Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 11

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"Ah, possibly! But then it happens that I do not love you. I love no one. I have had too much of love; it is a folly I have grown weary of!"

Gervase fixed his eyes on her with an audacious look which seemed to hint that he might possibly take advantage of being alone with her to enforce his ideas of love more eloquently than was in accordance with the proprieties. She perceived his humor, smiled, and coldly gave him back glance for glance. Then, rising from the divan, she drew herself up to her full height and surveyed him with a kind of indulgent contempt.

"You are an uprincipled man, Armand Gervase," she said; "and do you know I fear you always will be! A cleansing of your soul through centuries of fire will be necessary for you in the next world,--that next world which you do not believe in. But it is perhaps as well to warn you that I am not without protection in this place ... See!" and as she spoke she clapped her hands.

A clanging noise as of brazen bells answered her,--and Gervase, springing up from his seat, saw, to his utter amazement, the apparently solid walls of the room in which they were, divide rapidly and form themselves in several square openings which showed a much larger and vaster apartment beyond, resembling a great hall. Here were a.s.sembled some twenty or thirty gorgeously-costumed Arab attendants,--men of a dark and sinister type, who appeared to be fully armed, judging from the unpleasant-looking daggers and other weapons they carried at their belts. The Princess clapped her hands again, and the walls closed in the same rapid fas.h.i.+on as they had opened, while the beautiful mistress of this strange habitation laughed mirthfully at the complete confusion of her visitor and would-be lover.

"Paint me now!" she said, flinging herself in a picturesque att.i.tude on one of the sofas close by; "I am ready."

"But _I_ am not ready!" retorted Gervase, angrily. "Do you take me for a child, or a fool?"

"Both in one," responded the Princess, tranquilly; "being a man!"

His breath came and went quickly.

"Take care, beautiful Ziska!" he said. "Take care how you defy me!"

"And take care, Monsieur Gervase; take care how you defy ME!" she responded, with a strange, quick glance at him. "Do you not realize what folly you are talking? You are making love to me in the fas.h.i.+on of a brigand, rather than a nineteenth-century Frenchman of good standing,--and I--I have to defend myself against you also brigand-wise, by showing you that I have armed servants within call! It is very strange,--it would frighten even Lady Fulkeward, and I think she is not easily frightened. Pray commence your work, and leave such an out-of-date matter as love to dreamers and pretty sentimentalists, like Miss Helen Murray."

He was silent, and busied himself in unstrapping his canvas and paint-box with a great deal of almost vicious energy. In a few moments he had gained sufficient composure to look full at her, and taking his palette in hand, he began dabbing on the colors, talking between whiles.

"Do you suppose," he said, keeping his voice carefully subdued, "that you can intimidate me by showing me a score of wretched black rascals whom you have placed on guard to defend you out there? And why did you place them on guard? You must have been afraid of me! Pardieu! I could s.n.a.t.c.h you out of their midst, if I chose! You do not know me; if you did, you would understand that not all the world, armed to the teeth should balk me of my desires! But I have been too hasty--that I own,--I can wait." He raised his eyes and saw that she was listening with an air of amused indifference. "I shall have to mix strange tints in your portrait, ma belle! It is difficult to find the exact hue of your skin--there is rose and brown in it; and there is yet another color which I must evolve while working,--and it is not the hue of health. It is something dark and suggestive of death; I hope you are not destined to an early grave! And yet, why not? It is better that a beautiful woman should die in her beauty than live to become old and tiresome ..."

"You think that?" interrupted the Ziska suddenly, smiling somewhat coldly.

"I do, most honestly. Had I lived in the early days of civilization, when men were allowed to have as many women as they could provide for, I would have mercifully killed any sweet favorite as soon as her beauty began to wane. A lovely woman, dead in her first exquisite youth,--how beautiful a subject for the mind to dwell upon! How it suggests all manner of poetic fancies and graceful threnodies! But a woman grown old, who has outlived all pa.s.sion and is a mere bundle of fat, or a mummy of skin and bone,--what poetry does her existence suggest? How can she appeal to art or sentiment? She is a misery to herself and an eyesore to others. Yes, Princess, believe me,--Love first, and Death afterwards, are woman's best friends."

"You believe in Death?" ask the Princess, looking steadily at him.

"It is the only thing I do believe in," he answered lightly. "It is a fact that will bear examination, but not contradiction. May I ask you to turn your head slightly to the left--so! Yes, that will do; if I can catch the look in your eyes that gleams there now,--the look of intense, burning, greedy cruelty which is so murderously fascinating, I shall be content."

He seated himself opposite to her, and, putting down his palette, took up his canvas, and posing it on his knee, began drawing the first rough outline of his sketch in charcoal. She, meanwhile, leaning against heaped-up cus.h.i.+ons of amber satin, remained silent.

"You are not a vain woman," he pursued, "or you would resent my description of your eyes. 'Greedy cruelty' is not a pretty expression, nor would it be considered complimentary by the majority of the fair s.e.x. Yet, from my point of view, it is the highest flattery I can pay you, for I adore the eyes of savage animals, and the beautiful eye of the forest-beast is in your head,--diableresse charmante comme vous etes! I wonder what gives you such an insatiate love of vengeance?"

He looked up and saw her eyes glistening and narrowing at the corners, like the eyes of an angry snake.

"If I have such a feeling," she replied slowly, "it is probably a question of heritage."

"Ah! Your parents were perhaps barbaric in their notions of love and hatred?" he queried, lazily working at his charcoal sketch with growing admiration for its result.

"My parents came of a race of kings!" she answered. "All my ancestors were proud, and of a temper unknown to this petty day. They resented a wrong, they punished falsehood and treachery, and they took a life for a life. YOUR generation tolerates every sin known in the calendar with a smile and a shrug,--you have arrived at the end of your civilization, even to the denial of Deity and a future life."

"That is not the end of our civilization, Princess," said Gervase, working away intently, with eyes fixed on the canvas as he talked.

"That is the triumphal apex, the glory, the culmination of everything that is great and supreme in manhood. In France, man now knows himself to be the only G.o.d; England--good, slow-pacing England--is approaching France in intelligence by degrees, and I rejoice to see that it is possible for a newspaper like the Agnostic to exist in London. Only the other day that excellent journal was discussing the possibility of teaching monkeys to read, and a witty writer, who adopts the nom de plume of 'Saladin,' very cleverly remarked 'that supposing monkeys were able to read the New Testament, they would still remain monkeys; in fact, they would probably be greater monkeys than ever.' The fact of such an expression being allowed to pa.s.s muster in once pious London is an excellent sign of the times and of our progress towards the pure Age of Reason. The name of Christ is no longer one to conjure with."

A dead silence followed his words, and the peculiar stillness and heaviness of the atmosphere struck him with a vague alarm. He lifted his eyes,--the Princess Ziska met his gaze steadily, but there was something in her aspect that moved him to wonderment and a curious touch of terror. The delicate rose-tint of her cheeks had faded to an ashy paleness, her lips were pressed together tightly and her eyes seemed to have gained a vivid and angry l.u.s.tre which Medusa herself might have envied.

"Did you ever try to conjure with that name?" she asked.

"Never," he replied, forcing a smile and remonstrating with himself for the inexplicable nature of his emotions.

She went on slowly:

"In my creed--for I have a creed--it is believed that those who have never taken the sacred name of Christ to their hearts, as a talisman of comfort and support, are left as it were in the vortex of uncertainties, tossed to and fro among many whirling and mighty forces, and haunted forever by the phantoms of their own evil deeds. Till they learn and accept the truth of their marvellous Redemption, they are the prey of wicked spirits who tempt and lead them on to divers miseries.

But when the great Name of Him who died upon the Cross is acknowledged, then it is found to be of that transfiguring nature which turns evil to good, and sometimes makes angels out of fiends. Nevertheless, for the hardened reprobate and unbeliever the old laws suffice."

Gervase had stopped the quick movement of his "fusin," and looked at her curiously.

"What old laws?" he asked.

"Stern justice without mercy!" she answered; then in lighter accents she added: "Have you finished your first outline?"

In reply, he turned his canvas round to her, showing her a head and profile boldly presented in black and white. She smiled.

"It is clever; but it is not like me," she said. "When you begin the coloring you will find that your picture and I have no resemblance to each other."

He flushed with a sense of wounded amour propre.

"Pardon, madame!--I am no novice at the art of painting," he said; "and much as your charms dazzle and ensnare me, they do not disqualify my brain and hand from perfectly delineating them upon my canvas. I love you to distraction; but my pa.s.sion shall not hinder me from making your picture a masterpiece."

She laughed.

"What an egoist you are, Monsieur Gervase!" she said. "Even in your professed pa.s.sion for me you count yourself first,--me afterwards!"

"Naturally!" he replied. "A man must always be first by natural creation. When he allows himself to play second fiddle, he is a fool!"

"And when he is a fool--and he often is--he is the first of fools!"

said the Princess. "No ape--no baboon hanging by its tail to a tree--looks such a fool as a man-fool. For a man-fool has had all the opportunities of education and learning bestowed upon him; this great universe, with its daily lessons of the natural and the supernatural, is his book laid open for his reading, and when he will neither read it nor consider it, and, moreover, when he utterly denies the very Maker of it, then there is no fool in all creation like him. For the ape-fool does at least admit that there may be a stronger beast somewhere,--a creature who may suddenly come upon him and end his joys of hanging by his tail to a tree and make havoc of his fruit-eating and chattering, while man thinks there is nothing anywhere superior to himself."

Gervase smiled tolerantly.

"I am afraid I have ruffled you, Princess," he said. "I see you have religious ideas: I have none."

Once again she laughed musically.

"Religious ideas! I! Not at all. I have a creed as I told you, but it is an ugly one--not at all sentimental or agreeable. It is one I have adopted from ancient Egypt."

"Explain it to me," said Gervase; "I will adopt it also, for your sake."

"It is too supernatural for you," she said, paying no heed to the amorous tone of his voice or the expressive tenderness of his eyes.

"Never mind! Love will make me accept an army of ghosts, if necessary."

"One of the chief tenets of my faith," she continued, "is the eternal immortality of each individual Soul. Will you accept that?"

"For the moment, certainly!"

Her eyes glowed like great jewels as she proceeded:

Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 11

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Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 11 summary

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