Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 18

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Shouts echoed from every part of the hall:

"Ziska! Ziska!"

And at the name Lady Chetwynd Lyle rose in all her majesty from the seat she had occupied till then, and in tones of virtuous indignation said to Lady Fulkeward:

"I told you the Princess was not a proper person! Now it is proved I am right! To think I should have brought Dolly and Muriel here! I shall really never forgive myself! Come, Sir Chetwynd,--let us leave this place instantly!"

And stout Sir Chetwynd, gloating on the exquisite beauty of the Princess Ziska's form as she still danced on in her snowy white attire, her lovely face alight with mirth at the surprise she had made for her guests, tried his best to look sanctimonious and signally failed in the attempt as he answered:

"Certainly! Certainly, my dear! Most improper ... most astonis.h.i.+ng!"

While Lady Fulkeward answered innocently:

"Is it? Do you really think so? Oh, dear! I suppose it is improper,--it must be, you know; but it is most delightful and original!"

And while the Chetwynd Lyles thus moved to depart in a cloud of outraged propriety, followed by others who likewise thought it well to pretend to be shocked at the proceeding, Gervase, dizzy, breathless, and torn by such conflicting pa.s.sions as he could never express, was in a condition more mad than sane.

"My G.o.d!" he muttered under his breath. "This--this is love! This is the beginning and end of life! To possess her,--to hold her in my arms--heart to heart, lips to lips ... this is what all the eternal forces of Nature meant when they made me man!"

And he watched with strained, pa.s.sionate eyes the movements of the Princess Ziska as they grew slower and slower, till she seemed floating merely like a foam-bell on a wave, and then ... from some unseen quarter of the room a rich throbbing voice 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!"

As the sound died away in a sigh rather than a note, the Princess Ziska's dancing ceased altogether. A shout of applause broke from all a.s.sembled, and in the midst of it there was a sudden commotion and excitement, and Dr. Dean was seen bending over a man's prostrate figure. The great French painter, Armand Gervase, had suddenly fainted.

CHAPTER XII.

A curious yet very general feeling of superst.i.tious uneasiness and discomfort pervaded the Gezireh Palace Hotel the day after the Princess Ziska's reception. Something had happened, and no one knew what. The proprieties had been outraged, but no one knew why. It was certainly not the custom for a hostess, and a Princess to boot, to dance like a wild bacchante before a crowd of her invited guests, yet, as Dr. Dean blandly observed,--

"Where was the harm? In London, ladies of good birth and breeding went in for 'skirt-dancing,' and no one presumed to breathe a word against their reputations; why in Cairo should not a lady go in for a Theban dance without being considered improper?"

Why, indeed? There seemed no adequate reason for being either surprised or offended; yet surprised and offended most people were, and scandal ran rife, and rumor wagged all its poisonous tongues to spread evil reports against the Princess Ziska's name and fame, till Denzil Murray, maddened and furious, rushed up to his sister in her room and swore that he would marry the Princess if he died for it.

"They are blackguarding her downstairs, the beasts!" he said hotly.

"They are calling her by every bad name under the sun! But I will make everything straight for her; she shall be my wife! If she will have me, I will marry her to-morrow!"

Helen looked at him in speechless despair.

"Oh, Denzil!" she faltered, and then could say no more, for the tears that blinded her eyes.

"Oh, yes, of course, I know what you mean!" he continued, marching up and down the room excitedly. "You are like all the others; you think her an adventuress. I think her the purest, the n.o.blest of women! There is where we differ. I spoke to her last night,--I told her I loved her."

"You did?" and Helen gazed at him with wet, tragic eyes,--"And she ..."

"She bade me be silent. She told me I must not speak--not yet. She said she would give me her answer when we were all together at the Mena House Hotel."

"You intend to be one of the party there then?" said Helen faintly.

"Of course I do. And so do you, I hope."

"No, Denzil, I cannot. Don't ask me. I will stay here with Lady Fulkeward. She is not going, nor are the Chetwynd Lyles. I shall be quite safe with them. I would rather not go to the Mena House,--I could not bear it ..."

Her voice gave way entirely, and she broke out crying bitterly.

Denzil stood still and regarded her with a kind of sullen shame and remorse.

"What a very sympathetic sister you are!" he observed. "When you see me madly in love with a woman--a perfectly beautiful, adorable woman--you put yourself at once in the way and make out that my marriage with her will be a misery to you. You surely do not expect me to remain single all my life, do you?"

"No, Denzil," sobbed Helen, "but I had hoped to see you marry some sweet girl of our own land who would be your dear and true companion,--who would be a sister to me,--who ... there! don't mind me!

Be happy in your own way, my dear brother. I have no business to interfere. I can only say that if the Princess Ziska consents to marry you, I will do my best to like her, for your sake."

"Well, that's something, at any rate," said Denzil, with an air of relief. "Don't cry, Helen, it bothers me. As for the 'sweet girl' you have got in view for me, you will permit me to say that 'sweet girls'

are becoming uncommonly scarce in Britain. What with bicycle riders and great rough tomboys generally, with large hands and larger feet, I confess I do not care about them. I like a womanly woman,--a graceful woman,--a fascinating, bewitching woman, and the Princess is all that and more. Surely you consider her beautiful?"

"Very beautiful indeed!" sighed poor Helen.--"Too beautiful!"

"Nonsense! As if any woman can be too beautiful! I am sorry you won't come to the Mena House. It would be a change for you,--and Gervase is going."

"Is he better to-day?" inquired Helen timidly.

"Oh, I believe he is quite well again. It was the heat or the scent of the flowers, or something of that sort, that made him faint last night.

He is not acclimatized yet, you know. And he said that the Princess's dancing made him giddy."

"I don't wonder at that," murmured Helen.

"It was marvellous--glorious!" said Denzil dreamily. "It was like nothing else ever seen or imagined!"

"If she were your wife, would you care for her to dance before people?"

inquired Helen tremblingly.

Denzil turned upon her in haughty wrath.

"How like a woman that is! To insinuate a nasty suggestion--to imply an innuendo without uttering it! If she were my wife, she would do nothing unbecoming that position."

"Then you did think it a little unbecoming?" persisted Helen.

"No, I did NOT!" said Denzil sharply. "An independent woman may do many things that a married woman may not. Marriage brings its own duties and responsibilities,--time enough to consider them when they come."

He turned angrily on his heel and left her, and Helen, burying her fair face in her hands, wept long and unrestrainedly. This "strange woman out of Egypt" had turned her brother's heart against her, and stolen away her almost declared lover. It was no wonder that her tears fell fast, wrung from her with the pain of this double wound; for Helen, though quiet and undemonstrative, had fine feelings and unsounded depths of pa.s.sion in her nature, and the fatal attraction she felt for Armand Gervase was more powerful than she had herself known. Now that he had openly confessed his infatuation for another woman, it seemed as though the earth had opened at her feet and shown her nothing but a grave in which to fall. Life--empty and blank and bare of love and tenderness, stretched before her imagination; she saw herself toiling along the monotonously even road of duty till her hair became gray and her face thin and wan and wrinkled, and never a gleam again of the beautiful, glowing, romantic pa.s.sion that for a short time had made her days splendid with the dreams that are sweeter than all realities.

Poor Helen! It was little marvel that she wept as all women weep when their hearts are broken. It is so easy to break a heart; sometimes a mere word will do it. But the vanis.h.i.+ng of the winged Love-G.o.d from the soul is even more than heart-break,--it is utter and irretrievable loss,--complete and dominating chaos out of which no good thing can ever be designed or created. In our days we do our best to supply the place of a reluctant Eros by the gilded, grinning Mammon-figure which we try to consider as superior to any silver-pinioned G.o.d that ever descended in his rainbow car to sing heavenly songs to mortals; but it is an unlovely subst.i.tute,--a hideous idol at best; and grasp its golden knees and wors.h.i.+p it as we will, it gives us little or no comfort in the hours of strong temptation or trouble. We have made a mistake--we, in our progressive generation,--we have banished the old sweetnesses, triumphs and delights of life, and we have got in exchange steam and electricity. But the heart of the age clamors on unsatisfied,--none of our "new" ideas content it--nothing pacifies its restless yearning; it feels--this great heart of human life--that it is losing more than it gains, hence the incessant, restless aching of the time, and the perpetual longing for something Science cannot teach,--something vague, beautiful, indefinable, yet satisfying to every pulse of the soul; and the nearest emotion to that divine solace is what we in our higher and better moments recognize as Love. And Love was lost to Helen Murray; the choice pearl had fallen in the vast gulf of Might-have-been, and not all the forces of Nature would ever restore to her that priceless gem.

Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 18

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Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 18 summary

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