He gave her time to recover her momentary emotion and then went on, still softly and tenderly:
"Listen, Helen. I want you to believe me and forgive me, if you can. I know—I remember those moonlight evenings in Scotland—holy and happy evenings, as sweet as flower-scented pages in a young girl's missal; yes, and I did not mean to play with you, Helen, or wound your gentle heart. I almost loved you!" He spoke the words passionately, and for a moment she raised her eyes and looked at him in something of fear as well as sorrow. "'Yes,' I said to my self, 'this woman, so true and pure and fair, is a bride for a king; and if I can win her—if!' Ah, there my musings stopped. But I came to Egypt chiefly to meet you again, knowing that you and your brother were in Cairo. How was I to know, how was I to guess that this horrible thing would happen?"
Helen gazed at him wonderingly.
"What horrible thing?" she asked, falteringly, the rich color coming and going on her face, and her heart beating violently as she put the question.
His eyes flashed.
"This," he answered. "The close and pernicious enthralment of a woman I never met till the night before last; a woman whose face haunts me; a woman who drags me to her side with the force of a magnet, there to grovel like a brain-sick fool and plead with her for a love which I already know is poison to my soul! Helen, Helen! You do not understand—you will never understand! Here, in the very air I breathe, I fancy I can trace the perfume she shakes from her garments as she moves; something indescribably fascinating yet terrible attracts me to her; it is an evil attraction, I know, but I cannot resist it. There is something wicked in every man's nature; I am conscious enough that there is something detestably wicked in mine, and I have not sufficient goodness to overbalance it. And this woman,—this silent, gliding, glittering-eyed creature that has suddenly taken possession of my fancy—she overcomes me in spite of myself; she makes havoc of all the good intentions of my life. I admit it—I confess it!"
"You are speaking of the Princess Ziska?" asked Helen, tremblingly.
"Of whom else should I speak?" he responded, dreamily. "There is no one like her; probably there never was anyone like her, except, perhaps, Ziska-Charmazel!"
As the name passed his lips, he sprang hastily up and stood amazed, as though some sudden voice had called him. Helen Murray looked at him in alarm.
"Oh, what is it?" she exclaimed.
He forced a laugh.
"Nothing—nothing—but a madness! I suppose it is all a part of my strange malady. Your brother is stricken with the same fever. Surely you know that?"
"Indeed I do know it," Helen answered, "to my sorrow!"
He regarded her intently. Her face in its pure outline and quiet sadness of expression touched him more than he cared to own even to himself.
"My dear Helen," he said, with an effort at composure, "I have been talking wildly; you must forgive me! Don't think about me at all; I am not worth it! Denzil has taken it into his head to quarrel with me on account of the Princess Ziska, but I assure you I will not quarrel with him. He is infatuated, and so am I. The best thing for all of us to do would be to leave Egypt instantly; I feel that instinctively, only we cannot do it. Something holds us here. You will never persuade Denzil to go, and I—I cannot persuade myself to go. There is a clinging sweetness in the air for me; and there are vague suggestions, memories, dreams, histories—wonderful things which hold me spell-bound! I wish I could analyze them, recognize them, or understand them. But I cannot, and there, perhaps, is their secret charm. Only one thing grieves me, and that is, that I have, perhaps, unwittingly, in some thoughtless way, given you pain; is it so, Helen?"
She rose quickly, and with a quiet dignity held out her hand.
"No, Monsieur Gervase," she said, "it is not so. I am not one of those women who take every little idle word said by men in jest au grand serieux! You have always been a kind and courteous friend, and if you ever fancied you had a warmer feeling for me, as you say, I am sure you were mistaken. We often delude ourselves in these matters. I wish, for your sake, I could think the Princess Ziska worthy of the love she so readily inspires. But,—I cannot! My brother's infatuation for her is to me terrible. I feel it will break his heart,—and mine!" A little half sob caught her breath and interrupted her; she paused, but presently went on with an effort at calmness: "You talk of our leaving Egypt; how I wish that were possible! But I spoke to Denzil about it on the night of the ball, and he was furious with me for the mere suggestion. It seems like an evil fate."
"It IS an evil fate," said Gervase gloomily. "Enfin, my dear Helen, we cannot escape from it,—at least, I cannot. But I never was intended for good things, not even for a lasting love. A lasting love I feel would bore me. You look amazed; you believe in lasting love? So do many sweet women. But do you know what symbol I, as an artist, would employ were I asked to give my idea of Love on my canvas?"
Helen smiled sadly and shook her head.
"I would paint a glowing flame," said Gervase dreamily. "A flame leaping up from the pit of hell to the height of heaven, springing in darkness, lost in light; and flying into the centre of that flame should be a white moth—a blind, soft, mad thing with beating, tremulous wings,—that should be Love! Whirled into the very heart of the ravening fire,—crushed, shrivelled out of existence in one wild, rushing rapture—that is what Love must be to me! One cannot prolong passion over fifty years, more or less, of commonplace routine, as marriage would have us do. The very notion is absurd. Love is like a choice wine of exquisite bouquet and intoxicating flavor; it is the most maddening draught in the world, but you cannot drink it every day. No, my dear Helen; I am not made for a quiet life,—nor for a long one, I fancy."
His voice unconsciously sank into a melancholy tone, and for one moment Helen's composure nearly gave way. She loved him as true women love, with that sublime self-sacrifice which only desires the happiness of the thing beloved; yet a kind of insensate rage stirred for once in her gentle soul to think that the mere sight of a strange woman with dark eyes,—a woman whom no one knew anything about, and who was by some people deemed a mere adventuress,—should have so overwhelmed this man whose genius she had deemed superior to fleeting impressions. Controlling the tears that rose to her eyes and threatened to fall, she said gently,
"Good-bye, Monsieur Gervase!"
He started as from a reverie.
"Good-bye, Helen! Some day you will think kindly of me again?"
"I think kindly of you now," she answered tremulously; then, not trusting herself to say any more, she turned swiftly and left him.
"The flame and the moth!" he mused, watching her slight figure till it had disappeared. "Yes, it is the only fitting symbol. Love must be always so. Sudden, impetuous, ungovernable, and then—the end! To stretch out the divine passion over life-long breakfasts and dinners! It would be intolerable to me. Lord Fulkeward could do that sort of thing; his chest is narrow, and his sentiments are as limited as his chest. He would duly kiss his wife every morning and evening, and he would not analyze the fact that no special thrill of joy stirred in him at the action. What should he do with thrills of joy—this poor Fulkeward? And yet it is likely he will marry Helen. Or will it be the Courtney animal,—the type of man whose one idea is 'to arise, kill, and eat?' "Ah, well!" and he sighed. "She is not for me, this maiden grace of womanhood. If I married her, I should make her miserable. I am made for passion, not for peace."
He started as he heard a step behind him, and turning, saw Dr. Dean. The worthy little savant looked worried and preoccupied.
"I have had a letter from the Princess Ziska," he said, without any preliminary. "She has gone to secures rooms at the Mena House Hotel, which is situated close to the Pyramids. She regrets she cannot enter into the idea of taking a trip up the Nile. She has no time, she says, as she is soon leaving Cairo. But she suggests that we should make up a party for the Mena House while she is staying there, as she can, so she tells me, make the Pyramids much more interesting for us by her intimate knowledge of them. Now, to me this is a very tempting offer, but I should not care to go alone."
"The Murrays will go, I am sure," murmured Gervase lazily. "At any rate, Denzil will."
The Doctor looked at him narrowly.
"If Denzil goes, so will you go," he said. "Thus there are two already booked for company. And I fancy the Fulkewards might like the idea."
"The Princess is leaving Cairo?" queried Gervase presently, as though it were an after thought.
"So she informs me in her letter. The party which is to come off on Wednesday night is her last reception."
Gervase was silent a moment. Then he said:
"Have you told Denzil?"
"Better do so then," and Gervase glanced up at the sky, now glowing red with a fiery sunset. "He wants to propose, you know."
"Good God!" cried the Doctor, sharply, "If he proposes to that woman. ..."
"Why should he not?" demanded Gervase. "Is she not as ripe for love and fit for marriage as any other of her sex?"
"Her sex!" echoed the Doctor grimly. "Her sex!—There!—for heaven's sake don't talk to me!—leave me alone! The Princess Ziska is like no woman living; she has none of the sentiments of a woman,—and the notion of Denzil's being such a fool as to think of proposing to her—Oh, leave me alone, I tell you! Let me worry this out!"
And clapping his hat well down over his eyes, he began to walk away in a strange condition of excitement, which he evidently had some difficulty in suppressing. Suddenly, however, he turned, came back and tapped Gervase smartly on the chest.
"YOU are the man for the Princess," he said impressively. "There is a madness in you which you call love for her; you are her fitting mate, not that poor boy, Denzil Murray. In certain men and women spirit leaps to spirit,—note responds to note—and if all the world were to interpose its trumpery bulk, nothing could prevent such tumultuous forces rushing together. Follow your destiny, Monsieur Gervase, but do not ruin another man's life on the way. Follow your destiny,—complete it,—you are bound to do so,—but in the havoc and wildness to come, for God's sake, let the innocent go free!"
He spoke with extraordinary solemnity, and Gervase stared at him in utter bewilderment and perplexity, not understanding in the least what he meant. But before he could interpose a word or ask a question, Dr. Dean had gone.
The next two or three days passed without any incident of interest occurring to move the languid calm and excite the fleeting interest of the fashionable English and European visitors who were congregated at the Gezireh Palace Hotel. The anxious flirtations of Dolly and Muriel Chetwynd Lyle afforded subjects of mirth to the profane,—the wonderfully youthful toilettes of Lady Fulkeward provided several keynotes from which to strike frivolous conversation,—and when the great painter, Armand Gervase, actually made a sketch of her ladyship for his own amusement, and made her look about sixteen, and girlish at that, his popularity knew no bounds. Everyone wanted to give him a commission, particularly the elderly fair, and he could have made a fortune had he chosen, after the example set him by the English academicians, by painting the portraits of ugly nobodies who were ready to pay any price to be turned out as handsome somebodies. But he was too restless and ill at ease to apply himself steadily to work,—the glowing skies of Egypt, the picturesque groups of natives to be seen at every turn,—the curious corners of old Cairo—these made no impression upon his mind at all, and when he was alone, he passed whole half hours staring at the strange picture he had made of the Princess Ziska, wherein the face of death seemed confronting him through a mask of life. And he welcomed with a strong sense of relief and expectation the long- looked-for evening of the Princess's "reception," to which many of the visitors in Cairo had been invited since a fortnight, and which those persons who always profess to be "in the know," even if they are wallowing in ignorance, declared would surpass any entertainment ever given during the Cairene season.
The night came at last. It was exceedingly sultry, but bright and clear, and the moon shone with effective brilliance on the gayly- attired groups of people that between nine and ten o'clock began to throng the narrow street in which the carved tomb-like portal of the Princess Ziska's residence was the most conspicuous object. Lady Chetwynd Lyle, remarkable for bad taste in her dress and the disposal of her diamonds, stared in haughty amazement at the Nubian, who saluted her and her daughters with the grin peculiar to his uninviting cast of countenance, and swept into the courtyard attended by her husband with an air as though she imagined her presence gave the necessary flavor of "good style" to the proceedings. She was followed by Lady Fulkeward, innocently clad in white and wearing a knot of lilies on her prettily- enamelled left shoulder, Lord Fulkeward, Denzil Murray and his sister. Helen also wore white, but though she was in the twenties and Lady Fulkeward was in the sixties, the girl had so much sadness in her face and so much tragedy in her soft eyes that she looked, if anything, older than the old woman. Gervase and Dr. Dean arrived together, and found themselves in a brilliant, crushing crowd of people, all of different nationalities and all manifesting a good deal of impatience because they were delayed a few minutes in an open court, where a couple of stone lions with wings were the only spectators of their costumes.
"Most singular behavior!" said Lady Chetwynd Lyle, snorting and sniffing, "to keep us waiting outside like this! The Princess has no idea of European manners!"
As she spoke, a sudden blaze of light flamed on the scene, and twenty tall Egyptian servants in white, with red turbans, carrying lighted torches and marching two by two crossed the court, and by mute yet stately gestures invited the company to follow. And the company did follow in haste, with scramble and rudeness, as is the way of "European manners" nowadays; and presently, having been relieved of their cloaks and wrappings, stood startled and confounded in a huge hall richly adorned with silk and cloth of gold hangings, where, between two bronze sphinxes, the Princess Ziska, attired wonderfully in a dim, pale rose color, with flecks of jewels flashing from her draperies here and there, waited to receive her guests. Like a queen she stood,—behind her towered a giant palm, and at her feet were strewn roses and lotus-lilies. On either side of her, seated on the ground, were young girls gorgeously clad and veiled to the eyes in the Egyptian fashion, and as the staring, heated and impetuous swarm of "travelling" English and Americans came face to face with her in her marvellous beauty, they were for the moment stricken spellbound, and could scarcely summon up the necessary assurance to advance and take the hand she outstretched to them in welcome. She appeared not to see the general embarrassment, and greeted all who approached her with courteous ease and composure, speaking the few words which every graceful hostess deems adequate before "passing on" her visitors. And presently music began,—music wild and fantastic, of a character unknown to modern fashionable ears, yet strangely familiar to Armand Gervase, who started at the first sound of it, and seemed enthralled.
"That is not an ordinary orchestra," said Dr. Dean in his ear. "The instruments are ancient, and the form of melody is barbaric."
Gervase answered nothing, for the Princess Ziska just then approached them.
"Come into the Red Saloon," she said. "I am persuading my guests to pass on there. I have an old bas-relief on the walls which I would like you to see,—you, especially, Dr. Dean!—for you are so learned in antiquities. I hear you are trying to discover traces of Araxes?"
"I am," replied the Doctor. "You interested me very much in his history."
"He was a great man," said the Princess, slowly piloting them as she spoke, without hurry and with careful courtesy, through the serried ranks of the now freely chattering and animated company. "Much greater than any of your modern heroes. But he had two faults; faults which frequently accompany the plentitude of power,—cruelty and selfishness. He betrayed and murdered the only woman that ever loved him, Ziska-Charmazel."
"Murdered her!" exclaimed Dr. Dean. "How?"
"Oh, it is only a legend!" and the Princess smiled, turning her dark eyes with a bewitching languor on Gervase, who, for some reason or other which he could not explain, felt as if he were walking in a dream on the edge of a deep chasm of nothingness, into which he must presently sink to utter destruction. "All these old histories happened so long ago that they are nothing but myths now to the present generation."
"Time does not rob any incident of its interest to me," said Dr. Dean. "Ages hence Queen Victoria will be as much a doubtful potentate as King Lud. To the wise student of things there is no time and no distance. All history from the very beginning is like a wonderful chain in which no link is ever really broken, and in which every part fits closely to the other part,—though why the chain should exist at all is a mystery we cannot solve. Yet I am quite certain that even our late friend Araxes has his connection with the present, if only for the reason that he lived in the past."
"How do you argue out that theory!" asked Gervase with sudden interest.
"How do you argue it? The question is, how can you argue at all about anything that is so plain and demonstrated a fact? The doctrine of evolution proves it. Everything that we were once has its part in us now. Suppose, if you like, that we were originally no more than shells on the shore,—some remnant of the nature of the shell must be in us at this moment. Nothing is lost,—nothing is wasted,—not even a thought. I carry my theories very far," pursued the Doctor, looking keenly from one to the other of his silent companions as they walked beside him through a long corridor towards the Red Saloon, which could be seen, brilliantly lit up and thronged with people. "Very far indeed, especially in regard to matters of love. I maintain that if it is decreed that the soul of a man and the soul of a woman must meet,—must rush together,—not all the forces of the universe can hinder them; aye, even if they were, for some conventional cause or circumstance themselves reluctant to consummate their destiny, it would nevertheless, despite them, be consummated. For mark you,— in some form or other they have rushed together before! Whether as flames in the air, or twining leaves on a tree, or flowers in a field, they have felt the sweetness and fitness of each other's being in former lives,—and the craving sense of that sweetness and fitness can never be done away with,—never! Not as long as this present universe lasts! It is a terrible thing," continued the Doctor in a lower tone, "a terrible fatality,—the desire of love. In some cases it is a curse; in others, a divine and priceless blessing. The results depend entirely on the temperaments of the human creatures possessed by its fever. When it kindles, rises and burns towards Heaven in a steady flame of ever-brightening purity and faith, then it makes marriage the most perfect union on earth,—the sweetest and most blessed companionship; but when it is a mere gust of fire, bright and fierce as the sudden leaping light of a volcano, then it withers everything at a touch,—faith, honor, truth,—and dies into dull ashes in which no spark remains to warm or inspire man's higher nature. Better death than such a love,—for it works misery on earth; but who can tell what horrors it may not create Hereafter!"
The Princess looked at him with a strange, weird gleam in her dark eyes.
"You are right," she said. "It is just the Hereafter that men never think of. I am glad you, at least, acknowledge the truth of the life beyond death."
"I am bound to acknowledge it," returned the Doctor; "inasmuch as I know it exists."
Gervase glanced at him with a smile, in which there was something of contempt.
"You are very much behind the age, Doctor," he remarked lightly.
"Very much behind indeed," agreed Dr. Dean composedly. "The age rushes on too rapidly for me, and gives no time to the consideration of things by the way. I stop,—I take breathing space in which to think; life without thought is madness, and I desire to have no part in a mad age."
At that moment they entered the Red Saloon, a stately apartment, which was entirely modelled after the most ancient forms of Egyptian architecture. The centre of the vast room was quite clear of furniture, so that the Princess Ziska's guests went wandering up and down, to and fro, entirely at their ease, without crush or inconvenience, and congregated in corners for conversation; though if they chose they could recline on low divans and gorgeously- cushioned benches ranged against the walls and sheltered by tall palms and flowering exotics. The music was heard to better advantage here than in the hall where the company had first been received; and as the Princess moved to a seat under the pale green frondage of a huge tropical fern and bade her two companions sit beside her, sounds of the wildest, most melancholy and haunting character began to palpitate upon the air in the mournful, throbbing fashion in which a nightingale sings when its soul is burdened with love. The passionate tremor that shakes the bird's throat at mating-time seemed to shake the unseen instruments that now discoursed strange melody, and Gervase, listening dreamily, felt a curious contraction and aching at his heart and a sense of suffocation in his throat, combined with an insatiate desire to seize in his arms the mysterious Ziska, with her dark fathomless eyes and slight, yet voluptuous, form,—to drag her to his breast and crush her there, whispering:
"Mine!—mine! By all the gods of the past and present—mine! Who shall tear her from me,—who dispute my right to love her—ruin her—murder her, if I choose? She is mine!"
"The bas-relief I told you of is just above us," said the Princess then, addressing herself to the Doctor; "would you like to examine it? One of the servants shall bring you a lighted taper, and by passing it in front of the sculpture you will be able to see the design better. Ah, Mr. Murray!" and she smiled as she greeted Denzil, who just then approached. "You are in time to give us your opinion. I want Dr. Dean to see that very old piece of stone carving on the wall above us,—it will serve as a link for him in the history of Araxes."
"Indeed!" murmured Denzil, somewhat abstractedly.
The Princess glanced at his brooding face and laughed.
"You, I know, are not interested at all in old history," she went on. "The past has no attraction for you."
"No. The present is enough," he replied, with a glance of mingled hope and passion.
She smiled, and signing to one of her Egyptian attendants, bade him bring a lighted taper. He did so, and passed it slowly up and down and to the right and left of the large piece of ancient sculpture that occupied more than half the wall, while Dr. Dean stood by, spectacles on nose, to examine the carving as closely as possible. Several other people, attracted by what was going on, paused to look also, and the Princess undertook to explain the scene depicted.
"This piece of carving is of the date of the King Amenhotep or Amenophis III., of the Eighteenth Dynasty. It represents the return of the warrior Araxes, a favorite servant of the king's, after some brilliant victory. You see, there is the triumphal car in which he rides, drawn by winged horses, and behind him are the solar deities—Ra, Sikar, Tmu, and Osiris. He is supposed to be approaching his palace in triumph; the gates are thrown open to receive him, and coming out to meet him is the chief favorite of his harem, the celebrated dancer of that period—Ziska-Charmazel."
"Whom he afterwards murdered, you say?" queried Dr. Dean meditatively.
"Yes. He murdered her simply because she loved him too well and was in the way of his ambition. There was nothing astonishing in his behavior, not even if you consider it in the light of modern times. Men always murder—morally, if not physically—the women who love them too well."
"You truly think that?" asked Denzil Murray in a low tone.
"I not only truly think it, I truly know it!" she answered, with a disdainful flash of her eyes. "Of course, I speak of strong men with strong passions; they are the only kind of men women ever worship. Of course, a weak, good-natured man is different; he would probably not harm a woman for the world, or give her the least cause for pain if he could help it, but that sort of man never becomes either an adept or a master in love. Araxes was probably both. No doubt he considered he had a perfect right to slay what he had grown weary of; he thought no more than men of his type think to-day, that the taking of a life demands a life in exchange, if not in this world, then in the next."
The group of people near her were all silent, gazing with an odd fascination at the quaint and ancient-sculptured figures above them, when all at once Dr. Dean, taking the taper from the hands of the Egyptian servant, held the flame close to the features of the warrior riding in the car of triumph, and said slowly:
"Do you not see a curious resemblance, Princess, between this Araxes and a friend of ours here present? Monsieur Armand Gervase, will you kindly step forward? Yes, that will do, turn your head slightly,—so! Yes! Now observe the outline of the features of Araxes as carven in this sculpture thousands of years ago, and compare it with the outline of the features of our celebrated friend, the greatest French artist of his day. Am I the only one who perceives the remarkable similarity of contour and expression?"
The Princess made no reply. A smile crossed her lips, but no word escaped them. Several persons, however, pressed eagerly forward to look at and comment upon what was indeed a startling likeness. The same straight, fierce brows, the same proud, firm mouth, the same almond-shaped eyes were, as it seemed, copied from the ancient entablature and repeated in flesh and blood in the features of Gervase. Even Denzil Murray, absorbed though he was in conflicting thoughts of his own, was struck by the coincidence.
"It is really very remarkable!" he said. "Allowing for the peculiar style of drawing and design common to ancient Egypt, the portrait of Araxes might pass for Gervase in Egyptian costume."
Gervase himself was silent. Some mysterious emotion held him mute, and he was only aware of a vague irritation that fretted him without any seemingly adequate cause. Dr. Dean meanwhile pursued his investigations with the lighted taper, and presently, turning round on the assembled little group of bystanders, he said:
"I have just discovered another singular thing. The face of the woman here—the dancer and favorite—is the face of our charming hostess, the Princess Ziska!"
Exclamations of wonder greeted this announcement, and everybody craned their necks to see. And then the Princess spoke, slowly and languidly.
"Yes," she murmured, "I was hoping you would perceive that. I myself noticed how very like me is the famous Ziska-Charmazel, and that is just why I dressed in her fashion for the fancy ball the other evening. It seemed to me the best thing to do, as I wanted to choose an ancient period, and then, you know, I bear half her name."
Dr. Dean looked at her keenly, and a somewhat grim smile wrinkled his lips.
"You could not have done better," he declared. "You and the dancing-girl of Araxes might be twin sisters."
He lowered the taper he held that it might more strongly illumine her face, and as the outline of her head and throat and bust was thrown into full relief, Gervase, staring at her, was again conscious of that sudden, painful emotion of familiarity which had before overwhelmed him, and he felt that in all the world he had no such intimate knowledge of any woman as he had of Ziska. He knew her! Ah!—how did he NOT know her? Every curve of that pliant form was to him the living memory of something once possessed and loved, and he pressed his hand heavily across his eyes for a moment to shut out the sight of all the exquisite voluptuous grace which shook his self-control and tempted him almost beyond man's mortal endurance.
"Are you not well, Monsieur Gervase?" said Dr. Dean, observing him closely, and handing back the lighted taper to the Egyptian servant who waited to receive it. "The portraits on this old carving have perhaps affected you unpleasantly? Yet there is really nothing of importance in such a coincidence."
"Nothing of importance, perhaps, but surely something of singularity," interrupted Denzil Murray, "especially in the resemblance between the Princess and the dancing-girl of that ancient period,—their features are positively line for line alike."
The Princess laughed.
"Yes, is it not curious?" she said, and, taking the taper from her servant, she sprang lightly on one of the benches near the wall and leaned her beautiful head on the entablature, so that her profile stood out close against that of the once reputed Ziska- Charmazel. "We are, as Dr. Dean says, twins!"
Several of the guests had now gathered together in that particular part of the room, and they all looked up at her as she stood thus, in silent and somewhat superstitious wonderment. The fascinating dancer, famed in ages past, and the lovely, living charmeresse of the present were the image of each other, and so extraordinary was the resemblance that it was almost what some folks would term "uncanny." The fair Ziska did not, however, give her acquaintances time for much meditation or surprise concerning the matter, for she soon came down from her elevation near the sculptured frieze and, extinguishing the taper she held, she said lightly:
"As Dr. Dean has remarked, there is really nothing of importance in the coincidence. Ages ago, in the time of Araxes, roses must have bloomed; and who shall say that a rose in to-day's garden is not precisely the same in size, scent and color as one that Araxes himself plucked at his palace gates? Thus, if flowers are born alike in different ages, why not women and men?"
"Very well argued, Princess," said the Doctor. "I quite agree with you. Nature is bound to repeat some of her choicest patterns, lest she should forget the art of making them."
There was now a general movement among the guests, that particular kind of movement which means irritability and restlessness, and implies that either supper must be immediately served, or else some novel entertainment be brought in to distract attention and prevent tedium. The Princess, turning to Gervase, said smilingly:
"Apropos of the dancing-girl of Araxes and the art of dancing generally, I am going to entertain the company presently by letting them see a real old dance of Thebes. If you will excuse me a moment I must just prepare them and get the rooms slightly cleared. I will return to you presently."
She glided away with her usual noiseless grace, and within a few minutes of her departure the gay crowds began to fall back against the walls and disperse themselves generally in expectant groups here and there, the Egyptian servants moving in and out and evidently informing them of the entertainment in prospect.
"Well, I shall stay here," said Dr. Dean, "underneath this remarkable stone carving of your warrior-prototype, Monsieur Gervase. You seem very much abstracted. I asked you before if you were not well; but you never answered me."
"I am perfectly well," replied Gervase, with some irritation. "The heat is rather trying, that is all. But I attach no importance to that stone frieze. One can easily imagine likenesses where there are really none."
"True!" and the Doctor smiled to himself, and said no more. Just then a wild burst of music sounded suddenly through the apartment, and he turned round in lively anticipation to watch the proceedings.
The middle of the room was now quite clear, and presently, moving with the silent grace of swans on still water, came four girls closely veiled, carrying quaintly-shaped harps and lutes. A Nubian servant followed them, and spread a gold-embroidered carpet upon the ground, whereon they all sat down and began to thrum the strings of their instruments in a muffled, dreamy manner, playing a music which had nothing of melody in it, and which yet vaguely suggested a passionate tune. This thrumming went on for some time when all at once from a side entrance in the hall a bright, apparently winged thing bounded from the outer darkness into the centre of the hall,—a woman clad in glistening cloth of gold and veiled entirely in misty folds of white, who, raising her arms gleaming with jewelled bangles high above her head, remained poised on tiptoe for a moment, as though about to fly. Her bare feet, white and dimpled, sparkled with gems and glittering anklets; her skirts as she moved showed fluttering flecks of white and pink like the leaves of May-blossoms shaken by a summer breeze; the music grew louder and wilder, and a brazen clang from unseen cymbals prepared her as it seemed for flight. She began her dance slowly, gliding mysteriously from side to side, anon turning suddenly with her head lifted, as though listening for some word of love which should recall her or command; then, bending down again, she seemed to float lazily like a creature that was dancing in a dream without conscious knowledge of her actions. The brazen cymbals clashed again, and then, with a wild, beautiful movement, like that of a hunted stag leaping the brow of a hill, the dancer sprang forward, turned, pirouetted and tossed herself round and round giddily with a marvellous and exquisite celerity, as if she were nothing but a bright circle of gold spinning in clear ether. Spontaneous applause broke forth from every part of the hall; the guests crowded forward, staring and almost breathless with amazement. Dr. Dean got up in a state of the greatest excitement, clapping his hands involuntarily; and Gervase, every nerve in his body quivering, advanced one or two steps, feeling that he must stop this bright, wild, wanton thing in her incessant whirling, or else die in the hunger of love which consumed his soul. Denzil Murray glanced at him, and, after a pause, left his side and disappeared. Suddenly, with a quick movement, the dancer loosened her golden dress and misty veil, and tossing them aside like falling leaves, she stood confessed—a marvellous, glowing vision in silvery white-no other than the Princess Ziska!
Shouts echoed from every part of the hall:
And at the name Lady Chetwynd Lyle rose in all her majesty from the seat she had occupied till then, and in tones of virtuous indignation said to Lady Fulkeward:
"I told you the Princess was not a proper person! Now it is proved I am right! To think I should have brought Dolly and Muriel here! I shall really never forgive myself! Come, Sir Chetwynd,—let us leave this place instantly!"
And stout Sir Chetwynd, gloating on the exquisite beauty of the Princess Ziska's form as she still danced on in her snowy white attire, her lovely face alight with mirth at the surprise she had made for her guests, tried his best to look sanctimonious and signally failed in the attempt as he answered:
"Certainly! Certainly, my dear! Most improper ... most astonishing!"
While Lady Fulkeward answered innocently:
"Is it? Do you really think so? Oh, dear! I suppose it is improper,—it must be, you know; but it is most delightful and original!"
And while the Chetwynd Lyles thus moved to depart in a cloud of outraged propriety, followed by others who likewise thought it well to pretend to be shocked at the proceeding, Gervase, dizzy, breathless, and torn by such conflicting passions as he could never express, was in a condition more mad than sane.
"My God!" he muttered under his breath. "This—this is love! This is the beginning and end of life! To possess her,—to hold her in my arms—heart to heart, lips to lips ... this is what all the eternal forces of Nature meant when they made me man!"
And he watched with strained, passionate eyes the movements of the Princess Ziska as they grew slower and slower, till she seemed floating merely like a foam-bell on a wave, and then ... from some unseen quarter of the room a rich throbbing voice began to sing:—
"Oh, for the passionless peace of the Lotus-Lily! It floats in a waking dream on the waters chilly, With its leaves unfurled To the wondering world, Knowing naught of the sorrow and restless pain That burns and tortures the human brain; Oh, for the passionless peace of the Lotus-Lily! Oh, for the pure cold heart of the Lotus-Lily! Bared to the moon on the waters dark and chilly. A star above Is its only love, And one brief sigh of its scented breath Is all it will ever know of Death; Oh, for the pure cold heart of the Lotus-Lily!"
As the sound died away in a sigh rather than a note, the Princess Ziska's dancing ceased altogether. A shout of applause broke from all assembled, and in the midst of it there was a sudden commotion and excitement, and Dr. Dean was seen bending over a man's prostrate figure. The great French painter, Armand Gervase, had suddenly fainted.
A curious yet very general feeling of superstitious uneasiness and discomfort pervaded the Gezireh Palace Hotel the day after the Princess Ziska's reception. Something had happened, and no one knew what. The proprieties had been outraged, but no one knew why. It was certainly not the custom for a hostess, and a Princess to boot, to dance like a wild bacchante before a crowd of her invited guests, yet, as Dr. Dean blandly observed,—
"Where was the harm? In London, ladies of good birth and breeding went in for 'skirt-dancing,' and no one presumed to breathe a word against their reputations; why in Cairo should not a lady go in for a Theban dance without being considered improper?"
Why, indeed? There seemed no adequate reason for being either surprised or offended; yet surprised and offended most people were, and scandal ran rife, and rumor wagged all its poisonous tongues to spread evil reports against the Princess Ziska's name and fame, till Denzil Murray, maddened and furious, rushed up to his sister in her room and swore that he would marry the Princess if he died for it.
"They are blackguarding her downstairs, the beasts!" he said hotly. "They are calling her by every bad name under the sun! But I will make everything straight for her; she shall be my wife! If she will have me, I will marry her to-morrow!"
Helen looked at him in speechless despair.
"Oh, Denzil!" she faltered, and then could say no more, for the tears that blinded her eyes.
"Oh, yes, of course, I know what you mean!" he continued, marching up and down the room excitedly. "You are like all the others; you think her an adventuress. I think her the purest, the noblest of women! There is where we differ. I spoke to her last night,—I told her I loved her."
"You did?" and Helen gazed at him with wet, tragic eyes,—"And she ..."
"She bade me be silent. She told me I must not speak—not yet. She said she would give me her answer when we were all together at the Mena House Hotel."
"You intend to be one of the party there then?" said Helen faintly.
"Of course I do. And so do you, I hope."
"No, Denzil, I cannot. Don't ask me. I will stay here with Lady Fulkeward. She is not going, nor are the Chetwynd Lyles. I shall be quite safe with them. I would rather not go to the Mena House,- -I could not bear it ..."
Her voice gave way entirely, and she broke out crying bitterly.
Denzil stood still and regarded her with a kind of sullen shame and remorse.
"What a very sympathetic sister you are!" he observed. "When you see me madly in love with a woman—a perfectly beautiful, adorable woman—you put yourself at once in the way and make out that my marriage with her will be a misery to you. You surely do not expect me to remain single all my life, do you?"
"No, Denzil," sobbed Helen, "but I had hoped to see you marry some sweet girl of our own land who would be your dear and true companion,—who would be a sister to me,—who ... there! don't mind me! Be happy in your own way, my dear brother. I have no business to interfere. I can only say that if the Princess Ziska consents to marry you, I will do my best to like her, for your sake."
"Well, that's something, at any rate," said Denzil, with an air of relief. "Don't cry, Helen, it bothers me. As for the 'sweet girl' you have got in view for me, you will permit me to say that 'sweet girls' are becoming uncommonly scarce in Britain. What with bicycle riders and great rough tomboys generally, with large hands and larger feet, I confess I do not care about them. I like a womanly woman,—a graceful woman,—a fascinating, bewitching woman, and the Princess is all that and more. Surely you consider her beautiful?"
"Very beautiful indeed!" sighed poor Helen.—"Too beautiful!"
"Nonsense! As if any woman can be too beautiful! I am sorry you won't come to the Mena House. It would be a change for you,—and Gervase is going."
"Is he better to-day?" inquired Helen timidly.
"Oh, I believe he is quite well again. It was the heat or the scent of the flowers, or something of that sort, that made him faint last night. He is not acclimatized yet, you know. And he said that the Princess's dancing made him giddy."
"I don't wonder at that," murmured Helen.
"It was marvellous—glorious!" said Denzil dreamily. "It was like nothing else ever seen or imagined!"
"If she were your wife, would you care for her to dance before people?" inquired Helen tremblingly.
Denzil turned upon her in haughty wrath.
"How like a woman that is! To insinuate a nasty suggestion—to imply an innuendo without uttering it! If she were my wife, she would do nothing unbecoming that position."
"Then you did think it a little unbecoming?" persisted Helen.
"No, I did NOT!" said Denzil sharply. "An independent woman may do many things that a married woman may not. Marriage brings its own duties and responsibilities,—time enough to consider them when they come."
He turned angrily on his heel and left her, and Helen, burying her fair face in her hands, wept long and unrestrainedly. This "strange woman out of Egypt" had turned her brother's heart against her, and stolen away her almost declared lover. It was no wonder that her tears fell fast, wrung from her with the pain of this double wound; for Helen, though quiet and undemonstrative, had fine feelings and unsounded depths of passion in her nature, and the fatal attraction she felt for Armand Gervase was more powerful than she had herself known. Now that he had openly confessed his infatuation for another woman, it seemed as though the earth had opened at her feet and shown her nothing but a grave in which to fall. Life—empty and blank and bare of love and tenderness, stretched before her imagination; she saw herself toiling along the monotonously even road of duty till her hair became gray and her face thin and wan and wrinkled, and never a gleam again of the beautiful, glowing, romantic passion that for a short time had made her days splendid with the dreams that are sweeter than all realities.
Poor Helen! It was little marvel that she wept as all women weep when their hearts are broken. It is so easy to break a heart; sometimes a mere word will do it. But the vanishing of the winged Love-god from the soul is even more than heart-break,—it is utter and irretrievable loss,—complete and dominating chaos out of which no good thing can ever be designed or created. In our days we do our best to supply the place of a reluctant Eros by the gilded, grinning Mammon-figure which we try to consider as superior to any silver-pinioned god that ever descended in his rainbow car to sing heavenly songs to mortals; but it is an unlovely substitute,—a hideous idol at best; and grasp its golden knees and worship it as we will, it gives us little or no comfort in the hours of strong temptation or trouble. We have made a mistake—we, in our progressive generation,—we have banished the old sweetnesses, triumphs and delights of life, and we have got in exchange steam and electricity. But the heart of the age clamors on unsatisfied,—none of our "new" ideas content it—nothing pacifies its restless yearning; it feels—this great heart of human life—that it is losing more than it gains, hence the incessant, restless aching of the time, and the perpetual longing for something Science cannot teach,—something vague, beautiful, indefinable, yet satisfying to every pulse of the soul; and the nearest emotion to that divine solace is what we in our higher and better moments recognize as Love. And Love was lost to Helen Murray; the choice pearl had fallen in the vast gulf of Might- have-been, and not all the forces of Nature would ever restore to her that priceless gem.
And while she wept to herself in solitude, and her brother Denzil wandered about in the gardens of the hotel, encouraging within himself hopes of winning the bewitching Ziska for a wife, Armand Gervase, shut up in his room under plea of slight indisposition, reviewed the emotions of the past night and tired to analyze them. Some men are born self-analysts, and are able to dissect their feelings by some peculiar form of mental surgery which finally leads them to cut out tenderness as though it were a cancer, love as a disease, and romantic aspirations as mere uncomfortable growths injurious to self-interest, but Gervase was not one of these. Outwardly he assumed more or less the composed and careless demeanor of the modern French cynic, but inwardly the man was a raging fire of fierce passions which were sometimes too strong to be held in check. At the present moment he was prepared to sacrifice everything, even life itself, to obtain possession of the woman he coveted, and he made no attempt whatever to resist the tempest of desire that was urging him on with an invincible force in a direction which, for some strange and altogether inexplicable reason, he dreaded. Yes, there was a dim sense of terror lurking behind all the wild passion that filled his soul—a haunting, vague idea that this sudden love, with its glowing ardor and intoxicating delirium, was like the brilliant red sunset which frequently prognosticates a night of storm, ruin and death. Yet, though he felt this presentiment like a creeping shudder of cold through his blood, it did not hold him back, or for a moment impress him with the idea that it might be better to yield no further to this desperate love-madness which enthralled him.
Once only, he thought, "What if I left Egypt now—at once—and saw her no more?" And then he laughed scornfully at the impossibility proposed. "Leave Egypt!" he muttered, "I might as well leave the world altogether! She would draw me back with those sweet wild eyes of hers,—she would drag me from the uttermost parts of the earth to fall at her feet in a very agony of love. My God! She must have her way and do with me as she will, for I feel that she holds my life in her hands!"
As he spoke these last words half aloud, he sprang up from the chair in which he had been reclining, and stood for a moment lost in frowning meditation.
"My life in her hands!" he repeated musingly. "Yes, it has come to that! My life!" A great sigh broke from him. "My life—my art—my work—my name! In all these things I have taken pride, and she— she can trample them under her feet and make of me nothing more than man clamoring for woman's love! What a wild world it is! What a strange Force must that be which created it!—the Force that some men call God and others Devil! A strange, blind, brute Force!—for it makes us aspire only to fall; it gives a man dreams of ambition and splendid attainment only to fling him like a mad fool on a woman's breast, and bid him find there, and there only, the bewildering sweetness which makes everything else in existence poor and tame in comparison. Well, well—my life! What is it? A mere grain of sand dropped in the sea; let her do with it as she will. God! How I felt her power upon me last night,—last night when her lithe figure swaying in the dance reminded me ..."
He paused, startled at the turn his own thoughts were taking.
"Of what? Let me try and express to myself now what I could not express or realize last night. She—Ziska—I thought was mine,— mine from her dimpled feet to her dusky hair,—and she danced for me alone. It seemed that the jewels she wore upon her rounded arms and slender ankles were all love-gifts from me—every circlet of gold, every starry, shining gem on her fair body was the symbol of some secret joy between us—joy so keen as to be almost pain. And as she danced, I thought I was in a vast hall of a majestic palace, where open colonnades revealed wide glimpses of a burning desert and deep blue sky. I heard the distant sound of rolling drums, and not far off I saw the Sphinx—a creature not old but new—resting upon a giant pedestal and guarding the sculptured gate of some great temple which contained, as I then thought, all the treasures of the world. I could paint the picture as I saw it then! It was a fleeting impression merely, conjured up by the dance that dizzied my brain. And that song of the Lotus-lily! That was strange—very strange, for I thought I had heard it often before,—and I saw myself in the vague dream, a prince, a warrior, almost a king, and far more famous in the world than I am now!"
He looked about him uneasily, with a kind of nervous terror, and his eyes rested for a moment on the easel where the picture he had painted of the Princess was placed, covered from view by a fold of dark cloth.
"Bah!" he exclaimed at last with a forced laugh, "What stupid fancies fool me! It is all the vague talk of that would-be learned ass, Dr. Dean, with his ridiculous theories about life and death. I shall be imagining I am his fad, Araxes, next! This sort of thing will never do. Let me reason out the matter calmly. I love this woman,—love her to absolute madness. It is not the best kind of love, maybe, but it is the only kind I am capable of, and such as it is, she possesses it all. What then? Well! We go to-morrow to the Pyramids, and we join her at the Mena House, I and the poor boy Denzil. He will try his chance—I mine. If he wins, I shall kill him as surely as I myself live,—yes, even though he is Helen's brother. No man shall snatch Ziska from my arms and continue to breathe. If I win, it is possible he may kill me, and I shall respect him for trying to do it. But I shall satisfy my love first; Ziska will be mine—mine in every sense of possession,—before I die. Yes, that must be—that will have to be. And afterwards,—why let Denzil do his worst; a man can but die once."
He drew the cloth off his easel and stared at the strange picture of the Princess, which seemed almost sentient in its half- watchful, half-mocking expression.
"There is a dead face and a living one on this canvas," he said, "and the dead face seems to enthral me as much as the living. Both have the same cruel smile,—both the same compelling magnetism of eye. Only it is a singular thing that I should know the dead face even more intimately than the living—that the tortured look upon it should be a kind of haunting memory—horrible—ghastly. ..."
He flung the cloth over the easel again impatiently, and tried to laugh at his own morbid imagination.
"I know who is responsible for all this nonsense," he said. "It is that ridiculous little half-mad faddist, Dr. Dean. He is going to the Mena House, too. Well!—he will be the witness of a comedy or a tragedy there,—and Heaven alone knows which it will be!"
And to distract his thoughts from dwelling any longer on the haunting ideas that perplexed him, he took up one of the latest and frothiest of French novels and began to read. Some one in a room not far off was singing a French song,—a man with a rich baritone voice,—and unconsciously to himself Gervase caught the words as they rang out full and clearly on the quiet, heated air—
O toi que j'ai tant aimee Songes-tu que je t'aime encor? Et dans ton ame alarmee, Ne sens-tu pas quelque remord? Viens avec moi, si tu m'aimes, Habiter dans ces deserts; Nous y vivrons pour nous memes, Oublies de tout l'univers!
And something like a mist of tears clouded his aching eyes as he repeated, half mechanically and dreamily—
O toi que j'ai tant aimee, Songes-tu que je t'aime encor?
For the benefit of those among the untravelled English who have not yet broken a soda-water bottle against the Sphinx, or eaten sandwiches to the immortal memory of Cheops, it may be as well to explain that the Mena House Hotel is a long, rambling, roomy building, situated within five minutes' walk of the Great Pyramid, and happily possessed of a golfing-ground and a marble swimming- bath. That ubiquitous nuisance, the "amateur photographer," can there have his "dark room" for the development of his more or less imperfect "plates"; and there is a resident chaplain for the piously inclined. With a chaplain and a "dark room," what more can the aspiring soul of the modern tourist desire? Some of the rooms at the Mena House are small and stuffy; others large and furnished with sufficient elegance: and the Princess Ziska had secured a "suite" of the best that could be obtained, and was soon installed there with befitting luxury. She left Cairo quite suddenly, and without any visible preparation, the morning after the reception in which she had astonished her guests by her dancing: and she did not call at the Gezireh Palace Hotel to say good-bye to any of her acquaintances there. She was perhaps conscious that her somewhat "free" behavior had startled several worthy and sanctimonious persons; and possibly she also thought that to take rooms in an hotel which was only an hour's distance from Cairo, could scarcely be considered as absenting herself from Cairene society. She was followed to her desert retreat by Dr. Dean, Armand Gervase, and Denzil Murray, who drove to the Mena House together in one carriage, and were more or less all three in a sober and meditative frame of mind. They arrived in time to see the Sphinx bathed in the fierce glow of an ardent sunset, which turned the golden sands to crimson, and made the granite monster look like a cruel idol surrounded by a sea of blood. The brilliant red of the heavens flamed in its stony eyes, and gave them a sentient look as of contemplated murder,—and the same radiance fitfully playing on the half-scornful, half-sensual lips caused them to smile with a seeming voluptuous mockery. Dr. Dean stood transfixed for a while at the strange splendor of the spectacle, and turning to his two silent companions, said suddenly:
"There is something, after all, in the unguessed riddle of the Sphinx. It is not a fable; it is a truth. There is a problem to be solved, and that monstrous creature knows it! The woman's face, the brute's body—Spiritualism and Materialism in one! It is life, and more than life; it is love. Forever and forever it teaches the same wonderful, terrible mystery. We aspire, yet we fall; love would fain give us wings wherewith to fly; but the wretched body lies prone—supine; it cannot soar to the Light Eternal."
"What IS the Light Eternal?" queried Gervase, moodily. "How do we know it exists? We cannot prove it. This world is what we see; we have to do with it and ourselves. Soul without body could not exist. ..."
"Could it not?" said the Doctor. "How, then, does body exist without soul?"
This was an unexpected but fair question, and Gervase found himself curiously perplexed by it. He offered no reply, neither did Denzil, and they all three slowly entered the Mena House Hotel, there to be met with deferential salutations by the urbane and affable landlord, and to be assured that they would find their rooms comfortable, and also that "Madame la Princesse Ziska" expected them to dine with her that evening. At this message, Denzil Murray made a sign to Gervase that he wished to speak to him alone. Gervase move aside with him.
"Give me my chance!" said Denzil, fiercely.
"Take it!" replied Gervase listlessly. "Let to-night witness the interchange of hearts between you and the Princess; I shall not interfere."
Denzil stared at him in sullen astonishment.
"You will not interfere? Your fancy for her is at an end?"
Gervase raised his dark, glowing eyes and fixed them on his would- be rival with a strange and sombre expression.
"My 'fancy' for her? My good boy, take care what you say! Don't rouse me too far, for I am dangerous! My 'fancy' for her! What do you know of it? You are hot-blooded and young; but the chill of the North controls you in a fashion, while I—a man in the prime of manhood—am of the South, and the Southern fire brooks no control. Have you seen a quiet ocean, smooth as glass, with only a dimple in the deep blue to show that perhaps, should occasion serve, there might arise a little wave? And have you seen the wild storm breaking from a black cloud and suddenly making that quiet expanse nothing but a tourbillon of furious elements, in which the very sea-gull's cry is whelmed and lost in the thunder of the billows? Such a storm as that may be compared to the 'fancy' you suppose I feel for the woman who has dragged us both here to die at her feet—for that, I believe, is what it will come to. Life is not possible under the strain of emotion with which we two are living it. ..."
He broke off, then resumed in quieter tones:
"I say to you: Use your opportunities while you have them. After dinner I will leave you alone with the Princess. I will go out for a stroll with Dr. Dean. Take your chance, Denzil, for, as I live, it is your last! It will be my turn next! Give me credit for to- night's patience!"
He turned quickly away, and in a moment was gone. Denzil Murray stood still for a while, thinking deeply, and trying to review the position in which he found himself. He was madly in love with a woman for whom his only sister had the most violent antipathy; and that sister, who had once been all in all to him, had now become almost less than nothing in the headstrong passion which consumed him. No consideration for her peace and ultimate happiness affected him, though he was sensible of a certain remorseful pity when thinking of her gentle ways and docile yielding to his often impatient and impetuous humors; but, after all, she was only his sister,—she could not understand his present condition of mind. Then there was Gervase, whom he had for some years looked upon as one of his most admired and intimate friends; now he was nothing more or less than a rival and an enemy, notwithstanding his seeming courtesy and civil self-restraint. As a matter of fact, he, Denzil, was left alone to face his fate: to dare the brilliant seduction of the witching eyes of Ziska,—to win her or to lose her forever! And consider every point as he would, the weary conviction was borne in upon him that, whether he met with victory or defeat, the result would bring more misery than joy.
When he entered the Princess's salon that evening, he found Dr. Dean and Gervase already there. The Princess herself, attired in a dinner-dress made with quite a modern Parisian elegance, received him in her usual graceful manner, and expressed with much sweetness her hope that the air of the desert would prove beneficial to him after the great heats that had prevailed in Cairo. Nothing but conventionalities were spoken. Oh, those conventionalities! What a world of repressed emotions they sometimes cover! How difficult it is to conceive that the man and woman who are greeting each other with calm courtesy in a crowded drawing-room are the very two, who, standing face to face in the moonlit silence of some lonely grove of trees or shaded garden, once in their lives suddenly realized the wild passion that neither dared confess! Tragedies lie deepest under conventionalities—such secrets are buried beneath them as sometimes might make the angels weep! They are safeguards, however, against stronger emotions; and the strange bathos of two human creatures talking politely about the weather when the soul of each is clamoring for the other, has sometimes, despite its absurdity, saved the situation.
At dinner, the Princess Ziska devoted herself almost entirely to the entertainment of Dr. Dean, and awakened his interest very keenly on the subject of the Great Pyramid.
"It has never really been explored," she said. "The excavators who imagine they have fathomed its secrets are completely in error. The upper chambers are mere deceits to the investigator; they were built and planned purposely to mislead, and the secrets they hide have never even been guessed at, much less discovered."
"Are you sure of that?" inquired the Doctor, eagerly. "If so, would you not give your information. ..."
"I neither give my information nor sell it," interrupted the Princess, smiling coldly. "I am only a woman—and women are supposed to know nothing. With the rest of my sex, I am judged illogical and imaginative; you wise men would call my knowledge of history deficient, my facts not proven. But, if you like, I will tell you the story of the construction of the Great Pyramid, and why it is unlikely that anyone will ever find the treasures that are buried within it. You can receive the narrative with the usual incredulity common to men; I shall not attempt to argue the pros and cons with you, because I never argue. Treat it as a fairy- tale—no woman is ever supposed to know anything for a fact,—she is too stupid. Only men are wise!"
Her dark, disdainful glance flashed on Gervase and Denzil; anon she smiled bewitchingly, and added:
"Is it not so?"
"Wisdom is nothing compared to beauty," said Gervase. "A beautiful woman can turn the wisest man into a fool."
The Princess laughed lightly.
"Yes, and a moment afterwards he regrets his folly," she said. "He clamors for the beautiful woman as a child might cry for the moon, and when he at last possesses her, he tires. Satisfied with having compassed her degradation, he exclaims: 'What shall I do with this beauty, which, because it is mine, now palls upon me? Let me kill it and forget it; I am aweary of love, and the world is full of women!' That is the way of your sex, Monsieur Gervase; it is a brutal way, but it is the one most of you follow."
"There is such a thing as love!" said Denzil, looking up quickly, a pained flush on his handsome face.
"In the hearts of women, yes!" said Ziska, her voice growing tremulous with strange and sudden passion. "Women love—ah!—with what force and tenderness and utter abandonment of self! But their love is in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred utterly wasted; it is a largesse flung to the ungrateful, a jewel tossed in the mire! If there were not some compensation in the next life for the ruin wrought on loving women, the Eternal God himself would be a mockery and a jest."
"And is he not?" queried Gervase, ironically. "Fair Princess, I would not willingly shake your faith in things unseen, but what does the 'Eternal God,' as you call Him, care as to the destiny of any individual unit on this globe of matter? Does He interfere when the murderer's knife descends upon the victim? And has He ever interfered? He it is who created the sexes and placed between them the strong attraction that often works more evil and misery than good; and what barrier has He ever interposed between woman and man, her natural destroyer? None!—save the trifling one of virtue, which is a flimsy thing, and often breaks down at the first temptation. No, my dear Princess; the 'Eternal God,' if there is one, does nothing but look on impassively at the universal havoc of creation. And in the blindness and silence of things, I cannot recognize an Eternal God at all; we were evidently made to eat, drink, breed and die—and there an end."
"What of ambition?" asked Dr. Dean. "What of the inspiration that lifts a man beyond himself and his material needs, and teaches him to strive after the Highest?"
"Mere mad folly!" replied Gervase impetuously. "Take the Arts. I, for example, dream of painting a picture that shall move the world to admiration,—but I seldom grasp the idea I have imagined. I paint something,—anything,—and the world gapes at it, and some rich fool buys it, leaving me free to paint another something; and so on and so on, to the end of my career. I ask you what satisfaction does it bring? What is it to Raphael that thousands of human units, cultured and silly, have stared at his 'Madonnas' and his famous Cartoons?"
"Well, we do not exactly know what it may or may not be to Raphael," said the Doctor, meditatively. "According to my theories, Raphael is not dead, but merely removed into another form, on another planet possibly, and is working elsewhere. You might as well ask what it is to Araxes now that he was a famous warrior once?"
Gervase moved uneasily.
"You have got Araxes on the brain, Doctor," he said, with a forced smile, "and in our conversation we are forgetting that the Princess has promised to tell us a fairytale, the story of the Great Pyramid."
The Princess looked at him, then at Denzil Murray, and lastly at Dr. Dean.
"Would you really care to hear it?" she asked.
"Most certainly!" they all three answered.
She rose from the dinner-table.
"Come here to the window," she said. "You can see the great structure now, in the dusky light,—look at it well and try, if you can, to realize that deep, deep down in the earth on which it stands is a connected gallery of rocky caves wherein no human foot has ever penetrated since the Deluge swept over the land and made a desert of all the old-time civilization!"
Her slight figure appeared to dilate as she spoke, raising one slender hand and arm to point at the huge mass that towered up against the clear, starlit sky. Her listeners were silent, awed and attentive.
"One of the latest ideas concerning the Pyramids is, as you know, that they were built as towers of defence against the Deluge. That is correct. The wise men of the old days foretold the time when 'the waters should rise and cover the earth,' and these huge monuments were prepared and raised to a height which it was estimated would always appear above the level of the coming flood, to show where the treasures of Egypt were hidden for safety. Yes,- -the treasures of Egypt, the wisdom, the science of Egypt! They are all down there still! And there, to all intents and purposes, they are likely to remain."
"But archaeologists are of the opinion that the Pyramids have been thoroughly explored," began Dr. Dean, with some excitement.
The Princess interrupted him by a slight gesture.
"Archaeologists, my dear Doctor, are like the rest of this world's so-called 'learned' men; they work in one groove, and are generally content with it. Sometimes an unusually brilliant brain conceives the erratic notion of working in several grooves, and is straightway judged as mad or fanatic. It is when these comet-like intelligences sweep across the world's horizon that we hear of a Julius Caesar, a Napoleon, a Shakespeare. But archaeologists are the narrowest and dryest of men,—they preconceive a certain system of work and follow it out by mathematical rule and plan, without one touch of imagination to help them to discover new channels of interest or historical information. As I told you before I began to speak, you are welcome to entirely disbelieve my story of the Great Pyramid,—but as I have begun it, you may as well hear it through." She paused a moment, then went on: "According to my information, the building of the Pyramids was commenced three hundred years before the Deluge, in the time of Saurid, the son of Sabaloc, who, it is said, was the first to receive a warning dream of the coming flood. Saurid, being convinced by his priests, astrologers and soothsayers that the portent was a true one, became from that time possessed of one idea, which was that the vast learning of Egypt, its sciences, discoveries and strange traditions should not be lost,—and that the exploits and achievements of those who were great and famous in the land should be so recorded as never to be forgotten. In those days, here where you see these measureless tracts of sand, there were great mountainous rocks and granite quarries, and Saurid utilized these for the hollowing out of deep caverns in which to conceal treasure. When these caverns were prepared to his liking, he caused a floor to be made, portions of which were rendered movable by means of secret springs, and then leaving a hollow space of some four feet in height, he started foundations for another floor above it. This upper floor is what you nowadays see when you enter the Pyramid,—and no one imagines that under it is an open space with room to walk in, and yet another floor below, where everything of value is secreted."
Dr. Dean drew a long breath of wonderment.
"Astonishing, if true!"
The Princess smiled somewhat disdainfully, and went on:
"Saurid's work was carried on after his death by his successors, and with thousands of slaves toiling night and day the Pyramids were in the course of years raised above the caverns which concealed Egypt's mysteries. Everything was gradually accumulated in these underground store-houses,—the engraved talismans, the slabs of stone on which were deeply carved the geometrical and astronomical sciences; indestructible glass chests containing papyri, on which were written the various discoveries made in beneficial drugs, swift poisons, and other medicines. And among these many things were thirty great jars full of precious stones, some of which were marvels of the earth. They are there still! And some of the great men who died were interred in these caves, every one in a separate chamber inlaid with gold and gems, and I think," here the Princess turned her dark eyes full on Dr. Dean, "I think that if you knew the secret way of lifting the apparently immovable floor, which is like the solid ground, and descending through the winding galleries beneath, it is more than probable you would find in the Great Pyramid the tomb of Araxes!"
Her eyes glistened strangely in the evening light with that peculiar fiery glow which had made Dr. Dean once describe them as being like the eyes of a vampire-bat, and there was something curiously impressive in her gesture as she once more pointed to the towering structure which loomed against the heavens, with one star flashing immediately above it. A sudden involuntary shudder shook Gervase as with icy cold; he moved restlessly, and presently remarked:
"Well, it is a safe tomb, at any rate! Whoever Araxes was, he stands little chance of being exhumed if he lies two floors below the Great Pyramid in a sealed-up rocky cavern! Princess, you look like an inspired prophetess!—so much talk of ancient and musty times makes me feel uncanny, and I will, with your permission, have a smoke with Dr. Dean in the garden to steady my nerves. The mere notion of thirty vases of unclaimed precious stones hidden down yonder is enough to upset any man's equanimity!"
"The papyri would interest me more than the jewels," said Dr. Dean. "What do you say, Denzil?"
Denzil Murray woke up suddenly from a fit of abstraction.
"Oh, I don't know anything about it," he answered. "I never was very much interested in those old times,—they seem to me all myth. I could never link past, present and future together as some people can; they are to me all separate things. The past is done with,—the present is our own to enjoy or to detest, and the future no man can look into."
"Ah, Denzil, you are young, and reflection has not been very hard at work in that headstrong brain of yours," said Dr. Dean with an indulgent smile, "otherwise you would see that past, present and future are one and indissoluble. The past is as much a part of your present identity as the present, and the future, too, lies in you in embryo. The mystery of one man's life contains all mysteries, and if we could only understand it from its very beginning we should find out the cause of all things, and the ultimate intention of creation."
"Well, now, you have all had enough serious talk," said the Princess Ziska lightly, "so let us adjourn to the drawing-room. One of my waiting-women shall sing to you by and by; she has a very sweet voice."
"Is it she who sings that song about the lotus-lily?" asked Gervase, suddenly.
The Princess smiled strangely.
"Yes,—it is she."
Dr. Dean chose a cigar from a silver box on the table; Gervase did the same.
"Won't you smoke, Denzil?" he asked carelessly.
"No, thanks!" Denzil spoke hurriedly and hoarsely. "I think—if the Princess will permit me—I will stay and talk with her in the drawing-room while you two have your smoke together."
The Princess gave a charming bow of assent to this proposition. Gervase took the Doctor somewhat roughly by the arm and led him out through the open French window into the grounds beyond, remarking as he went:
"You will excuse us, Princess? We leave you in good company!"
"I will excuse you, certainly! But do not be long!"
And she passed from the dining-room into the small saloon beyond, followed closely by Denzil.
Once out in the grounds, Gervase gave vent to a boisterous fit of wild laughter, so loud and fierce that little Dr. Dean came to an abrupt standstill, and stared at him in something of alarm as well as amazement.
"Are you going mad, Gervase?" he asked.
"Yes!" cried Gervase, "that is just it,—I am going mad,—mad for love, or whatever you please to call it! What do you think I am made of? Flesh and blood, or cast-iron? Heavens! Do you think if all the elements were to combine in a war against me, they should cheat me out of this woman or rob me of her? No, no! A thousand times no! Satisfy yourself, my excellent Doctor, with your musty records of the past,—prate as you choose of the future,—but in the immediate, burning, active present my will is law! And the fool Denzil thinks to thwart me,—I, who have never been thwarted since I knew the meaning of existence!"
He paused in a kind of breathless agitation, and Dr. Dean grasped his arm firmly.
"Come, come, what is all this excitement for?" he said. "What are you saying about Denzil?"
Gervase controlled himself with a violent effort and forced a smile.
"He has got his chance,—I have given it to him! He is alone with the Princess, and he is asking her to be his wife!"
"Nonsense!" said the Doctor sharply. "If he does commit such a folly, it will be no use. The woman is NOT HUMAN!"
"Not human?" echoed Gervase, his black eyes dilating with a sudden amazement—"What do you mean?"
The little Doctor rubbed his nose impatiently and seemed sorry he had spoken.
"I mean—let me see! What do I mean?" he said at last meditatively—"Oh, well, it is easy enough of explanation. There are plenty of people like the Princess Ziska to whom I would apply the words 'not human.' She is all beauty and no heart. Again—if you follow me—she is all desire and no passion, which is a character 'like unto the beasts which perish.' A large majority of men are made so, and some women,—though the women are comparatively few. Now, so far as the Princess Ziska is concerned," continued the Doctor, fixing his keen, penetrative glance on Gervase as he spoke, "I frankly admit to you that I find in her material for a very curious and complex study. That is why I have come after her here. I have said she is all desire and no passion. That of itself is inhuman; but what I am busy about now is to try and analyze the nature of the particular desire that moves her, controls her, keeps her alive,—in short. It is not love; of that I feel confident; and it is not hate,—though it is more like hate than love. It is something indefinable, something that is almost occult, so deep-seated and bewildering is the riddle. You look upon me as a madman—yes! I know you do! But mad or sane, I emphatically repeat, the Princess is NOT HUMAN, and by this expression I wish to imply that though she has the outward appearance of a most beautiful and seductive human body, she has the soul of a fiend. Now, do you understand me?"
"It would take Oedipus himself all his time to do that,"—said Gervase, forcing a laugh which had no mirth in it, for he was conscious of a vaguely unpleasant sensation—a chill, as of some dark presentiment, which oppressed his mind. "When you know I do not believe in the soul, why do you talk to me about it? The soul of a fiend,—the soul of an angel,—what are they? Mere empty terms to me, meaning nothing. I think I agree with you though, in one or two points concerning the Princess; par exemple, I do not look upon her as one of those delicately embodied purities of womanhood before whom we men instinctively bend in reverence, but whom, at the same time, we generally avoid, ashamed of our vileness. No; she is certainly not one of the
"'Maiden roses left to die Because they climb so near the sky, That not the boldest passer-by Can pluck them from their vantage high.'
And whether it is best to be a solitary 'maiden-rose' or a Princess Ziska, who shall say? And human or inhuman, whatever composition she is made of, you may make yourself positively certain that Denzil Murray is just now doing his best to persuade her to be a Highland chatelaine in the future. Heavens, what a strange fate it will be for la belle Egyptienne!"
"Oh, you think she IS Egyptian then?" queried Dr. Dean, with an air of lively curiosity.
"Of course I do. She has the Egyptian type of form and countenance. Consider only the resemblance between her and the dancer she chose to represent the other night—the Ziska-Charmazel of the antique sculpture on her walls!"
"Ay, but if you grant one resemblance, you must also admit another," said the Doctor quickly. "The likeness between yourself and the old-world warrior, Araxes, is no less remarkable!" Gervase moved uneasily, and a sudden pallor blanched his face, making it look wan and haggard in the light of the rising moon. "And it is rather singular," went on the imperturbable savant, "that according to the legend or history—whichever you please to consider it,—for in time, legends become histories and histories legends—Araxes should have been the lover of this very Ziska- Charmazel, and that you, who are the living portrait of Araxes, should suddenly become enamored of the equally living portrait of the dead woman! You must own, that to a mere onlooker and observer like myself, it seems a curious coincidence!"
Gervase smoked on in silence, his level brows contracted in a musing frown.
"Yes, it seems curious," he said at last, "but a great many curious coincidences happen in this world—so many that we, in our days of rush and turmoil, have not time to consider them as they come or go. Perhaps of all the strange things in life, the sudden sympathies and the headstrong passions which spring up in a day or a night between certain men and certain women are the strangest. I look upon you, Doctor, as a very clever fellow with just a little twist in his brain, or let us say a 'fad' about spiritual matters; but in one of your more or less fantastic and extravagant theories I am half disposed to believe, and that is the notion you have of the possibility of some natures, male and female, having met before in a previous state of existence and under different forms, such as birds, flowers, or forest animals, or even mere incorporeal breaths of air and flame. It is an idea which I confess fascinates me. It seems fairly reasonable too, for, as many scientists argue that you cannot destroy matter, but only transform it, there is really nothing impossible in the suggestion."
He paused, then added slowly as he flung the end of his cigar away:
"I have felt the force of this odd fancy of yours most strongly since I met the Princess Ziska."
"Indeed! Then the impression she gave you first is still upon you- -that of having known her before?"
Gervase waited a minute or two before replying; then he answered:
"Yes. And not only of having known her before, but of having loved her before. Love!—mon Dieu!—what a tame word it is! How poorly it expresses the actual emotion! Fire in the veins—delirium in the brain—reason gone to chaos! And this madness is mildly described as 'love?'"
"There are other words for it," said the Doctor. "Words that are not so poetic, but which, perhaps, are more fitting."
"No!" interrupted Gervase, almost fiercely. "There are no words which truly describe this one emotion which rules the world. I know what YOU mean, of course; you mean evil words, licentious words, and yet it has nothing whatever to do with these. You cannot call such an exalted state of the nerves and sensations by an evil name."
Dr. Dean pondered the question for a few moments.
"No, I am not sure that I can," he said, meditatively. "If I did, I should have to give an evil name to the Creator who designed man and woman and ordained the law of attraction which draws, and often DRAGS them together. I like to be fair to everybody, the Creator included; yet to be fair to everybody I shall appear to sanction immorality. For the fact is that our civilization has upset all the original intentions of nature. Nature evidently meant Love, or the emotion we call Love, to be the keynote of the universe. But apparently Nature did not intend marriage. The flowers, the birds, the lower animals, mate afresh every spring, and this is the creed that the disciples of Naturalism nowadays are anxious to force upon the attention of the world. It is only men and women, they say, that are so foolish as to take each other for better or worse till death do them part. Now, I should like, from the physical scientist's point of view, to prove that the men and women are wrong, and that the lower animals are right; but spiritual science comes in and confutes me. For in spiritual science I find this truth, which will not be gainsaid—namely, that from time immemorial, certain immortal forms of Nature have been created solely for one another; like two halves of a circle, they are intended to meet and form the perfect round, and all the elements of creation, spiritual and material, will work their hardest to pull them together. Such natures, I consider, should absolutely and imperatively be joined in marriage. It then becomes a divine decree. Even grant, if you like, that the natures so joined are evil, and that the sympathy between them is of a more or less reprehensible character, it is quite as well that they should unite, and that the result of such an union should be seen. The evil might come out of them in a family of criminals which the law could exterminate with advantage to the world in general. Whereas on the other hand, given two fine and aspiring natures with perfect sympathy between them, as perfect as the two notes of a perfect chord, the children of such a marriage would probably be as near gods as humanity could bring them. I speak as a scientist merely. Such consequences are not foreseen by the majority, and marriages as a rule take place between persons who are by no means made for each other. Besides, a kind of devil comes into the business, and often prevents the two sympathetic natures conjoining. Love-matters alone are quite sufficient to convince me that there IS a devil as well as a divinity that 'shapes our ends.'"
"You speak as if you yourself had loved, Doctor," said Gervase, with a half smile.
"And so I have," replied the Doctor, calmly. "I have loved to the full as passionately and ardently as even you can love. I thank God the woman I loved died,—I could never have possessed her, for she was already wedded,—and I would not have disgraced her by robbing her from her lawful husband. So Death stepped in and gave her to me—forever!" and he raised his eyes to the solemn starlit sky. "Yes, nothing can ever come between us now; no demon tears her white soul from me; she died innocent of evil, and she is mine—mine in every pulse of her being, as we shall both know hereafter!"
His face, which was not remarkable for any beauty of feature, grew rapt and almost noble in its expression, and Gervase looked at him with a faint touch of ironical wonder.
"Upon my word, your morality almost outreaches your mysticism!" he said. "I see you are one of those old-fashioned men who think marriage a sacred sort of thing and the only self-respecting form of love."
"Old-fashioned I may be," replied Dr. Dean; "but I certainly believe in marriage for the woman's sake. If the license of men were not restrained by some sort of barrier it would break all bounds. Now I, had I chosen, could have taken the woman I loved to myself; it needed but a little skilful persuasion on my part, for her husband was a drink-sodden ruffian..."