A Romance of Two Worlds, by Marie Corelli

Chapter 2. The Mysterious Potion.

The next day, punctually at noon, according to my promise, I entered the studio. I was alone, for Amy, after some qualms of conscience respecting chaperonage, propriety, and Mrs. Grundy, had yielded to my entreaties and gone for a drive with some friends. In spite of the fears she began to entertain concerning the Mephistophelian character of Raffaello Cellini, there was one thing of which both she and I felt morally certain: namely, that no truer or more honourable gentleman than he ever walked on the earth. Under his protection the loveliest and loneliest woman that ever lived would have been perfectly safe — as safe as though she were shut up, like the princess in the fairy-tale, in a brazen tower, of which only an undiscoverable serpent possessed the key. When I arrived, the rooms were deserted, save for the presence of a magnificent Newfoundland dog, who, as I entered, rose, and shaking his shaggy body, sat down before me and offered me his huge paw, wagging his tail in the most friendly manner all the while, I at once responded to his cordial greeting, and as I stroked his noble head, I wondered where the animal had come from; for though — we had visited Signor Cellini’s studio every day, there had been no sign or mention of this stately, brown-eyed, four-footed companion. I seated myself, and the dog immediately lay down at my feet, every now and then looking up at me with an affectionate glance and a renewed wagging of his tail. Glancing round the well-known room, I noticed that the picture I admired so much was veiled by a curtain of Oriental stuff, in which were embroidered threads of gold mingled with silks of various brilliant hues. On the working easel was a large square canvas, already prepared, as I supposed, for my features to be traced thereon. It was an exceedingly warm morning, and though the windows as well as the glass doors of the conservatory were wide open, I found the air of the studio very oppressive. I perceived on the table a finely-wrought decanter of Venetian glass, in which clear water sparkled temptingly. Rising from my chair, I took an antique silver goblet from the mantelpiece, filled it with the cool fluid, and was about to drink, when the cup was suddenly snatched from my hands, and the voice of Cellini, changed from its usual softness to a tone both imperious and commanding, startled me.

“Do not drink that,” he said; “you must not! You dare not! I forbid you!”

I looked up at him in mute astonishment. His face was very pale, and his large dark eyes shone with suppressed excitement. Slowly my self-possession returned to me, and I said calmly:

“YOU forbid me, signor? Surely you forget yourself. What harm have I done in helping myself to a simple glass of water in your studio? You are not usually so inhospitable.”

While I spoke his manner changed, the colour returned to his face, and his eyes softened — he smiled.

“Forgive me, mademoiselle, for my brusquerie. It is true I forgot myself for a moment. But you were in danger, and ——”

“In danger!” I exclaimed incredulously.

“Yes, mademoiselle. This,” and he held up the Venetian decanter to the light, “is not water simply. If you will observe it now with the sunshine beating full against it, I think you will perceive peculiarities in it that will assure you of my veracity.”

I looked as he bade me, and saw, to my surprise, that the fluid was never actually still for a second. A sort of internal bubbling seemed to work in its centre, and curious specks and lines of crimson and gold flashed through it from time to time.

“What is it?” I asked; adding with a half-smile, “Are you the possessor of a specimen of the far-famed Aqua Tofana?”

Cellini placed the decanter carefully on a shelf, and I noticed that he chose a particular spot for it, where the rays of the sun could fall perpendicularly upon the vessel containing it. Then turning to me, he replied:

“Aqua Tofana, mademoiselle, is a deadly poison, known to the ancients and also to many learned chemists of our day. It is a clear and colourless liquid, but it is absolutely still — as still as a stagnant pool. What I have just shown you is not poison, but quite the reverse. I will prove this to you at once.” And taking a tiny liqueur glass from a side table, he filled it with the strange fluid and drank it off, carefully replacing the stopper in the decanter.

“But, Signor Cellini,” I urged, “if it is so harmless, why did you forbid my tasting it? Why did you say there was danger for me when I was about to drink it?”

“Because, mademoiselle, for YOU it would be dangerous. Your health is weak, your nerves unstrung. That elixir is a powerful vivifying tonic, acting with great rapidity on the entire system, and rushing through the veins with the swiftness of ELECTRICITY. I am accustomed to it; it is my daily medicine. But I was brought to it by slow, and almost imperceptible degrees. A single teaspoonful of that fluid, mademoiselle, administered to anyone not prepared to receive it, would be instant death, though its actual use is to vivify and strengthen human life. You understand now why I said you were in danger?”

“I understand,” I replied, though in sober truth I was mystified and puzzled.

“And you forgive my seeming rudeness?”

“Oh, certainly! But you have aroused my curiosity. I should like to know more about this strange medicine of yours.”

“You shall know more if you wish,” said Cellini, his usual equable humour and good spirits now quite restored. “You shall know everything; but not to-day. We have too little time. I have not yet commenced your picture. And I forgot — you were thirsty, and I was, as you said, inhospitable. You must permit me to repair my fault.”

And with a courteous salute he left the room, to return almost immediately with a tumbler full of some fragrant, golden-coloured liquid, in which lumps of ice glittered refreshingly. A few loose rose-leaves were scattered on the top of this dainty-looking beverage.

“You may enjoy this without fear,” said he, smiling; “it will do you good. It is an Eastern wine, unknown to trade, and therefore untampered with. I see you are looking at the rose-leaves on the surface. That is a Persian custom, and I think a pretty one. They float away from your lips in the action of drinking, and therefore they are no obstacle.”

I tasted the wine and found it delicious, soft and mellow as summer moonlight. While I sipped it the big Newfoundland, who had stretched himself in a couchant posture on the hearth-rug ever since Cellini had first entered the room, rose and walked majestically to my side and rubbed his head caressingly against the folds of my dress.

“Leo has made friends with you, I see,” said Cellini. “You should take that as a great compliment, for he is most particular in his choice of acquaintance, and most steadfast when he has once made up his mind. He has more decision of character than many a statesman.”

“How is it we have never seen him before?” I inquired. “You never told us you had such a splendid companion.”

“I am not his master,” replied the artist. “He only favours me with a visit occasionally. He arrived from Paris last night, and came straight here, sure of his welcome. He does not confide his plans to me, but I suppose he will return to his home when he thinks it advisable. He knows his own business best.”

I laughed.

“What a clever dog! Does he journey on foot, or does he take the train?”

“I believe he generally patronizes the railway. All the officials know him, and he gets into the guard’s van as a matter of course. Sometimes he will alight at a station en route, and walk the rest of the way. But if he is lazily inclined, he does not stir till the train reaches its destination. At the end of every six months or so, the railway authorities send the bill of Leo’s journeyings in to his master, when it is always settled without difficulty.”

“And who IS his master?” I ventured to ask.

Cellini’s face grew serious and absorbed, and his eyes were full of grave contemplation as he answered:

“His master, mademoiselle, is MY master — one who among men, is supremely intelligent; among teachers, absolutely unselfish; among thinkers, purely impersonal; among friends, inflexibly faithful. To him I owe everything — even life itself. For him no sacrifice, no extreme devotion would be too great, could I hope thereby to show my gratitude. But he is as far above human thanks or human rewards as the sun is above the sea. Not here, not now, dare I say to him, MY FRIEND, BEHOLD HOW MUCH I LOVE THEE! such language would be all too poor and unmeaning; but hereafter — who knows? ——” and he broke off abruptly with a half-sigh. Then, as if forcing himself to change the tenor of his thoughts, he continued in a kind tone: “But, mademoiselle, I am wasting your time, and am taking no advantage of the favour you have shown me by your presence to-day. Will you seat yourself here?” and he placed an elaborately carved oaken settee in one corner of the studio, opposite his own easel. “I should be sorry to fatigue you at all,” he went on; “do you care for reading?”

I answered eagerly in the affirmative, and he handed me a volume bound in curiously embossed leather, and ornamented with silver clasps. It was entitled “Letters of a Dead Musician.”

“You will find clear gems of thought, passion, and feeling in this book,” said Cellini; “and being a musician yourself, you will know how to appreciate them. The writer was one of those geniuses whose work the world repays with ridicule and contempt. There is no fate more enviable!”

I looked at the artist with some surprise as I took the volume he recommended, and seated myself in the position he indicated; and while he busied himself in arranging the velvet curtains behind me as a background, I said:

“Do you really consider it enviable, Signor Cellini, to receive the world’s ridicule and contempt?”

“I do indeed,” he replied, “since it is a certain proof that the world does not understand you. To achieve something that is above human comprehension, THAT is greatness. To have the serene sublimity of the God-man Christ, and consent to be crucified by a gibing world that was fated to be afterwards civilized and dominated by His teachings, what can be more glorious? To have the magnificent versatility of a Shakespeare, who was scarcely recognized in his own day, but whose gifts were so vast and various that the silly multitudes wrangle over his very identity and the authenticity of his plays to this hour — what can be more triumphant? To know that one’s own soul can, if strengthened and encouraged by the force of will, rise to a supreme altitude of power — is not that sufficient to compensate for the little whining cries of the common herd of men and women who have forgotten whether they ever had a spiritual spark in them, and who, straining up to see the light of genius that burns too fiercely for their earth-dimmed eyes, exclaim: ‘WE see nothing, therefore there CAN be nothing.’ Ah, mademoiselle, the knowledge of one’s own inner Self-Existence is a knowledge surpassing all the marvels of art and science!”

Cellini spoke with enthusiasm, and his countenance seemed illumined by the eloquence that warmed his speech. I listened with a sort of dreamy satisfaction; the visual sensation of utter rest that I always experienced in this man’s presence was upon me, and I watched him with interest as he drew with quick and facile touch the outline of my features on his canvas.

Gradually he became more and more absorbed in his work; he glanced at me from time to time, but did not speak, and his pencil worked rapidly. I turned over the “Letters of a Dead Musician” with some curiosity. Several passages struck me as being remarkable for their originality and depth of thought; but what particularly impressed me as I read on, was the tone of absolute joy and contentment that seemed to light up every page. There were no wailings over disappointed ambition, no regrets for the past, no complaints, no criticism, no word for or against the brothers of his art; everything was treated from a lofty standpoint of splendid equality, save when the writer spoke of himself, and then he became the humblest of the humble, yet never abject, and always happy.

“O Music!” he wrote, “Music, thou Sweetest Spirit of all that serve God, what have I done that thou shouldst so often visit me? It is not well, O thou Lofty and Divine One, that thou shouldst stoop so low as to console him who is the unworthiest of all thy servants. For I am too feeble to tell the world how soft is the sound of thy rustling pinions, how tender is the sighing breath of thy lips, how beyond all things glorious is the vibration of thy lightest whisper! Remain aloft, thou Choicest Essence of the Creator’s Voice, remain in that pure and cloudless ether, where alone thou art fitted to dwell. My touch must desecrate thee, my voice affright thee. Suffice it to thy servant, O Beloved, to dream of thee and die!”

Meeting Cellini’s glance as I finished reading these lines, I asked:

“Did you know the author of this book, signor?”

“I knew him well,” he replied; “he was one of the gentlest souls that ever dwelt in human clay. As ethereal in his music as John Keats in his poetry, he was one of those creatures born of dreams and rapture that rarely visit this planet. Happy fellow! What a death was his!”

“How did he die?” I inquired.

“He was playing the organ in one of the great churches of Rome on the day of the Feast of the Virgin. A choir of finely trained voices sang to his accompaniment his own glorious setting of the “Regina Coeli.” The music was wonderful, startling, triumphant — ever rising in power and majesty to a magnificent finale, when suddenly a slight crash was heard; the organ ceased abruptly, the singers broke off. The musician was dead. He had fallen forward on the keys of the instrument, and when they raised him, his face was fairer than the face of any sculptured angel, so serene was its expression, so rapt was its smile. No one could tell exactly the cause of his death — he had always been remarkably strong and healthy. Everyone said it was heart-disease — it is the usual reason assigned by medical savants for these sudden departures out of the world. His loss was regretted by all, save myself and one other who loved him. We rejoiced, and still do rejoice, at his release.”

I speculated vaguely on the meaning of these last words, but I felt disinclined to ask any more questions, and Cellini, probably seeing this, worked on at his sketch without further converse. My eyes were growing heavy, and the printed words in the “Dead Musician’s Letters” danced before my sight like active little black demons with thin waving arms and legs. A curious yet not unpleasant drowsiness stole over me, in which I heard the humming of the bees at the open window, the singing of the birds, and the voices of people in the hotel gardens, all united in one continuous murmur that seemed a long way off. I saw the sunshine and the shadow — I saw the majestic Leo stretched full length near the easel, and the slight supple form of Raffaello Cellini standing out in bold outline against the light; yet all seemed shifting and mingling strangely into a sort of wide radiance in which there was nothing but varying tints of colour. And could it have been my fancy, or did I actually SEE the curtain fall gradually away from my favourite picture, just enough for the face of the “Angel of Life” to be seen smiling down upon me? I rubbed my eyes violently, and started to my feet at the sound of the artist’s voice.

“I have tried your patience enough for to-day,” he said, and his words sounded muffled, as though they were being spoken through, a thick wall. “You can leave me now if you like.”

I stood before him mechanically, still holding the book he had lent me clasped in my hand. Irresolutely I raised my eyes towards the “Lords of our Life and Death.” It was closely veiled. I had then experienced an optical illusion. I forced myself to speak — to smile — to put back the novel sensations that were overwhelming me.

“I think,” I said, and I heard myself speak as though I were somebody else at a great distance off —“I think, Signor Cellini, your Eastern wine has been too potent for me. My head is quite heavy, and I feel dazed.”

“It is mere fatigue and the heat of the day,” he replied quietly. “I am sure you are not too DAZED, as you call it, to see your favourite picture, are you?”

I trembled. Was not that picture veiled? I looked — there was no curtain at all, and the faces of the two Angels shone out of the canvas with intense brilliancy! Strange to say, I felt no surprise at this circumstance, which, had it occurred a moment previously, would have unquestionably astonished and perhaps alarmed me. The mistiness of my brain suddenly cleared; I saw everything plainly; I heard distinctly; and when I spoke, the tone of my voice sounded as full and ringing as it had previously seemed low and muffled. I gazed steadfastly at the painting, and replied, half smiling:

“I should be indeed ‘far gone,’ as the saying is, if I could not see that, signor! It is truly your masterpiece. Why have you never exhibited it?”

“Can YOU ask that?” he said with impressive emphasis, at the same time drawing nearer and fixing upon me the penetrating glance of his dark fathomless eyes. It then seemed to me that some great inner force compelled me to answer this half-inquiry, in words of which I had taken no previous thought, and which, as I uttered them, conveyed no special meaning to my own ears.

“Of course,” I said slowly, as if I were repeating a lesson, “you would not so betray the high trust committed to your charge.”

“Well said!” replied Cellini; “you are fatigued, mademoiselle. Au revoir! Till to-morrow!” And, throwing open the door of his studio, he stood aside for me to pass out. I looked at him inquiringly.

“Must I come at the same time to-morrow?” I asked.

“If you please.”

I passed my hand across my forehead perplexedly, I felt I had something else to say before I left him. He waited patiently, holding back with one hand the curtains of the portiere.

“I think I had a parting word to give you,” I said at last, meeting his gaze frankly; “but I seem to have forgotten what it was.” Cellini smiled gravely.

“Do not trouble to think about it, mademoiselle. I am unworthy the effort on your part.”

A flash of vivid light crossed my eyes for a second, and I exclaimed eagerly:

“I remember now! It was ‘Dieu vous garde’ signor!”

He bent his head reverentially.

“Merci mille fois, mademoiselle! Dieu vous garde — vous aussi. Au revoir.”

And clasping my hand with a light yet friendly pressure, he closed the door of his room behind me. Once alone in the passage, the sense of high elation and contentment that had just possessed me began gradually to decrease. I had not become actually dispirited, but a languid feeling of weariness oppressed me, and my limbs ached as though I had walked incessantly for many miles. I went straight to my own room. I consulted my watch; it was half-past one, the hour at which the hotel luncheon was usually served. Mrs. Everard had evidently not returned from her drive. I did not care to attend the table d’hote alone; besides, I had no inclination to eat. I drew down the window-blinds to shut out the brilliancy of the beautiful Southern sunlight, and throwing myself on my bed I determined to rest quietly till Amy came back. I had brought the “Letters of a Dead Musician” away with me from Cellini’s studio, and I began to read, intending to keep myself awake by this means. But I found I could not fix my attention on the page, nor could I think at all connectedly. Little by little my eyelids closed; the book dropped from my nerveless hand; and in a few minutes I was in a deep and tranquil slumber.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:43