A Romance of Two Worlds was Marie Corelli's first novel, published in 1886. It referenced the contemporary debate between creationism and evolution, as well as supernatural themes, overlaid with elements of science fiction. The book was an immediate success, well beyond expectations.
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Copyright © 2017 by Marie Corelli
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WE LIVE IN AN AGE of universal inquiry, ergo of universal scepticism. The prophecies of the poet, the dreams of the philosopher and scientist, are being daily realized—things formerly considered mere fairy-tales have become facts—yet, in spite of the marvels of learning and science that are hourly accomplished among us, the attitude of mankind is one of disbelief. “There is no God!” cries one theorist; “or if there be one, I can obtain no proof of His existence!” “There is no Creator!” exclaims another. “The Universe is simply a rushing together of atoms.” “There can be no immortality,” asserts a third. “We are but dust, and to dust we shall return.” “What is called by idealists the SOUL,” argues another, “is simply the vital principle composed of heat and air, which escapes from the body at death, and mingles again with its native element. A candle when lit emits flame; blow out the light, the flame vanishes—where? Would it not be madness to assert the flame immortal? Yet the soul, or vital principle of human existence, is no more than the flame of a candle.”
If you propound to these theorists the eternal question WHY?—why is the world in existence? why is there a universe? why do we live? why do we think and plan? why do we perish at the last?—their grandiose reply is, “Because of the Law of Universal Necessity.” They cannot explain this mysterious Law to themselves, nor can they probe deep enough to find the answer to a still more tremendous WHY—namely, WHY, is there a Law of Universal Necessity?—but they are satisfied with the result of their reasonings, if not wholly, yet in part, and seldom try to search beyond that great vague vast Necessity, lest their finite brains should reel into madness worse than death. Recognizing, therefore, that in this cultivated age a wall of scepticism and cynicism is gradually being built up by intellectual thinkers of every nation against all that treats of the Supernatural and Unseen, I am aware that my narration of the events I have recently experienced will be read with incredulity. At a time when the great empire of the Christian Religion is being assailed, or politely ignored by governments and public speakers and teachers, I realize to the fullest extent how daring is any attempt to prove, even by a plain history of strange occurrences happening to one’s self, the actual existence of the Supernatural around us; and the absolute certainty of a future state of being, after the passage through that brief soul-torpor in which the body perishes, known to us as Death.
In the present narration, which I have purposely called a “romance,” I do not expect to be believed, as I can only relate what I myself have experienced. I know that men and women of to-day must have proofs, or what they are willing to accept as proofs, before they will credit anything that purports to be of a spiritual tendency;—something startling—some miracle of a stupendous nature, such as according to prophecy they are all unfit to receive. Few will admit the subtle influence and incontestable, though mysterious, authority exercised upon their lives by higher intelligences than their own—intelligences unseen, unknown, but felt. Yes! felt by the most careless, the most cynical; in the uncomfortable prescience of danger, the inner forebodings of guilt—the moral and mental torture endured by those who fight a protracted battle to gain the hardly-won victory in themselves of right over wrong—in the thousand and one sudden appeals made without warning to that compass of a man’s life, Conscience—and in those brilliant and startling impulses of generosity, bravery, and self-sacrifice which carry us on, heedless of consequences, to the performance of great and noble deeds, whose fame makes the whole world one resounding echo of glory—deeds that we wonder at ourselves even in the performance of them—acts of heroism in which mere life goes for nothing, and the Soul for a brief space is pre-eminent, obeying blindly the guiding influence of a something akin to itself, yet higher in the realms of Thought.
There are no proofs as to why such things should be; but that they are, is indubitable. The miracles enacted now are silent ones, and are worked in the heart and mind of man alone. Unbelief is nearly supreme in the world to-day. Were an angel to descend from heaven in the middle of a great square, the crowd would think he had got himself up on pulleys and wires, and would try to discover his apparatus. Were he, in wrath, to cast destruction upon them, and with fire blazing from his wings, slay a thousand of them with the mere shaking of a pinion, those who were left alive would either say that a tremendous dynamite explosion had occurred, or that the square was built on an extinct volcano which had suddenly broken out into frightful activity. Anything rather than believe in angels—the nineteenth century protests against the possibility of their existence. It sees no miracle—it pooh-poohs the very enthusiasm that might work them.
“Give a positive sign,” it says; “prove clearly that what you say is true, and I, in spite of my Progress and Atom Theory, will believe.” The answer to such a request was spoken eighteen hundred years and more ago. “A faithless and perverse generation asketh for a sign, and no sign shall be given unto them.”
Were I now to assert that a sign had been given to ME—to me, as one out of the thousands who demand it—such daring assurance on my part would meet with the most strenuous opposition from all who peruse the following pages; each person who reads having his own ideas on all subjects, and naturally considering them to be the best if not the only ideas worth anything. Therefore I wish it to be plainly understood that in this book I personally advocate no new theory of either religion or philosophy; nor do I hold myself answerable for the opinions expressed by any of my characters. My aim throughout is to let facts speak for themselves. If they seem strange, unreal, even impossible, I can only say that the things of the invisible world must always appear so to those whose thoughts and desires are centred on this life only.
AN ARTIST’S STUDIO.
IN THE WINTER OF 188-, I was afflicted by a series of nervous ailments, brought on by overwork and overworry. Chief among these was a protracted and terrible insomnia, accompanied by the utmost depression of spirits and anxiety of mind. I became filled with the gloomiest anticipations of evil; and my system was strung up by slow degrees to such a high tension of physical and mental excitement, that the quietest and most soothing of friendly voices had no other effect upon me than to jar and irritate. Work was impossible; music, my one passion, intolerable; books became wearisome to my sight; and even a short walk in the open air brought with it such lassitude and exhaustion, that I soon grew to dislike the very thought of moving out of doors. In such a condition of health, medical aid became necessary; and a skilful and amiable physician, Dr. R——, of great repute in nervous ailments, attended me for many weeks, with but slight success. He was not to blame, poor man, for his failure to effect a cure. He had only one way of treatment, and he applied it to all his patients with more or less happy results. Some died, some recovered; it was a lottery on which my medical friend staked his reputation, and won. The patients who died were never heard of more—those who recovered sang the praises of their physician everywhere, and sent him gifts of silver plate and hampers of wine, to testify their gratitude. His popularity was very great; his skill considered marvellous; and his inability to do ME any good arose, I must perforce imagine, out of some defect or hidden obstinacy in my constitution, which was to him a new experience, and for which he was unprepared. Poor Dr. R——! How many bottles of your tastily prepared and expensive medicines have I not swallowed, in blind confidence and blinder ignorance of the offences I thus committed against all the principles of that Nature within me, which, if left to itself, always heroically struggles to recover its own proper balance and effect its own cure; but which, if subjected to the experimental tests of various poisons or drugs, often loses strength in the unnatural contest and sinks exhausted, perhaps never to rise with actual vigour again. Baffled in his attempts to remedy my ailments, Dr. R—— at last resorted to the usual plan adopted by all physicians when their medicines have no power. He recommended change of air and scene, and urged my leaving London, then dark with the fogs of a dreary winter, for the gaiety and sunshine and roses of the Riviera. The idea was not unpleasant to me, and I determined to take the advice proffered. Hearing of my intention, some American friends of mine, Colonel Everard and his charming young wife, decided to accompany me, sharing with me the expenses of the journey and hotel accommodation. We left London all together on a damp foggy evening, when the cold was so intense that it seemed to bite the flesh like the sharp teeth of an animal, and after two days’ rapid journey, during which I felt my spirits gradually rising, and my gloomy forebodings vanishing slowly one by one, we arrived at Cannes, and put up at the Hotel de L——. It was a lovely place, and most beautifully situated; the garden was a perfect wilderness of roses in full bloom, and an avenue of orange-trees beginning to flower cast a delicate fragrance on the warm delicious air.
Mrs. Everard was delighted.
“If you do not recover your health here,” she said half laughingly to me on the second morning after our arrival, “I am afraid your case is hopeless. What sunshine! What a balmy wind! It is enough to make a cripple cast away his crutches and forget he was ever lame. Don’t you think so?”
I smiled in answer, but inwardly I sighed. Beautiful as the scenery, the air, and the general surroundings were, I could not disguise from myself that the temporary exhilaration of my feelings, caused by the novelty and excitement of my journey to Cannes, was slowly but surely passing away. The terrible apathy, against which I had fought for so many months, was again creeping over me with its cruel and resistless force. I did my best to struggle against it; I walked, I rode, I laughed and chatted with Mrs. Everard and her husband, and forced myself into sociability with some of the visitors at the hotel, who were disposed to show us friendly attention. I summoned all my stock of will-power to beat back the insidious physical and mental misery that threatened to sap the very spring of my life; and in some of these efforts I partially succeeded. But it was at night that the terrors of my condition manifested themselves. Then sleep forsook my eyes; a dull throbbing weight of pain encircled my head like a crown of thorns; nervous terrors shook me from head to foot; fragments of my own musical compositions hummed in my ears with wearying persistence—fragments that always left me in a state of distressed conjecture; for I never could remember how they ended, and I puzzled myself vainly over crotchets and quavers that never would consent to arrange themselves in any sort of finale. So the days went on; for Colonel Everard and his wife, those days were full of merriment, sight-seeing, and enjoyment. For me, though outwardly I appeared to share in the universal gaiety, they were laden with increasing despair and wretchedness; for I began to lose hope of ever recovering my once buoyant health and strength, and, what was even worse, I seemed to have utterly parted with all working ability. I was young, and up to within a few months life had stretched brightly before me, with the prospect of a brilliant career. And now what was I? A wretched invalid—a burden to myself and to others—a broken spar flung with other fragments of ship wrecked lives on the great ocean of Time, there to be whirled away and forgotten. But a rescue was approaching; a rescue sudden and marvellous, of which, in my wildest fancies, I had never dreamed.
Staying in the same hotel with us was a young Italian artist, Raffaello Cellini by name. His pictures were beginning to attract a great deal of notice, both in Paris and Rome: not only for their faultless drawing, but for their wonderfully exquisite colouring. So deep and warm and rich were the hues he transferred to his canvases, that others of his art, less fortunate in the management of the palette, declared he must have invented some foreign compound whereby he was enabled to deepen and brighten his colours for the time being; but that the effect was only temporary, and that his pictures, exposed to the air for some eight or ten years, would fade away rapidly, leaving only the traces of an indistinct blur. Others, more generous, congratulated him on having discovered the secrets of the old masters. In short, he was admired, condemned, envied, and flattered, all in a breath; while he himself, being of a singularly serene and unruffled disposition, worked away incessantly, caring little or nothing for the world’s praise or blame.
Cellini had a pretty suite of rooms in the Hotel de L——, and my friends Colonel and Mrs. Everard fraternized with him very warmly. He was by no means slow to respond to their overtures of friendship, and so it happened that his studio became a sort of lounge for us, where we would meet to have tea, to chat, to look at the pictures, or to discuss our plans for future enjoyment. These visits to Cellini’s studio, strange to say, had a remarkably soothing and calming effect upon my suffering nerves. The lofty and elegant room, furnished with that “admired disorder” and mixed luxuriousness peculiar to artists, with its heavily drooping velvet curtains, its glimpses of white marble busts and broken columns, its flash and fragrance of flowers that bloomed in a tiny conservatory opening out from the studio and leading to the garden, where a fountain bubbled melodiously—all this pleased me and gave me a curious, yet most welcome, sense of absolute rest. Cellini himself had a fascination for me, for exactly the same reason. As an example of this, I remember escaping from Mrs. Everard on one occasion, and hurrying to the most secluded part of the garden, in order to walk up and down alone in an endeavour to calm an attack of nervous agitation which had suddenly seized me. While thus pacing about in feverish restlessness, I saw Cellini approaching, his head bent as if in thought, and his hands clasped behind his back. As he drew near me, he raised his eyes—they were clear and darkly brilliant—he regarded me steadfastly with a kindly smile. Then lifting his hat with the graceful reverence peculiar to an Italian, he passed on, saying no word. But the effect of his momentary presence upon me was remarkable—it was ELECTRIC. I was no longer agitated. Calmed, soothed and almost happy, I returned to Mrs. Everard, and entered into her plans for the day with so much alacrity that she was surprised and delighted.
“If you go on like this,” she said, “you will be perfectly well in a month.”
I was utterly unable to account for the remedial influence Raffaello Cellini’s presence had upon me; but such as it was I could not but be grateful for the respite it gave me from nervous suffering, and my now daily visits to the artist’s studio were a pleasure and a privilege not to be foregone. Moreover, I was never tired of looking at his pictures. His subjects were all original, and some of them were very weird and fantastic. One large picture particularly attracted me. It was entitled “Lords of our Life and Death.” Surrounded by rolling masses of cloud, some silver-crested, some shot through with red flame, was depicted the World, as a globe half in light, half in shade. Poised above it was a great Angel, upon whose calm and noble face rested a mingled expression of deep sorrow, yearning pity, and infinite regret. Tears seemed to glitter on the drooping lashes of this sweet yet stern Spirit; and in his strong right hand he held a drawn sword—the sword of destruction—pointed forever downwards to the fated globe at his feet. Beneath this Angel and the world he dominated was darkness—utter illimitable darkness. But above him the clouds were torn asunder, and through a transparent veil of light golden mist, a face of surpassing beauty was seen—a face on which youth, health, hope, love, and ecstatic joy all shone with ineffable radiance. It was the personification of Life—not life as we know it, brief and full of care—but Life Immortal and Love Triumphant. Often and often I found myself standing before this masterpiece of Cellini’s genius, gazing at it, not only with admiration, but with a sense of actual comfort. One afternoon, while resting in my favourite low chair opposite the picture, I roused myself from a reverie, and turning to the artist, who was showing some water-colour sketches to Mrs. Everard, I said abruptly:
“Did you imagine that face of the Angel of Life, Signor Cellini, or had you a model to copy from?”
He looked at me and smiled.
“It is a moderately good portrait of an existing original,” he said.
“A woman’s face then, I suppose? How very beautiful she must be!”
“Actual beauty is sexless,” he replied, and was silent. The expression of his face had become abstracted and dreamy, and he turned over the sketches for Mrs. Everard with an air which showed his thoughts to be far away from his occupation.
“And the Death Angel?” I went on. “Had you a model for that also?”
This time a look of relief, almost of gladness, passed over his features.
“No indeed,” he answered with ready frankness; “that is entirely my own creation.”
I was about to compliment him on the grandeur and force of his poetical fancy, when he stopped me by a slight gesture of his hand.
“If you really admire the picture,” he said, “pray do not say so. If it is in truth a work of art, let it speak to you as art only, and spare the poor workman who has called it into existence the shame of having to confess that it is not above human praise. The only true criticism of high art is silence—silence as grand as heaven itself.”
He spoke with energy, and his dark eyes flashed. Amy (Mrs. Everard) looked at him curiously.
“Say now!” she exclaimed, with a ringing laugh, “aren’t you a little bit eccentric, signor? You talk like a long-haired prophet! I never met an artist before who couldn’t stand praise; it is generally a matter of wonder to me to notice how much of that intoxicating sweet they can swallow without reeling. But you’re an exception, I must admit. I congratulate you!”
Cellini bowed gaily in response to the half-friendly, half-mocking curtsey she gave him, and, turning to me again, said:
“I have a favour to ask of you, mademoiselle. Will you sit to me for your portrait?”
“I!” I exclaimed, with astonishment. “Signor Cellini, I cannot imagine why you should wish so to waste your valuable time. There is nothing in my poor physiognomy worthy of your briefest attention.”
“You must pardon me, mademoiselle,” he replied gravely, “if I presume to differ from you. I am exceedingly anxious to transfer your features to my canvas. I am aware that you are not in strong health, and that your face has not that roundness and colour formerly habitual to it. But I am not an admirer of the milkmaid type of beauty. Everywhere I seek for intelligence, for thought, for inward refinement—in short, mademoiselle, you have the face of one whom the inner soul consumes, and, as such, may I plead again with you to give me a little of your spare time? YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT, I ASSURE YOU.”
These last words were uttered in a lower tone and with singular impressiveness. I rose from my seat and looked at him steadily; he returned me glance for glance, A strange thrill ran through me, followed by that inexplicable sensation of absolute calm that I had before experienced. I smiled—I could, not help smiling.
“I will come to-morrow,” I said.
“A thousand thanks, mademoiselle! Can you be here at noon?”
I looked inquiringly at Amy, who clapped her hands with delighted enthusiasm.
“Of course! Any time you like, signor. We will arrange our excursions so that they shall not interfere with the sittings. It will be most interesting to watch the picture growing day by day. What will you call it, signor? By some fancy title?”
“It will depend on its appearance when completed,” he replied, as he threw open the doors of the studio and bowed us out with his usual ceremonious politeness.
“Au revoir, madame! A demain, mademoiselle!” and the violet velvet curtains of the portiere fell softly behind us as we made our exit.
“Is there not something strange about that young man?” said Mrs. Everard, as we walked through the long gallery of the Hotel de L—— back to our own rooms. “Something fiendish or angelic, or a little of both qualities mixed up?”
“I think he is what people term PECULIAR, when they fail to understand the poetical vagaries of genius,” I replied. “He is certainly very uncommon.”
“Well!” continued my friend meditatively, as she contemplated her pretty mignonne face and graceful figure in a long mirror placed attractively in a corner of the hall through which we were passing; “all I can say is that I wouldn’t let him paint MY portrait if he were to ask ever so! I should be scared to death. I wonder you, being so nervous, were not afraid of him.”
“I thought you liked him,” I said.
“So I do. So does my husband. He’s awfully handsome and clever, and all that—but his conversation! There now, my dear, you must own he is slightly QUEER. Why, who but a lunatic would say that the only criticism of art is silence? Isn’t that utter rubbish?”
“The only TRUE criticism,” I corrected her gently.
“Well, it’s all the same. How can there be any criticism at all in silence? According to his idea when we admire anything very much we ought to go round with long faces and gags on our mouths. That would be entirely ridiculous! And what was that dreadful thing he said to you?”
“I don’t quite understand you,” I answered; “I cannot remember his saying anything dreadful.”
“Oh, I have it now,” continued Amy with rapidity; “it was awful! He said you had the FACE OF ONE WHOM THE SOUL CONSUMES. You know that was most horribly mystical! And when he said it he looked—ghastly! What did he mean by it, I wonder?”
I made no answer; but I thought I knew. I changed the conversation as soon as possible, and my volatile American friend was soon absorbed in a discussion on dress and jewellery. That night was a blessed one for me; I was free from all suffering, and slept as calmly as a child, while in my dreams the face of Cellini’s “Angel of life” smiled at me, and seemed to suggest peace.
THE MYSTERIOUS POTION.
THE NEXT DAY, PUNCTUALLY AT noon, according to my promise, I entered the studio. I was alone, for Amy, after some qualms of conscience respecting chaperonage, propriety, and Mrs. Grundy, had yielded to my entreaties and gone for a drive with some friends. In spite of the fears she began to entertain concerning the Mephistophelian character of Raffaello Cellini, there was one thing of which both she and I felt morally certain: namely, that no truer or more honourable gentleman than he ever walked on the earth. Under his protection the loveliest and loneliest woman that ever lived would have been perfectly safe—as safe as though she were shut up, like the princess in the fairy-tale, in a brazen tower, of which only an undiscoverable serpent possessed the key. When I arrived, the rooms were deserted, save for the presence of a magnificent Newfoundland dog, who, as I entered, rose, and shaking his shaggy body, sat down before me and offered me his huge paw, wagging his tail in the most friendly manner all the while, I at once responded to his cordial greeting, and as I stroked his noble head, I wondered where the animal had come from; for though—we had visited Signor Cellini’s studio every day, there had been no sign or mention of this stately, brown-eyed, four-footed companion. I seated myself, and the dog immediately lay down at my feet, every now and then looking up at me with an affectionate glance and a renewed wagging of his tail. Glancing round the well-known room, I noticed that the picture I admired so much was veiled by a curtain of Oriental stuff, in which were embroidered threads of gold mingled with silks of various brilliant hues. On the working easel was a large square canvas, already prepared, as I supposed, for my features to be traced thereon. It was an exceedingly warm morning, and though the windows as well as the glass doors of the conservatory were wide open, I found the air of the studio very oppressive. I perceived on the table a finely-wrought decanter of Venetian glass, in which clear water sparkled temptingly. Rising from my chair, I took an antique silver goblet from the mantelpiece, filled it with the cool fluid, and was about to drink, when the cup was suddenly snatched from my hands, and the voice of Cellini, changed from its usual softness to a tone both imperious and commanding, startled me.
“Do not drink that,” he said; “you must not! You dare not! I forbid you!”
I looked up at him in mute astonishment. His face was very pale, and his large dark eyes shone with suppressed excitement. Slowly my self-possession returned to me, and I said calmly:
“YOU forbid me, signor? Surely you forget yourself. What harm have I done in helping myself to a simple glass of water in your studio? You are not usually so inhospitable.”
While I spoke his manner changed, the colour returned to his face, and his eyes softened—he smiled.
“Forgive me, mademoiselle, for my brusquerie. It is true I forgot myself for a moment. But you were in danger, and——”
“In danger!” I exclaimed incredulously.
“Yes, mademoiselle. This,” and he held up the Venetian decanter to the light, “is not water simply. If you will observe it now with the sunshine beating full against it, I think you will perceive peculiarities in it that will assure you of my veracity.”
I looked as he bade me, and saw, to my surprise, that the fluid was never actually still for a second. A sort of internal bubbling seemed to work in its centre, and curious specks and lines of crimson and gold flashed through it from time to time.
“What is it?” I asked; adding with a half-smile, “Are you the possessor of a specimen of the far-famed Aqua Tofana?”
Cellini placed the decanter carefully on a shelf, and I noticed that he chose a particular spot for it, where the rays of the sun could fall perpendicularly upon the vessel containing it. Then turning to me, he replied:
“Aqua Tofana, mademoiselle, is a deadly poison, known to the ancients and also to many learned chemists of our day. It is a clear and colourless liquid, but it is absolutely still—as still as a stagnant pool. What I have just shown you is not poison, but quite the reverse. I will prove this to you at once.” And taking a tiny liqueur glass from a side table, he filled it with the strange fluid and drank it off, carefully replacing the stopper in the decanter.
“But, Signor Cellini,” I urged, “if it is so harmless, why did you forbid my tasting it? Why did you say there was danger for me when I was about to drink it?”
“Because, mademoiselle, for YOU it would be dangerous. Your health is weak, your nerves unstrung. That elixir is a powerful vivifying tonic, acting with great rapidity on the entire system, and rushing through the veins with the swiftness of ELECTRICITY. I am accustomed to it; it is my daily medicine. But I was brought to it by slow, and almost imperceptible degrees. A single teaspoonful of that fluid, mademoiselle, administered to anyone not prepared to receive it, would be instant death, though its actual use is to vivify and strengthen human life. You understand now why I said you were in danger?”
“I understand,” I replied, though in sober truth I was mystified and puzzled.
“And you forgive my seeming rudeness?”
“Oh, certainly! But you have aroused my curiosity. I should like to know more about this strange medicine of yours.”
“You shall know more if you wish,” said Cellini, his usual equable humour and good spirits now quite restored. “You shall know everything; but not to-day. We have too little time. I have not yet commenced your picture. And I forgot—you were thirsty, and I was, as you said, inhospitable. You must permit me to repair my fault.”
And with a courteous salute he left the room, to return almost immediately with a tumbler full of some fragrant, golden-coloured liquid, in which lumps of ice glittered refreshingly. A few loose rose-leaves were scattered on the top of this dainty-looking beverage.
“You may enjoy this without fear,” said he, smiling; “it will do you good. It is an Eastern wine, unknown to trade, and therefore untampered with. I see you are looking at the rose-leaves on the surface. That is a Persian custom, and I think a pretty one. They float away from your lips in the action of drinking, and therefore they are no obstacle.”
I tasted the wine and found it delicious, soft and mellow as summer moonlight. While I sipped it the big Newfoundland, who had stretched himself in a couchant posture on the hearth-rug ever since Cellini had first entered the room, rose and walked majestically to my side and rubbed his head caressingly against the folds of my dress.
“Leo has made friends with you, I see,” said Cellini. “You should take that as a great compliment, for he is most particular in his choice of acquaintance, and most steadfast when he has once made up his mind. He has more decision of character than many a statesman.”
“How is it we have never seen him before?” I inquired. “You never told us you had such a splendid companion.”
“I am not his master,” replied the artist. “He only favours me with a visit occasionally. He arrived from Paris last night, and came straight here, sure of his welcome. He does not confide his plans to me, but I suppose he will return to his home when he thinks it advisable. He knows his own business best.”
“What a clever dog! Does he journey on foot, or does he take the train?”
“I believe he generally patronizes the railway. All the officials know him, and he gets into the guard’s van as a matter of course. Sometimes he will alight at a station en route, and walk the rest of the way. But if he is lazily inclined, he does not stir till the train reaches its destination. At the end of every six months or so, the railway authorities send the bill of Leo’s journeyings in to his master, when it is always settled without difficulty.”
“And who IS his master?” I ventured to ask.
Cellini’s face grew serious and absorbed, and his eyes were full of grave contemplation as he answered:
“His master, mademoiselle, is MY master—one who among men, is supremely intelligent; among teachers, absolutely unselfish; among thinkers, purely impersonal; among friends, inflexibly faithful. To him I owe everything—even life itself. For him no sacrifice, no extreme devotion would be too great, could I hope thereby to show my gratitude. But he is as far above human thanks or human rewards as the sun is above the sea. Not here, not now, dare I say to him, MY FRIEND, BEHOLD HOW MUCH I LOVE THEE! such language would be all too poor and unmeaning; but hereafter—who knows?——” and he broke off abruptly with a half-sigh. Then, as if forcing himself to change the tenor of his thoughts, he continued in a kind tone: “But, mademoiselle, I am wasting your time, and am taking no advantage of the favour you have shown me by your presence to-day. Will you seat yourself here?” and he placed an elaborately carved oaken settee in one corner of the studio, opposite his own easel. “I should be sorry to fatigue you at all,” he went on; “do you care for reading?”
I answered eagerly in the affirmative, and he handed me a volume bound in curiously embossed leather, and ornamented with silver clasps. It was entitled “Letters of a Dead Musician.”
“You will find clear gems of thought, passion, and feeling in this book,” said Cellini; “and being a musician yourself, you will know how to appreciate them. The writer was one of those geniuses whose work the world repays with ridicule and contempt. There is no fate more enviable!”
I looked at the artist with some surprise as I took the volume he recommended, and seated myself in the position he indicated; and while he busied himself in arranging the velvet curtains behind me as a background, I said:
“Do you really consider it enviable, Signor Cellini, to receive the world’s ridicule and contempt?”
“I do indeed,” he replied, “since it is a certain proof that the world does not understand you. To achieve something that is above human comprehension, THAT is greatness. To have the serene sublimity of the God-man Christ, and consent to be crucified by a gibing world that was fated to be afterwards civilized and dominated by His teachings, what can be more glorious? To have the magnificent versatility of a Shakespeare, who was scarcely recognized in his own day, but whose gifts were so vast and various that the silly multitudes wrangle over his very identity and the authenticity of his plays to this hour—what can be more triumphant? To know that one’s own soul can, if strengthened and encouraged by the force of will, rise to a supreme altitude of power—is not that sufficient to compensate for the little whining cries of the common herd of men and women who have forgotten whether they ever had a spiritual spark in them, and who, straining up to see the light of genius that burns too fiercely for their earth-dimmed eyes, exclaim: ‘WE see nothing, therefore there CAN be nothing.’ Ah, mademoiselle, the knowledge of one’s own inner Self-Existence is a knowledge surpassing all the marvels of art and science!”
Cellini spoke with enthusiasm, and his countenance seemed illumined by the eloquence that warmed his speech. I listened with a sort of dreamy satisfaction; the visual sensation of utter rest that I always experienced in this man’s presence was upon me, and I watched him with interest as he drew with quick and facile touch the outline of my features on his canvas.
Gradually he became more and more absorbed in his work; he glanced at me from time to time, but did not speak, and his pencil worked rapidly. I turned over the “Letters of a Dead Musician” with some curiosity. Several passages struck me as being remarkable for their originality and depth of thought; but what particularly impressed me as I read on, was the tone of absolute joy and contentment that seemed to light up every page. There were no wailings over disappointed ambition, no regrets for the past, no complaints, no criticism, no word for or against the brothers of his art; everything was treated from a lofty standpoint of splendid equality, save when the writer spoke of himself, and then he became the humblest of the humble, yet never abject, and always happy.
“O Music!” he wrote, “Music, thou Sweetest Spirit of all that serve God, what have I done that thou shouldst so often visit me? It is not well, O thou Lofty and Divine One, that thou shouldst stoop so low as to console him who is the unworthiest of all thy servants. For I am too feeble to tell the world how soft is the sound of thy rustling pinions, how tender is the sighing breath of thy lips, how beyond all things glorious is the vibration of thy lightest whisper! Remain aloft, thou Choicest Essence of the Creator’s Voice, remain in that pure and cloudless ether, where alone thou art fitted to dwell. My touch must desecrate thee, my voice affright thee. Suffice it to thy servant, O Beloved, to dream of thee and die!”
Meeting Cellini’s glance as I finished reading these lines, I asked:
“Did you know the author of this book, signor?”
“I knew him well,” he replied; “he was one of the gentlest souls that ever dwelt in human clay. As ethereal in his music as John Keats in his poetry, he was one of those creatures born of dreams and rapture that rarely visit this planet. Happy fellow! What a death was his!”
“How did he die?” I inquired.
“He was playing the organ in one of the great churches of Rome on the day of the Feast of the Virgin. A choir of finely trained voices sang to his accompaniment his own glorious setting of the “Regina Coeli.” The music was wonderful, startling, triumphant—ever rising in power and majesty to a magnificent finale, when suddenly a slight crash was heard; the organ ceased abruptly, the singers broke off. The musician was dead. He had fallen forward on the keys of the instrument, and when they raised him, his face was fairer than the face of any sculptured angel, so serene was its expression, so rapt was its smile. No one could tell exactly the cause of his death—he had always been remarkably strong and healthy. Everyone said it was heart-disease—it is the usual reason assigned by medical savants for these sudden departures out of the world. His loss was regretted by all, save myself and one other who loved him. We rejoiced, and still do rejoice, at his release.”
I speculated vaguely on the meaning of these last words, but I felt disinclined to ask any more questions, and Cellini, probably seeing this, worked on at his sketch without further converse. My eyes were growing heavy, and the printed words in the “Dead Musician’s Letters” danced before my sight like active little black demons with thin waving arms and legs. A curious yet not unpleasant drowsiness stole over me, in which I heard the humming of the bees at the open window, the singing of the birds, and the voices of people in the hotel gardens, all united in one continuous murmur that seemed a long way off. I saw the sunshine and the shadow—I saw the majestic Leo stretched full length near the easel, and the slight supple form of Raffaello Cellini standing out in bold outline against the light; yet all seemed shifting and mingling strangely into a sort of wide radiance in which there was nothing but varying tints of colour. And could it have been my fancy, or did I actually SEE the curtain fall gradually away from my favourite picture, just enough for the face of the “Angel of Life” to be seen smiling down upon me? I rubbed my eyes violently, and started to my feet at the sound of the artist’s voice.
“I have tried your patience enough for to-day,” he said, and his words sounded muffled, as though they were being spoken through, a thick wall. “You can leave me now if you like.”
I stood before him mechanically, still holding the book he had lent me clasped in my hand. Irresolutely I raised my eyes towards the “Lords of our Life and Death.” It was closely veiled. I had then experienced an optical illusion. I forced myself to speak—to smile—to put back the novel sensations that were overwhelming me.
“I think,” I said, and I heard myself speak as though I were somebody else at a great distance off—"I think, Signor Cellini, your Eastern wine has been too potent for me. My head is quite heavy, and I feel dazed.”
“It is mere fatigue and the heat of the day,” he replied quietly. “I am sure you are not too DAZED, as you call it, to see your favourite picture, are you?”
I trembled. Was not that picture veiled? I looked—there was no curtain at all, and the faces of the two Angels shone out of the canvas with intense brilliancy! Strange to say, I felt no surprise at this circumstance, which, had it occurred a moment previously, would have unquestionably astonished and perhaps alarmed me. The mistiness of my brain suddenly cleared; I saw everything plainly; I heard distinctly; and when I spoke, the tone of my voice sounded as full and ringing as it had previously seemed low and muffled. I gazed steadfastly at the painting, and replied, half smiling:
“I should be indeed ‘far gone,’ as the saying is, if I could not see that, signor! It is truly your masterpiece. Why have you never exhibited it?”
“Can YOU ask that?” he said with impressive emphasis, at the same time drawing nearer and fixing upon me the penetrating glance of his dark fathomless eyes. It then seemed to me that some great inner force compelled me to answer this half-inquiry, in words of which I had taken no previous thought, and which, as I uttered them, conveyed no special meaning to my own ears.
“Of course,” I said slowly, as if I were repeating a lesson, “you would not so betray the high trust committed to your charge.”
“Well said!” replied Cellini; “you are fatigued, mademoiselle. Au revoir! Till to-morrow!” And, throwing open the door of his studio, he stood aside for me to pass out. I looked at him inquiringly.
“Must I come at the same time to-morrow?” I asked.
“If you please.”
I passed my hand across my forehead perplexedly, I felt I had something else to say before I left him. He waited patiently, holding back with one hand the curtains of the portiere.
“I think I had a parting word to give you,” I said at last, meeting his gaze frankly; “but I seem to have forgotten what it was.” Cellini smiled gravely.
“Do not trouble to think about it, mademoiselle. I am unworthy the effort on your part.”
A flash of vivid light crossed my eyes for a second, and I exclaimed eagerly:
“I remember now! It was ‘Dieu vous garde’ signor!”
He bent his head reverentially.
“Merci mille fois, mademoiselle! Dieu vous garde—vous aussi. Au revoir.”
And clasping my hand with a light yet friendly pressure, he closed the door of his room behind me. Once alone in the passage, the sense of high elation and contentment that had just possessed me began gradually to decrease. I had not become actually dispirited, but a languid feeling of weariness oppressed me, and my limbs ached as though I had walked incessantly for many miles. I went straight to my own room. I consulted my watch; it was half-past one, the hour at which the hotel luncheon was usually served. Mrs. Everard had evidently not returned from her drive. I did not care to attend the table d’hote alone; besides, I had no inclination to eat. I drew down the window-blinds to shut out the brilliancy of the beautiful Southern sunlight, and throwing myself on my bed I determined to rest quietly till Amy came back. I had brought the “Letters of a Dead Musician” away with me from Cellini’s studio, and I began to read, intending to keep myself awake by this means. But I found I could not fix my attention on the page, nor could I think at all connectedly. Little by little my eyelids closed; the book dropped from my nerveless hand; and in a few minutes I was in a deep and tranquil slumber.
ROSES, ROSES! AN INTERMINABLE CHAIN of these royal blossoms, red and white, wreathed by the radiant fingers of small rainbow-winged creatures as airy as moonlight mist, as delicate as thistledown! They cluster round me with smiling faces and eager eyes; they place the end of their rose-garland in my hand, and whisper, “FOLLOW!” Gladly I obey, and hasten onward. Guiding myself by the fragrant chain I hold, I pass through a labyrinth of trees, whose luxuriant branches quiver with the flight and song of birds. Then comes a sound of waters; the riotous rushing of a torrent unchecked, that leaps sheer down from rocks a thousand feet high, thundering forth the praise of its own beauty as it tosses in the air triumphant crowns of silver spray. How the living diamonds within it shift, and change, and sparkle! Fain would I linger to watch this magnificence; but the coil of roses still unwinds before me, and the fairy voices still cry, “FOLLOW!” I press on. The trees grow thicker; the songs of the birds cease; the light around me grows pale and subdued. In the far distance I see a golden crescent that seems suspended by some invisible thread in the air. Is it the young moon? No; for as I gaze it breaks apart into a thousand points of vivid light like wandering stars. These meet; they blaze into letters of fire. I strain my dazzled eyes to spell out their meaning. They form one word—HELIOBAS. I read it. I utter it aloud. The rose-chain breaks at my feet, and disappears. The fairy voices die away on my ear. There is utter silence, utter darkness,—save where that one NAME writes itself in burning gold on the blackness of the heavens.
The interior of a vast cathedral is opened before my gaze. The lofty white marble columns support a vaulted roof painted in fresco, from which are suspended a thousand lamps that emit a mild and steady effulgence. The great altar is illuminated; the priests, in glittering raiment, pace slowly to and fro. The large voice of the organ, murmuring to itself awhile, breaks forth in a shout of melody; and a boy’s clear, sonorous treble tones pierce the incense-laden air. “Credo!"—and the silver, trumpet-like notes fall from the immense height of the building like a bell ringing in a pure atmosphere—"Credo in unum Deum; Patrem omni-potentum, factorem coeli et terrae, visibilium omnium et invisibilium.”
The cathedral echoes with answering voices; and, involuntarily kneeling, I follow the words of the grand chant. I hear the music slacken; the notes of rejoicing change to a sobbing and remorseful wail; the organ shudders like a forest of pines in a tempest, “Crucifixus etiam pro nobis; passus et sepultus est.” A darkness grows up around me; my senses swim. The music altogether ceases; but a brilliant radiance streams through a side-door of the church, and twenty maidens, clad in white and crowned with myrtle, pacing two by two, approach me. They gaze at me with joyous eyes. “Art thou also one of us?” they murmur; then they pass onward to the altar, where again the lights are glimmering. I watch them with eager interest; I hear them uplift their fresh young voices in prayer and praise. One of them, whose deep blue eyes are full of lustrous tenderness, leaves her companions, and softly approaches me. She holds a pencil and tablet in her hand.
“Write!” she says, in a thrilling whisper; “and write quickly! for whatsoever thou shalt now inscribe is the clue to thy destiny.”
I obey her mechanically, impelled not by my own will, but by some unknown powerful force acting within and around me. I trace upon the tablet one word only; it is a name that startles me even while I myself write it down—HELIOBAS. Scarcely have I written it when a thick white cloud veils the cathedral from my sight; the fair maiden vanishes, and all is again still.
I am listening to the accents of a grave melodious voice, which, from its slow and measured tones, would seem to be in the action of reading or reciting aloud. I see a small room sparely furnished, and at a table covered with books and manuscripts is seated a man of noble features and commanding presence. He is in the full prime of life; his dark hair has no thread of silver to mar its luxuriance; his face is unwrinkled; his forehead unfurrowed by care; his eyes, deeply sunk beneath his shelving brows, are of a singularly clear and penetrating blue, with an absorbed and watchful look in them, like the eyes of one accustomed to gaze far out at sea. His hand rests on the open pages of a massive volume; he is reading, and his expression is intent and earnest—as if he were littering his own thoughts aloud, with the conviction and force of an orator who knows the truth of which he speaks:
“The Universe is upheld solely by the Law of Love. A majestic invisible Protectorate governs the winds, the tides, the incoming and outgoing of the seasons, the birth of the flowers, the growth of forests, the outpourings of the sunlight, the silent glittering of the stars. A wide illimitable Beneficence embraces all creation. A vast Eternal Pity exists for all sorrow, all sin. He who first swung the planets in the air, and bade them revolve till Time shall be no more—He, the Fountain-Head of Absolute Perfection, is no deaf, blind, capricious, or remorseless Being. To Him the death of the smallest singing-bird is as great or as little as the death of a world’s emperor. For Him the timeless withering of an innocent flower is as pitiful as the decay of a mighty nation. An infant’s first prayer to Him is heard with as tender a patience as the united petitions of thousands of worshippers. For in everything and around everything, from the sun to a grain of sand, He hath a portion, small or great, of His own most Perfect Existence. Should He hate His Creation, He must perforce hate Himself; and that Love should hate Love is an impossibility. Therefore He loves all His work; and as Love, to be perfect, must contain Pity, Forgiveness, and Forbearance, so doth He pity, forgive, and forbear. Shall a mere man deny himself for the sake of his child or friend? and shall the Infinite Love refuse to sacrifice itself—yea, even to as immense a humility as its greatness is immeasurable? Shall we deny those merciful attributes to God which we acknowledge in His creature, Man? O my Soul, rejoice that thou hast pierced the veil of the Beyond; that thou hast seen and known the Truth! that to thee is made clear the Reason of Life, and the Recompense of Death: yet while rejoicing, grieve that thou art not fated to draw more than a few souls to the comfort thou hast thyself attained!”
Fascinated by the speaker’s voice and countenance, I listen, straining my ears to catch every word that falls from his lips. He rises; he stands erect; he stretches out his hands as though in solemn entreaty.
“Azul!” he exclaims. “Messenger of my fate; thou who art a guiding spirit of the elements, thou who ridest the storm-cloud and sittest throned on the edge of the lightning! By that electric spark within me, of which thou art the Twin Flame, I ask of thee to send me this one more poor human soul; let me change its unrestfulness into repose, its hesitation to certainty, its weakness to strength, its weary imprisonment to the light of liberty! Azul!”
His voice ceases, his extended hands fall slowly, and gradually, gradually he turns his whole figure towards ME. He faces me—his intense eyes burn through me—his strange yet tender smile absorbs me. Yet I am full of unreasoning terror; I tremble—I strive to turn away from that searching and magnetic gaze. His deep, melodious tones again ring softly on the silence. He addresses me.
“Fearest thou me, my child? Am I not thy friend? Knowest thou not the name of HELIOBAS?”
At this word I start and gasp for breath; I would shriek, but cannot, for a heavy hand seems to close my mouth, and an immense weight presses me down. I struggle violently with this unseen Power—little by little I gain the advantage. One effort more! I win the victory—I wake!
“Sakes alive!” says a familiar voice; “you HAVE had a spell of sleep! I got home about two, nearly starving, and I found you here curled up ‘in a rosy infant slumber,’ as the song says. So I hunted up the Colonel and had lunch, for it seemed a sin to disturb you. It’s just struck four. Shall we have some tea up here?”
I looked at Mrs. Everard, and smiled assent. So I had been sleeping for two hours and a half, and I had evidently been dreaming all the time; but my dreams had been as vivid as realities. I felt still rather drowsy, but I was thoroughly rested and in a state of delicious tranquillity. My friend rang the bell for the tea, and then turned round and surveyed me with a sort of wonder.
“What have you done to yourself, child?” she said at last, approaching the bed where I lay, and staring fixedly at me.
“What do you mean?”
“Why, you look a different creature. When I left you this morning you were pale and haggard, a sort of die-away delicate invalid; now your eyes are bright; and your cheeks have quite a lovely colour in them; your lips, too, are the right tint. But perhaps,” and here she looked alarmed—"perhaps you’ve got the fever?”
“I don’t think so,” I said amusedly, and I stretched out my hand for her to feel.
“No, you haven’t,” she continued, evidently reassured; “your palm is moist and cool, and your pulse is regular. Well, you look spry, anyhow. I shouldn’t wonder if you made up your mind to have a dance to-night.”
“Dance?” I queried. “What dance, and where?”
“Well, Madame Didier, that jolly little furbelowed Frenchwoman with whom I was driving just now, has got up a regular party to-night—”
“Hans Breitmann gib a barty?” I interposed, with a mock solemn air of inquiry.
“Well, yes, it MAY be that kind of thing, for all I know to the contrary. Anyhow, she’s hired the band and ordered a right-down elegant supper. Half the folks in the hotel are going, and a lot of outsiders have got invitations. She asked if we couldn’t come—myself, the Colonel, and you. I said I could answer for myself and the Colonel, but not for you, as you were an invalid. But if you keep on looking as you do at present, no one will believe that there’s anything the matter with you.—Tea, Alphonse!”
This to a polite waiter, who was our special attendant, and who just then knocked at the door to know “madame’s” orders.
Utterly disbelieving what my friend said in regard to my improved appearance, I rose from the bed and went to the dressing-table to look in the mirror and judge for myself. I almost recoiled from my own reflection, so great was my surprise. The heavy marks under my eyes, the lines of pain that had been for months deepening in my forehead, the plaintive droop of the mouth that had given me such an air of ill-health and anxiety—all were gone as if by magic. I saw a rose-tinted complexion, a pair of laughing, lustrous eyes, and, altogether, such a happy, mirthful young face smiled back at me, that I half doubted whether it was indeed myself I saw.
“There now!” cried Amy in triumph, watching me as I pushed my clustering hair from my brows, and examined myself more intently. “Did I not tell you so? The change in you is marvellous! I know what it is. You have been getting better unconsciously to yourself in this lovely air and scene, and the long afternoon sleep you’ve just had has completed the cure.”
I smiled at her enthusiasm, but was forced to admit that she was right as far as my actual looks went. No one would believe that I was, or ever had been, ill. In silence I loosened my hair and began to brush it and put it in order before the mirror, and as I did so my thoughts were very busy. I remembered distinctly all that had happened in the studio of Raffaello Cellini, and still more distinctly was I able to recall every detail of the three dreams that had visited me in my slumber. The NAME, too, that had been the key-note of them all I also remembered, but some instinct forbade me to utter it aloud. Once I thought, “Shall I take a pencil and write it down lest I forget it?” and the same instinct said “No.” Amy’s voluble chatter ran on like the sound of a rippling brook all the time I thus meditated over the occurrences of the day.
“Say, child!” she exclaimed; “will you go to the dance?”
“Certainly I will, with pleasure,” I answered, and indeed I felt as if I should thoroughly enjoy it.
“Brava! It will be real fun. There are no end of foreign titles coming, I believe. The Colonel’s a bit grumpy about it,—he always is when he has to wear his dress suit. He just hates it. That man hasn’t a particle of vanity. He looks handsomer in his evening clothes than in anything else, and yet he doesn’t see it. But tell me,” and her pretty face became serious with a true feminine anxiety, “whatever will you wear? You’ve brought no ball fixings, have you?”
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