Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 2

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"Oh, he will get in some day, you may be sure," he answered. "There is no spirit higher and stronger than the spirit of naturalism in man; and in time, when a few prejudices have died away and mawkish sentiment has been worn threadbare, Zola will be enrolled as the first of the French Academicians, with even more honors than if he had succeeded in the beginning. That is the way of all those 'select' bodies. As Napoleon said, 'Le monde vient a celui qui sait attendre.'"

The little Doctor's countenance now showed the most lively and eager interest.

"You quite believe that, Monsieur Gervase? You are entirely sure of what you said just now?"

"What did I say? I forget!" smiled Gervase, lighting a cigarette and beginning to smoke it leisurely.

"You said, 'There is no spirit higher or stronger than the spirit of naturalism in man.' Are you positive on this point?"

"Why, of course! Most entirely positive!" And the great painter looked amused as he gave the reply. "Naturalism is Nature, or the things appertaining to Nature, and there is nothing higher or stronger than Nature everywhere and anywhere."

"How about G.o.d?" inquired Dr. Dean with a curious air, as if he were propounding a remarkable conundrum.

"G.o.d!" Gervase laughed loudly. "Pardon! Are you a clergyman?"

"By no means!" and the Doctor gave a little bow and deprecating smile.

"I am not in any way connected with the Church. I am a doctor of laws and literature,--a humble student of philosophy and science generally..."

"Philosophy! Science!" interrupted Gervase. "And you ask about G.o.d!

Parbleu! Science and philosophy have progressed beyond Him!"

"Exactly!" and Dr. Dean rubbed his hands together pleasantly. "That is your opinion? Yes, I thought so! Science and philosophy, to put it comprehensively, have beaten poor G.o.d on His own ground! Ha! ha! ha!

Very good--very good! And humorous as well! Ha! ha!"

And a very droll appearance just then had this "humble student of philosophy and science generally," for he bent himself to and fro with laughter, and his small eyes almost disappeared behind his shelving brows in the excess of his mirth. And two crosslines formed themselves near his thin mouth--such lines as are carven on the ancient Greek masks which indicate satire.

Denzil Murray flushed uncomfortably.

"Gervase doesn't believe in anything but Art," he said, as though half apologizing for his friend: "Art is the sole object of his existence; I don't believe he ever has time to think about anything else."

"Of what else should I think, mon ami?" exclaimed Gervase mirthfully.

"Of life? It is all Art to me; and by Art I mean the idealization and transfiguration of Nature."

"Oh. if you do that sort of thing you are a romancist," interposed Dr.

Dean emphatically. "Nature neither idealizes nor transfigures itself; it is simply Nature and no more. Matter uncontrolled by Spirit is anything but ideal."

"Precisely," answered Gervase quickly and with some warmth; "but my spirit idealizes it,--my imagination sees beyond it,--my soul grasps it."

"Oh, you have a soul?" exclaimed Dr. Dean, beginning to laugh again.

"Now, how did you find that out?"

Gervase looked at him in a sudden surprise.

"Every man has an inward self, naturally," he said. "We call it 'soul'

as a figure of speech; it is really temperament merely."

"Oh, it is merely temperament? Then you don't think it is likely to outlive you, this soul--to take new phases upon itself and go on existing, an immortal being, when your body is in a far worse condition (because less carefully preserved) than an Egyptian mummy?"

"Certainly not!" and Gervase flung away the end of his finished cigarette. "The immortality of the soul is quite an exploded theory. It was always a ridiculous one. We have quite enough to vex us in our present life, and why men ever set about inventing another is more than I am able to understand. It was a most foolish and barbaric superst.i.tion."

The gay sound of music now floated towards them from the ball-room,--the strains of a graceful, joyous, half-commanding, half-pleading waltz came rhythmically beating on the air like the measured movement of wings,--and Denzil Murray, beginning to grow restless, walked to and fro, his eyes watching every figure that crossed and re-crossed the hall. But Dr. Dean's interest in Armand Gervase remained intense and unabated; and approaching him, he laid two lean fingers delicately on the white folds of the Bedouin dress just where the heart of the man was hidden.

"'A foolish and barbaric superst.i.tion!'" he echoed slowly and meditatively. "You do not believe in any possibility of there being a life--or several lives--after this present death through which we must all pa.s.s inevitably, sooner or later?"

"Not in the least! I leave such ideas to the ignorant and uneducated. I should be unworthy of the progressive teachings of my time if I believed such arrant nonsense."

"Death, you consider, finishes all? There is nothing further--no mysteries beyond? ..." and Dr. Dean's eyes glittered as he stretched forth one thin, slight hand and pointed into s.p.a.ce with the word "beyond," an action which gave it a curious emphasis, and for a fleeting second left a weird impression on even the careless mind of Gervase. But he laughed it off lightly.

"Nothing beyond? Of course not! My dear sir, why ask such a question?

Nothing can be plainer or more positive than the fact that death, as you say, finishes all."

A woman's laugh, low and exquisitely musical, rippled on the air as he spoke--delicious laughter, rarer than song; for women as a rule laugh too loudly, and the sound of their merriment partakes more of the nature of a goose's cackle than any other sort of natural melody. But this large, soft and silvery, was like a delicately subdued cadence played on a magic flute in the distance, and suggested nothing but sweetness; and at the sound of it Gervase started violently and turned sharply round upon his friend Murray with a look of wonderment and perplexity.

"Who is that?" he demanded. "I have heard that pretty laugh before; it must be some one I know."

But Denzil scarcely heard him. Pale, and with eyes full of yearning and pa.s.sion, he was watching the slow approach of a group of people in fancy dress, who were all eagerly pressing round one central figure--the figure of a woman clad in gleaming golden tissues and veiled in the old Egyptian fas.h.i.+on up to the eyes, with jewels flas.h.i.+ng about her waist, bosom and hair,--a woman who moved glidingly as if she floated rather than walked, and whose beauty, half hidden as it was by the exigencies of the costume she had chosen, was so unusual and brilliant that it seemed to create an atmosphere of bewilderment and rapture around her as she came. She was preceded by a small Nubian boy in a costume of vivid scarlet, who, walking backwards humbly, fanned her slowly with a tall fan of peac.o.c.k's plumes made after the quaint designs of ancient Egypt. The l.u.s.tre radiating from the peac.o.c.k's feathers, the light of her golden garments, her jewels and the marvellous black splendor of her eyes, all flashed for a moment like sudden lightning on Gervase; something--he knew not what--turned him giddy and blind; hardly knowing what he did, he sprang eagerly forward, when all at once he felt the lean, small hand of Dr. Dean on his arm and stopped short embarra.s.sed.

"Pardon me!" said the little savant, with a delicate, half-supercilious lifting of his eyebrows. "But--do you know the Princess Ziska?"

CHAPTER II.

Gervase stared at him, still dazzled and confused.

"Whom did you say? ... the Princess Ziska? ... No, I don't know her ...

Yet, stay! Yes, I think I have seen her ... somewhere,--in Paris, possibly. Will you introduce me?"

"I leave that duty to Mr. Denzil Murray," said the Doctor, folding his arms neatly behind his back ... "He knows her better than I do."

And smiling his little grim, cynical smile, he settled his academic cap more firmly on his head and strolled off towards the ballroom. Gervase stood irresolute, his eyes fixed on that wondrous golden figure that floated before his eyes like an aerial vision. Denzil Murray had gone forward to meet the Princess and was now talking to her, his handsome face radiating with the admiration he made no attempt to conceal. After a little pause Gervase moved towards him a step or two, and caught part of the conversation.

"You look the very beau-ideal of an Egyptian Princess," Murray was saying. "Your costume is perfect."

She laughed. Again that sweet, rare laughter! Gervase thrilled with the pulsation of it,--it beat in his ears and smote his brain with a strange echo of familiarity.

"Is it not?" she responded. "I am 'historically correct,' as your friend Dr. Dean would say. My ornaments are genuine,--they all came out of the same tomb."

"I find one fault with your attire, Princess," said one of the male admirers who had entered with her; "part of your face is veiled. That is a cruelty to us all!"

She waived the compliment aside with a light gesture.

"It was the fas.h.i.+on in ancient Egypt," she said. "Love in those old days was not what it is now,--one glance, one smile was sufficient to set the soul on fire and draw another soul towards it to consume together in the suddenly kindled flame! And women veiled their faces in youth, lest they should be deemed too prodigal of their charms; and in age they covered themselves still more closely, in order not to affront the Sun-G.o.d's fairness by their wrinkles." She smiled, a dazzling smile that drew Gervase yet a few steps closer unconsciously, as though he were being magnetized. "But I am not bound to keep the veil always up,"

and as she spoke she loosened it and let it fall, showing an exquisite face, fair as a lily, and of such perfect loveliness that the men who were gathered round her seemed to lose breath and speech at sight of it. "That pleases you better, Mr. Murray?"

Denzil grew very pale. Bending down he murmured something to her in a low tone. She raised her lovely brows with a little touch of surprise that was half disdain, and looked at him straightly.

Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 2

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Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 2 summary

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