Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 14
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And, unheeding the amazed and incredulous looks of his listeners, the little Doctor folded both his short arms across his chest, and hugged himself in the exquisite delight of his own strange theories." The fact is," he continued," you cannot get rid of ghosts! They are all about us--everywhere! Sometimes they take forms, sometimes they are content to remain invisible. But they never fail to make their presence felt.
Often during the performance of some great piece of music they drift between the air and the melody, making the sounds wilder and more haunting, and freezing the blood of the listener with a vague agony and chill. Sometimes they come between us and our friends, mysteriously forbidding any further exchange of civilities or sympathies, and occasionally they meet us alone and walk and talk with us invisibly.
Generally they mean well, but sometimes they mean ill. And the only explanation I can offer you, Monsieur Gervase, as to the present picture problem is that a ghost must have come between you and your canvas!"
Gervase laughed loudly.
"My good friend, you are an adept in the art of pleading the impossible! You must excuse me; I am a sceptic; and I hope I am also in possession of my sober reason,--therefore, you can hardly wonder at my entirely refusing to accept such preposterous theories as those you appear to believe in."
Dr. Dean gave him a civil little bow.
"I do not ask you to accept them, my dear sir! I state my facts, and you can take them or leave them, just as you please. You yourself can offer no explanation of the singular way in which this picture has been produced; I offer one which is perfectly tenable with the discoveries of psychic science,--and you dismiss it as preposterous. That being the case, I should recommend you to cut up this canvas and try your hand again on the same subject."
"Of course, I shall try again," retorted Gervase. "But I do not think I shall destroy this first sketch. It is a curiosity in its way; and it has a peculiar fascination for me. Do you notice how thoroughly Egyptian the features are? They are the very contour of some of the faces on the recently-discovered frescoes."
"Oh, I noticed that at once," said the Doctor; "but that is not remarkable, seeing that you yourself are quite of an Egyptian type, though a Frenchman,--so much so, in fact, that many people in this hotel have commented on it."
Gervase said nothing, but slowly turned the canvas round with its face to the wall.
"You have seen enough of it, I suppose?" he inquired of Denzil Murray.
"More than enough!"
"It ought to disenchant you," he said in a lower tone.
"But it is a libel on her beauty,--it is not in the least like her,"
returned Murray coldly.
"Not in the very least? Are you sure? My dear Denzil, you know as well as I do that there IS a likeness, combined with a dreadful unlikeness; and it is that which troubles both of us. I a.s.sure you, my good boy, I am as sorry for you as I am for myself,--for I feel that this woman will be the death of one or both of us!"
Denzil made no reply, and presently they all strolled out in the garden and lit their cigars and cigarettes, with the exception of Dr. Dean who never smoked and never drank anything stronger than water.
"I am going to get up a party for the Nile," he said as he turned his sharp, ferret-like eyes upwards to the clear heavens; "and I shall take the Princess into my confidence. In fact, I have written to her about it to-day. I hear she has a magnificent electric dahabeah, and if she will let us charter it. ..."
"She won't," said Denzil hastily, "unless she goes with it herself."
"You seem to know a great deal about her," observed Dr. Dean indulgently, "and why should she not go herself? She is evidently well instructed in the ancient history of Egypt, and, as she reads the hieroglyphs, she will be a delightful guide and a most valuable a.s.sistant to me in my researches."
"What researches are you engaged upon now?" inquired Courtney.
"I am hunting down a man called Araxes," answered the Doctor. "He lived, so far as I can make out, some four or five thousand years ago, more or less; and I want to find out what he did and how he died, and when I know how he died, then I mean to discover where he is buried. If possible, I shall excavate him. I also want to find the remains of Ziska-Charmazel, the lady impersonated by our charming friend the Princess last night,--the dancer, who, it appears from a recently-discovered fresco, occupied most of her time in dancing before this same Araxes and making herself generally agreeable to him."
"What an odd fancy!" exclaimed Denzil. "How can a man and woman dead five thousand years ago be of any interest to you?"
"What interest has Rameses?" demanded the Doctor politely, "or any of the Ptolemies? Araxes, like Rameses, may lead to fresh discoveries in Egypt, for all we know. One name is as good as another,--and each odoriferous mummy has its own mystery."
They all came just then to a pause in their walk, Gervase stopping to light a fresh cigarette. The rays of the rising moon fell upon him as he stood, a tall and stately figure, against a background of palms, and shone on his dark features with a touch of grayish-green luminance that gave him for the moment an almost spectral appearance. Dr. Dean glanced at him with a smile.
"What a figure of an Egyptian, is he not!" he said to Courtney and Denzil Murray. "Look at him! What height and symmetry! What a world of ferocity in those black, slumbrous eyes! Yes, Monsieur Gervase, I am talking about you. I am admiring you!"
"Trop d'honneur!" murmured Gervase, carefully s.h.i.+elding with one hand the match with which he was kindling his cigarette.
"Yes," continued the Doctor, "I am admiring you. Being a little man myself, I naturally like tall men, and as an investigator of psychic forms I am immensely interested when I see a finely-made body in which the soul lies torpid. That is why you unconsciously compose for me a wonderful subject of study. I wonder now, how long this torpidity in the psychic germ has lasted in you? It commenced, of course, originally in protoplasm; but it must have continued through various low forms and met with enormous difficulties in attaining to individual consciousness as man,--because even now it is scarcely conscious."
"Why, that beginning of the soul in protoplasm is part of a creed which the Princess Ziska was trying to teach me to-day," he said lightly.
"It's all no use. I don't believe in the soul; if I did, I should be a miserable man."
"Why?" asked Murray.
"Why? Because, my dear fellow, I should be rather afraid of my future.
I should not like to live again; I might have to remember certain incidents which I would rather forget. There is your charming sister, Mademoiselle Helen! I must go and talk to her,--her conversation always does me good; and after that picture which I have been unfortunate enough to produce, her presence will be as soothing as the freshness of morning after an unpleasant nightmare."
He moved away; Denzil Murray with Courtney followed him. Dr. Dean remained behind, and presently sitting down in a retired corner of the garden alone, he took out a small pocket-book and stylographic pen and occupied himself for more than half an hour in busily writing till he had covered two or three pages with his small, neat caligraphy.
"It is the most interesting problem I ever had the chance of studying!"
he murmured half aloud when he had finished, "Of course, if my researches into the psychic spheres of action are worth anything, it can only be one case out of thousands. Thousands? Aye, perhaps millions! Great heavens! Among what terrific unseen forces we live! And in exact proportion to every man's arrogant denial of the 'Divinity that shapes our ends, so will be measured out to him the revelation of the invisible. Strange that the human race has never entirely realized as yet the depth of meaning in the words describing h.e.l.l: 'Where the worm dieth not, and where the flame is never quenched. The 'worm' is Retribution, the 'flame' is the immortal Spirit,--and the two are forever striving to escape from the other. Horrible! And yet there are men who believe in neither one thing nor the other, and reject the Redemption that does away with both! G.o.d forgive us all our sins,--and especially the sins of pride and presumption!"
And with a shade of profound melancholy on his features, the little Doctor put by his note-book, and, avoiding all the hotel loungers on the terrace and elsewhere, retired to his own room and went to bed.
The next day when Armand Gervase went to call on the Princess Ziska he was refused admittance. The Nubian attendant who kept watch and ward at her gates, hearing the door-bell ring, contented himself with thrusting his ugly head through an open upper window and shouting--
"Madame est sortie!"
"Ou donc?" called Gervase in answer.
"A la campagne--le desert--les pyramides!" returned the Nubian, at the same time banging the lattice to in order to prevent the possibility of any further conversation. And Gervase, standing in the street irresolutely for a moment, fancied he heard a peal of malicious laughter in the distance.
"Beast!" he muttered, "I must try him with a money bribe next time I get hold of him. I wonder what I shall do with myself now?--haunted and brain-ridden as I am by this woman and her picture?"
The hot sun glared in his eyes and made them ache,--the rough stones of the narrow street were scorching to his feet. He began to move slowly away with a curious faint sensation of giddiness and sickness upon him, when the sound of music floating from the direction of the Princess Ziska's palace brought him to a sudden standstill. It was a strange, wild melody, played on some instrument with seemingly m.u.f.fled strings.
A voice with a deep, throbbing thrill of sweetness in it began to sing:
Oh, for the pa.s.sionless peace of the Lotus-Lily!
It floats in a waking dream on the waters chilly, With its leaves unfurled To the wondering world, Knowing naught of the sorrow and restless pain That burns and tortures the human brain; Oh, for the pa.s.sionless peace of the Lotus-Lily!
Oh, for the pure cold heart of the Lotus-Lily!
Bared to the moon on the waters dark and chilly.
A star above Is its only love, And one brief sigh of its scented breath Is all it will ever know of Death; Oh, for the pure cold heart of the Lotus-Lily!
When the song ceased, Gervase raised his eyes from the ground on which he had fixed them in a kind of brooding stupor, and stared at the burning blue of the sky as vaguely and wildly as a sick man in the delirium of fever.
Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 14
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Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 14 summary
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