HotFreeBooks.com
The Secret Power
by Marie Corelli
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"For women to love in!" he said, with a sudden warmth in his dark eyes.

She looked at him, laughing.

"You poor Marchese!"—she said—"Still you think of love! I really believe Italians keep all the sentiment of le moyen age in their hearts,—other peoples are gradually letting it go. You are like a child believing in childish things! You imagine I could be happy with a lover—or several lovers! To moon all day and embrace all night! Oh fie! What a waste of time! And in the end nothing is so fatiguing!" She broke off a spray of flowering laurel and hit him with it playfully on the hand. "Don't moon or spoon, caro amico! What is it all about? Do I leave you nothing on which to write poetry? I find you out in Sicily—a delightful poor nobleman with a family history going back to the Caesars!—handsome, clever, with beautiful ideas—and I choose and commission you to restore and rebuild for me a fairy palace out of a half-ruined ancient one, because you have taste and skill, and I know you can do everything when money is no object—and you have done, and are doing it all perfectly. Why then spoil it by falling in love with me? Fie, fie!"

She laughed again and rising, gave him her hand.

"Hold that!" she said—"And while you hold it, tell me of my other palace—the one with wings!"

He clasped her small white fingers in his own sun-browned palm and walked beside her bare-headed.

"Ah!" And he drew a deep breath—"That is a miracle! What we called your 'impossible' plan has been made possible! But who would have thought that a woman—"

"Stop there!" she interrupted—"Do not repeat the old gander-cackle of barbaric man, who, while owing his every comfort as well as the continuance of his race, to woman, denied her every intellectual initiative! 'Who would have thought that a woman'—could do anything but bend low before a man with grovelling humility saying 'My lord, here am I, the waiting vessel of your lordship's pleasure!—possess me or I die!' We have changed that beggarly attitude!"

Her eyes flashed,—her voice rang out—the little fingers he held, stiffened resolutely in his clasp. He looked at her with a touch of anxiety.

"Pardon me!—I did not mean—" he stammered.

In a second her mood changed, and she laughed.

"No!—Of course you 'did not mean' anything, Marchese! You are naturally surprised that my 'idea' which was little more than an idea, has resolved itself into a scientific fact—but you would have been just as surprised if the conception had been that of a man instead of a woman. Only you would not have said so!"

She laughed again,—a laugh of real enjoyment,—then went on—

"Now tell me—what of my White Eagle?—what movement?—what speed?"

"Amazing!" and the Marchese lowered his voice to almost a whisper—"I hardly dare speak of it!—it is like something supernatural! We have carried out your instructions to the letter—the thing is LIVING, in all respects save life. I made the test with the fluid you gave me—I charged the cells secretly—none of the mechanics saw what I did—and when she rose in air they were terrified—"

"Brave souls!" said Morgana, and now she withdrew her hand from his grasp—"So you went up alone?"

"I did. The steering was easy—she obeyed the helm,—it was as though she were a light yacht in a sea,—wind and tide in her favour. But her speed outran every air-ship I have ever known—as also the height to which she ascends."

"We will take a trip in her to-morrow pour passer le temps"—said Morgana, "You shall choose a place for us to go. Nothing can stop us—nothing on earth or in the air!—and nothing can destroy us. I can guarantee that!"

Giulio Rivardi gazed at her wonderingly,—his dark deep Southern eyes expressed admiration with a questioning doubt commingled.

"You are very sure of yourself"—he said, gently. "Of course one cannot but marvel that your brain should have grasped in so short a time what men all over the world are still trying to discover—"

"Men are slow animals!" she said, lightly. "They spend years in talking instead of in doing. Then again, when one of them really does something, all the rest are up in arms against him, and more years are wasted in trying to prove him right or wrong. I, as a mere woman, ask nobody for an opinion—I risk my own existence—spend my own money—and have nothing to do with governments. If I succeed I shall be sought after fast enough!—but I do not propose to either give or sell my discovery."

"Surely you will not keep it to yourself?"

"Why not? The world is too full of inventions as it is—and it is not the least grateful to its inventors or explorers. It would make the fool of a film a three-fold millionaire—but it would leave a great scientist or a noble thinker to starve. No, no! Let It swing on its own round—I shall not enlighten it!"

She walked on, gathering a flower here and there, and he kept pace beside her.

"The men who are working here"—he at last ventured to say—"are deeply interested. You can hardly expect them not to talk among each other and in the outside clubs and meeting-places of the wonderful mechanism on which they have been engaged. They have been at it now steadily for fifteen months."

"Do I not know it?" And she turned her head to him, smiling, "Have I not paid their salaries regularly?—and yours? I do not care how they talk or where,—they have built the White Eagle, but they cannot make her fly!—not without ME! You were as brave as I thought you would be when you decided to fly alone, trusting to the means I gave you and which I alone can give!"

She broke off and was silent for a moment, then laying her hand lightly on his arm, she added—

"I thank you for your confidence in me! As I have said, you were brave!—you must have felt that you risked your life on a chance!—nevertheless, for once, you allowed yourself to believe in a woman!"

"Not only for once but for always would I so believe!—in SUCH a woman—if she would permit me!" he answered in a low tone of intense passion. She smiled.

"Ah! The old story! My dear Marchese, do not fret your intellectual perception uselessly! Think what we have in store for us!—such wonders as none have yet explored,—the mysteries of the high and the low—the light and the dark—and in those far-off spaces strewn with stars, we may even hear things that no mortal has yet heard—"

"And what is the use of it all?" he suddenly demanded.

She opened her deep blue eyes in amaze.

"The use of it?... You ask the use of it?—"

"Yes—the use of it—without love!" he answered, his voice shaken with a sudden emotion—"Madonna, forgive me!—Listen with patience for one moment!—and think of the whole world mastered and possessed—but without anyone to love in it—without anyone to love YOU! Suppose you could command the elements—suppose every force that science could bestow were yours, and yet!—no love for you—no love in yourself for anyone—what would be the use of it all? Think, Madonna!"

She raised her delicate eyebrows in a little surprise,—a faint smile was on her lips.

"Dear Marchese, I DO think! I HAVE thought!" she answered—"And I have observed! Love—such as I imagined it when I was quite a young girl—does not exist. The passion called by that name is too petty and personal for me. Men have made love to me often—not as prettily perhaps as you do!—but in America at least love means dollars! Yes, truly! Any man would love my dollars, and take me with them, just thrown in! You, perhaps—"

"I should love you if you were quite poor!" he interposed vehemently.

She laughed.

"Would you? Don't be angry if I doubt it! If I were 'quite poor' I could not have given you your big commission here—this house would not have been restored to its former beauty, and the White Eagle would be still a bird of the brain and not of the air! No, you very charming Marchese!—I should not have the same fascination for you without my dollars!—and I may tell you that the only man I ever felt disposed to like,—just a little,—is a kind of rude brute who despises my dollars and me!"

His brows knitted involuntarily.

"Then there IS some man you like?" he asked, stiffly.

"I'm not sure!" she answered, lightly—"I said I felt 'disposed' to like him! But that's only in the spirit of contradiction, because he detests ME! And it's a sort of duel between us of sheer intellectuality, because he is trying to discover—in the usual slow, laborious, calculating methods of man—the very thing I HAVE discovered! He's on the verge—But not across it!"

"And so—he may outstrip you?" And the Marchese's eyes glittered with sudden anger—"He may claim YOUR discovery as his own?"

Morgana smiled. She was ascending the steps of the loggia, and she paused a moment in the full glare of the Sicilian sunshine, her wonderful gold hair shining in it with the hue of a daffodil.

"I think not!" she said—"Though of course it depends on the use he makes of it. He—like all men—wishes to destroy; I, like all women, wish to create!"

One or two of the workmen who were busy polishing the rose-marble pilasters of the loggia, here saluted her—she returned their salutations with an enchanting smile.

"How delightful it all is!" she said—"I feel the real use of dollars at last! This beautiful 'palazzo,' in one of the loveliest places in the world—all the delicious flowers running down in garlands to the very shore of the sea-and liberty to enjoy life as one wishes to enjoy it, without hindrance or argument—without even the hindrance and argument of—love!" She laughed, and gave a mirthful upward glance at the Marchese's somewhat sullen countenance. "Come and have luncheon with me! You are the major-domo for the present—you have engaged the servants and you know the run of the house—you must show me everything and tell me everything! I have quite a nice chaperone—such a dear old English lady 'of title' as they say in the 'Morning Post'—so it's all quite right and proper—only she doesn't know a word of Italian and very little French. But that's quite British you know!"

She passed, smiling, into the house, and he followed.



CHAPTER VII

Perhaps there is no lovelier effect in all nature than a Sicilian sunset, when the sky is one rich blaze of colour and the sea below reflects every vivid hue as in a mirror,—when the very air breathes voluptuous indolence, and all the restless work of man seems an impertinence rather than a necessity. Morgana, for once in her quick restless life, felt the sudden charm of sweet peace and holy tranquility, as she sat, or rather reclined at ease in a long lounge chair after dinner in her rose-marble loggia facing the sea and watching the intense radiance of the heavens burning into the still waters beneath. She had passed the afternoon going over her whole house and gardens, and to the Marchese Giulio Rivardi had expressed herself completely satisfied,—while he, to whom unlimited means had been entrusted to carry out her wishes, wondered silently as to the real extent of her fortune, and why she should have spent so much in restoring a "palazzo" for herself alone. An occasional thought of "the only man" she had said she was "disposed" to like, teased his brain; but he was not petty-minded or jealous. He was keenly and sincerely interested in her intellectual capacity, and he knew, or thought he knew, the nature of woman. He watched her now as she reclined, a small slim figure in white, with the red glow of the sun playing on the gold uptwisted coil of her hair,—a few people of the neighbourhood had joined her at dinner, and these were seated about, sipping coffee and chatting in the usual frivolous way of after-dinner guests—one or two of them were English who had made their home in Sicily,—the others were travelling Americans.

"I guess you're pretty satisfied with your location, Miss Royal"—said one of these, a pleasant-faced grey-haired man, who for four or five years past had wintered in Sicily with his wife, a frail little creature always on the verge of the next world—"It would be difficult to match this place anywhere! You only want one thing to complete it!"

Morgana turned her lovely eyes indolently towards him over the top of the soft feather fan she was waving lightly to and fro.

"One thing? What is that?" she queried.

"A husband!"

She smiled.

"The usual appendage!" she said—"To my mind, quite unnecessary, and likely to spoil the most perfect environment! Though the Marchese Rivardi DID ask me to-day what was the use of my pretty 'palazzo' and gardens without love! A sort of ethical conundrum!"

She glanced at Rivardi as she spoke—he was rolling a cigarette in his slim brown fingers and his face was impassively intent on his occupation.

"Well, that's so!"—and her American friend looked at her kindly—"Even a fairy palace and a fairy garden might prove lonesome for one!"

"And boresome for two!" laughed Morgana—"My dear Colonel Boyd! It is not every one who is fitted for matrimony—and there exist so many that ARE,—eminently fitted—we can surely allow a few exceptions! I am one of those exceptions. A husband would be excessively tiresome to me, and very much in my way!"

Colonel Boyd laughed heartily.

"You won't always think so!" he said—"Such a charming little woman must have a heart somewhere!"

"Oh, yes, dear!" chimed in his fragile invalid wife, "I am sure you have a heart!"

Morgana raised herself on her cushions to a sitting posture and looked round her with a curious little air or defiance.

"A heart I MUST have!" she said—"otherwise I could not live. It is a necessary muscle. But what YOU call 'heart'—and what the dear elusive poets write about, is simply brain,—that is to say, an impulsive movement of the brain, suggesting the desirability of a particular person's companionship—and we elect to call that 'love'! On that mere impulse people marry."

"It's a good impulse"—said Colonel Boyd, still smiling broadly—"It founds families and continues the race!"

"Ah, yes! But I often wonder why the race should be continued at all!" said Morgana—"The time is ripe for a new creation!"

A slow footfall sounded on the garden path, and the tall figure of a man clad in the everyday ecclesiastical garb of the Roman Church ascended the steps of the loggia.

"Don Aloysius!" quickly exclaimed the Marchese, and every one rose to greet the newcomer, Morgana receiving him with a profound reverence. He laid his hand on her head with a kindly touch of benediction.

"So the dreamer has come to her dream!" he said, in soft accents—"And it has not broken like an air-bubble!—it still floats and shines!" As he spoke he courteously saluted all present by a bend of his head,—and stood for a moment gazing at the view of the sea and the dying sunset. He was a very striking figure of a man—tall, and commanding in air and attitude, with a fine face which might be called almost beautiful. The features were such as one sees in classic marbles—the full clear eyes were set somewhat widely apart under shelving brows that denoted a brain with intelligence to use it, and the smile that lightened his expression as he looked from, the sea to his fair hostess was of a benignant sweetness.

"Yes"—he continued—"you have realised your vision of loveliness, have you not? Our friend Giulio Rivardi has carried out all your plans?"

"Everything is perfect!" said Morgana—"Or will be when it is finished. The workmen still have things to do."

"All workmen always have things to do!" said Don Aloysius, tranquilly—"And nothing is ever finished! And you, dear child!—you are happy?"

She flushed and paled under his deep, steady gaze.

"I—I think so!" she murmured—"I ought to be!"

The priest smiled and after a pause took the chair which the Marchese Rivardi offered him. The other guests in the loggia looked at him with interest, fascinated by his grave charm of manner. Morgana resumed her seat.

"I ought to be happy"—she said—"And of course I am—or I shall be!"

"'Man never is but always to be blest'!" quoted Colonel Boyd—"And woman the same! I have been telling this lady, reverend father, that maybe she will find her 'palazzo' a bit lonesome without some one to share its pleasures."

Don Aloysius looked round with a questioning glance.

"What does she herself think about it?" he asked, mildly.

"I have not thought at all"—said Morgana, quickly, "I can always fill it with friends. No end of people are glad to winter in Sicily."

"But will such 'friends' care for YOU or YOUR happiness?" suggested the Marchese, pointedly.

Morgana laughed.

"Oh, no, I do not expect that! Nowadays no one really cares for anybody else's happiness but their own. Besides, I shall be much too busy to want company. I'm bent on all sorts of discoveries, you know!—I want to dive 'deeper than ever plummet sounded'!"

"You will only find deeper depths!" said Don Aloysius, slowly—"And in the very deepest depth of all is God!"

There was a sudden hush as he spoke. He went on in gentle accents.

"How wonderful it is that He should be THERE,—and yet HERE! No one need 'dive deep' to find Him. He is close to us as our very breathing! Ah!" and he sighed—"I am sorry for all the busy 'discoverers'—they will never arrive at the end,—and meanwhile they miss the clue—the little secret by the way!"

Another pause ensued. Then Morgana spoke, in a very quiet and submissive tone.

"Dear Don Aloysius, you are a 'religious' as they say—and naturally you mistrust all seekers of science—science which is upsetting to your doctrine."

Aloysius raised a deprecating hand.

"My child, there is no science that can upset the Source of all science! The greatest mathematician that lives did not institute mathematics—he only copies the existing Divine law."

"That is perfectly true"—said the Marchese Rivardi—"But la Signora Royal means that the dogma of the Church is in opposition to scientific discovery—"

"I have not found it so"—said Don Aloysius, tranquilly—"We have believed in what you call your 'wireless telephony'—for centuries;—when the Sanctus bell rings at Mass, we think and hope a message from Our Lord comes to every worshipper whose soul is 'in tune' with the heavenly current; that is one of your 'scientific discoveries'—and there are hundreds of others which the Church has incorporated through a mystic fore-knowledge and prophetic instinct. No—I find nothing upsetting in science,—the only students who are truly upset both physically and morally, are they who seek to discover God while denying His existence."

There followed a silence. The group in the loggia seemed for the moment mesmerised by the priest's suave calm voice, steady eyes and noble expression, A bell rang slowly and sweetly—a call to prayer in some not far distant monastery, and the first glimmer of the stars began to sparkle faintly in the darkening heavens. A little sigh from Morgana stirred the stillness.

"If one could always live in this sort of mood!" she suddenly exclaimed—"This lovely peace in the glow of the sunset and the perfume of the flowers!—and you, Don Aloysius, talking beautiful things!—why then, one would be perpetually happy and good! But such living would not be life!—one must go with the time—"

Don Aloysius smiled indulgently.

"Must one? Is it so vitally necessary? If I might take the liberty to go on speaking I would tell you a story—a mere tradition—but it might weary you—"

A general chorus of protest from all present assured him of their eagerness to hear.

"As if YOU could weary anybody!" Morgana said. "You never do—only you have an effect upon ME which is not very flattering to my self-love!—you make me feel so small!"

You ARE small, physically"—said Don Aloysius—Do you mind that? Small things are always sweetest!"

She flushed, and turned her head away as she caught the Marchese Rivardi's eyes fixed upon her.

"You should not make pretty compliments to a woman, reverend father!" she said, lightly—"It is not your vocation!"

His grave face brightened and he laughed with real heartiness.

"Dear lady, what do you know of my vocation?" he asked—"Will you teach it to me? No!—I am sure you will not try! Listen now!—as you all give me permission—let me tell you of certain people who once 'went with the time'—and decided to stop en route, and are still at the stopping-place. Perhaps some of you who travel far and often, have heard of the Brazen City?"

Each one looked at the other enquiringly, but with no responsive result.

"Those who visit the East know of it"—went on Aloysius—"And some say they have seen a glimpse of its shining towers and cupolas in the far distance. However this may be, tradition declares that it exists, and that it was founded by St. John, the 'beloved disciple.' You will recall that when Our Lord was asked when and how John should die He answered—'If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?' So—as we read—the rumour went forth that John was the one disciple for whom there should be no death. And now—to go on with the legend—it is believed by many, that deep in the as yet unexplored depths of the deserts of Egypt—miles and miles over rolling sand-waves which once formed the bed of a vast ocean, there stands a great city whose roofs and towers are seemingly of brass,—a city barricaded and built in by walls of brass and guarded by gates of brass. Here dwells a race apart—a race of beautiful human creatures who have discovered the secret of perpetual youth and immortality on this earth. They have seen the centuries come and go,—the flight of time touches them not,—they only await the day when the whole world will be free to them—that 'world to come' which is not made for the 'many,' but the 'few.' All the discoveries of our modern science are known to them—our inventions are their common everyday appliances—and on the wings of air and rays of light they hear and know all that goes on in every country. Our wars and politics are no more to them than the wars and politics of ants in ant-hills,—they have passed beyond all trivialities such as these. They have discovered the secret of life's true enjoyment—and—they enjoy!"

"That's a fine story if true!" said Colonel Boyd—

"But all the same, it must be dull work living shut up in a city with nothing to do,—doomed to be young and to last for ever!"

Morgana had listened intently,—her eyes were brilliant.

"Yes—I think it would be dull after a couple of hundred years or so"—she said—"One would have tested all life's possibilities and pleasures by then."

"I am not so sure of that!" put in the Marchese Rivardi—"With youth nothing could become tiresome—youth knows no ennui."

Some of the other listeners to the conversation laughed.

"I cannot quite agree to that"—said a lady who had not yet spoken—"Nowadays the very children are 'bored' and ever looking for something new—it is just as if the world were 'played out'—and another form of planet expected."

"That is where we retain the vitality of our faith—" said Don Aloysius—"We expect—we hope! We believe in an immortal progress towards an ever Higher Good."

"But I think even a soul may grow tired!" said Morgana, suddenly—"so tired that even the Highest Good may seem hardly worth possessing!"

There was a moment's silence.

"Povera figlia!" murmured Aloysius, hardly above his breath,—but she caught the whisper, and smiled.

"I am too analytical and pessimistic," she said—"Let us all go for a ramble among the flowers and down to the sea! Nature is the best talker, for the very reason that she has no speech!"

The party broke up in twos and threes and left the loggia for the garden. Rivardi remained a moment behind, obeying a slight sign from Aloysius.

"She is not happy!" said the priest—"With all her wealth, and all her gifts of intelligence she is not happy, nor is she satisfied. Do you not find it so?"

"No woman is happy or satisfied till love has kissed her on the mouth and eyes!" answered Rivardi, with a touch of passion in his voice,—"But who will convince her of that? She is satisfied with her beautiful surroundings,—all the work I have designed for her has pleased her,—she has found no fault—"

"And she has paid you loyally!" interpolated Aloysius—"Do not forget that! She has made your fortune. And no doubt she expects you to stop at that and go no further in an attempt to possess herself as well as her millions!"

The Marchese flushed hotly under the quiet gaze of the priest's steady dark eyes.

"It is a great temptation," went on Aloysius, gently—"But you must resist it, my son! I know what it would mean to you—the restoration of your grand old home—that home which received a Roman Emperor in the long ago days of history and which presents now to your eyes so desolate a picture with its crumbling walls and decaying gardens beautiful in their wild desolation!—yes, I know all this!—I know how you would like to rehabilitate the ancient family and make the venerable genealogical tree sprout forth into fresh leaves and branches by marriage with this strange little creature whose vast wealth sets her apart in such loneliness,—but I doubt the wisdom or the honour of such a course—I also doubt whether she would make a fitting wife for you or for any man!"

The Marchese raised his eyebrows expressively with the slightest shrug of his shoulders.

"You may doubt that of every modern woman!" he said—"Few are really 'fitting' for marriage nowadays. They want something different—something new!—God alone knows what they want!"

Don Aloysius sighed.

"Aye! God alone knows! And God alone will decide what to give them!"

"It must be something more 'sensational' than husband and children!" said Rivardi a trifle bitterly—"Only a primitive woman will care for these!"

The priest laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.

"Come, come! Do not be cynical, my son! I think with you that if anything can find an entrance to a woman's soul it is love—but the woman must be capable of loving. That is the difficulty with the little millionairess Royal. She is not capable!"

He uttered the last words slowly and with emphasis.

Rivardi gave him a quick searching glance.

"You seem to know that as a certainty"—he said, "How and why do you know it?"

Aloysius raised his eyes and looked straight ahead of him with a curious, far-off, yet searching intensity.

"I cannot tell you how or why"—he answered—"You would not believe me if I told you that sometimes in this wonderful world of ours, beings are born who are neither man nor woman, and who partake of a nature that is not so much human as elemental and ethereal—or might one not almost say, atmospheric? That is, though generated of flesh and blood, they are not altogether flesh and blood, but possess other untested and unproved essences mingled in their composition, of which as yet we can form no idea. We grope in utter ignorance of the greatest of mysteries—Life!—and with all our modern advancement, we are utterly unable to measure or to account for life's many and various manifestations. In the very early days of imaginative prophecy, the 'elemental' nature of certain beings was accepted by men accounted wise in their own time,—in the long ago discredited assertions of the Count de Gabalis and others of his mystic cult,—and I am not entirely sure that there does not exist some ground for their beliefs. Life is many-sided;—humanity can only be one facet of the diamond."

Giulio Rivardi had listened with surprised attention.

"You seem to imply then"—he said—"that this rich woman, Morgana Royal, is hardly a woman at all?—a kind of sexless creature incapable of love?"

"Incapable of the usual kind of so-called 'love'—yes!" answered Aloysius—"But of love in other forms I can say nothing, for I know nothing!—she may be capable of a passion deep and mysterious as life itself. But come!—we might talk all night and arrive no closer to the solving of this little feminine problem! You are fortunate in your vocation of artist and designer, to have been chosen by her to carry out her conceptions of structural and picturesque beauty—let the romance stay there!—and do not try to become the husband of a Sphinx!"

He smiled, resting his hand on the Marchese's shoulder with easy familiarity.

"See where she stands!" he continued,—and they both looked towards the beautiful flower-bordered terrace at the verge of the gardens overhanging the sea where for the moment Morgana stood alone, a small white figure bathed in the deep rose afterglow of the sunken sun—"Like a pearl dropped in a cup of red wine!—ready to dissolve and disappear!"

His voice had a strange thrill in it, and Giulio looked at him curiously.

"You admire her very much, my father!" he said, with a touch of delicate irony in his tone.

"I do, my son!" responded Aloysius, composedly, "But only as a poor priest may—at a distance!"

The Marchese glanced at him again quickly,—almost suspiciously—and seemed about to say something further, but checked himself,—and the two walked on to join their hostess, side by side together.



CHAPTER VIII

Early dawn peered through the dark sky like the silvery light of a pale lamp carried by an advancing watchman,—and faintly illumined the outline of a long, high, vastly extending wooden building which, at about a mile distant from Morgana's "palazzo" ran parallel with the sea-shore. The star-sparkle of electric lamps within showed it to be occupied—and the murmur of men's voices and tinkle of working tools suggested that the occupants were busy. The scarcely visible sea made pleasant little kissing murmurs on the lip-edges of the sand, and Nature, drowsing in misty space, seemed no more than the formless void of the traditional beginning of things.

Outside the building which, by its shape, though but dimly defined among shadows, was easily recognisable as a huge aerodrome, the tall figure of Giulio Rivardi paced slowly up and down like a sentinel on guard. He, whose Marquisate was inherited from many noble Sicilian houses renowned in Caesar's day, apparently found as much satisfaction in this occupation as any warrior of a Roman Legion might have experienced in guarding the tent of his Emperor,—and every now and then he lifted his eyes to the sky with a sense of impatience at the slowness of the sun's rising. In his mind he reviewed the whole chapter of events which during the past three years had made him the paid vassal of a rich woman's fancy—his entire time taken up, and all the resources of his inventive and artistic nature (which were exceptionally great) drawn upon for the purpose of carrying out designs which at first seemed freakish and impossible, but which later astonished him by the extraordinary scientific acumen they displayed, as well as by their adaptability to the forces of nature. Then, the money!—the immense sums which this strange creature, Morgana Royal, had entrusted to him!—and with it all, the keen, business aptitude she had displayed, knowing to a centime how much she had spent, though there seemed no limit to how much she yet intended to spend! He looked back to the time he had first seen her, when on visiting Sicily apparently as an American tourist only, she had taken a fancy to a ruined "palazzo" once an emperor's delight, but crumbling slowly away among its glorious gardens, and had purchased the whole thing then and there. Her guide to the ruins at that period had been Don Aloysius, a learned priest, famous for his archaeological knowledge—and it was through Don Aloysius that he, the Marchese Rivardi, had obtained the commission to restore to something of its pristine grace and beauty the palace of ancient days. And now everything was done, or nearly done; but much more than the "palazzo" had been undertaken and completed, for the lady of many millions had commanded an air-ship to be built for her own personal use and private pleasure with an aerodrome for its safe keeping and anchorage. This airship was the crux of the whole business, for the men employed to build it were confident that it would never fly, and laughed with one another as they worked to carry out a woman's idea and a woman's design. How could it fly without an engine?—they very sensibly demanded,—for engine there was none! However, they were paid punctually and most royally for their labours; and when, despite their ominous predictions, the ship was released on her trial trip, manipulated by Giulio Rivardi, who ascended in her alone, sailing the ship with an ease and celerity hitherto unprecedented, they were more scared than enthusiastic. Surely some devil was in it!—for how could the thing fly without any apparent force to propel it? How was it that its enormous wings spread out on either side as by self-volition and moved rhythmically like the wings of a bird in full flight? Every man who had worked at the design was more or less mystified. They had, according to plan and instructions received, "plumed" the airship for electricity in a new and curious manner, but there was no battery to generate a current. Two small boxes or chambers, made of some mysterious metal which would not "fuse" under the strongest heat, were fixed, one at either end of the ship;—these had been manufactured secretly in another country and sent to Sicily by Morgana herself,—but so far, they contained nothing. They seemed unimportant—they were hardly as large as an ordinary petrol-can holding a gallon. When Rivardi had made a trial ascent he had inserted in each of these boxes a cylindrical tube made to fit an interior socket as a candle fits into a candle-stick,—all the workmen watched him, waiting for a revelation, but he made none. He was only particular and precise as to the firm closing down of the boxes when the tubes were in. And then in a few minutes the whole machine began to palpitate noiselessly like a living thing with a beating heart,—and to the amazement and almost fear of all who witnessed what seemed to be a miracle, the ship sprang up like a bird springing from the ground, and soared free and away into space, its vast white wings cleaving the air with a steady rise and fall of rhythmic power. Once aloft she sailed in level flight, apparently at perfect ease—and after several rapid "runs," and circlings, descended slowly and gracefully, landing her pilot without shock or jar. He was at once surrounded and was asked a thousand questions which it was evident he could not answer.

"How can I tell!" he replied, to all interrogations. "The secret is the secret of a woman!"

A woman! Man's pretty toy!—man's patient slave! How should a woman master any secret! Engineers and mechanics laughed scornfully and shrugged their shoulders—yet—yet—the great airship stared them in the face as a thing created,—a thing of such power and possibility as seemed wholly incredible. And now the creator,—the woman—had arrived,—the woman whose rough designs on paper had been carefully followed and elaborated into actual shape;—and there was a tense state of expectation among all the workers awaiting her presence. Meanwhile the lantern-gleam in the sky broadened and the web of mist which veiled the sea began to lift and Giulio Rivardi, pacing to and fro, halted every now and then to look in the direction of a path winding downward from the mainland to the shore, in watchful expectation of seeing an elfin figure, more spiritlike than mortal, floating towards him through the dividing vapours of the morning. The words of Don Aloysius haunted him strangely, though his common sense sharply rejected the fantastic notions to which they had given rise. She,—Morgana Royal,—was "not capable" of love, the priest had implied,—and yet, at times—only at times,—she seemed eminently lovable. At times,—again, only at times—he was conscious of a sweeping passion of admiration for her that well-nigh robbed him of his self-control. But a strong sense of honour held him in check—he never forgot that he was her paid employe, and that her wealth was so enormous that any man presuming too personally upon her indulgence could hardly be exonerated from ulterior sordid aims. And while he mused, somewhat vexedly, on all the circumstances of his position, the light widened in the heavens, showing the very faintest flush of rose in the east as an indication of the coming sun. He lifted his eyes....

"At last!" he exclaimed, with relief, as he saw a small gliding shadow among shadows approaching him,—he figure of Morgana so wrapped in a grey cloak and hood as to almost seem part of the slowly dispersing mists of the morning. She pushed back the hood as she came near, showing a small eager white face in which the eyes glittered with an almost unearthly brightness.

"I have slept till now,"—she said—"Imagine!—all night through without waking! So lazy of me!—but the long rest has done me good and I'm ready for anything! Are you? You look very solemn and morose!—like a warrior in bronze! Anything gone wrong?"

"Not that I am aware of"—he replied—"The men are finishing some small detail of ornament. I have only looked in to tell them you are coming."

"And are they pleased?"

"Madama, they are not of a class to be either pleased or displeased"—he said—"They are instructed to perform certain work, and they perform it. In all that they have been doing for you, according to your orders, I truly think they are more curious than interested."

A streak of rose and silver flared through the sky flushing the pallor of Morgana's face as she lifted it towards him, smiling.

"Quite natural!" she said—"No man is ever 'interested' in woman's work, but he is always 'curious.' Woman is a many-cornered maze—and man is always peeping round one corner or another in the hope to discover her—but he never does!"

Rivardi gave an almost imperceptible shrug.

"Never?" he queried.

"Never!" she affirmed, emphatically—"Don't be sarcastic, amico!—even in this dim morning light I can see the scornful curve of your upper lip!—you are really very good-looking, you know!—and you imply the same old Garden of Eden story of man giving away woman as a wholly incomprehensible bad job! Adam flung her back as a reproach to her Creator—'the woman thou gavest me;'—oh, that woman and that apple! But he had to confess 'I did eat.' He always eats,—he eats everything woman can give him—he will even eat HER if he gets the chance!" She laughed and pointed to the brightening sky. "See? ''Tis almost morning!' as Shakespeare's Juliet remarked—but I would not 'have thee gone'—not unless I go also. Whither shall we fly?"

He looked at her, moved as he often was by a thrill of admiration and wonder.

"It is for you to decide"—he answered—"You know best the possibilities-and the risks—-"

"I know the possibilities perfectly,"—she said—"But I know nothing of risks—there are none. This is our safety"—and she drew out from the folds of her cloak, two small packets of cylindrical form—"This emanation of Nature's greatest force will keep us going for a year if needful! Oh man!—I do not mean YOU particularly, but man generally!—why could you not light on this little, little clue!—why was it left to a woman! Come!—let us see the White Eagle in its nest,—it shall spread its wings and soar to-day—we will give it full liberty!"

The dawn was spreading in threads of gold and silver and blue all over the heavens, and the sea flushed softly under the deepening light, as she went towards the aerodrome, he walking slowly by her side.

"Are you so sure?" he said—"Will you not risk your life in this attempt?"

She stopped abruptly.

"My life? What is it? The life of a midge in the sun! It is no good to me unless I do something with it! I would live for ever if I could!—here, on this dear little ball of Earth—I do not want a better heaven. The heaven which the clergy promise us is so remarkably unattractive! But I run no risk of losing my life or yours in our aerial adventures; we carry the very essence of vitality with us. Come!—I want to see my flying palace! When I was a small child I used to feed my fancy on the 'Arabian Nights,' and most dearly did I love the story of Aladdin and his palace that was transported through the air. I used to say 'I will have a flying palace myself!' And now I have realised my dream."

"That remains to be proved"—said Rivardi—"With all our work we may not have entirely carried out your plan."

"If not, it will HAVE to be carried out"—returned Morgana, tranquilly—"There is no reason, moral or scientific, why it should NOT be carried out—we have all the forces of Nature on our side."

He was silent, and accompanied her as she walked to the aerodrome and entered it. There were half a dozen or more men within, all working—but they ceased every movement as they saw her,—while she, on her part, scarcely seemed to note their presence. Her eyes were uplifted and fixed on a vast, smooth oblong object, like the body of a great bird with shut wings, which swung from the roof of the aerodrome and swayed lightly to and fro as though impelled by some mysterious breathing force. Morgana's swift glance travelled from its one end to the other with a flash of appreciation, while at the same time she received the salutations of all the men who advanced to greet her.

"You have done well, my friends!"—she said, speaking in fluent French—"This beautiful creature you have made seems a perfect thing,—from the OUTSIDE. What of the interior?"

A small, dark, intelligent looking man, in evident command of the rest, smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

"Ah, Signora! It is as you commanded!" he answered—"It is beautiful—like a chrysalis for a butterfly. But a butterfly has the advantage—it comes to LIFE, to use its wings!"

"Quite true, Monsieur Gaspard!" and Morgana gave him a smile as sunny as his own. "But what is life? Is it not a composition of many elements? And should we not learn to combine such elements to vitalise our 'White Eagle'? It is possible!"

"With God all things are possible!" quoted the Marchese Rivardi—"But with man—"

"We are taught that God made man 'in His image. In the image of God created He him.' If this is true, all things should be possible to man"—said Morgana, quietly—"To man,—and to that second thought of the Creator—Woman! And we mustn't forget that second thoughts are best!" She laughed, while the man called Gaspard stared at her and laughed also for company. "Now let me see how I shall be housed in air!" and with very little assistance she climbed into the great bird-shaped vessel through an entrance so deftly contrived that it was scarcely visible,—an entrance which closed almost hermetically when the ship was ready to start, air being obtained through other channels.

Once inside it was easy to believe in Fairyland. Not a scrap of any sort of mechanism could be seen. There were two exquisitely furnished saloons—one a kind of boudoir or drawing-room where everything that money could buy or luxury suggest as needful or ornamental was collected and arranged with thoughtful selection and perfect taste. A short passage from these apartments led at one end to some small, daintily fitted sleeping-rooms beyond,—at the other was the steering cabin and accommodation for the pilot and observer. The whole interior was lined with what seemed to be a thick rose-coloured silk of a singularly smooth and shining quality, but at a sign from Morgana, Rivardi and Gaspard touched some hidden spring which caused this interior covering to roll up completely, thus disclosing a strange and mysterious "installation" beneath. Every inch of wall-space was fitted with small circular plates of some thin, shining substance, set close together so that their edges touched, and in the center of each plate or disc was a tiny white knob resembling the button of an ordinary electric bell. There seemed to be at least two or three thousand of these discs—seen all together in a close mass they somewhat resembled the "suckers" on the tentacles of a giant octopus. Morgana, seating herself in an easy chair of the richly carpeted "drawing-room" of her "air palace," studied every line, turn and configuration of this extraordinary arrangement with a keenly observant and criticising eye. The Marchese Rivardi and Gaspard watched her expression anxiously.

"You are satisfied?" asked Rivardi, at last—"It is as you planned?"

She turned towards Gaspard with a smile.

"What do YOU think about it?" she queried—"You are an expert in modern scientific work—you understand many of the secrets of natural force—what do YOU think?"

"Madama, I think as I have always thought!—a body without soul!"

"What IS soul?" she said—"Is it not breath?—the breath of life? Is it not said that God 'made man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul!' And what is the breath of life? Is it not composed of such elements as are in the universe and which we may all discover if we will, and use to our advantage? You cannot deny this! Come, Marchese!—and you, Monsieur Gaspard! Call to them below to set this Eagle free; we will fly into the sunrise for an hour or two,—no farther, as we are not provisioned."

"Madama!" stammered Gaspard—"I am not prepared—"

"You are frightened, my friend!" and Morgana smiled, laying her little white hand soothingly on his arm—"But if I tell you there is no cause for fear, will you not believe me? Do you not think I love my own life? Oh yes, I love it so much that I seek to prolong it, not risk it by sudden loss. Nor would I risk YOUR life—or HIS!" and she looked towards Rivardi—"HE is not frightened—he will come with me wherever I go! Now, Monsieur Gaspard, see! Here is our breath of life!" And she held up before his eyes the two cylindrically shaped packages she had previously shown to Rivardi—"The Marchese has already had some experience of it"—here she unfastened the wrappings of the packages, and took out two tubes made of some metallic substance which shone like purest polished gold—"I will fix these in myself—will you open the lower end chamber first, please?"

Silently the two men obeyed her gesture and opened the small compartment fixed at what might be called the hull end of the air-ship. The interior was seen to be lined with the same round discs which covered the walls of the vessel, every disc closely touching its neighbour. With extreme caution and delicacy Morgana set one of the tubes she held upright in the socket made to receive it, and as she did this, fine sharp, needle like flashes of light broke from it in a complete circle, filling the whole receptacle with vibrating rays which instantly ran round each disc, and glittered in and out among them like a stream of quicksilver. As soon as this manifestation occurred, Morgana beckoned to her two assistants to shut the compartment. They did so with scarcely an effort, yet it closed down with a silent force and tenacity that suggested some enormous outward pressure, yet pressure there seemed none. And now a sudden throbbing movement pulsated through the vessel—its huge folded wings stirred.

"Quick! Tell them below to lose no time! Open the shed and let her rise!—when the contact is once established there will not be half a second to spare!"

Hurriedly the man Gaspard, though obviously terrified, shouted the necessary orders, while Morgana went to the other end of the ship where Rivardi opened for her the second compartment into which she fixed the second tube. Once again the circular flashes broke out, but this time directly the compartment was closed down, the shining stream of light was seen to run rapidly and completely round the interior of the vessel, touching every disc that lined the walls as with the sparkling point of a jewel. The wings of the ship palpitated as with life and began to spread open....

"Let her go!" cried Morgana—"Away to your place, pilot!" and she waved a commanding hand as Rivardi sprang to the steering gear—"Hold her fast! ... Keep her steady! Straight towards the sun-rise!"

As she spoke, a wonderful thing happened—every disc that lined the interior of the ship started throbbing like a pulse,—every little white knob in the centre of each disc vibrated with an extraordinary rapidity of motion which dazzled the eyes like the glittering of swiftly falling snow, and Gaspard, obeying Morgana's sign, drew down at once all the rose silk covering which completely hid the strange mechanism from view. There was absolutely no noise in this intense vibration,—and there was no start or jar, or any kind of difficulty, when the air-ship, released from bondage, suddenly rose, and like an actual living bird sprang through the vast opening gateway of the aerodrome and as it sprang, spread out its wings as though by its own volition. In one moment, it soared straight upright, far far into space, and the men who were left behind stood staring amazedly after it, themselves looking no more than tiny black pin-heads down below,—then, with a slow diving grace it righted itself as it were, and as if it had of its own will selected the particular current of air on which to sail. It travelled with a steady swiftness in absolute silence,—its great wings moved up and down with a noiseless power and rhythm for which there seemed no possible explanation,—and Morgana turned her face, now delicately flushed with triumph, on the pale and almost breathless Gaspard, smiling as she looked at him, her eyes questioning his. He seemed stricken dumb with astonishment,—his lips moved, but no word issued from them.

"You believe me now, do you not?" she said—"We have nothing further to do but to steer. The force we use re-creates itself as it works—it cannot become exhausted. To slow down and descend to earth one need only open the compartments at either end—then the vibration grows less and less, and like a living creature the 'White Eagle' sinks gently to rest. You see there is no cause for fear!"

While she yet spoke, the light of the newly risen sun bathed her in its golden glory, the long dazzling beams filtering through mysterious apertures inserted cunningly in the roof of the vessel and mingling with the roseate hues of the silken sheathing that covered its walls. So fired with light she looked ethereal—a very spirit of air or of flame; and Rivardi, just able to see her from his steering place, began to think there was some truth an the strange words of Don Aloysius—"Sometimes in this wonderful world of ours beings are born who are neither man nor woman and who partake of a nature that is not so much human as elemental—or, might not one almost say atmospheric?"

At the moment Morgana seemed truly "atmospheric"—a small creature so fine and fair as to almost suggest an evanescent form about to melt away in mist. Some sudden thrill of superstitious fear moved Gaspard to make the sign of the cross and mutter an "Ave,"—Morgana heard him and smiled kindly.

"I am not an evil spirit, my friend!" she said—"You need not exorcise me! I am nothing but a student with a little more imagination than is common, and in the moving force which carries our ship along I am only using a substance which, as our scientists explain, 'has an exceptional capacity for receiving the waves of energy emanating from the sun and giving them off.' On the 'giving off' of those waves we move—it is all natural and easy, and, like every power existent in the universe, is meant for our comprehension and use. You cannot say you feel any sense of danger?—we are sailing with greater steadiness than any ship at sea—there is scarcely any consciousness of movement—and without looking out and down, we should not realise we are so far from earth. Indeed we are going too far now—we do not realize our speed."

"Too far!" said Gaspard, nervously—"Madama, if we go too far we may also go too high—we may not be able to breathe!..."

She laughed.

"That is a very remote possibility!" she said—"The waves of energy which bear us along are concerned in our own life-supply,—they make our air to breathe—our heat to warm. All the same it is time we returned—we are not provisioned."

She called to Rivardi, and he, with the slightest turn of the wheel, altered the direction in which the air-ship moved, so that it travelled back again on the route by which it had commenced its flight. Soon, very soon, the dainty plot of earth, looking no more than a gay flower-bed, where Morgana's palazzo was situated, appeared below—and then, acting on instructions, Gaspard opened the compartments at either end of the vessel. The vibrating rays within dwindled by slow degrees—their light became less and less intense—their vibration less powerful,—till very gradually with a perfectly beautiful motion expressing absolute grace and lightness the vessel descended towards the aerodrome it had lately left, and all the men who were waiting for its return gave a simultaneous shout of astonishment and admiration, as it sank slowly towards them, folding its wings as it came with the quiet ease of a nesting-bird flying home. So admirably was the distance measured between itself and the great shed of its local habitation, that it glided into place as though it had eyes to see its exact whereabouts, and came to a standstill within a few seconds of its arrival. Morgana descended, and her two companions followed. The other men stood silent, visibly inquisitive yet afraid to express their curiosity. Morgana's eyes flashed over them all with a bright, half-laughing tolerance.

"I thank you, my friends!" she said—"You have done well the work I entrusted you to do under the guidance of the Marchese Rivardi, and you can now judge for yourselves the result It mystifies you I can see! You think it is a kind of 'black magic'? Not so!—unless all our modern science is 'black magic' as well, born of the influence of those evil spirits who, as we are told in tradition, descended in rebellion from heaven and lived with the daughters of men! From these strange lovers sprang a race of giants,—symbolical I think of the birth of the sciences, which mingle in their composition the active elements of good and evil. You have built this airship of mine on lines which have never before been attempted;—you have given it wings which are plumed like the wings of a bird, not with quills, but with channels many and minute, to carry the runlets of the 'emanation' from the substance held in the containers at either end of the vessel,—its easy flight therefore should not surprise you. Briefly—we have filled a piece of mechanism with the composition or essence of Life!—that is the only answer I can give to your enquiring looks!—let it be enough!"

"But, Madama"—ventured Gaspard—"that composition or essence of Life!—what is it?"

There was an instant's silence. Every man's head craned forward eagerly to hear the reply. Morgana smiled strangely.

"That," she said—"is MY secret!"



CHAPTER IX

"And now you have attained your object, what is the use of it?" said Don Aloysius.

The priest was pacing slowly up and down the old half-ruined cloister of an old half-ruined monastery, and beside his stately, black-robed figure moved the small aerial form of Morgana, clad in summer garments of pure white, her golden head uncovered to the strong Sicilian sunshine which came piercing in sword-like rays through the arches of the cloister, and filtered among the clustering leaves which hung in cool twining bunches from every crumbling grey pillar of stone.

"What is the use of it?" he repeated, his calm eyes resting gravely on the little creature gliding sylph-like beside him. "Suppose your invention out-reaped every limit of known possibility—suppose your air-ship to be invulnerable, and surpassing in speed and safety everything ever experienced,—suppose it could travel to heights unimaginable, what then? Suppose even that you could alight on another star—another world than this—what purpose is served?—what peace is gained?—what happens?"

Morgana stopped abruptly in her walk beside him.

"I have not worked for peace or happiness,"—she said and there was a thrill of sadness in her voice—"because to my mind neither peace nor happiness exist. From all we can see, and from the little we can learn, I think the Maker of the universe never meant us to be happy or peaceful. All Nature is at strife with itself, incessantly labouring for such attainment as can hardly be won,—all things seem to be haunted by fear and sorrow. And yet it seems to me that there are remedies for most of our evils in the very composition of the elements—if we were not ignorant and stupid enough to discourage our discoverers on the verge of discovery. My application of a certain substance, known to scientists, but scarcely understood, is an attempt to solve the problem of swift aerial motion by light and heat—light and heat being the chiefest supports of life. To use a force giving out light and heat continuously seemed to me the way to create and command equally continuous movement. I have—I think and hope—fairly succeeded, and in order to accomplish my design I have used wealth that would not have been at the service of most inventors,—wealth which my father left to me quite unconditionally,—but were I able to fly with my 'White Eagle' to the remotest parts of the Milky Way itself, I should not look to find peace or happiness!"

"Why?"

The priest's simple query had a note of tender pity in it. Morgana looked up at him with a little smile, but her eyes were tearful.

"Dear Don Aloysius, how can I tell 'why'? Nobody is really happy, and I cannot expect to have what is denied to the whole world!"

Aloysius resumed his slow walk to and fro, and she kept quiet pace with him.

"Have you ever thought what happiness is?" he asked, then—"Have you ever felt it for a passing moment?"

"Yes"—she answered quickly—"But only at rare intervals—oh so rare!..."

"Poor little rich child!" he said, kindly—"Tell me some of those 'intervals'! Cannot they be repeated? Let us sit here"—and he moved towards a stone bench which fronted an ancient disused well in the middle square of the cloistered court,—a well round which a crimson passion-flower twined in a perfect arch of blossom—"What was the first 'interval'?"

He sat down, and the sunshine sent a dazzling ray on the silver crucifix he wore, giving it the gleam of a great jewel. Morgana took her seat beside him.

"Interval one!" he said, playfully—"What was this little lady's first experience of happiness? When she played with her dolls?"

"No, oh no!" cried Morgana, with sudden energy—"That was anything but happiness! I hated dolls!—abominable little effigies!"

Don Aloysius raised his eyebrows in surprise and amusement.

"Horrid little stuffed things of wood and wax and saw-dust!" continued Morgana, emphatically—"With great beads for eyes—or eyes made to look like beads—and red cheeks,—and red lips with a silly smile on them! Of course they are given to girl-children to encourage the 'maternal instinct' as it is called—to make them think of babies,—but I never had any 'maternal instinct'!—and real babies have always seemed to me as uninteresting as sham ones!"

"Dear child, you were a baby yourself once!"—said Aloysius gently.

A shadow swept over her face.

"Do you think I was?" she queried meditatively—"I cannot imagine it! I suppose I must have been, but I never remember being a child at all. I had no children to play with me—my father suspected all children of either disease or wickedness, and imagined I would catch infection of body or of soul by association with them. I was always alone—alone!—yet not lonely!" She broke off a moment, and her eyes grew dark with the intensity of her thought "No—never lonely! And the very earliest 'interval' of happiness I can recall was when I first saw the inside of a sun-ray!"

Don Aloysius turned to look at her, but said nothing. She laughed.

"Dear Father Aloysius, what a wise priest you are! Not a word falls from those beautifully set lips of yours! If you were a fool—(so many men are!) you would have repeated my phrase, 'the inside of a sun-ray,' with an accent of scornful incredulity, and you would have stared at me with all a fool's contempt! But you are not a fool,—you know or you perceive instinctively exactly what I mean. The inside of a sun-ray!—it was disclosed to me suddenly—a veritable miracle! I have seen it many times since, but not with all the wonder and ecstasy of the first revelation. I was so young, too! I told a renowned professor at one of the American colleges just what I saw, and he was so amazed and confounded at my description of rays that had taken the best scientists years to discover, that he begged to be allowed to examine my eyes! He thought there must be something unusual about them. In fact there IS!—and after his examination he seemed more puzzled than ever. He said something about 'an exceptionally strong power of vision,' but frankly admitted that power of vision alone would not account for it. Anyhow I plainly saw all the rays within one ray—there were seven. The ray itself was—or so I fancied—the octave of colour. I was little more than a child when this 'interval' of happiness—PERFECT happiness!—was granted to me—I felt as if a window had been opened for me to look through it into heaven!"

"Do you believe in heaven?" asked Aloysius, suddenly.

She hesitated.

"I used to,—in those days. As I have just said I was only a child, and heaven was a real place to me,—even the angels were real presences—"

"And you have lost them now?"

She gave a little gesture of resignation.

"They left me"—she answered—"I did not lose them. They simply went."

He was silent. His fine, calm features expressed a certain grave patience, but nothing more.

She resumed—

"That was my first experience of real 'happiness.' Till then I had lived the usual monotonous life of childhood, doing what I was told, and going whither I was taken, but the disclosure of the sun-ray was a key to individuality, and seemed to unlock my prison doors. I began to think for myself, and to find my own character as a creature apart from others. My second experience was years after,—just when I left school and when my father took me to see the place where I was born, in the north of Scotland. Oh, it is such a wild corner of the world! Beautiful craggy hills and dark, deep lakes—rough moorlands purple with heather and such wonderful skies at sunset! The cottage where my father had lived as a boy when he herded sheep is still there—I have bought it for myself now,—it is a little stone hut of three rooms,—and another one about a mile off where he took my mother to live, and where I came into the world!—I have bought that too. Yes—I felt a great thrill of happiness when I stood there knee-deep among the heather, my father clasping my hand, and looking, with me, on those early scenes of his boyhood when he had scarcely a penny to call his own! Yet HE was sad!—very sad! and told me then that he would give all his riches to feel as light of heart and free from care as he did in those old days! And then—then we went to see old Alison—" Here she broke off,—a strange light came into her eyes and she smiled a little. "I think I had better not tell you about old Alison!" she said.

"Why not?" and Don Aloysius returned her smile. "If old Alison has anything to do with your happiness I should like to hear."

"Well, you see, you are a priest," went on Morgana, slowly, "and she is a witch. Oh yes, truly!—a real witch! There is no one in all that part of the Highlands that does not know of her, and the power she has! She is very, very old—some folks say she is more than a hundred. She knew my father and grandfather—she came to my father's cottage the night I was born, and said strange things about a 'May child'—I was born in May. We went—as I tell you—to see her, and found her spinning. She looked up from her wheel as we entered—but she did not seem surprised at our coming. Her eyes were very bright—not like the eyes of an old person. She spoke to my father at once—her voice was very clear and musical. 'Is it you, John Royal?' she said—'and you have brought your fey lass along with you!' That was the first time I ever heard the word 'fey.' I did not understand it then."

"And do you understand it now?" asked Aloysius.

"Yes"—she replied,—"I understand it now! It is a wonderful thing to be born 'fey'! But it is a kind of witchcraft,—and you would be displeased—"

"At what should I be displeased?" and the priest bent his eyes very searchingly upon her—"At the fact,—which none can disprove,—that 'there are things in heaven and earth' which are beyond our immediate knowledge? That there are women strangely endowed with premonitory instincts land preternatural gifts? Dear child, there is nothing in all this that can or could displease me! My faith—the faith of my Church—is founded on the preternatural endowment of a woman!"

She lifted her eyes to his, and a little sigh came from her lips.

"Yes, I know what you mean!"—she said—"But I am sure you cannot possibly realise the weird nature of old Alison! She made me stand before her, just where the light of the sun streamed through the open doorway, and she looked at me for a long time with such a steady piercing glance that I felt as if her eyes were boring through my flesh. Then she got up from her spinning and pushed away the wheel, and stretched out both her hands towards me, crying out in quite a strange, wild voice—'Morgana! Morgana! Go your ways, child begotten of the sun and shower!—go your ways! Little had mortal father or mother to do with your making, for you are of the fey folk! Go your ways with your own people!—you shall hear them whispering in the night and singing in the morning,—and they shall command you and you shall obey!—they shall beckon and you shall follow! Nothing of mortal flesh and blood shall hold you—no love shall bind you,—no hate shall wound you!—the clue is given into your hand,—the secret is disclosed—and the spirits of air and fire and water have opened a door that you may enter in! Hark!—I can hear their voices calling "Morgana! Morgana!" Go your ways, child!—go hence and far!—the world is too small for your wings!' She looked so fierce and grand and terrible that I was frightened—I was only a girl of sixteen, and I ran to my father and caught his hand. He spoke quite gently to Alison, but she seemed quite beyond herself and unable to listen. 'Your way lies down a different road, John Royal'—she said—'You that herded sheep on these hills and that now hoard millions of money—of what use to you is your wealth? You are but the worker,—gathering gold for HER—the "fey" child born in an hour of May moonlight! You must go, but she must stay,—her own folk have work for her to do!' Then my father said, 'Dear Alison, don't frighten the child!' and she suddenly changed in her tone and manner. 'Frighten her?' she muttered. 'I would not frighten her for the world!' And my father pushed me towards her and whispered—'Ask her to bless you before you go.' So I just knelt before her, trembling very much, and said, 'Dear Alison, bless me!'—and she stared at me and lifted her old brown wrinkled hands and laid them on my head. Then she spoke some words in a strange language as to herself, and afterwards she said, 'Spirit of all that is and ever shall be, bless this child who belongs to thee, and not to man! Give her the power to do what is commanded, to the end.' And at this she stopped suddenly and bending down she lifted my head in her two hands and looked at me hard—'Poor child, poor child! Never a love for you—never a love! Alone you are, alone you must be! Never a love for a "fey" woman!' And she let me go, and sat down again to her spinning-wheel, nor would she say another word—neither to me nor to my father."

"And you call THIS your second experience of happiness?" said Don Aloysius, wonderingly—"What happiness did you gain by your interview with this old Alison?"

"Ah!" and Morgana smiled—"You would not understand me if I tried to explain! Everything came to me!—yes, everything! I began to live in a world of my own—" she paused, and her eyes grew dark and pensive, "and I have lived in it ever since. That is why I say my visit to old Alison was my second experience of happiness. I've seen her again many times since then, but not with quite the same impression."

"She is alive still?"

"Oh, yes! I often fancy she will never die!"

There was a silence of some minutes. Morgana rose, and crossing over to the old well, studied the crimson passion-flowers which twined about it, with almost loving scrutiny.

"How beautiful they are!" she said—"And they seem to serve no purpose save that of simple beauty!"

"That is enough for many of God's creatures"—said Aloysius—"To give joy and re-create joy is the mission of perfection."

She looked at him wistfully.

"Alas, poor me!" she sighed—"I can neither give joy nor create it!"

"Not even with all your wealth?"

"Not even with all my wealth!" she echoed. "Surely you—a priest—know what a delusion wealth really is so far as happiness goes?—mere happiness? course you can buy everything with it—and there's the trouble! When everything is bought there's nothing left! And if you try to help the poor they resent it—they think you are doing it because you are afraid of them! Perhaps the worst of all things to do is to help artists—artists of every kind!—for THEY say you want to advertise yourself as a 'generous patron'! Oh, I've tried it all and it's no use. I was just crazy to help all the scientists,—once!—but they argued and quarrelled so much as to which 'society' deserved most money that I dropped the whole offer, and started 'scientising' myself. There is one man I tried to lift out of his brain-bog,—but he would have none of me, and he is still in his bog!"

"Oh! There is one man!" said Aloysius, with a smile.

"Yes, good father!" And Morgana left the passion-flowers and moved slowly back to her seat on the stone-bench—"There is one man! He was my third and last experience of happiness. When I first met him, my whole heart gave itself in one big pulsation—but like a wave of the sea, the pulsation recoiled, and never again beat on the grim rock of human egoism!" She laughed gaily, and a delicate colour flushed her face. "But I was happy while the 'wave' lasted,—and when it broke, I still played on the shore with its pretty foam-bells."

"You loved this man?" and the priest's grave eyes dwelt on her searchingly.

"I suppose so—for the moment! Yet no,—it was not love—it was just an 'attraction'—he was—he IS—clever, and thinks he can change the face of the world. But he is fooling with fire! I tell you I tried to help him—for he is deadly poor. But he would have none of me nor of what he calls my 'vulgar wealth.' This is a case in point where wealth is useless! You see?"

Don Aloysius was silent.

"Then"—Morgana went on—"Alison is right. The witchery of the Northern Highlands is in my blood,—never a love for me—alone I am—alone I must be!—never a love for a 'fey' woman!"

Over the priest's face there passed a quiver as of sudden pain.

"You wrong yourself, my child"—he said, slowly—"You wrong yourself very greatly! You have a power of which you appear to be unconscious—a great, a terrible power!—you compel interest—you attract the love of others even if you yourself love no one—you draw the very soul out of a man—"

He paused, abruptly.

Morgana raised her eyes,—the blue lightning gleam flashed in their depths.

"Ah, yes!" she half whispered—"I know I have THAT power!"

Don Aloysius rose to his feet.

"Then,—if you know it,—in God's name do not exercise it!" he said.

His voice shook—and with his right hand he gripped the crucifix he wore as though it were a weapon of self-defence. Morgana looked at him wonderingly for a moment,—then drooped her head with a strange little air of sudden penitence. Aloysius drew a quick sharp breath as of one in effort,—then he spoke again, unsteadily—

"I mean"—he said, smiling forcedly—"I mean that you should not—you should not break the heart of—of—the poor Giulio for instance!... it would not be kind."

She lifted her eyes again and fixed them on him.

"No, it would not be kind!" she said, softly—"Dear Don Aloysius, I understand! And I will remember!" She glanced at a tiny diamond-set watch-bracelet on her wrist—"How late it is!—nearly all the morning gone! I have kept you so long listening to my talk—forgive me! I will run away now and leave you to think about my 'intervals' of happiness,—will you?—they are so few compared to yours!"

"Mine?" he echoed amazedly.

"Yes, indeed!—yours! Your whole life is an interval of happiness between this world and the next, because you are satisfied in the service of God!"

"A poor service!" he said, turning his gaze away from her elfin figure and shining hair—"Unworthy,—shameful!—marred by sin at every moment! A priest of the Church must learn to do without happiness such as ordinary life can give—and without love,—such as woman may give—but—after all—the sacrifice is little."

She smiled at him, sweetly—tenderly,

"Very little!" she said—"So little that it is not worth a regret! Good-bye! But not for long! Come and see me soon!"

Moving across the cloister with her light step she seemed to float through the sunshine like a part of it, and as she disappeared a kind of shadow fell, though no cloud obscured the sun. Don Aloysius watched her till she had vanished,—then turned aside into a small chapel opening out on the cloistered square—a chapel which formed part of the monastic house to which he belonged as Superior,—and there, within that still, incense-sweetened sanctuary, he knelt before the noble, pictured Head of the Man of Sorrows in silent confession and prayer.



CHAPTER X

Roger Seaton was a man of many philosophies. He had one for every day in the week, yet none wherewith to thoroughly satisfy himself. While still a mere lad he had taken to the study of science as a duck takes to water,—no new discovery or even suggestion of a new discovery missed his instant and close attention. His avidity for learning was insatiable,—his intense and insistent curiosity on all matters of chemistry gave a knife-like edge to the quality of his brain, making it sharp, brilliant and incisive. To him the ordinary social and political interests of the world were simply absurd. The idea that the greater majority of men should be created for no higher purpose than those of an insect, just to live, eat, breed, and die, was to him preposterous.

"Think of it!" he would exclaim—"All this wondrous organisation of our planet for THAT! For a biped so stupid as to see nothing in his surroundings but conveniences for satisfying his stomach and his passions! We men are educated chiefly in order to learn how to make money, and all we can do with the money WHEN made, is to build houses to live in, eat as much as we want and more, and breed children to whom we leave all the stuff we have earned, and who either waste it or add to it, whichever suits their selfishness best. Such lives are absolutely useless,—they repeat the same old round, leading nowhere. Occasionally, in the course of centuries a real Brain is born—and at once, all who are merely Bodies leap up against it, like famished wolves, striving to tear it to pieces and devour it—if it survives the attack its worth is only recognised long after its owner has perished. The whole scheme is manifestly unintelligent and ludicrous, but it is not intended to be so—of that I am sure. THERE MUST BE SOMETHING ELSE!"

When urged to explain what he conceived as this "something else," he would answer—

"There has always been 'something else' in our environment,—something that stupid humanity has taken centuries to discover. Sound-waves for example—light-rays,—electricity—these have been freely at our service from the beginning. Electricity might have been used ages ago, had not dull-witted man refused to find anything better for lighting purposes than an oil-lamp or a tallow candle! If, in past periods, he had been told 'there is something else'—he would have laughed his informant to scorn. So with our blundering methods of living—'there is something else'—not after death, but NOW and HERE. We are going about in the darkness with a candle when a great force of wider light is all round us, only awaiting connection and application to our uses."

Those who heard him speak in this way—(and they were few, for Seaton seldom discussed his theories with others)—convinced themselves that he was either a fool or a madman,—the usual verdict given for any human being who dares break away from convention and adopt an original line of thought and action. But they came to the conclusion that as he was direfully poor, and nevertheless refused various opportunities of making money, his folly or his madness would be brought home to him sooner or later by strong necessity, and that he would then either arrive at a sane every-day realisation of "things as they are"—or else be put away in an asylum and quietly forgotten. This being the sagacious opinion of those who knew him best, there was a considerable flutter in such limited American circles as call themselves "upper" when the wealthiest young woman in the States, Morgana Royal, suddenly elected to know him and to bring him into prominent notice at her parties as "the most wonderful genius of the time"—"a man whose scientific discoveries might change the very face of the globe"—and other fantastically exaggerated descriptions of her own which he himself strongly repudiated and resented. Gossip ran amok concerning the two, and it was generally agreed that if the "madman" of science were to become the husband of a woman multi-millionaire, he would not have to be considered so mad after all! But the expected romance did not materialise,—there came apparently a gradual "cooling off" in the sentiments of both parties concerned,—and though Roger Seaton was still occasionally seen with Morgana in her automobile, in her opera-box, or at her receptions, his appearances were fewer, and other men, in fact many other men, were more openly encouraged and flattered,—Morgana herself showing as much indifference towards him as she had at first shown interest. When, therefore, he suddenly left the social scene of action, his acquaintances surmised that he had got an abrupt dismissal, or as they more brusquely expressed it—"the game's up"!

"He's lost his chance!" they said, shaking their heads forlornly—"And he's poorer than Job! He'll be selling newspapers in the cars for a living by and by!"

However, he was never met engaged in this lucrative way of business,—he simply turned his back on everybody, Morgana Royal included, and so far as "society" was concerned, just disappeared. In the "hut of the dying" on that lonely hill-slope in California he was happy, feeling a relief from infinite boredom, and thankful to be alone. He had much to think about and much to do—inhabited places and the movement of people were to him tedious and fatiguing, and he decided that nature,—wild nature in a solitary and savage aspect,—would suit his speculative and creative tendencies best. Yet, like all human beings, he had his odd, almost child-like moods, inexplicable even to himself—moods illogical, almost pettish, and wholly incongruous with his own accepted principles of reasoning. For instance, he maintained that women had neither attraction nor interest for him—yet he found himself singularly displeased when after two or three days of utter solitude, and when he was rather eagerly expecting Manella to arrive with the new milk which was his staple food, a lanky, red-haired ugly boy appeared instead of her—a boy who slouched along, swinging the milk pail in one hand and clutching a half-munched slice of pine-apple in the other.

"Hello—o!" called this individual. "Not dead yet?"

For answer Seaton strode forward and taking the milk-pail from him gripped him by the dirty cotton shirt and gave him a brief but severe shaking.

"No,—not dead yet!" he said—"You insolent young monkey! Who are you?"

The boy wriggled in his captor's clutch, and tried to squirm himself out of it.

"I'm—I'm Jake—they calls me Irish Jake"—he gasped—"O Blessed Mary!—my breath! I clean the knives at the Plaza—"

"I'll clean knives for you presently!" remarked Seaton, with a threatening gesture—"Yes, Irish Jake, I will! Who sent you here?"

"SHE did—oh, Mary mother!" and the youth gave a further wriggle—"Miss Soriso—the girl they call Manella. She told me to say she's too busy to come herself."

Seaton let go the handful of shirt he had held.

"Too busy to come herself!" he repeated, slowly—then smiled—"Well! That's all right!" Here he lifted the pail of milk, took it into his hut and brought it back empty, while "Irish Jake," as the boy had called himself, stood staring—"Tell Miss Soriso that I quite understand! And that I'm delighted to hear she is so busy! Now, let us see!" Here he pulled some money out of his pocket, and fingered a few dirty paper notes—"There, Irish Jake! You'll find that's correct. And when you come here again don't forget your manners! See? Then you may be able to keep that disgraceful shirt of yours on! Otherwise it's likely to be torn off! If you are Irish you should remember that in very ancient days there used to be manners in the Emerald Isle. Yes, positively! Fine, gracious, lovely manners! It doesn't look as if that will be ever any more—but we live in hope. Anyway, YOU—you young offspring of an Irish hybrid gorilla—you'd best remember what I say, or there'll be trouble! And"—here he made a mock solemn bow—"My compliments to Miss Soriso!"

The red-haired youth remained for a moment stock-still with mouth and eyes open,—then, snatching up the empty milk-pail he scampered down the hill-slope at a lightning quick run.

Seaton looked after him with an air of contemptuous amusement.

"Ugly little devil!" he soliloquised—"And yet Nature made him,—as she makes many hideous things—in a hurry, I presume, without any time for details or artistic finish. Well!"—here he stretched his arms out with a long sigh—"And the silly girl is 'too busy' to come! As if I could not see through THAT little game! She'd give her eyes to come!—fine eyes they are, too! She just thinks she'll pay me out for being rough with her the other day—she's got an idea that she'll vex me, and make me want to see her. She's right,—I AM vexed!—and I DO want to see her!"

It was mid-morning, and the sun blazed down upon the hill-side with the scorching breath of a volcano. He turned into his hut,—it was a dark, cool little dwelling, comfortable enough for a single inhabitant. There was a camp-bed in one corner—and there were a couple of wicker chairs made for easy transposition into full-length couches if so required, A good sized deal table occupied the centre of the living-room,—and on the table was a clear crystal bowl full of what appeared at a first glance to be plain water, but which on closer observation showed a totally different quality. Unlike water it was never still,—some interior bubbling perpetually moved it to sway and sparkle, throwing out tiny flashes as though the smallest diamond cuttings were striving to escape from it—while it exhaled around itself an atmosphere of extreme coldness and freshness like that of ice. Seaton threw himself indolently into one of wicker chairs by the window—a window which was broad and wide, commanding a full view of distant mountains, and far away to the left a glimpse of sea.

"I am vexed, and I want to see her"—he repeated, speaking aloud to himself—"Now—WHY? Why am I vexed?—and why do I want to see her? Reason gives no answer! If she were here she would bore me to death. I could do nothing. She would ask me questions—and if I answered them she would not understand,—she is too stupid. She has no comprehension of any thing beyond simple primitive animalism. Now if it were Morgana—"

He stopped in his talk, and started as if he had been stung. Some subtle influence stole over him like the perfumed mist of incense—he leaned back in his chair and half closed his eyes. What was the stealthy, creeping magnetic power that like an invisible hand touched his brain and pulled at his memory, and forced him to see before him a small elf-like figure clad in white, with a rope of gold hair twisting, snake-like, down over its shoulders and glistening in the light of the moon? For the moment he lost his usual iron mastery of will and let himself go on the white flood of a dream. He recalled his first meeting with Morgana,—one of accident, not design—in the great laboratory of a distinguished scientist,—he had taken her for a little girl student trying to master a few principles of chemistry, and was astonished and incredulous when the distinguished scientist himself had introduced her as "one of our most brilliant theorists on the future development of radio activity." Such a description seemed altogether absurd, applied to a little fair creature with beseeching blue eyes and gold hair! They had left the laboratory together, walking some way in company and charmed with each other's conversation, then, when closer acquaintance followed, and he had learned her true position in social circles and the power she wielded owing to her vast wealth, he at once withdrew from her as much as was civilly possible, disliking the suggestion of any sordid motive for his friendship. But she had so sweetly reproached him for this, and had enticed him on—yes!—he swore it within himself,—she had enticed him on in a thousand ways,—most especially by the amazing "grip" she had of scientific problems in which he was interested and which puzzled him, but which she seemed to unravel as easily as she might unravel a skein of wool. Her clear brightness of brain and logical precision of argument first surprised him into unqualified admiration, calling to his mind the assertion of a renowned physiologist that "From the beginning woman had lived in another world than man. Formed of finer vibrations and consequently finer chemical atoms she is in touch with more subtle planes of existence and of sensation and ideation. She holds unchallenged the code of Life." Then admiration yielded to the usual under-sense of masculine resentment against feminine intellectuality, and a kind of smouldering wrath and opposition took the place of his former chivalry and the almost tender pleasure he had previously felt in her exceptional genius and ability. And there came an evening—why did he think of it now, he wondered?—when, after a brilliant summer ball given at the beautiful residence of a noted society woman on Long Island, he had taken Morgana out into their hostess's garden which sloped to the sea, and they had strolled together almost unknowingly down to the shore where, under the light of the moon, the Atlantic waves, sunken to little dainty frills of lace-like foam, broke murmuringly at their feet,—and he, turning suddenly to his companion, was all at once smitten by a sense of witchery in her looks as she stood garmented in her white, vaporous ball-gown, with diamonds in her hair and on her bosom—smitten with an overpowering lightning-stroke of passion which burnt his soul as a desert is burnt by the hot breath of the simoon, and, yielding to its force, he had caught the small, fine, fairy creature in his arms and kissed her wildly on lips and eyes and hair. And she,—she had not resisted. Then—as swiftly as he had clasped her he let her go—and stood before her in a strange spirit of defiance.

"Forgive me!" he said, in low uneven tones—"I—I did not mean it!"

She lifted her eyes to his, half proudly half appealingly.

"You did not mean it?" she asked, quietly.

An amazed scorn flashed into her face, clouding its former sweetness—then she smiled coldly, turned away and left him. In a kind of stupor he watched her go, her light figure disappearing by degrees, as she went up the ascending path from the sea to the house where gay music was still sounding for dancers not yet grown weary. And from that evening a kind of silence fell between them,—they were separated as by an ice-floe. They met often in the social round, but scarcely spoke more than the ordinary words of conventional civility, and Morgana apparently gave herself up to frivolity, coquetting with her numerous admirers and would-be husbands in a casual, not to say heartless, manner which provoked Seaton past endurance,—so much so that he worked himself up to a kind of cynical detestation and contempt for her, both as a student of science and a woman of wealth. And yet—and yet—he had almost loved her! And a thing that goaded him to the quick was that so far as scientific knowledge and attainment were concerned she was more than his equal. Irritated by his own quarrelsome set of sentiments which pulled him first this way and then that, he decided that the only thing possible for him was to put a "great divide" of distance between himself and her. This he had done—and to what purpose? Apparently merely to excite her ridicule!—and to prick her humor up to the mischievous prank of finding out where he had fled and following him! And she—even she—who had kept him aloof ever since that fatal moment on the seashore,—had discovered him on this lonely hill-side, and had taunted him with her light mockery—and actually said that "to kiss him would be like kissing a bunch of nettles!"—SHE said that!—she who for one wild moment he had held in his arms—bah!—he sprang up from his chair in a kind of rage with himself, as his thoughts crowded thick and fast one on the other—why did he think of her at all! It was as if some external commanding force compelled him to do so. Then—she had seen Manella, and had naturally drawn her own conclusions, based on the girl's rich beauty which was so temptingly set within his reach. He began to talk to himself aloud once more, picking up the thread of his broken converse where he had left it—

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse