"And are you going?"
"So am I. That absurd Chetwynd Lyle woman came to me this evening and asked me if I really thought it would be proper to take her 'girls' there," and Lady Fulkeward laughed shrilly. "Girls indeed! I should say those two long, ugly women could go anywhere with safety. 'Do you consider the Princess a proper woman?' she asked, and I said, 'Certainly, as proper as you are.'"
Courtney laughed outright, and began to think there was some fun in Lady Fulkeward.
"By Jove! Did you tell her that?"
"I should think I did! Oh, I know a thing or two about the Chetwynd Lyles, but I keep my mouth shut till it suits me to open it. I said I was going, and then, of course, she said she would."
And Courtney gave the answer vaguely, for the waltz was ended, and the Princess Ziska, on the arm of Gervase, was leaving the ball- room.
"She's going," exclaimed Lady Fulkeward. "Dear creature! Excuse me—I must speak to her for a moment."
And with a swish of her full skirts and a toss of her huge hat and feathers, the lively flirt of sixty tripped off with all the agility of sixteen, leaving Courtney to follow her or remain where he was, just as he chose. He hesitated, and during that undecided pause was joined by Dr. Maxwell Dean.
"A very brilliant and interesting evening!" said that individual, smiling complacently. "I don't remember any time when I have enjoyed myself so thoroughly."
"Really! I shouldn't have thought you a man to care for fancy- dress balls," said Courtney.
"Shouldn't you? Ha! Well, some fancy-dress balls I might not care for, but this one has been highly productive of entertainment in every way, and several incidents connected with it have opened up to me a new vista of research, the possibilities of which are—er- -very interesting and remarkable."
"Indeed!" murmured Courtney indifferently, his eyes fixed on the slim, supple figure of the Princess Ziska as she slowly moved amid her circle of admirers out of the ball-room, her golden skirts gleaming sun-like against the polished floor, and the jewels about her flashing in vivid points of light from the hem of her robe to the snake in her hair.
"Yes," continued the Doctor, smiling and rubbing his hands, "I think I have got the clue to a very interesting problem. But I see you are absorbed—and no wonder! A charming woman, the Princess Ziska—charming! Do you believe in ghosts?"
This question was put with such unexpected abruptness that Courtney was quite taken aback.
"Ghosts?" he echoed. "No, I cannot say I do. I have never seen one, and I have never heard of one that did not turn out a bogus."
"Oh! I don't mean the usual sort of ghost," said the Doctor, drawing his shelving brows together in a meditative knot of criss- cross lines over his small, speculative eyes. "The ghost that is common to Scotch castles and English manor-houses, and that appears in an orthodox night-gown, sighs, screams, rattles chains and bangs doors ad libitum. No, no! That kind of ghost is composed of indigestion, aided by rats and a gust of wind. No; when I say ghosts, I mean ghosts—ghosts that do not need the midnight hour to evolve themselves into being, and that by no means vanish at cock-crow. My ghosts are those that move about among us in social intercourse for days, months—sometimes years—according to their several missions; ghosts that talk to us, imitate our customs and ways, shake hands with us, laugh and dance with us, and altogether comport themselves like human beings. Those are my kind of ghosts- -'scientific' ghosts. There are hundreds, aye, perhaps thousands of them in the world at this very moment."
An uncomfortable shudder ran through Courtney's veins; the Doctor's manner seemed peculiar and uncanny.
"By Jove! I hope not!" he involuntarily exclaimed. "The orthodox ghost is an infinitely better arrangement. One at least knows what to expect. But a 'scientific' ghost that moves about in society, resembling ourselves in every respect, appearing to be actually human and yet having no humanity at all in its composition, is a terrific notion indeed! You don't mean to say you believe in the possibility of such an appalling creature?"
"I not only believe it," answered the Doctor composedly, "I know it!"
Here the band crashed out "God save the Queen," which, as a witty Italian once remarked, is the De Profundis of every English festivity.
"But—God bless my soul!" began Courtney ...
"No, don't say that!" urged the Doctor. "Say 'God save the Queen.' It's more British."
"Bother 'God save the Queen,'" exclaimed Courtney impatiently.— "Look here, you don't mean it seriously, do you?"
"I always mean everything seriously," said Dr. Dean,—"even my jokes."
"Now come, no nonsense, Doctor," and Courtney, taking his arm, led him towards one of the windows opening out to the moonlit garden,- -"can you, as an honest man, assure me in sober earnest that there are 'scientific ghosts' of the nature you describe?"
The little Doctor surveyed the scenery, glanced up at the moon, and then at his companion's pleasant but not very intelligent face.
"I would rather not discuss the matter," he said at last, with some brusqueness. "There are certain subjects connected with psychic phenomena on which it is best to be silent; besides, what interest can such things have for you? You are a sportsman,—keep to your big game, and leave ghost-hunting to me."
"That is not a fair answer to my question," said Courtney, "I'm sure I don't want to interfere with your researches in any way; I only want to know if it is a fact that ghosts exist, and that they are really of such a nature as to deserve the term 'scientific.'"
Dr. Dean was silent a moment. Then, stretching out his small, thin hand, he pointed to the clear sky, where the stars were almost lost to sight in the brilliance of the moon.
"Look out there!" he said, his voice thrilling with sudden and solemn fervor. "There in the limitless ether move millions of universes—vast creations which our finite brains cannot estimate without reeling,—enormous forces always at work, in the mighty movements of which our earth is nothing more than a grain of sand. Yet far more marvellous than their size or number is the mathematical exactitude of their proportions,—the minute perfection of their balance,—the exquisite precision with which every one part is fitted to another part, not a pin's point awry, not a hair's breadth astray. Well, the same exactitude which rules the formation and working of Matter controls the formation and working of Spirit; and this is why I know that ghosts exist, and, moreover, that we are COMPELLED by the laws of the phenomena surrounding us to meet them every day."
"I confess I do not follow you at all," said Courtney bewildered.
"No," and Dr. Dean smiled curiously. "I have perhaps expressed myself obscurely. Yet I am generally considered a clear exponent. First of all, let me ask you, do you believe in the existence of Matter?"
"Why, of course!"
"You do. Then you will no doubt admit that there is Something—an Intelligent Principle or Spiritual Force—which creates and controls this Matter?"
"Well, I suppose there must be," he said at last. "I'm not a church-goer, and I'm rather a free-thinker, but I certainly believe there is a Mind at work behind the Matter."
"That being the case," proceeded the Doctor, "I suppose you will not deny to this Invisible Mind the same exactitude of proportion and precise method of action already granted to Visible Matter?".
"Of course, I could not deny such a reasonable proposition," said Courtney.
"Very good! Pursuing the argument logically, and allowing for an exactly-moving Mind behind exactly-working Matter, it follows that there can be no such thing as injustice anywhere in the universe? "
"My dear Socrates redivivus," laughed Courtney, "I fail to see what all this has to do with ghosts."
"It has everything to do with them," declared the Doctor emphatically, "I repeat that if we grant these already stated premises concerning the composition of Mind and Matter, there can be no such thing as injustice. Yet seemingly unjust things are done every day, and seemingly go unpunished. I say 'seemingly' advisedly, because the punishment is always administered. And here the 'scientific ghosts' come in. 'Vengeance is mine,' saith the Lord,—and the ghosts I speak of are the Lord's way of doing it."
"You mean ..." began Courtney.
"I mean," continued the Doctor with some excitement, "that the sinner who imagines his sins are undiscovered is a fool who deceives himself. I mean that the murderer who has secretly torn the life out of his shrieking victim in some unfrequented spot, and has succeeded in hiding his crime from what we call 'justice,' cannot escape the Spiritual law of vengeance. What would you say," and Dr. Dean laid his thin fingers on Courtney's coat-sleeve with a light pressure,—"if I told you that the soul of a murdered creature is often sent back to earth in human shape to dog its murderer down? And that many a criminal undiscovered by the police is haunted by a seeming Person,—a man or a woman,—who is on terms of intimacy with him,—who eats at his table, drinks his wine, clasps his hand, smiles in his face, and yet is truly nothing but the ghost of his victim in human disguise, sent to drag him gradually to his well-deserved, miserable end; what would you say to such a thing?"
"Horrible!" exclaimed Courtney, recoiling. "Beyond everything monstrous and horrible!"
The Doctor smiled and withdrew his hand from his companion's arm.
"There are a great many horrible things in the universe as well as pleasant ones," he observed dryly. "Crime and its results are always of a disagreeable nature. But we cannot alter the psychic law of equity any more than we can alter the material law of gravitation. It is growing late; I think, if you will excuse me, I will go to bed."
Courtney look at him puzzled and baffled.
"Then your 'scientific ghosts' are positive realities?" he began; here he gave a violent start as a tall white figure suddenly moved out of the shadows in the garden and came slowly towards them. "Upon my life, Doctor, you have made me quite nervous!"
"No, no, surely not," smiled the Doctor pleasantly—"not nervous! Not such a brave killer of game as you are! No, no! You don't take Monsieur Armand Gervase for a ghost, do you? He is too substantial,—far too substantial! Ha! ha! ha!"
And he laughed quietly, the wrinkled smile still remaining on his face as Gervase approached.
"Everybody is going to bed," said the great artist lazily. "With the departure of the Princess Ziska, the pleasures of the evening are ended."
"She is certainly the belle of Cairo this season," said Courtney, "but I tell you what,—I am rather sorry to see young Murray has lost his head about her."
"Parbleu! So am I," said Gervase imperturbably; "it seems a pity."
"He will get over it," interposed Dr. Dean placidly. "It's an illness,—like typhoid,—we must do all we can to keep down the temperature of the patient, and we shall pull him through."
"Keep him cool, in short!" laughed Gervase.
"Exactly!" The little Doctor smiled shrewdly. "You look feverish, Monsieur Gervase."
Gervase flushed red under his dark skin.
"I daresay I am feverish," he replied irritably,—"I find this place hot as an oven. I think I should go away to-morrow if I had not asked the Princess Ziska to sit to me."
"You are going to paint her picture?" exclaimed Courtney. "By Jove! I congratulate you. It will be the masterpiece of the next salon"
"You flatter me! The Princess is undoubtedly an attractive subject. But, as I said before, this place stifles me. I think the hotel is too near the river,—there is an oozy smell from the Nile that I hate, and the heat is perfectly sulphureous. Don't you find it so, Doctor?"
"N-n-o! I cannot say that I do. Let me feel your pulse; I am not a medical man—but I can easily recognize any premonitions of illness."
Gervase held out his long, brown, well-shaped hand, and the savant's small, cool fingers pressed lightly on his wrist.
"You are quite well, Monsieur Gervase," he said after a pause,— "You have a little sur-excitation of the nerves, certainly,—but it is not curable by medicine." He dropped the hand he held, and looked up—"Good-night!"
"Good-night!" responded Gervase.
"Good-night!" added Courtney.
And with an amiable salutation the Doctor went his way. The ball- room was now quite deserted, and the hotel servants were extinguishing the lights.
"A curious little man, that Doctor," observed Gervase, addressing Courtney, to whom as yet he had not been formally introduced.
"Very curious!" was the reply, "I have known him for some years,— he is a very clever man, but I have never been able quite to make him out. I think he is a bit eccentric. He's just been telling me he believes in ghosts."
"Ah, poor fellow!" and Gervase yawned as, with his companion, he crossed the deserted ball-room. "Then he has what you call a screw loose. I suppose it is that which makes him interesting. Good- night!"
And separating, they went their several ways to the small, cell- like bedrooms, which are the prime discomfort of the Gezireh Palace Hotel, and soon a great silence reigned throughout the building. All Cairo slept,—save where at an open lattice window the moon shone full on a face up-turned to her silver radiance,— the white, watchful face, and dark, sleepless eyes of the Princess Ziska.
Next day the ordinary course of things was resumed at the Gezireh Palace Hotel, and the delights and flirtations of the fancy-ball began to vanish into what Hans Breitmann calls "the ewigkeit". Men were lazier than usual and came down later to breakfast, and girls looked worn and haggard with over-much dancing, but otherwise there was no sign to indicate that the festivity of the past evening had left "tracks behind," or made a lasting impression of importance on any human life. Lady Chetwynd Lyle, portly and pig- faced, sat on the terrace working at an elaborate piece of cross- stitch, talking scandal in the civilest tone imaginable, and damning all her "dear friends" with that peculiar air of entire politeness and good breeding which distinguishes certain ladies when they are saying nasty things about one another. Her daughters, Muriel and Dolly, sat dutifully near her, one reading the Daily Dial, as befitted the offspring of the editor and proprietor thereof, the other knitting. Lord Fulkeward lounged on the balustrade close by, and his lovely mother, attired in quite a charming and girlish costume of white foulard exquisitely cut and fitting into a waist not measuring more than twenty-two inches, reclined in a long deck-chair, looking the very pink of painted and powdered perfection.
"You are so very lenient," Lady Chetwynd Lyle was saying, as she bent over her needlework. "So very lenient, my dear Lady Fulkeward, that I am afraid you do not read people's characters as correctly as I do. I have had, owing to my husband's position in journalism, a great deal of social experience, and I assure you I do NOT think the Princess Ziska a safe person. She may be perfectly proper—she MAY be—but she is not the style we are accustomed to in London."
"I should rather think not!" interrupted Lord Fulkeward, hastily. "By Jove! She wouldn't have a hair left on her head in London, don'cher know!"
"What do you mean?" inquired Muriel Chetwynd Lyle, simpering. "You really do say such funny things, Lord Fulkeward!"
"Do I?" and the young nobleman was so alarmed and embarrassed at the very idea of his ever saying funny things that he was rendered quite speechless for a moment. Anon he took heart and resumed: "Er—well—I mean that the society women would tear her to bits in no time. She'd get asked nowhere, but she'd get blackguarded everywhere; she couldn't help herself with that face and those eyes."
His mother laughed.
"Dear Fulke! You are such a naughty boy! You shouldn't make such remarks before Lady Lyle. She never says anything against anyone!"
"Dear Fulke" stared. Had he given vent to his feelings he would have exclaimed: "Oh, Lord!—isn't the old lady a deep one!" But as it was he attended to his young moustache anxiously and remained silent. Lady Chetwynd Lyle meanwhile flushed with annoyance; she felt that Lady Fulkeward's remark was sarcastic, but she could not very well resent it, seeing that Lady Fulkeward was a peeress of the realm, and that she herself, by the strict laws of heraldry, was truly only "Dame" Chetwynd Lyle, as wife of an ordinary knight, and had no business to be called "her ladyship" at all.
"I should, indeed, be sorry," she said, primly, "if I were mistaken in my private estimate of the Princess Ziska's character, but I must believe my own eyes and the evidence of my own senses, and surely no one can condone the extremely fast way in which she behaved with that new man—that French artist, Armand Gervase— last night. Why, she danced six times with him! And she actually allowed him to walk home with her through the streets of Cairo! They went off together, in their fancy dresses, just as they were! I never heard of such a thing!"
"Oh, there was nothing remarkable at all in that," said Lord Fulkeward. "Everybody went about the place in fancy costume last night. I went out in my Neapolitan dress with a girl, and I met Denzil Murray coming down a street just behind here—took him for a Florentine prince, upon my word! And I bet you Gervase never got beyond the door of the Princess's palace; for that blessed old Nubian she keeps—the chap with a face like a mummy—bangs the gate in everybody's face, and says in guttural French: 'La Princesse ne voit per-r-r-sonne!' I've tried it. I tell you it's no go!"
"Well, we shall all get inside the mysterious palace next Wednesday evening," said Lady Fulkeward, closing her eyes with a graceful air of languor, "It will be charming, I am sure, and I daresay we shall find that there is no mystery at all about it."
"Two months ago," suddenly said a smooth voice behind them, "the Ziska's house or palace was uninhabited."
Lady Fulkeward gave a little scream and looked round.
"Good gracious, Dr. Dean! How you frightened me!"
The Doctor made an apologetic bow.
"I am very sorry. I forgot you were so sensitive; pray pardon me! As I was saying, two months ago the palace of the Princess Ziska was a deserted barrack. Formerly, so I hear, it used to be the house of some great personage; but it had been allowed to fall into decay, and nobody would rent it, even for the rush of the Cairene season, till it was secured by the Nubian you were speaking of just now—the interesting Nubian with the face like a mummy; he took it and furnished it, and when it was ready Madame la Princesse appeared on the scene and has resided there every since."
"I wonder what that Nubian has to do with her?" said Lady Chetwynd Lyle, severely.
"Nothing at all," replied the Doctor, calmly. "He is the merest servant—the kind of person who is 'told off' to attend on the women of a harem."
"Ah, I see you have been making inquiries concerning the princess, Doctor," said Lady Fulkeward, with a smile.
"And have you found out anything about her?"
"No; that is, nothing of social importance, except, perhaps, two items—first, that she is not a Russian; secondly, that she has never been married."
"Never been married!" exclaimed Lady Chetwynd Lyle, then suddenly turning to her daughters she said blandly: "Muriel, Dolly, go into the house, my dears. It is getting rather warm for you on this terrace. I will join you in a few minutes."
The "girls" rose obediently with a delightfully innocent and juvenile air, and fortunately for them did not notice the irreverent smile that played on young Lord Fulkeward's face, which was immediately reflected on the artistically tinted countenance of his mother, at the manner of their dismissal.
"There is surely nothing improper in never having been married," said Dr. Dean, with a mock serious air. "Consider, my dear Lady Lyle, is there not something very chaste and beautiful in the aspect of an old maid?"
Lady Lyle looked up sharply. She had an idea that both she and her daughters were being quizzed, and she had some difficulty to control her rising temper.
"Then do you call the Princess an old maid?" she demanded.
Lady Fulkeward looked amused; her son laughed outright. But the Doctor's face was perfectly composed.
"I don't know what else I can call her," he said, with a thoughtful air. "She is no longer in her teens, and she has too much voluptuous charm for an ingenue. Still, I admit, you would scarcely call her 'old' except in the parlance of the modern matrimonial market. Our present-day roues, you know, prefer their victims young, and I fancy the Princess Ziska would be too old and perhaps too clever for most of them. Personally speaking, she does not impress me as being of any particular age, but as she is not married, and is, so to speak, a maid fully developed, I am perforce obliged to call her an old maid."
"She wouldn't thank you for the compliment," said Lady Lyle with a spiteful grin.
"I daresay not," responded the Doctor blandly, "but I imagine she has very little personal vanity. Her mind is too preoccupied with something more important than the consideration of her own good looks."
"And what is that?" inquired Lady Fulkeward, with some curiosity.
"Ah! there is the difficulty! What is it that engrosses our fair friend more than the looking-glass? I should like to know—but I cannot find out. It is an enigma as profound as that of the sphinx. Good-morning, Monsieur Gervase!"—and, turning round, he addressed the artist, who just then stepped out on the terrace carrying a paintbox and a large canvas strapped together in portable form. "Are you going to sketch some picturesque corner of the city?"
"No," replied Gervase, listlessly raising his white sun-hat to the ladies present with a courteous, yet somewhat indifferent grace. "I'm going to the Princess Ziska's. I shall probably get the whole outline of her features this morning."
"A full-length portrait?" inquired the Doctor.
"I fancy not. Not the first attempt, at any rate—head and shoulders only."
"Do you know where her house is?" asked Lord Fulkeward. "If you don't, I'll walk with you and show you the way."
"Thanks—you are very good. I shall be obliged to you."
And raising his hat again he sauntered slowly off, young Fulkeward walking with him and chatting to him with more animation than that exhausted and somewhat vacant-minded aristocrat usually showed to anyone.
"It is exceedingly warm," said Lady Lyle, rising then and putting away her cross-stitch apparatus, "I thought of driving to the Pyramids this afternoon, but really ..."
"There is shade all the way," suggested the Doctor, "I said as much to a young woman this morning who has been in the hotel for nearly two months, and hasn't seen the Pyramids yet."
"What has she been doing with herself?" asked Lady Fulkeward, smiling.
"Dancing with officers," said Dr. Dean. "How can Cheops compare with a moustached noodle in military uniform! Good-bye for the present; I'm going to hunt for scarabei."
"I thought you had such a collection of them already," said Lady Lyle.
"So I have. But the Princess had a remarkable one on last night, and I want to find another like it. It's blue—very blue—almost like a rare turquoise, and it appears it is the sign-manual of the warrior Araxes, who was a kind of king in his way, or desert chief, which was about the same thing in those days. He fought for Amenhotep, and seemed from all accounts to be a greater man than Amenhotep himself. The Princess Ziska is a wonderful Egyptologist; I had a most interesting conversation with her last night in the supper-room."
"Then she is really a woman of culture and intelligence?" queried Lady Lyle.
The Doctor smiled.
"I should say she would be a great deal too much for the University of Oxford, as far as Oriental learning goes," he said. "She can read the Egyptian papyri, she tells me, and she can decipher anything on any of the monuments. I only wish I could persuade her to accompany me to Thebes and Karnak."
Lady Fulkeward unfurled her fan and swayed it to and fro with an elegant languor.
"How delightful that would be!" she sighed. "So romantic and solemn—all those dear old cities with those marvellous figures of the Egyptians carved and painted on the stones! And Rameses—dear Rameses! He really has good legs everywhere! Haven't you noticed that? So many of these ancient sculptures represent the Egyptians with such angular bodies and such frightfully thin legs, but Rameses always has good legs wherever you find him. It's so refreshing! DO make up a party, Dr. Dean!—we'll all go with you; and I'm sure the Princess Ziska will be the most charming companion possible. Let us have a dahabeah! I'm good for half the expenses, if you will only arrange everything."
The Doctor stroked his chin and looked dubious, but he was evidently attracted by the idea.
"I'll see about it," he said at last. "Meanwhile I'll go and have a hunt for some traces of Amenhotep and Araxes."
He strolled down the terrace, and Lady Chetwynd Lyle, turning her back on "old" Lady Fulkeward, went after her "girls," while the fascinating Fulkeward herself continued to recline comfortably in her chair, and presently smiled a welcome on a youngish-looking man with a fair moustache who came forward and sat down beside her, talking to her in low, tender and confidential tones. He was the very impecunious colonel of one of the regiments then stationed in Cairo, and as he never wasted time on sentiment, he had been lately thinking that a marriage with a widowed peeress who had twenty thousand pounds a year in her own right might not be a "half bad" arrangement for him. So he determined to do the agreeable, and as he was a perfect adept in the art of making love without feeling it, he got on very well, and his prospects brightened steadily hour by hour.
Meanwhile young Fulkeward was escorting Armand Gervase through several narrow by-streets, talking to him as well as he knew how and trying in his feeble way to "draw him out," in which task he met with but indifferent success.
"It must be awfully jolly and—er—all that sort of thing to be so famous," he observed, glancing up at the strong, dark, brooding face above him. "They had a picture of yours over in London once; I went to see it with my mother. It was called 'Le Poignard,' do you remember it?"
Gervase shrugged his shoulders carelessly.
"Yes, I remember. A poor thing at its best. It was a woman with a dagger in her hand."
"Yes, awfully fine, don'cher know! She was a very dark woman—too dark for my taste,—and she'd got a poignard clasped in in her right hand. Of course, she was going to murder somebody with it; that was plain enough. You meant it so, didn't you?"
"I suppose I did."
"She was in a sort of Eastern get-up," pursued Fulkeward, "one of your former studies in Egypt, perhaps."
Gervase started, and passed his hand across his forehead with a bewildered air.
"No, no! Not a former study, by any means. How could it be? This is my first visit to Egypt. I have never been here before."
"Haven't you? Really! Well, you'll find it awfully interesting and all that sort of thing. I don't see half as much of it as I should like. I'm a weak chap—got something wrong with my lungs,—awful bother, but can't be helped. My mother won't let me do too much. Here we are; this is the Princess Ziska's."
They were standing in a narrow street ending in a cul-de-sac, with tall houses on each side which cast long, black, melancholy shadows on the rough pavement below. A vague sense of gloom and oppression stole over Gervase as he surveyed the outside of the particular dwelling Fulkeward pointed out to him—a square, palatial building, which had no doubt once been magnificent in its exterior adornment, but which now, owing to long neglect, had fallen into somewhat melancholy decay. The sombre portal, fantastically ornamented with designs copied from some of the Egyptian monuments, rather resembled the gateway of a tomb than an entrance to the private residence of a beautiful living woman, and Fulkeward, noting his companion's silence, added:
"Not a very cheerful corner, is it? Some of these places are regular holes, don'cher know; but I daresay it's all right inside."
"You have never been inside?"
"Never." And Fulkeward lowered his voice: "Look up there; there's the beast that keeps everybody out!"
Gervase followed his glance, and perceived behind the projecting carved lattice-work of one of the windows a dark, wrinkled face and two gleaming eyes which, even at that distance, had, or appeared to have, a somewhat sinister expression.
"He's the nastiest type of Nubian I have ever seen," pursued Fulkeward. "Looks just like a galvanized corpse."
Gervase smiled, and perceiving a long bell-handle at the gateway, pulled it sharply. In another moment the Nubian appeared, his aspect fully justifying Lord Fulkeward's description of him. The parchment-like skin on his face was yellowish-black, and wrinkled in a thousand places; his lips were of a livid blue, and were drawn up and down above and below the teeth in a kind of fixed grin, while the dense brilliance of his eyes was so fierce and fiery as to suggest those of some savage beast athirst for prey.
"Madame la Princesse Ziska" began Gervase, addressing his unfascinating object with apparent indifference to his hideousness.
The Nubian's grinning lips stretched themselves wider apart as, in a thick, snarling voice he demanded:
"Et moi?" queried Fulkeward, with a conciliatory smile.
"Non! Pas vous. Monsieur Armand Gervase, seul!"
Fulkeward gave a resigned shrug of his shoulders; Gervase looked round at him ere he crossed the threshold of the mysterious habitation.
"I'm sorry you have to walk back alone."
"Don't mention it," said Fulkeward affably. "You see, you have come on business. You're going to paint the Princess's picture; and I daresay this blessed old rascal knows that I want nothing except to look at his mistress and wonder what she's made of."
"What she's made of?" echoed Gervase in surprise. "Don't you think she's made like other women?"
"No; can't say I do. She seems all fire and vapor and eyes in the middle, don'cher know. Oh, I'm an ass—always was—but that's the feeling she gives me. Ta-ta! Wish you a pleasant morning!"
He nodded and strolled away, and Gervase hesitated yet another moment, looking full at the Nubian, who returned him stare for stare.
"Maintenant?" he began.
"Oui, maintenant" echoed the Nubian.
"La Princesse, ou est elle?"
"La!" and the Nubian pointed down a long, dark passage beyond which there seemed to be the glimmer of green palms and other foliage. "Elle vous attend, Monsieur Armand Gervase! Entrez! Suivez!"
Slowly Gervase passed in, and the great tomb-like door closed upon him with a heavy clang. The whole long, bright day passed, and he did not reappear; not a human foot crossed the lonely street and nothing was seen there all through the warm sunshiny hours save the long, black shadows on the pavement, which grew longer and darker as the evening fell.
Within the palace of the Princess Ziska a strange silence reigned. In whatever way the business of her household was carried on, it was evidently with the most absolute noiselessness, for not a sound disturbed the utter stillness environing her. She herself, clad in white garments that clung about her closely, displaying the perfect outlines of her form, stood waiting for her guest in a room that was fairly dazzling to the eye in its profusion of exquisitely assorted and harmonized colors, as well as impressive to the mind in its suggestions of the past rather than of the present. Quaint musical instruments of the fashion of thousands of years ago hung on the walls or lay on brackets and tables, but no books such as our modern time produces were to be seen; only tied- up bundles of papyri and curious little tablets of clay inscribed with mysterious hieroglyphs. Flowers adorned every corner—many of them strange blossoms which a connoisseur would have declared to be unknown in Egypt,—palms and ferns and foliage of every description were banked up against the walls in graceful profusion, and from the latticed windows the light filtered through colored squares, giving a kind of rainbow-effect to the room, as though it were a scene in a dream rather than a reality. And even more dream-like than her surroundings was the woman who awaited the approach of her visitor, her eyes turned towards the door—fiery eyes filled with such ardent watchfulness as seemed to burn the very air. The eyes of a hawk gleaming on its prey,—the eyes of a famished tiger in the dark, were less fraught with terrific meaning than the eyes of Ziska as she listened attentively to the on-coming footsteps through the outside corridor which told her that Gervase was near.
"At last!" she whispered, "at last!" The next moment the Nubian flung the door wide open and announced "Monsieur Armand Gervase!"
She advanced with all the wonderful grace which distinguished her, holding out both her slim, soft hands. Gervase caught them in his own and kissed them fervently, whereupon the Nubian retired, closing the door after him.
"You are very welcome, Monsieur Gervase," said the Princess then, speaking with a measured slowness that was attractive as well as soothing to the ear. "You have left all the dear English people well at the Gezireh Palace? Lady Fulkeward was not too tired after her exertions at the ball? And you?"
But Gervase was gazing at her in a speechless confusion of mind too great for words. A sudden, inexplicable emotion took possession of him,—an emotion to which he could give no name, but which stupefied him and held him mute. Was it her beauty which so dazzled his senses? Was it some subtle perfume in the room that awoke a dim haunting memory? Or what was it that seemed so strangely familiar? He struggled with himself, and finally spoke out his thought:
"I have seen you before, Princess; I am quite sure I have! I thought I had last night; but to-day I am positive about it. Strange, isn't it? I wonder where we really met?"
Her dark eyes rested on him fully.
"I wonder!" she echoed, smiling. "The world is so small, and so many people nowadays make the 'grand tour,' that it is not at all surprising we should have passed each other en route through our journey of life."
Gervase still hesitated, glancing about him with a singularly embarrassed air, while she continued to watch him intently. Presently his sensations, whatever they were, passed off, and gradually recovering his equanimity, he became aware that he was quite alone with one of the most fascinating women he had ever seen. His eyes flashed, and he smiled.
"I have come to paint your picture," he said softly. "Shall I begin?"
She had seated herself on a silken divan, and her head rested against a pile of richly-embroidered cushions. Without waiting for her answer, he threw himself down beside her and caught her hand in his.
"Shall I paint your picture?" he whispered. "Or shall I make love to you?"
She laughed,—the sweet, low laugh that somehow chilled his blood while it charmed his hearing.
"Whichever you please," she answered. "Both performances would no doubt be works of art!"
"What do you mean?"
"Can you not understand? If you paint my picture it will be a work of art. If you make love to me it will equally be a work of art: that is, a composed thing—an elaborate study."
"Bah! Love is not a composed thing," said Gervase, leaning closer to her. "It is wild, and full of libertinage as the sea."
"And equally as fickle," added the Princess composedly, taking a fan of feathers near her and waving it to and fro. "Man's idea of love is to take all he can get from a woman, and give her nothing in return but misery sometimes, and sometimes death."
"You do not,—you cannot think that!" said Gervase, looking at her dazzling face with a passion of admiration he made no attempt to conceal. "Men on the whole are not as cruel or as treacherous as women. I would swear, looking at you, that, beautiful as you are, you are cruel, and that is perhaps why I love you! You are like a splendid tigress waiting to be tamed!"
"And you think you could tame me?" interposed Ziska, looking at him with an inscrutable disdain in her black eyes.
"Yes, if you loved me!"
"Ah, possibly! But then it happens that I do not love you. I love no one. I have had too much of love; it is a folly I have grown weary of!"
Gervase fixed his eyes on her with an audacious look which seemed to hint that he might possibly take advantage of being alone with her to enforce his ideas of love more eloquently than was in accordance with the proprieties. She perceived his humor, smiled, and coldly gave him back glance for glance. Then, rising from the divan, she drew herself up to her full height and surveyed him with a kind of indulgent contempt.
"You are an uprincipled man, Armand Gervase," she said; "and do you know I fear you always will be! A cleansing of your soul through centuries of fire will be necessary for you in the next world,—that next world which you do not believe in. But it is perhaps as well to warn you that I am not without protection in this place ... See!" and as she spoke she clapped her hands.
A clanging noise as of brazen bells answered her,—and Gervase, springing up from his seat, saw, to his utter amazement, the apparently solid walls of the room in which they were, divide rapidly and form themselves in several square openings which showed a much larger and vaster apartment beyond, resembling a great hall. Here were assembled some twenty or thirty gorgeously- costumed Arab attendants,—men of a dark and sinister type, who appeared to be fully armed, judging from the unpleasant-looking daggers and other weapons they carried at their belts. The Princess clapped her hands again, and the walls closed in the same rapid fashion as they had opened, while the beautiful mistress of this strange habitation laughed mirthfully at the complete confusion of her visitor and would-be lover.
"Paint me now!" she said, flinging herself in a picturesque attitude on one of the sofas close by; "I am ready."
"But I am not ready!" retorted Gervase, angrily. "Do you take me for a child, or a fool?"
"Both in one," responded the Princess, tranquilly; "being a man!"
His breath came and went quickly.
"Take care, beautiful Ziska!" he said. "Take care how you defy me!"
"And take care, Monsieur Gervase; take care how you defy ME!" she responded, with a strange, quick glance at him. "Do you not realize what folly you are talking? You are making love to me in the fashion of a brigand, rather than a nineteenth-century Frenchman of good standing,—and I—I have to defend myself against you also brigand-wise, by showing you that I have armed servants within call! It is very strange,—it would frighten even Lady Fulkeward, and I think she is not easily frightened. Pray commence your work, and leave such an out-of-date matter as love to dreamers and pretty sentimentalists, like Miss Helen Murray."
He was silent, and busied himself in unstrapping his canvas and paint-box with a great deal of almost vicious energy. In a few moments he had gained sufficient composure to look full at her, and taking his palette in hand, he began dabbing on the colors, talking between whiles.
"Do you suppose," he said, keeping his voice carefully subdued, "that you can intimidate me by showing me a score of wretched black rascals whom you have placed on guard to defend you out there? And why did you place them on guard? You must have been afraid of me! Pardieu! I could snatch you out of their midst, if I chose! You do not know me; if you did, you would understand that not all the world, armed to the teeth should balk me of my desires! But I have been too hasty—that I own,—I can wait." He raised his eyes and saw that she was listening with an air of amused indifference. "I shall have to mix strange tints in your portrait, ma belle! It is difficult to find the exact hue of your skin—there is rose and brown in it; and there is yet another color which I must evolve while working,—and it is not the hue of health. It is something dark and suggestive of death; I hope you are not destined to an early grave! And yet, why not? It is better that a beautiful woman should die in her beauty than live to become old and tiresome ..."
"You think that?" interrupted the Ziska suddenly, smiling somewhat coldly.
"I do, most honestly. Had I lived in the early days of civilization, when men were allowed to have as many women as they could provide for, I would have mercifully killed any sweet favorite as soon as her beauty began to wane. A lovely woman, dead in her first exquisite youth,—how beautiful a subject for the mind to dwell upon! How it suggests all manner of poetic fancies and graceful threnodies! But a woman grown old, who has outlived all passion and is a mere bundle of fat, or a mummy of skin and bone,—what poetry does her existence suggest? How can she appeal to art or sentiment? She is a misery to herself and an eyesore to others. Yes, Princess, believe me,—Love first, and Death afterwards, are woman's best friends."
"You believe in Death?" ask the Princess, looking steadily at him.
"It is the only thing I do believe in," he answered lightly. "It is a fact that will bear examination, but not contradiction. May I ask you to turn your head slightly to the left—so! Yes, that will do; if I can catch the look in your eyes that gleams there now,— the look of intense, burning, greedy cruelty which is so murderously fascinating, I shall be content."
He seated himself opposite to her, and, putting down his palette, took up his canvas, and posing it on his knee, began drawing the first rough outline of his sketch in charcoal. She, meanwhile, leaning against heaped-up cushions of amber satin, remained silent.
"You are not a vain woman," he pursued, "or you would resent my description of your eyes. 'Greedy cruelty' is not a pretty expression, nor would it be considered complimentary by the majority of the fair sex. Yet, from my point of view, it is the highest flattery I can pay you, for I adore the eyes of savage animals, and the beautiful eye of the forest-beast is in your head,—diableresse charmante comme vous etes! I wonder what gives you such an insatiate love of vengeance?"
He looked up and saw her eyes glistening and narrowing at the corners, like the eyes of an angry snake.
"If I have such a feeling," she replied slowly, "it is probably a question of heritage."
"Ah! Your parents were perhaps barbaric in their notions of love and hatred?" he queried, lazily working at his charcoal sketch with growing admiration for its result.
"My parents came of a race of kings!" she answered. "All my ancestors were proud, and of a temper unknown to this petty day. They resented a wrong, they punished falsehood and treachery, and they took a life for a life. YOUR generation tolerates every sin known in the calendar with a smile and a shrug,—you have arrived at the end of your civilization, even to the denial of Deity and a future life."
"That is not the end of our civilization, Princess," said Gervase, working away intently, with eyes fixed on the canvas as he talked. "That is the triumphal apex, the glory, the culmination of everything that is great and supreme in manhood. In France, man now knows himself to be the only God; England—good, slow-pacing England—is approaching France in intelligence by degrees, and I rejoice to see that it is possible for a newspaper like the Agnostic to exist in London. Only the other day that excellent journal was discussing the possibility of teaching monkeys to read, and a witty writer, who adopts the nom de plume of 'Saladin,' very cleverly remarked 'that supposing monkeys were able to read the New Testament, they would still remain monkeys; in fact, they would probably be greater monkeys than ever.' The fact of such an expression being allowed to pass muster in once pious London is an excellent sign of the times and of our progress towards the pure Age of Reason. The name of Christ is no longer one to conjure with."
A dead silence followed his words, and the peculiar stillness and heaviness of the atmosphere struck him with a vague alarm. He lifted his eyes,—the Princess Ziska met his gaze steadily, but there was something in her aspect that moved him to wonderment and a curious touch of terror. The delicate rose-tint of her cheeks had faded to an ashy paleness, her lips were pressed together tightly and her eyes seemed to have gained a vivid and angry lustre which Medusa herself might have envied.
"Did you ever try to conjure with that name?" she asked.
"Never," he replied, forcing a smile and remonstrating with himself for the inexplicable nature of his emotions.
She went on slowly:
"In my creed—for I have a creed—it is believed that those who have never taken the sacred name of Christ to their hearts, as a talisman of comfort and support, are left as it were in the vortex of uncertainties, tossed to and fro among many whirling and mighty forces, and haunted forever by the phantoms of their own evil deeds. Till they learn and accept the truth of their marvellous Redemption, they are the prey of wicked spirits who tempt and lead them on to divers miseries. But when the great Name of Him who died upon the Cross is acknowledged, then it is found to be of that transfiguring nature which turns evil to good, and sometimes makes angels out of fiends. Nevertheless, for the hardened reprobate and unbeliever the old laws suffice."
Gervase had stopped the quick movement of his "fusin," and looked at her curiously.
"What old laws?" he asked.
"Stern justice without mercy!" she answered; then in lighter accents she added: "Have you finished your first outline?"
In reply, he turned his canvas round to her, showing her a head and profile boldly presented in black and white. She smiled.
"It is clever; but it is not like me," she said. "When you begin the coloring you will find that your picture and I have no resemblance to each other."
He flushed with a sense of wounded amour propre.
"Pardon, madame!—I am no novice at the art of painting," he said; "and much as your charms dazzle and ensnare me, they do not disqualify my brain and hand from perfectly delineating them upon my canvas. I love you to distraction; but my passion shall not hinder me from making your picture a masterpiece."
"What an egoist you are, Monsieur Gervase!" she said. "Even in your professed passion for me you count yourself first,—me afterwards!"
"Naturally!" he replied. "A man must always be first by natural creation. When he allows himself to play second fiddle, he is a fool!"
"And when he is a fool—and he often is—he is the first of fools!" said the Princess. "No ape—no baboon hanging by its tail to a tree—looks such a fool as a man-fool. For a man-fool has had all the opportunities of education and learning bestowed upon him; this great universe, with its daily lessons of the natural and the supernatural, is his book laid open for his reading, and when he will neither read it nor consider it, and, moreover, when he utterly denies the very Maker of it, then there is no fool in all creation like him. For the ape-fool does at least admit that there may be a stronger beast somewhere,—a creature who may suddenly come upon him and end his joys of hanging by his tail to a tree and make havoc of his fruit-eating and chattering, while man thinks there is nothing anywhere superior to himself."
Gervase smiled tolerantly.
"I am afraid I have ruffled you, Princess," he said. "I see you have religious ideas: I have none."
Once again she laughed musically.
"Religious ideas! I! Not at all. I have a creed as I told you, but it is an ugly one—not at all sentimental or agreeable. It is one I have adopted from ancient Egypt."
"Explain it to me," said Gervase; "I will adopt it also, for your sake."
"It is too supernatural for you," she said, paying no heed to the amorous tone of his voice or the expressive tenderness of his eyes.
"Never mind! Love will make me accept an army of ghosts, if necessary."
"One of the chief tenets of my faith," she continued, "is the eternal immortality of each individual Soul. Will you accept that?"
"For the moment, certainly!"
Her eyes glowed like great jewels as she proceeded:
"The Egyptian cult I follow is very briefly explained. The Soul begins in protoplasm without conscious individuality. It progresses through various forms till individual consciousness is attained. Once attained, it is never lost, but it lives on, pressing towards perfection, taking upon itself various phases of existence according to the passions which have most completely dominated it from the first. That is all. But according to this theory, you might have lived in the world long ago, and so might I: we might even have met; and for some reason or other we may have become re-incarnated now. A disciple of my creed would give you that as the reason why you sometimes imagine you have seen me before."
As she spoke, the dazed and troubled sensation he had once previously experienced came upon him; he laid down the canvas he held and passed his hand across his forehead bewilderedly.
"Yes; very curious and fantastic. I've heard a great deal about the doctrine of reincarnation. I don't believe in it,—I can't believe in it! But if I could: if I could imagine I had ever met you in some bygone time, and you were like what you are at this moment, I should have loved you,—I MUST have loved you! You see I cannot leave the subject of love alone; and your re-incarnation idea gives my fancy something to work upon. So, beautiful Ziska, if your soul ever took the form of a flower, I must have been its companion blossom; if it ever paced the forest as a beast of prey, I must have been its mate; if it ever was human before, then I must have been its lover! Do you like such pretty follies? I will talk them by the hour."
Here he rose, and with a movement that was half fierce and half tender, he knelt beside her, taking her hands in his own.
"I love you, Ziska! I cannot help myself. I am drawn to you by some force stronger than my own will; but you need not be afraid of me—not yet! As I said, I can wait. I can endure the mingled torture and rapture of this sudden passion and make no sign, till my patience tires, and then—then I will win you if I die for it!"
He sprang up before she could speak a word in answer, and seizing his canvas again, exclaimed gayly:
"Now for the hues of morning and evening combined, to paint the radiance of this wicked soul of love that so enthralls me! First, the raven-black of midnight for the hair,—the lustre of the coldest, brightest stars for eyes,—the blush-rose of early dawn for lips and cheeks. Ah! How shall I make a real beginning of this marvel?"
"It will be difficult, I fear," said Ziska slowly, with a faint, cold smile; "and still more difficult, perchance, will be the end!"
The table d'hote at the Gezireh Palace Hotel had already begun when Gervase entered the dining-room and sat down near Lady Fulkeward and Dr. Dean.
"You have missed the soup," said her ladyship, looking up at him with a sweet smile. "All you artists are alike,—you have no idea whatever of time. And how have you succeeded with that charming mysterious person, the Princess Ziska?"
Gervase kept his gaze steadily fixed on the table-cloth. He was extremely pale, and had the air of one who has gone through some great mental exhaustion.
"I have not succeeded as well as I expected," he answered slowly. "I think my hand must have lost its cunning. At any rate, whatever the reason may be, Art has been defeated by Nature."
He crumbled up the piece of bread near his plate in small portions with a kind of involuntary violence in the action, and Dr. Dean, deliberately drawing out a pair of spectacles from their case, adjusted them, and surveyed him curiously.
"You mean to say that you cannot paint the Princess's picture?"
Gervase glanced up at him with a half-sullen, half-defiant expression.
"I don't say that," he replied; "I can paint something—something which you can call a picture if you like,—but there is no resemblance to the Princess Ziska in it. She is beautiful, and I can get nothing of her beauty,—I can only get the reflection of a face which is not hers."
"How very curious!" exclaimed Lady Fulkeward. "Quite psychological, is it not, Doctor? It is almost creepy!" and she managed to produce a delicate shudder of her white shoulders without cracking the blanc de perle enamel. "It will be something fresh for you to study."
"Possibly it will—possibly," said the Doctor, still surveying Gervase blandly through his round glasses; "but it isn't the first time I have heard of painters who unconsciously produce other faces than those of their sitters. I distinctly remember a case in point. A gentleman, famous for his charities and general benevolence, had his portrait painted by a great artist for presentation to the town-hall of his native place, and the artist was quite unable to avoid making him unto the likeness of a villain. It was quite a distressing affair; the painter was probably more distressed than anybody about it, and he tried by every possible means in his power to impart a truthful and noble aspect to the countenance of the man who was known and admitted to be a benefactor to his race. But it was all in vain: the portrait when finished was the portrait of a stranger and a scoundrel. The people for whom it was intended declared they would not have such a libel on their generous friend hung up in their town-hall. The painter was in despair, and there was going to be a general hubbub, when, lo and behold the 'noble' personage himself was suddenly arrested for a brutal murder committed twelve years back. He was found guilty and hanged, and the painter kept the portrait that had so remarkably betrayed the murderer's real nature, as a curiosity ever afterwards."
"Is that a fact?" inquired a man who was seated at the other side of the table, and who had listened with great interest to the story.
"A positive fact," said the Doctor. "One of those many singular circumstances which occur in life, and which are beyond all explanation."
Gervase moved restlessly; then filling for himself a glass of claret, drained it off thirstily.
"Something of the same kind has happened to me," he said with a hard, mirthless laugh, "for out of the most perfect beauty I have only succeeded in presenting an atrocity."
"Dear me!" exclaimed Lady Fulkeward. "What a disappointing day you must have had! But of course, you will try again; the Princess will surely give you another sitting?"
"Oh, yes! I shall certainly try again and yet again, and ever so many times again," said Gervase, with a kind of angry obstinacy in his tone, "the more so as she has told me I will never succeed in painting her."
"She told you that, did she?" put in Dr. Dean, with an air of lively interest.
Just then the handing round of fresh dishes and the clatter of knives and forks effectually put a stop to the conversation for the time, and Gervase presently glancing about him saw that Denzil Murray and his sister were dining apart at a smaller table with young Lord Fulkeward and Ross Courtney. Helen was looking her fairest and best that evening—her sweet face, framed in its angel aureole of bright hair had a singular look of pureness and truth expressed upon it rare to find in any woman beyond her early teens. Unconsciously to himself, Gervase sighed as he caught a view of her delicate profile, and Lady Fulkeward's sharp ears heard the sound of that sigh.
"Isn't that a charming little party over there?" she asked. "Young people, you know! They always like to be together! That very sweet girl, Miss Murray, was so much distressed about her brother to- day,—something was the matter with him—a touch of fever, I believe,—that she begged me to let Fulke dine with them in order to distract Mr. Denzil's mind. Fulke is a dear boy, you know—very consoling in his ways, though he says so little. Then Mr. Courtney volunteered to join them, and there they are. The Chetwynd Lyles are gone to a big dinner at the Continental this evening."
"The Chetwynd Lyles—let me see. Who are they?" mused Gervase aloud, "Do I know them?"
"No,—that is, you have not been formally introduced," said Dr. Dean." Sir Chetwynd Lyle is the editor and proprietor of the London Daily Dial, Lady Chetwynd Lyle is his wife, and the two elderly-youthful ladies who appeared as 'Boulogne fishwives' last night at the ball are his daughters."
"Cruel man!" exclaimed Lady Fulkeward with a girlish giggle. "The idea of calling those sweet girls, Muriel and Dolly, 'elderly- youthful!'"
"What are they, my dear madam, what are they?" demanded the imperturbable little savant. "'Elderly-youthful' is a very convenient expression, and applies perfectly to people who refuse to be old and cannot possibly be young."
"Nonsense! I will not listen to you!" and her ladyship opened her jewelled fan and spread it before her eyes to completely screen the objectionable Doctor from view. "Don't you know your theories are quite out of date? Nobody is old,—we all utterly refuse to be old! Why," and she shut her fan with a sudden jerk, "I shall have you calling ME old next."
"Never, madam!" said Dr. Dean gallantly laying his hand upon his heart. "You are quite an exception to the rule. You have passed through the furnace of marriage and come out unscathed. Time has done its worst with you, and now retreats, baffled and powerless; it can touch you no more!"
Whether this was meant as a compliment or the reverse it would have been difficult to say, but Lady Fulkeward graciously accepted it as the choicest flattery, and bowed, smiling and gratified. Dinner was now drawing to its end, and people were giving their orders for coffee to be served to them on the terrace and in the gardens, Gervase among the rest. The Doctor turned to him.
"I should like to see your picture of the Princess," he said,— "that is if you have no objection."
"Not the least in the world," replied Gervase,—"only it isn't the Princess, it is somebody else."
A faint shudder passed over him. The Doctor noticed it.
"Talking of curious things," went on that irrepressible savant, "I started hunting for a particular scarabeus to-day. I couldn't find it, of course,—it generally takes years to find even a trifle that one especially wants. But I came across a queer old man in one of the curiosity-shops who told me that over at Karnak they had just discovered a large fresco in one of the tombs describing the exploits of the very man whose track I'm on—Araxes ..."
Gervase started,—he knew not why.
"What has Araxes to do with you?" he demanded.
"Oh, nothing! But the Princess Ziska spoke of him as a great warrior in the days of Amenhotep,—and she seems to be a great Egyptologist, and to know many things of which we are ignorant. Then you know last night she adopted the costume of a dancer of that period, named Ziska-Charmazel. Well, now it appears that in one part of this fresco the scene depicted is this very Ziska- Charmazel dancing before Araxes."
Gervase listened with strained attention,—his heart beat thickly, as though the Doctor were telling him of some horrible circumstance in which he had an active part; whereas he had truly no interest at all in the matter, except in so far as events of history are more or less interesting to everyone.
"Well?" he said after a pause.
"Well," echoed Dr. Dean. "There is really nothing more to say beyond that I want to find out everything I can concerning this Araxes, if only for the reason that the charming Princess chose to impersonate his lady-love last night. One must amuse one's self in one's own fashion, even in Egypt, and this amuses ME."
Gervase rose, feeling in his pocket for his cigarette-case.
"Come," he said briefly, "I will show you my picture."
He straightened his tall, fine figure and walked slowly across the room to the table where Denzil Murray sat with his sister and friends.
"Denzil," he said,—"I have made a strange portrait of the Princess Ziska, and I'm going to show it to Dr. Dean. I should like you to see it too. Will you come?"
Denzil looked at him with a dark reproach in his eyes.
"If you like," he answered shortly.
"I do like!" and Gervase laid his hand on the young fellow's shoulder with a kind pressure. "You will find it a piece of curious disenchantment, as well as a proof of my want of skill. You are all welcome to come and look at it except ..." here he hesitated,—"except Miss Murray. I think—yes, I think it might possibly frighten Miss Murray."
Helen raised her eyes to his, but said nothing.
"Oh, by Jove!" murmured Lord Fulkeward, feeling his moustache as usual. "Then don't you come, Miss Murray. We'll tell you all about it afterwards."
"I have no curiosity on the subject," she said a trifle coldly. "Denzil, you will find me in the drawing-room. I have a letter to write home."
With a slight salute she left them, Gervase watching the disappearance of her graceful figure with a tinge of melancholy regret in his eyes.
"It is evident Mademoiselle Helen does not like the Princess Ziska," he observed.
"Oh, well, as to that," said Fulkeward hastily, "you know you can't expect women to lose their heads about her as men do. Beside, there's something rather strange in the Princess's manner and appearance, and perhaps Miss Murray doesn't take to her any more than I do."
"Oh, then you are not one of her lovers?" queried Dr. Dean smiling.
"No; are you?"
"I? Good heavens, my dear young sir, I was never in love with a woman in my life! That is, not what YOU would call in love. At the age of sixteen I wrote verses to a mature young damsel of forty,— a woman with a remarkably fine figure and plenty of it; she rejected my advances with scorn, and I have never loved since!"
They all laughed,—even Denzil Murray's sullen features cleared for the moment into the brightness of a smile.
"Where did you paint the Princess's picture?" inquired Ross Courtney suddenly.
"In her own house," replied Gervase. "But we were not alone, for the fascinating fair one had some twenty or more armed servants within call." There was a movement of surprise among his listeners, and he went on: "Yes; Madame is very well protected, I assure you,—as much so as if she were the first favorite in a harem. Come now, and see my sketch."
He led the way to a private sitting-room which he had secured for himself in the hotel at almost fabulous terms. It was a small apartment, but it had the advantage of a long French window which opened out into the garden. Here, on an easel, was a canvas with its back turned towards the spectator.
"Sit down," said Gervase abruptly addressing his guests, "and be prepared for a curiosity unlike anything you have ever seen before!" He paused a moment, looking steadily at Dr. Dean. "Perhaps, Doctor, as you are interested in psychic phenomena, you may be able to explain how I got such a face on my canvas, for I cannot explain it to myself."
He slowly turned the canvas round, and, scarcely heeding the exclamation of amazement that broke simultaneously from all the men present, stared at it himself, fascinated by a singular magnetism more potent than either horror or fear.
What a strange and awful face it was!—what a thing of distorted passion and pain! What an agony was expressed in every line of the features!—agony in which the traces of a divine beauty lingered only to render the whole countenance more repellent and terrific! A kind of sentient solemnity, mingled with wrath and terror, glared from the painted eyes,—the lips, slightly parted in a cruel upward curve, seemed about to utter a shriek of menace,—the hair, drooping in black, thick clusters low on the brow, looked wet as with the dews of the rigor mortis,—and to add to the mysterious horror of the whole conception, the distinct outline of a death's-head was seen plainly through the rose-brown flesh- tints. There was no real resemblance in this horrible picture to the radiant and glowing loveliness of the Princess Ziska, yet, at the same time, there was sufficient dim likeness to make an imaginative person think it might be possible for her to assume that appearance in death. Several minutes passed in utter silence,—then Lord Fulkeward suddenly rose.
"I'm going!" he said. "It's a beastly thing; it makes me sick!"
"Grand merci!" said Gervase with a forced smile.
"I really can't help it," declared the young man, turning his back to the picture. "If I am rude, you must excuse it. I'm not very strong—my mother will tell you I get put out very easily,—and I shall dream of this horrid face all night if I don't give it a wide berth."
And, without any further remark he stepped out through the open window into the garden, and walked off. Gervase made no comment on his departure; he turned his eyes towards Dr. Dean who, with spectacles on nose, was staring hard at the picture with every sign of the deepest interest.
"Well, Doctor," he said, "you see it is not at all like the Princess."
"Oh, yes it is!" returned the Doctor placidly. "If you could imagine the Princess's face in torture, it would be like her. It is the kind of expression she might wear if she suddenly met with a violent end."
"But why should I paint her so?" demanded Gervase. "She was perfectly tranquil; and her attitude was most picturesquely composed. I sketched her as I thought I saw her,—how did this tortured head come on my canvas?"
The Doctor scratched his chin thoughtfully. It was certainly a problem. He stared hard at Gervase, as though searching for the clue to the mystery in the handsome artist's own face. Then he turned to Denzil Murray, who had not stirred or spoken.
"What do you think of it, eh, Denzil?" he asked.
The young man started as from a dream.
"I don't know what to think of it."
"And you?" said the Doctor, addressing Ross Courtney.
"I? Oh, I am of the same opinion as Fulkeward,—I think it is a horrible thing. And the curious part of the matter is that it is like the Princess Ziska, and yet totally unlike. Upon my word, you know, it is a very unpleasant picture."
Dr. Dean got up and paced the room two or three times, his brows knitted in a heavy frown. Suddenly he stopped in front of Gervase.
"Tell me," he said, "have you any recollection of ever having met the Princess Ziska before?"
Gervase looked puzzled, then answered slowly:
"No, I have no actual recollection of the kind. At the same time, I admit to you that there is something about her which has always struck me as being familiar. The tone of her voice and the peculiar cadence of her laughter particularly affect me in this way. Last night when I was dancing with her, I wondered whether I had ever come across her as a model in one of the studios in Paris or Rome."
The Doctor listened to him attentively, watching him narrowly the while. But he shook his head incredulously at the idea of the Princess ever having posed as a model.
"No, no, that won't do!" he said. "I do not believe she was ever in the model business. Think again. You are now a man in the prime of life, Monsieur Gervase, but look back to your early youth,—the period when young men do wild, reckless, and often wicked things,- -did you ever in that thoughtless time break a woman's heart?"
Gervase flushed, and shrugged his shoulders.
"Pardieu! I may have done! Who can tell? But if I did, what would that have to do with this?" and he tapped the picture impatiently.
The Doctor sat down and smacked his lips with a peculiar air of enjoyment.
"It would have a great deal to do with it," he answered, "that is, psychologically speaking. I have known of such cases. We will argue the point out systematically thus:—Suppose that you, in your boyhood, had wronged some woman, and suppose that woman had died. You might imagine you had got rid of that woman. But if her love was very strong and her sense of outrage very bitter, I must tell you that you have not got rid of her by any means, moreover, you never will get rid of her. And why? Because her Soul, like all Souls, is imperishable. Now, putting it as a mere supposition, and for the sake of the argument, that you feel a certain admiration for the Princess Ziska, an admiration which might possibly deepen into something more than platonic, ... "—here Denzil Murray looked up, his eyes glowing with an angry pain as he fixed them on Gervase,—"why then the Soul of the other woman you once wronged might come between you and the face of the new attraction and cause you to unconsciously paint the tortured look of the injured and unforgiving Spirit on the countenance of the lovely fascinator whose charms are just beginning to ensnare you. I repeat, I have known of such cases." And, unheeding the amazed and incredulous looks of his listeners, the little Doctor folded both his short arms across his chest, and hugged himself in the exquisite delight of his own strange theories." The fact is, "he continued," you cannot get rid of ghosts! They are all about us—everywhere! Sometimes they take forms, sometimes they are content to remain invisible. But they never fail to make their presence felt. Often during the performance of some great piece of music they drift between the air and the melody, making the sounds wilder and more haunting, and freezing the blood of the listener with a vague agony and chill. Sometimes they come between us and our friends, mysteriously forbidding any further exchange of civilities or sympathies, and occasionally they meet us alone and walk and talk with us invisibly. Generally they mean well, but sometimes they mean ill. And the only explanation I can offer you, Monsieur Gervase, as to the present picture problem is that a ghost must have come between you and your canvas!"
Gervase laughed loudly.
"My good friend, you are an adept in the art of pleading the impossible! You must excuse me; I am a sceptic; and I hope I am also in possession of my sober reason,—therefore, you can hardly wonder at my entirely refusing to accept such preposterous theories as those you appear to believe in."
Dr. Dean gave him a civil little bow.
"I do not ask you to accept them, my dear sir! I state my facts, and you can take them or leave them, just as you please. You yourself can offer no explanation of the singular way in which this picture has been produced; I offer one which is perfectly tenable with the discoveries of psychic science,—and you dismiss it as preposterous. That being the case, I should recommend you to cut up this canvas and try your hand again on the same subject."
"Of course, I shall try again," retorted Gervase. "But I do not think I shall destroy this first sketch. It is a curiosity in its way; and it has a peculiar fascination for me. Do you notice how thoroughly Egyptian the features are? They are the very contour of some of the faces on the recently-discovered frescoes."
"Oh, I noticed that at once," said the Doctor; "but that is not remarkable, seeing that you yourself are quite of an Egyptian type, though a Frenchman,—so much so, in fact, that many people in this hotel have commented on it."
Gervase said nothing, but slowly turned the canvas round with its face to the wall.
"You have seen enough of it, I suppose?" he inquired of Denzil Murray.
"More than enough!"
"It ought to disenchant you," he said in a lower tone.
"But it is a libel on her beauty,—it is not in the least like her," returned Murray coldly.
"Not in the very least? Are you sure? My dear Denzil, you know as well as I do that there IS a likeness, combined with a dreadful unlikeness; and it is that which troubles both of us. I assure you, my good boy, I am as sorry for you as I am for myself,—for I feel that this woman will be the death of one or both of us!"
Denzil made no reply, and presently they all strolled out in the garden and lit their cigars and cigarettes, with the exception of Dr. Dean who never smoked and never drank anything stronger than water.
"I am going to get up a party for the Nile," he said as he turned his sharp, ferret-like eyes upwards to the clear heavens; "and I shall take the Princess into my confidence. In fact, I have written to her about it to-day. I hear she has a magnificent electric dahabeah, and if she will let us charter it. ..."
"She won't," said Denzil hastily, "unless she goes with it herself."
"You seem to know a great deal about her," observed Dr. Dean indulgently, "and why should she not go herself? She is evidently well instructed in the ancient history of Egypt, and, as she reads the hieroglyphs, she will be a delightful guide and a most valuable assistant to me in my researches."
"What researches are you engaged upon now?" inquired Courtney.
"I am hunting down a man called Araxes," answered the Doctor. "He lived, so far as I can make out, some four or five thousand years ago, more or less; and I want to find out what he did and how he died, and when I know how he died, then I mean to discover where he is buried. If possible, I shall excavate him. I also want to find the remains of Ziska-Charmazel, the lady impersonated by our charming friend the Princess last night,—the dancer, who, it appears from a recently-discovered fresco, occupied most of her time in dancing before this same Araxes and making herself generally agreeable to him."
"What an odd fancy!" exclaimed Denzil. "How can a man and woman dead five thousand years ago be of any interest to you?"
"What interest has Rameses?" demanded the Doctor politely, "or any of the Ptolemies? Araxes, like Rameses, may lead to fresh discoveries in Egypt, for all we know. One name is as good as another,—and each odoriferous mummy has its own mystery."
They all came just then to a pause in their walk, Gervase stopping to light a fresh cigarette. The rays of the rising moon fell upon him as he stood, a tall and stately figure, against a background of palms, and shone on his dark features with a touch of grayish- green luminance that gave him for the moment an almost spectral appearance. Dr. Dean glanced at him with a smile.
"What a figure of an Egyptian, is he not!" he said to Courtney and Denzil Murray. "Look at him! What height and symmetry! What a world of ferocity in those black, slumbrous eyes! Yes, Monsieur Gervase, I am talking about you. I am admiring you!"
"Trop d'honneur!" murmured Gervase, carefully shielding with one hand the match with which he was kindling his cigarette.
"Yes," continued the Doctor, "I am admiring you. Being a little man myself, I naturally like tall men, and as an investigator of psychic forms I am immensely interested when I see a finely-made body in which the soul lies torpid. That is why you unconsciously compose for me a wonderful subject of study. I wonder now, how long this torpidity in the psychic germ has lasted in you? It commenced, of course, originally in protoplasm; but it must have continued through various low forms and met with enormous difficulties in attaining to individual consciousness as man,— because even now it is scarcely conscious."
"Why, that beginning of the soul in protoplasm is part of a creed which the Princess Ziska was trying to teach me to-day," he said lightly. "It's all no use. I don't believe in the soul; if I did, I should be a miserable man."
"Why?" asked Murray.
"Why? Because, my dear fellow, I should be rather afraid of my future. I should not like to live again; I might have to remember certain incidents which I would rather forget. There is your charming sister, Mademoiselle Helen! I must go and talk to her,— her conversation always does me good; and after that picture which I have been unfortunate enough to produce, her presence will be as soothing as the freshness of morning after an unpleasant nightmare."
He moved away; Denzil Murray with Courtney followed him. Dr. Dean remained behind, and presently sitting down in a retired corner of the garden alone, he took out a small pocket-book and stylographic pen and occupied himself for more than half an hour in busily writing till he had covered two or three pages with his small, neat caligraphy.
"It is the most interesting problem I ever had the chance of studying!" he murmured half aloud when he had finished, "Of course, if my researches into the psychic spheres of action are worth anything, it can only be one case out of thousands. Thousands? Aye, perhaps millions! Great heavens! Among what terrific unseen forces we live! And in exact proportion to every man's arrogant denial of the 'Divinity that shapes our ends, so will be measured out to him the revelation of the invisible. Strange that the human race has never entirely realized as yet the depth of meaning in the words describing hell: 'Where the worm dieth not, and where the flame is never quenched. The 'worm' is Retribution, the 'flame' is the immortal Spirit,—and the two are forever striving to escape from the other. Horrible! And yet there are men who believe in neither one thing nor the other, and reject the Redemption that does away with both! God forgive us all our sins,—and especially the sins of pride and presumption!"
And with a shade of profound melancholy on his features, the little Doctor put by his note-book, and, avoiding all the hotel loungers on the terrace and elsewhere, retired to his own room and went to bed.
The next day when Armand Gervase went to call on the Princess Ziska he was refused admittance. The Nubian attendant who kept watch and ward at her gates, hearing the door-bell ring, contented himself with thrusting his ugly head through an open upper window and shouting—
"Madame est sortie!"
"Ou donc?" called Gervase in answer.
"A la campagne—le desert—les pyramides!" returned the Nubian, at the same time banging the lattice to in order to prevent the possibility of any further conversation. And Gervase, standing in the street irresolutely for a moment, fancied he heard a peal of malicious laughter in the distance.
"Beast!" he muttered, "I must try him with a money bribe next time I get hold of him. I wonder what I shall do with myself now?— haunted and brain-ridden as I am by this woman and her picture?"
The hot sun glared in his eyes and made them ache,—the rough stones of the narrow street were scorching to his feet. He began to move slowly away with a curious faint sensation of giddiness and sickness upon him, when the sound of music floating from the direction of the Princess Ziska's palace brought him to a sudden standstill. It was a strange, wild melody, played on some instrument with seemingly muffled strings. A voice with a deep, throbbing thrill of sweetness in it began to sing:
Oh, for the passionless peace of the Lotus-Lily! It floats in a waking dream on the waters chilly, With its leaves unfurled To the wondering world, Knowing naught of the sorrow and restless pain That burns and tortures the human brain; Oh, for the passionless peace of the Lotus-Lily!
Oh, for the pure cold heart of the Lotus-Lily! Bared to the moon on the waters dark and chilly. A star above Is its only love, And one brief sigh of its scented breath Is all it will ever know of Death; Oh, for the pure cold heart of the Lotus-Lily!
When the song ceased, Gervase raised his eyes from the ground on which he had fixed them in a kind of brooding stupor, and stared at the burning blue of the sky as vaguely and wildly as a sick man in the delirium of fever.
"God! What ails me!" he muttered, supporting himself with one hand against the black and crumbling wall near which he stood. "Why should that melody steal away my strength and make me think of things with which I have surely no connection! What tricks my imagination plays me in this city of the Orient—I might as well be hypnotized! What have I to do with dreams of war and triumph and rapine and murder, and what is the name of Ziska-Charmazel to me?"
He shook himself with the action of a fine brute that has been stung by some teasing insect, and, mastering his emotions by an effort, walked away. But he was so absorbed in strange thoughts, that he stumbled up against Denzil Murray in a side street on the way to the Gezireh Palace Hotel without seeing him, and would have passed him altogether had not Denzil somewhat fiercely said:
Gervase looked at him bewilderedly.
"Why, Denzil, is it you? My dear fellow, forgive me my brusquerie! I believe I have got a stroke of the sun, or something of the sort; I assure you I hardly know what I am doing or where I am going!"
"I believe it!" said Denzil, hoarsely. "You are as mad as I am— for love!"
Gervase smiled; a slight incredulous smile.
"You think so? I am not sure! If love makes a man as thoroughly unstrung and nervous as I am to-day, then love is a very bad illness."
"It is the worst illness in the world," said Denzil, speaking hurriedly and wildly. "The most cruel and torturing! And there is no cure for it save death. My God, Gervase! You were my friend but yesterday! I never should have thought it possible to hate you!"
"Yet you do hate me?" queried Gervase, still smiling a little.
"Hate you? I could kill you! You have been with HER!"
Quietly Gervase took his arm.
"My good Denzil, you are mistaken! I confess to you frankly I should have been with HER—you mean the Princess Ziska, of course- -had it been possible. But she has fled the city for the moment— at least, according to the corpse-like Nubian who acts as porter."
"He lies!" exclaimed Denzil, hotly. "I saw her this morning."
"I hope you improved your opportunity," said Gervase, imperturbably. "Anyway, at the present moment she is not visible."
A silence fell between them for some minutes; then Denzil spoke again.
"Gervase, it is no use, I cannot stand this sort of thing. We must have it out. What does it all mean?"
"It is difficult to explain, my dear boy," answered Gervase, half seriously, half mockingly. "It means, I presume, that we are both in love with the same woman, and that we both intend to try our chances with her. But, as I told you the other night, I do not see why we should quarrel about it. Your intentions towards the Princess are honorable—mine are dishonorable, and I shall make no secret of them. If you win her, I shall ..."
He paused, and there was a sudden look in his eyes which gave them a sombre darkness, darker than their own natural color.
"You shall—what?" asked Denzil.
"Do something desperate," replied Gervase. "What the something will be depends on the humor of the moment. A tiger balked of his prey is not an agreeable beast; a strong man deprived of the woman he passionately desires is a little less agreeable even than the tiger. But let us adopt the policy of laissez-faire. Nothing is decided; the fair one cares for neither of us; let us be friends until she makes her choice."
"We cannot be friends," said Denzil, sternly.
"Good! Let us be foes then, but courteous, even in our quarrel, dear boy. If we must kill each other, let us do it civilly. To fly at each other's throats would be purely barbaric. We owe a certain duty to civilization; things have progressed since the days of Araxes."
Denzil stared at him gloomily.
"Araxes is Dr. Dean's fad," he said. "I don't know anything about Egyptian mummies, and don't want to know. My matter is with the present, and not with the past."
They had reached the hotel by this time, and turned into the gardens side by side.
"You understand?" repeated Denzil. "We cannot be friends!"
Gervase gave him a profoundly courteous salute, and the two separated.
Later on in the afternoon, about an hour before dinner-time, Gervase, strolling on the terrace of the hotel alone, saw Helen Murray seated at a little distance under some trees, with a book in her hand which she was not reading. There were tears in her eyes, but as he approached her she furtively dashed them away and greeted him with a poor attempt at a smile.
"You have a moment to spare me?" he asked, sitting down beside her.
She bent her head in acquiescence.
"I am a very unhappy man, Mademoiselle Helen," he began, looking at her with a certain compassionate tenderness as he spoke. "I want your sympathy, but I know I do not deserve it."
Helen remained silent. A faint flush crimsoned her cheeks, but her eyes were veiled under the long lashes—she thought he could not see them.
"You remember," he went on, "our pleasant times in Scotland? Ah, it is a restful place, your Highland home, with the beautiful purple hills rolling away in the distance, and the glorious moors covered with fragrant heather, and the gurgling of the river that runs between birch and fir and willow, making music all day long for those who have the ears to listen, and the hearts to understand the pretty love tune it sings! You know Frenchmen always have more or less sympathy with the Scotch—some old association, perhaps, with the romantic times of Mary Queen of Scots, when the light and changeful fancies of Chastelard and his brother poets and lutists made havoc in the hearts of many a Highland maiden. What is that bright drop on your hand, Helen?— are you crying?" He waited a moment, and his voice was softer and more tremulous. "Dear girl, I am not worthy of tears. I am not good enough for you."