THE PROBLEM OF A WICKED SOUL BY MARIE CORELLI
Other Books by the same Author
THE SORROWS OF SATAN BARABBAS A ROMANCE OF TWO WORLDS THE MIGHTY ATOM, ETC., ETC.
TO THE PRESENT LIVING RE-INCARNATION OF ARAXES
THE PROBLEM OF A WICKED SOUL.
Dark against the sky towered the Great Pyramid, and over its apex hung the moon. Like a wreck cast ashore by some titanic storm, the Sphinx, reposing amid the undulating waves of grayish sand surrounding it, seemed for once to drowse. Its solemn visage that had impassively watched ages come and go, empires rise and fall, and generations of men live and die, appeared for the moment to have lost its usual expression of speculative wisdom and intense disdain—its cold eyes seemed to droop, its stern mouth almost smiled. The air was calm and sultry; and not a human foot disturbed the silence. But towards midnight a Voice suddenly arose as it were like a wind in the desert, crying aloud: "Araxes! Araxes!" and wailing past, sank with a profound echo into the deep recesses of the vast Egyptian tomb. Moonlight and the Hour wove their own mystery; the mystery of a Shadow and a Shape that flitted out like a thin vapor from the very portals of Death's ancient temple, and drifting forward a few paces resolved itself into the visionary fairness of a Woman's form—a Woman whose dark hair fell about her heavily, like the black remnants of a long- buried corpse's wrappings; a Woman whose eyes flashed with an unholy fire as she lifted her face to the white moon and waved her ghostly arms upon the air. And again the wild Voice pulsated through the stillness.
"Araxes! ... Araxes! Thou art here, —and I pursue thee! Through life into death; through death out into life again! I find thee and I follow! I follow! Araxes!..."
Moonlight and the Hour wove their own mystery; and ere the pale opal dawn flushed the sky with hues of rose and amber the Shadow had vanished; the Voice was heard no more. Slowly the sun lifted the edge of its golden shield above the horizon, and the great Sphinx awaking from its apparent brief slumber, stared in expressive and eternal scorn across the tracts of sand and tufted palm-trees towards the glittering dome of El-Hazar—that abode of profound sanctity and learning, where men still knelt and worshipped, praying the Unknown to deliver them from the Unseen. And one would almost have deemed that the sculptured Monster with the enigmatical Woman-face and Lion-form had strange thoughts in its huge granite brain; for when the full day sprang in glory over the desert and illumined its large features with a burning saffron radiance, its cruel lips still smiled as though yearning to speak and propound the terrible riddle of old time; the Problem which killed!
It was the full "season" in Cairo. The ubiquitous Britisher and the no less ubiquitous American had planted their differing "society" standards on the sandy soil watered by the Nile, and were busily engaged in the work of reducing the city, formerly called Al Kahira or The Victorious, to a more deplorable condition of subjection and slavery than any old-world conqueror could ever have done. For the heavy yoke of modern fashion has been flung on the neck of Al Kahira, and the irresistible, tyrannic dominion of "swagger" vulgarity has laid The Victorious low. The swarthy children of the desert might, and possibly would, be ready and willing to go forth and fight men with men's weapons for the freedom to live and die unmolested in their own native land; but against the blandly-smiling, white-helmeted, sun-spectacled, perspiring horde of Cook's "cheap trippers," what can they do save remain inert and well-nigh speechless? For nothing like the cheap tripper was ever seen in the world till our present enlightened and glorious day of progress; he is a new-grafted type of nomad, like and yet unlike a man. The Darwin theory asserts itself proudly and prominently in bristles of truth all over him—in his restlessness, his ape-like agility and curiosity, his shameless inquisitiveness, his careful cleansing of himself from foreign fleas, his general attention to minutiae, and his always voracious appetite; and where the ape ends and the man begins is somewhat difficult to discover. The "image of God" wherewith he, together with his fellows, was originally supposed to be impressed in the first fresh days of Creation, seems fairly blotted out, for there is no touch of the Divine in his mortal composition. Nor does the second created phase-the copy of the Divineo—namely, the Heroic,- -dignify his form or ennoble his countenance. There is nothing of the heroic in the wandering biped who swings through the streets of Cairo in white flannels, laughing at the staid composure of the Arabs, flicking thumb and finger at the patient noses of the small hireable donkeys and other beasts of burden, thrusting a warm red face of inquiry into the shadowy recesses of odoriferous bazaars, and sauntering at evening in the Esbekiyeh Gardens, cigar in mouth and hands in pockets, looking on the scene and behaving in it as if the whole place were but a reflex of Earl's Court Exhibition. History affects the cheap tripper not at all; he regards the Pyramids as "good building" merely, and the inscrutable Sphinx itself as a fine target for empty soda-water bottles, while perhaps his chiefest regret is that the granite whereof the ancient monster is hewn is too hard for him to inscribe his distinguished name thereon. It is true that there is a punishment inflicted on any person or persons attempting such wanton work—a fine or the bastinado; yet neither fine nor bastinado would affect the "tripper" if he could only succeed in carving "'Arry" on the Sphinx's jaw. But he cannot, and herein is his own misery. Otherwise he comports himself in Egypt as he does at Margate, with no more thought, reflection, or reverence than dignify the composition of his far-off Simian ancestor.
Taking him all in all, he is, however, no worse, and in some respects better, than the "swagger" folk who "do" Egypt, or rather, consent in a languid way to be "done" by Egypt. These are the people who annually leave England on the plea of being unable to stand the cheery, frosty, and in every respect healthy winter of their native country—that winter, which with its wild winds, its sparkling frost and snow, its holly trees bright with scarlet berries, its merry hunters galloping over field and moor during daylight hours, and its great log fires roaring up the chimneys at evening, was sufficiently good for their forefathers to thrive upon and live through contentedly up to a hale and hearty old age in the times when the fever of travelling from place to place was an unknown disease, and home was indeed "sweet home." Infected by strange maladies of the blood and nerves, to which even scientific physicians find it hard to give suitable names, they shudder at the first whiff of cold, and filling huge trunks with a thousand foolish things which have, through luxurious habit, become necessities to their pallid existences, they hastily depart to the Land of the Sun, carrying with them their nameless languors, discontents and incurable illnesses, for which Heaven itself, much less Egypt, could provide no remedy. It is not at all to be wondered at that these physically and morally sick tribes of human kind have ceased to give any serious attention as to what may possibly become of them after death, or whether there IS any "after," for they are in the mentally comatose condition which precedes entire wreckage of brain-force; existence itself has become a "bore;" one place is like another, and they repeat the same monotonous round of living in every spot where they congregate, whether it be east, west, north, or south. On the Riviera they find little to do except meet at Rumpelmayer's at Cannes, the London House at Nice, or the Casino at Monte-Carlo; and in Cairo they inaugurate a miniature London "season" over again, worked in the same groove of dinners, dances, drives, picnics, flirtations, and matrimonial engagements. But the Cairene season has perhaps some advantage over the London one so far as this particular set of "swagger" folk are concerned—it is less hampered by the proprieties. One can be more "free," you know! You may take a little walk into "Old" Cairo, and turning a corner you may catch glimpses of what Mark Twain calls "Oriental simplicity," namely, picturesquely-composed groups of "dear delightful" Arabs whose clothing is no more than primitive custom makes strictly necessary. These kind of "tableaux vivants" or "art studies" give quite a thrill of novelty to Cairene-English Society,—a touch of savagery,—a soupcon of peculiarity which is entirely lacking to fashionable London. Then, it must be remembered that the "children of the desert" have been led by gentle degrees to understand that for harboring the strange locusts imported into their land by Cook, and the still stranger specimens of unclassified insect called Upper Ten, which imports itself, they will receive "backsheesh."
"Backsheesh" is a certain source of comfort to all nations, and translates itself with sweetest euphony into all languages, and the desert-born tribes have justice on their side when they demand as much of it as they can get, rightfully or wrongfully. They deserve to gain some sort of advantage out of the odd-looking swarms of Western invaders who amaze them by their dress and affront them by their manners. "Backsheesh," therefore, has become the perpetual cry of the Desert-Born,—it is the only means of offence and defence left to them, and very naturally they cling to it with fervor and resolution. And who shall blame them? The tall, majestic, meditative Arab—superb as mere man, and standing naked- footed on his sandy native soil, with his one rough garment flung round his loins and his great black eyes fronting, eagle-like, the sun—merits something considerable for condescending to act as guide and servant to the Western moneyed civilian who clothes his lower limbs in straight, funnel-like cloth casings, shaped to the strict resemblance of an elephant's legs, and finishes the graceful design by enclosing the rest of his body in a stiff shirt wherein he can scarcely move, and a square-cut coat which divides him neatly in twain by a line immediately above the knee, with the effect of lessening his height by several inches. The Desert-Born surveys him gravely and in civil compassion, sometimes with a muttered prayer against the hideousness of him, but on the whole with patience and equanimity,—influenced by considerations of "backsheesh." And the English "season" whirls lightly and vaporously, like blown egg-froth, over the mystic land of the old gods,—the terrible land filled with dark secrets as yet unexplored,—the land "shadowing with wings," as the Bible hath it,—the land in which are buried tremendous histories as yet unguessed,—profound enigmas of the supernatural,—labyrinths of wonder, terror and mystery,—all of which remain unrevealed to the giddy-pated, dancing, dining, gabbling throng of the fashionable travelling lunatics of the day,—the people who "never think because it is too much trouble," people whose one idea is to journey from hotel to hotel and compare notes with their acquaintances afterwards as to which house provided them with the best-cooked food. For it is a noticeable fact that with most visitors to the "show" places of Europe and the East, food, bedding and selfish personal comfort are the first considerations,—the scenery and the associations come last. Formerly the position was reversed. In the days when there were no railways, and the immortal Byron wrote his Childe Harold, it was customary to rate personal inconvenience lightly; the beautiful or historic scene was the attraction for the traveller, and not the arrangements made for his special form of digestive apparatus. Byron could sleep on the deck of a sailing vessel wrapped in his cloak and feel none the worse for it; his well-braced mind and aspiring spirit soared above all bodily discomforts; his thoughts were engrossed with the mighty teachings of time; he was able to lose himself in glorious reveries on the lessons of the past and the possibilities of the future; the attitude of the inspired Thinker as well as Poet was his, and a crust of bread and cheese served him as sufficiently on his journeyings among the then unspoilt valleys and mountains of Switzerland as the warm, greasy, indigestible fare of the elaborate table-d'hotes at Lucerne and Interlaken serve us now. But we, in our "superior" condition, pooh-pooh the Byronic spirit of indifference to events and scorn of trifles,—we say it is "melodramatic," completely forgetting that our attitude towards ourselves and things in general is one of most pitiable bathos. We cannot write Childe Harold, but we can grumble at both bed and board in every hotel under the sun; we can discover teasing midges in the air and questionable insects in the rooms; and we can discuss each bill presented to us with an industrious persistence which nearly drives landlords frantic and ourselves as well. In these kind of important matters we are indeed "superior" to Byron and other ranting dreamers of his type, but we produce no Childe Harolds, and we have come to the strange pass of pretending that Don Juan is improper, while we pore over Zola with avidity! To such a pitch has our culture brought us! And, like the Pharisee in the Testament, we thank God we are not as others are. We are glad we are not as the Arab, as the African, as the Hindoo; we are proud of our elephant-legs and our dividing coat-line; these things show we are civilized, and that God approves of us more than any other type of creature ever created. We take possession of nations, not by thunder of war, but by clatter of dinner-plates. We do not raise armies, we build hotels; and we settle ourselves in Egypt as we do at Homburg, to dress and dine and sleep and sniff contempt on all things but ourselves, to such an extent that we have actually got into the habit of calling the natives of the places we usurp "foreigners." WE are the foreigners; but somehow we never can see it. Wherever we condescend to build hotels, that spot we consider ours. We are surprised at the impertinence of Frankfort people who presume to visit Homburg while we are having our "season" there; we wonder how they dare do it! And, of a truth, they seem amazed at their own boldness, and creep shyly through the Kur-Garten as though fearing to be turned out by the custodians. The same thing occurs in Egypt; we are frequently astounded at what we call "the impertinence of these foreigners," i.e. the natives. They ought to be proud to have us and our elephant-legs; glad to see such noble and beautiful types of civilization as the stout parvenu with his pendant paunch, and his family of gawky youths and maidens of the large-toothed, long-limbed genus; glad to see the English "mamma," who never grows old, but wears young hair in innocent curls, and has her wrinkles annually "massaged" out by a Paris artiste in complexion. The Desert-Born, we say, should be happy and grateful to see such sights, and not demand so much "backsheesh." In fact, the Desert-Born should not get so much in our way as he does; he is a very good servant, of course, but as a man and a brother— pooh! Egypt may be his country, and he may love it as much as we love England; but our feelings are more to be considered than his, and there is no connecting link of human sympathy between Elephant-Legs and sun-browned Nudity!
So at least thought Sir Chetwynd Lyle, a stout gentleman of coarse build and coarser physiognomy, as he sat in a deep arm-chair in the great hall or lounge of the Gezireh Palace Hotel, smoking after dinner in the company of two or three acquaintances with whom he had fraternized during his stay in Cairo. Sir Chetwynd was fond of airing his opinions for the benefit of as many people who cared to listen to him, and Sir Chetwynd had some right to his opinions, inasmuch as he was the editor and proprietor of a large London newspaper. His knighthood was quite a recent distinction, and nobody knew exactly how he had managed to get it. He had originally been known in Fleet Street by the irreverent sobriquet of "greasy Chetwynd," owing to his largeness, oiliness and general air of blandly-meaningless benevolence. He had a wife and two daughters, and one of his objects in wintering at Cairo was to get his cherished children married. It was time, for the bloom was slightly off the fair girl-roses,—the dainty petals of the delicate buds were beginning to wither. And Sir Chetwynd had heard much of Cairo; he understood that there was a great deal of liberty allowed there between men and maids,—that they went out together on driving excursions to the Pyramids, that they rode on lilliputian donkeys over the sand at moonlight, that they floated about in boats at evening on the Nile, and that, in short, there were more opportunities of marriage among the "flesh-pots of Egypt" than in all the rush and crush of London. So here he was, portly and comfortable, and on the whole well satisfied with his expedition; there were a good many eligible bachelors about, and Muriel and Dolly were really doing their best. So was their mother, Lady Chetwynd Lyle; she allowed no "eligible" to escape her hawk-like observation, and on this particular evening she was in all her glory, for there was to be a costume ball at the Gezireh Palace Hotel,—a superb affair, organized by the proprietors for the amusement of their paying guests, who certainly paid well,—even stiffly. Owing to the preparations that were going on for this festivity, the lounge, with its sumptuous Egyptian decorations and luxurious modern fittings, was well-nigh deserted save for Sir Chetwynd and his particular group of friends, to whom he was holding forth, between slow cigar-puffs, on the squalor of the Arabs, the frightful thievery of the Sheiks, the incompetency of his own special dragoman, and the mistake people made in thinking the Egyptians themselves a fine race.
"They are tall, certainly," said Sir Chetwynd, surveying his paunch, which lolled comfortably, and as it were by itself, in front of him, like a kind of waistcoated air-balloon. "I grant you they are tall. That is, the majority of them are. But I have seen short men among them. The Khedive is not taller than I am. And the Egyptian face is very deceptive. The features are often fine,— occasionally classic,—but intelligent expression is totally lacking."
Here Sir Chetwynd waved his cigar descriptively, as though he would fain suggest that a heavy jaw, a fat nose with a pimple at the end, and a gross mouth with black teeth inside it, which were special points in his own physiognomy, went further to make up "intelligent expression" than any well-moulded, straight, Eastern type of sun-browned countenance ever seen or imagined.
"Well, I don't quite agree with you there," said a man who was lying full length on one of the divans close by and smoking. "These brown chaps have deuced fine eyes. There doesn't seem to be any lack of expression in them. And that reminds me, there is at fellow arrived here to-day who looks for all the world like an Egyptian, of the best form. He is a Frenchman, though; a Provencal,—every one knows him,—he is the famous painter, Armand Gervase."
"Indeed!"—and Sir Chetwynd roused himself at the name—"Armand Gervase! THE Armand Gervase?"
"The only one original," laughed the other. "He's come here to make studies of Eastern women. A rare old time he'll have among them, I daresay! He's not famous for character. He ought to paint the Princess Ziska."
"Ah, by-the-bye, I wanted to ask you about that lady. Does anyone know who she is? My wife is very anxious to find out whether she is—well—er—quite the proper person, you know! When one has young girls, one cannot be too careful."
Ross Courtney, the man on the divan, got up slowly and stretched his long athletic limbs with a lazy enjoyment in the action. He was a sporting person with unhampered means and large estates in Scotland and Ireland; he lived a joyous, "don't-care" life of wandering about the world in search of adventures, and he had a scorn of civilized conventionalities—newspapers and their editors among them. And whenever Sir Chetwynd spoke of his "young girls" he was moved to irreverent smiling, as he knew the youngest of the twain was at least thirty. He also recognized and avoided the wily traps and pitfalls set for him by Lady Chetwynd Lyle in the hope that he would yield himself up a captive to the charms of Muriel or Dolly; and as he thought of these two fair ones now and involuntarily compared them in his mind with the other woman just spoken of, the smile that had begun to hover on his lips deepened unconsciously till his handsome face was quite illumined with its mirth.
"Upon my word, I don't think it matters who anybody is in Cairo!" he said with a fine carelessness. "The people whose families are all guaranteed respectable are more lax in their behavior than the people one knows nothing about. As for the Princess Ziska, her extraordinary beauty and intelligence would give her the entree anywhere—even if she hadn't money to back those qualities up."
"She's enormously wealthy, I hear," said young Lord Fulkeward, another of the languid smokers, caressing his scarcely perceptible moustache. "My mother thinks she is a divorcee."
Sir Chetwynd looked very serious, and shook his fat head solemnly.
"Well, there is nothing remarkable in being divorced, you know," laughed Ross Courtney. "Nowadays it seems the natural and fitting end of marriage."
Sir Chetwynd looked graver still. He refused to be drawn into this kind of flippant conversation. He, at any rate, was respectably married; he had no sympathy whatever with the larger majority of people whose marriages were a failure.
"There is no Prince Ziska then?" he inquired. "The name sounds to me of Russian origin, and I imagined—my wife also imagined,—that the husband of the lady might very easily be in Russia while his wife's health might necessitate her wintering in Egypt. The Russian winter climate is inclement, I believe."
"That would be a very neat arrangement," yawned Lord Fulkeward. "But my mother thinks not. My mother thinks there is not a husband at all,—that there never was a husband. In fact my mother has very strong convictions on the subject. But my mother intends to visit her all the same."
"She does? Lady Fulkeward has decided on that? Oh, well, in THAT case!"—and Sir Chetwynd expanded his lower-chest air-balloon. "Of course, Lady Chetwynd Lyle can no longer have any scruples on the subject. If Lady Fulkeward visits the Princess there can be no doubt as to her actual STATUS."
"Oh, I don't know!" murmured Lord Fulkeward, stroking his downy lip. "You see my mother's rather an exceptional person. When the governor was alive she hardly ever went out anywhere, you know, and all the people who came to our house in Yorkshire had to bring their pedigrees with them, so to speak. It was beastly dull! But now my mother has taken to 'studying character,' don'cher know; she likes all sorts of people about her, and the more mixed they are the more she is delighted with them. Fact, I assure you! Quite a change has come over my mother since the poor old governor died!"
Ross Courtney looked amused. A change indeed had come over Lady Fulkeward—a change, sudden, mysterious and amazing to many of her former distinguished friends with "pedigrees." In her husband's lifetime her hair had been a soft silver-gray; her face pale, refined and serious; her form full and matronly; her step sober and discreet; but two years after the death of the kindly and noble old lord who had cherished her as the apple of his eye and up to the last moment of his breath had thought her the most beautiful woman in England, she appeared with golden tresses, a peach-bloom complexion, and a figure which had been so massaged, rubbed, pressed and artistically corseted as to appear positively sylph-like. She danced like a fairy, she who had once been called "old" Lady Fulkeward; she smoked cigarettes; she laughed like a child at every trivial thing—any joke, however stale, flat and unprofitable, was sufficient to stir her light pulses to merriment; and she flirted—oh, heavens!—HOW she flirted!—with a skill and a grace and a knowledge and an aplomb that nearly drove Muriel and Dolly Chetwynd Lyle frantic. They, poor things, were beaten out of the field altogether by her superior tact and art of "fence," and they hated her accordingly and called her in private a "horrid old woman," which perhaps, when her maid undressed her, she was. But she was having a distinctly "good time" in Cairo; she called her son, who was in delicate health, "my poor dear little boy!" and he, though twenty-eight on his last birthday, was reduced to such an abject condition of servitude by her assertiveness, impudent gayety and general freedom of manner, that he could not open his mouth without alluding to "my mother," and using "my mother" as a peg whereon to hang all his own opinions and emotions as well as the opinions and emotions of other people.
"Lady Fulkeward admires the Princess very much, I believe?" said another lounger who had not yet spoken.
"Oh, as to that!"—and Lord Fulkeward roused himself to some faint show of energy. "Who wouldn't admire her? By Jove! Only, I tell you what—there's something I weird about her eyes. Fact! I don't like her eyes."
"Shut up, Fulke! She has beautiful eyes!" burst out Courtney, hotly; then flushing suddenly he bit his lips and was silent.
"Who is this that has beautiful eyes?" suddenly demanded a slow, gruff voice, and a little thin gentleman, dressed in a kind of academic gown and cap, appeared on the scene.
"Hullo! here's our F.R.S.A.!" exclaimed Lord Fulkeward. "By Jove! Is that the style you have got yourself up in for tonight? It looks awfully smart, don'cher know!"
The personage thus complimented adjusted his spectacles and surveyed his acquaintances with a very well-satisfied air. In truth, Dr. Maxwell Dean had some reason for self-satisfaction, if the knowledge that he possessed one of the cleverest heads in Europe could give a man cause for pride. He was apparently the only individual in the Gezireh Palace Hotel who had come to Egypt for any serious purpose. A purpose he had, though what it was he declined to explain. Reticent, often brusque, and sometimes mysterious in his manner of speech, there was not the slightest doubt that he was at work on something, and that he also had a very trying habit of closely studying every object, small or great, that came under his observation. He studied the natives to such an extent that he knew every differing shade of color in their skins; he studied Sir Chetwynd Lyle and knew that he occasionally took bribes to "put things" into his paper; he studied Dolly and Muriel Chetwynd Lyle, and knew that they would never succeed in getting husbands; he studied Lady Fulkeward, and thought her very well got up for sixty; he studied Ross Courtney, and knew he would never do anything but kill animals all his life; and he studied the working of the Gezireh Palace Hotel, and saw a fortune rising out of it for the proprietors. But apart from these ordinary surface things, he studied other matters—"occult" peculiarities of temperament, "coincidences," strange occurrences generally. He could read the Egyptian hieroglyphs perfectly, and he understood the difference between "royal cartouche" scarabei and Birmingham-manufactured ones. He was never dull; he had plenty to do; and he took everything as it came in its turn. Even the costume ball for which he had now attired himself did not present itself to him as a "bore," but as a new vein of information, opening to him fresh glimpses of the genus homo as seen in a state of eccentricity.
"I think," he now said, complacently, "that the cap and gown look well for a man of my years. It is a simple garb, but cool, convenient and not unbecoming. I had thought at first of adopting the dress of an ancient Egyptian priest, but I find it difficult to secure the complete outfit. I would never wear a costume of the kind that was not in every point historically correct."
No one smiled. No one would have dared to smile at Dr. Maxwell Dean when he spoke of "historically correct" things. He had studied them as he had studied everything, and he knew all about them.
Sir Chetwynd murmured:
"Quite right—er—the ancient designs were very elaborate—"
"And symbolic," finished Dr. Dean. "Symbolic of very curious meanings, I assure you. But I fear I have interrupted your talk. Mr. Courtney was speaking about somebody's beautiful eyes; who is the fair one in question?"
"The Princess Ziska," said Lord Fulkeward. "I was saying that I don't quite like the look of her eyes."
"Why not? Why not?" demanded the doctor with sudden asperity. "What's the matter with them?"
"Everything's the matter with them!" replied Ross Courtney with a forced laugh. "They are too splendid and wild for Fulke; he likes the English pale-blue better than the Egyptian gazelle-black."
"No, I don't," said Lord Fulkeward, speaking more animatedly than was customary with him. "I hate, pale-blue eyes. I prefer soft violet-gray ones, like Miss Murray's."
"Miss Helen Murray is a very charming young lady," said Dr. Dean. "But her beauty is quite of an ordinary type, while that of the Princess Ziska—"
"Is EXTRA-ordinary—exactly! That's just what I say!" declared Courtney. "I think she is the loveliest woman I have ever seen."
There was a pause, during which the little doctor looked with a ferret-like curiosity from one man to the other. Sir Chetwynd Lyle rose ponderously up from the depths of his arm-chair.
"I think," said he, "I had better go and get into my uniform—the Windsor, you know! I always have it with me wherever I go; it comes in very useful for fancy balls such as the one we are going to have tonight, when no particular period is observed in costume. Isn't it about time we all got ready?"
"Upon my life, I think it is!" agreed Lord Fulkeward. "I am coming out as a Neapolitan fisherman! I don't believe Neapolitan fishermen ever really dress in the way I'm going to make up, but it's the accepted stage-type, don'cher know."
"Ah! I daresay you will look very well in it," murmured Ross Courtney, vaguely. "Hullo! here comes Denzil Murray!"
They all turned instinctively to watch the entrance of a handsome young man, attired in the picturesque garb worn by Florentine nobles during the prosperous reign of the Medicis. It was a costume admirably adapted to the wearer, who, being grave and almost stern of feature, needed the brightness of jewels and the gloss of velvet and satin to throw out the classic contour of his fine head and enhance the lustre of his brooding, darkly- passionate eyes. Denzil Murray was a pure-blooded Highlander,—the level brows, the firm lips, the straight, fearless look, all bespoke him a son of the heather-crowned mountains and a descendant of the proud races that scorned the "Sassenach," and retained sufficient of the material whereof their early Phoenician ancestors were made to be capable of both the extremes of hate and love in their most potent forms. He moved slowly towards the group of men awaiting his approach with a reserved air of something like hauteur; it was possible he was conscious of his good looks, but it was equally evident that he did not desire to be made the object of impertinent remark. His friends silently recognized this, and only Lord Fulkeward, moved to a mild transport of admiration, ventured to comment on his appearance.
"I say, Denzil, you're awfully well got up! Awfully well! Magnificent!"
Denzil Murray bowed with a somewhat wearied and sarcastic air.
"When one is in Rome, or Egypt, one must do as Rome, or Egypt, does," he said, carelessly. "If hotel proprietors will give fancy balls, it is necessary to rise to the occasion. You look very well, Doctor. Why don't you other fellows go and get your toggeries on? It's past ten o'clock, and the Princess Ziska will be here by eleven."
"There are other people coming besides the Princess Ziska, are there not, Mr. Murray?" inquired Sir Chetwynd Lyle, with an obtrusively bantering air.
Denzil Murray glanced him over disdainfully.
"I believe there are," he answered coolly. "Otherwise the ball would scarcely pay its expenses. But as the Princess is admittedly the most beautiful woman in Cairo this season, she will naturally be the centre of attraction. That's why I mentioned she would be here at eleven."
"She told you that?" inquired Ross Courtney.
Courtney looked up, then down, and seemed about to speak again, but checked himself and finally strolled off, followed by Lord Fulkeward.
"I hear," said Dr. Dean then, addressing Denzil Murray, "that a great celebrity has arrived at this hotel—the painter, Armand Gervase."
Denzil's face brightened instantly with a pleasant smile.
"The dearest friend I have in the world!" he said. "Yes, he is here. I met him outside the door this afternoon. We are very old chums. I have stayed with him in Paris, and he has stayed with me in Scotland. A charming fellow! He is very French in his ideas; but he knows England well, and speaks English perfectly."
"French in his ideas!" echoed Sir Chetwynd Lyle, who was just preparing to leave the lounge. "Dear me! How is that?"
"He is a Frenchman," said Dr. Dean, suavely. "Therefore that his ideas should be French ought not to be a matter of surprise to us, my dear Sir Chetwynd."
Sir Chetwynd snorted. He had a suspicion that he—the editor and proprietor of the Daily Dial—was being laughed at, and he at once clambered on his high horse of British Morality.
"Frenchman or no Frenchman," he observed, "the ideas promulgated in France at the present day are distinctly profane and pernicious. There is a lack of principle—a want of rectitude in— er—the French Press, for example, that is highly deplorable."
"And is the English Press immaculate?" asked Denzil languidly.
"We hope so," replied Sir Chetwynd. "We do our best to make it so."
And with that remark he took his paunch and himself away into retirement, leaving Dr. Dean and young Murray facing each other, a singular pair enough in the contrast of their appearance and dress,—the one small, lean and wiry, in plain-cut, loose-flowing academic gown; the other tall, broad and muscular, clad in the rich attire of mediaeval Florence, and looking for all the world like a fine picture of that period stepped out from, its frame. There was a silence between them for a moment,—then the Doctor spoke in a low tone:
"It won't do, my dear boy,—I assure you it won't do! You will break your heart over a dream, and make yourself miserable for nothing. And you will break your sister's heart as well; perhaps you haven't thought of that?"
Denzil flung himself into the chair Sir Chetwynd had just vacated, and gave vent to a sigh that was almost a groan.
"Helen doesn't know anything—yet," he said hoarsely. "I know nothing myself; how can I? I haven't said a word to—to HER. If I spoke all that was in my mind, I daresay she would laugh at me. You are the only one who has guessed my secret. You saw me last night when I—when I accompanied her home. But I never passed her palace gates,—she wouldn't let me. She bade me 'good-night' outside; a servant admitted her, and she vanished through the portal like a witch or a ghost. Sometimes I fancy she IS a ghost. She is so white, so light, so noiseless and so lovely!"
He turned his eyes away, ashamed of the emotion that moved him. Dr. Maxwell Dean took off his academic cap and examined its interior as though he considered it remarkable.
"Yes," he said slowly; "I have thought the same thing of her myself—sometimes."
Further conversation was interrupted by the entrance of the military band of the evening, which now crossed the "lounge," each man carrying his instrument with him; and these were followed by several groups of people in fancy dress, all ready and eager for the ball. Pierrots and Pierrettes, monks in drooping cowls, flower-girls, water-carriers, symbolic figures of "Night" and "Morning," mingled with the counterfeit presentments of dead-and- gone kings and queens, began to flock together, laughing and talking on their way to the ball-room; and presently among them came a man whose superior height and build, combined with his eminently picturesque, half-savage type of beauty, caused every one to turn and watch him as he passed, and murmur whispering comments on the various qualities wherein he differed from themselves. He was attired for the occasion as a Bedouin chief, and his fierce black eyes, and close-curling, dark hair, combined with the natural olive tint of his complexion, were well set off by the snowy folds of his turban and the whiteness of his entire costume, which was unrelieved by any color save at the waist, where a gleam of scarlet was shown in the sash which helped to fasten a murderous-looking dagger and other "correct" weapons of attack to his belt. He entered the hall with a swift and singularly light step, and made straight for Denzil Murray.
"Ah! here you are!" he said, speaking English with a slight foreign accent, which was more agreeable to the ear than otherwise. "But, my excellent boy, what magnificence! A Medici costume! Never say to me that you are not vain; you are as conscious of your good looks as any pretty woman. Behold me, how simple and unobtrusive I am!"
He laughed, and Murray sprang up from the chair where he had been despondently reclining.
"Oh, come, I like that!" he exclaimed. "Simple and unobtrusive! Why everybody is staring at you now as if you had dropped from the moon! You cannot be Armand Gervase and simple and unobtrusive at the same time!"
"Why not?" demanded Gervase, lightly. "Fame is capricious, and her trumpet is not loud enough to be heard all over the world at once. The venerable proprietor of the dirty bazaar where I managed to purchase these charming articles of Bedouin costume had never heard of me in his life. Miserable man! He does not know what he has missed!"
Here his flashing black eyes lit suddenly on Dr. Dean, who was "studying" him in the same sort of pertinacious way in which that learned little man studied everything.
"A friend of yours, Denzil?" he inquired.
"Yes," responded Murray readily; "a very great friend—Dr. Maxwell Dean. Dr. Dean, let me introduce to you Armand Gervase; I need not explain him further!"
"You need not, indeed!" said the doctor, with a ceremonious bow. "The name is one of universal celebrity."
"It is not always an advantage—this universal celebrity," replied Gervase. "Nor is it true that any celebrity is actually universal. Perhaps the only living person that is universally known, by name at least, is Zola. Mankind are at one in their appreciation of vice."
"I cannot altogether agree with you there," said Dr. Dean slowly, keeping his gaze fixed on the artist's bold, proud features with singular curiosity. "The French Academy, I presume, are individually as appreciative of human weaknesses as most men; but taken collectively, some spirit higher and stronger than their own keeps them unanimous in their rejection of the notorious Realist who sacrifices all the canons of art and beauty to the discussion of topics unmentionable in decent society."
Gervase laughed idly.
"Oh, he will get in some day, you may be sure," he answered. "There is no spirit higher and stronger than the spirit of naturalism in man; and in time, when a few prejudices have died away and mawkish sentiment has been worn threadbare, Zola will be enrolled as the first of the French Academicians, with even more honors than if he had succeeded in the beginning. That is the way of all those 'select' bodies. As Napoleon said, 'Le monde vient a celui qui sait attendre.'"
The little Doctor's countenance now showed the most lively and eager interest.
"You quite believe that, Monsieur Gervase? You are entirely sure of what you said just now?"
"What did I say? I forget!" smiled Gervase, lighting a cigarette and beginning to smoke it leisurely.
"You said, 'There is no spirit higher or stronger than the spirit of naturalism in man.' Are you positive on this point?"
"Why, of course! Most entirely positive!" And the great painter looked amused as he gave the reply. "Naturalism is Nature, or the things appertaining to Nature, and there is nothing higher or stronger than Nature everywhere and anywhere."
"How about God?" inquired Dr. Dean with a curious air, as if he were propounding a remarkable conundrum.
"God!" Gervase laughed loudly. "Pardon! Are you a clergyman?"
"By no means!" and the Doctor gave a little bow and deprecating smile. "I am not in any way connected with the Church. I am a doctor of laws and literature,—a humble student of philosophy and science generally..."
"Philosophy! Science!" interrupted Gervase. "And you ask about God! Parbleu! Science and philosophy have progressed beyond Him!"
"Exactly!" and Dr. Dean rubbed his hands together pleasantly. "That is your opinion? Yes, I thought so! Science and philosophy, to put it comprehensively, have beaten poor God on His own ground! Ha! ha! ha! Very good—very good! And humorous as well! Ha! ha!"
And a very droll appearance just then had this "humble student of philosophy and science generally," for he bent himself to and fro with laughter, and his small eyes almost disappeared behind his shelving brows in the excess of his mirth. And two crosslines formed themselves near his thin mouth—such lines as are carven on the ancient Greek masks which indicate satire.
Denzil Murray flushed uncomfortably.
"Gervase doesn't believe in anything but Art," he said, as though half apologizing for his friend: "Art is the sole object of his existence; I don't believe he ever has time to think about anything else."
"Of what else should I think, mon ami?" exclaimed Gervase mirthfully. "Of life? It is all Art to me; and by Art I mean the idealization and transfiguration of Nature."
"Oh. if you do that sort of thing you are a romancist," interposed Dr. Dean emphatically. "Nature neither idealizes nor transfigures itself; it is simply Nature and no more. Matter uncontrolled by Spirit is anything but ideal."
"Precisely," answered Gervase quickly and with some warmth; "but my spirit idealizes it,—my imagination sees beyond it,—my soul grasps it."
"Oh, you have a soul?" exclaimed Dr. Dean, beginning to laugh again. "Now, how did you find that out?"
Gervase looked at him in a sudden surprise.
"Every man has an inward self, naturally," he said. "We call it 'soul' as a figure of speech; it is really temperament merely."
"Oh, it is merely temperament? Then you don't think it is likely to outlive you, this soul—to take new phases upon itself and go on existing, an immortal being, when your body is in a far worse condition (because less carefully preserved) than an Egyptian mummy?"
"Certainly not!" and Gervase flung away the end of his finished cigarette. "The immortality of the soul is quite an exploded theory. It was always a ridiculous one. We have quite enough to vex us in our present life, and why men ever set about inventing another is more than I am able to understand. It was a most foolish and barbaric superstition."
The gay sound of music now floated towards them from the ball- room,—the strains of a graceful, joyous, half-commanding, half- pleading waltz came rhythmically beating on the air like the measured movement of wings,—and Denzil Murray, beginning to grow restless, walked to and fro, his eyes watching every figure that crossed and re-crossed the hall. But Dr. Dean's interest in Armand Gervase remained intense and unabated; and approaching him, he laid two lean fingers delicately on the white folds of the Bedouin dress just where the heart of the man was hidden.
"'A foolish and barbaric superstition!'" he echoed slowly and meditatively. "You do not believe in any possibility of there being a life—or several lives—after this present death through which we must all pass inevitably, sooner or later?"
"Not in the least! I leave such ideas to the ignorant and uneducated. I should be unworthy of the progressive teachings of my time if I believed such arrant nonsense."
"Death, you consider, finishes all? There is nothing further—no mysteries beyond? ..." and Dr. Dean's eyes glittered as he stretched forth one thin, slight hand and pointed into space with the word "beyond," an action which gave it a curious emphasis, and for a fleeting second left a weird impression on even the careless mind of Gervase. But he laughed it off lightly.
"Nothing beyond? Of course not! My dear sir, why ask such a question? Nothing can be plainer or more positive than the fact that death, as you say, finishes all."
A woman's laugh, low and exquisitely musical, rippled on the air as he spoke—delicious laughter, rarer than song; for women as a rule laugh too loudly, and the sound of their merriment partakes more of the nature of a goose's cackle than any other sort of natural melody. But this large, soft and silvery, was like a delicately subdued cadence played on a magic flute in the distance, and suggested nothing but sweetness; and at the sound of it Gervase started violently and turned sharply round upon his friend Murray with a look of wonderment and perplexity.
"Who is that?" he demanded. "I have heard that pretty laugh before; it must be some one I know."
But Denzil scarcely heard him. Pale, and with eyes full of yearning and passion, he was watching the slow approach of a group of people in fancy dress, who were all eagerly pressing round one central figure—the figure of a woman clad in gleaming golden tissues and veiled in the old Egyptian fashion up to the eyes, with jewels flashing about her waist, bosom and hair,—a woman who moved glidingly as if she floated rather than walked, and whose beauty, half hidden as it was by the exigencies of the costume she had chosen, was so unusual and brilliant that it seemed to create an atmosphere of bewilderment and rapture around her as she came. She was preceded by a small Nubian boy in a costume of vivid scarlet, who, walking backwards humbly, fanned her slowly with a tall fan of peacock's plumes made after the quaint designs of ancient Egypt. The lustre radiating from the peacock's feathers, the light of her golden garments, her jewels and the marvellous black splendor of her eyes, all flashed for a moment like sudden lightning on Gervase; something—he knew not what—turned him giddy and blind; hardly knowing what he did, he sprang eagerly forward, when all at once he felt the lean, small hand of Dr. Dean on his arm and stopped short embarrassed.
"Pardon me!" said the little savant, with a delicate, half- supercilious lifting of his eyebrows. "But—do you know the Princess Ziska?"
Gervase stared at him, still dazzled and confused.
"Whom did you say? ... the Princess Ziska? ... No, I don't know her ... Yet, stay! Yes, I think I have seen her ... somewhere,—in Paris, possibly. Will you introduce me?"
"I leave that duty to Mr. Denzil Murray," said the Doctor, folding his arms neatly behind his back ... "He knows her better than I do."
And smiling his little grim, cynical smile, he settled his academic cap more firmly on his head and strolled off towards the ballroom. Gervase stood irresolute, his eyes fixed on that wondrous golden figure that floated before his eyes like an aerial vision. Denzil Murray had gone forward to meet the Princess and was now talking to her, his handsome face radiating with the admiration he made no attempt to conceal. After a little pause Gervase moved towards him a step or two, and caught part of the conversation.
"You look the very beau-ideal of an Egyptian Princess," Murray was saying. "Your costume is perfect."
She laughed. Again that sweet, rare laughter! Gervase thrilled with the pulsation of it,—it beat in his ears and smote his brain with a strange echo of familiarity.
"Is it not?" she responded. "I am 'historically correct,' as your friend Dr. Dean would say. My ornaments are genuine,—they all came out of the same tomb."
"I find one fault with your attire, Princess," said one of the male admirers who had entered with her; "part of your face is veiled. That is a cruelty to us all!"
She waived the compliment aside with a light gesture.
"It was the fashion in ancient Egypt," she said. "Love in those old days was not what it is now,—one glance, one smile was sufficient to set the soul on fire and draw another soul towards it to consume together in the suddenly kindled flame! And women veiled their faces in youth, lest they should be deemed too prodigal of their charms; and in age they covered themselves still more closely, in order not to affront the Sun-God's fairness by their wrinkles." She smiled, a dazzling smile that drew Gervase yet a few steps closer unconsciously, as though he were being magnetized. "But I am not bound to keep the veil always up," and as she spoke she loosened it and let it fall, showing an exquisite face, fair as a lily, and of such perfect loveliness that the men who were gathered round her seemed to lose breath and speech at sight of it. "That pleases you better, Mr. Murray?"
Denzil grew very pale. Bending down he murmured something to her in a low tone. She raised her lovely brows with a little touch of surprise that was half disdain, and looked at him straightly.
"You say very pretty things; but they do not always please me," she observed. "However, that is my fault, no doubt."
And she began to move onwards, her Nubian page preceding her as before. Gervase stood in her path and confronted her as she came.
"Introduce me," he said in a commanding tone to Denzil.
Denzil looked at him, somewhat startled by the suppressed passion in his voice.
"Certainly. Princess, permit me!" She paused, a figure of silent grace and attention. "Allow me to present to you my friend, Armand Gervase, the most famous artist in France—Gervase, the Princess Ziska."
She raised her deep, dark eyes and fixed them on his face, and as he looked boldly at her in a kind of audacious admiration, he felt again that strange dizzying shock which had before thrilled him through and through. There was something strangely familiar about her; the faint odors that seemed exhaled from her garments,—the gleam of the jewel-winged scarabei on her breast,—the weird light of the emerald-studded serpent in her hair; and more, much more familiar than these trifles, was the sound of her voice—dulcet, penetrating, grave and haunting in its tone.
"At last we meet, Monsieur Armand Gervase!" she said slowly and with a graceful inclination of her head. "But I cannot look upon you as a stranger, for I have known you so long—in spirit!"
She smiled—a strange smile, dazzling yet enigmatical—and something wild and voluptuous seemed to stir in Gervase's pulses as he touched the small hand, loaded with quaint Egyptian gems, which she graciously extended towards him.
"I think I have known you, too!" he said. "Possibly in a dream,—a dream of beauty never realized till now!"
His voice sank to an amorous whisper; but she said nothing in reply, nor could her looks be construed into any expression of either pleasure or offence. Yet through the heart of young Denzil Murray went a sudden pang of jealousy, and for the first time in his life he became conscious that even among men as well as women there may exist what is called the "petty envy" of a possible rival, and the uneasy desire to outshine such an one in all points of appearance, dress and manner. His gaze rested broodingly on the tall, muscular form of Gervase, and he noted the symmetry and supple grace of the man with an irritation of which he was ashamed. He knew, despite his own undeniably handsome personality, which was set off to such advantage that night by the richness of the Florentine costume he had adopted, that there was a certain fascination about Gervase which was inborn, a trick of manner which made him seem picturesque at all times; and that even when the great French artist had stayed with him in Scotland and got himself up for the occasion in more or less baggy tweeds, people were fond of remarking that the only man who ever succeeded in making tweeds look artistic was Armand Gervase. And in the white Bedouin garb he now wore he was seen at his best; a certain restless passion betrayed in eyes and lips made him look the savage part he had "dressed" for, and as he bent his head over the Princess Ziska's hand and kissed it with an odd mingling of flippancy and reverence, Denzil suddenly began to think how curiously alike they were, these two! Strong man and fair woman, both had many physical points in common,—the same dark, level brows,—the same half wild, half tender eyes,—the same sinuous grace of form,—the same peculiar lightness of movement,—and yet both were different, while resembling each other. It was not what is called a "family likeness" which existed between them; it was the cast of countenance or "type" that exists between races or tribes, and had young Murray not known his friend Gervase to be a French Provencal and equally understood the Princess Ziska to be of Russian origin, he would have declared them both, natives of Egypt, of the purest caste and highest breeding. He was so struck by this idea that he might have spoken his thought aloud had he not heard Gervase boldly arranging dance after dance with the Princess, and apparently preparing to write no name but hers down the entire length of his ball programme,—a piece of audacity which had the effect of rousing Denzil to assert his own rights.
"You promised me the first waltz, Princess," he said, his face flushing as he spoke.
"Quite true! And you shall have it," she replied, smiling. "Monsieur Gervase will have the second. The music sounds very inviting; shall we not go in?"
"We spoil the effect of your entree crowding about you like this," said Denzil, glancing somewhat sullenly at Gervase and the other men surrounding her; "and, by the way, you have never told us what character you represent to-night; some great queen of old time, no doubt?"
"No, I lay no claim to sovereignty," she answered; "I am for to- night the living picture of a once famous and very improper person who bore half my name, a dancer of old time, known as 'Ziska- Charmazel,' the favorite of the harem of a great Egyptian warrior, described in forgotten histories as 'The Mighty Araxes.'"
She paused; her admirers, fascinated by the sound of her voice, were all silent. She fixed her eyes upon Gervase; and addressing him only, continued:
"Yes, I am 'Charmazel,'" she said. "She was, as I tell you, an 'improper' person, or would be so considered by the good English people. Because, you know, she was never married to Araxes!"
This explanation, given with the demurest naivete, caused a laugh among her listeners.
"That wouldn't make her 'improper' in France," said Gervase gayly. "She would only seem more interesting."
"Ah! Then modern France is like old Egypt?" she queried, still smiling. "And Frenchmen can be found perhaps who are like Araxes in the number of their loves and infidelities?"
"I should say my country is populated entirely with copies of him," replied Gervase, mirthfully. "Was he a very distinguished personage?"
"He was. Old legends say he was the greatest warrior of his time; as you, Monsieur Gervase, are the greatest artist."
"You flatter me, fair Charmazel!" he said; then suddenly as the strange name passed his lips he recoiled as if he had been stung, and seemed for a moment dazed. The Princess turned her dark eyes on him inquiringly.
"Something troubles you, Monsieur Gervase?" she asked.
His brows knitted in a perplexed frown.
"Nothing ... the heat ... the air ... a trifle, I assure you? Will you not join the dancers? Denzil, the music calls you. When your waltz with the Princess is ended I shall claim my turn. For the moment ... au revoir!"
He stood aside and let the little group pass him by: the Princess Ziska moving with her floating, noiseless grace, Denzil Murray beside her, the little Nubian boy waving the peacock-plumes in front of them both, and all the other enslaved admirers of this singularly attractive woman crowding together behind. He watched the little cortege with strained, dim sight, till just at the dividing portal between the lounge and the ballroom the Princess turned and looked back at him with a smile. Over all the intervening heads their eyes met in one flash of mutual comprehension! then, as the fair face vanished like a light absorbed into the lights beyond it, Gervase, left alone, dropped heavily into a chair and stared vaguely at the elaborate pattern of the thick carpet at his feet. Passing his hand across his forehead he withdrew it, wet with drops of perspiration.
"What is wrong with me?" he muttered. "Am I sickening for a fever before I have been forty-eight hours in Cairo? What fool's notion is this in my brain? Where have I seen her before? In Paris? St. Petersburg? London? Charmazel! ... Charmazel! ... What has the name to do with me? Ziska-Charmazel! It is like the name of a romance or a gypsy tune. Bah! I must be dreaming! Her face, her eyes, are perfectly familiar; where, where have I seen her and played the mad fool with her before? Was she a model at one of the studios? Have I seen her by chance thus in her days of poverty, and does her image recall itself vividly now despite her changed surroundings? I know the very perfume of her hair ... it seems to creep into my blood ... it intoxicates me ... it chokes me! ..."
He sprang up with a fierce gesture, then after a minute's pause sat down again, and again stared at the floor.
The gay music from the ball-room danced towards him on the air in sweet, broken echoes,—he heard nothing and saw nothing.
"My God!" he said at last, under his breath. "Can it be possible that I love this woman?"
Within the ball-room the tide of gayety was rising to its height. It may be a very trivial matter, yet it is certain that fancy dress gives a peculiar charm, freedom, and brightness to festivities of the kind; and men who in the ordinary mournful black evening-suit would be taciturn of speech and conventional in bearing, throw off their customary reserve when they find themselves in the brilliant and becoming attire of some picturesque period when dress was an art as well as a fashion; and not only do they look their best, but they somehow manage to put on "manner" with costume, and to become courteous, witty, and graceful to a degree that sometimes causes their own relatives to wonder at them and speculate as to why they have grown so suddenly interesting. Few have read Sartor Resartus with either comprehension or profit, and are therefore unaware, as Teufelsdrockh was, that "Society is founded upon Cloth"—i.e. that man does adapt his manners very much to suit his clothes; and that as the costume of the days of Louis Quinze or Louis Seize inspired graceful deportment and studied courtesy to women, so does the costume of our nineteenth century inspire brusque demeanor and curt forms of speech, which, however sincere, are not flattering to the fair sex.
More love-making goes on at a fancy-dress ball than at an ordinary one; and numerous were the couples that strolled through the corridors and along the terraces of the Gezireh Palace Hotel when, after the first dozen dances were ended, it was discovered that one of the most glorious of full moons had risen over the turrets and minarets of Cairo, illumining every visible object with as clear a lustre as that of day. Then it was that warriors and nobles of mediaeval days were seen strolling with mythological goddesses and out-of-date peasants of Italy and Spain; then audacious "toreadors" were perceived whispering in the ears of crowned queens, and clowns were caught lingering amorously by the side of impossible flower-girls of all nations. Then it was that Sir Chetwynd Lyle, with his paunch discreetly restrained within the limits of a Windsor uniform which had been made for him some two or three years since, paced up and down complacently in the moonlight, watching his two "girls," Muriel and Dolly, doing business with certain "eligibles"; then it was that Lady Fulkeward, fearfully and wonderfully got up as the "Duchess of Gainsborough" sidled to and fro, flirted with this man, flouted that, giggled, shrugged her shoulders, waved her fan, and comported herself altogether as if she were a hoyden of seventeen just let loose from school for the holidays. And then the worthy Dr. Maxwell Dean, somewhat exhausted by vigorous capering in the "Lancers," strolled forth to inhale the air, fanning himself with his cap as he walked, and listening keenly to every chance word or sentence he could hear, whether it concerned himself or not. He had peculiar theories, and one of them was, as he would tell you, that if you overheard a remark apparently not intended for you, you were to make yourself quite easy, as it was "a point of predestination" that you should at that particular moment, consciously or unconsciously, play the eavesdropper. The reason of it would, he always averred, be explained to you later on in your career. The well-known saying "listeners never hear any good of themselves" was, he declared, a most ridiculous aphorism. "You overhear persons talking and you listen. Very well. It may chance that you hear yourself abused. What then? Nothing can be so good for you as such abuse; the instruction given is twofold; it warns you against foes whom you have perhaps considered friends, and it tones down any overweening conceit you may have had concerning your own importance or ability. Listen to everything if you are wise—I always do. I am an old and practised listener. And I have never listened in vain. All the information I have gained through listening, though apparently at first disconnected and unclassified, has fitted into my work like the stray pieces of a puzzle, and has proved eminently useful. Wherever I am I always keep my ears well open."
With such views as he thus entertained, life was always enormously interesting to Dr. Dean—he found nothing tiresome, not even the conversation of the type known as Noodle. The Noodle was as curious a specimen of nature to him as the emu or the crocodile. And as he turned up his intellectual little physiognomy to the deep, warm Egyptian sky and inhaled the air sniffingly, as though it were a monster scent-bottle just uncorked for his special gratification, he smiled as he observed Muriel Chetwynd Lyle standing entirely alone at the end of the terrace, attired as a "Boulogne fish-wife," and looking daggers after the hastily- retreating figure of a "White Hussar,"—no other than Ross Courtney.
"How extremely droll a 'Boulogne fish-wife' looks in Egypt," commented the Doctor to his inward self. "Remarkable! The incongruity is peculiarly typical of the Chetwynd Lyles. The costume of the young woman is like the knighthood of her father,— droll, droll, very droll!" Aloud he said—"Why are you not dancing, Miss Muriel?"
"Oh, I don't know—I'm tired," she said, petulantly. "Besides, all the men are after that Ziska woman,—they seem to have lost their heads about her!"
"Ah!" and Dr. Dean rubbed his hands. "Yes—possibly! Well, she is certainly very beautiful."
"I cannot see it!" and Muriel Chetwynd Lyle flushed with the inward rage which could not be spoken. "It's the way she dresses more than her looks. Nobody knows who she is—but they do not seem to care about that. They are all raving like lunatics over her, and that man—that artist who arrived here to-day, Armand Gervase,—seems the maddest of the lot. Haven't you noticed how often he has danced with her?"
"I couldn't help noticing that," said the Doctor, emphatically, "for I have never seen anything more exquisite than the way they waltz together. Physically, they seem made for one another."
Muriel laughed disdainfully.
"You had better tell Mr. Denzil Murray that; he is in a bad enough humor now, and that remark of yours wouldn't improve it, I can tell you!"
She broke off abruptly, as a slim, fair girl, dressed as a Greek vestal in white, with a chaplet of silver myrtle-leaves round her hair, suddenly approached and touched Dr. Dean on the arm.
"Can I speak to you a moment?" she asked.
"My dear Miss Murray! Of course!" and the Doctor turned to her at once. "What is it?"
She paced with him a few steps in silence, while Muriel Chetwynd Lyle moved languidly away from the terrace and re-entered the ball-room.
"What is it?" repeated Dr. Dean. "You seem distressed; come, tell me all about it!"
Helen Murray lifted her eyes—the soft, violet-gray eyes that Lord Fulkeward had said he admired—suffused with tears, and fixed them on the old man's face.
"I wish," she said—"I wish we had never come to Egypt! I feel as if some great misfortune were going to happen to us; I do, indeed! Oh, Dr. Dean, have you watched my brother this evening?"
"I have," he replied, and then was silent.
"And what do you think?" she asked anxiously. "How can you account for his strangeness—his roughness—even to me?"
And the tears brimmed over and fell, despite her efforts to restrain them. Dr. Dean stopped in his walk and took her two hands in his own.
"My dear Helen, it's no use worrying yourself like this," he said. "Nothing can stop the progress of the Inevitable. I have watched Denzil, I have watched the new arrival, Armand Gervase, I have watched the mysterious Ziska, and I have watched you! Well, what is the result? The Inevitable,—simply the unconquerable Inevitable. Denzil is in love, Gervase is in love, everybody is in love, except me and one other! It is a whole network of mischief, and I am the unhappy fly that has unconsciously fallen into the very middle of it. But the spider, my dear,—the spider who wove the web in the first instance,—is the Princess Ziska, and she is NOT in love! She is the other one. She is not in love with anybody any more than I am. She's got something else on her mind—I don't know what it is exactly, but it isn't love. Excluding her and myself, the whole hotel is in love—YOU are in love!"
Helen withdrew her hands from his grasp and a deep flush reddened her fair face.
"I!" she stammered—"Dr. Dean, you are mistaken. ..."
"Dr. Dean was never mistaken on love-matters in his life," said that self-satisfied sage complacently. "Now, my dear, don't be offended. I have known both you and your brother ever since you were left little orphan children together; if I cannot speak plainly to you, who can? You are in love, little Helen—and very unwisely, too—with the man Gervase. I have heard of him often, but I never saw him before to-night. And I don't approve of him."
Helen grew as pale as she had been rosy, and her face as the moonlight fell upon it was very sorrowful.
"He stayed with us in Scotland two summers ago," she said softly. "He was very agreeable..."
"Ha! No doubt! He made a sort of love to you then, I suppose. I can imagine him doing it very well! There is a nice romantic glen near your house—just where the river runs, and where I caught a fifteen-pound salmon some five years ago. Ha! Catching salmon is healthy work; much better than falling in love. No, no, Helen! Gervase is not good enough for you; you want a far better man. Has he spoken to you to-night?"
"Oh, yes! And he has danced with me."
"Ha! How often?"
"And how many times with the Princess Ziska?"
Helen's fair head drooped, and she answered nothing. All at once the little Doctor's hand closed on her arm with a soft yet firm grip.
"Look!" he whispered.
She raised her eyes and saw two figures step out on the terrace and stand in the full moonlight,—the white Bedouin dress of the one and the glittering golden robe of the other made them easily recognizable,—they were Gervase and the Princess Ziska. Helen gave a faint, quick sigh.
"Let us go in," she said.
"Nonsense! Why should we go in? On the contrary, let us join them."
"Oh, no!" and Helen shrank visibly at the very idea. "I cannot; do not ask me! I have tried—you know I have tried—to like the Princess; but something in her—I don't know what it is—repels me. To speak truthfully, I think I am afraid of her."
"Afraid! Pooh! Why should you be afraid? It is true one doesn't often see a woman with the eyes of a vampire-bat; but there is nothing to be frightened about. I have dissected the eyes of a vampire-bat—very interesting work, very. The Princess has them— only, of course, hers are larger and finer; but there is exactly the same expression in them. I am fond of study, you know; I am studying her. What! Are you determined to run away?"
"I am engaged for this dance to Mr. Courtney," said Helen, nervously.
"Well, well! We'll resume our conversation another time," and Dr. Dean took her hand and patted it pleasantly. "Don't fret yourself about Denzil; he'll be all right. And take my advice: don't marry a Bedouin chief; marry an honest, straightforward, tender-hearted Englishman who'll take care of you, not a nondescript savage who'll desert you!"
And with a humorous and kindly smile, Dr. Dean moved off to join the two motionless and picturesque figures that stood side by side looking at the moon, while Helen, like a frightened bird suddenly released, fled precipitately back to the ball-room, where Ross Courtney was already searching for her as his partner in the next waltz.
"Upon my word," mused the Doctor, "this is a very pretty kettle of fish! The Gezireh Palace Hotel is not a hotel at all, it seems to me; it is a lunatic asylum. What with Lady Fulkeward getting herself up as twenty at the age of sixty; and Muriel and Dolly Chetwynd Lyle man-hunting with more ferocity than sportsmen hunt tigers; Helen in love, Denzil in love, Gervase in love—dear me! dear me! What a list of subjects for a student's consideration! And the Princess Ziska ..."
He broke off his meditations abruptly, vaguely impressed by the strange solemnity of the night. An equal solemnity seemed to surround the two figures to which he now drew nigh, and as the Princess Ziska turned her eyes upon him as he came, he was, to his own vexation, aware that something indefinable disturbed his usual equanimity and gave him an unpleasant thrill.
"You are enjoying a moonlight stroll, Doctor?" she inquired.
Her veil was now cast aside in a careless fold of soft drapery over her shoulders, and her face in its ethereal delicacy of feature and brilliant coloring looked almost too beautiful to be human. Dr. Dean did not reply for a moment; he was thinking what a singular resemblance there was between Armand Gervase and one of the figures on a certain Egyptian fresco in the British Museum.
"Enjoying—er—er—a what?—a moonlight stroll? Exactly—er—yes! Pardon me, Princess, my mind often wanders, and I am afraid I am getting a little deaf as well. Yes, I find the night singularly conducive to meditation; one cannot be in a land like this under a sky like this"—and he pointed to the shining heaven—"without recalling the great histories of the past."
"I daresay they were very much like the histories of the present," said Gervase smiling.
"I should doubt that. History is what man makes it; and the character of man in the early days of civilization was, I think, more forceful, more earnest, more strong of purpose, more bent on great achievements."
"The principal achievement and glory being to kill as many of one's fellow-creatures as possible!" laughed Gervase—"Like the famous warrior, Araxes, of whom the Princess has just been telling me!"
"Araxes was great, but now Araxes is a forgotten hero," said the Princess slowly, each accent of her dulcet voice chiming on the ear like the stroke of a small silver bell. "None of the modern discoverers know anything about him yet. They have not even found his tomb; but he was buried in the Pyramids with all the honors of a king. No doubt your clever men will excavate him some day."
"I think the Pyramids have been very thoroughly explored," said Dr. Dean. "Nothing of any importance remains in them now."
The Princess arched her lovely eyebrows.
"No? Ah! I daresay you know them better than I do!" and she laughed, a laugh which was not mirthful so much as scornful.
"I am very much interested in Araxes," said Gervase then, "partly, I suppose, because he is as yet in the happy condition of being an interred mummy. Nobody has dug him up, unwound his cerements, or photographed him, and his ornaments have not been stolen. And in the second place I am interested in him because it appears he was in love with the famous dancer of his day whom the Princess represents to-night,—Charmazel. I wish I had heard the story before I came to Cairo; I would have got myself up as Araxes in person to-night."
"In order to play the lover of Charmazel?" queried the Doctor.
"Exactly!" replied Gervase with flashing eyes; "I daresay I could have acted the part."
"I should imagine you could act any part," replied the Doctor, blandly. "The role of love-making comes easily to most men."
The Princess looked at him as he spoke and smiled. The jewelled scarab, set as a brooch on her bosom, flashed luridly in the moon, and in her black eyes there was a similar lurid gleam.
"Come and talk to me," she said, laying her hand on his arm; "I am tired, and the conversation of one's ball-room partners is very banal. Monsieur Gervase would like me to dance all night, I imagine; but I am too lazy. I leave such energy to Lady Fulkeward and to all the English misses and madams. I love indolence."
"Most Russian women do, I think," observed the Doctor.
"But I am not Russian!"
"I know. I never thought you were," he returned composedly; "but everyone in the hotel has come to the conclusion that you are!"
"They are all wrong! What can I do to put them right?" she inquired with a fascinating little upward movement of her eyebrows.
"Nothing! Leave them in their ignorance. I shall not enlighten them, though I know your nationality."
"You do?" and a curious shadow darkened her features. "But perhaps you are wrong also!"
"I think not," said the Doctor, with gentle obstinacy. "You are an Egyptian. Born in Egypt; born OF Egypt. Pure Eastern! There is nothing Western about you. Is not it so?"
She looked at him enigmatically.
"You have made a near guess," she replied; "but you are not absolutely correct. Originally, I am of Egypt."
Dr. Dean nodded pleasantly.
"Originally,—yes. That is precisely what I mean—originally! Let me take you in to supper."
He offered his arm, but Gervase made a hasty step forward.
"Princess," he began—
She waved him off lightly.
"My dear Monsieur Gervase, we are not in the desert, where Bedouin chiefs do just as they like. We are in a modern hotel in Cairo, and all the good English mammas will be dreadfully shocked if I am seen too much with you. I have danced with you five times, remember! And I will dance with you once more before I leave. When our waltz begins, come and find me in the upper-room."
She moved away on Dr. Dean's arm, and Gervase moodily drew back and let her pass. When she had gone, he lit a cigarette and walked impatiently up and down the terrace, a heavy frown wrinkling his brows. The shadow of a man suddenly darkened the moonlight in front of him, and Denzil Murray's hand fell on his shoulder.
"Gervase," he said, huskily, "I must speak to you."
Gervase glanced him up and down, taking note of his pale face and wild eyes with a certain good-humored regret and compassion.
"Say on, my friend."
Denzil looked straight at him, biting his lips hard and clenching his hands in the effort to keep down some evidently violent emotion.
"The Princess Ziska," he began,—
Gervase smiled, and flicked the ash off his cigarette.
"The Princess Ziska," he echoed,—"Yes? What of her? She seems to be the only person talked about in Cairo. Everybody in this hotel, at any rate, begins conversation with precisely the same words as you do,—'the Princess Ziska!' Upon my life, it is very amusing!"
"It is not amusing to me," said Denzil, bitterly. "To me it is a matter of life and death." He paused, and Gervase looked at him curiously. "We've always been such good friends, Gervase," he continued, "that I should be sorry if anything came between us now, so I think it is better to make a clean breast of it and speak out plainly." Again he hesitated, his face growing still paler, then with a sudden ardent light glowing in his eyes he said—"Gervase, I love the Princess Ziska!"
Gervase threw away his cigarette and laughed aloud with a wild hilarity.
"My good boy, I am very sorry for you! Sorry, too, for myself! I deplore the position in which we are placed with all my heart and soul. It is unfortunate, but it seems inevitable. You love the Princess Ziska,—and by all the gods of Egypt and Christendom, so do I!"
Denzil recoiled a step backward, then with an impulsive movement strode close up to him, his face unnaturally flushed and his eyes glittering with an evil fire.
"You—you love her! What!—in one short hour, you—who have often boasted to me of having no heart, no eyes for women except as models for your canvas,—you say now that you love a woman whom you have never seen before to-night!"
"Stop!" returned Gervase somewhat moodily, "I am not so sure about that. I HAVE seen her before, though where I cannot tell. But the fire that stirs my pulses now seems to spring from some old passion suddenly revived, and the eyes of the woman we are both mad for—well! they do not inspire holiness, my dear friend! No,— neither in you nor in me! Let us be honest with each other. There is something vile in the composition of Madame la Princesse, and it responds to something equally vile in ourselves. We shall be dragged down by the force of it,—tant pis pour nous! I am sorrier for you than for myself, for you are a good fellow, au fond; you have what the world is learning to despise—sentiment. I have none; for as I told you before, I have no heart, but I have passions—tigerish ones—which must be humored; in fact, I make it my business in life to humor them."
"Do you intend to humor them in this instance?"
"Assuredly! If I can."
"Then,—friend as you have been, you can be friend no more," said Denzil fiercely. "My God! Do you not understand? My blood is as warm as yours,—I will not yield to you one smile, one look from Ziska! No!—I will kill you first!"
Gervase looked at him calmly.
"Will you? Pauvre garcon! You are such a boy still, Denzil,—by- the-bye, how old are you? Ah, I remember now,—twenty-two. Only twenty-two, and I am thirty-eight! So in the measure of time alone, your life is more valuable to you than mine is to me. If you choose, therefore, you can kill me,—now, if you like! I have a very convenient dagger in my belt—I think it has a point—which you are welcome to use for the purpose; but, for heaven's sake, don't rant about it—do it! You can kill me—of course you can; but you cannot—mark this well, Denzil!—you cannot prevent my loving the same woman whom you love. I think instead of raving about the matter here in the moonlight, which has the effect of making us look like two orthodox villains in a set stage-scene, we'd better make the best of it, and resolve to abide by the lady's choice in the matter. What say you? You have known her for many days,—I have known her for two hours. You have had the first innings, so you cannot complain."
Here he playfully unfastened the Bedouin knife which hung at his belt and offered it to Denzil, holding it delicately by the glittering blade.
"One thrust, my brave boy!" he said. "And you will stop the Ziska fever in my veins at once and forever. But, unless you deal the murderer's blow, the fever will go on increasing till it reaches its extremest height, and then ..."
"And then?" echoed Denzil.
"Then? Oh—God only knows what then!"
Denzil thrust away the offered weapon with a movement of aversion.
"You can jest," he said. "You are always jesting. But you do not know—you cannot read the horrible thoughts in my mind. I cannot resolve their meaning even to myself. There is some truth in your light words; I feel, I know instinctively, that the woman I love has an attraction about her which is not good, but evil; yet what does that matter? Do not men sometimes love vile women?"
"Always!" replied Gervase briefly.
"Gervase, I have suffered tortures ever since I saw her face!" exclaimed the unhappy lad, his self-control suddenly giving way. "You cannot imagine what my life has been! Her eyes make me mad,— the merest touch of her hand seems to drag me away invisibly ..."
"To perdition!" finished Gervase. "That is the usual end of the journey we men take with beautiful women."
"And now," went on Denzil, hardly heeding him, "as if my own despair were not sufficient, you must needs add to it! What evil fate, I wonder, sent you to Cairo! Of course, I have no chance with her now; you are sure to win the day. And can you wonder then that I feel as if I could kill you?"
"Oh, I wonder at nothing," said Gervase calmly, "except, perhaps, at myself. And I echo your words most feelingly,—What evil fate sent me to Cairo? I cannot tell! But here I purpose to remain. My dear Murray, don't let us quarrel if we can help it; it is such a waste of time. I am not angry with you for loving la belle Ziska,- -try, therefore, not to be angry with me. Let the fair one herself decide as to our merits. My own opinion is that she cares for neither of us, and, moreover, that she never will care for any one except her fascinating self. And certainly her charms are quite enough to engross her whole attention. By the way, let me ask you, Denzil, in this headstrong passion of yours,—for it is a headstrong passion, just as mine is,—do you actually intend to make the Ziska your wife if she will have you?"
"Of course," replied Murray, with some haughtiness.
A fleeting expression of amusement flitted over Gervase's features.
"It is very honorable of you," he said, "very! My dear boy, you shall have your full chance. Because I—I would not make the Princess Madame Gervase for all the world! She is not formed for a life of domesticity—and pardon me—I cannot picture her as the contented chatelaine of your grand old Scotch castle in Ross- shire."
"From an artistic point of view the idea is incongruous," said Gervase lazily. "Nevertheless, I will not interfere with your wooing."
Denzil's face brightened.
"You will not?"
"I will not—I promise! But"—and here Gervase paused, looking his young friend full in the eyes, "remember, if your chance falls to the ground—if Madame gives you your conge—if she does not consent to be a Scottish chatelaine and listen every day to the bagpipes at dinner,—you cannot expect me then to be indifferent to my own desires. She shall not be Madame Gervase,—oh, no! She shall not be asked to attend to the pot-au-feu; she shall act the role for which she has dressed to-night; she shall be another Charmazel to another Araxes, though the wild days of Egypt are no more!"
A sudden shiver ran through him as he spoke, and instinctively he drew the white folds of his picturesque garb closer about him.
"There is a chill wind sweeping in from the desert," he said, "an evil, sandy breath tasting of mummy-dust blown through the crevices of the tombs of kings. Let us go in."
Murray looked at him in a kind of dull despair.
"And what is to be done?" he asked. "I cannot answer for myself— and—from what you say, neither can you."
"My dear friend—or foe—whichever you determine to be, I can answer for myself in one particular at any rate, namely, that as I told you, I shall not ask the Princess to marry me. You, on the contrary, will do so. Bonne chance! I shall do nothing to prevent Madame from accepting the honorable position you intend to offer her. And till the fiat has gone forth and the fair one has decided, we will not fly at each other's throats like wolves disputing possession of a lamb; we will assume composure, even if we have it not." He paused, and laid one hand kindly on the younger man's shoulder, "Is it agreed?"
Denzil gave a mute sign of resigned acquiescence.
"Good! I like you, Denzil; you are a charming boy! Hot-tempered and a trifle melodramatic in your loves and hatreds,—yes!—for that you might have been a Provencal instead of a Scot. Before I knew you I had a vague idea that all Scotchmen were, or needs must be, ridiculous,—I don't know why. I associated them with bagpipes, short petticoats and whisky. I had no idea of the type you so well represent,—the dark, fine eyes, the strong physique, and the impetuous disposition which suggests the South rather than the North; and to-night you look so unlike the accepted cafe chantant picture of the ever-dancing Highlander that you might in very truth be a Florentine in more points than the dress which so well becomes you. Yes,—I like you—and more than you, I like your sister. That is why I don't want to quarrel with you; I wouldn't grieve Mademoiselle Helen for the world."
Murray gave him a quick, half-angry side-glance.
"You are a strange fellow, Gervase. Two summers ago you were almost in love with Helen."
"True. Almost. That's just it. 'Almost' is a very uncomfortable word. I have been almost in love so many times. I have never been drawn by a woman's eyes and dragged down, down,—in a mad whirlpool of sweetness and poison intermixed. I have never had my soul strangled by the coils of a woman's hair—black hair, black as night,—in the perfumed meshes of which a jewelled serpent gleams ... I have never felt the insidious horror of a love like strong drink mounting through the blood to the brain, and there making inextricable confusion of time, space, eternity, everything, except the passion itself; never, never have I felt all this, Denzil, till to-night! To-night! Bah! It is a wild night of dancing and folly, and the Princess Ziska is to blame for it all! Don't look so tragic, my good Denzil,—what ails you now?"
"What ails me? Good Heavens! Can you ask it!" and Murray gave a gesture of mingled despair and impatience. "If you love her in this wild, uncontrolled way ..."
"It is the only way I know of," said Gervase. "Love must be wild and uncontrolled to save it from banalite. It must be a summer thunderstorm; the heavy brooding of the clouds of thought, the lightning of desire, then the crash, the downpour,—and the end, in which the bland sun smiles upon a bland world of dull but wholesome routine and tame conventionality, making believe that there never was such a thing known as the past storm! Be consoled, Denzil, and trust me,—you shall have time to make your honorable proposal, and Madame had better accept you,—for your love would last,—mine could not!"
He spoke with a strange fierceness and irritability, and his eyes were darkened by a sudden shadow of melancholy. Denzil, bewildered at his words and manner, stared at him in a kind of helpless indignation.
"Then you admit yourself to be cruel and unprincipled?" he said.
Gervase smiled, with a little shrug of impatience.
"Do I? I was not aware of it. Is inconstancy to women cruelty and want of principle? If so, all men must bear the brunt of the accusation with me. For men were originally barbarians, and always looked upon women as toys or slaves; the barbaric taint is not out of us yet, I assure you,—at any rate, it is not out of me. I am a pure savage; I consider the love of woman as my right; if I win it, I enjoy it as long as I please, but no longer,—and not all the forces of heaven and earth should bind me to any woman I had once grown weary of."
"If that is your character," said Murray stiffly, "it were well the Princess Ziska should know it."
"True," and Gervase laughed loudly. "Tell her, man ami! Tell her that Armand Gervase is an unprincipled villain, not worth a glance from her dazzling eyes! It will be the way to make her adore me! My good boy, do you not know that there is something very marvellous in the attraction we call love? It is a pre-ordained destiny,—and if one soul is so constituted that it must meet and mix with another, nothing can hinder the operation. So that, believe me, I am quite indifferent as to what you say of me to Madame la Princesse or to anyone else. It will not be for either my looks or my character that she will love me if, indeed, she ever does love me; it will be for something indistinct, indefinable but resistless in us both, which no one on earth can explain. And now I must go, Denzil, and claim the fair one for this waltz. Try and look less miserable, my dear fellow,—I will not quarrel with you on the Princess's account, nor on any other pretext if I can help it,—for I don't want to kill you, and I am convinced your death and not mine would be the result of a fight between us!"
His eyes flashed under his straight, fierce brows with a sudden touch of imperiousness, and his commanding presence became magnetic, almost over-powering. Tormented with a dozen cross- currents of feeling, young Denzil Murray was mute;—only his breath came and went quickly, and there was a certain silently- declared antagonism in his very attitude. Gervase saw it and smiled; then turning away with his peculiarly noiseless step and grace of bearing, he disappeared.
Ten minutes later the larger number of dancers in the ball-room came to a sudden pause in their gyrations and stood looking on in open-mouthed, reluctantly-admiring wonderment at the exquisite waltz movements of the Princess Ziska as she floated past them in the arms of Gervase, who, as a "Bedouin chief," was perhaps only acting his part aright when he held her to him with so passionate and close a grip and gazed down upon her fair face with such a burning ardor in his eyes. Nothing in the dancing world was ever seen like the dancing of these two—nothing so languorously beautiful as the swaying grace of their well-matched figures gliding to the music in as perfectly harmonious a measure as a bird's two wings beat to the pulsations of the air. People noticed that as the Princess danced a tiny tinkling sound accompanied her every step; and the more curious observers, peeping downwards as she flew by, saw that she had kept to the details of ancient Egyptian costume so exactly that she even wore sandals, and that her feet, perfectly shaped and lovely as perfectly shaped and lovely hands, were bare save for the sandal-ribbons which crossed them, and which were fastened with jewels. Round the slim ankles were light bands of gold, also glittering with gems, and furthermore adorned by little golden bells which produced the pretty tinkling music that attracted attention.
"What a delightful creature she is!" said Lady Fulkeward, settling her "Duchess of Gainsborough" hat on her powdered wig more becomingly and smiling up in the face of Ross Courtney, who happened to be standing close by. "So sweetly unconventional! Everybody here thinks her improper; she may be, but I like her. I'm not a bit of a prude."
Courtney smiled irreverently at this. Prudery and "old" Lady Fulkeward were indeed wide apart. Aloud he said:
"I think whenever a woman is exceptionally beautiful she generally gets reported as 'improper' by her own sex; especially if she has a fascinating manner and dresses well."
"So true," and Lady Fulkeward simpered. "Exactly what I find wherever I go! Poor dear Ziska! She has to pay the penalty for captivating all you men in the way she does. I'm sure YOU have lost your heart to her quite as much as anybody else, haven't you?"
"I don't think so," he answered; "I admire her very much, but I haven't lost my heart ..."
"Naughty boy! Don't prevaricate!" and Lady Fulkeward smiled in the bewitching pearly manner her admirably-made artificial teeth allowed her to do. "Every man in the hotel is in love with the Princess, and I'm sure I don't blame them. If I belonged to your sex I should be in love with her too. As it is, I am in love with the new arrival, that glorious creature, Gervase. He is superb! He looks like an untamed savage. I adore handsome barbarians!"
"He's scarcely a barbarian, I think," said Courtney, with some amusement; "he is the great French artist, the 'lion' of Paris just now,—only secondary to Sarah Bernhardt."
"Artists are always barbarians," declared Lady Fulkeward enthusiastically. "They paint naughty people without any clothes on; they never have any idea of time; they never keep their appointments; and they are always falling in love with the wrong person and getting into trouble, which is so nice of them! That's why I worship them all. They are so refreshingly unlike OUR set!"
Courtney raised his eyebrows inquiringly.
"You know what I mean by our set," went on the vivacious old "Gainsborough," "the aristocrats whose conversation is limited to the weather and scandal, and who are so frightfully dull! Dull! My dear Ross you know how dull they are!"
"Well, upon my word, they are," admitted Courtney. "You are right there. I certainly agree with you."
"I'm sure you do! They have no ideas. Now, artists have ideas,— they live on ideas and sentiment. Sentiment is such a beautiful thing—so charming! I believe that fierce-looking Gervase is a creature of sentiment—and how delightful that is! Of course, he'll paint the Princess Ziska—he MUST paint her,—no one else could do it so well. By the way, have you been asked to her great party next week?"