Our little French friend, Madame Didier, was not a woman to do things by halves. She was one of those rare exceptions among Parisian ladies — she was a perfectly happy wife; nay, more, she was in love with her own husband, a fact which, considering the present state of society both in France and England, rendered her almost contemptible in the eyes of all advanced thinkers. She was plump and jolly in appearance; round-eyed and brisk as a lively robin. Her husband, a large, mild-faced placid man —“mon petit mari,” as she called him — permitted her to have her own way in everything, and considered all she did as perfectly well done. Therefore, when she had proposed this informal dance at the Hotel de L—— he made no objection, but entered into her plans with spirit; and, what was far more important, opened his purse readily to her demands for the necessary expenses. So nothing was stinted; the beautiful ballroom attached to the hotel was thrown open, and lavishly decorated with flowers, fountains, and twinkling lights; an awning extended from its windows right down the avenue of dark ilex-trees, which were ornamented with Chinese lanterns; an elegant supper was laid out in the large dining-room, and the whole establishment was en fete. The delicious strains of a Viennese band floated to our ears as Colonel Everard, his wife, and myself descended the staircase on our way to the scene of revelry; and suggestions of fairyland were presented to us in the graceful girlish forms, clad in light, diaphanous attire, that flitted here and there, or occasionally passed us. Colonel Everard marched proudly along with the military bearing that always distinguished him, now and then glancing admiringly at his wife, who, indeed, looked her very best. Her dress was of the finest Brussels lace, looped over a skirt of the palest shell-pink satin; deep crimson velvet roses clustered on her breast, and nestled in her rich hair; a necklace of magnificent rubies clasped her neck, and the same jewels glittered on her round white arms. Her eyes shone with pleasurable excitement, and the prettiest colour imaginable tinted her delicate cheeks.
“When an American woman is lovely, she is very lovely,” I said. “You will be the belle of the room to-night, Amy!”
“Nonsense!” she replied, well pleased, though, at my remark. “You must remember I have a rival in yourself.”
I shrugged my shoulders incredulously.
“It is not like you to be sarcastic,” I said. “You know very well I have the air of a resuscitated corpse.”
The Colonel wheeled round suddenly, and brought us all up to a standstill before a great mirror.
“If YOU are like a resuscitated corpse, I’ll throw a hundred dollars into the next mud-pond,” he observed. “Look at yourself.”
I looked, at first indifferently, and then with searching scrutiny. I saw a small, slender girl, clad in white, with a mass of gold hair twisted loosely up from her neck, and fastened with a single star of diamonds. A superb garniture of natural lilies of the valley was fastened on this girl’s shoulder; and, falling loosely across her breast, lost itself in the trailing folds of her gown. She held a palm-leaf fan entirely covered with lilies of the valley, and a girdle of the same flowers encircled her waist. Her face was serious, but contented; her eyes were bright, but with an intense and thoughtful lustre; and her cheeks were softly coloured, as though a west wind had blown freshly against them. There was nothing either attractive or repulsive about her that I could see; and yet — I turned away from the mirror hastily with a faint smile.
“The lilies form the best part of my toilette,” I said.
“That they do,” asserted Amy, with emphasis. “They are the finest specimens I ever saw. It was real elegant of Mr. Cellini to send them all fixed up ready like that, fan and all. You must be a favourite of his!”
“Come, let us proceed,” I answered, with some abruptness. “We are losing time.”
In a few seconds more we entered the ballroom, and were met at once by Madame Didier, who, resplendent in black lace and diamonds, gave us hearty greeting. She stared at me with unaffected amazement.
“Mon dieu!” she exclaimed — her conversation with us was always a mixture of French and broken English —“I should not ‘ave know zis young lady again! She ‘ave si bonne mine. You veel dance, sans doute?”
We readily assented, and the usual assortment of dancing-men of all ages and sizes was brought forward for our inspection; while the Colonel, being introduced to a beaming English girl of some seventeen summers, whirled her at once into the merry maze of dancers, who were spinning easily round to the lively melody of one of Strauss’s most fascinating waltzes. Presently I also found myself circling the room with an amiable young German, who ambled round with a certain amount of cleverness, considering that he was evidently ignorant of the actual waltz step; and I caught a glimpse now and then of Amy’s rubies as they flashed past me in the dance — she was footing it merrily with a handsome Austrian Hussar. The room was pleasantly full — not too crowded for the movements of the dancers; and the whole scene was exceedingly pretty and animated. I had no lack of partners, and I was surprised to find myself so keenly alive to enjoyment, and so completely free from my usual preoccupied condition of nervous misery I looked everywhere for Raffaello Cellini, but he was not to be seen. The lilies that I wore, which he had sent me, seemed quite unaffected by the heat and glare of the gaslight — not a leaf drooped, not a petal withered; and their remarkable whiteness and fragrance elicited many admiring remarks from those with whom I conversed. It was growing very late; there were only two more waltzes before the final cotillon. I was standing near the large open window of the ballroom, conversing with one of my recent partners, when a sudden inexplicable thrill shot through me from head to foot. Instinctively I turned, and saw Cellini approaching. He looked remarkably handsome, though his face was pale and somewhat wearied in expression. He was laughing and conversing gaily with two ladies, one of whom was Mrs. Everard; and as he came towards me he bowed courteously, saying:
“I am too much honoured by the kindness mademoiselle has shown in not discarding my poor flowers.”
“They are lovely,” I replied simply; “and I am very much obliged to you, signor, for sending them to me.”
“And how fresh they keep!” said Amy, burying her little nose in the fragrance of my fan; “yet they have been in the heat of the room all the evening.”
“They cannot perish while mademoiselle wears them,” said Cellini gallantly. “Her breath is their life.”
“Bravo!” cried Amy, clapping her hands. “That is very prettily said, isn’t it?”
I was silent. I never could endure compliments. They are seldom sincere, and it gives me no pleasure to be told lies, however prettily they may be worded. Signor Cellini appeared to divine my thoughts, for he said in a lower tone:
“Pardon me, mademoiselle; I see my observation displeased you; but there is more truth in it than you perhaps know.”
“Oh, say!” interrupted Mrs. Everard at this juncture; “I am SO interested, signor, to hear you are engaged! I suppose she is a dream of beauty?”
The hot colour rushed to my cheeks, and I bit my lips in confusion and inquietude. What WOULD he answer? My anxiety was not of long duration. Cellini smiled, and seemed in no way surprised. He said quietly:
“Who told you, madame, that I am engaged?”
“Why, she did, of course!” went on my friend, nodding towards me, regardless of an imploring look I cast at her. “And said you were perfectly devoted!”
“She is quite right,” replied Cellini, with another of those rare sweet smiles of his; “and you also are right, madame, in your supposition: my betrothed is a Dream of Beauty.”
I was infinitely relieved. I had not, then, been guilty of a falsehood. But the mystery remained: how had I discovered the truth of the matter at all? While I puzzled my mind over this question, the other lady who had accompanied Mrs. Everard spoke. She was an Austrian of brilliant position and attainments.
“You quite interest me, signor!” she said. “Is your fair fiancee here to-night?”
“No, madame,” replied Cellini; “she is not in this country.”
“What a pity!” exclaimed Amy. “I want to see her real bad. Don’t you?” she asked, turning to me.
I raised my eyes and met the dark clear ones of the artist fixed full upon me.
“Yes,” I said hesitatingly; “I should like to meet her. Perhaps the chance will occur at some future time.”
“There is not the slightest doubt about that,” said Cellini. “And now, mademoiselle, will you give me the pleasure of this waltz with you? or are you promised to another partner?”
I was not engaged, and I at once accepted his proffered arm. Two gentlemen came hurriedly up to claim Amy and her Austrian friend; and for one brief moment Signor Cellini and I stood alone in a comparatively quiet corner of the ballroom, waiting for the music to begin. I opened my lips to ask him a question, when he stopped me by a slight gesture of his hand.
“Patience!” he said in a low and earnest tone. “In a few moments you shall have the opportunity you seek.”
The band burst forth just then in the voluptuous strains of a waltz by Gung’l, and together we floated away to its exquisite gliding measure. I use the word FLOATED, advisedly, for no other term could express the delightful sensation I enjoyed. Cellini was a superb dancer. It seemed to me that our feet scarcely touched the floor, so swiftly, so easily and lightly we sped along. A few rapid turns, and I noticed we were nearing the open French windows, and, before I well realized it, we had stopped dancing and were pacing quietly side by side down the ilex avenue, where the little lanterns twinkled like red fireflies and green glow-worms among the dark and leafy branches.
We walked along in silence till we reached the end of the path. There, before us, lay the open garden, with its broad green lawn, bathed in the lovely light of the full moon, sailing aloft in a cloudless sky. The night was very warm, but, regardless of this fact, Cellini wrapped carefully round me a large fleecy white burnous that he had taken from a chair where it was lying, on his way through the avenue.
“I am not cold,” I said, smiling.
“No; but you will be, perhaps. It is not wise to run any useless risks.”
I was again silent. A low breeze rustled in the tree-tops near us; the music of the ballroom reached us only in faint and far echoes; the scent of roses and myrtle was wafted delicately on the balmy air; the radiance of the moon softened the outlines of the landscape into a dreamy suggestiveness of its reality. Suddenly a sound broke on our ears — a delicious, long, plaintive trill; then a wonderful shower of sparkling roulades; and finally, a clear, imploring, passionate note repeated many times. It was a nightingale, singing as only the nightingales of the South can sing. I listened entranced.
“‘Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown,’”
quoted Cellini in earnest tones.
“You admire Keats?” I asked eagerly.
“More than any other poet that has lived,” he replied. “His was the most ethereal and delicate muse that ever consented to be tied down to earth. But, mademoiselle, you do not wish to examine me as to my taste in poetry. You have some other questions to put to me, have you not?”
For one instant I hesitated. Then I spoke out frankly, and answered:
“Yes, signor. What was there in that wine you gave me this morning?”
He met my searching gaze unflinchingly.
“A medicine,” he said. “An excellent and perfectly simple remedy made of the juice of plants, and absolutely harmless.”
“But why,” I demanded, “why did you give me this medicine? Was it not wrong to take so much responsibility upon yourself?”
“I think not. If you are injured or offended, then I was wrong; but if, on the contrary, your health and spirits are ever so little improved, as I see they are, I deserve your thanks, mademoiselle.”
And he waited with an air of satisfaction and expectancy. I was puzzled and half-angry, yet I could not help acknowledging to myself that I felt better and more cheerful than I had done for many months. I looked up at the artist’s dark, intelligent face, and said almost humbly:
“I DO thank you, signor. But surely you will tell me your reasons for constituting yourself my physician without even asking my leave.”
He laughed, and his eyes looked very friendly.
“Mademoiselle, I am one of those strangely constituted beings who cannot bear to see any innocent thing suffer. It matters not whether it be a worm in the dust, a butterfly in the air, a bird, a flower, or a human creature. The first time I saw you I knew that your state of health precluded you from the enjoyment of life natural to your sex and age. I also perceived that the physicians had been at work upon you trying to probe into the causes of your ailment, and that they had signally failed. Physicians, mademoiselle, are very clever and estimable men, and there are a few things which come within the limit of their treatment; but there are also other things which baffle their utmost profundity of knowledge. One of these is that wondrous piece of human machinery, the nervous system; that intricate and delicate network of fine threads — electric wires on which run the messages of thought, impulse, affection, emotion. If these threads or wires become, from any subtle cause, entangled, the skill of the mere medical practitioner is of no avail to undo the injurious knot, or to unravel the confused skein. The drugs generally used in such cases are, for the most part, repellent to the human blood and natural instinct, therefore they are always dangerous, and often deadly. I knew, by studying your face, mademoiselle, that you were suffering as acutely as I, too, suffered some five years ago, and I ventured to try upon you a simple vegetable essence, merely to see if you were capable of benefiting by it. The experiment has been so far successful; but ——”
He paused, and his face became graver and more abstracted.
“But what?” I queried eagerly.
“I was about to say,” he continued, “that the effect is only transitory. Within forty-eight hours you must naturally relapse into your former prostrate condition, and I, unfortunately, am powerless to prevent it.”
I sighed wearily, and a feeling of disappointment oppressed me. Was it possible that I must again be the victim of miserable dejection, pain, and stupor?
“You can give me another dose of your remedy,” I said.
“That I cannot, mademoiselle,” he answered regretfully; “I dare not, without further advice and guidance.”
“Advice and guidance from whom?” I inquired.
“From the friend who cured me of my long and almost hopeless illness,” said Cellini. “He alone can tell me whether I am right in my theories respecting your nature and constitution.”
“And what are those theories?” I asked, becoming deeply interested in the conversation.
Cellini was silent for a minute or so; he seemed absorbed in a sort of inward communion with himself. Then he spoke with impressiveness and gravity:
“In this world, mademoiselle, there are no two natures alike, yet all are born with a small portion of Divinity within them, which we call the Soul. It is a mere spark smouldering in the centre of the weight of clay with which we are encumbered, yet it is there. Now this particular germ or seed can be cultivated if we will — that is, if we desire and insist on its growth. As a child’s taste for art or learning can be educated into high capabilities for the future, so can the human Soul be educated into so high, so supreme an attainment, that no merely mortal standard of measurement can reach its magnificence. With much more than half the inhabitants of the globe, this germ of immortality remains always a germ, never sprouting, overlaid and weighted down by the lymphatic laziness and materialistic propensities of its shell or husk — the body. But I must put aside the forlorn prospect of the multitudes in whom the Divine Essence attains to no larger quantity than that proportioned out to a dog or bird — I have only to speak of the rare few with whom the soul is everything — those who, perceiving and admitting its existence within them, devote all their powers to fanning up their spark of light till it becomes a radiant, burning, inextinguishable flame. The mistake made by these examples of beatified Humanity is that they too often sacrifice the body to the demands of the spirit. It is difficult to find the medium path, but it can be found; and the claims of both body and soul can be satisfied without sacrificing the one to the other. I beg your earnest attention, mademoiselle, for what I say concerning THE RARE FEW WITH WHOM THE SOUL IS EVERYTHING. YOU are one of those few, unless I am greatly in error. And you have sacrificed your body so utterly to your spirit that the flesh rebels and suffers. This will not do. You have work before you in the world, and you cannot perform it unless you have bodily health as well as spiritual desire. And why? Because you are a prisoner here on earth, and you must obey the laws of the prison, however unpleasant they may be to you. Were you free as you have been in ages past and as you will be in ages to come, things would be different; but at present you must comply with the orders of your gaolers — the Lords of Life and Death.”
I heard him, half awed, half fascinated. His words were full of mysterious suggestions.
“How do you know I am of the temperament you describe?” I asked in a low voice.
“I do not know, mademoiselle; I can only guess. There is but one person who can perhaps judge of you correctly — a man older than myself by many years — whose life is the very acme of spiritual perfection — whose learning is vast and unprejudiced. I must see and speak to him before I try any more of my, or rather his, remedies. But we have lingered long enough out here, and unless you have something more to say to me, we will return to the ballroom. You will otherwise miss the cotillon;” and he turned to retrace the way through the illuminated grove.
But a sudden thought had struck me, and I resolved to utter it aloud. Laying my hand on his arm and looking him full in the face, I said slowly and distinctly:
“This friend of yours that you speak of — is not his name HELIOBAS?”
Cellini started violently; the blood rushed up to his brows and as quickly receded, leaving him paler than before. His dark eyes glowed with suppressed excitement — his hand trembled. Recovering himself slowly, he met my gaze fixedly; his glance softened, and he bent his head with an air of respect and reverence.
“Mademoiselle, I see that you must know all. It is your fate. You are greatly to be envied. Come to me to-morrow, and I will tell you everything that is to be told. Afterwards your destiny rests in your own hands. Ask nothing more of me just now.”
He escorted me without further words back to the ballroom, where the merriment of the cotillon was then at its height. Whispering to Mrs. Everard as I passed her that I was tired and was going to bed, I reached the outside passage, and there, turning to Cellini, I said gently:
“Good-night, signor. To-morrow at noon I will come.”
“Good-night, mademoiselle! To-morrow at noon you will find me ready.”
With that he saluted me courteously and turned away. I hurried up to my own room, and on arriving there I could not help observing the remarkable freshness of the lilies I wore. They looked as if they had just been gathered. I unfastened them all from my dress, and placed them carefully in water; then quickly disrobing, I was soon in bed. I meditated for a few minutes on the various odd occurrences of the day; but my thoughts soon grew misty and confused, and I travelled quickly off into the Land of Nod, and thence into the region of sleep, where I remained undisturbed by so much as the shadow of a dream.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07