The morning of the next day dawned rather gloomily. A yellowish fog obscured the air, and there was a closeness and sultriness in the atmosphere that was strange for that wintry season. I had slept well, and rose with the general sense of ease and refreshment that I always experienced since I had been under the treatment of Heliobas. Those whose unhappy physical condition causes them to awake from uneasy slumber feeling almost more fatigued than when they retired to rest, can scarcely have any idea of the happiness it engenders to open untired, glad eyes with the morning light; to feel the very air a nourishment; to stand with lithe, rested limbs in the bath of cool, pure water, finding that limpid element obediently adding its quota to the vigour of perfect health; to tingle from head to foot with the warm current of life running briskly through the veins, making the heart merry, the brain clear, and all the powers of body and mind in active working condition. This is indeed most absolute enjoyment. Add to it the knowledge of the existence of one’s own inner Immortal Spirit — the beautiful germ of Light in the fostering of which no labour is ever taken in vain — the living, wondrous thing that is destined to watch an eternity of worlds bloom and fade to bloom again, like flowers, while itself, superior to them all, shall become ever more strong and radiant — with these surroundings and prospects, who shall say life is not worth living?
Dear Life! sweet Moment! gracious Opportunity! brief Journey so well worth the taking! gentle Exile so well worth enduring! — thy bitterest sorrows are but blessings in disguise; thy sharpest pains are brought upon us by ourselves, and even then are turned to warnings for our guidance; while above us, through us, and around us radiates the Supreme Love, unalterably tender!
These thoughts, and others like them, all more or less conducive to cheerfulness, occupied me till I had finished dressing. Melancholy was now no part of my nature, otherwise I might have been depressed by the appearance of the weather and the murkiness of the air. But since I learned the simple secrets of physical electricity, atmospheric influences have had no effect upon the equable poise of my temperament — a fact for which I cannot be too grateful, seeing how many of my fellow-creatures permit themselves to be affected by changes in the wind, intense heat, intense cold, or other things of the like character.
I went down to breakfast, singing softly on my way, and I found Zara already seated at the head of her table, while Heliobas was occupied in reading and sorting a pile of letters that lay beside his plate. Both greeted me with their usual warmth and heartiness.
During the repast, however, the brother and sister were strangely silent, and once or twice I fancied that Zara’s eyes filled with tears, though she smiled again so quickly and radiantly that I felt I was mistaken.
A piece of behaviour on the part of Leo, too, filled me with dismay. He had been lying quietly at his master’s feet for some time, when he suddenly arose, sat upright, and lifting his nose in air, uttered a most prolonged and desolate howl. Anything more thoroughly heartbroken and despairing than that cry I have never heard. After he had concluded it, the poor animal seemed ashamed of what he had done, and creeping meekly along, with drooping head and tail, he kissed his master’s hand, then mine, and lastly Zara’s. Finally, he went into a distant corner and lay down again, as if his feelings were altogether too much for him.
“Is he ill?” I asked pityingly.
“I think not,” replied Heliobas. “The weather is peculiar to-day — close, and almost thunderous; dogs are very susceptible to such changes.”
At that moment the page entered bearing a silver salver, on which lay a letter, which he handed to his master and immediately retired.
Heliobas opened and read it.
“Ivan regrets he cannot dine with us to-day,” he said, glancing at his sister; “he is otherwise engaged. He says, however, that he hopes to have the pleasure of looking in during the latter part of the evening.”
Zara inclined her head gently, and made no other reply.
A few seconds afterwards we rose from table, and Zara, linking her arm through mine, said:
“I want to have a talk with you while we can be alone. Come to my room.”
We went upstairs together, followed by the wise yet doleful Leo, who seemed determined not to let his mistress out of his sight. When we arrived at our destination, Zara pushed me gently into an easy-chair, and seated herself in another one opposite.
“I am going to ask a favour of you,” she began; “because I know you will do anything to please me or Casimir. Is it not so?”
I assured her she might rely upon my observing; with the truest fidelity any request of hers, small or great.
She thanked me and resumed:
“You know I have been working secretly in my studio for some time past. I have been occupied in the execution of two designs — one is finished, and is intended as a gift to Casimir. The other”— she hesitated —“is incomplete. It is the colossal figure which was veiled when you first came in to see my little statue of ‘Evening’. I made an attempt beyond my powers — in short, I cannot carry out the idea to my satisfaction. Now, dear, pay great attention to what I say. I have reason to believe that I shall be compelled to take a sudden journey — promise me that when I am gone you will see that unfinished statue completely destroyed — utterly demolished.”
I could not answer her for a minute or two, I was so surprised by her words.
“Going on a journey, Zara?” I said. “Well, if you are, I suppose you will soon return home again; and why should your statue be destroyed in the meantime? You may yet be able to bring it to final perfection.”
Zara shook her head and smiled half sadly.
“I told you it was a favour I had to ask of you,” she said; “and now you are unwilling to grant it.”
“I am not unwilling — believe me, dearest, I would do anything to please you,” I assured her; “but it seems so strange to me that you should wish the result of your labour destroyed, simply because you are going on a journey.”
“Strange as it seems, I desire it most earnestly,” said Zara; “otherwise — but if you will not see it done for me, I must preside at the work of demolition myself, though I frankly confess it would be most painful to me.”
I interrupted her.
“Say no more, Zara!” I exclaimed; “I will do as you wish. When you are gone, you say —”
“When I am gone,” repeated Zara firmly, “and before you yourself leave this house, you will see that particular statue destroyed. You will thus do me a very great service.”
“Well,” I said, “and when are you coming back again? Before I leave Paris?”
“I hope so — I think so,” she replied evasively; “at any rate, we shall meet again soon.”
“Where are you going?” I asked.
She smiled. Such a lovely, glad, and triumphant smile!
“You will know my destination before to-night has passed away,” she answered. “In the meanwhile I have your promise?”
She kissed me, and as she did so, a lurid flash caught my eyes and almost dazzled them. It was a gleam of fiery lustre from the electric jewel she wore.
The day went on its usual course, and the weather seemed to grow murkier every hour. The air was almost sultry, and when during the afternoon I went into the conservatory to gather some of the glorious Marechal Niel roses that grew there in such perfection, the intense heat of the place was nearly insupportable. I saw nothing of Heliobas all day, and, after the morning, very little of Zara. She disappeared soon after luncheon, and I could not find her in her rooms nor in her studio, though I knocked at the door several times. Leo, too, was missing. After being alone for an hour or more, I thought I would pay a visit to the chapel. But on attempting to carry out this intention I found its doors locked — an unusual circumstance which rather surprised me. Fancying that I heard the sound of voices within, I paused to listen. But all was profoundly silent. Strolling into the hall, I took up at random from a side-table a little volume of poems, unknown to me, called “Pygmalion in Cyprus;” and seating myself in one of the luxurious Oriental easy-chairs near the silvery sparkling fountain, I began to read. I opened the book I held at “A Ballad of Kisses,” which ran as follows:
“There are three kisses that I call to mind,
And I will sing their secrets as I go —
The first, a kiss too courteous to be kind,
Was such a kiss as monks and maidens know,
As sharp as frost, as blameless as the snow.
“The second kiss, ah God! I feel it yet —
And evermore my soul will loathe the same —
The toys and joys of fate I may forget,
But not the touch of that divided shame;
It clove my lips — it burnt me like a flame.
“The third, the final kiss, is one I use
Morning and noon and night, and not amiss.
Sorrow be mine if such I do refuse!
And when I die, be Love enrapt in bliss
Re-sanctified in heaven by such a kiss!”
This little gem, which I read and re-read with pleasure, was only one of many in the same collection, The author was assuredly a man of genius. I studied his word-melodies with intense interest, and noted with some surprise how original and beautiful were many of his fancies and similes. I say I noted them with surprise, because he was evidently a modern Englishman, and yet unlike any other of his writing species. His name was not Alfred Tennyson, nor Edwin Arnold, nor Matthew Arnold, nor Austin Dobson, nor Martin Tupper. He was neither plagiarist nor translator — he was actually an original man. I do not give his name here, as I consider it the duty of his own country to find him out and acknowledge him, which, as it is so proud of its literary standing, of course it will do in due season. On this, my first introduction to his poems, I became speedily absorbed in them, and was repeating to myself softly a verse which I remember now:
“Hers was sweetest of sweet faces,
Hers the tenderest eyes of all;
In her hair she had the traces
Of a heavenly coronal,
Bringing sunshine to sad places
Where the sunlight could not fall.”
Then I was startled by the sound of a clock striking six. I bethought myself of the people who were coming to dinner, and decided to go to my room and dress. Replacing the “Pygmalion” book on the table whence I had taken it, I made my way upstairs, thinking as I went of Zara and her strange request, and wondering what journey she was going upon.
I could not come to any satisfactory conclusion on this point, besides, I had a curious disinclination to think about it very earnestly, though the subject kept recurring to my mind. Yet always some inward monitor seemed to assure me, as plainly as though the words were spoken in my ear:
“It is useless for you to consider the reason of this, or the meaning of that. Take things as they come in due order: one circumstance explains the other, and everything is always for the best.”
I prepared my Indian crepe dress for the evening, the same I had worn for Madame Didier’s party at Cannes; only, instead of having lilies of the valley to ornament it with, I arranged some clusters of the Marechal Niel roses I had gathered from the conservatory — lovely blossoms, with their dewy pale-gold centres forming perfect cups of delicious fragrance. These, relieved by a few delicate sprays of the maiden-hair fern, formed a becoming finish to my simple costume. As I arrayed myself, and looked at my own reflection in the long mirror, I smiled out of sheer gratitude. For health, joyous and vigorous, sparkled in my eyes, glowed on my cheeks, tinted my lips, and rounded my figure. The face that looked back at me from the glass was a perfectly happy one, ready to dimple into glad mirth or bright laughter. No shadow of pain or care remained upon it to remind me of past suffering, and I murmured half aloud: “Thank God!”
“Amen!” said a soft voice, and, turning round, I saw Zara.
But how shall I describe her? No words can adequately paint the glorious beauty in which, that night, she seemed to move as in an atmosphere of her own creating. She wore a clinging robe of the richest, softest white satin, caught in at the waist by a zone of pearls — pearls which, from their size and purity, must have been priceless. Her beautiful neck and arms were bare, and twelve rows of pearls were clasped round her slender throat, supporting in their centre the electric stone, which shone with a soft, subdued radiance, like the light of the young moon. Her rich, dark hair was arranged in its usual fashion — that is, hanging down in one thick plait, which on this occasion was braided in and out with small pearls. On her bosom she wore a magnificent cluster of natural orange-blossoms; and of these, while I gazed admiringly at her, I first spoke:
“You look like a bride, Zara! You have all the outward signs of one — white satin, pearls, and orange-blossoms!”
“They are the first cluster that has come out in our conservatory,” she said; “and I could not resist them. As to the pearls, they belonged to my mother, and are my favourite ornaments; and white satin is now no longer exclusively for brides. How soft and pretty that Indian crepe is! Your toilette is charming, and suits you to perfection. Are you quite ready?”
“Quite,” I answered.
She hesitated and sighed. Then she raised her lovely eyes with a sort of wistful tenderness.
“Before we go down I should like you to kiss me once,” she said.
I embraced her fondly, and our lips met with a lingering sisterly caress.
“You will never forget me, will you?” she asked almost anxiously; “never cease to think of me kindly?”
“How fanciful you are to-night, Zara dear!” I said. “As if I COULD forget you! I shall always think of you as the loveliest and sweetest woman in the world.”
“And when I am out of the world — what then?” she pursued.
Remembering her spiritual sympathies, I answered at once:
“Even then I shall know you to be one of the fairest of the angels. So you see, Zara darling, I shall always love you.”
“I think you will,” she said meditatively; “you are one of us. But come! I hear voices downstairs. I think our expected guests have arrived, and we must be in the drawing-room to receive them. Good-bye, little friend!” And she again kissed me.
“Good-bye!” I repeated in astonishment; “why ‘good-bye’?”
“Because it is my fancy to say the word,” she replied with quiet firmness. “Again, dear little friend, good-bye!”
I felt bewildered, but she would not give me time to utter another syllable. She took my hand and hurried me with her downstairs, and in another moment we were both in the drawing-room, receiving and saying polite nothings to the Everards and Challoners, who had all arrived together, resplendent in evening costume. Amy Everard, I thought, looked a little tired and fagged, though she rejoiced in a superb “arrangement” by Worth of ruby velvet and salmon-pink. But, though a perfect dress is consoling to most women, there are times when even that fails of its effect; and then Worth ceases to loom before the feminine eye as a sort of demi-god, but dwindles insignificantly to the level of a mere tailor, whose prices are ruinous. And this, I think, was the state of mind in which Mrs. Everard found herself that evening; or else she was a trifle jealous of Zara’s harmonious grace and loveliness. Be this as it may, she was irritable, and whisperingly found fault with, me for being in such good health.
“You will have too much colour if you don’t take care,” she said almost pettishly, “and nothing is so unfashionable.”
“I know!” I replied with due meekness. “It is very bad style to be quite well — it is almost improper.”
She looked at me, and a glimmering smile lighted her features. But she would not permit herself to become good-humoured, and she furled and unfurled her fan of pink ostrich feathers with some impatience.
“Where did that child get all those pearls from?” she next inquired, with a gesture of her head towards Zara.
“They belonged to her mother,” I answered, smiling as I heard Zara called a CHILD, knowing, as I did, her real age.
“She is actually wearing a small fortune on her person,” went on Amy; “I wonder her brother allows her. Girls never understand the value of things of that sort. They should be kept for her till she is old enough to appreciate them.”
I made no reply; I was absorbed in watching Heliobas, who at that moment entered the room accompanied by Father Paul. He greeted his guests with warmth and unaffected heartiness, and all present were, I could see, at once fascinated by the dignity of his presence and the charm of his manner. To an uninstructed eye there was nothing unusual about him; but to me there was a change in his expression which, as it were, warned and startled me. A deep shadow of anxiety in his eyes made them look more sombre and less keen; his smile was not so sweet as it was stern, and there was an undefinable SOMETHING in his very bearing that suggested — what? Defiance? Yes, defiance; and it was this which, when I had realized it, curiously alarmed me. For what had he, Heliobas, to do with even the thought of defiance? Did not all his power come from the knowledge of the necessity of obedience to the spiritual powers within and without? Quick as light the words spoken to me by Aztul regarding him came back to my remembrance: “Even as he is my Beloved, so let him not fail to hear my voice.” What if he SHOULD fail? A kind of instinct came upon me that some immediate danger of this threatened him, and I braced myself up to a firm determination, that, if this was so, I, out of my deep gratitude to him, would do my utmost best to warn him in time. While these thoughts possessed me, the hum of gay conversation went on, and Zara’s bright laughter ever and again broke like music on the air. Father Paul, too, proved himself to be of quite a festive and jovial disposition, for he made himself agreeable to Mrs. Challoner and her daughters, and entertained them with the ease and bonhomie of an accomplished courtier and man of the world.
Dinner was announced in the usual way — that is, with the sound of music played by the electric instrument devoted to that purpose, a performance which elicited much admiration from all the guests. Heliobas led the way into the dining-room with Mrs. Everard; Colonel Everard followed, with Zara on one arm and the eldest Miss Challoner on the other; Mr. Challoner and myself came next; and Father Paul, with Mrs. Challoner and her other daughter Effie, brought up the rear. There was a universal murmur of surprise and delight as the dinner-table came in view; and its arrangement was indeed a triumph of art. In the centre was placed a large round of crystal in imitation of a lake, and on this apparently floated a beautiful gondola steered by the figure of a gondolier, both exquisitely wrought in fine Venetian glass. The gondolier was piled high with a cargo of roses; but the wonder of it all was, that the whole design was lit up by electricity. Electric sparkles, like drops of dew, shone on the leaves of the flowers; the gondola was lit from end to end with electric stars, which were reflected with prismatic brilliancy in the crystal below; the gondolier’s long pole glittered with what appeared to be drops of water tinged by the moonlight, but which was really an electric wire, and in his cap flashed an electric diamond. The whole ornament scintillated and glowed like a marvellous piece of curiously contrived jewel-work. And this was not all. Beside every guest at table a slender vase, shaped like a long-stemmed Nile lily, held roses and ferns, in which were hidden tiny electric stars, causing the blossoms to shine with a transparent and almost fairy-like lustre.
Four graceful youths, clad in the Armenian costume, stood waiting silently round the table till all present were seated, and then they commenced the business of serving the viands, with swift and noiseless dexterity. As soon as the soup was handed round, tongues were loosened, and the Challoners, who had been gazing at everything in almost open-mouthed astonishment, began to relieve their feelings by warm expressions of unqualified admiration, in which Colonel and Mrs. Everard were not slow to join.
“I do say, and I will say, this beats all I’ve ever seen,” said good Mrs. Challoner, as she bent to examine the glittering vase of flowers near her plate.
“And this is real electric light? And is it perfectly harmless?”
Heliobas smilingly assured her of the safety of his table decorations. “Electricity,” he said, “though the most powerful of masters, is the most docile of slaves. It is capable of the smallest as well as of the greatest uses. It can give with equal certainty life or death; in fact, it is the key-note of creation.”
“Is that your theory, sir?” asked Colonel Everard.
“It is not only my theory,” answered Heliobas, “it is a truth, indisputable and unalterable, to those who have studied the mysteries of electric science.”
“And do you base all your medical treatment on this principle?” pursued the Colonel.
“Certainly. Your young friend here, who came to me from Cannes, looking as if she had but a few months to live, can bear witness to the efficacy of my method.”
Every eye was now turned upon me, and I looked up and laughed.
“Do you remember, Amy,” I said, addressing Mrs. Everard, “how you told me I looked like a sick nun at Cannes? What do I look like now?”
“You look as if you had never been ill in your life,” she replied.
“I was going to say,” remarked Mr. Challoner in his deliberate manner, “that you remind me very much of a small painting of Diana that I saw in the Louvre the other day. You have the same sort of elasticity in your movements, and the same bright healthy eyes.”
I bowed, still smiling. “I did not know you were such a flatterer, Mr. Challoner! Diana thanks you!”
The conversation now became general, and turned, among other subjects, upon the growing reputation of Raffaello Cellini.
“What surprises me in that young man,” said Colonel Everard, “is his colouring. It is simply marvellous. He was amiable enough to present me with a little landscape scene; and the effect of light upon it is so powerfully done that you would swear the sun was actually shining through it.”
The fine sensitive mouth of Heliobas curved in a somewhat sarcastic smile.
“Mere trickery, my dear sir — a piece of clap-trap,” he said lightly. “That is what would be said of such pictures — in England at least. And it WILL be said by many oracular, long-established newspapers, while Cellini lives. As soon as he is dead — ah! c’est autre chose! — he will then most probably be acknowledged the greatest master of the age. There may even be a Cellini ‘School of Colouring,’ where a select company of daubers will profess to know the secret that has died with him. It is the way of the world!”
Mr. Challoner’s rugged face showed signs of satisfaction, and his shrewd eyes twinkled.
“Right you are, sir!” he said, holding up his glass of wine. “I drink to you! Sir, I agree with you! I calculate there’s a good many worlds flying round in space, but a more ridiculous, feeble-minded, contrary sort of world than this one, I defy any archangel to find!”
Heliobas laughed, nodded, and after a slight pause resumed:
“It is astonishing to me that people do not see to what an infinite number of uses they could put the little re-discovery they have made of LUMINOUS PAINT. In that simple thing there is a secret, which as yet they do not guess — a wonderful, beautiful, scientific secret, which may perhaps take them a few hundred years to find out. In the meantime they have got hold of one end of the thread; they can make luminous paint, and with it they can paint light-houses, and, what is far more important — ships. Vessels in mid-ocean will have no more need of fog-signals and different-coloured lamps; their own coat of paint will be sufficient to light them safely on their way. Even rooms can be so painted as to be perfectly luminous at night. A friend of mine, residing in Italy, has a luminous ballroom, where the ceiling is decorated with a moon and stars in electric light. The effect is exceedingly lovely; and though people think a great deal of money must have been laid out upon it, it is perhaps the only great ballroom in Italy that has been really cheaply fitted up. But, as I said before, there is another secret behind the invention or discovery of luminous paint — a secret which, when once unveiled, will revolutionize all the schools of art in the world.”
“Do you know this secret?” asked Mrs. Challoner.
“Yes, madame — perfectly.”
“Then why don’t you disclose it for the benefit of everybody?” demanded Erne Challoner.
“Because, my dear young lady, no one would believe me if I did. The time is not yet ripe for it. The world must wait till its people are better educated.”
“Better educated!” exclaimed Mrs. Everard. “Why, there is nothing talked of nowadays but education and progress! The very children are wiser than their parents!”
“The children!” returned Heliobas, half inquiringly, half indignantly. “At the rate things are going, there will soon be no children left; they will all be tired little old men and women before they are in their teens. The very babes will be born old. Many of them are being brought up without any faith in God or religion; the result will be an increase of vice and crime. The purblind philosophers, miscalled wise men, who teach the children by the light of poor human reason only, and do away with faith in spiritual things, are bringing down upon the generations to come an unlooked-for and most terrific curse. Childhood, the happy, innocent, sweet, unthinking, almost angelic age, at which Nature would have us believe in fairies and all the delicate aerial fancies of poets, who are, after all, the only true sages — childhood, I say, is being gradually stamped out under the cruel iron heel of the Period — a period not of wisdom, health, or beauty, but one of drunken delirium, in which the world rushes feverishly along, its eyes fixed on one hard, glittering, stony-featured idol — Gold. Education! Is it education to teach the young that their chances of happiness depend on being richer than their neighbours? Yet that is what it all tends to. Get on! — be successful! Trample on others, but push forward yourself! Money, money! — let its chink be your music; let its yellow shine be fairer than the eyes of love or friendship! Let its piles accumulate and ever accumulate! There are beggars in the streets, but they are impostors! There is poverty in many places, but why seek to relieve it? Why lessen the sparkling heaps of gold by so much as a coin? Accumulate and ever accumulate! Live so, and then — die! And then — who knows what then?”
His voice had been full of ringing eloquence as he spoke, but at these last words it sank into a low, thrilling tone of solemnity and earnestness. We all looked at him, fascinated by his manner, and were silent.
Mr. Challoner was the first to break the impressive pause.
“I’m not a speaker, sir,” he observed slowly, “but I’ve got a good deal of feeling somewheres; and you’ll allow me to say that I feel your words — I think they’re right true. I’ve often wanted to say what you’ve said, but haven’t seen my way clear to it. Anyhow, I’ve had a very general impression about me that what we call Society has of late years been going, per express service, direct to the devil — if the ladies will excuse me for plain speaking. And as the journey is being taken by choice and free-will, I suppose there’s no hindrance or stoppage possible. Besides, it’s a downward line, and curiously free from obstructions.”
“Bravo, John!” exclaimed Mrs. Challoner. “You are actually corning out! I never heard you indulge in similes before.”
“Well, my dear,” returned her husband, somewhat gratified, “better late than never. A simile is a good thing if it isn’t overcrowded. For instance, Mr. Swinburne’s similes are laid on too thick sometimes. There is a verse of his, which, with all my admiration for him, I never could quite fathom. It is where he earnestly desires to be as ‘Any leaf of any tree;’ or, failing that, he wouldn’t mind becoming ‘As bones under the deep, sharp sea.’ I tried hard to see the point of that, but couldn’t fix it.”
We all laughed. Zara, I thought, was especially merry, and looked her loveliest. She made an excellent hostess, and exerted herself to the utmost to charm — an effort in which she easily succeeded.
The shadow on the face of her brother had not disappeared, and once or twice I noticed that Father Paul looked at him with a certain kindly anxiety.
The dinner approached its end. The dessert, with its luxurious dishes of rare fruit, such as peaches, plantains, hothouse grapes, and even strawberries, was served, and with it a delicious, sparkling, topaz-tinted wine of Eastern origin called Krula, which was poured out to us in Venetian glass goblets, wherein lay diamond-like lumps of ice. The air was so exceedingly oppressive that evening that we found this beverage most refreshing. When Zara’s goblet was filled, she held it up smiling, and said:
“I have a toast to propose.”
“Hear, hear!” murmured the gentlemen, Heliobas excepted.
“To our next merry meeting!” and as she said this she kissed the rim of the cup, and made a sign as though wafting it towards her brother.
He started as if from a reverie, seized his glass, and drained off its contents to the last drop.
Everyone responded with heartiness to Zara’s toast and then Colonel Everard proposed the health of the fair hostess, which was drunk with enthusiasm.
After this Zara gave the signal, and all the ladies rose to adjourn to the drawing-room. As I passed Heliobas on my way out, he looked so sombre and almost threatening of aspect, that I ventured to whisper:
“She has forgotten ME!” he muttered.
“Never — never!” I said earnestly. “Oh, Heliobas! what is wrong with you?”
He made no answer, and there was no opportunity to say more, as I had to follow Zara. But I felt very anxious, though I scarcely knew why, and I lingered at the door and glanced back at him. As I did so, a low, rumbling sound, like chariot-wheels rolling afar off, broke suddenly on our ears.
“Thunder,” remarked Mr. Challoner quietly. “I thought we should have it. It has been unnaturally warm all day. A good storm will clear the air.”
In my brief backward look at Heliobas, I noted that when that far-distant thunder sounded, he grew very pale. Why? He was certainly not one to have any dread of a storm — he was absolutely destitute of fear. I went into the drawing-room with a hesitating step — my instincts were all awake and beginning to warn me, and I murmured softly a prayer to that strong, invisible majestic spirit which I knew must be near me — my guardian Angel. I was answered instantly — my foreboding grew into a positive certainty that some danger menaced Heliobas, and that if I desired to be his friend, I must be prepared for an emergency. Receiving this, as all such impressions should be received, as a direct message sent me for my guidance, I grew calmer, and braced up my energies to oppose SOMETHING, though I knew not what.
Zara was showing her lady-visitors a large album of Italian photographs, and explaining them as she turned the leaves. As I entered the room, she said eagerly to me:
“Play to us, dear! Something soft and plaintive. We all delight in your music, you know.”
“Did you hear the thunder just now?” I asked irrelevantly.
“It WAS thunder? I thought so!” said Mrs. Everard. “Oh, I do hope there is not going to be a storm! I am so afraid of a storm!”
“You are nervous?” questioned Zara kindly, as she engaged her attention with some very fine specimens among the photographs, consisting of views from Venice.
“Well, I suppose I am,” returned Amy, half laughing. “Yet I am plucky about most things, too. Still I don’t like to hear the elements quarrelling together — they are too much in earnest about it — and no person can pacify them.”
Zara smiled, and gently repeated her request to me for some music — a request in which Mrs. Challoner and her daughters eagerly joined. As I went to the piano I thought of Edgar Allan Poe’s exquisite poem:
“In Heaven a spirit doth dwell,
Whose heart-strings are a lute;
None sing so wildly well
As the angel Israfel,
And the giddy stars, so legends tell,
Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell
Of his voice — all mute.”
As I poised my fingers above the keys of the instrument, another long, low, ominous roll of thunder swept up from the distance and made the room tremble.
“Play — play, for goodness’ sake!” exclaimed Mrs. Everard; “and then we shall not be obliged to fix our attention on the approaching storm!”
I played a few soft opening arpeggio passages, while Zara seated herself in an easy-chair near the window, and the other ladies arranged themselves on sofas and ottomans to their satisfaction. The room was exceedingly close: and the scent of the flowers that were placed about in profusion was almost too sweet and overpowering.
“And they say (the starry choir
And the other listening things)
That Israfeli’s fire
Is owing to that lyre,
By which lie sits and sings —
The trembling living wire
Of those unusual strings.”
How these verses haunted me! With them floating in my mind, I played — losing myself in mazes of melody, and travelling harmoniously in and out of the different keys with that sense of perfect joy known only to those who can improvise with ease, and catch the unwritten music of nature, which always appeals most strongly to emotions that are unspoilt by contact with the world, and which are quick to respond to what is purely instinctive art. I soon became thoroughly absorbed, and forgot that there were any persons present. In fancy I imagined myself again in view of the glory of the Electric Ring — again I seemed to behold the opaline radiance of the Central Sphere:
“Where Love’s a grown-up God,
Where the Houri glances are
Imbued with all the beauty
Which we worship in a star.”
By-and-by I found my fingers at the work of tenderly unravelling a little skein of major melody, as soft and childlike as the innocent babble of a small brooklet flowing under ferns. I followed this airy suggestion obediently, till it led me of itself to its fitting end, when I ceased playing. I was greeted by a little burst of applause, and looking up, saw that all the gentlemen had come in from the dining-room, and were standing near me. The stately figure of Heliobas was the most prominent in the group; he stood erect, one hand resting lightly on the framework of the piano, and his eyes met mine fixedly.
“You were inspired,” he said with a grave smile, addressing me; “you did not observe our entrance.”
I was about to reply, when a loud, appalling crash of thunder rattled above us, as if some huge building had suddenly fallen into ruins. It startled us all into silence for a moment, and we looked into each other’s faces with a certain degree of awe.
“That was a good one,” remarked Mr. Challoner. “There was nothing undecided about that clap. Its mind was made up.”
Zara suddenly rose from her seat, and drew aside the window-curtains.
“I wonder if it is raining,” she said.
Amy Everard uttered a little shriek of dismay.
“Oh, don’t open the blinds!” she exclaimed. “It is really dangerous!”
Heliobas glanced at her with a little sarcastic smile.
“Take a seat on the other side of the room, if you are alarmed, madame,” he said quietly, placing a chair in the position he suggested, which Amy accepted eagerly.
She would, I believe, have gladly taken refuge in the coal-cellar had he offered it. Zara, in the meantime, who had not heard Mrs. Everard’s exclamation of fear, had drawn up one of the blinds, and stood silently looking out upon the night. Instinctively we all joined her, with the exception of Amy, and looked out also. The skies were very dark; a faint moaning wind stirred the tops of the leafless trees; but there was no rain. A dry volcanic heat pervaded the atmosphere — in fact we all felt the air so stifling, that Heliobas threw open the window altogether, saying, as he did so:
“In a thunderstorm, it is safer to have the windows open than shut; besides, one cannot suffocate.”
A brilliant glare of light flashed suddenly upon our vision. The heavens seemed torn open from end to end, and a broad lake of pale blue fire lay quivering in the heart of the mountainous black clouds — for a second only. An on-rushing, ever-increasing, rattling roar of thunder ensued, that seemed to shake the very earth, and all was again darkness.
“This is magnificent!” cries Mrs. Challoner, who, with her family, had travelled a great deal, and was quite accustomed to hurricanes and other inconveniences caused by the unaccommodating behaviour of the elements. “I don’t think I ever saw anything like it, John dear, even that storm we saw at Chamounix was not any better than this.”
“Well,” returned her husband meditatively, “you see we had the snow mountains there, and the effect was pretty lively. Then there were the echoes — those cavernous echoes were grand! What was that passage in Job, Effie, that I used to say they reminded me of?”
“‘The pillars of heaven tremble, and are astonished at His reproof . . . The thunder of His power, who can understand?’” replied Effie Challoner reverently.
“That’s it!” he replied. “I opine that Job was pretty correct in his ideas — don’t you, reverend sir?” turning to Father Paul.
The priest nodded, and held up his finger warningly.
“That lady — Mrs. Everard — is going to sing or play, I think,” he observed. “Shall we not keep silence?”
I looked towards Amy in some surprise. I knew she sang very prettily, but I had thought she was rendered too nervous by the storm to do aught but sit quiet in her chair. However, there she was at the piano, and in another moment her fresh, sweet mezzo-soprano rang softly through the room in Tosti’s plaintive song, “Good-bye!” We listened, but none of us moved from the open window where we still inhaled what air there was, and watched the lowering sky.
“Hush! a voice from the far-away,
‘Listen and learn,’ it seems to say;
‘All the to-morrows shall be as to-day,’”
sang Amy with pathetic sweetness. Zara suddenly moved, as if oppressed, from her position among us as we stood clustered together, and stepped out through the French window into the outside balcony, her head uncovered to the night.
“You will catch cold!” Mrs. Challoner and I both called to her simultaneously. She shook her head, smiling back at us; and folding her arms lightly on the stone balustrade, leaned there and looked up at the clouds.
“The link must break, and the lamp must die;
Good-bye to Hope! Good-bye — good-bye!”
Amy’s voice was a peculiarly thrilling one, and on this occasion sounded with more than its usual tenderness. What with her singing and the invisible presence of the storm, an utter silence possessed us — not one of us cared to move.
Heliobas once stepped to his sister’s side in the open balcony, and said something, as I thought, to warn her against taking cold; but it was a very brief whisper, and he almost immediately returned to his place amongst us. Zara looked very lovely out there; the light coming from the interior of the room glistened softly on the sheen of her satin dress and its ornaments of pearls; and the electric stone on her bosom shone faintly, like a star on a rainy evening. Her beautiful face, turned upwards to the angry sky, was half in light and half in shade; a smile parted her lips, and her eyes were bright with a look of interest and expectancy. Another sudden glare, and the clouds were again broken asunder; but this time in a jagged and hasty manner, as though a naked sword had been thrust through them and immediately withdrawn.
“That was a nasty flash,” said Colonel Everard, with an observant glance at the lovely Juliet-like figure on the balcony. “Mademoiselle, had you not better come in?”
“When it begins to rain I will come in,” she said, without changing her posture. “I hear the singing so well out here. Besides, I love the storm.”
A tumultuous crash of thunder, tremendous for its uproar and the length of time it was prolonged, made us look at each other again with anxious faces.
“What are we waiting for? Oh, my heart!
Kiss me straight on the brows and part!
Again! again, my heart, my heart!
What are we waiting for, you and I?
A pleading look — a stifled cry!
Good-bye for ever —-”
Horror! what was that? A lithe swift serpent of fire twisting venomously through the dark heavens! Zara raised her arms, looked up, smiled, and fell — senseless! With such appalling suddenness that we had scarcely recovered from the blinding terror of that forked lightning-flash, when we saw her lying prone before us on the balcony where one instant before she had stood erect and smiling! With exclamations of alarm and distress we lifted and bore her within the room and laid her tenderly down upon the nearest sofa. At that moment a deafening, terrific thunder-clap — one only — as if a huge bombshell had burst in the air, shook the ground under our feet; and then with a swish and swirl of long pent-up and suddenly-released wrath, down came the rain.
Amy’s voice died away in a last “Good-bye!” and she rushed from the piano, with pale face and trembling lips, gasping out:
“What has happened? What is the matter?”
“She has been stunned by a lightning-flash,” I said, trying to speak calmly, while I loosened Zara’s dress and sprinkled her forehead with eau-de-Cologne from a scent-bottle Mrs. Challoner had handed to me. “She will recover in a few minutes.”
But my limbs trembled under me, and tears, in spite of myself, forced their way into my eyes.
Heliobas meanwhile — his countenance white and set as a marble mask — shut the window fiercely, pulled down the blind, and drew the heavy silken curtains close. He then approached his sister’s senseless form, and, taking her wrist tenderly, felt for her pulse. We looked on in the deepest anxiety. The Challoner girls shivered with terror, and began to cry. Mrs. Everard, with more self-possession, dipped a handkerchief in cold water and laid it on Zara’s temples; but no faint sigh parted the set yet smiling lips — no sign of life was visible. All this while the rain swept down in gusty torrents and rattled furiously against the window-panes; while the wind, no longer a moan, had risen into a shriek, as of baffled yet vindictive anger. At last Heliobas spoke.
“I should be glad of other medical skill than my own,” he said, in low and stifled accents. “This may be a long fainting-fit.”
Mr. Challoner at once proffered his services.
“I’ll go for you anywhere you like,” he said cheerily; “and I think my wife and daughters had better come with me. Our carriage is sure to be in waiting. It will be necessary for the lady to have perfect quiet when she recovers, and visitors are best away. You need not be alarmed, I am sure. By her colour it is evident she is only in a swoon. What doctor shall I send?”
Heliobas named one Dr. Morini, 10, Avenue de l’Alma.
“Right! He shall be here straight. Come, wife — come, girls! Mrs. Everard, we’ll send back our carriage for you and the Colonel. Good-night! We’ll call to-morrow and inquire after mademoiselle.”
Heliobas gratefully pressed his hand as he withdrew, and his wife and daughters, with whispered farewells, followed him. We who were left behind all remained near Zara, doing everything we could think of to restore animation to that senseless form.
Some of the servants, too, hearing what had happened, gathered in a little cluster at the drawing-room door, looking with pale and alarmed faces at the death-like figure of their beautiful mistress. Half an hour or more must have passed in this manner; within the room there was a dreadful silence — but outside the rain poured down in torrents, and the savage wind howled and tore at the windows like a besieging army. Suddenly Amy Everard, who had been quietly and skilfully assisting me in rubbing Zara’s hands and bathing her forehead, grew faint, staggered, and would have fallen had not her husband caught her on his arm.
“I am frightened,” she gasped. “I cannot bear it — she looks so still, and she is growing — rigid, like a corpse! Oh, if she should be dead!” And she hid her face on her husband’s breast.
At that moment we heard the grating of wheels on the gravel outside; it was the Challoners’ carriage returned. The coachman, after depositing his master and family at the Grand Hotel, had driven rapidly back in the teeth of the stinging sleet and rain to bring the message that Dr. Morini would be with us as soon as possible.
“Then,” whispered Colonel Everard gently to me, “I’ll take Amy home. She is thoroughly upset, and it’s no use having her going off into hysterics. I’ll call with Challoner to-morrow;” and with a kindly parting nod of encouragement to us all, he slipped softly out of the room, half leading, half carrying his trembling wife; and in a couple of minutes we heard the carriage again drive away.
Left alone at last with Heliobas and Father Paul, I, kneeling at the side of my darling Zara, looked into their faces for comfort, but found none. The dry-eyed despair on the countenance of Heliobas pierced me to the heart; the pitying, solemn expression of the venerable priest touched me as with icy cold. The lovely, marble-like whiteness and stillness of the figure before me filled me with a vague terror. Making a strong effort to control my voice, I called, in a low, clear tone:
No sign — not the faintest flicker of an eyelash! Only the sound of the falling rain and the moaning wind — the thunder had long ago ceased. Suddenly a something attracted my gaze, which first surprised and then horrified me. The jewel — the electric stone on Zara’s bosom no longer shone! It was like a piece of dull unpolished pebble. Grasping at the meaning of this, with overwhelming instinctive rapidity, I sprang up and caught the arm of Heliobas.
“You — you!” I whispered hurriedly. “YOU can restore her! Do as you did with Prince Ivan; you can — you must! That stone she wears — the light has gone out of it. If that means — and I am sure it does — that life has for a little while gone out of HER, YOU can bring it back. Quick — Quick! You have the power!”
He looked at me with burning grief-haunted eyes; and a sigh that was almost a groan escaped his lips.
“I have NO power,” he said. “Not over her. I told you she was dominated by a higher force than mine. What can I do? Nothing — worse than nothing — I am utterly helpless.”
I stared at him in a kind of desperate horror.
“Do you mean to tell me,” I said slowly, “that she is dead — really dead?”
He was about to answer, when one of the watching servants announced in a low tone: “Dr. Morini.”
The new-comer was a wiry, keen-eyed little Italian; his movements were quick, decisive, and all to the point of action. The first thing he did was to scatter the little group of servants right and left, and send them about their business. The next, to close the doors of the room against all intrusion. He then came straight up to Heliobas, and pressing his hand in a friendly manner, said briefly:
“How and when did this happen?”
Heliobas told him in as few words as possible. Dr. Morini then bent over Zara’s lifeless form, and examined her features attentively. He laid his car against her heart and listened. Finally, he caught sight of the round, lustreless pebble hanging at her neck suspended by its strings of pearls. Very gently he moved this aside; looked, and beckoned us to come and look also. Exactly on the spot where the electric stone had rested, a small circular mark, like a black bruise, tainted the fair soft skin — a mark no larger than a small finger-ring.
“Death by electricity,” said Dr. Morini quietly. “Must have been instantaneous. The lightning-flash, or downward electric current, lodged itself here, where this mark is, and passed directly through the heart. Perfectly painless, but of course fatal. She has been dead some time.”
And, replacing the stone ornament in its former position, he stepped back with a suggestive glance at Father Paul. I listened and saw — but I was in a state of stupefaction. Dead? My beautiful, gay, strong Zara DEAD? Impossible! I knelt beside her; I called her again and again by every endearing and tender name I could think of; I kissed her sweet lips. Oh, they were cold as ice, and chilled my blood! As one in a dream, I saw Heliobas advance; he kissed her forehead and mouth; he reverently unclasped the pearls from about her throat, and with them took off the electric stone. Then Father Paul stepped slowly forward, and in place of that once brilliant gem, now so dim and destitute of fire, he laid a crucifix upon the fair and gentle breast, motionless for ever.
At sight of this sacred symbol, some tense cord seemed to snap in my brain, and I cried out wildly:
“Oh, no, no! Not that! That is for the dead; Zara is not dead! It is all a mistake — a mistake! She will be quite well presently; and she will smile and tell you how foolish you were to think her dead! Dead? She cannot be dead; it is impossible — quite impossible!” And I broke into a passion of sobs and tears.
Very gently and kindly Dr. Morini drew me away, and by dint of friendly persuasion, in which there was also a good deal of firm determination, led me into the hall, where he made me swallow a glass of wine. As I could not control my sobs, he spoke with some sternness:
“Mademoiselle, you can do no good by giving way in this manner. Death is a very beautiful and solemn thing, and it is irreverent to show unseemly passion in such a great Presence. You loved your friend — let it be a comfort to you that she died painlessly. Control yourself, in order to assist in rendering her the last few gentle services necessary; and try to console the desolate brother, who looks in real need of encouragement.”
These last words roused me. I forced back my tears, and dried my eyes.
“I will, Dr. Morini,” I said, in a trembling voice. “I am ashamed to be so weak. I know what I ought to do, and I will do it. You may trust me.”
He looked at me approvingly.
“That is well,” he said briefly. “And now, as I am of no use here, I will say good-night. Remember, excessive grief is mere selfishness; resignation is heroism.”
He was gone. I nerved myself to the task I had before me, and within an hour the fair casket of what had been Zara lay on an open bier in the little chapel, lights burning round it, and flowers strewn above it in mournful profusion.
We left her body arrayed in its white satin garb; the cluster of orange-blossoms she had gathered still bloomed upon the cold breast, where the crucifix lay; but in the tresses of the long dark hair I wove a wreath of lilies instead of the pearls we had undone.
And now I knelt beside the bier absorbed in thought. Some of the weeping servants had assembled, and knelt about in little groups. The tall candles on the altar were lit, and Father Paul, clad in mourning priestly vestments, prayed there in silence. The storm of rain and wind still raged without, and the windows of the chapel shook and rattled with the violence of the tempest.
A distant clock struck ONE! with a deep clang that echoed throughout the house. I shuddered. So short a time had elapsed since Zara had been alive and well; now, I could not bear to think that she was gone from me for ever. For ever, did I say? No, not for ever — not so long as love exists — love that shall bring us together again in that far-off Sphere where —-
Hush! what was that? The sound of the organ? I looked around me in startled wonderment. There was no one seated at the instrument; it was shut close. The lights on the altar and round the bier burnt steadily; the motionless figure of the priest before the tabernacle; the praying servants of the household — all was unchanged. But certainly a flood of music rolled grandly on the ear — music that drowned for a moment the howling noise of the battering wind. I rose softly, and touched one of the kneeling domestics on the shoulder.
“Did you hear the organ?” I said.
The woman looked up at me with tearful, alarmed eyes.
I paused, listening. The music grew louder and louder, and surged round me in waves of melody. Evidently no one in the chapel heard it but myself. I looked about for Heliobas, but he had not entered. He was most probably in his study, whither he had retired to grieve in secret when we had borne Zara’s body to its present couch of dreamless sleep.
These sounds were meant for me alone, then? I waited, and the music gradually died away; and as I resumed my kneeling position by the bier all was again silence, save for the unabated raging of the storm.
A strange calmness now fell on my spirits. Some invisible hand seemed to hold me still and tearless. Zara was dead. I realized it now. I began to consider that she must have known her fate beforehand. This was what she had meant when she said she was going on a journey. The more I thought of this the quieter I became, and I hid my face in my hands and prayed earnestly.
A touch roused me — an imperative, burning touch. An airy brightness, like a light cloud with sunshine falling through it, hovered above Zara’s bier! I gazed breathlessly; I could not move my lips to utter a sound. A face looked at me — a face angelically beautiful! It smiled. I stretched out my hands; I struggled for speech, and managed to whisper:
“Zara, Zara! you have come back!”
Her voice, so sweetly familiar, answered me: “To life? Ah, never, never again! I am too happy to return. But save him — save my brother! Go to him; he is in danger; to you is given the rescue. Save him; and for me rejoice, and grieve no more!”
The face vanished, the brightness faded, and I sprang up from my knees in haste. For one instant I looked at the beautiful dead body of the friend I loved, with its set mouth and placid features, and then I smiled. This was not Zara — SHE was alive and happy; this fair clay was but clay doomed to perish, but SHE was imperishable.
“Save him — save my brother!” These words rang in my ears. I hesitated no longer — I determined to seek Heliobas at once. Swiftly and noiselessly I slipped out of the chapel. As the door swung behind me I heard a sound that first made me stop in sudden alarm, and then hurry on with increased eagerness. There was no mistaking it — it was the clash of steel!
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07