Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 25

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He sighed heavily, then suddenly held out his hand.

"Denzil, the bitterest foes shake hands before fighting each other to the death, as we propose to do to-morrow; it is a civil custom and hurts no one, I should like to part kindly from you to-night!"

Denzil hesitated; then something stronger than himself made him yield to the impulsive note of strong emotion in his former friend's voice, and the two men's hands met in a momentary silent grasp. Then Denzil turned quickly away.

"To-morrow morning at six," he said, briefly; "close to the Sphinx."

"Good!" responded Gervase. "The Sphinx shall second us both and see fair play. Good-night, Denzil!"

"Good-night!" responded Denzil, coldly, as he moved on and disappeared.

A slight s.h.i.+ver ran through Gervase's blood as he watched him depart.

"Odd that I should imagine I have seen the last of him!" he murmured.

"There are strange portents in the air of the desert, I suppose! Is he going to his death? Or am I going to mine?"

Again the cold tremor shook him, and combating with his uneasy sensations, he went to his own apartment, there to await the expected summons of the Princess. No triumph filled him now; no sense of joy elated him; a vague fear and dull foreboding were all the emotions he was conscious of. Even his impatient desire of love had cooled, and he watched the darkening of night over the desert, and the stars s.h.i.+ning out one by one in the black azure of the heavens, with a gradually deepening depression. A dreamy sense stole over him of remoteness or detachment from all visible things, as though he were suddenly and mysteriously separated from the rest of humankind by an invisible force which he was powerless to resist. He was still lost in this vague half-torpor or semi-conscious reverie, when a light tap startled him back to the realization of earth and his earthly surroundings. In response to his "Entrez!" the tall Nubian, whom he had seen in Cairo as the guardian of the Princess's household, appeared, his repulsive features looking, if anything, more ghastly and hideous than ever.

"Madame la Princesse demande votre presence!" said this unlovely attendant of one of the fairest of women. "Suivez-moi!"

Without a moment's hesitation or loss of time, Gervase obeyed, and allowing his guide to precede him at a little distance, followed him through the corridors of the hotel, out at the hall door and beyond, through the garden. A clock struck ten as they pa.s.sed into the warm evening air, and the mellow rays of the moon were beginning to whiten the sides of the Great Pyramid. A few of the people staying in the hotel were lounging about, but these paid no particular heed to Gervase or his companion. At about two hundred yards from the entrance of the Mena House, the Nubian stopped and waited till Gervase came up with him.

"Madame la Princesse vous aime, Monsieur Gervase!" he said, with a sarcastic grin. "Mais,--elle veut que l'Amour soit toujours aveugle!

oui, toujours! C'est le destin qui vous appelle,--il faut soumettre!

L'Amour sans yeux! oui!--en fin,--comme ca!"

And before Gervase could utter a word of protest, or demand the meaning of this strange proceeding, his arms was suddenly seized and pinioned behind his back, his mouth gagged, and his eyes blindfolded.

"Maintenant," continued the Nubian. "Nous irons ensemble!"

Choked and mad with rage, Gervase for a few moments struggled furiously as well as he was able with his powerful captor. All sorts of ideas surged in his brain: the Princess Ziska might, with all her beauty and fascination, be nothing but the ruler of a band of robbers and murderers--who could tell? Yet reason did not wholly desert him in extremity, for even while he tried to fight for his liberty he remembered that there was no good to be gained out of taking him prisoner; he had neither money nor valuables--nothing which could excite the cupidity of even a starving Bedouin. As this thought crossed his brain, he ceased his struggles abruptly, and stood still, panting for breath, when suddenly a sound of singing floated towards him:

"Oh, for the pure cold heart of the Lotus-Lily!

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 pa.s.sionless heart of the Lotus-Lily!"

He listened, and all power of resistance ebbed slowly away from him; he became perfectly pa.s.sive--almost apathetic--and yielding to the somewhat rough handling of his guide, allowed himself to be urged with silent rapidity onward over the thick sand, till he presently became conscious that he was leaving the fresh open air and entering a building of some sort, for his feet pressed hard earth and stone instead of sand. All at once he was forcibly brought to a standstill, and a heavy rolling noise and clang, like distant muttered thunder, resounded in his ears, followed by dead silence. Then his arm was closely grasped again, and he was led on, on and on, along what seemed to be an interminable distance, for not a glimmer of light could be seen under the tight folds of the bandage across his eyes. Presently the earth shook under him,--some heavy substance was moved, and there was another booming thunderous noise, accompanied by the falling of chains.

"C'est l'escalier de Madame la Princesse!" said the Nubian. "Pres de la chambre nuptiale! Descendez! Vite!"

Down--down! Resistance was useless, even had he cared to resist, for he felt as though twenty pairs of hands instead of one were pus.h.i.+ng him violently on all sides; down, still down he went, dumb, blind and helpless, till at last he was allowed to stop and breathe. His arms were released, the bandage was taken from his eyes, the gag from his mouth--he was free! Free--yes! but where? Thick darkness encompa.s.sed him; he stretched out his hands in the murky atmosphere and felt nothing.

"Ziska!" he cried.

The name sprang up against the silence and struck out numberless echoes, and with the echoes came a shuddering sigh, that was not of them, whispering:

"Charmazel!"

Gervase heard it, and a deadly fear, born of the supernatural, possessed him.

"Ziska! Ziska!" he called again wildly.

"Charmazel!" answered the penetrating unknown voice; and as it thrilled upon the air like a sob of pain, a dim light began to s.h.i.+ne through the gloom, waveringly at first, then more steadily, till it gradually spread wide, illuminating with a pale and spectral light the place in which he found himself,--a place more weird and wondrous than any mystic scene in dream-land. He stumbled forward giddily, utterly bewildered, staring about him like a man in delirium, and speechless with mingled horror and amazement. He was alone--utterly alone in a vast square chamber, the walls and roof of which were thickly patterned and glistening with gold. Squares of gold were set in the very pavement on which he trod, and at the furthest end of the chamber, a magnificent sarcophagus of solid gold, encrusted with thousands upon thousands of jewels, which were set upon it in marvellous and fantastic devices, glittered and flashed with the hues of living fire. Golden cups, golden vases, a golden suit of armor, bracelets and chains of gold intermixed with gems, were heaped up against the walls and scattered on the floor; and a round s.h.i.+eld of ivory inlaid with gold, together with a sword in a jewelled sheath, were placed in an upright position against the head of the sarcophagus, from whence all the spectral and mysterious light seemed to emerge. With thickly beating heart and faltering pulses Gervase still advanced, gazing half entranced, half terrified at the extraordinary and sumptuous splendor surrounding him, muttering almost unconsciously as he moved along:

"A king's sepulchre,--a warrior's tomb! How came I here?--and why? Is this a trysting-place for love as well as death?--and will she come to me? ..."

He recoiled suddenly with a violent start, for there, like a strange Spirit of Evil risen from the ground, leaning against the great gold sarcophagus, her exquisite form scarcely concealed by the misty white of her draperies, her dark hair hanging like a cloud over her shoulders, and her black eyes aflame with wrath, menace and pa.s.sion, stood the mysterious Ziska!

CHAPTER XVI.

Stricken dumb with a ghastly supernatural terror which far exceeded any ordinary sense of fear, he gazed at her, spellbound, his blood freezing, his very limbs stiffening, for now--now she looked like the picture he had painted of her; and Death--Death, livid, tortured and horrible, stared at him skull-wise from the transparent covering of her exquisitely tinted seeming-human flesh. Larger and brighter and wilder grew her eyes as she fixed them on him, and her voice rang through the silence with an unearthly resonance as she spoke and said:

"Welcome, my lover, to this abode of love! Welcome to these arms, for whose embraces your covetous soul has thirsted unappeased! Take all of me, for I am yours!--aye, so truly yours that you can never escape me!--never separate from me--no! not through a thousand thousand centuries! Life of my life! Soul of my soul! Possess me, as I possess you!--for our two unrepenting spirits form a dual flame in h.e.l.l which must burn on and on to all eternity! Leap to my arms, master and lord,--king and conqueror! Here, here!" and she smote her white arms against her whiter bosom. "Take all your fill of burning wickedness--of cursed joy! and then--sleep! as you have slept before, these many thousand years!"

Still mute and aghast he stared at her; his senses swam, his brain reeled, and then slowly, like the lifting of a curtain on the last scene of a dire tragedy, a lightning thought, a scorching memory, sprang into his mind and overwhelmed him like a rolling wave that brings death in its track. With a fierce oath he rushed towards her, and seized her hands in his--hands cold as ice and clammy as with the dews of the grave.

"Ziska! Woman! Devil! Speak before you drive me to madness! What pa.s.sion moves you thus--what mystic fooling? Into what place have I been decoyed at your bidding? Why am I brought hither? Speak, speak!--or I shall murder you!"

"Nay!" she said, and her slight swaying form dilated and grew till she seemed to rise up from the very ground and to tower above him like an enraged demon evoked from mist or flame. "You have done that once! To murder me twice is beyond your power!" And as she spoke her hands slipped from his like the hands of a corpse newly dead. "Never again can you hurl forth my anguished soul unprepared to the outer darkness of things invisible; never again! For I am free!--free with an immortal freedom--free to work out repentance or revenge,--even as Man is free to shape his course for good or evil. He chooses evil; I choose revenge! What place is this, you ask?" and with a majestic gliding motion she advanced a little and pointed upward to the sparkling gold-patterned roof. "Above us, the Great Pyramid lifts its summit to the stars; and here below,--here where you will presently lie, my lover and lord, asleep in the delicate bosom of love--here..."

She paused, and a low laugh broke from her lips; then she added slowly and impressively:

"Here is the tomb of Araxes!"

As she spoke, a creeping sense of coldness and horror stole into his veins like the approach of death,--the strange impressions he had felt, the haunting and confusing memory he had always had of her face and voice, the supernatural theories he had lately heard discussed, all rushed at once upon his mind, and he uttered a loud involuntary cry.

"My G.o.d! What frenzy is this! A woman's vain trick!--a fool's mad scheme! What is Araxes to me?--or I to Araxes?"

"Everything!" replied Ziska, the vindictive demon light in her eyes blazing with a truly frightful intensity. "Inasmuch as ye are one and the same! The same dark soul of sin--unpurged, uncleansed through ages of eternal fire! Sensualist! Voluptuary! Accursed spirit of the man I loved, come forth from the present Seeming-of-things! Come forth and cling to me! Cling!--for the whole forces of a million universes shall not separate us! O Eternal Spirits of the Dead!" and she lifted her ghostly white arms with a wild gesture. "Rend ye the veil! Declare to the infidel and unbeliever the truth of the life beyond death; the life wherein ye and I dwell and work, clamoring for late justice!"

Here she sprang forward and caught the arm of Gervase with all the fierce eagerness of some ravenous bird of prey; and as she did so he knew her grasp meant death.

"Remember the days of old, Araxes! Look back, look back from the present to the past, and remember the crimes that are still unavenged!

Remember the love sought and won!--remember the broken heart!--remember the ruined life! Remember the triumphs of war!--the glories of conquest! Remember the l.u.s.t of ambition!--the treachery!--the slaughter!--the blasphemies against high Heaven! Remember the night of the Feast of Osiris--the Feast of the Sun! Remember how Ziska-Charmazel awaited her lover, singing alone for joy, in blind faith and blinder love, his favorite song of the Lotus-Lily! The moon was high, as it is now!--the stars glittered above the Pyramids, as they glitter now!--in the palace there was the sound of music and triumph and laughter, and a whisper on the air of the fickle heart and changeful mood of Araxes; of another face which charmed him, though less fair than that of Ziska-Charmazel! Remember, remember!" and she clung closer and closer as he staggered backward half suffocated by his own emotions and the horror of her touch. "Remember the fierce word!--the quick and murderous blow!--the plunge of the jewelled knife up to the hilt in the pa.s.sionate white bosom of Charmazel!--the lonely anguish in which she died! Died,--but to live again and pursue her murderer!--to track him down to his grave wherein the king strewed gold, and devils strewed curses!--down, down to the end of all his glory and conquest into the silence of yon gold-encrusted clay! And out of silence again into sound and light and fire, ever pursuing, I have followed--followed through a thousand phases of existence!--and I will follow still through limitless s.p.a.ce and endless time, till the great Maker of this terrible wheel of life Himself shall say, 'Stop! Here ends even the law of vengeance!' Oh, for ten thousand centuries more in which to work my pa.s.sion and prove my wrong! All the treasure of love despised!--all the hope of a life betrayed!--all the salvation of heaven denied! Tremble, Soul of Araxes!--for hate is eternal, as love is eternal!--the veil is down, and Memory stings!"

She turned her face, now spectral and pallid as a waning moon, up to him; her form grew thin and skeleton-like, while still retaining the transparent outline of its beauty; and he realized at last that no creature of flesh and blood was this that clung to him, but some mysterious bodiless horror of the Supernatural, unguessed at by the outer world of men! The dews of death stood thick on his forehead; there was a straining agony at his heart, and his breath came in quick convulsive gasps; but worse than his physical torture was the overwhelming and convincing truth of the actual existence of the Spiritual Universe, now so suddenly and awfully revealed. What he had all his life denied was now declared a certainty; where he had been deaf and blind, he now heard and saw. Ziska! Ziska-Charmazel! In very truth he knew he remembered her; in very truth he knew he had loved her; in very truth he knew he had murdered her! But another still stranger truth was forcing itself upon him now; and this was, that the old love of the old old days was arising within him in all its strength once more, and that he loved her still! Unreal and terrible as it seemed, it was nevertheless a fact, that as he gazed upon her tortured face, her beautiful anguished eyes, her phantom form, he felt that he would give his own soul to rescue hers and lift her from the coils of vengeance into love again! Her words awoke vibrating pulsations of thought, long dormant in the innermost recesses of his spirit, which, like so many dagger-thrusts, stabbed him with a myriad recollections; and as a disguising cloak may fall from the figure of a friend in a masquerade, so his present-seeming personality dropped from him and no longer had any substance. He recognized himself as Araxes--always the same Soul pa.s.sing through a myriad changes,--and all the links of his past and present were suddenly welded together in one unbroken chain, stretching over thousands of years, every link of which he was able to count, mark, and recognize. By the dreadful light of that dumb comprehension which flashes on all parting souls at the moment of dissolution, he perceived at last that not the Body but the Spirit is the central secret of life,--not deeds, but thoughts evolve creation.

Death? That was a name merely; there was no death,--only a change into some other form of existence. What change--what form would be his now?

This thought startled him--roused him,--and once again the low spirit-voice of his long-ago betrayed and murdered love thrilled in his ears:

"Soul of Araxes, cling to my soul!--for this present life is swiftly pa.s.sing! No more scorn of the Divine can stand whither we are speeding, for the Terrible and Eternal Truth overshadows us and our destinies!

Closed are the gates of Heaven,--open wide are the portals of h.e.l.l!

Enter with me, my lover Araxes!--die as I died, unprepared and alone!

Die, and pa.s.s out into new life again--such life as mine--such torture as mine--such despair as mine--such hate as mine! ..."

Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 25

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Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 25 summary

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