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A Mystic Tryst.
“Nourhalma” And the Original Esdras.
An Undesired Blessing.
By the Waters of Babylon.
The Field of Flowers.
God’s Maiden Edris.
The Marvellous City.
A Poet’s Palace.
The Summons of the Signet.
The Prophet of Doom.
A Virgin Unshrined.
The Love that Kills.
A Strange Temptation.
The Passage of the Tombs.
The Crimson River.
The Fall of the Obelisk.
A Golden Tress.
The Priest Zel.
In the Temple of Nagaya.
The Cup of Wrath and Trembling.
Zabastesism and Paulism.
Rewards of Fame.
One Against Many.
A Missing Record.
The Wizard of the Bow.
By the Rhine.
In the Cathedral.
“What merest whim
Seems all this poor endeavor after Fame
To one who keeps within his steadfast aim
A love immortal, an Immortal too!
Look not so ‘wildered, for these things are true
And never can be borne of atomics
That buzz about our slumbers like brain-flies
Leaving us fancy-sick. No, I am sure
My restless spirit never could endure
To brood so long upon one luxury.
Unless it did, though fearfully, espy
A HOPE BEYOND THE SHADOW OF A DREAM!”
Deep in the heart of the Caucasus mountains a wild storm was gathering. Drear shadows drooped and thickened above the Pass of Dariel — that terrific gorge which like a mere thread seems to hang between the toppling frost-bound heights above and the black abysmal depths below — clouds, fringed ominously with lurid green and white, drifted heavily yet swiftly across the jagged peaks where, looming largely out of the mist, the snow-capped crest of Mount Kazbek rose coldly white against the darkness of the threatening sky. Night was approaching, though away to the west a road gash of crimson, a seeming wound in the breast of heaven, showed where the sun had set an hour since. Now and again the rising wind moaned sobbingly through the tall and spectral pines that, with knotted roots fast clenched in the reluctant earth, clung tenaciously to their stony vantageground; and mingling with its wailing murmur, there came a distant hoarse roaring as of tumbling torrents, while at far-off intervals could be heard the sweeping thud of an avalanche slipping from point to point on its disastrous downward way. Through the wreathing vapors the steep, bare sides of the near mountains were pallidly visible, their icy pinnacles, like uplifted daggers, piercing with sharp glitter the density of the low-hanging haze, from which large drops of moisture began presently to ooze rather than fall. Gradually the wind increased, and soon with sudden fierce gusts shook the pine-trees into shuddering anxiety — the red slit in the sky closed, and a gleam of forked lightning leaped athwart the driving darkness. An appalling crash of thunder followed almost instantaneously, its deep boom vibrating in sullenly grand echoes on all sides of the Pass, and then — with a swirling, hissing rush of rain — the unbound hurricane burst forth alive and furious. On, on! splitting huge boughs and flinging them aside like straws, swelling the rivers into riotous floods that swept hither and thither, carrying with them masses of rock and stone and tons of loosened snow — on, on! with pitiless force and destructive haste, the tempest rolled, thundered, and shrieked its way through Dariel. As the night darkened and the clamor of the conflicting elements grew more sustained and violent, a sudden sweet sound floated softly through the turbulent air — the slow, measured tolling of a bell. To and fro, to and fro, the silvery chime swung with mild distinctness — it was the vesper-bell ringing in the Monastery of Lars far up among the crags crowning the ravine. There the wind roared and blustered its loudest; it whirled round and round the quaint castellated building, battering the gates and moving their heavy iron hinges to a most dolorous groaning; it flung rattling hailstones at the narrow windows, and raged and howled at every corner and through every crevice; while snaky twists of lightning played threateningly over the tall iron Cross that surmounted the roof, as though bent on striking it down and splitting open the firm old walls it guarded. All was war and tumult without:— but within, a tranquil peace prevailed, enhanced by the grave murmur of organ music; men’s voices mingling together in mellow unison chanted the Magnificat, and the uplifted steady harmony of the grand old anthem rose triumphantly above the noise of the storm. The monks who inhabited this mountain eyrie, once a fortress, now a religious refuge, were assembled in their little chapel — a sort of grotto roughly hewn out of the natural rock. Fifteen in number, they stood in rows of three abreast, their white woollen robes touching the ground, their white cowls thrown back, and their dark faces and flashing eyes turned devoutly toward the altar whereon blazed in strange and solitary brilliancy a Cross of Fire. At the first glance it was easy to see that they were a peculiar Community devoted to some peculiar form of worship, for their costume was totally different in character and detail from any such as are worn by the various religious fraternities of the Greek, Roman, or Armenian faith, and one especial feature of their outward appearance served as a distinctly marked sign of their severance from all known monastic orders — this was the absence of the disfiguring tonsure. They were all fine-looking men seemingly in the prime of life, and they intoned the Magnificat not drowsily or droningly, but with a rich tunefulness and warmth of utterance that stirred to a faint surprise and contempt the jaded spirit of one reluctant listener present among them. This was a stranger who had arrived that evening at the monastery, and who intended remaining there for the night — a man of distinguished and somewhat haughty bearing, with a dark, sorrowful, poetic face, chiefly remarkable for its mingled expression of dreamy ardor and cold scorn, an expression such as the unknown sculptor of Hadrian’s era caught and fixed in the marble of his ivy-crowned Bacchus–Antinous, whose half-sweet, half-cruel smile suggests a perpetual doubt of all things and all men. He was clad in the rough-and-ready garb of the travelling Englishman, and his athletic figure in its plain-cut modern attire looked curiously out of place in that mysterious grotto which, with its rocky walls and flaming symbol of salvation, seem suited only to the picturesque prophet-like forms of the white-gowned brethren whom he now surveyed, as he stood behind their ranks, with a gleam of something like mockery in his proud, weary eyes.
“What sort of fellows are these?” he mused —“fools or knaves? They must be one or the other — else they would not thus chant praises to a Deity of whose existence there is, and can be, no proof. It is either sheer ignorance or hypocrisy — or both combined. I can pardon ignorance, but not hypocrisy; for however dreary the results of Truth, yet Truth alone prevails; its killing bolt destroys the illusive beauty of the Universe, but what then? Is it not better so than that the Universe should continue to seem beautiful only through the medium of a lie?”
His straight brows drew together in a puzzled, frowning line as he asked himself this question, and he moved restlessly. He was becoming impatient; the chanting of the monks grew monotonous to his ears; the lighted cross on the altar dazzled him with its glare. Moreover he disliked all forms of religious service, though as a lover of classic lore it is probable he would have witnessed a celebration in honor of Apollo or Diana with the liveliest interest. But the very name of Christianity was obnoxious to him. Like Shelley, he considered that creed a vulgar and barbarous superstition. Like Shelley, he inquired, “If God has spoken, why is the world not convinced?” He began to wish he had never set foot inside this abode of what he deemed a pretended sanctity, although as a matter of fact he had a special purpose of his own in visiting the place-a purpose so utterly at variance with the professed tenets of his present life and character that the mere thought of it secretly irritated him, even while he was determined to accomplish it. As yet he had only made acquaintance with two of the monks, courteous, good-humored personages, who had received him on his arrival with the customary hospitality which it was the rule of the monastery to afford to all belated wayfarers journeying across the perilous Pass of Dariel. They had asked him no questions as to his name or nation, they had simply seen in him a stranger overtaken by the storm and in need of shelter, and had entertained him accordingly. They had conducted him to the refectory, where a well-piled log fire was cheerfully blazing, and there had set before him an excellent supper, flavored with equally excellent wine. He had, however, scarcely begun to converse with them when the vesper-bell had rung, and, obedient to its summons, they had hurried away, leaving him to enjoy his repast in solitude. When he had finished it, he had sat for a while dreamily listening to the solemn strains of the organ, which penetrated to every part of the building, and then moved by a vague curiosity to see how many men there were dwelling thus together in this lonely retreat, perched like an eagle’s nest among the frozen heights of Caucasus, he had managed to find his way, guided by the sound of the music, through various long corridors and narrow twisting passages, into the cavernous grot where he now stood, feeling infinitely bored and listlessly dissatisfied. His primary object in entering the chapel had been to get a good full view of the monks, and of their faces especially — but at present this was impossible, as from the position he was obliged to occupy behind them their backs alone were visible.
“And who knows,” he thought moodily, “how long they will go on intoning their dreary Latin doggerel? Priestcraft and Sham! There’s no escape from it anywhere, not even in the wilds of Caucasus! I wonder if the man I seek is really here, or whether after all I have been misled? There are so many contradictory stories told about him that one doesn’t know what to believe. It seems incredible that he should be a monk; it is such an altogether foolish ending to an intellectual career. For whatever may be the form of faith professed by this particular fraternity, the absurdity of the whole system of religion remains the same. Religion’s day is done; the very sense of worship is a mere coward instinct — a relic of barbarism which is being gradually eradicated from our natures by the progress of civilization. The world knows by this time that creation is an empty jest; we are all beginning to understand its bathos! And if we must grant that there is some mischievous supreme Farceur who, safely shrouded in invisibility, continues to perpetrate so poor and purposeless a joke for his own amusement and our torture, we need not, for that matter, admire his wit or flatter his ingenuity! For life is nothing but vexation and suffering; are we dogs that we should lick the hand that crushes us?”
At that moment, the chanting suddenly ceased. The organ went on, as though musically meditating to itself in minor cords, through which soft upper notes, like touches of light on a dark landscape, flickered ripplingly — one monk separated himself from the clustered group, and stepping slowly up to the altar, confronted the rest of his brethren. The fiery Cross shone radiantly behind him, its beams seeming to gather in a lustrous halo round his tall, majestic figure — his countenance, fully illumined and clearly visible, was one never to be forgotten for the striking force, sweetness, and dignity expressed in its every feature. The veriest scoffer that ever made mock of fine beliefs and fair virtues must have been momentarily awed and silenced in the presence of such a man as this — a man upon whom the grace of a perfect life seemed to have fallen like a royal robe, investing even his outward appearance with spiritual authority and grandeur. At sight of him, the stranger’s indifferent air rapidly changed to one of eager interest — leaning forward, he regarded him intently with a look of mingled astonishment and unwilling admiration — the monk meanwhile extended his hands as though in blessing and spoke aloud, his Latin words echoing through the rocky temple with the measured utterance of poetical rhythm. Translated they ran thus:
“Glory to God, the Most High, the Supreme and Eternal!”
And with one harmonious murmur of accord the brethren responded:
“GLORY FOR EVER AND EVER! AMEN!”
“Glory to God, the Ruler of Spirits and Master of Angels!”
“GLORY FOR EVER AND EVER! AMEN!”
“Glory to God who in love never wearies of loving!”
“GLORY FOR EVER AND EVER! AMEN!”
“Glory to God in the Name of His Christ our Redeemer!”
“GLORY FOR EVER AND EVER! AMEN!”
“Glory to God for the joys of the Past, the Present and Future!”
“GLORY FOR EVER AND EVER! AMEN!”
“Glory to God for the Power of Will and the working of Wisdom!”
“GLORY FOR EVER AND EVER! AMEN!”
“Glory to God for the briefness of life, the gladness of death, and the promised Immortal Hereafter!”
“GLORY FOR EVER AND EVER! AMEN!”
Then came a pause, during which the thunder outside added a tumultuous Gloria of its own to those already recited — the organ music died away into silence, and the monk now turning so that he faced the altar, sank reverently on his knees. All present followed his example, with the exception of the stranger, who, as if in deliberate defiance, drew himself resolutely up to his full height, and, folding his arms, gazed at the scene before him with a perfectly unmoved demeanor — he expected to hear some long prayer, but none came. There was an absolute stillness, unbroken save by the rattle of the rain-drops against the high oriel window, and the whistling rush of the wind. And as he looked, the fiery Cross began to grow dim and pale — little by little, its scintillating lustre decreased, till at last it disappeared altogether, leaving no trace of its former brilliancy but a small bright flame that gradually took the shape of a seven-pointed Star which sparkled through the gloom like a suspended ruby. The chapel was left almost in complete darkness — he could scarcely discern even the white figures of the kneeling worshippers — a haunting sense of the Supernatural seemed to permeate that deep hush and dense shadow — and notwithstanding his habitual tendency to despise all religious ceremonies, there was something novel and strange about this one which exercised a peculiar influence upon his imagination. A sudden odd fancy possessed him that there were others present besides himself and the brethren — but who these “others” were, he could not determine. It was an altogether uncanny, uncomfortable impression — yet it was very strong upon him — and he breathed a sigh of intense relief when he heard the soft melody of the organ once more, and saw the oaken doors of the grotto swing wide open to admit a flood of cheerful light from the outer passage. The vespers were over — the monks rose and paced forth two by two, not with bent heads and downcast eyes as though affecting an abased humility, but with the free and stately bearing of kings returning from some high conquest. Drawing a little further back into his retired corner, he watched them pass, and was forced to admit to himself that he had seldom or never seen finer types of splendid, healthful, and vigorous manhood at its best and brightest. As noble specimens of the human race alone they were well worth looking at — they might have been warriors, princes, emperors, he thought — anything but monks. Yet monks they were, and followers of that Christian creed he so specially condemned — for each one wore on his breast a massive golden crucifix, hung to a chain and fastened with a jewelled star.
“Cross and Star!” he mused, as he noticed this brilliant and singular decoration, “an emblem of the fraternity, I suppose, meaning . . . what? Salvation and Immortality? Alas, they are poor, witless builders on shifting sand if they place any hope or reliance on those two empty words, signifying nothing! Do they, can they honestly believe in God, I wonder? or are they only acting the usual worn-out comedy of a feigned faith?”
And he eyed them somewhat wistfully as their white apparelled figures went by — ten had already left the chapel. Two more passed, then other two, and last of all came one alone — one who walked slowly, with a dreamy, meditative air, as though he were deeply absorbed in thought. The light from the open door streamed fully upon him as he advanced — it was the monk who had recited the Seven Glorias. The stranger no sooner beheld him than he instantly stepped forward and touched him on the arm.
“Pardon!” he said hastily in English, “I think I am not mistaken — your name is, or used to be Heliobas?”
The monk bent his handsome head in a slight yet graceful salutation, and smiled.
“I have not changed it,” he replied, “I am Heliobas still.” And his keen, steadfast, blue eyes rested half inquiringly, half compassionately, on the dark, weary, troubled face of his questioner who, avoiding his direct gaze, continued:
“I should like to speak to you in private. Can I do so now — to-night — at once?”
“By all means!” assented the monk, showing no surprise at the request. “Follow me to the library, we shall be quite alone there.”
He led the way immediately out of the chapel, and through a stone-paved vestibule, where they were met by the two brethren who had first received and entertained the unknown guest, and who, not finding him in the refectory where they had left him, were now coming in search of him. On seeing in whose company he was, however, they drew aside with a deep and reverential obeisance to the personage called Heliobas — he, silently acknowledging it, passed on, closely attended by the stranger, till he reached a spacious, well-lighted apartment, the walls of which were entirely lined with books. Here, entering and closing the door, he turned and confronted his visitor — his tall, imposing figure in its trailing white garments calling to mind the picture of some saint or evangelist — and with grave yet kindly courtesy, said:
“Now, my friend, I am at your disposal! In what way can Heliobas, who is dead to the world, serve one for whom surely as yet the world is everything?”
His question was not very promptly answered. The stranger stood still, regarding him intently for two of three minutes with a look of peculiar pensiveness and abstraction, the heavy double fringe of his long dark lashes giving an almost drowsy pathos to his proud and earnest eyes. Soon, however, this absorbed expression changed to one of sombre scorn.
“The world!” he said slowly and bitterly. “You think I care for the world? Then you read me wrongly at the very outset of our interview, and your once reputed skill as a Seer goes for naught! To me the world is a graveyard full of dead, worm-eaten things, and its supposititious Creator, whom you have so be praised in your orisons to-night, is the Sexton who entombs, and the Ghoul who devours his own hapless Creation! I myself am one of the tortured and dying, and I have sought you simply that you may trick me into a brief oblivion of my doom, and mock me with the mirage of a life that is not and can never be! How can you serve me? Give me a few hours’ respite from wretchedness! that is all I ask!”
As he spoke his face grew blanched and haggard, as though he suffered from some painfully repressed inward agony. The monk Heliobas heard him with an air of attentive patience, but said nothing; he therefore, after waiting for a reply and receiving none, went on in colder and more even tones:
“I dare say my words seem strange to you — though they should not do so if, as reported, you have studied all the varying phases of that purely intellectual despair which, in this age of excessive over-culture, crushes men who learn too much and think too deeply. But before going further I had better introduce myself. My name is Alwyn . . . ”
“Theos Alwyn, the English author, I presume?” interposed the monk interrogatively.
“Why, yes!” this in accents of extreme surprise —“how did you know that!”
“Your celebrity,” politely suggested Heliobas, with a wave of the hand and an enigmatical smile that might have meant anything or nothing.
Alwyn colored a little. “Your mistake,” he said indifferently, “I have no celebrity. The celebrities of my country are few, and among them those most admired are jockeys and divorced women. I merely follow in the rear-line of the art or profession of literature — I am that always unluckiest and most undesirable kind of an author, a writer of verse — I lay no claim, not now at any rate, to the title of poet. While recently staying in Paris I chanced to hear of you . . . ”
The monk bowed ever so slightly — there was a dawning gleam of satire in his brilliant eyes.
“You won special distinction and renown there, I believe, before you adopted this monastic life?” pursued Alwyn, glancing at him curiously.
“Did I?” and Heliobas looked cheerfully interested. “Really I was not aware of it, I assure you! Possibly my ways and doings may have occasionally furnished the Parisians with something to talk about instead of the weather, and I know I made some few friends and an astonishing number of enemies, if that is what you mean by distinction and renown!”
Alwyn smiled — his smile was always reluctant, and had in it more of sadness than sweetness, yet it gave his features a singular softness and beauty, just as a ray of sunlight falling on a dark picture will brighten the tints into a momentary warmth of seeming life.
“All reputation means that, I think,” he said, “unless it be mediocre — then one is safe; one has scores of friends, and scarce a foe. Mediocrity succeeds wonderfully well nowadays — nobody hates it, because everyone feels how easily they themselves can attain to it. Exceptional talent is aggressive — actual genius is offensive; people are insulted to have a thing held up for their admiration which is entirely out of their reach. They become like bears climbing a greased pole; they see a great name above them — a tempting sugary morsel which they would fain snatch and devour — and when their uncouth efforts fail, they huddle together on the ground beneath, look up with dull, peering eyes, and impotently snarl! But you,”— and here his gazed rested doubtfully, yet questioningly, on his companion’s open, serene countenance —‘you, if rumor speaks truly, should have been able to tame YOUR bears and turn them into dogs, humble and couchant! Your marvellous achievements as a mesmerist —”
“Excuse me!” returned Heliobas quietly, “I never was a mesmerist.”
“Well-as a spiritualist then; though I cannot admit the existence of any such thing as spiritualism.”
“Neither can I,” returned Heliobas, with perfect good-humor, “according to the generally accepted meaning of the term. Pray go on, Mr. Alwyn!”
Alwyn looked at him, a little puzzled and uncertain how to proceed. A curious sense of irritation was growing up in his mind against this monk with the grand head and flashing eyes — eyes that seemed to strip bare his innermost thoughts, as lightning strips bark from a tree.
“I was told,” he continued after a pause, during which he had apparently considered and prepared his words, “that you were chiefly known in Paris as being the possessor of some mysterious internal force — call it magnetic, hypnotic, or spiritual, as you please — which, though perfectly inexplicable, was yet plainly manifested and evident to all who placed themselves under your influence. Moreover, that by this force you were able to deal scientifically and practically with the active principle of intelligence in man, to such an extent that you could, in some miraculous way, disentangle the knots of toil and perplexity in an over-taxed brain, and restore to it its pristine vitality and vigor. Is this true? If so, exert your power upon me — for something, I know not what, has of late frozen up the once overflowing fountain of my thoughts, and I have lost all working ability. When a man can no longer work, it were best he should die, only unfortunately I cannot die unless I kill myself — which it is possible I may do ere long. But in the meantime,”— he hesitated a moment, then went on, “in the meantime, I have a strong wish to be deluded — I use the word advisedly, and repeat it — DELUDED into an imaginary happiness, though I am aware that as an agnostic and searcher after truth — truth absolute, truth positive — such a desire on my part seems even to myself inconsistent and unreasonable. Still I confess to having it; and therein, I know, I betray the weakness of my nature. It may be that I am tired “— and he passed his hand across his brow with a troubled gesture —“or puzzled by the infinite, incurable distress of all living things. Perhaps I am growing mad! — who knows! — but whatever my condition, you — if report be correct — have the magic skill to ravish the mind away from its troubles and transport it to a radiant Elysium of sweet illusions and ethereal ecstasies. Do this for me, as you have done it for others, and whatever payment you demand, whether in gold or gratitude, shall be yours.”
He ceased; the wind howled furiously outside, flinging gusty dashes of rain against the one window of the room, a tall arched casement that clattered noisily with every blow inflicted upon it by the storm. Heliobas gave him a swift, searching glance, half pitying, half disdainful.
“Haschisch or opium should serve your turn,” he said curtly. “I know of no other means whereby to temporarily still the clamorings of conscience.”
Alwyn flushed darkly. “Conscience!” he began in rather a resentful tone,
“Aye, conscience!” repeated Heliobas firmly. “There is such a thing. Do you profess to be wholly without it?”
Alwyn deigned no reply — the ironical bluntness of the question annoyed him.
“You have formed a very unjust opinion of me, Mr. Alwyn,” continued Heliobas, “an opinion which neither honors your courtesy nor your intellect — pardon me for saying so. You ask me to ‘mock’ and ‘delude’ you as if it were my custom and delight to make dupes of my suffering fellow-creatures! You come to me as though I were a mesmerist or magnetizer such as you can hire for a few guineas in any civilized city in Europe — nay, I doubt not but that you consider me that kind of so-called ‘spiritualist’ whose enlightened intelligence and heaven-aspiring aims are demonstrated in the turning of tables and general furniture-gyration. I am, however, hopelessly deficient in such knowledge. I should make a most unsatisfactory conjurer! Moreover, whatever you may have heard concerning me in Paris, you must remember I am in Paris no longer. I am a monk, as you see, devoted to my vocation; I am completely severed from the world, and my duties and occupations in the present are widely different to those which employed me in the past. Then I gave what aid I could to those who honestly needed it and sought it without prejudice or personal distrust; but now my work among men is finished, and I practice my science, such as it is, on others no more, except in very rare and special cases.”
Alwyn heard, and the lines of his face hardened into an expression of frigid hauteur.
“I suppose I am to understand by this that you will do nothing for me?” he said stiffly.
“Why, what CAN I do?” returned Heliobas, smiling a little. “All you want — so you say — is a brief forgetfulness of your troubles. Well, that is easily obtainable through certain narcotics, if you choose to employ them and take the risk of their injurious action on your bodily system. You can drug your brain and thereby fill it with drowsy suggestions of ideas — of course they would only he SUGGESTIONS, and very vague and indefinite ones too, still they might be pleasant enough to absorb and repress bitter memories for a time. As for me, my poor skill would scarcely avail you, as I could promise you neither self-oblivion nor visionary joy. I have a certain internal force, it is true — a spiritual force which when strongly exercised overpowers and subdues the material — and by exerting this I could, if I thought it well to do so, release your SOUL— that is, the Inner Intelligent Spirit which is the actual You — from its house of clay, and allow it an interval of freedom. But what its experience might be in that unfettered condition, whether glad or sorrowful, I am totally unable to predict.”
Alwyn looked at him steadfastly.
“You believe in the Soul?” he asked.
“As a separate Personality that continues to live on when the body perishes?”
“And you profess to be able to liberate it for a time from its mortal habitation —”
“I do not profess,” interposed Heliobas quietly. “I CAN do so.”
“But with the success of the experiment your power ceases? — you cannot foretell whether the unimprisoned creature will take its course to an inferno of suffering or a heaven of delight? — is this what you mean?”
Heliobas bent his head in grave assent.
Alwyn broke into a harsh laugh —“Come then!” he exclaimed with a reckless air — “Begin your incantations at once! Send me hence, no matter where, so long as I am for a while escaped from this den of a world, this dungeon with one small window through which, with the death rattle in our throats, we stare vacantly at the blank unmeaning honor of the Universe! Prove to me that the Soul exists — ye gods! Prove it! and if mine can find its way straight to the mainspring of this revolving Creation, it shall cling to the accused wheels and stop them, that they may grind out the tortures of Life no more!”
He flung up his hand with a wild gesture: his countenance, darkly threatening and defiant, was yet beautiful with the evil beauty of a rebellious and fallen angel. His breath came and went quickly — he seemed to challenge some invisible opponent. Heliobas meanwhile watched him much as a physician might watch in his patient the workings of a new disease, then he said in purposely cold and tranquil tones:
“A bold idea! singularly blasphemous, arrogant, and — fortunately for us all — impracticable! Allow me to remark that you are overexcited, Mr. Alwyn; you talk as madmen may, but as reasonable men should not. Come,” and he smiled — a smile that was both grave and sweet, “come and sit down — you are worn out with the force of your own desperate emotions — rest a few minutes and recover yourself.”
His voice thouqh gentle was distinctly authoritative, and Alwyn meeting the full gaze of his calm eyes felt bound to obey the implied command. He therefore sank listlessly into an easy chair near the table, pushing back the short, thick curls from his brow with a wearied movement; he was very pale — an uneasy sense of shame was upon him, and he sighed — a quick sigh of exhausted passion. Heliobas seated himself opposite and looked at him earnestly, he studied with sympathetic attention the lines of dejection and fatigue which marred the attractiveness of features otherwise frank, poetic, and noble. He had seen many such men. Men in their prime who had begun life full of high faith, hope, and lofty aspiration, yet whose fair ideals once bruised in the mortar of modern atheistical opinion had perished forever, while they themselves, like golden eagles suddenly and cruelly shot while flying in mid-air, had fallen helplessly, broken-winged among the dust-heaps of the world, never to rise and soar sunwards again. Thinking this, his accents were touched with a certain compassion when after a pause he said softly:
“Poor boy! — poor, puzzled, tired brain that would fain judge Infinity by merely finite perception! You were a far truer poet, Theos Alwyn, when as a world-foolish, heaven-inspired lad you believed in God, and therefore, in godlike gladness, found all things good!”
Alwyn looked up — his lips quivered.
“Poet — poet!” he murmured —“why taunt me with the name?” He started upright in his chair —“Let me tell you all,” he said suddenly; “you may as well know what has made me the useless wreck I am; though perhaps I shall only weary you.”
“Far from it,” answered Heliobas gently. “Speak freely — but remember I do not compel your confidence.”
“On the contrary, I think you do!” and again that faint, half-mournful smile shone for an instant in his deep, dark eyes, “though you may not be conscious of it. Anyhow I feel impelled to unburden my heart to you: I have kept silence so long! You know what it is in the world, . . . one must always keep silence, always shut in one’s grief and force a smile, in company with the rest of the tormented, forced-smiling crowd. We can never be ourselves — our veritable selves — for, if we were, the air would resound with our ceaseless lamentations! It is HORRIBLE to think of all the pent-up sufferings of humanity — all the inconceivably hideous agonies that remain forever dumb and unrevealed! When I was young — how long ago that seems! yes, though my actual years are taut thirty, I feel an alder-elde of accumulated centuries upon me — when I was young, the dream of my life was Poesy. Perhaps I inherited the fatal love of it from my mother — she was a Greek-and she had a subtle music in her that nothing could quell, not even my father’s English coldness. She named me Theos, little guessing what a dreary sarcasm that name would prove! It was well, I think, that she died early.”
“Well for her, but perhaps not so well for you,” said Heliobas with a keen, kindly glance at him.
Alwyn sighed. “Nay, well, for us both — for I should have chafed at her loving restraint, and she would unquestionably have been disappointed in me. My father was a conscientious, methodical business man, who spent all his days up to almost the last moment of his life in amassing money, though it never gave him any joy so far as I could see, and when at his death I became sole possessor of his hardly-earned fortune, I felt far more sorrow than satisfaction. I wished he had spent his gold on himself and left me poor, for it seemed to me I had need of nothing save the little I earned by my pen — I was content to live an anchorite and dine off a crust for the sake of the divine Muse I worshipped. Fate, however, willed it otherwise — and though I scarcely cared for the wealth I inherited, it gave me at least one blessing — that of perfect independence. I was free to follow my own chosen vocation, and for a brief wondering while I deemed myself happy, . . . happy as Keats must have been when the fragment of ‘Hyperion’ broke from his frail life as thunder breaks from a summer-cloud. I was as a monarch swaying a sceptre that commanded both earth and heaven; a kingdom was mine-a kingdom of golden ether, peopled with shining shapes Protean — alas! its gates are shut upon me now, and I shall enter it no more!”
“‘No more’ is a long time, my friend!” interposed Heliobas gently. “You are too despondent — perchance too diffident, concerning your own ability.”
“Ability!” and he laughed wearily. “I have none — I am as weak and inapt as an untaught child — the music of my heart is silenced! Yet there is nothing I would not do to regain the ravishment of the past — when the sight of the sunset across the hills, or the moon’s silver transfiguration of the sea filled me with deep and indescribable ecstasy — when the thought of Love, like a full chord struck from a magic harp, set my pulses throbbing with delirious delight — fancies thick as leaves in summer crowded my brain — Earth was a round charm hung on the breast of a smiling Divinity — men were gods — women were angels’— the world seemed but a wide scroll for the signatures of poets, and mine, I swore, should be clearly written!”
He paused, as though ashamed of his own fervor. and glanced at Heliobas, who, leaning a little forward in his chair was regaling him with friendly, attentive interest; then he continued more calmly:
“Enough! I think I had something in me then — something that was new and wild and, though it may seem self praise to say so, full of that witching glamour we name Inspiration; but whatever that something was, call it genius, a trick of song, what you will — it was soon crushed out of me. The world is fond of slaying its singing buds and devouring them for daily fare — one rough pressure of finger and thumb on the little melodious throats, and they are mute forever. So I found, when at last in mingled pride, hope, and fear I published my poems, seeking for them no other recompense save fair hearing and justice. They obtained neither — they were tossed carelessly by a few critics from hand to hand, jeered at for a while, and finally flung back to me as lies — lies all! The finely spun web of any fancy — the delicate interwoven intricacies of thought — these were torn to shreds with as little compunction as idle children feel when destroying for their own cruel sport the velvety wonder of a moth’s wing, or the radiant rose and emerald pinions of a dragon-fly. I was a fool — so I was told with many a languid sneer and stale jest — to talk of hidden mysteries in the whisper of the wind and the dash of the waves — such sounds were but common cause and effect. The stars were merely conglomerated masses of heated vapor condensed by the work of ages into meteorites and from meteorites into worlds — and these went on rolling in their appointed orbits, for what reason nobody knew, but then nobody cared! And Love — the key-note of the theme to which I had set my mistaken life in tune — Love was only a graceful word used to politely define the low but very general sentiment of coarse animal attraction — in short, poetry such as mine was altogether absurd and out of date when confronted with the facts of every-day existence — facts which plainly taught us that man’s chief business here below was simply to live, breed, and die — the life of a silk-worm or caterpillar on a slightly higher platform of ability; beyond this — nothing!”
“Nothing?” murmured Heliobas, in a tone of suggestive inquiry — “really nothing?”
“Nothing!” repeated Alwyn, with an air of resigned hopelessness; “for I learned that, according to the results arrived at by the most advanced thinkers of the day, there was no God, no Soul, no Hereafter — the loftiest efforts of the highest heaven — aspiring minds were doomed to end in non-fruition, failure, and annihilation. Among all the desperately hard truths that came rattling down upon me like a shower of stones, I think this was the crowning one that killed whatever genius I had. I use the word ‘genius’ foolishly — though, after all, genius itself is nothing to boast of, since it is only a morbid and unhealthy condition of the intellectual faculties, or at least was demonstrated to me as such by a scientific friend of my own who, seeing I was miserable, took great pains to make me more so if possible. He proved — to his own satisfaction if not altogether to mine — that the abnormal position of certain molecules in the brain produced an eccentricity or peculiar bias in one direction which, practically viewed, might be described as an intelligent form of monomania, but which most people chose to term ‘genius,’ and that from a purely scientific standpoint it was evident that the poets, painters, musicians, sculptors, and all the widely renowned ‘great ones’ of the earth should be classified as so many brains more or less affected by abnormal molecular formation, which strictly speaking amounted to brain-deformity. He assured me, that to the properly balanced, healthily organized brain of the human animal, genius was an impossibility — it was a malady as unnatural as rare. ‘And it is singular, very singular,’ he added with a complacent smile, ‘that the world should owe all its finest art and literature merely to a few varieties of molecular disease!’ I thought it singular enough, too — however, I did not care to argue with him; I only felt that if the illness of genius had at any time affected ME, it was pretty well certain I should now suffer no more from its delicious pangs and honey-sweet fever. I was cured! The probing-knife of the world’s cynicism had found its way to the musically throbbing centre of divine disquietude in my brain, and had there cut down the growth of fair imaginations for ever. I thrust aside the bright illusions that had once been my gladness; I forced myself to look with unflinching eyes at the wide waste of universal Nothingness revealed to me by the rigid positivists and iconoclasts of the century; but my heart died within me; my whole being froze as it were into an icy apathy — I wrote no more; I doubt whether I shall ever write again. Of a truth, there is nothing to write about. All has been said. The days of the Troubadours are past — one cannot string canticles of love for men and women whose ruling passion is the greed of gold. Yet I have sometimes thought life would be drearier even than it is, were the voices of poets altogether silent; and I wish — yes! I wish I had it in my power to brand my sign-manual on the brazen face of this coldly callous age-brand it deep in those letters of living lire called Fame!”
A look of baffled longing and un gratified ambition came into his musing eyes,-his strong, shapely white hand clenched nervously, as though it grasped some unseen yet perfectly tangible substance. Just then the storm without, which had partially lulled during the last few minutes, began its wrath anew: a glare of lightning blazed against the uncurtained window, and a heavy clap of thunder burst overhead with the sudden crash of an exploding bomb.
“You care for Fame?” asked Ileliobas abruptly, as soon as the terrific uproar had subsided into a distant, dull rumbling mingled with the pattering dash of hail.
“I care for it — yes!” replied Alwyn, and his voice was very low and dreamy. “For though the world is a graveyard, as I have said, full of unmarked tombs, still here and there we find graves, such as Shelley’s or Byron’s, whereon pale flowers, like sweet suggestions of ever-silenced music, break into continuous bloom. And shall I not win my own death-garland of asphodel?”
There was an indescribable, almost heart-rending pathos in his manner of uttering these last words — a hopelessness of effort and a despairing sense of failure which he himself seemed conscious of, for, meeting the fixed and earnest gaze of Ileliobas, he quickly relapsed into his usual tone of indolent indifference.
“You see,” he said, with a forced smile, “my story is not very interesting! No hairbreadth escapes, no thrilling adventures, no love intrigues — nothing but mental misery, for which few people have any sympathy. A child with a cut finger gets more universal commiseration than a man with a tortured brain and breaking heart, yet there can be no quotion as to which is the most intense duel long enduring anguish of the two. However, such as my troubles are I have told you all I have laid bare my ‘wound of living’— a wound that throbs and burns, and aches, more intolerably with every pissing hour and day — it is not unnatural, I think, that I should seek for a little cessation of suffering; a brief dreaming space in which to rest for a while, and escape from the deathful Truth — Truth, that like the flaming sword placed east of the fabled garden of Eden, turns ruthlessly every way, keeping us out of the forfeited paradise of imaginative aspiration, which made the men of old time great because they deemed themselves immortal. It was a glorious faith! that strong consciousness, that in the change and upheaval of whole universes the soul of man should forever over-ride disaster! But now that we know ourselves to be of no more importance, relatively speaking, than the animalculae in a drop of stagnant water, what great works can be done, what noble deeds accomplished, in the face of the declared and proved futility of everything? Still, if you can, as you say, liberate me from this fleshly prison, and give me new sensations and different experiences, why then let me depart with all possible speed, for I am certain I shall find in the storm-swept areas of space nothing worse than life as lived in this present world. Remember, I am quite incredulous as to your professed power —” he paused and glanced at the white-robed, priestly figure opposite, then added, lightly, “but I am curious to test it all the same. Are you ready to being your spells? — and shall I say the Nunc Dimittis?”
Heliobas was silent — he seemed engaged in deep and anxious thought — and he kept his steadfast eyes fixed on Alwyn’s countenance, as though he sought there the clew to some difficult problem.
“What do you know of the Nunc Dimittis?” he asked at last, with a half-smile. “You might as well say PATER NOSTER— both canticle and prayer would be equally unmeaning to you! For poet as you are — or let me say as you WERE— inasmuch as no atheist was ever a poet at the same time —”
“You are wrong,” interrupted Alwyn quickly. “Shelley was an atheist.”
“Shelley, my good friend, was NOT an atheist [Footnote: See the last two verses of Adonais]. He strove to be one — nay, he made pretence to be one — but throughout his poems we hear the voice of his inner and better self appealing to that Divinity and Eternity which, in spite of the material part of him, he instinctively felt existent in his own being. I repeat, poet as your WERE, and poet as you will be again when the clouds on your mind are cleared — you present the strange, but not uncommon spectacle of an Immortal Spirit fighting to disprove its own Immortality. In a word, you will not believe in the Soul.”
“I cannot!” said Alwyn, with a hopeless gesture.
“Science can give us no positive proof of its existence; it cannot be defined.”
“What do you mean by Science?” demanded Heliobas. “The foot of the mountain, at which men now stand, grovelling and uncertain how to climb? or the glittering summit itself which touches God’s throne?”
Alwyn made no answer.
“Tell me,” pursued Heliobas, “how do you define the vital principle? What mysterious agency sets the heart beating and the blood flowing? By the small porter’s lantern of today’s so-called Science, will you fling a light on the dark riddle of an apparently purposeless Universe, and explain to me why we live at all?”
“Evolution,” responded Alwyn shortly, “and Necessity.”
“Evolution from what?” persisted Heliobas. “From one atom? WHAT atom? And FROM WHENCE came the atom? And why the NECESSITY of any atom?”
“The human brain reels at such questions!” said Alwyn, vexedly and with impatience. “I cannot answer them — no one can!”
“No one?” Heliobas smiled very tranquilly. “Do not be too sure of that! And why should the human brain ‘reel’? — the sagacious, calculating, clear human brain that never gets tired, or puzzled, or perplexed! — that settles everything in the most practical and common-sense manner, and disposes of God altogether as an extraneous sort of bargain not wanted in the general economy of our little solar system! Aye, the human brain is a wonderful thing! — and yet by a sharp, well-directed knock with this”— and he took up from the table a paper-knife with a massive, silver-mounted, weighty horn-handle —“I could deaden it in such wise that the SOUL could no more hold any communication with it, and it would lie an inert mass in the cranium, of no more use to its owner than a paralyzed limb.”
“You mean to infer that the brain cannot act without the influence of the soul?”
“Precisely! If the hands on the telegraph dial will not respond to the electric battery, the telegram cannot be deciphered. But it would be foolish to deny the existence of the electric battery because the dial is unsatisfactory! In like manner, when, by physical incapacity, or inherited disease, the brain can no longer receive the impressions or electric messages of the Spirit, it is practically useless. Yet the Spirit is there all the same, dumbly waiting for release and another chance of expansion.”
“Is this the way you account for idiocy and mania?” asked Alwyn incredulously.
“Most certainly; idiocy and mania always come from man’s interference with the laws of health and of nature — never otherwise. The Soul placed within us by the Creator is meant to be fostered by man’s unfettered Will; if man chooses to employ that unfettered Will in wrong directions, he has only himself to blame for the disastrous results that follow. You may perhaps ask why God has thus left our wills unfettered: the answer is simple — that we may serve Him by CHOICE and not by COMPULSION. Among the myriad million worlds that acknowledge His goodness gladly and undoubtingly, why should He seek to force unwilling obedience from us castaways!”
“As we are on this subject,” said Alwyn, with a tinge of satire in his tone, “if you grant a God, and make Him out to be supreme Love, why in the name of His supposed inexhaustible beneficence should we be castaways at all?”
“Because in our overweening pride and egotism we have ELECTED to be such,” replied Heliobas. “As angels have fallen, so have we. But we are not altogether castaways now, since this signal,” and he touched the cross on his breast, “shone in heaven.”
Alwyn shrugged his shoulders disdainfully.
“Pardon me,” he murmured coldly, “with every desire to respect your religious scruples, I really cannot, personally speaking, accept the tenets of a worn-out faith, which all the most intellectual minds of the day reject as mere ignorant superstition. The carpenter’s son of Judea was no doubt a very estimable person — a socialist teacher whose doctrines were very excellent in theory but impossible of practice. That there was anything divine about Him I utterly deny; and I confess I am surprised that you, a man of evident culture, do not seem to see the hollow absurdity of Christianity as a system of morals and civilization. It is an ever-sprouting seed of discord and hatred between nations; it has served as a casus belli of the most fanatical and merciless character; it is answerable for whole seas of cruel and unnecessary bloodshed . . . ”
“Have you nothing NEW to say on the subject?” interposed Heliobas, with a slight smile. “I have heard all this so often before, from divers kinds of men both educated and ignorant, who have a willful habit of forgetting all that Christ Himself prophesied concerning His creed of Self-renunciation, so difficult to selfish humanity: ‘Think not that I come to send peace on the earth. I come, not to send peace, but a sword.’ Again ‘Ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake.’ . . . ‘all ye shall be offended because of me.’ Such plain words as these seem utterly thrown away upon this present generation. And do you know I find a curious lack of originality among so-called ‘freethinkers’; in fact their thoughts can hardly be designated as ‘free’ when they all run in such extremely narrow grooves of similitude — a flock of sheep mildly trotting under the guidance of the butcher to the slaughterhouse could not be more tamely alike in their bleating ignorance as to where they are going. Your opinions, for instance, differ scarce a whit from those of the common boor who, reading his penny Radical paper, thinks he can dispense with God, and talks of the ‘carpenter’s son of Judea’ with the same easy flippancy and scant reverence as yourself. The ‘intellectual minds of the day’ to which you allude, are extraordinarily limited of comprehension, and none of them, literary or otherwise, have such a grasp of knowledge as any of these dead and gone authors,” and he waved his hand toward the surrounding loaded bookshelves, “who lived centuries ago, and are now, as far as the general public is concerned, forgotten. All the volumes you see here are vellum manuscripts copied from the original slabs of baked clay, stone tablets, and engraved sheets of ivory, and among them is an ingenious treatise by one Remeni Adranos, chief astronomer to the then king of Babylonia, setting forth the Atom and Evolution theory with far more clearness and precision than any of your modern professors. All such propositions are old — old as the hills, I assure you; and these days in which you live are more suggestive of the second childhood of the world than its progressive prime. Especially in your own country the general dotage seems to have reached a sort of climax, for there you have the people actually forgetting, deriding, or denying their greatest men who form the only lasting glories of their history; they have even done their futile best to tarnish the unsoilable fame of Shakespeare. In that land you — who, according to your own showing, started for the race of life full of high hopes and inspiration to still higher endeavor — you have been, poisoned by the tainted atmosphere of Atheism which is slowly and insidiously spreading itself through all ranks, particularly among the upper classes, who, while becoming every day more lax in their morals and more dissolute of behavior, consider themselves far too wise and ‘highly cultured’ to believe in anything. It is a most unwholesome atmosphere, charged with the morbidities and microbes of national disease and downfall; it is difficult to breathe it without becoming fever-smitten; and in your denial of the divinity of Christ, I do not blame you any more than I would blame a poor creature struck down by a plague. You have caught the negative, agnostic, and atheistical infection from others — it is not the natural, healthy condition of your temperament.”
“On the contrary it IS, so far as that point goes,” said Alwyn with sudden heat —“I tell you I am amazed — utterly amazed, that you, with your intelligence, should uphold such a barbaric idea as the Divinity of Christ! Human reason revolts at it — and after all, make as light of it as you will, reason is the only thing that exalts us a little above the level of the beasts.”
“Nay — the beasts share the gift of reason in common with us,” replied Heliobas, “and Man only proves his ignorance if he denies the fact. Often indeed the very insects show superior reasoning ability to ourselves, any thoroughly capable naturalist would bear me out in this assertion.”
“Well, well!” and Alwyn grew impatient —“reason or no reason, I again repeat that the legend on which Christianity is founded is absurd and preposterous — why, if there were a grain of truth in it, Judas Iscariot instead of being universally condemned, ought to be honored and canonized as the first of saints!”
“Must I remind you of your early lesson days?” asked Heliobas mildly. “You will find it written in a Book you appear to have forgotten, that Christ expressly prophesied, ‘Woe to that man’ by whom He was betrayed. I tell, you, little as you credit it, there is not a word that the Sinless One uttered while on this earth, that has not been or shall not be in time fulfilled. But I do not wish to enter into any controversies with you; you have told me your story — I have heard it with interest — and I may add with sympathy. You are a poet, struck dumb by Materialism because you lacked strength to resist the shock — you would fain recover your singing-speech — and this is in truth the reason why you have come to me. You think that if you could gain some of the strange experiences which others have had while under my influence, you might win back your lost inspiration — though you do not know WHY you think this — neither do I— I can only guess.”
“And your guess is . . .?” demanded Alwyn with an air of affected indifference.
“That some higher influence is working for your rescue and safety,” replied Heliobas. “What influence I dare not presume to imagine, but — there are always angels near!”
“Angels!” Alwyn laughed aloud. “How many more fairy tales are you going to weave for me out of your fertile Oriental imagination? Angels! . . . See here, my good Heliobas, I am perfectly willing to grant that you may be a very clever man with an odd prejudice in favor of Christianity — but I must request that you will not talk to me of angels and spirits or any such nonsense, as if I were a child waiting to be amused, instead of a full-grown man with . . . ”
“With so full-grown an intellect that it has out-grown God!” finished Heliobas serenely. “Quite so! Yet angels, after all, are only immortal Souls such as yours or mine when set free of their earthly tenements. For instance, when I look at you thus,” and he raised his eyes with a lustrous, piercing glance —“I see the proud, strong, and rebellious Angel in you far more distinctly than your outward shape of man . . . and you . . . when you look at me —”
He broke off, for Alwyn at that moment sprang from his chair, and, staring fixedly at him, uttered a quick, fierce exclamation.
“Ah! I know you now!” he cried in sudden and extraordinary excitement —“I know you well! We have met before! — Why — after all that has passed — do we meet again?”
This singular speech was accompanied by a still more singular transfiguration of countenance — a dark, fiery glory burned in his eyes, and, in the stern, frowning wonder and defiance of his expression and attitude, there was something grand yet terrible — menacing yet supernaturally sublime. He stood so for an instant’s space, majestically sombre, like some haughty, discrowned emperor confronting his conqueror — a rumbling, long-continued roll of thunder outside seemed to recall him to himself, and he pressed his hand tightly down over his eyelids, as though to shut out some overwhelming vision. After a pause he looked up again — wildly, confusedly — almost beseechingly — and Heliobas, observing this, rose and advanced toward him.
“Peace!” he said, in low, impressive tones — “we have recognized each other — but on earth such recognitions are brief and soon forgotten!” He waited for a few seconds — then resumed lightly, “Come, look at me now! . . . what do you see?”
“Nothing . . . but yourself!” he replied, sighing deeply as he spoke —“yet . . . oddly enough, a moment ago I fancied you had altogether a different appearance — and I thought I saw . . . no matter what! . . . I cannot describe it!” His brows contracted in a puzzled line. “It was a curious phenomenon — very curious . . . and it affected me strangely . . . ” he stopped abruptly — then added, with a slight flush of annoyance on his face, “I perceive you are an adept in the art of optical illusion!”
Heliobas laughed softly. “Of course! What else can you expect of a charlatan, a trickster, and a monk to boot! Deception, deception throughout, my dear sir! . . . and have you not ASKED to be deceived?”