "The very vagueness of form permits the eye to clothe it in the loveliest tints of Fancy."
"Now that's what I call rational," murmured Mrs Jefferson in Colonel Estcourt's ear. "Do you think he knows what he means. I guess he don't... Gracious!"
She started, and suddenly grasped his arm. "Look," she said, "there's the princess in the doorway. Is she coming in? No! She's moving away. I believe she's going into the drawing-room after all. Did you see her?"
"No," said Colonel Estcourt. "Are you sure it was the princess?"
His face looked strangely pale. She saw that his hand trembled as he laid down his knife on the plate before him.
"Sure?" exclaimed Mrs Jefferson, with asperity. "Of course I'm sure! It's not easy to mistake her, I fancy. I can't think why you didn't catch sight of her. She just looked in as she passed, I suppose."
"No doubt," he said. But the gravity and uneasiness of his face deepened.
Just then one of the waiters paused beside Mrs Jefferson's chair. She turned eagerly to him. "Watson," she said, "just oblige me by going to the drawing-room and finding out if Madame Zairoff is there. I guess," she added laughingly to Colonel Estcourt, "that I'm not going to waste my time over thirteen courses if she is."
Still he did not speak, and his unusual pallor and gravity began to affect the lively little American woman. She helped herself to truffled pheasant, and became absorbed in gastronomical duties.
Two or three minutes passed, when the man who had gone on her errand returned. She glanced eagerly up.
"Madame Zairoff is not in the drawing-room," he said in a low voice. "I met her maid on the stair-case, and she says that madame is not well enough to leave her apartments this evening."
"But, good gracious me," began Mrs Jefferson, with angry impatience. "I saw—"
"Hush," said Colonel Estcourt in a low, impressive voice. "Oblige me by saying nothing about it. Remember, I too was looking in the same direction, yet I saw—nothing."
Mrs Jefferson dropped her knife and fork and stared at him.
"Now, Colonel," she said, "am I in my senses, or am I not? I've only had iced water to drink. I believe I'm a commonplace person eating a commonplace, though very excellent, dinner. Nothing's been playing tricks with my nerves I can swear, and I do assure you that the Princess Zairoff stood there in that doorway and looked in here, not five minutes ago. Why, I'll even tell you the gown she had on. It was thick white silk and had a border of soft-looking white fur. There!" she added triumphantly. "You may go up to her rooms after dinner, and if she hasn't got that gown on, and if she didn't come by that doorway—well— I'll say I've gone stark staring mad! That's so!"
Just as the ladies had left the dining-room, a note was put into Colonel Estcourt's hand.
He opened it and read the two brief lines it contained. "I will see you in my boudoir when you have finished dinner."
He pushed aside the glass he had just filled and left the table at once.
He knocked at the door of her room, and the low, sweet voice that bade him enter, thrilled his heart with its accustomed sorcery. He opened the door, but as he stepped across the threshold, he suddenly paused, and for a moment it seemed to him that his heart ceased to beat. Was it only chance that reproduced the dream-scene of the previous night, for the suite of rooms were thrown open, and through the delicate amber tints of the satin hangings gleamed the faint rose-hue of lamplight, paling into opal in the farthest chamber but giving to all the soft and glowing colouring he remembered so well. Swiftly as his eyes took in the picture, they seemed also to take in the lovely figure reclining among soft snowy furs, robed in colourless silk bordered with the same fur.
She raised herself on her arm as he approached. "I have not treated you well to-day, Julian," she said. "But I have been ill—nervous— disturbed. I slept badly, and had terrible dreams. You must forgive me."
He bent over the extended hand and touched it with his lips.
"You are cold," she said. "What is the matter?"
"I too, had a terrible dream," he said. "I suppose the effects are still upon me." Then he looked calmly and fixedly at her.
"You were downstairs a few moments ago," he said. "Why?"
She looked surprised. "Did you see me?" she asked.
He shook his head. "No," he said. "It was your American friend."
Her face grew thoughtful. "Then the power is coming back," she said. "I wonder why."
He seated himself beside her. "Of course," he said, "it was not really yourself?"
"I have not left this couch for three hours," she said. "All the same, I wanted to have a peep at you all."
"I hope you will not exercise that power too frequently," he said. "You know I never liked it."
"I know," she said, smiling up at his grave face, "that you were always afraid I should not come back from my flights, but I always do. They send me—very much against my will—still, I must obey."
She sighed. Then after a moment she put out her hand with a caressing little gesture. "What was your terrible dream?" she said. "I see it is troubling you still. You are distrait and absent. Tell me."
He touched the white hand with his lips.
"I would rather not," he said, "because you were concerned in it, and it seemed as if you were trying to reveal something or show me something that I dreaded to see. It was in fighting against seeing it that I awoke."
She started from her reclining position and fixed her eyes on his face. "Julian," she cried, in a sudden breathless way, "was it—was it?—No." She broke off and wrung her hands helplessly. "It has escaped me again. I cannot remember. Oh, that I could! It tortures me so. Julian—" and she looked at him appealingly. "You must help me—you must bring it back. I will not wed you till that mystery is solved. Something warns me against it."
"My dearest," he said soothingly, "do not excite yourself in this fashion. It can make no difference to me that there should be mystery or tragedy in your past life. Have I not always loved you? Have we not chosen the same path in life, only now we shall tread it side by side, not one far in advance of the other? The infinite delight of that companionship shall not be marred by any memories of the past. If I am content to let it rest, surely you may be."
She drew herself away. Her deep strange eyes looked coldly and yet mournfully back to his yearning gaze.
"You were never a coward, Julian," she said. "What is it you fear now?"
He threw himself on his knees by her side and buried his face in the soft white furs. She saw that he was trembling greatly. "I cannot tell," he said hoarsely. "Would to God that I could! But if you should change, if you should repent—Oh! to lose your love now would kill me!"
She laid her hand on his bowed head. "Rest assured you shall not lose that," she said in her low thrilling voice. "No, Julian, that is not the danger—it threatens me, not you. There will be no change on my part, not so far as my love is concerned. Will that assurance satisfy you?"
"You need not ask that, beloved? But why disturb our peace? If I am content—"
"There must be no secret between your soul and mine," she said solemnly. "For what, think you, is your power granted, but that I may answer to it, that I may lead you on the road—and that you, for me, may throw open the portals?"
"In the future," he said eagerly, "I am content to do your will. But not now—not to draw the veil from our buried miseries. Let them be as dead things—out of sight and mind."
"You know," she said, "that nothing dies—not a life, or an act, or a thought. You may put the past out of sight, but it lives still—lives in its hidden crimes, its secret sins, its evil and its good—lives to haunt and shape our future, let that future dream as it will of forgetfulness."
He rose from his knees, his face was still pale, but his eyes glowed like living fire.
"When will you wed me, Estarah?" he asked, abruptly.
The soft colour flushed her cheek. Her eyes drooped.
"My heart is yours," she said. "My life lives but in the shadow of your own. Why should I withhold—this poor gift?"
She placed her hand in his, and let him draw her to his heart. "I will wed you when you will," she said, "but only if you yield to my condition. It is an easy one, Julian. Why do you fear?"
Ah—why? He could not answer that question to his own heart, much less to hers. He could not paint the shuddering horror which had forced him to veil his eyes and shrink aghast from that last scene in his Dream.
Yet when he looked down on her in her pure womanly beauty, and felt the clinging tenderness of her arms, and knew that among all the world of men who had worshipped and wooed her, he alone had kept his place and awakened a response of tenderness, he felt his heart thrill and glow with sudden strength and pride.
"It shall be as you wish," he said. "On the night that heralds our bridal morn, I promise, if my power be still the same, that I will do your bidding."
She lifted her face. It was radiant with a strange mysterious joy. "At last," she said, brokenly—"at last I shall know. Every page of my life will be clear. Heart to heart, soul to soul, so we shall stand, oh, beloved! You and I, with senses purified, with no secret unshared, with spirits unfettered and souls at rest, so shall we greet our bridal morn. For this did I brave the ordeal, for this have I faced almost the bitterness of death—but the trial is almost over—the goal is almost reached. Go, now, my life's beloved, lest indeed my heart should break beneath its weight of joy! Go; but fear not. I am yours for ever in the life we know, and in the deep Unknown beyond I shall claim you still!"
THE DREAM INTERPRETED.
For some days no one in the hotel saw the Princess Zairoff. But her influence seemed to have left a distinct impression, judging from the run on Buddhist literature at the different circulating libraries of the town. The "Occult World", "Isis Unveiled," and "Esoteric Buddhism" were in great demand; so were various works on Mesmerism, Clairvoyance, and Occult Science.
The poet plunged into "Zanoni," which he had read in the days of his boyhood as one reads a fairy-tale, and he and Mrs Ray Jefferson, being the greatest enthusiasts, held long and learned and quite unintelligible discussions over these mysterious subjects, with a view to being able to hold their own with the beautiful proselytiser when she should deign to come amongst them all once more.
The weather had changed, and kept the invalids indoors, so there was plenty of time for "serious reading," as Mrs Jefferson called it.
They took to calling the Princess "the Eastern mystery," and were quite certain that she must be gifted with abnormal powers. Mrs Jefferson related the story of her appearance in the doorway, her belief in it having long since been substantiated by Colonel Estcourt's reluctant admission that the Princess was certainly attired in a white silk gown, bordered and trimmed with white fur, when he went up to her rooms that evening.
Mrs Masterman alone held out, and scoffed audibly at the mystic literature, and what she called the "insane jabber" that went on in the drawing-room every evening.
"Psychic phenomena, indeed!" the worthy lady would snort. "Don't talk to me about such rubbish! It's just as bad as the mediums and the slate writers."
"Dear madam," pleaded the gentle voice of the enamoured poet, "do not, I pray you, confound these great mysteries with the strain of Human Error running through their attempted explanation—an explanation only intended to bring them down to the level of our material understandings. Let me persuade you to read that most exquisite poem 'The Light of Asia.'"
"Light of your grandmother!" exclaimed Mrs Masterman with sublime contempt.
"I fear," lamented the poet, "it never was granted to her. She lived in a benighted age. She had not our privileges."
"And a very good thing too," said the purple-visaged dowager wrathfully. "Privileges indeed! Fine privileges, if honest, sober-minded Christians are to learn the way to Heaven from heathens and idolaters. You are all just as bad as those people Saint Paul speaks of, who were always running after some new thing. I'm happy to say my Bible and my Church are good enough for me. I don't want a new religion at my time of life."
"The teachers in the Church are so very frequently our intellectual inferiors," murmured the poet, "that they only excite commiseration, or amusement."
"Well, I suppose they know their business," snapped Mrs Masterman, "I'm sure no man would go into the Church if he didn't feel a call, and the fact of his doing so and taking up that life should be enough to prevent any right-minded person from ridiculing mere human frailties of voice and manner and appearance."
"Unfortunately," murmured the poet, "I have been at college with several embryo parsons. But to the best of my recollection the only 'special' call they had for the office was the call of some earthly relative or friend who had a comfortable living at his disposal. It seems to me—I may be wrong, of course—but it really does seem to me that we have quite reversed the old order of religious ministration. At first every worldly consideration, even the necessaries of life, were given up by those who undertook the office. Now, the office is only undertaken for the worldly considerations, and the necessities of life—"
"Oh," cried Mrs Masterman, losing her temper, which even at the best of times was exceedingly hard to keep. "You go off, young man, to your 'Lights of Asia,' and all your other idolatrous rubbish. The truth is this foreign woman has bewitched you all, and will end in making you heathens like herself. Thank goodness I've too much sense to listen to her. It's my belief she'll turn out a murderess, or a fire worshipper, or something of that sort before we've seen the last of her. I don't like mysterious persons! If she hadn't had big eyes, and a straight nose, and a figure like those Venuses and creatures who hold the lamps in the corridors, no one here would have troubled their heads about her!"
And she swept away contemptuously, leaving the poet utterly aghast at her last indignant speech. He repeated it to Mrs Ray Jefferson, who was reclining in a rocking-chair, endeavouring to comprehend "The Light of Asia." The endeavour, however, was not very successful, and she hailed the approach of the poet with delight. His account of the conversation filled her with wrath and indignation. The feelings might have been partially due to Mrs Masterman's remembered snubs on the matter of "feet," and "suppressed gout," at the Turkish Bath. They certainly rose strongly to the occasion, and, with the help of sundry powerful Americanisms, gave a very fair display of vituperative eloquence.
The poet was more and more convinced that there was only one perfect woman in the world, and that was the beautiful creature whom he had apostrophised in sonnets as:—
"Mysterious Mystery, whose bright sad eyes, Wild as the roe, and deep with undreamt dreams."
So he listened and sighed, and in a low and plaintive voice, significant of hidden woe and much "soul suffering," to quote from another effusion, he read to her fragments of the "Light of Asia," which she could not in the least comprehend, but which she bluntly criticised as "not half bad to listen to if you felt drowsy."
"Oh, but I do wish the Princess would come down," she said at last in the intervals of a "selection."
"I've such hundreds of questions to ask her. Seems to me she dropped the seed in pretty fruitful soil the other night, for we're all just 'gone' on occultism. Only we don't know anything about it. Ah, there's Colonel Estcourt, I'll ask him if it's possible to have her down this evening. I don't mind which body she comes in: the Astral or the ordinary. In fact, I think I should prefer the former. Colonel!" she called out, raising her voice. "Come here, I want to speak to you."
She put her request to him as he obeyed her summons, and put it with an earnestness and fervour that showed it was sincere, and not the formula of idle curiosity.
"I don't know," he said, "if it will be possible, but, if the princess consents, I will arrange that two or three of you shall have an opportunity of witnessing how really marvellous her powers are. She never makes a display or show of them, for reasons which you cannot yet understand, but, if she consents, I should like you, Mrs Jefferson, and my young friend here (smiling at the poet's excited face), and one or two other people interested in the matter, to come up to her boudoir this evening. I will just send up a note and ask."
"I could just worship you, Colonel," cried the little American, ecstatically. "It's real good of you to offer such a glorious treat to us."
"Do not thank me yet," he said, smiling; "you do not know whether you will be received."
At the same moment there came a sound in the air above their heads— soft, clear, vibrating—like the faint echo of a silver bell.
Mrs Jefferson started, the poet turned pale. Colonel Estcourt looked at them gravely.
"It is the answer," he said. "You may come. She will receive us. Who else do you wish to invite?"
"Oh, my husband, if I may," cried Mrs Jefferson, eagerly, "and Diogenes—he's so solid and sensible. His imagination never plays tricks with him."
"Very well," said Colonel Estcourt, "bring them also."
The Princess Zairoff was seated in her boudoir reading, as the party filed in, headed by Colonel Estcourt.
She rose and greeted them with the same sweet and gracious manner that had so charmed Mrs Jefferson.
"I know why you are here," she said, as the little American burst into vivacious explanations. "I am quite ready to do anything Julian wishes. You know—or, perhaps, you do not know—that he trained my clairvoyante faculties long ago. They are natural to me, I suppose; but you do not require to be told that even natural gifts are capable of training and improving to almost any extent." She turned to Mrs Jefferson. "You have some power," she said, "you saw me the other night. No one else did."
Mrs Jefferson looked highly gratified. "Oh, Madame Zairoff," she cried, "I'd give up everything in the world to have your wonderful gifts."
"Even Worth's gowns?" said the princess, smiling. "What about the pleasant vanities we talked so much about?"
"Oh, bother the vanities. I've found out life can be much more interesting than when it's merely frivolous," said the American, heartily. "Is there anything I could do to become an occultist?"
Colonel Estcourt laughed outright.
"My dear Mrs Jefferson," he said, "the life is not by any means easy, or gratifying. I think you had better consider it carefully, and weigh it well in the balance with the 'creations' of Worth, and the magnificence of your diamonds, for somehow the two things won't pull together, and you haven't even learnt the A B C of occult science yet."
"No," she said, seating herself, "I suppose not. Well, please begin my lesson."
"This will not be a lesson," he said, gravely, "only an illustration. May I ask you all to be seated?"
They took various chairs and seats, and the princess threw herself on the couch, nestling back among her favourite white bear-skins, with a smile on her lips.
Colonel Estcourt removed a rose-shaded lamp from the stand, and placed it behind her, so that the light should not shine directly into her eyes. They were all watching her intently in the full expectation of something to be done or said that was mysterious and awe-inspiring. Colonel Estcourt then seated himself on a chair opposite the couch. For a moment their eyes met and lingered in the gaze, then hers closed softly, and she seemed to sleep as peacefully and gently as a child in its cradle.
No one spoke. Suddenly a voice broke the stillness—clear, sweet, and sonorous—the voice of the sleeper, though her lips scarcely moved, nor did the placid expression of her face change.
"What you desire to know is the storied wisdom of past ages, the fruits of the deepest and most earnest research of which human minds are capable. These fruits have only been gathered after long and painful study, after severe training of every spiritual faculty, and the repression of all lower material inclinations and desires. There is but one among all who listen to me now, capable of undertaking such study, or undergoing such an ordeal. The day is at hand when he may choose it, if he will. They who bid me speak now, are willing that you should learn some lesson to benefit yourselves, and your fellow men. They say to you, oh Poet, 'Perfect those gifts of your higher nature—yet be not of them vainglorious, since, humanly speaking, they are not yours, but lent for a purpose, and the brief space of earth-life.' Look upon every beautiful thought, every gift of expression, as the direction of One who has dowered you with the possibility of opening other eyes to the beauty, and other minds to the understanding of such expression. Remember there is a great truth in your favourite lines that Karma is 'the total of a soul.' 'The things it did, the thoughts it had, the Self it wove, with woof of viewless time, crossed on the warp invisible of acts.'
"There is another listener here—one who has wrestled with the secrets of Nature. To him I say, 'Be not over vain of the triumph gained by simple accident of discovery. Turn that discovery to better uses than the mere amassing of wealth. Let the poor, the sick, the needy, gain health and happiness from your hands, and let their voices bless you for good wrought amongst them. For nothing is so pitiful and so abhorrent, as the worship of wealth, and the selfishness that eats like a corroding poison into the purer metal of the rich man's nature. Your wealth will only bring you happiness in so far as you use it to benefit others less fortunate though equally deserving. It is given you as a trial, not as a reward.'—To you, oh Cynic, this message have I also: 'Your eyes see but through a veil of dulled and vainglorious senses. Some truths you have learned, but in the passage through your mind they take the colour and shape of a distorted and embittered fancy. You have a work to do, and influence to do it; but your will must become humble, and then you will learn the sweets of true knowledge, and be able to disseminate truth and wisdom. Now you absorb it into your own mind, for your own satisfaction, and for the poor triumph of discouraging those of lower mental stature, and of natures lighter and grosser than your own. To the true Prophet and the true Philosopher, he himself is insignificant before the great truths he has learnt, and his personal identity willingly sinks into obscurity, so only that these truths may live.'"
For a moment she ceased, and the different faces looked curiously uncomfortable and startled at so keen a vivisection of their inner natures. Mrs Ray Jefferson, however, feeling that she had been left out in the cold, and anxious for a special message to herself, broke the spell of silence.
"Have you nothing to say to me, Princess?" she asked beseechingly.
Then the beautiful head moved restlessly to and fro, and the face grew less placid and child-like. She began to speak, but now the words came in quick disjointed fragments. "They are standing beside you," she said. "I must go. You may come with us, but not Julian. Keep Julian away... keep Julian away—"
"What does she mean?" cried Mrs Jefferson, turning pale. "And—oh gracious!" she cried to her husband, "look at Colonel Estcourt. Is he going to faint?"
All eyes turned on the Colonel. He lay back on his chair white and gasping. "My God," he cried in a stifled voice. "My power is gone. I can't hold her. I can't keep her back."
"She is speaking again," cried Mrs Jefferson, in low, terrified accents. "Oh, I don't half like this. I wish we had never come."
Then a great awe and stillness fell upon them, and, despite their terror and their dread, every ear strained to catch the quick disjointed words that fell from those strange lips.
"I am there... How still the streets are, and the snow—how fast it falls. How they crowd round the palace gate to-night. Stay the horses, Ivan, I will speak... Do not fear, my friends, your lives are safe. I promise it... What is this? My rooms? How lonely they seem to-night. 'Alone?' Yes, I am always alone. No lover's step has ever echoed through this cloistered silence. Alone and sad. Ah! how I have suffered here... What do they say? It will be over soon, it will be over—soon. One more battle to win. Let me summon all my courage now. I have faced ordeals before. I have forgotten woman's fears, and laid aside woman's scruples. Am I not pure? Am I not brave? Yet why do I tremble? One weakness is still unconquered, one human love burns true and deep and steadfast in my heart. I cannot cast it out. I will not; not even at your bidding; not even to make my task easier.
"A step in the silence... Who dares to cross my chambers? Courage, my heart. There on the threshold stand my White Guard. Why should I fear? Courage! courage—"
Like one carved in stone Julian Estcourt sat and listened. The dumb misery of a terrible expectance held every faculty in its iron grasp. Was his dread to be realised? It seemed so, for all control was gone; a higher power had seized the reins. She had escaped him, and an awful horror was upon him lest he, in his folly and shortsightedness, had assembled these people here only to be witnesses of the degradation of the peerless creature he had so worshipped and so loved.
Spell-bound they sat and listened. The rose-light from the lamps falling upon their white, set faces, and the quivering tension of their silent lips.
The voice of the sleeper went ruthlessly on.
Scene for scene, word for word, Julian Estcourt lived over again through the wild dread and horror of his Dream. Scene for scene, word for word, those wondering startled listeners saw it reproduced, though to them it was scarce intelligible.
At last, she reached the point where his endurance had snapped beneath the strain of terror, but now his every force was numbed—his will seemed paralysed. One feeble helpless effort he made to lock those lips into silence, to chain back the self-betrayal of that unconscious speech. But love had made him weak, and passion had stifled the acute, unerring faculties that once had bent her to his will.
He was powerless. He could only sit there dumbly—stupidly—listening for what he felt was sure as the death stroke of the headsman to his doomed victim. Again she spoke.
"The steps approach—yet what is this? They are no longer on the threshold. I am alone—alone—yet what new power is mine! My brain seems to dilate! Space can scarce confine me! All fear has gone! And it is thus you would have me yield to your brutal force, your drunken, degraded senses! Back, rash intruder, touch me not if you value life!"
Then, while still they gazed and listened, the beautiful figure rose slowly from its nest of snowy furs; rose and stood in its wonderful, indolent, voluptuous grace, upright before those dazed and awe-struck eyes.
But a change came over the quiet beauty of the face. It seemed as if some hidden flame had sprung to life and flashed and quivered in the wide-opened eyes and convulsed features. They saw a shiver, such as shakes the sea before the blast of the coming tempest, bend and sway the perfect form...
Once, twice, her lips opened, but no words came. At last she seemed to force the channels of speech, but the low sweet music of her voice was harsh and jangled with passion.
"My answer? Take it, ravisher and murderer of innocence and youth! Die! in your crimes—Die!"
She stretched out her arm. There came a hoarse cry, a crash, a heavy fall. Julian Estcourt lay upon the floor, white and senseless as the dead.
A severe attack of her "suppressed" enemy, and a nervous headache, the result of the shock of the previous evening, had driven Mrs Ray Jefferson to the Turkish bath as early as ten o'clock the morning after that strange exhibition of Clairvoyance.
She had the rooms all to herself, and as she leant back in her comfortable chair and dabbled her pretty bare feet in warm water; she reflected in a troubled and disjointed fashion over all that had occurred since that eventful morning when the beautiful "mystery" had appeared before her standing in that curtained archway, which indeed looked a prosaic enough portal, and not by any means the sort of threshold for the development of occult science, or psychical marvels.
"She's completely unsettled me," she murmured plaintively. "How I wish I had never gone to her rooms last night. And that poor Colonel Estcourt—I wonder if he'll ever recover—they say he's never moved nor spoken since they took him away last night. I wonder what she really meant, and if she did kill that man she spoke of. I don't think it's possible. I expect she only willed it, and that's not murder. Ugh!" and she shuddered even in the warmth of the hot room where she had selected to go first. "If the story leaks out—though I hope to goodness it won't—how delighted that horrid Mrs Masterman will be. She never liked her. Well I'm—if that isn't the princess herself coming in! Her trance doesn't seem to have hurt her."
Slowly and languidly through the open doorway, the beautiful figure swept in and up to the smaller chamber where sat the little American.
As Mrs Ray Jefferson looked at her, she became conscious of some subtle intangible change that had shadowed, as it were, the marvellous beauty of her face and form. Her large deep eyes had lost their lustre, her clear creamy skin looked dull and opaque. Even the magnificent hair seemed to have been robbed of its sheen, and here and there amidst its masses gleamed a silvery thread.
Up to this moment her age had been a matter of much speculation, varying from eighteen to twenty-six. Now one would have said unhesitatingly that she was a woman of at least thirty years, and a woman who did not carry those years lightly.
She sat down by Mrs Jefferson, and spoke in a low nervous voice. "I knew I should find you here," she said. "I want your help. I think you have always been my friend here. Do me one service. Tell me what occurred in my room last night."
"Do you mean to say?" asked Mrs Jefferson, amazed, "that you don't know?"
"Should I ask if I did?" she said, mournfully. "A great weight and terror are on my soul—yet I cannot explain them. In some of my trances I keep the memory of all I see; in some I lose it. I know nothing of what I said last night after you spoke and I parted from Julian. It was your voice that came between us. You have great psychic power; but it is undeveloped."
"Good gracious!" cried Mrs Jefferson; "then, if I'm responsible for what happened last night, I'll have nothing more to do with Occultism as long as I live."
"I can't tell why it was," resumed the Princess, mournfully. "The chain of communication broke, and I got away, and my great dread was that Julian should suffer."
"Well, your dread is realised," said Mrs Jefferson. "Don't you know he's very ill?"
She started, and grew deadly white. "Ill—Julian! No; I did not know. What is it?—serious do they say?"
"Very. Some shock to the brain. You know he was far from strong. He was only home from India on sick leave."
The princess was silent for a moment. Her face looked inexpressibly mournful. Involuntarily her hand went to her heart, and she looked at Mrs Jefferson with sad, appealing eyes. "I have suffered a great deal," she said, slowly. "I only bore it for his sake—for the hope they gave me that one day we should meet, and love, and taste the happiness of life together. Tell me, was it anything I said or revealed that shocked him?"
"Well—I guess so," said the little American, uneasily. "Of course, to us it was all mysterious; but he seemed to make it out, and at last, when you rose up and stretched out your arm and cried out, 'Die! in your crimes—die!' the Colonel just gave a sort of gasp, and crash went his chair, and he lay there on the floor like a dead creature. We were all finely scared, I can tell you. The odd part was that you went to sleep again like a child, just as simply and quietly as possible, and my husband and the poet, and poor old Diogenes, they got the Colonel to his room, and laid him on the bed, and we sent for a doctor, and he's not conscious yet. That's all I can tell you."
The Princess Zairoff leant back on her chair white and silent. She asked no more questions.
Presently an attendant appeared with obsequious inquiries. The princess suddenly shivered. "Ask them," she said, abruptly, "to bring up the temperature to 300 degrees, I am cold."
"Cold!" Mrs Jefferson stared. "I guess it's as well I came here first," she said, "for certainly I can't stand it 50 degrees hotter than it is at present. I'll go into the second room. You see I'm reversing the usual order this morning. Three, two, one, instead of one, two, three. I'll sit just here by the door, so that we can still talk if you wish. I look like a boiled lobster, I'm sure."
Princess Zairoff said nothing. But when the American had withdrawn, she threw herself down on a couch near the wall. By choosing it she was out of sight of anyone in the adjoining room, though able to converse if she wished.
That she did not wish was very evident. No sooner was she alone than an expression of intense anguish came over her face. Her hands locked themselves together, an agony far beyond the weakness of tears was in her beautiful eyes.
"I have lost him," she cried, in a stifled whisper. "Lost him for ever... and it was for this we were brought together... For this I was commanded to learn the secret of my failure. Yes, I, who thought myself so wise, have failed... Failed at the crucial test, because my passions governed me... because my heart was weak, for sake of love... Oh, my lost strength—my lost self-restraint... Must I again tread the weary road... and only overcome to fail again?"
She turned aside and hid her face in her hands, while all that dusky veil of rippling hair fell over her like a cloud.
"I am so human still," she moaned—"so human that, woman-like, I deceived myself, and dreamt of love perfected here, when I might have known—I might have known... But, oh, to lose him thus! To stand before his eyes shamed, sin-stricken, criminal—I cannot bear that—it is beyond my strength..."
A new fierce passion seemed suddenly to take possession of her soul. She raised herself once more, and the old lovely light and splendour glowed in her eyes.
"There is but one way to win his forgiveness," she cried breathlessly. "He will pity me then... his heart will soften... he will remember what I said on that strange happy night when once again we met... I am but a woman who loves. Earth holds no weaker thing... and I loved you, Julian... you only—you alone! always—always—always. Men live for love—a woman can but die. For the life I took I give my own—it is just... Yet if but once, oh, beloved, I could see your pitying eyes, and hear your tender voice... and know that you—forgave..."
The light faded from her face once more. Only a hunted, despairing creature leaned back on that solitary couch.
A voice came shrilly from the outer room: "Are you all right, Princess? Can you really bear that heat?"
Monotonously—vaguely—her own voice replied: "I am all right—I do not even feel the heat."
Then, all again grew still, and her eyes closed, and her heart beat in a dull, laboured way.
Once more the shrill voice reached her; but it sounded far off, and indistinct: "I hope you won't go off to sleep, like you did the last time, Princess; you frightened me terribly."
The effort to reply was harder to make; yet once again the slow, sweet voice vibrated through the hushed and stifling heat:
"I shall not sleep—do not be alarmed."
Five minutes later, when Mrs Ray Jefferson lifted her eyes from an examination of her suffering foot, she was surprised to see the Princess standing in the archway of the further room, exactly as she had done on the first occasion of her visiting the Baths.
"Are you going?" she called out. "How is it I never saw you pass through the room?"
There was no answer—only the deep, wonderful eyes looked mournfully back at her, and, even as she met the gaze, the form seemed to fade away—the archway was vacant.
With a faint cry, Mrs Jefferson sprang to her feet, and rushed into the inner room. The intense heat stifled, and drove her back; but not before she saw the Princess lying on the couch, where she had left her... lying with closed eyes and folded hands; while on her pale, sad lips a faint smile seemed still to shed its lingering life.
The frantic calls of the terrified woman summoned the attendants. In a moment, that motionless figure was lifted and carried into the adjoining chamber.
But human science and human aid were powerless before a greater Mystery than the Princess Zairoff had embodied. The "Mystery of Death!"