He uttered these words with passionate eloquence and added—
"There are only three things that can make a nation great,—the love of God, the truth of man, the purity of woman. Without these three the greatest civilisation existing must perish,—no matter how wide its power or how vast its wealth. Ignorant or vulgar persons may sneer at this as 'the obvious'—but it is the 'obvious' sun alone that rules the day."
Lady Kingswood's lips trembled; there were tears in her eyes.
"How truly you speak!" she murmured—"And yet we live in a time when such truths appear to have no influence with people at all. Every one is bent on pleasure—on self—"
"As every one was in the 'Cities of the Plain,'"—he said, "and we may well expect another rain of fire!"
Here, lifting his eyes, he saw in the soft blush rose of the approaching sunset a small object like a white bird flying homeward across the sea.
"Here it comes!" he exclaimed—"Not the rain of fire, but something more agreeable! I told you, did I not, miladi, that there was no danger? See!"
Lady Kingswood looked where he pointed.
"Surely that is not the air-ship?" she said—"It is too small!"
"At this distance it is small"—answered Aloysius—"But wait! Watch,—and you will soon perceive Its great wings! What a marvellous thing it is! Marvellous!—and a woman's work!"
They stood together, gazing into the reddening west, thrilled with expectancy,—while with a steady swiftness and accuracy of movement the bird-like object which at the first glimpse had seemed so small gradually loomed larger with nearer vision, its enormous wings spreading wide and beating the air rhythmically as though the true pulsation of life impelled their action. Neither Lady Kingswood nor Don Aloysius exchanged a word, so absorbed were they in watching the "White Eagle" arrive, and not till it began to descend towards the shore did they relax their attention and turn to each other with looks of admiration and amazement.
"How long have they been gone?" asked Aloysius then.
Lady Kingswood glanced at her watch.
"Barely two hours."
At that moment the "White Eagle" swooped suddenly over the gardens, noiselessly and with an enormous spread of wing that was like a white cloud in the sky—then gracefully swerved aside towards its "shed" or aerodrome, folding its huge pinions as of its own will and sliding into its quarters as easily as a hand may slide into a loose-fitting glove. The two interested watchers of its descent and swift "run home" had no time to exchange more than a few words of comment before Morgana ran lightly up the terrace, calling to them with all the gaiety of a child returning on a holiday.
"It was glorious!" she exclaimed—"Just glorious! We've been to Naples,—crowds gathered in the street to stare at us,—we were ever so high above them and they couldn't make us out, as we moved so silently! Then we hovered for a bit over Capri,—the island looked like a lovely jewel shining with sun and sea,—and now here we are!—home in plenty of time to dress for dinner! You see, dear 'Duchess'—you need not have been nervous,—the 'White Eagle' is safer than any railway train, and ever so much pleasanter!"
"Well, I'm glad you've come back all right"—said Lady Kingswood—"It's a great relief! I certainly was afraid—-"
"Oh, you must never be afraid of anything!" laughed Morgana—"It does no good. We are all too much afraid of everything and everybody,—and often when there's nothing to be afraid of! Am I not right, most reverend Father Aloysius?" and she turned with a radiant smile to the priest whose serious dark eyes rested upon her with an expression of mingled admiration and wonder—"I'm so glad to find you here with Lady Kingswood—I'm sure you told her there was no danger for me, didn't you? Yes? I thought so! Now do stay and dine with us, please!—I want you to talk to the Marchese Rivardi—he's rather cross! He cannot bear me to have my own way!—I suppose all men are like that!—they want women to submit, not to command!" She laughed again. "See!—here he comes,—with the sulky air of a naughty boy!" this, as Rivardi slowly mounted the terrace steps and approached—"I'm off to dress for dinner—come, 'Duchess!' We'll leave the men to themselves!"
She slipped her arm through Lady Kingswood's and hurried her away. Don Aloysius was puzzled by her words,—and, as Rivardi came up to him raised his eyebrows interrogatively. The Marchese answered the unspoken query by an impatient shrug.
"Altro! She is impossible!" he said irritably—"Wild as the wind!—uncontrollable! She will kill herself!—but she does not care!"
"What has she done?" asked Aloysius, smiling a little—"Has she invented something new?—a parachute in which to fall gracefully like a falling star?"
"Nothing of the kind"—retorted Rivardi; vexed beyond all reason at the priest's tranquil air of good-humored tolerance—"But she insists on steering the air-ship herself! She took my place to-day."
"Well! You think that nothing? I tell you it is very serious—very foolhardy. She knows nothing of aerial navigation—"
"Was her steering faulty?"
"No,—it was wonderful"—he admitted, reluctantly; "Especially for a first attempt. And now she declares she will travel with the 'White Eagle' alone! Alone! Think of it! That little creature alone in the air with a huge air-ship under her sole control! The very idea is madness!"
"Have patience, Giulio!" said Don Aloysius, gently—"I think she cannot mean what she says in this particular instance. She is naturally full of triumph at the success of her invention,—an amazing invention you must own!—and her triumph makes her bold. But be quite easy in your mind!—she will not travel alone!"
"She will—she will!" declared Rivardi, passionately—"She will do anything she has a mind to do! As well try to stop the wind as stop her! She has some scheme in her brain,—so fantastic vision of that Brazen City you spoke of the other day—"
Don Aloysius gave a sudden start.
"No!—not possible!" he said—"She will not pursue a phantasm,—a dream!"
He spoke nervously, and his face paled. Rivardi looked at him curiously.
"There is no such place then?" he asked—"It is only a legend?"
"Only a legend!" replied Aloysius, slowly—"Some travellers say it is a mirage of the desert,—others tell stories of having heard the bells in the brazen towers ring,—but no one—NO ONE," and he repeated the words with emphasis—"has ever been able to reach even the traditional environs of the place. Our hostess," and he smiled—"is a very wonderful little person, but even she will hardly be able to discover the undiscoverable!"
"Can we say that anything is undiscoverable?" suggested Rivardi.
Don Aloysius thought a moment before replying.
"Perhaps not!"—he said, at last—"Our life all through is a voyage of discovery wherein we have no certainty of the port of arrival. The puzzling part of it is that we often 'discover' what has been discovered before in past ages where the discoverers seemed to make no use of their discoveries!—and so we lose ourselves in wonder—and often in weariness!" He sighed,—then added—"Had we not better go in and prepare to meet our hostess at dinner? And Giulio!—unbend your brows!—you must not get angry with your charming benefactress! If you do not let her have HER way, she will never let you have YOURS!"
Rivardi gave a resigned gesture.
"Oh, MINE! I must give up all hope—she will never think of me more than as a workman who has carried out her design. There is something very strange about her—she seems, at certain moments, to withdraw herself from all the interests of mere humanity. To-day, for instance, she looked down from the air-ship on the swarming crowds in the streets of Naples and said 'Poor little microbes! How sad it is to see them crawling about and festering down there! What IS the use of them! I wish I knew!' Then, when I ventured to suggest that possibly they were more than 'microbes,'—they were human beings that loved and worked and thought and created, she looked at me with those wonderful eyes of hers and answered—'Microbes do the same—only we don't take the trouble to think about them! But if we knew their lives and intentions, I dare say we should find they are quite as clever in their own line as we are in ours!' What is one to say to a woman who argues in this way?"
Don Aloysius laughed gently.
"But she argues quite correctly after all! My son, you are like the majority of men—they grow impatient with clever women,—they prefer stupid ones. In fact they deliberately choose stupid ones to be the mothers of their children—hence the ever increasing multitude of fools!" He moved towards the open doors of the beautiful lounge-hall of the Palazzo, Rivardi walking at his side. "But you will grant me a measure of wisdom in the advice I gave you the other day-the little millionairess is unlike other women—she is not capable of loving,—not in the way loving is understood in this world,—therefore do not seek from her what she cannot give!—As for her 'flying alone'—leave that to the fates!—I do not think she will attempt it."
They entered the Palazzo just as a servant was about to announce to them that dinner would be served in a quarter of an hour, and their talk, for the time being, ended. But the thoughts of both men were busy; and unknown to each other, centered round the enigmatical personality of one woman who had become more interesting to them than anything else in the world,—so much so indeed that each in his own private mind wondered what life would be worth without her!
That evening Morgana was in one of her most bewitching moods—even the old Highland word "fey" scarcely described her many brilliant variations from grave to gay, from gay to romantic, and from romantic to a kind of humorous-satiric vein which moved her to utter quick little witticisms which might have seemed barbed with too sharp a point were they not so quickly covered with a sweetness of manner which deprived them of all malice. She looked her best, too,—she had robed herself in a garment of pale shimmering blue which shone softly like the gleam of moonbeams through crystal—her wonderful hair was twisted up in a coronal held in place by a band of diamonds,—tiny diamonds twinkled in her ears, and a star of diamonds glittered on her breast. Her elfin beauty, totally unlike the beauty of accepted standards, exhaled a subtle influence as a lily exhales fragrance—and the knowledge she had of her own charm combined with her indifference as to its effect upon others gave her a dangerous attractiveness. As she sat at the head of her daintily adorned dinner-table she might have posed for a fairy queen in days when fairies were still believed in and queens were envied,—and Giulio Rivardi's thoughts were swept to and fro in his brain by cross-currents of emotion which were not altogether disinterested or virtuous. For years his spirit had been fretted and galled by poverty,—he, the descendant of a long line of proud Sicilian nobles, had been forced to earn a precarious livelihood as an art decorator and adviser to "newly rich" people who had neither taste nor judgment, teaching them how to build, restore or furnish their houses according to the pure canons of art, in the knowledge of which he excelled,—and now, when chance or providence had thrown Morgana in his way,—Morgana with her millions, and an enchanting personality,—he inwardly demanded why he should not win her to have and to hold for his own? He was a personable man, nobly born, finely educated,—was it possible that he had not sufficient resolution and force of character to take the precious citadel by storm? These ideas flitted vaguely across his mind as he watched his fair hostess talking, now to Don Aloysius, now to Lady Kingswood, and sometimes flinging him a light word of badinage to rally him on what she chose to call his "sulks."
"He can't get over it!" she declared, smiling—"Poor Marchese Giulio! That I should have dared to steer my own air-ship was too much for him, and he can't forgive me!"
"I cannot forgive your putting yourself into danger," said Rivardi—"You ran a great risk—you must pardon me if I hold your life too valuable to be lightly lost."
"It is good of you to think it valuable,"—and her wonderful blue eyes were suddenly shadowed with sadness—"To me it is valueless."
"My dear!" exclaimed Lady Kingswood—"How can you say such a thing!"
"Only because I feel it"—replied Morgana—"I dare say my life is not more valueless than other lives—they are all without ultimate meaning. If I knew, quite positively, that I was all in all to some ONE being who would be unhappy without me,—to whom I could be helper and inspirer, I dare say I should value my life more,—but unfortunately I have seen too much of the modern world to believe in the sincerity of even that 'one' being, could I find him—or her. I am very positively alone in life,—no woman was ever more alone than I!"
"But—is not that your own fault?" suggested Don Aloysius, gently.
"Quite!" she answered, smiling—"I fully admit it. I am what they call 'difficult' I know,—I do not like 'society' or its amusements, which to me seem very vulgar and senseless,—I do not like its conversation, which I find excessively banal and often coarse—I cannot set my soul on tennis or golf or bridge—so I'm quite an 'outsider.' But I'm not sorry!—I should not care to be INside the human menagerie. Too much barking, biting, scratching, and general howling among the animals!—it wouldn't suit me!"
She laughed lightly, and continued,—
"That's why I say my life is valueless to anyone but myself. And that's why I'm not afraid to risk it in flying the 'White Eagle' alone."
Her hearers were silent. Indeed there was nothing to be said. Whatever her will or caprice there was no one with any right to gainsay it. Rivardi was inwardly seething with suppressed irritation—but his handsome face showed no sign of annoyance save in an extreme pallor and gravity of expression.
"I think,"—said Don Aloysius, after a pause—"I think our hostess will do us the grace of believing that whatever she has experienced of the world in general, she has certainly won the regard and interest of those whom she honours with her company at the present moment!"—and his voice had a thrill of irresistible kindness—"And whatever she chooses to do, and however she chooses to do it, she cannot avoid involving such affection and interest as those friends represent—"
"Dear Father Aloysius!" interrupted Morgana, quickly and impulsively—"Forgive me!—I did not think!—I am sure you and the Marchese and Lady Kingswood have the kindest feeling for me!—but—"
"But!"—and Aloysius smiled—"But—it is a little lady that will not be commanded or controlled! Yes—that is so! However this may be, let us not imagine that in the rush of commerce and the marvels of science the world is left empty of love! Love is still the strongest force in nature!"
Morgana's eyes flashed up, then drooped under their white lids fringed with gold.
"You think so?" she murmured—"To me, love leads nowhere!"
"Except to Heaven!" said Aloysius.
There followed a silence.
It was broken by the entrance of a servant announcing that coffee was served in the loggia. They left the dinner-table and went out into the wonder of a perfect Sicilian moonlight. All the gardens were illumined and the sea beyond, with wide strands of silver spreading on all sides, falling over the marble pavements and steps of the loggia and glistening on certain white flowering shrubs with the smooth sheen of polished pearl. The magical loveliness of the scene, made lovelier by the intense silence of the hour, held them as with a binding spell, and Morgana, standing by one of the slender columns which not only supported the loggia but the whole Palazzo d'Oro as with the petrified stems of trees, made a figure completely in harmony with her surroundings.
"Could anything be more enchantingly beautiful!" sighed Lady Kingswood—"One ought to thank God for eyes to see it!"
"And many people with eyes would not see it at all,"—said Don Aloysius—"They would go indoors, shut the shutters and play Bridge! But those who can see it are the happiest!"
And he quoted—
"'On such a night as this, When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees And they did make no noise,—on such a night Troilus, methinks, mounted the Trojan walls And sighed his soul towards the Grecian tents Where Cressid lay!'"
"You know your Shakespeare!" said Rivardi.
"Who would not know him!" replied Aloysius—"One is not blind to the sun!"
"Ah, poor Shakespeare!" said Morgana—"What a lesson he gives us miserable little moderns in the worth of fame! So great, so unapproachable,—and yet!—doubted and slandered and reviled three hundred years after his death by envious detractors who cannot write a line!"
"But what does that matter?" returned Aloysius. "Envy and detraction in their blackness only emphasise his brightness, just as a star shines more brilliantly in a dark sky. One always recognises a great spirit by the littleness of those who strive to wound it,—if it were not great it would not be worth wounding!"
"Shakespeare might have imagined my air-ship!" said Morgana, suddenly—"He was perhaps dreaming vaguely of something like it when he wrote about—"
'A winged messenger of heaven When he bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds And sails upon the bosom of the air!'
"The 'White Eagle' sails upon the bosom of the air!"
"Quite true"—said the Marchese Rivardi, looking at her as she stood, bathed in the moonlight, a nymph-like figure of purely feminine charm, as unlike the accepted idea of a "science" scholar as could well be imagined—"And the manner of its sailing is a mystery which you only can explain! Surely you will reveal this secret?—especially when so many rush into the air-craft business without any idea of the scientific laws by which you uphold your great design? Much has been said and written concerning new schemes for air-vessels moved by steam—"
"That is so like men!" interrupted Morgana, with a laugh—"They will think of steam power when they are actually in possession of electricity!—and they will stick to electricity without moving the one step further which would give them the full use of radio-activity! They will 'bungle' to the end!—and their bungling is always brought about by an ineffable conceit of their own so-called 'logical' conclusions! Poor dears!—they 'get there' at last—and in the course of centuries find out what they could have discovered in a month if they had opened their minds as well as their eyes!"
"Well, then,—help them now," said Rivardi—"Give them the chance to learn your secret!"
Morgana moved away from the column where she had leaned, and came more fully into the broad moonlight.
"My dear Marchese Giulio!" she said, indulgently, "You really are a positive child in your very optimistic look-out on the world of to-day! Suppose I were to 'give them the chance,' as you suggest, to learn my secret, how do you think I should be received? I might go to the great scientific institutions of London and Paris and I might ask to be heard—I might offer to give a 'demonstration,'" here she began to laugh; "Oh dear!—it would never do for a woman to 'demonstrate' and terrify all the male professors, would it! No!—well, I should probably have to wait months before being 'heard,'—then I should probably meet with the chill repudiation dealt out to that wonderful Hindu scientist, Jagadis Bose, by Burdon Sanderson when the brilliant Indian savant tried to teach men what they never knew before about the life of plants. Not only that, I should be met with incredulity and ridicule—'a woman! a WOMAN dares to assume knowledge superior to ours!' and so forth. No, no! Let the wise men try their steam air-ships and spoil the skies by smoke and vapour, so that agriculture becomes more and more difficult, and sunshine an almost forgotten benediction!—let them go their own foolish way till they learn wisdom of themselves—no one could ever teach them what they refuse to learn, till they tumble into a bog or quicksand of dilemma and have to be forcibly dragged out."
"By a woman?" hinted Don Aloysius, with a smile.
She shrugged her shoulders carelessly.
"Very often! Marja Sklodowska Curie, for example, has pulled many scientists out of the mud, but they are not grateful enough to acknowledge it. One of the greatest women of the age, she is allowed to remain in comparative obscurity,—even Anatole France, though he called her a 'genius,' had not the generosity or largeness of mind to praise her as she deserves. Though, of course, like all really great souls she is indifferent to praise or blame—the notice of the decadent press, noisy and vulgar like the beating of the cheap-jack's drum at a country fair, has no attraction for her. Nothing is known of her private life,—not a photograph of her is obtainable—she has the lovely dignity of complete reserve. She is one of my heroines in this life—she does not offer herself to the cheap journalist like a milliner's mannequin or a film face. She will not give herself away—neither will I!"
"But you might benefit the human race"—said Rivardi—"Would not that thought weigh with you?"
"Not in the least!"—and she smiled—"The human race in its present condition is 'an unweeded garden, things rank and gross in nature possess it merely,' and it wants clearing. I have no wish to benefit it. It has always murdered its benefactors. It deludes itself with the idea that the universe is for IT alone,—it ignores the fact that there are many other sharers in its privileges and surroundings—presences and personalities as real as itself. I am almost a believer in what the old-time magicians called 'elementals'—especially now."
Don Aloysius rose from his chair and put aside his emptied coffee-cup. His tall fine figure silhouetted more densely black by the whiteness of the moon-rays had a singularly imposing effect.
"Why especially now?" he asked, almost imperatively—"What has chanced to make you accept the idea—an old idea, older than the lost continent of Atlantis!—of creatures built up of finer life-cells than ours?"
Morgana looked at him, vaguely surprised by his tone and manner.
"Nothing has chanced that causes me any wonder," she said—"or that would 'make' me accept any theory which I could not put to the test for myself. But, out in New York while I have been away, a fellow-student of mine—just a boy,—has found out the means of 'creating energy from some unknown source'—that is, unknown to the scientists of rule-and-line. They call his electric apparatus 'an atmospheric generator.' Naturally this implies that the atmosphere has something to 'generate' which has till now remained hidden and undeveloped. I knew this long ago. Had I NOT known it I could not have thought out the secret of the 'White Eagle'!"
She paused to allow the murmured exclamations of her hearers to subside,—then she went on—"You can easily understand that if atmosphere generates ONE form of energy it is capable of many other forms,—and on these lines there is nothing to be said, against the possibility of 'elementals.' I feel quite 'elemental' myself in this glorious moonlight!—just as if I could slip out of my body like a butterfly out of a chrysalis and spread my wings!"
She lifted her fair arms upward with a kind of expansive rapture,—the moonbeams seemed to filter through the delicate tissue of her garments adding brightness to their folds and sparkling frostily on the diamonds in her hair,—and even Lady Kingswood's very placid nature was conscious of an unusual thrill, half of surprise and half of fear, at the quite "other world" appearance she thus presented.
"You have rather the look of a butterfly!" she said, kindly—"One of those beautiful tropical things—or a fairy!—only we don't know what fairies are like as we have never seen any!"
Morgana laughed, and let her arms drop at her sides. She felt rather than saw the admiring eyes of the two men upon her and her mood changed.
"Yes—it is a lovely night,—for Sicily,"—she said. "But it would be lovelier in California!"
"In California!" echoed Rivardi—"Why California?"
"Why? Oh, I don't know why! I often think of California—it is so vast! Sicily is a speck of garden-land compared with it—and when the moon rises full over the great hills and spreads a wide sheet of silver over the Pacific Ocean you begin to realise a something beyond ordinary nature—it helps you to get to the 'beyond' yourself if you have the will to try!"
Just then the soft slow tolling of a bell struck through the air and Don Aloysius prepared to take his leave.
"The 'beyond' calls to me from the monastery," he said, smiling—"I have been too long absent. Will you walk with me, Giulio?"
"Willingly!" and the Marchese bowed over Lady Kingswood's hand as he bade her "Good night."
"I will accompany you both to the gate,"—said Morgana, suddenly—"and then—when you are both gone I shall wander a little by myself in the light of the moon!"
Lady Kingswood looked dubiously at her, but was too tactful to offer any objection such as the "danger of catching cold" which the ordinary duenna would have suggested, and which would have seemed absurd in the warmth and softness of such a summer night. Besides, if Morgana chose to "wander by the light of the moon" who could prevent her? No one! She stepped off the loggia on to the velvety turf below with an aerial grace more characteristic of flying than walking, and glided along between the tall figures of the Marchese and Don Aloysius like a dream-spirit of the air, and Lady Kingswood, watching her as she descended the garden terraces and gradually disappeared among the trees, was impressed, as she had often been before, by a strange sense of the supernatural,—as if some being wholly unconnected with ordinary mortal happenings were visiting the world by a mere chance. She was a little ashamed of this "uncanny" feeling,—and after a few minutes' hesitation she decided to retire within the house and to her own apartments, rightly judging that Morgana would be better pleased to find her so gone than waiting for her return like a sentinel on guard. She gave a lingering look at the exquisite beauty of the moonlit scene, and thought with a sigh—
"What it would be if one were young once more!"
And then she turned, slowly pacing across the loggia and entering the Palazzo, where the gleam of electric lamps within rivalled the moonbeams and drew her out of sight.
Meanwhile, Morgana, between her two escorts stepped lightly along, playfully arguing with them both on their silence.
"You are so very serious, you good Padre Aloysius!" she said—"And you, Marchese—you who are generally so charming!—to-night you are a very morose companion! You are still in the dumps about my steering the 'White Eagle!'—how cross of you!"
"Madama, I think of your safety,"—he said, curtly.
"It is kind of you! But if I do not care for my safety?"
"I do!" he said, decisively.
"And I also!"—said Aloysius, earnestly—"Dear lady, be advised! Think no more of flying in the vast spaces of air alone—alone with an enormous piece of mechanism which might fail at any moment—"
"It cannot fail unless the laws of nature fail!"—said Morgana, emphatically—"How strange it is that neither of you seems to realise that the force which moves the 'White Eagle' is natural force alone! However—you are but men!" Here she stopped in her walk, and her brilliant eyes flashed from one to the other—"Men!—with pre-conceived ideas wedged in obstinacy!—yes!—you cannot help yourselves! Even Father Aloysius—" she paused, as she met his grave eyes fixed full upon her.
"Well!" he said gently—"What of Father Aloysius? He is 'but man' as you say!—a poor priest having nothing in common with your wealth or your self-will, my child!—one whose soul admits no other instruction than that of the Great Intelligence ruling the universe, and from whose ordinance comes forth joy or sorrow, wisdom or ignorance. We are but dust on the wind before this mighty power!—even you, with all your study and attainment are but a little phantom on the air!"
She smiled as he spoke.
"True!" she said—"And you would save this phantom from vanishing into air utterly?"
"I would!" he answered—"I would fain place you in God's keeping,"—and with a gesture infinitely tender and solemn, he made the sign of the cross above her head—"with a prayer that you may be guided out of the tangled ways of life as lived in these days, to the true realisation of happiness!"
She caught his hand and impulsively kissed it.
"You are good!—far too good!" she said—"And I am wild and wilful—forgive me! I will say good night here—we are just at the gate. Good night, Marchese! I promise you shall fly with me to the East—I will not go alone. There!—be satisfied!" And she gave him a bewitching smile—then with another markedly gentle "Good night" to Aloysius, she turned away and left them, choosing a path back to the house which was thickly overgrown with trees, so that her figure was almost immediately lost to view.
The two men looked at each other in silence.
"You will not succeed by thwarting her!"—said Aloysius, warningly.
Rivardi gave an impatient gesture.
"I? My son, I have no aim in view with regard to her! I should like to see her happy—she has great wealth, and great gifts of intellect and ability—but these do not make real happiness for a woman. And yet—I doubt whether she could ever be happy in the ordinary woman's way."
"No, because she is not an 'ordinary' woman," said Rivardi, quickly—"More's the pity I think—for HER!"
"And for you!" added Aloysius, meaningly.
Rivardi made no answer, and they walked on in silence, the priest parting with his companion at the gate of the monastery, and the Marchese going on to his own half-ruined villa lifting its crumbling walls out of wild verdure and suggesting the historic past, when a Caesar spent festal hours in its great gardens which were now a wilderness.
Meanwhile, Morgana, the subject of their mutual thoughts, followed the path she had taken down to the seashore. Alone there, she stood absorbed,—a fairylike figure in her shimmering soft robe and the diamonds flashing in her hair—now looking at the moonlit water,—now back to the beautiful outline of the Palazzo d'Oro, lifted on its rocky height and surrounded by a paradise of flowers and foliage—then to the long wide structure of the huge shed where her wonderful air-ship lay, as it were, in harbour. She stretched out her arms with a fatigued, appealing gesture.
"I have all I want!"—she said softly aloud,—"All!—all that money can buy—more than money has ever bought!—and yet—the unknown quantity called happiness is not in the bargain. What is it? Why is it? I am like the princess in the 'Arabian Nights' who was quite satisfied with her beautiful palace till an old woman came along and told her that it wanted a roc's egg to make it perfect. And she became at once miserable and discontented because she had not the roc's egg! I thought her a fool when I read that story in my childhood—but I am as great a fool as she to-day. I want that roc's egg!"
She laughed to herself and looked up at the splendid moon, round as a golden shield in heaven.
"How the moon shone that night in California!" she murmured—"And Roger Seaton—bear-man as he is—would have given worlds to hold me in his arms and kiss me as he did once when he 'didn't mean it!' Ah! I wonder if he ever WILL mean it! Perhaps—when it is too late!"
And there swept over her mind the memory of Manella—her rich, warm, dark beauty—her frank abandonment to passions purely primitive,—and she smiled, a cold little weird smile.
"He may marry her,"—she said—"And yet—I think not! But—if he does marry her he will never love her—as he loves ME! How we play at cross-purposes in our lives!—he is not a marrying man—I am not a marrying woman—we are both out for conquest on other lines,—and if either of us wins our way, what then? Shall we be content to live on a triumph of power,—without love?"
"So the man from Washington told you to bring this to me?"
Roger Seaton asked the question of Manella, twirling in his hand an unopened letter she had just given him. She nodded in the affirmative. He looked at her critically, amused at the evident pains she had taken with her dress and general appearance. He twirled the letter again like a toy in his fingers.
"I wonder what it's all about? Do you know?"
Manella shrugged her shoulders with a charming air of indifference.
"I? How should I know? He is your friend I suppose?"
"Not a bit of it!" and Roger stretched himself lazily and yawned—"He's the friend of nobody who is poor. But he's the comrade of everybody with plenty of cash. He's as hard as a dried old walnut, without the shred of a heart—"
"You are wrong!" said Manella, flushing up suddenly—"You are wrong and unjust! He is an ugly old man, but he is very kind."
Seaton threw back his head and laughed heartily with real enjoyment.
"Manella, oh, Manella!" he exclaimed—"What has he said or done to you to win your good opinion? Has he made you some pretty compliments, and told you that you are beautiful? Every one can tell you that, my dear! It does not need Mr. Senator Gwent's assurance to emphasise the fact! That you find him an ugly old man is natural—but that you should also think him 'very kind' DOES surprise me!"
Manella gazed at him seriously—her lovely eyes gleaming like jewels under her long black lashes.
"You mock at everything,"—she said—"It is a pity!"
Her tone was faintly reproachful. He smiled.
"My dear girl, I really cannot regard Mr. Senator Gwent as a figure to be reverenced!"—he said—"He's one of the dustiest, driest old dollar-grabbers in the States. I gave him the chance of fresh grab—but he was too much afraid to take it—"
"Afraid of what?" asked Manella, quickly.
"Of shadows!—shadows of coming events!—yes, they scared him! Now if you are a good girl, and will sit very quiet, you can come into my hut out of this scorching sun, and sit down while I read the letter—I may have to write an answer—and if so you can post it at the Plaza."
He went before her into the hut, and she followed. He bade her sit down in the chair by the window,—she obeyed, and glanced about her shyly, yet curiously. The room was not untidy, as she expected it would be without a woman's hand to set it in order,—on the contrary it was the perfection of neatness and cleanliness. Her gaze was quickly attracted by the bowl of perpetually moving fluid in the center of the table.
"What is that?" she asked.
"That? Oh, nothing! An invention of mine—just to look pretty and cool in warm weather! It reminds me of women's caprices and fancies—always on the jump! Yes!—don't frown, Manella!—that is so! Now—let me see what Mr. Sam Gwent has to say that he didn't say before—-" and seating himself, he opened the letter and began to read.
Manella watched him from under the shadow of her long-fringed eyelids—her heart beat quickly and uncomfortably. She was fearful lest Gwent should have broken faith with her after all, and have written of her and her vain passion, to the man who already knew of it only too well. She waited patiently for the "god of her idolatry" to look up. At last he did so. But he seemed to have forgotten her presence. His brows were knitted in a frown, and he spoke aloud, as to himself—
"A syndicate! Old humbug! He knows perfectly well that the thing could not be run by a syndicate! It must be a State's own single possession—a State's special secret. If I were as bent on sheer destructiveness as he imagines me to be, I should waste no more time, but offer it to Germany. Germany would take it at once—Germany would require no persuasion to use it!—Germany would make me a millionaire twice over for the monopoly of such a force!—that is, if I wanted to be a millionaire, which I don't. But Gwent's a fool—I must have scared him out of his wits, or he wouldn't write all this stuff about risks to my life, advising me to marry quickly and settle down! Good God! I?—Marry and settle down? What a tame ending to a life's adventure! Hello, Manella!"
His eyes lighted upon her as if he had only just seen her. He rose from his chair and went over to where she sat by the window.
"Patient girl!" he said, patting her dark head with his big sun-browned hand—"As good as gold and quieter than a mouse! Well! You may go now. I've read the letter and there's no answer. Nothing for me to write, or for you to post!" She lifted her brilliant eyes to his—what glorious eyes they were! He would not have been man had he not been conscious of their amorous fire. He patted her head again in quite a paternal way.
"Nothing for me to write or for you to post"—he repeated, abstractedly—"and how satisfactory that is!"
"Then you are pleased?" she said.
"Pleased? My dear, there is nothing to be pleased or displeased about! The ugly old man whom you found so 'very kind' tells me to take care of myself—which I always do. Also—to marry and settle down—which I always don't!"
She stood upright, turning her head away from the touch of his hand. She had never looked more attractive than at that moment,—she wore the white gown in which he had before admired her, and a cluster of roses which were pinned to her bodice gave rich contrast to the soft tone of her smooth, suntanned skin, and swayed lightly with the unquiet heaving of the beautiful bosom which might have served a sculptor as a perfect model. A faint, quivering smile was on her lips.
"You always don't? That sounds very droll! You will be unlike every man in the world, then,—they all marry!"
"Oh, do they? You know all about it? Wise Manella!"
And he looked at her, smiling. Her passionate eyes, full of glowing ardour, met his,—a flashing fire seemed to leap from them into his own soul, and for the moment he almost lost his self-possession.
"Wise Manella!" he repeated, his voice shaking a little, while he fought with the insidious temptation which beset him,—the temptation to draw her into his arms and take his fill of the love she was so ready to give—"They always marry? No dear, they do NOT! Many of them avoid marriage—" he paused, then continued—"and do you know why?"
She shook her head.
"Because it is the end of romance! Because it rings down the curtain on a beautiful Play! The music ceases—the lights are put out—the audience goes home,—and the actors take off their fascinating costumes, wash away their paint and powder and sit down to supper—possibly fried steak and onions and a pot of beer. The fried steak and onions—also the beer—make a very good ordinary 'marriage.'"
In this flippant talk he gained the mastery over himself he had feared to lose—and laughed heartily as he saw Manella's expression of utter bewilderment.
"I do not understand!" she said, plaintively—"What is steak and onions?—how do they make a marriage? You say such strange things!"
He laughed again, thoroughly amused.
"Yes, don't I!" he rejoined—"But not half such strange things as I could say if I were so inclined! I'm a queer fellow!"
He touched her hair gently, putting back a stray curl that had fallen across her forehead.
"Now, dear," he continued, "It's time you went. You'll be wanted at the Plaza—and they mustn't think I'm keeping you up here, making love to you!"
She tossed her head back, and her eyes flashed almost angrily.
"There's no danger of that!" she said, with a little suppressed tremor in her throat like the sob of a nightingale at the close of its song.
"Isn't there?" and putting his arm round her, he drew her close to himself and looked full in her eyes—"Manella—there WAS!—a moment ago!"
She remained still and passive in his arms—hardly daring to breathe, so rapt was she in a sudden ecstasy, but he could feel the wild beating of her heart against his own.
"A moment ago!" he repeated, in a half whisper. "A moment ago I could have made such desperate love to you as would have astonished myself!—and YOU! And I should have regretted it ever afterwards—and so would you!"
The struggling emotion in her found utterance.
"No, no—not I!" she said, in quick little passionate murmurs—"I could not regret it!—If you loved me for an hour it would be the joy of my life-time!—You might leave me,—you might forget!—but that would not take away my pride and gladness! You might kill me—I would die gladly if it saved YOUR life!—ah, you do not understand love—not the love of Manella!"
And she lifted her face to his—a face so lovely, so young, so warm with her soul's inward rapture that its glowing beauty might have made a lover of an anchorite. But with Roger Seaton the impulses of passion were brief—the momentary flame had gone out in vapour, and the spirit of the anchorite prevailed. He looked at the dewy red lips, delicately parted like rose petals—but he did not kiss them, and the clasp of his arms round her gradually relaxed.
"Hush, hush Manella!" he said, with a mild kindness, which in her overwrought state was more distracting than angry words would have been—"Hush! You talk foolishness—beautiful foolishness—all women do when they set their fancies on men. It is nature, of course,—YOU think it is love, but, my dear girl, there is no such thing as love! There!—now you are cross!" for she drew herself quickly away from his hold and stood apart, her eyes sparkling, her breast heaving, with the air of a goddess enraged,—"You are cross because I tell you the truth—-"
"It is not the truth," she said, in a low voice quivering with intense feeling—"you tell me lies to disguise yourself. But I can see! You yourself love a woman—but you have not my courage!—you are afraid to own it! You would give the world to hold her in your arms as you just now held ME—but you will not admit it—not even to yourself—and you pretend to hate when you are mad for love!—just as you pretend to be ill when you are well! You should be ashamed to say there is no such thing as love! What mean you then by playing so false with yourself?—with me?—and with HER?"
She looked lovelier than ever in her anger, and he was taken by surprise at the impetuous and instinctive guess she had made at the complexity of his moods, which he himself scarcely understood. For a moment he stood inert, embarrassed by her straight, half-scornful glance—then he regained his usual mental poise and smiled with provoking good humour and tolerance.
"Temper, Manella!—temper again! A pity, a pity! Your Spanish blood is too fiery, Manella!—it is indeed! You have been very rude—do you know how rude you have been? But there! I forgive you! You are only a naughty child! As for love—-"
He paused, and going to the door of the hut looked out.
"Manella, there is a big cloud in the west just over the ocean. It is shaped like a great white eagle and its wings are edged with gold,—it is the beginning of a fine sunset. Come and look at it,—and while we watch it floating along I will talk to you about love!"
She hesitated,—her whole spirit was up in arms against this man whom she loved, and who, so she argued with herself, had allowed her to love HIM, while having no love for HER; and yet,—since Gwent had told her that his mysterious occupation might result in disaster and danger to his life, her devotion had received a new impetus which was wholly unselfish,—that of watchful guardianship such as inspires a faithful dog to defend its master. And, moved by this thought, she obeyed his beckoning hand, and stood with him on the sward outside the hut, looking at the cloud he described. It was singularly white,—new-fallen snow could be no whiter,—and, shaped like a huge bird, its great wings spread out to north and south were edged with a red-gold fire. Seaton pushed an old tree stump into position and sat down upon it, making Manella sit beside him.
"Now for this talk!" he said—"Love is the subject,—Love the theme! We are taught that we must love God and love our neighbor—but we don't, because we can't! In the case of God we cannot love what we don't know and don't see,—and we cannot love our neighbor because he is often a person whom we DO know and CAN see, and who is extremely offensive. Now let us consider what IS love? You, Manella, are angry because I say there is no such thing—and you accuse me of indulging in love for a woman myself. Yet—I still declare, in spite of you, there is no such thing as love! I ought to be ashamed of myself for saying this—so YOU think!—but I'm not ashamed. I know I'm right! Love is a divine idea, never realised. It is like a ninth new note in the musical scale—not to be attained. It is suggested in the highest forms of poetry and art, but the suggestion can never be carried out. What men and women call 'love' is the ordinary attraction of sex,—the same attraction that pulls all male and female living things together and makes them mate. It is very unromantic! And to a man of my mind, very useless."
She looked at him in a kind of sorrowful perplexity.
"You have much talk"—she said—"and no doubt you are clever. But I think you are all wrong!"
"You do? Wise child! Now listen to my much talk a little longer! Have you ever watched silkworms? No? They are typical examples of humanity. A silkworm, while it is a worm, feeds to repletion,—you can never get it as many mulberry leaves as it would like to eat—then when it is gorged, it builds itself a beautiful house of silk (which is taken away from it in due course) and comes out at the door in wings!—wings it hardly uses and seems not to understand—then, if it is a female moth, it looks about for 'love' from the male. If the male 'loves' it, the female produces a considerable number of eggs like pin-heads—and then?—what then? Why she promptly dies, and there's an end of her! Her sole aim and end of being was to produce eggs, which in their turn become worms and repeat the same dull routine of business. Now—think me as brutal as you like—I say a woman is very like a female silkworm,—she comes out of her beautiful silken cocoon of maidenhood with wings which she doesn't know how to use—she merely flutters about waiting to be 'loved'—and when this dream she calls 'love' comes to her, she doesn't dream any longer—she wakes—to find her life finished!—finished, Manella!—dry as a gourd with all the juice run out!"
Manella rose from her seat beside him. The warm light in her eyes had gone—her face was pale, and as she drew herself up to her stately height she made a picture of noble scorn.
"I am sorry for you!" she said. "If you think these things your thoughts are quite dreadful! You are a cruel man after all! I am sorry I spoke of the beautiful little lady who came here to see you—you do not love her—you cannot!—I felt sure you did—but I am wrong!—there is no love in you except for yourself and your own will!"
She spoke, breathing quickly, and trembling with suppressed emotion. He smiled,—and, rising, saluted her with a profound bow.
"Thank you, Manella! You give me a true character!—Myself and my own will are certainly the chief factors in my life—and they may work wonders yet!—who knows! And there is no love in me—no!—not what YOU call love!—but—as concerns the 'beautiful little lady,' you may know this much of me—THAT I WANT HER!"
He threw out his hands with a gesture that was almost tragic, and such an expression came into his face of savagery and tenderness commingled that Manella retreated from him in vague terror.
"I want her!" he repeated—"And why? Not to 'love' her,—but to break her wings,—for she, unlike a silkworm moth, knows how to use them! I want her, to make her proud mind bend to MY will and way!—I want her to show her how a man can, shall, and MUST be master of a woman's brain and soul!"
A sudden heat of pent-up feeling broke out in this impulsive rush of words;—he checked himself,—and seeing Manella's pale, scared face he went up to her and took her hand.
"You see, Manella?" he said, in quiet tones—"There is no such thing as 'love,' but there is such a thing as 'wanting.' And—for the most selfish reasons man ever had—I want HER—not you!"
The colour rushed back to her cheeks in a warm glow—her great dark eyes were ablaze with indignation. She drew her hand quickly from his hold.
"And I hope you will never get her!" she said, passionately—"I will pray the Holy Virgin to save her from you! For you are wicked! She is like an angel—and you are a devil!—yes, surely you must be, or you could not say such horrible things! You do not want me, you say? I know that! I am a fool to have shown you my heart—you have broken it, but you do not care—you could have been master of my brain and soul whenever you pleased—-"
"Ah yes, dear!" he interrupted, with a smile—"That would be so easy!"
The touch of satire in these words was lost on her,—she took them quite literally, and a sudden softness sweetened her anger.
"Yes!—quite easy!" she said—"And you would be pleased! You would do as you wished with me—men like to rule women!"
"When it is worth while!" he thought, looking at her with a curious pitifulness as one might look at a struggling animal caught in a net. Aloud he said—
"Yes, Manella!—men like to rule women. It is their special privilege—they have enjoyed it always, even in the days when the Indian 'braves' beat their squaws out here in California, and killed them outright if they dared to complain of the beating! Women are busy just now trying to rule men—it's an experiment, but it won't do! Men are the masters of life! They expect to be obeyed by all the rest of creation. I expect to be obeyed!—and so, Manella, when I tell you to go home, you must go! Yes!—love, tempers and all!—you must go!"
She met his eyes with a resolved look in her own.
"I am going!" she answered—"But I shall come again. Oh, yes! And yet again! and very often! I shall come even if it is only to find you dead on this hill—killed by your own secret! Yes—I shall come!"
He gave an involuntary movement of surprise and annoyance. Had Mr. Senator Gwent discussed his affairs with this beautiful foolish girl who, like some forest animal, cared for nothing but the satisfaction of mating where her wishes inclined.
"What do you mean, Manella?" he demanded, imperatively—"Do you expect to find me dead?"
She nodded vehemently. Tears were in her eyes and she turned her head away that he might not see them.
"What a cheerful prospect!" he exclaimed, gaily—"And I'm to be killed by my own secret, am I? I wonder what it is! Ah, Manella, Manella! That stupid old Gwent has been at you, stuffing your mind with a lot of nonsense—don't you believe him! I've no 'secret' that will kill me—I don't want to be killed; No, Manella! Though you come 'again and yet again and ever so often' as you say, you will not find me dead! I'm too strong!"
But Manella, yielding to her inward excitement, pointed a hand at him with a warning air of a tragedy queen.
"Do not boast!" she said—"God is always listening! No man is too strong for God! I am not clever—I have no knowledge of what you do—but this I will tell you surely! You may have a secret,—or you may not have it,—but if you play with the powers of God you will be punished! Yes!—of that I am quite certain! And this I will also say—if you were to pull all the clouds down upon you and the thunders and the lightnings and all the terrible things of destruction in the world, I would be there! And you would know what love is!—Yes!"—her voice choked, and then pealed out like that of a Sybilline prophetess, "If God struck you down to hell, I would be there!"
And with a wild, sobbing cry she rushed away from him down the hill before he could move or utter a word.
A red sky burned over Egypt,—red with deep intensity of spreading fire. The slow-creeping waters of the Nile washed patches of dull crimson against the oozy mud-banks, tipping palms and swaying reeds with colour as though touched with vermilion, and here and there long stretches of wet sand gleamed with a tawny gold. All Cairo was out, inhabitants and strangers alike, strangers especially, conceiving it part of their "money's worth" never to miss a sunset,—and beyond Cairo, where the Pyramids lifted their summits aloft,—stern points of warning or menace from the past to the present and the future,—a crowd of tourists with their Arab guides were assembled, staring upward in, amazement at a white wonder in the red sky, a great air-ship, which, unlike other air-ships, was noiseless, and that moved vast wings up and down with the steady, swift rhythm of a bird's flight, as though of its own volition. It soared at an immense height so that it was quite impossible to see any pilot or passenger. It hung over the Pyramids almost motionless for three or four minutes as if about to descend, and the watching groups below made the usual alarmist prognostications of evil, taking care to look about for the safest place of shelter for themselves should the huge piece of mechanism above them suddenly escape control and take a downward dive. But apparently nothing was further from the intention of its invisible guides. Its pause above the Pyramids was brief—and almost before any of the observers had time to realise its departure it had floated away with an easy grace, silence and swiftness, miraculous to all who saw it vanish into space towards the Libyan desert and beyond. The Pyramids, even the Sphinx—lost interest for the time being, every eye being strained to watch the strange aerial visitant till it disappeared. Then a babble of question and comment began in all languages among the travellers from many lands, who, though most of them were fairly well accustomed to aeroplanes, air-ships and aerial navigation as having become part of modern civilisation, found themselves nonplussed by the absolute silence and lightning swiftness of this huge bird-shaped thing that had appeared with extraordinary suddenness in the deep rose glow of the Egyptian sunset sky. Meanwhile the object of their wonder and admiration had sped many miles away, and was sailing above a desert which, from the height it had attained, looked little more than a small stretch of sand such as children play upon by the sea. Its speed gradually slackened—and its occupants, Morgana, the Marchese Rivardi and their expert mechanic, Gaspard, gazed down on the unfolding panorama below them with close and eager interest. There was nothing much to see. Every sign of humanity seemed blotted out. The red sky burning on the little stretch of sand was all.
"How small the world looks from the air!" said Morgana—"It's not worth half the fuss made about it! And yet—it's such a pretty little God's toy!"
She smiled,—and in her smiling expressed a lovely sweetness. Rivardi raised his eyes from his steering gear.
"You are not tired, Madama?" he asked.
"Tired? No, indeed! How can I be tired with so short a journey!"
"Yet we have travelled a thousand miles since we left Sicily this morning"—said Rivardi—"We have kept up the pace, have we not, Gaspard?—or rather, the 'White Eagle' has proved its speed?"
Gaspard looked up from his place at the end of the ship.
"About two hundred and fifty to three hundred miles an hour,"—he said—"One does not realise it in the movement."
"But you realise that the flight is as safe as it is quick?" said Morgana—"Do you not?"
"Madama, I confess my knowledge is outdistanced by yours,"—replied Gaspard—"I am baffled by your secret—but I freely admit its power and success."
"Good! Now let us dine!" said Morgana, opening a leather case such as is used for provisions in motoring, set plates, glasses, wine and food on the table—"A cold collation—but we'll have hot coffee to finish. We could have dined in Cairo, but it would have been a bore! Marchese, we'll stop here, suspended in mid-air, and the stars shall be our festal lamps, vying with our own!" and she turned on a switch which illumined the whole interior of the air-ship with a soft bright radiance—"Whereabouts are we? Still over the Libyan desert?"
Rivardi consulted the chart which was spread open in his steering-cabin.
"No—I think not. We have passed beyond it. We are over the Sahara. Just now we can take no observations—the sunset is dying rapidly and in a few minutes it will be quite dark."
As he spoke he brought the ship to a standstill—it remained absolutely motionless except for the slight swaying as though touched by wave-like ripples of air. Morgana went to the window aperture of her silken-lined "drawing-room" and looked out. All round the great air-ship were the illimitable spaces of the sky, now of a dense dark violet hue with here and there a streak of dull red remaining of the glow of the vanished sun,—below there was only blackness. For the first time a nervous thrill ran through her frame at the look of this dark chaos—and she turned quickly back to the table where Rivardi and Gaspard awaited her before sitting down to their meal. Something quite foreign to her courageous spirit chilled her blood, but she fought against it, and seating herself became the charming hostess to her two companions as they ate and drank, though she took scarcely anything herself. For most unquestionably there was something uncanny in a meal served under such strange circumstances, and so far as the two men were concerned it was only eaten to sustain strength.
"Well, now, have I not been very good?" she asked suddenly of Rivardi—"Did I not say you should fly with me to the East, and are you not here? I have not come alone—though that was my wish,—I have even brought Gaspard who had no great taste for the trip!"
Gaspard moved uneasily.
"That is true, Madama,"—he said—"The art of flying is still in its infancy, and though in my profession as an engineer I have studied and worked out many problems, I dare not say I have fathomed all the mysteries of the air or the influences of atmosphere. I am glad that we have made this voyage safely so far—but I shall be still more glad when we return to Sicily!"
"We can do that to-morrow, I dare say!" she said; "If there is nothing to see in the whole expanse of the desert but dark emptiness"—
"But—what do you expect to see, Madama?" enquired Gaspard, with lively curiosity.
She laughed again as she met Rivardi's keen glance.
"Why, ruins of temples—columns—colossi—a new Sphinx-all sorts of things!" she replied—"But at night, of course, we can see nothing—and we must move onward slowly—I cannot rest swaying like this in mid-air." She put aside the dinner things, and served them with hot coffee from one of the convenient flasks that hold fluids hot or cold for an interminable time, and when they had finished this, they went back to their separate posts. The great ship began to move—and she was relieved to feel it sailing steadily, though at almost a snail's pace "on the bosom of the air." The oppressive nervousness which affected her had not diminished; she could not account for it to herself,—and to rally her forces she went to the window, so-called, of her luxurious cabin. This was a wide aperture filled in with a transparent, crystal-clear material, which looked like glass, but which was wholly unbreakable, and through this she gazed, awe-smitten, at the magnificence of the starry sky. The millions upon millions of worlds which keep the mystery of their being veiled from humanity flashed upon her eyes and moved her mind to a profound sadness.
"What is the use of it all!" she thought—"If one could only find the purpose of this amazing creation! We learn a very little, only to see how much more there is to know! We live our lives, all hoping, searching, praying—and never an answer comes for all our prayers! From the very beginning—not a word from the mysterious Poet who has written the Poem! We are to breed and die—and there an end!—it seems strange and cruel, because so purposeless! Or is it our fault? Do we fail to discover the things we ought to know?"
So she mused, while her "White Eagle" ship sailed serenely on with a leisurely, majestic motion through a seeming wilderness of stars. Courageous as she was, with a veritable lion-heart beating in her delicate little body, and firm as was her resolve to discover what no woman had ever discovered before, to-night she was conscious of actual fear. Something—she knew not what—crept with a compelling influence through her blood,—she felt that some mysterious force she had never reckoned with was insidiously surrounding her with an invisible ring. She called to Rivardi—
"Are we not flying too high? Have you altered the course?"
"No, Madama," he replied at once—"We are on the same level."
She turned towards him. Her face was very pale.
"Well—be careful! To my mind we seem to be in a new atmosphere—there is a sensation of greater tension in the air—or—it is my fancy. We must not be too adventurous,—we must avoid the Great Nebula in Orion for example!"
"Madama, you jest! We are trillions upon trillions of miles distant from any great constellation—"
"Do I not know it? You are too literal, Marchese! Of course I jest—you could not suppose me to be in earnest! But I am sure we are passing through the waves of a new ether—not altogether suited to the average human being. The average human being is not made to inhabit the higher spaces of the upper air—hark!—What was that?"
She held up a warning hand, and listened. There was a distinct and persistent chiming of bells. Bells loud and soft,—bells mellow and deep, clear and silvery—clanging in bass and treble shocks of rising and falling rhythm and tune! "Do you hear?"
Rivardi and Gaspard simultaneously rose to their feet, amazed. Undoubtedly they heard! It was impossible NOT to hear such a clamour of concordant sound! Startled beyond all expression, Morgana sprang to the window of her cabin, and looking out uttered a cry of mingled terror and rapture... for there below her, in the previously inky blackness of the Great Desert, lay a great City, stretching out for miles, and glittering from end to end with a peculiarly deep golden light which seemed to bathe it in the lustre of a setting sun. Towers, cupolas, bridges, streets, squares, parks and gardens could be plainly seen from the air-ship, which had suddenly stopped, and now hung immovably in mid-air; though for some moments Morgana was too excited to notice this. Again she called to her companions—
"Look! Look!" she exclaimed—"We have found it! The Brazen City!"
But she called in vain. Turning for response, she saw, to her amazement and alarm, both men stretched on the floor, senseless! She ran to them and made every effort to rouse them,—they were breathing evenly and quietly as in profound and comfortable sleep—but it was beyond her skill to renew their consciousness. Then it flashed upon her that the "White Eagle" was no longer moving,—that it was, in fact, quite stationary,—and a quick rush of energy filled her as she realised that now she was as she had wished to be, alone with her air-ship to do with it as she would. All fear had left her,—her nerves were steady, and her daring spirit was fired with resolution. Whatever the mischance which had so swiftly overwhelmed Rivardi and Gaspard, she could not stop now to question, or determine it,—she was satisfied that they were not dead, or dying. She went to the steering-gear to take it in hand—but though the mysterious mechanism of the air-ship was silently and rapidly throbbing, the ship did not move. She grasped the propeller—it resisted her touch with hard and absolute inflexibility. All at once a low deep voice spoke close to her ear—
"Do not try to steer. You cannot proceed."
Her heart gave one wild bound,—then almost stood still from sheer terror. She felt herself swaying into unconsciousness, and made a violent effort to master the physical weakness that threatened her. That voice—what voice? Surely one evoked from her own imagination! It spoke again—this time with an intonation that was exquisitely soothing and tender.
"Why are you afraid? For you there is nothing to fear!"
She raised her eyes and looked about nervously. The soft luminance which lit the "White Eagle's" interior from end to end showed nothing new or alarming,—her dainty, rose-lined cabin held no strange or supernatural visitant,—all was as usual. After a pause she rallied strength enough to question the audible but invisible intruder.
"Who is it that speaks to me?" she asked, faintly.
"One from the city below,"—was the instant reply given in full clear accents—"I am speaking on the Sound Ray."
She held her breath in mute wonder, listening. The voice went on, equably—
"You know the use of wireless telephony—we have it as you have it, only your methods are imperfect. We speak on Sound Rays which are not yet discovered in your country. We need neither transmitter nor receiver. Wherever we send our messages, no matter how great the distance, they are always heard."
Slowly Morgana began to regain courage. By degrees she realised that she was attaining the wish of her heart—namely, to know what no woman had ever known before. Again she questioned the voice—
"You tell me I cannot proceed,"—she said—"Why?"
"Because our city is guarded and fortified by the air,"—was the answer—"We are surrounded by a belt of etheric force through which nothing can pass. A million bombs could not break it,—everything driven against it would be dashed to pieces. We saw you coming—we were surprised, for no air-ship has ever ventured so far—we rang the bells of the city to warn you, and stopped your flight."
The warm gentleness of the voice thrilled her with a sudden sympathy.
"That was kind!" she said, and smiled. Some one smiled in response—or she thought so. Presently she spoke again—
"Then you hold me here a prisoner?"
"No. You can return the way you came, quite freely."
"May I not come down and see your city?" "No."
"Because you are not one of us." The Voice hesitated. "And because you are not alone."
Morgana glanced at the prostrate and unconscious forms of Rivardi and Gaspard with a touch of pity.
"My companions are half dead!" she said.
"But not wholly!" was the prompt reply.
"Is it that force you speak of—the force which guards your city—that has struck them down?" she asked.
"Then why was I not also struck down?"
"Because you are what you are!" Then—after a silence—"You are Morgana!"
At this every nerve in her body started quivering like harp strings pulled by testing fingers. The unseen speaker knew her name!—and uttered it with a soft delicacy that made it sound more than musical. She leaned forward, extending a hand as though to touch the invisible.
"How do you know me?" she asked.
"As we all know you,"—came the answer—"Even as YOU have known the inside of a sun-ray!"
She listened, amazed—utterly mystified. Whoever or whatever it was that spoke knew not only her name, but the trend of her earliest studies and theories. The "inside of a sun-ray"! This was what she had only the other day explained to Father Aloysius as being her first experience of real happiness! She tried to set her thoughts in order—to realise her position. Here she was, a fragile human thing, in a flying ship of her own design, held fast by atmospheric force above an unknown city situate somewhere in the Great Desert,—and some one in that city was conversing with her by a method of "wireless" as yet undiscovered by admitted science,—yet communication was perfect and words distinct. Following up the suggestion presented to her she said—
"You are speaking to me in English. Are you all English folk in your city?"
A faint quiver as of laughter vibrated through the "Sound Ray."
"No, indeed! We have no nationality."
"None. We are one people. But we speak every language that ever has been spoken in the past, or is spoken in the present. I speak English to you because it is your manner of talk, though not your manner of life."
"How do you know it is not my manner of life?"
"Because you are not happy in it. Your manner of life is ours. It has nothing to do with nations or peoples. You are Morgana."
"And you?" she cried with sudden eagerness—"Oh, who are you that speak to me?—man, woman, or angel? What are the dwellers in your city, if it is in truth a city, and not a dream!"
"Look again and see!" answered the Voice—"Convince yourself!—do not be deceived! You are not dreaming—Look and make yourself sure!"
Impelled to movement, she went to the window which she had left to take up the steering-gear,—and from there saw again the wonderful scene spread out below, the towers, spires, cupolas and bridges, all lit with that mysterious golden luminance like smouldering sunset fire.
"It is beautiful!" she said—"It seems true—it seems real—"
"It IS true-it IS real!"—the Voice replied—"It has been seen by many travellers,—but because they can never approach it they call it a desert 'mirage.' It is more real and more lasting than any other city in the world."
"Can I never enter it?" she asked, appealingly—"Will you never let me in?"
There was a silence, which seemed to her very long. Still standing at the window of her cabin she looked down on the shining city, a broad stretch of splendid gold luminance under the canopy of the dark sky with its millions of stars. Then the Voice answered her—
"Yes—if you come alone!"
These words sounded so close to her ear that she felt sure the speaker must be standing beside her.
"I will come!" she said, impulsively—"Somehow—some way!—no matter how difficult or dangerous! I will come!"
As she spoke she was conscious of a curious vibration round her, as though some other thing than the ceaseless, silent throbbing of the air-ship's mechanism had disturbed the atmosphere.
"Wait!" said the Voice—"You say this without thought. You do not realise the meaning of your words. For—if you come, you must stay!"
A thrill ran through her blood.
"I must stay!" she echoed—"Why?"
"Because you have learned the Life-Secret,"—answered the Voice—"And, as you have learned it, so must you live. I will tell you more if you care to hear—"
An inrush of energy came to her as she listened—she felt that the unseen speaker acknowledged the power which she herself knew she possessed.
"With all my soul I care to hear!" she said—"But where do you speak from? And who are you that speak?"
"I speak from the central Watch-Tower,"—the Voice replied—"The City is guarded from that point—and from there we can send messages all over the world in every known language. Sometimes they are understood—more often they are ignored,—but we, who have lived since before the coming of Christ, have no concern with such as do not or will not hear. Our business is to wait and watch while the ages go by,—wait and watch till we are called forth to the new world. Sometimes our messages cross the 'wireless' Marconi system—and some confusion happens—but generally the 'Sound Ray' carries straight to its mark. You must well understand all that is implied when you say you will come to us,—it means that you leave the human race as you have known it and unite yourself with another human race as yet unknown to the world!"
Here was an overwhelming mystery—but, nothing daunted, Morgana pursued her enquiry.
"You can talk to me on the Sound Ray"—she said—"And I understand its possibility. You should equally be able to project your own portrait—a true similitude of yourself—on a Light Ray. Let me see you!"
"You are something of a wilful spirit!" answered the Voice—"But you know many secrets of our science and their results. So—as you wish it—"
Another second, and the cabin was filled with a pearly lustre like the vapour which sweeps across the hills in an early summer dawn—and in the center of this as in an aureole stood a nobly proportioned figure, clad in gold-coloured garments fashioned after the early Greek models. Presumably this personage was human,—but never was a semblance of humanity so transfigured. The face and form were those of a beautiful youth,—the eyes were deep and brilliant,—and the expression of the features was one of fine serenity and kindliness. Morgana gazed and gazed, bending herself towards her wonderful visitor with all her soul in her eyes,—when suddenly the vision, if so it might be called, paled and vanished. She uttered a little cry.
"Oh, why have you gone so soon?" she exclaimed.
"It is not I who have gone,"—replied the Voice—"It is only the reflection of me. We cannot project a light picture too far or too long. And even now—when you come to us—if you ever do come!—do you think you will remember me?"
"How could I forget anyone so beautiful!" she said, with passionate enthusiasm.
This time the Sound Ray conveyed a vibration of musical laughter.
"Where every being has beauty for a birthright, how should you know me more than another!" said the Voice—"Beauty is common to all in our city—as common as health, because we obey the Divine laws of both."
She stretched out her hands appealingly.
"Oh, if I could only come to you now!" she murmured.
"Patience!" and the Voice grew softer—"There is something for you to do in the world. You must lose a love before you find it!"
She drew a quick breath. What could these words mean?
"It is time for you now to turn homeward,"—went on the Voice—"You must not be seen above this City at dawn. You would be attacked and instantly destroyed, as having received a warning which you refused to heed."
"Do you attack and destroy all strangers so?" she asked—"Is that your rule?"
"It is our rule to keep away the mischief of the modern world"—replied the Voice—"As well admit a pestilence as the men and women of to-day!"
"I am a woman of to-day,"—said Morgana.
"No, you are not,—you are a woman of the future!" and the Voice was grave and insistent—"You are one of the new race. At the appointed hour you will take your part with us in the new world?"
"When will be that hour?"
There was a pause. Then, with an exceeding sweetness and solemnity the Voice replied—
"If He will that we tarry till He come, what is that to thee?"
A sense of great awe swept over her, oppressive and humiliating. She looked once more through her cabin window at the city spread out below, and saw that some of the lights were being extinguished in the taller buildings and on the bridges which connected streets and avenues in a network of architectural beauty.
The Voice spoke again—
"We are releasing you from the barrier. You are free to depart."
"I have no wish to go!" she said.
"You must!" The Voice became commanding. "If you stay now, you and your companions are doomed to perish. There is no alternative. Be satisfied that we know you—we watch you—we shall expect you sooner or later. Meanwhile—guide your ship!—the way is open."
Quickly she sprang to the steering-gear—she felt the "White Eagle" moving, and lifting its vast wings for flight.
"Farewell!" she cried, with a sense of tears in her throat—"Farewell!"
"Not farewell!" came the reply, spoken softly and with tenderness—"We shall meet again soon! I will speak to you in Sicily!"
"In Sicily!" she exclaimed, joyfully—"You will speak to me there?"
"There and everywhere!" answered the Voice—"The Sound Ray knows no distance. I shall speak—and you shall hear—whenever you will!"
The last syllables died away like faintly sung music—and in a few more seconds the great air-ship was sailing steadily in a level line and at a swift pace onward,—the last shining glimpse of the mysterious City vanished, and the "White Eagle" soared over a sable blackness of empty desert, through a dark space besprinkled with stars. Filled with a new sense of power and gladness, Morgana held the vessel in the guidance of her slight but strong hands, and it had flown many miles before the Marchese Rivardi sprang up suddenly from where he had lain lost in unconsciousness and stared around him amazed and confused.
"A thousand pardons, Madama!" he stammered—"I shall never forgive myself! I have been asleep!"
At almost the same moment Gaspard stumbled to his feet.
"Asleep—asleep!" he exclaimed—"Mon Dieu!—the shame of it!—the shame! What pigs are men! To sleep after food and wine, and to leave a woman alone like this!... the shame!"
Morgana, quietly steering the "White Eagle," smiled.
"Poor Gaspard!" she said—"You could not help it! You were so tired! And you, Marchese! You were both quite worn out! I was glad to see you sleeping—there is no shame in it! As I have often told you, I can manage the ship alone."
But Rivardi was white with anger and self-reproach.
"Gross pigs we are!" he said, hotly—"Gaspard is right! And yet—" here he passed a hand across his brow and tried to collect his thoughts—"yes!—surely something unusual must have happened! We heard bells ringing—"
Morgana watched him closely, her hand on her air-vessel's helm.
"Yes—we all thought we heard bells"—she said—"But that was a noise in our own brains—the clamour of our own blood brought on by pressure—we were flying at too great a height and the tension was too strong—"
Gaspard threw out his hands with a half defiant gesture.
"No, Madama! It could not be so! I swear we never left our own level! What happened I cannot tell—but I felt that I was struck by a sudden blow—and I fell without force to recover—"
"Sleep struck you that sudden blow, you poor Gaspard!" said Morgana, "And you have not slept so long—barely an hour—just long enough for me to hover a while above this black desert and then turn homeward,—I want no more of the Sahara!"
Rivardi, smarting under a sense of loss and incompetency, went up to her.
"Give me the helm!" he said, almost sharply—"You have done enough!"
She resigned her place to him, smiling at his irritation.
"You are sure you are quite rested?" she asked.
"Rested!" he echoed the word disdainfully—"I should never have rested at all had I been half the man I profess to be! Why do you turn back? I thought you were bent on exploring the Great Desert!—that you meant to try and find the traditional Brazen City?"
She shrugged her shoulders.
"I do not like the prospect"—she said—"There is nothing but sand—interminable billows of sand! I can well believe it was all ocean once,—when the earth gave a sudden tilt, and all the water was thrown off from one surface to another. If we could dig deep enough below the sand I think we should find remains of wrecked ships, with the skeletons of antediluvian men and animals, remains of one of the many wasted civilisations—"
"You do not answer me—" interrupted Rivardi with impatience—"What of your search for the Brazen City?"
She raised her lovely, mysterious eyes and looked full at him.
"Do you believe it exists?" she asked.
He gave a gesture of annoyance.
"Whether I believe or not is of no importance,"—he answered—"YOU have some idea about it, and you have every means of proving the truth of your idea—yet, after making the journey from Sicily for the purpose, you suddenly turn back!"
Still she kept her eyes upon him.
"You must not mind the caprices of a woman!" she said, with a smile—"And do please remember the 'Brazen City' is not MY idea! The legend of this undiscovered place in the desert was related by your friend Don Aloysius—and he was careful to say it was 'only' a legend. Why should you think I accept it as a truth?"
"Surely it was the motive of your flight here?" he demanded, imperatively.
Her brows drew together in a slight frown.
"My dear Marchese, I allow no one to question my motives"—she said with sudden coldness—"That I have decided to go no farther in search of the Brazen City is my own affair."
"But—not even to wait for the full daylight!" he expostulated—"You could not see it by night even if it existed!"
"Not unless it was lit like other cities!" she said, smiling—"I suppose if such a city existed, its inhabitants would need some sort of illuminant—they would not grope about in the dark. In that case it would be seen from our ship as well by night as by day."
Gaspard, busy with some mechanical detail, looked up.
"Then why not make a search for it while we are here?" he said—"You evidently believe in it!"
"I have turned the 'White Eagle' homeward, and shall not turn again"—she said—"But I do not see any reason why such a city should not exist and be discovered some day. Explorers in tropical forests find the remains or beginnings of a different race of men from our own—pygmies, and such like beings—there is nothing really against the possibility of an undiscovered City in the Great Desert. We modern folk think we know a great deal—but our wisdom is very superficial and our knowledge limited. We have not mastered EVERYTHING under the sun!"
The Marchese Rivardi looked at her with something of defiance in his glance.
"I will adventure in search of the legendary city myself, alone!" he said.
Morgana laughed, her clear little cold laugh of disdain.
"Do so, my friend! Why not?" she said—"You are a daring airman on many forms of airships—I knew that,—before I entrusted you with the scheme of mine. Discover the legendary 'Brazen City' if you can!—I promise not to be jealous!—and return to the world of curiosity mongers—(also, if you CAN!) with a full report of its inhabitants and their manners and customs. And so—you will become famous! But you must not fall asleep on the way!"