Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 24

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There followed a silence, during which the little Doctor looked at his beautiful companion with all the meditative interest of a scientist engaged in working out some intricate and deeply interesting problem.

"I suppose I may not inquire how you propose to obtain this satisfaction?" he said.

"You may inquire, but you will not be answered!" she retorted, smiling darkly.

"Your intentions are pitiless?"

Still smiling, she said not a word.

"You are impenitent?"

She remained silent.

"And, worst of all, you do not desire redemption! You are one of those who forever and ever cry, 'Evil, be thou my good!' Thus for you, Christ died in vain!"

A faint tremor ran through her, but she was still mute.

"So you and creatures like you, must have their way in the world until the end," concluded the Doctor, thoughtfully. "And if all the philosophers that ever lived were to p.r.o.nounce you what you are, they would be disbelieved and condemned as madmen! Well, Princess, I am glad I have never at any time crossed your path till now, or given you cause of offence against me. We part friends, I trust? Good-night! Farewell!"

She held out her hand. He hesitated before taking it.

"Are you afraid?" she queried coldly. "It will not harm you!"

"I am afraid of nothing," he said, at once clasping the white taper fingers in his own, "except a bad conscience."

"That will never trouble you!" and the Princess looked at him full and steadily. "There are no dark corners in your life--no mean side-alleys and trap-holes of deceit; you have walked on the open and straight road. You are a good man and a wise one. But though you, in your knowledge of spiritual things, recognize me for what I am, take my advice and be silent on the matter. The world would never believe the truth, even if you told it, for the time is not yet ripe for men and women to recognize the avengers of their wicked deeds. They are kept purposely in the dark lest the light should kill!"

And with her sombre eyes darkening, yet glowing with the inward fire that always smouldered in their dazzling depths, she saluted him gravely and gracefully, watching him to the last as he slowly withdrew.


The next day broke with a bright, hot glare over the wide desert, and the sky in its cloudless burning blue had more than its usual appearance of limitless and awful immensity. The Sphinx and the Pyramids alone gave a shadow and a substance to the dazzling and transparent air,--all the rest of the visible landscape seemed naught save a far-stretching ocean of glittering sand, scorched by the blazing sun. Dr. Maxwell Dean rose early and went down to the hotel breakfast in a somewhat depressed frame of mind; he had slept badly, and his dreams had been unpleasant, when not actually ghastly, and he was considerably relieved, though he could not have told why, when he saw his young friend Denzil Murray, seated at the breakfast table, apparently enjoying an excellent meal.

"Hullo, Denzil!" he exclaimed cheerily, "I hardly expected you down yet. Are you better?"

"Thanks, I am perfectly well," said Denzil, with a careless air. "I thought I would breakfast early in order to drive into Cairo before the day gets too sultry."

"Into Cairo!" echoed the Doctor. "Why, aren't you going to stay here a few days?"

"No, not exactly," answered Denzil, stirring his coffee quickly and beginning to swallow it in large gulps. "I shall be back to-night, though. I'm only going just to see my sister and tell her to prepare for our journey home. I shan't be absent more than a few hours."

"I thought you might possibly like to go a little further up the Nile?"

suggested the Doctor.

"Oh, no, I've had enough of it! You see, when a man proposes to a woman and gets refused, he can't keep on dangling round that woman as if he thought it possible she might change her mind." And he forced a smile.

"I've got an appointment with Gervase to-morrow morning, and I must come back to-night in order to keep it--but after that I'm off."

"An appointment with Gervase?" repeated the Doctor, slowly. "What sort of an appointment?"

Denzil avoided his keen look.

"Really, Doctor, you are getting awfully inquisitive!" he exclaimed with a hard laugh. "You want to know altogether too much!"

"Yes, I always do; it is a habit of mine," responded Dr. Dean, calmly.

"But in the present case, it doesn't need much perspicuity to fathom your mystery. The dullest clod-hopper will tell you he can see through a millstone when there's a hole in it. And I was always a good hand at putting two and two together and making four out of them. You and Gervase are in love with the same woman; the woman has rejected you and is encouraging Gervase; Gervase, you think, will on this very night be in the position of the accepted lover, for which successful fortune, attending him, you, the rejected one, propose to kill him to-morrow morning if you can, unless he kills you. And you are going to Cairo to get your pistols or whatever weapons you have arranged to fight with, and also to say good-bye to your sister."

Denzil kept his eyes fixed studiously on the table-cloth and made no answer.

"However," continued the Doctor complacently, "you can have it all your own way as far as I am concerned. I never interfere in these sort of matters. I should do no good if I attempted it. Besides, I haven't the slightest anxiety on your behalf--not the slightest. Waiter, some more coffee, please?"

"Upon my word!" exclaimed Denzil, with a fretful laugh, "you are a most extraordinary man, Doctor!"

"I hope I am!" retorted the Doctor. "To be merely ordinary would not suit my line of ambition. This is very excellent coffee"--here he peered into the fresh pot of the fragrant beverage just set before him.

"They make it better here than at the Gezireh Palace. Well, Denzil, my boy, when you get into Cairo, give my love to Helen and tell her we'll all go home to the old country together; I, myself, have got quite enough out of Egypt this time to satisfy my fondness for new experiences. And let me a.s.sure you, my good fellow, that your proposed duel with Gervase will not come off!"

"It will come off!" said Denzil, with sudden fierceness. "By Heaven, it shall!--it must!"

"More wills than one have the working out of our destinies," answered Dr. Dean with some gravity. "Man is not by any means supreme. He imagines he is, but that is only one of his many little delusions. You think you will have your way; Gervase thinks he will have his way; I think I will have my way; but as a matter of fact there is only one person in this affair whose 'way' will be absolute, and that person is the Princess Ziska. Ce que femme veut Dieu veut."

"She has nothing whatever to do with the matter," declared Denzil.

"Pardon! She has everything to do with it. She is the cause of it and she knows it. And as I have already told you, your proposed fight will not come off." And the little Doctor smiled serenely. "There is your carriage at the door, I suppose. Off with you, my boy!--be off like a whirlwind, and return here armed to the teeth if you like! You have heard the expression 'fighting the air'? That is what you will do tomorrow morning!"

And apparently in the best of all possible humors, Dr. Dean accompanied his young friend to the portico of the hotel and watched him drive off down the stately avenue of palm-trees which now cast their refres.h.i.+ng shade on the entire route from the Pyramids to Cairo. When he had fairly gone, the thoughtful savant surveyed the different tourists who were preparing to ascend the Pyramids under the escort of their Arab guides, regardless of the risks they ran of dislocated arms and broken shoulder-bones,--and in the study of the various odd types thus presented to him, he found himself fairly well amused.

"Protoplasm--mere protoplasm!" he murmured. "The germ of soul has not yet attained to individual consciousness in any one of these strange bipeds. Their thoughts are as jelly,--their reasoning powers in embryo,--their intellectual faculties barely perceptible. Yet they are interesting, viewed in the same light and considered on the same scale as fish or insects merely. As men and women of course they are misnomers,--laughable impossibilities. Well, well!--in the s.p.a.ce of two or three thousand years, the protoplasm may start into form out of the void, and the fibres of a conscious Intellectuality may sprout,--but it will have to be in some other phase of existence--certainly not in this one. And now to shut myself up and write my memoranda--for I must not lose a single detail of this singular Egyptian psychic problem. The whole thing I perceive is rounding itself towards completion and catastrophe--but in what way? How will it--how CAN it end?"

And with a meditative frown puckering his brows, Dr. Dean folded his hands behind his back and retired to his own room, from whence he did not emerge all day.

Armand Gervase in the meanwhile was making himself the life and soul of everything at the Mena House Hotel. He struck up an easy acquaintance with several of the visitors staying there,--said pretty things to young women and pleasant things to old,--and in the course of a few hours succeeded in becoming the most popular personage in the place. He accepted invitations to parties, and agreed to share in various'

excursions, till he engaged himself for every day in the coming week, and was so gay and gallant and fascinating in manner and bearing that fair ladies lost their hearts to him at a glance, and what amus.e.m.e.nt or pleasure there was at the Mena House seemed to be doubly enhanced by the mere fact of his presence. In truth Gervase was in a singular mood of elation and excitation; a strong inward triumph possessed him and filled his soul with an imperious pride and sense of conquest which, for the time being, made him feel as though he were a very king of men.

There was nothing in his nature of the n.o.ble tenderness which makes the lover mentally exalt his beloved as a queen before whom he is content to submit his whole soul in wors.h.i.+p; what he realized was merely this: that here was one of the most beautiful and seductive women ever created, in the person of the Princess Ziska, and that he, Gervase, meant to possess that loveliest of women, whatever happened in the near or distant future. Of her, and of the influence of his pa.s.sion on her personally, he did not stop to think, except with the curiously blind egotism which is the heritage of most men, and which led him to judge that her happiness would in some way or other be enhanced by his brief and fickle love. For, as a rule, men do not understand love. They understand desire, amounting sometimes to merciless covetousness for what they cannot get,--this is a leading natural characteristic of the masculine nature--but Love--love that endures silently and faithfully through the stress of trouble and the pa.s.sing of years--love which sacrifices everything to the beloved and never changes or falters,--this is a divine pa.s.sion which seldom or never sanctifies and inspires the life of a man. Women are not made of such base material; their love invariably springs first from the Ideal, not the Sensual, and if afterwards it develops into the sensual, it is through the rough and coa.r.s.ening touch of man alone.

Throughout the entire day the Princess Ziska herself never left her private apartments, and towards late afternoon Gervase began to feel the hours drag along with unconscionable slowness and monotony. Never did the sun seem so slow in sinking; never did the night appear so far off. When at last dinner was served in the hotel, both Denzil Murray and Dr. Dean sat next to him at table, and, judging from outward appearances, the most friendly relations existed between all three of them. At the close of the meal, however, Denzil made a sign to Gervase to follow him, and when they had reached a quiet corner, said:

"I am aware of your victory; you have won where I have lost. But you know my intention?"

"Perfectly!" responded Gervase, with a cool smile.

"By Heaven!" went on the younger man, in accents of suppressed fury, "if I yielded to the temptation which besets me when I see you standing there facing me, with your easy and self-satisfied demeanor,--when I know that you mean dishonor where I meant honor,--when you have had the effrontery to confess to me that you only intend to make the Princess Ziska your mistress when I would have made her my wife,--G.o.d! I could shoot you dead at this moment!"

Gervase looked at him steadily, still smiling slightly; then gradually the smile died away, leaving his countenance shadowed by an intense melancholy.

"I can quite enter into your feelings, my dear boy!" he said. "And do you know, I'm not sure that it would not be a good thing if you were to shoot me dead! My life is of no particular value to anybody,--certainly not to myself; and I begin to think I've been always more or less of a failure. I have won fame, but I have missed--something--but upon my word, I don't quite know what!"

Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 24

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Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 24 summary

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