Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 6

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"To perdition!" finished Gervase. "That is the usual end of the journey we men take with beautiful women."

"And now," went on Denzil, hardly heeding him, "as if my own despair were not sufficient, you must needs add to it! What evil fate, I wonder, sent you to Cairo! Of course, I have no chance with her now; you are sure to win the day. And can you wonder then that I feel as if I could kill you?"

"Oh, I wonder at nothing," said Gervase calmly, "except, perhaps, at myself. And I echo your words most feelingly,--What evil fate sent me to Cairo? I cannot tell! But here I purpose to remain. My dear Murray, don't let us quarrel if we can help it; it is such a waste of time. I am not angry with you for loving la belle Ziska,--try, therefore, not to be angry with me. Let the fair one herself decide as to our merits.

My own opinion is that she cares for neither of us, and, moreover, that she never will care for any one except her fascinating self. And certainly her charms are quite enough to engross her whole attention.

By the way, let me ask you, Denzil, in this headstrong pa.s.sion of yours,--for it is a headstrong pa.s.sion, just as mine is,--do you actually intend to make the Ziska your wife if she will have you?"

"Of course," replied Murray, with some haughtiness.

A fleeting expression of amus.e.m.e.nt flitted over Gervase's features.

"It is very honorable of you," he said, "very! My dear boy, you shall have your full chance. Because I--I would not make the Princess Madame Gervase for all the world! She is not formed for a life of domesticity--and pardon me--I cannot picture her as the contented chatelaine of your grand old Scotch castle in Ross-s.h.i.+re."

"Why not?"

"From an artistic point of view the idea is incongruous," said Gervase lazily. "Nevertheless, I will not interfere with your wooing."

Denzil's face brightened.

"You will not?"

"I will not--I promise! But"--and here Gervase paused, looking his young friend full in the eyes, "remember, if your chance falls to the ground--if Madame gives you your conge--if she does not consent to be a Scottish chatelaine and listen every day to the bagpipes at dinner,--you cannot expect me then to be indifferent to my own desires.

She shall not be Madame Gervase,--oh, no! She shall not be asked to attend to the pot-au-feu; she shall act the role for which she has dressed to-night; she shall be another Charmazel to another Araxes, though the wild days of Egypt are no more!"

A sudden s.h.i.+ver ran through him as he spoke, and instinctively he drew the white folds of his picturesque garb closer about him.

"There is a chill wind sweeping in from the desert," he said, "an evil, sandy breath tasting of mummy-dust blown through the crevices of the tombs of kings. Let us go in."

Murray looked at him in a kind of dull despair.

"And what is to be done?" he asked. "I cannot answer for myself--and--from what you say, neither can you."

"My dear friend--or foe--whichever you determine to be, I can answer for myself in one particular at any rate, namely, that as I told you, I shall not ask the Princess to marry me. You, on the contrary, will do so. Bonne chance! I shall do nothing to prevent Madame from accepting the honorable position you intend to offer her. And till the fiat has gone forth and the fair one has decided, we will not fly at each other's throats like wolves disputing possession of a lamb; we will a.s.sume composure, even if we have it not." He paused, and laid one hand kindly on the younger man's shoulder, "Is it agreed?"

Denzil gave a mute sign of resigned acquiescence.

"Good! I like you, Denzil; you are a charming boy! Hot-tempered and a trifle melodramatic in your loves and hatreds,--yes!--for that you might have been a Provencal instead of a Scot. Before I knew you I had a vague idea that all Scotchmen were, or needs must be, ridiculous,--I don't know why. I a.s.sociated them with bagpipes, short petticoats and whisky. I had no idea of the type you so well represent,--the dark, fine eyes, the strong physique, and the impetuous disposition which suggests the South rather than the North; and to-night you look so unlike the accepted cafe chantant picture of the ever-dancing Highlander that you might in very truth be a Florentine in more points than the dress which so well becomes you. Yes,--I like you--and more than you, I like your sister. That is why I don't want to quarrel with you; I wouldn't grieve Mademoiselle Helen for the world."

Murray gave him a quick, half-angry side-glance.

"You are a strange fellow, Gervase. Two summers ago you were almost in love with Helen."

Gervase sighed.

"True. Almost. That's just it. 'Almost' is a very uncomfortable word. I have been almost in love so many times. I have never been drawn by a woman's eyes and dragged down, down,--in a mad whirlpool of sweetness and poison intermixed. I have never had my soul strangled by the coils of a woman's hair--black hair, black as night,--in the perfumed meshes of which a jewelled serpent gleams ... I have never felt the insidious horror of a love like strong drink mounting through the blood to the brain, and there making inextricable confusion of time, s.p.a.ce, eternity, everything, except the pa.s.sion itself; never, never have I felt all this, Denzil, till to-night! To-night! Bah! It is a wild night of dancing and folly, and the Princess Ziska is to blame for it all!

Don't look so tragic, my good Denzil,--what ails you now?"

"What ails me? Good Heavens! Can you ask it!" and Murray gave a gesture of mingled despair and impatience. "If you love her in this wild, uncontrolled way ..."

"It is the only way I know of," said Gervase. "Love must be wild and uncontrolled to save it from ba.n.a.lite. It must be a summer thunderstorm; the heavy brooding of the clouds of thought, the lightning of desire, then the crash, the downpour,--and the end, in which the bland sun smiles upon a bland world of dull but wholesome routine and tame conventionality, making believe that there never was such a thing known as the past storm! Be consoled, Denzil, and trust me,--you shall have time to make your honorable proposal, and Madame had better accept you,--for your love would last,--mine could not!"

He spoke with a strange fierceness and irritability, and his eyes were darkened by a sudden shadow of melancholy. Denzil, bewildered at his words and manner, stared at him in a kind of helpless indignation.

"Then you admit yourself to be cruel and unprincipled?" he said.

Gervase smiled, with a little shrug of impatience.

"Do I? I was not aware of it. Is inconstancy to women cruelty and want of principle? If so, all men must bear the brunt of the accusation with me. For men were originally barbarians, and always looked upon women as toys or slaves; the barbaric taint is not out of us yet, I a.s.sure you,--at any rate, it is not out of me. I am a pure savage; I consider the love of woman as my right; if I win it, I enjoy it as long as I please, but no longer,--and not all the forces of heaven and earth should bind me to any woman I had once grown weary of."

"If that is your character," said Murray stiffly, "it were well the Princess Ziska should know it."

"True," and Gervase laughed loudly. "Tell her, man ami! Tell her that Armand Gervase is an unprincipled villain, not worth a glance from her dazzling eyes! It will be the way to make her adore me! My good boy, do you not know that there is something very marvellous in the attraction we call love? It is a pre-ordained destiny,--and if one soul is so const.i.tuted that it must meet and mix with another, nothing can hinder the operation. So that, believe me, I am quite indifferent as to what you say of me to Madame la Princesse or to anyone else. It will not be for either my looks or my character that she will love me if, indeed, she ever does love me; it will be for something indistinct, indefinable but resistless in us both, which no one on earth can explain. And now I must go, Denzil, and claim the fair one for this waltz. Try and look less miserable, my dear fellow,--I will not quarrel with you on the Princess's account, nor on any other pretext if I can help it,--for I don't want to kill you, and I am convinced your death and not mine would be the result of a fight between us!"

His eyes flashed under his straight, fierce brows with a sudden touch of imperiousness, and his commanding presence became magnetic, almost over-powering. Tormented with a dozen cross-currents of feeling, young Denzil Murray was mute;--only his breath came and went quickly, and there was a certain silently-declared antagonism in his very att.i.tude.

Gervase saw it and smiled; then turning away with his peculiarly noiseless step and grace of bearing, he disappeared.

CHAPTER V.

Ten minutes later the larger number of dancers in the ball-room came to a sudden pause in their gyrations and stood looking on in open-mouthed, reluctantly-admiring wonderment at the exquisite waltz movements of the Princess Ziska as she floated past them in the arms of Gervase, who, as a "Bedouin chief," was perhaps only acting his part aright when he held her to him with so pa.s.sionate and close a grip and gazed down upon her fair face with such a burning ardor in his eyes. Nothing in the dancing world was ever seen like the dancing of these two--nothing so languorously beautiful as the swaying grace of their well-matched figures gliding to the music in as perfectly harmonious a measure as a bird's two wings beat to the pulsations of the air. People noticed that as the Princess danced a tiny tinkling sound accompanied her every step; and the more curious observers, peeping downwards as she flew by, saw that she had kept to the details of ancient Egyptian costume so exactly that she even wore sandals, and that her feet, perfectly shaped and lovely as perfectly shaped and lovely hands, were bare save for the sandal-ribbons which crossed them, and which were fastened with jewels.

Round the slim ankles were light bands of gold, also glittering with gems, and furthermore adorned by little golden bells which produced the pretty tinkling music that attracted attention.

"What a delightful creature she is!" said Lady Fulkeward, settling her "d.u.c.h.ess of Gainsborough" hat on her powdered wig more becomingly and smiling up in the face of Ross Courtney, who happened to be standing close by. "So sweetly unconventional! Everybody here thinks her improper; she may be, but I like her. I'm not a bit of a prude."

Courtney smiled irreverently at this. Prudery and "old" Lady Fulkeward were indeed wide apart. Aloud he said:

"I think whenever a woman is exceptionally beautiful she generally gets reported as 'improper' by her own s.e.x; especially if she has a fascinating manner and dresses well."

"So true," and Lady Fulkeward simpered. "Exactly what I find wherever I go! Poor dear Ziska! She has to pay the penalty for captivating all you men in the way she does. I'm sure YOU have lost your heart to her quite as much as anybody else, haven't you?"

Courtney reddened.

"I don't think so," he answered; "I admire her very much, but I haven't lost my heart ..."

"Naughty boy! Don't prevaricate!" and Lady Fulkeward smiled in the bewitching pearly manner her admirably-made artificial teeth allowed her to do. "Every man in the hotel is in love with the Princess, and I'm sure I don't blame them. If I belonged to your s.e.x I should be in love with her too. As it is, I am in love with the new arrival, that glorious creature, Gervase. He is superb! He looks like an untamed savage. I adore handsome barbarians!"

"He's scarcely a barbarian, I think," said Courtney, with some amus.e.m.e.nt; "he is the great French artist, the 'lion' of Paris just now,--only secondary to Sarah Bernhardt."

"Artists are always barbarians," declared Lady Fulkeward enthusiastically. "They paint naughty people without any clothes on; they never have any idea of time; they never keep their appointments; and they are always falling in love with the wrong person and getting into trouble, which is so nice of them! That's why I wors.h.i.+p them all.

They are so refres.h.i.+ngly unlike OUR set!"

Courtney raised his eyebrows inquiringly.

"You know what I mean by our set," went on the vivacious old "Gainsborough," "the aristocrats whose conversation is limited to the weather and scandal, and who are so frightfully dull! Dull! My dear Ross you know how dull they are!"

Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 6

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Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul Part 6 summary

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