The Mystery of a Turkish Bath, by Rita.
Under the pseudonym "Rita" E M Gollan wrote some seventy novels of which this is one. It is a rather penetrating book about the supernatural. It starts off with a somewhat unusual situation, at least in literature, with a group of ladies in the turkish bath of a large and luxurious hotel by the sea, in England, the sort of hotel to which people go to be cured of illnesses, on the recommendation of their doctors. It is some time in the late nineteenth century.
An extraordinarily beautiful woman appears one day in the turkish bath, and the women already in there are quite fascinated by her. But there is another guest in the hotel, a Colonel Estcourt, who, it turns out had known this woman since childhood. Indeed it had been expected that they would one day wed, but instead she had gone off and married an elderly, but fabulously wealthy, Russian prince.
Various demonstrations of her occult powers make the guests, both men and women, realise that the beautiful Princess is someone with very special gifts, which one or two of them would like to learn more about. But in the very process of the ensuing teach-in, more things happen than had been bargained for, and both the Colonel and the Princess end up lifeless. The Mystery deepens.
If you like this sort of thing it is a very good novel, but if you are not happy to read about the occult, you should leave it severely alone.
THE MYSTERY OF A TURKISH BATH, BY RITA.
THE FIRST ROOM.
"I take them for rheumatic gout," said a slight, dark-haired woman to her neighbour, as she leant back in a low lounging-chair, and sipped some water an attendant had just brought her. "You would not suppose I suffered from such a complaint, would you?"—and she held up a small arched foot, with a scarcely perceptible swelling in the larger joint. She laughed somewhat affectedly, and the neighbour, who was fat and coarse, and had decided gouty symptoms herself, looked at her with something of the contempt an invalid elephant might be supposed to bestow on a buzzing fly.
"You made that remark the last time you were here," she said; "and I told you, if you suffered from a suppressed form of the disease, it would be all the worse for you. Much better for it to come out—my doctor says."
There was no doubt about the disease having "come out" in the person of the speaker. It had "come out" in her face, which was brilliantly rubicund; in her hands, and ankles and feet, which were a distressful spectacle of "knobs" and "bumps" of an exaggerated phrenological type— perhaps also in her temper, which was fierce and fiery as her complexion, as most of the frequenters of the Baths knew, and the attendants also, to their cost.
The small, dark lady, with the arched feet, lapsed into sulky silence, and let her eyes wander over the room to see if anyone she knew was there.
The Baths were of an extensive and sumptuous description—fitted up with almost oriental luxury and comfort, and attached to a monster hotel, built by an enterprising Company of speculators, at an English winter resort, in Hampshire.
The Company had proudly hoped that lavish expenditure, a beautiful situation, and the disinterested recommendation of fashionable physicians, would induce English people to discover that there were spots and places in their own land as healthy and convenient as Auvergne, or Wiesbaden, or the Riviera. But though the coast views were fine, and the scenery picturesque, and the monster hotel itself stood on a commanding eminence, surrounded by darkly-beautiful pine woods, and was fitted up with every luxury of modern civilisation, including every specimen of Bath that human ingenuity had devised, the Company looked blankly at the returns on their balance-sheet, and one or two Directors murmured audible complaints at special Board meetings, against the fashionable physicians who had not acted up to their promises, or proved deserving of the substantial bonus which had been more than hinted at, as a reward for recommended patients.
On this December morning, some half-dozen ladies, of various ages and stability of person, and all suffering, in a greater or less degree, from various fashionable complaints—such as neuralgia, indigestion, rheumatism, or its aristocratic cousin, rheumatic-gout—were in Room Number One of the Turkish Bath.
The female form is generally supposed to be "divine," and poets and painters have, from time immemorial, rhapsodised over "beauty unadorned." It is probable that such poets and painters have never been gratified by such a vision of feminine charms as Room Number One presented.
Light and airy garments were, certainly, to be seen, but not—forms. It was, of course, a question of taste, as to whether the fat women, or the thin women, looked the worst—probably the former, if one might judge by the two samples of the lady who had arched feet, and the lady who had not.
Both were staying at the hotel, and were respectively named—Mrs Masterman, and Mrs Ray Jefferson. Mrs Masterman was a widow. Mrs Ray Jefferson had a husband. He was an American, blessed with many dollars, amassed on the strength of an "Invention." When Mr Jefferson spoke of the Invention, people usually supposed it to be of a mechanical nature. As they became more familiar with him, they learnt that it was something "Chemical." No one quite knew what, but it became associated in their minds with "vats" and "boilers," and large works somewhere "down Boston way." There could be no doubt of the excellence of the Invention, because Mr Ray Jefferson said it was known, and used all over Europe, and its success was backed by dollars to an apparently unlimited extent. The Inventor and his wife had sumptuous rooms, but they were not averse to mixing with their "fellow-man," or rather "woman,"—for Mrs Jefferson rejoiced in the possession of certain Parisian toilettes, and was not selfish enough to keep them only for the eyes of her lord and master.
She was grudgingly but universally acknowledged to be the best-dressed woman in the hotel—except, of course, when she was in the Turkish Baths, which unfortunately reduced its frequenters to one level of apparelling, a garment which made up in simplicity for any lack of elegance.
The shape was always the same—viz., short in the skirt, low in the neck, and bare as to sleeves. The material was generally pink cotton, or white with a red border.
Mrs Jefferson was quite American enough to have "notions" on dress, more or less original and extravagant. Finding her companion was unusually silent this morning, she gave up her thoughts to the devising of a special toilet for the Bath.
These garments were so hideous, she told herself, that it was no wonder people looked such guys in them. Still there was no reason why she should not have something chic and novel for herself—something which should arouse the envy of, and make the wearer appear quite different to, the other women.
The choice of style was easy enough—something Grecian and artistic—but the material discomposed her. It was hardly possible to have a bath of this description without one's garment getting into a moist and clinging condition—leaving alone the after processes of shampooing, douche, and plunge. So silk, or satin, or woollen material was out of the question, and cotton was common, not to say vulgar.
She knitted her brows with a vigour demanded by so absorbing a subject: the white head-cloth fell off, and she felt that her fringe was all out of curl and lay straight on her forehead in most unbecoming fashion. That also would have to be considered in the question of costume—a head-dress which should combine use and ornament. The idea of having only a wet, white rag on one's head! No wonder people looked "objects!" Perhaps it would be better to coil the hair about the brow and have no fringe, or at least only a few loose locks that would look equally well, straight or curled.
As Mrs Ray Jefferson was taking all this trouble about her personal appearance, when that appearance would only gratify the sight of a few members of her own sex who were generally too much taken up with their own ailments or complaints to care what their fellow-sufferers looked like, it shows the fallacy of a popular superstition that women only care to dress for men. Believe me, no—they dress for critics, the critics of their own sex, who with one contemptuous glance can sweep a toilette into insignificance, and make its wearer miserable, or, by some envious approbation, are reluctantly compelled to bestow on it the seal of success.
Is it for men, think you, that those delicate nuances and tints and shades are harmonised and put together? Such a conceit is only pardonable in a set of beings who possess not the delicate faculty of "detail," and who, with a limited knowledge of even cardinal colours, describe the graces and beauties of a toilette by saying the wearer had on something white, or something black, or something red, but "it suited her down to the ground." A few misguided individuals have even been known to take refuge in the remark (made historic now by comic papers) that "they never look under the table," when asked what certain ladies had on. But this is trifling, and only applicable to dinner parties.
Mrs Ray Jefferson's thoughts had not prevented her from taking stock of the other inmates of the room. One or two were lying on couches, but most of them seemed to prefer the low comfortable chairs, that were like rocking-chairs without the rockers.
No one spoke. They looked solemn and suffering, and appeared intent merely on the symptoms of distilled moisture on the visible portion of their persons.
"I think," said Mrs Jefferson, "I shall go into the second room. I can stand some more heat."
She made the remark, abstractedly, in the direction of her neighbour, who only looked at her in a bored and ill-tempered fashion, as befitted one who had gout without arched feet to display as compensation.
"You and I are the only hotel people here," went on Mrs Jefferson, as she took up the glass of water and the head-cloth preparatory to moving away. Then she laughed again as she looked at her companion's flushed countenance and generally distressed appearance. "What a comfort," she said, "that we won't look quite such objects at dinner-time! I always find a bath improves my complexion, don't you?"
Mrs Markham gave an impatient grunt. "As if it mattered what one looks like in a bath!" she said. "Do you Americans live in public all your lives? You seem to be always thinking of your clothes, or your looks!"
Mrs Jefferson opened her lips to reply with suitable indignation, but the words were cut short by a gasp of astonishment, and lost themselves in one wondering, long-drawn monosyllable—"My—!"
The gouty sufferer also looked up, and in the direction of the doorway, and though she said nothing, her eyes expressed as much surprise as was compatible with a sluggish temperament, and a disposition to cavil at most things and persons that were presented to her notice.
The object on which the two pairs of feminine eyes rested was only the figure of a woman standing between the thick oriental curtains that partitioned off the dressing from the shampooing and douche rooms.
A woman—but a woman so beautiful that she held even her own sex dumb with admiration. She was tall, but not too tall for perfect grace; and slender, but with the slenderness of some young pictured goddess. She was dark, too, but with a pale clear skin that was more lovely than any dead blonde whiteness; and to crown her charms, she had long rippling hair of jet black hue that was parted from her brow and fell like a veil to her delicate arched feet, and through which the serious, darkly— glowing eyes looked straight at the wondering faces before her.
The pause she made before entering was brief, but not so brief that every eye there had not scanned enviously and wonderingly her perfect beauty—from the clear-cut, exquisite face and bare, beautifully—shaped arms, to the graceful ankles, gleaming white as sculptured marble through the veiling hair.
Mrs Jefferson first recovered speech.
"Who is she?" she whispered eagerly. "Not at our hotel I think. Looks like a walking advertisement of a new hair restorer. She'd be a fortune to them if she'd have her photograph taken so!"
The newcomer meanwhile advanced and took one of the chairs near Mrs Jefferson. That lady suffered strongly from the curiosity that is characteristic of her admirable nation. She re-seated herself for the purpose of studying the strange vision, and, not being in the least degree afflicted with English reticence, she set the ball of conversation going by an immediate remark:
"Had any of these baths before?"
The person addressed looked at her with grave and serious eyes.
"No," she said; and her voice was singularly clear and sweet, but with something foreign in the slow accentuation of words. "I only arrived at this hotel last night."
"Oh!" said Mrs Jefferson, "is that so? I thought I hadn't seen you before. Come for your health?"
"Yes," said the stranger, accepting a glass of water from the attendant, who had just come forward.
"Not gout, I suppose?" suggested Mrs Jefferson, conscious that there were arched feet in the world even more exquisite in shape and size than her own.
"Gout! Oh, no!" said the stranger, smiling faintly. "They say my nerves are not strong. I sleep badly, I am easily startled, and easily fatigued." She paused a moment, and one delicate hand, glittering with rings, pushed back the dark weight of rippling hair from her brow. "I have had a great mental shock," she said, quietly. "Such things require time... one cannot easily forget..."
Her eyes had grown dreamy and abstracted. The hand that had pushed back her heavy hair fell on her lap. She looked at it and its shining rings, and Mrs Jefferson's sharp glance followed hers. Was there a plain gold circlet among that glittering array?—was the beautiful stranger wife or maiden?
"If any man saw her now!" she thought involuntarily. "My! I wouldn't give much for his peace of mind afterwards! What owls she makes us all look!"
"Nerves are queer things," she said aloud. "Can't say I'm much troubled with them, except here," and she moved her foot explanatorily. "Just that joint. It's agony sometimes. Suppressed gout, you know. You wouldn't think so to look at it, would you?"
"That the gout was—suppressed? certainly I should," answered the stranger, smiling. "There is no external sign of it. I always thought gout meant large lumps, and swellings of the joints."
"So it does," said Mrs Jefferson, with an involuntary glance at the moist and crimson sufferer on her right. "But my form of it is different. It is much worse, but no one sympathises with me because it doesn't look so bad as the other gout."
"It is not often that people do sympathise with illness," said the beautiful woman. "When we ourselves are well, we think suffering can't be so very great after all, and when we are ill we are quite sure no one else has to bear so much pain. Human nature is essentially selfish. It is a natural incident of living at all that we should estimate our own life as more important than our neighbours."
"Well," laughed Mrs Jefferson, "if we sacrificed it to them, it might be a doubtful benefit. I often thank my stars I wasn't born in the age of martyrs. If J. had been, I'm sure the very sight of the rack or the faggot would have made me swear anything."
"The history of religions is a very curious history," said the stranger in her low clear tones. "Looked at dispassionately, it has done very little for mankind in general, save to prove one fundamental truth that is more significant than any doctrine or dogma. That truth is the inherent need in all humanity of something to worship. From the highest to the lowest degrees of civilisation that need has made itself the exponent of external forms. It is the kernel of all religions."
"A kernel that is surrounded with a very hard shell," said Mrs Jefferson glibly. She liked discussions, and was accustomed to say she could talk on any subject—having indeed come from a country where women did talk on any subject, whether they were acquainted, with it or not. "I don't think there is much spirituality in any modern religion," she went on. "I surmise it's dead. Science has got the upper hand of theology and means to keep it. People are not content now-a-days with being told 'you must believe so and so.' They want a reason for believing. You're not a Romanist, are you?" she added suddenly.
"I—oh no," said the stranger with a faint smile.
"I'm glad of that, for I was just going to say that the Church of Rome has done more to retard rational and spiritual progress than any other. I don't believe in the voice of man barring the way to inquiry. God made man, and, as far as I have ever been able to learn, He made them all on one pattern. The offices and dignities they give themselves won't make them one whit greater or more important in His eyes."
"You are a democrat, I see," said the beautiful woman, looking gravely and scrutinisingly at the eager flushed face, with its ruffled damp curls, and quick restless eyes.
"Well," said Mrs Jefferson, "I don't exactly know what I am. My views are liberal on most subjects. I've travelled a good bit, and I think that enlarges the mind. I've just run over to have a look at England. Our people are laughing at her pretty well. The Gladstone party have made a lovely hash of affairs haven't they? But perhaps you don't care for politics, being foreign."
"Oh, yes, I do," answered her strange companion. "And I am specially interested in English politics," she added. "Like yourself I was curious to see a nation who seemed determined to court their own shame, and to deify the being whose career is signally marked by obloquy and disaster."
"His day is pretty well over, I fancy," said Mrs Jefferson, eagerly scenting an opportunity for a brilliant display of political knowledge. "That Irish business has settled him. They call him the greatest statesman of the age! A man at dinner last night was lauding him up to the skies. There was quite a battle about him. We showed, however, that, putting his talking powers aside, he really is no statesman—only a grasping selfish old bungler, who cares nothing for his country except it keeps him in office, and has done nothing really great or good during his whole career. They make a fuss about the Education Act, but the credit of passing that belongs to Foster. As for the Disestablishment of the Irish Church, that is a disgraceful business—a robbery of the dead who had left their money to support a faith they believed in. He is responsible—to my thinking—for all the anarchy, confusion and misery in that poor unhappy Ireland. I believe," and she leant forward and dropped her voice, "I believe that at heart the man is more than half a Romanist. See how he has favoured the High Church party, and if ever he gives a clerical appointment it is always to a Ritualist priest. They don't call themselves clergymen now. Well," and she drew herself up once more, "I, for one, wouldn't like to have his sins on my shoulders. I should think he ought to be haunted by as many victims as Napoleon Buonaparte. What with financial humbug, war taxes—the blunders of the Alabama business—the disgrace and bloodshed of the Transvaal affair and the Egyptian war—crowned by the undying and never to be forgotten shame of Gordon's sacrificed life, I wonder he can lay down his head at night and sleep. When he heard of that hero Gordon's death he should have taken a pistol and blown out his blundering brains. But perhaps," she added more calmly, "he was afraid of meeting his victims until he couldn't help himself. However, he might have gone into one of those 'retreats' his favourite Ritualists are so fond of, and spared England any more blunders and follies."
"You are very bitter against him," said the stranger calmly. "Be sure that his own actions will also be his own avengers. Life would be made much more tolerable if we would only keep that fact before us. To my mind there is no backbone or support in a religion that teaches irresponsibility. That is the great fault of you Christians. Your faith is not a thing you take hold of, and grasp and act upon. Hence your many national disasters. You shelve your future, or what you call your salvation, on the merits of a Sacrifice, and think yourselves relieved of all further trouble. In the world, and in society, religion is a tabooed subject—it is only kept for Sundays and for churches. I believe your clergy know no more of the real doctrines of Christianity, those deep and mystical truths underlying the teachings of Christ, than the child at his mother's knee. I have been to your great cathedrals and churches. I saw only lip-service and routine. I heard only stale maxims, weak explanations of the allegories and parables that fill your Biblical records; flowing rhetoric and vague expressions of some undefinable joy and glory in an equally undefinable Hereafter, that was sometimes described as a place, and sometimes as a state. That was all. I feel such things cannot long stand against the tide of advancing thought. Modern Christianity is not the Sermon on the Mount, and has little title to the name of its founder. It has not a feather's weight of importance in the minds of the worldly, the fashionable, the pleasure-seeking; its sentiment is extinct, save in a few faithful ignorant hearts, who adore what they cannot comprehend, and live in a state of hope that all will come right in some vague future."
The beautiful eyes had grown sad and thoughtful. They rested on the eager wondering face before her, yet seemed to look through and beyond it, as the eyes of one who sees a vision that is mere airy nothingness to the surrounding crowd.
"It will come right," she went on slowly and dreamily, "but not as men think, and not because the religion of earth teaches fear of punishment and hope of reward as the basis of spiritual faith. No. Something higher and holier and deeper than any motive of self-safety will perfect what is best in man and eliminate what is vile."
"If that is so," interposed Mrs Jefferson, glibly, as she rose from her chair to proceed to the Second Room—"I guess man will want a pretty long time to 'perfect' in. I don't see how he's going to do it here."
"I did not say 'here,'" answered the stranger, in her slow, calm way, as she, too, rose and prepared to follow the little American. "For what, think you, are the ages of Eternity intended?—sleep and dreams?"
Mrs Jefferson gave a little shudder. "I surmise we're getting a little too deep," she said. "Let's keep to Gladstone and the Irish Question while the thermometer's at 110."
THE SECOND ROOM.
The second room differed in no way from the first, except in the matter of heat.
The beautiful stranger floated in—her face all the lovelier for the faint rosy flush that glowed through the clear skin. If Mrs Ray Jefferson's admiration was envious, at least it was genuine. She had never really believed in perfect feminine beauty before—beauty that shone supreme without the aid of dress and frippery—but here it was—a glowing and palpable fact. The simple white drapery with its border of scarlet floated with the grace of its own perfect simplicity around that perfect form, and never was royal mantle more splendid than the rippling hair that crowned her head and fell in its luxuriance of curls and waves to her feet. As they again seated themselves side by side, Mrs Jefferson remembered that she was not yet acquainted with the nationality of the stranger. She hastened to repair the error of such ignorance.
"You speak English wonderfully for a foreigner," she said; "it would puzzle anyone to make out where you were raised—Russian, I surmise?"
"No," said the stranger, quietly, "though I have lived there a great deal. It was my husband's country."
Mrs Jefferson looked radiant. She was married, then. That was something to have learnt. "Was,"—she said quickly, "Is he not living then?"
"No." The beautiful face grew a shade paler. "I would rather not talk about it," she said. "His death was very tragic and terrible."
"I'm sorry," said the little American, with ready contrition; "don't think I'm curious," she added, suddenly, "but one doesn't see a woman like you every day. I surmise you'll make a sensation in the hotel."
"I have my own private rooms here," was the quiet response. "I shall not mix with the other visitors."
"Oh," cried Mrs Jefferson, her face clouding, "I call that cruel. There are really some very good people here—titles, if you like them— money, if you care for that—one or two geniuses—a musician and a poet who are working for a future generation, because they can't get appreciated here—and the usual crowd of mediocrities. Oh, you really must come to our evenings; they'd amuse you immensely. We're quite dependent on ourselves for society. This is the dullest of dull holes, still we manage to get a bit spry not and then. Now, you—why, if you'd only show yourself to be looked at, you'd be doing the whole hotel a good turn."
The stranger shook her head. "Society never amuses me," she said. "It has nothing to offer that can rival the charms of books, art, and solitude. I possess all three."
Mrs Jefferson opened her eyes wide. "The first and the last," she said, "are comprehensible as travelling companions, but what about the middle one?"
"In my train I have a blind musician, whose equal I have never met, and a boy sculptor whose genius will one day astonish the world. For myself, I paint and I write, and I have a store of books that will outlast the longest limit of companionship. Can you tell me what better things the world will give?"
Mrs Ray Jefferson murmured something vaguely about amusement and distraction. She was growing more and more perplexed about this beautiful Mystery. Anyone who travelled about with a train of attendants must surely be a princess at the very least.
"Amusement!"—the stranger smiled. "Does society ever really give us that? We have to smile when we are bored—to tell polite falsehoods every hour—to eat and drink when we would rather fast—to awake all sorts of evil passions in other people's minds if we are better-looking or better dressed, or more admired; and have them aroused in our own if we are not? Does a ball amuse? Does a dinner-party? Does even a comedy, after the first quarter of an hour? I can answer for myself in the negative, at all events."
"Gracious!" exclaimed Mrs Jefferson wonderingly. "You must be a strange person, and you look so young. Why, I should have thought you were just the age for society? Don't you care to be admired?"
"Not in the least. I have learnt the value of men's passions. A quiet life is more wholesome and infinitely more contenting than anything society can offer."
"For a time, perhaps; but it would become dull and monotonous, I should think."
"Never, if you have the mind to appreciate it. The companionship I value will always come to me. I do not need to seek it in the world."
"You are fortunate," said Mrs Jefferson, somewhat sarcastically. "Ordinary mortals have to take what they can get. Still, I suppose such things are only a matter of personal disposition. If one has the mood for enjoyment, one can find it anywhere; if not—well, a funeral or a comedy would be equally amusing."
"I suppose," said the stranger, quietly, "you have the mood."
"Well, I'm blessed with a pretty fair capacity for enjoying all that comes in my way," said the little American, frankly. "I like studying human nature, even though I'm not clever enough to describe it. It's like the critics, you know, who find it so powerful easy to cut up a book, yet couldn't write one themselves to save their lives. Phew-ew! how hot it is here! How do you contrive to look so cool?"
"I can stand a great deal of heat," answered the other, tranquilly. "I have Eastern blood in my veins, on my mother's side. Is that the hottest room?" she added, nodding in the direction of the third doorway.
"Yes. I suppose you won't go there? I never dare put my nose inside. It's enough to scorch the skin off you."
"I don't suppose it can be hotter than the rooms in the East," answered the stranger, as she rose and moved towards it. She stood for a moment looking in, then turned back and smiled at her late companion. "Oh, I can bear it," she said, and disappeared from sight.
The little American pouted and looked disturbed. "What a shame! I had ever so many more things to ask her," she said, "and to think, after all, I don't know her name, or even to what country she belongs, and I did so want the whole story pat for the table d'hote dinner to-night... Ready to be shampooed?—oh, yes, Morrison; I'm just about 'done through;' I'm glad you can take me first."
She rose abruptly and followed the attendant past the flushed and perspiring groups who were still comparing notes as to different ailments and degrees of moisture, occasionally holding out their arms for mutual inspection.
"I wonder," she said to herself, "how that one woman manages to look so different. Why, we get uglier and uglier, and she only more and more beautiful. Perhaps she's a Rosicrucian!"
THE COOLING ROOM.
A long room, down the centre of which ran a row of couches; on either side were the dressing-rooms, curtained off from the main apartment by curtains of dark Oriental blue, bordered with dull red. In the large bay window stood the dressing-tables and mirrors.
Mrs Ray Jefferson had it all to herself, as, wrapped in an enormous sheet of Turkish towelling, she emerged from the processes of shampooing and douche. She laid herself down on one of the couches, and the attendant, Morrison, threw another Turkish wrap over her, and left her to the enjoyment of the coffee she had ordered, and which was placed on one of the numerous small tables scattered about.
According to all rules of the baths, she should have rested calmly and patiently on that couch, until such time as she was cool enough to don her ordinary attire, but the little American, was of a restless and impatient disposition, and of all things hated to be inactive.
The attendant had scarcely left the room before she raised herself to a sitting position, and took a survey of her appearance in one of the mirrors. It did not appear to be very satisfactory. She turned abruptly away and reached some magazines from an adjoining table. Armed with these she once more sought her couch, and after tossing two or three contemptuously aside, she at last seemed to find one periodical that interested her. She grew so absorbed in its contents, that she scarcely heard the entrance of the beautiful woman who had so interested her, and who now took the next couch to her own, and lay down in an attitude of indolent grace that was quite in keeping with her appearance.
"You seem interested," she remarked, as she glanced at the absorbed face of her neighbour.
Mrs Jefferson looked up sharply. "Well," she said, turning the magazine round to read its title. "This is about the queerest story I ever read. I wish people wouldn't write improbabilities that no one can swallow."
"The question is rather what is an improbability?" answered her companion. "It is only a matter of the capacity of the age to receive what is new. A few years ago electricity was improbable, yet look at the telegraph and the telephone. Still further back, who would have believed that railways would exist above ground and under ground, and mock at the difficulties of rivers and mountains? What have you discovered strange enough to be called 'improbable'?"
"Oh! it's a story of a man who gets out of his own body and does all sorts of queer things, and then goes back to it again, just when he pleases. Finally, he falls in love with a woman as queer as himself, and finding he has a rival, he just gets rid of him by force of will-power. However, the day they are to be married, the woman is found dead in her bed. It appears that she also could get out of her body when she felt inclined, but she did it once too often, and couldn't get back in time, so they buried her, at least they buried one of her bodies; as far as I can make out she had two."
"And you think that improbable?" questioned the stranger calmly.
Her beautiful deep eyes were looking straight into the flushed excited face beside her. Mrs Ray Jefferson met their gaze, and was conscious of an odd little unaccountable thrill.
"Certainly I do," she said. "Who could believe that anyone can jump in or out of their skin just as the fancy takes them?"
The stranger's beautiful lips grew scornful. "Oh!" she said, "if you like to put the subject in that light, it may well look ridiculous and impossible. Ignorance is always more or less arrogant. It is man's habit to fancy that all creation was made for him. There are few things of which he is so utterly ignorant, and of which he thinks so little, as that mystery of himself incarnated in the temporary prison-house of flesh and blood. Did he once realise what he might be—did he ever raise his eyes from the glow-worm light of earth to the stupendous glories of the sun of wisdom, he would know better than to cavil at what you call 'improbable.' For in nature all things are possible, but man has neither time nor patience to trace out their mysteries, or seek in their development the key to those mysteries."
"Gracious sakes," muttered Mrs Jefferson to herself in alarm. "I'm sure she's a Rosicrucian or something of that sort. It's interesting, but uncanny. I'm quite out of my depth. I don't know what she means. Do you really mean to say," she added aloud, "that this story might be true; that you have two bodies and can slip from one to the other?"
A dark frown crept over the beautiful face. "You talk as foolishly as a child," she said with contempt. "You know nothing of the subject you are discussing, therefore anything I might say would sound incomprehensible. The grossness of the flesh stifles and kills the subtle workings of the spirit. To you life is only a pleasure ground, and the more your own personal satisfaction is obtainable, the more you cling to its spurious enjoyments. If you once cut yourself adrift from such follies, your eyes would be opened, your senses quickened, and you would recognise possibilities and marvels that now are no more to you than sunlight to the blind worm that burrows in the ground." She stretched out her hand and took the book from the passive hand of her astounded companion, and glanced rapidly over its pages.
"'Light in Darkness.' Ah, truly it is needed," she said, her eyes kindling, her face glowing, until her beauty seemed more than mortal. "But we shall never reach it till we learn to master the senses, to cut the chains of worldly prejudice and conventionalism. They are bold teachers, these," and she tossed the magazine back to the still silent critic of its contents. "You would do well," she said, "to make yourself acquainted with some of these subjects. I think you would find them more interesting than ball-rooms and Paris toilettes."
Mrs Jefferson recovered her tongue at that slight to her beloved vanities.
"Tastes differ," she said coolly. "I'm very well content with the world as it is and with myself as I am. I don't believe any good ever comes of prying into subjects we're not intended to know anything about."
"I might ask you," said the stranger, with visible contempt, "how you are so surely convinced of what we are intended to know, and what not? There is no hard and fast rule laid down for us that I am aware of."
"Oh!" stammered Mrs Jefferson, with some confusion, "I'm sure the Bible says that somewhere. 'Thus far shalt thou go and no further,' you know. It is arrogant to attempt to penetrate the mysteries of the other world. When we go there we shall know them soon enough."
"How glibly you nineteenth-century Christians talk of the 'other world,'" cried the beautiful woman, with contempt. She tossed back the weight of her rich hair and sat up, looking like an inspired prophetess. "Yet you acknowledge you know nothing of it. Your priests cannot explain it, so they take refuge in the plea that inquiry is presumptuous. Science cannot explain it. Reason falters at the threshold before the stumbling-block of its long-cherished ignorance whose only legacy has been Fear. And it is all because you live in falsehood—because you are false to your inner life, and think only of the outer; because you are all in chains of superstition—of worldly bondage, of family prejudices, and, above all, of self-delusion."
"Have you come to preach to us, then?" asked the little American superciliously. "There is little use in decrying a private or national disease unless you are provided with a remedy."
"If an angel from Heaven came down to preach you would not believe!" said the stranger, growing suddenly calm as she sank back on her pillow. "No, I have no mission. I am only one who has looked out on life and learnt its bitter truths, and seen its vanity and folly repeated, with scarce a variation, in countless human lives."
"Well," said the American, "the fact of that repetition seems rather as if it were a law of human lives, don't it? We find ourselves in this world, and we must do as others do, and live as others live. Of course, I've read of people giving up all sorts of pleasures and comforts in this life for sake of another, but to me it seems only a mild form of madness. For instance, there's this new sect that's sprung up, who are going to revolutionise all creation—well, I've read heaps of their books, I've spoken even to some of their members, but I confess Theosophy seems as much of a jumble as any other creed. Look at their priests, their yogis, and chelas, and such-like humbugs! They say their Buddha is as divine as our Christ. Maybe he is—to them! But what strikes me is the absurdity of trying to get into another life while one has to live this. Fasting and sitting under a tree, and starving out all fleshly desires and impulses until the human body, instead of being handsome and muscular as Nature intended it to be, becomes a withered skeleton, subsisting on a few beans and a cup of water. Why, anybody could see visions and dream dreams, that lived a life like that even for a year! But I want to know what's the good of it? I suppose if we get out of our natural life before our time, our place can't be ready for us in our next Karma, or whatever they call it. So we would martyrise ourselves to no purpose. These sort of people seem to me to be trying to steal a march over others, wanting to get a stage further on the road before the natural term of earth-life is over. A nice world this would be if we were all at that game."
"You have certainly read to some purpose," said the stranger ironically. "It is interesting to hear the deepest philosophy that has ever occupied the human mind summed up and dismissed as ridiculous. Let me, however, first point out a few mistakes in your judgment of this new 'sect' as you call it. In the first place it is not a sect in the common acceptation of the word, but rather a universal philosophy embracing all creeds, ranks, and denominations of men. It lays not the slightest stress on any of its followers martyrising their bodies as you so glibly describe. You might just as well say that the Christian religion is only carried out by monks and nuns, because certain enthusiasts prefer to cut themselves adrift from the vanities of life. In all ages and in all religions there have been such enthusiasts. Even the prophets in your own Bible were men of this description, living in caves, subsisting only on the fruits and seeds of the earth, and giving themselves up to visions and dreams. What else have your canonised Saints done? Yet they are worshipped by a vast community of apparently sensible beings, as holy. It only shows that there are certain minds capable of penetrating the uselessness of a purely worldly existence, and finding it too hard to live a double life, that is to say, spiritual and material (a life only possible to the modern clergy), they seek refuge in seclusion and leave that outer life to those whom it satisfies and suits. As to the selfishness of such isolation, that is a matter no alien mind can quite determine, for the greatest Example of the religious life was strangely indifferent to human ties, nor ever displayed the weakness of human affection for earthly relatives, thus seeming to show that it is no sin to sacrifice earthly ties for a higher and holier existence. The disciples of the great Brotherhood are voluntary enthusiasts, free from the claims of human relationship, and offering themselves simply as disciples. They wrong no one by their choice. As for your last remark about endeavouring to steal a march on our fellow-men by seeking a higher place in the next state of existence, before we have done with this, I can only ask you to study something of the laws and doctrines of theosophical philosophy before deciding such an event is possible."
"Do you know much about them?" asked Mrs Jefferson curiously.
"I know that they teach man the truest sense of his own responsibility. They prove to him an inexorable law by which he may lift himself from the level of the brute to the majesty of the God he now blindly worships."
"But so does Christianity," exclaimed Mrs Jefferson astounded.
For the first time the stranger laughed.
"And is not true Christianity the highest and purest philosophy?" she said. "Only it is preached—not practised. Can you tell me that a single Christian land in this nineteenth century era is one whit purer or better in its spiritual or moral character than was Jerusalem a thousand years ago? Does it influence commerce, trade, governments, laws—even civilisation? If it did, not one rule or law that binds the rotten fabric of civilised life together would stand for a single moment. Why? Because no one would lie; no one would cheat; no one would murder, either wholesale because of country prejudices, or retail because of private animosities. Everyone would be honest, charitable, merciful, and unselfish. You cling to a Faith that is almost barren of good works. You propagate it among ignorant savages whom you first rob of their lands, and then convert with guns and brandy bottles. How much of the reception of Christianity is due to the latter I will leave to the revelations of the first honest missionary whose report is not indebted to his income from the Society, a prospective pension, and his own personal weakness for the laudation of his fellow men. Show me a human being who can be honest to a conviction in the face of scorn and mockery, who never sought his own interest in the profession he embraced, but only the good of others for whom that profession was ostensibly established; who would speak truth in the Courts of Law, the House of Legislature, and the salons of Society; who would write—not for empty praise but from conviction—and follow art simply and purely to ennoble the mind, not pander to the lust of the eye and the greed of gold. Show me such men and such a nation, and I will acknowledge there Christianity has found its seat and fulfilled the purpose of its founder!"
"Oh," said the American, shrugging her shoulders with contempt, "of course, you are talking arrant nonsense! The thing's impossible. The world can't be turned into a monastery, and as long as people live they will always be overreaching each other, and deceiving each other. It's not possible to be perfectly honest, or perfectly truthful."
"Then," said the stranger quietly, as she sank back on her cushions, "do not blame even the poor Yogi under his tree if he has turned away sick and disgusted with the shams and vileness, and hypocrisies and evil, of the so-called civilised world. Remember that the country that holds him and thousands as foolish and superstitious, is the country that your boasted, civilisation has wrested from his race, and that your example as a Christian nation is ever before his eyes. Let his conduct determine it's influence!"
"Well," said Mrs Jefferson, "talk of sermons in stones! Here's one in baths! I should like to know who you are. Seems to me you know everything, and have read everything, and seen most everything on the face of the earth. So few women begin to think of anything serious till they've forgotten their looks, that you must excuse my calling you an anomaly. Now do tell me you'll change your mind and join us to-night in the drawing-room. It's quite as selfish as Yogaism to keep talents like yours in the background."
The beautiful face grew cold and proud.
"You must pardon me," she said, "if I venture to consider myself the best judge of what you are pleased to call—talents. They are not of an order to benefit a hotel drawing-room."
"Oh!" said Mrs Jefferson, feeling somewhat snubbed. "I'm sure people would be delighted to hear you talk, even if you did rub some of their pet foibles the wrong way. I've quite enjoyed this morning, I assure you. You've diverted my thoughts from my own ailments, and stimulated my digestion. I feel like eating lunch for once. And that reminds me I must begin to dress. My fringe takes a quarter of an hour to arrange."
She rose from the couch, her Turkish towelling drapery flowing far behind her small figure. Then she disappeared into her dressing-room.
When she emerged from thence, her fringe artistically curled, her face becomingly tinged with pearl-powder, her dress and appointments all combining to give her small person importance, and show a due regard to the exigencies of fashion, she found the couch which the mysterious stranger had occupied was vacant. She loitered about in the hope of seeing her emerge from one of the dressing-boxes, but she was disappointed, and as the luncheon gong was sounding through the hotel she reluctantly took her way through the carpeted corridors and turned into the main entrance, her mind in a curious condition of perplexity and excitement.
Mrs Ray Jefferson, irrespective of a toilet of ruby velvet cut en coeur, and a display of diamonds calculated to make men thoughtful on the subject of speculation, and women envious on the subject of husbandly generosity (even when connected with Chemicals), was quite the feature of the Hotel drawing-room that night. She was full of her adventure of the morning, and her description of the beautiful stranger lost nothing from the picturesque language in which she clothed her narrative.
"It's very odd the Manager won't tell us her name," she rattled on. "I've done my level best to find out, but it's no good. I suppose she pays too well for him to risk betraying her. I'm sure she's a Russian Princess; she has a suite with her, and carries musicians and sculptors, and heaven knows who else, in her train."
It may be noticed that Mrs Ray Jefferson had only heard of a sculptor and a musician, but she drifted into plurality by force of that irresistible tendency to exaggerate trifles which seems inherent in women who are given to scandal even in its mildest form.
People from all parts of the room gathered round her. A few seemed inclined to doubt her description of the stranger's personal charms, but when she applied to Mrs Masterman for confirmation, that lady, who was known to have a strict regard for truth in its most uncompromising form, emphatically agreed with her.
"Beautiful! I should think she was beautiful," she said, in her usual surly fashion. "But,"—and then came a series of those curious and condemnatory phrases with which a woman invariably finishes her praise of another woman's beauty, and which are too well known to be repeated.
"I did my best to try and persuade her to join us," continued Mrs Jefferson, after duly agreeing with Mrs Masterman that perhaps the stranger's hair was a shade too black, and her height too tall, and her complexion too pale—and that there was something uncanny in the expression of the dark wild eyes, "more like the eyes of a horse than a human being," was Mrs Masterman's verdict. "But nothing would induce her. She says Society is all a sham. That we don't really amuse ourselves or enjoy ourselves, however much we pretend to! My word! doesn't she give it hot to everything. Policy, religion, diplomacy, worldliness, theology, art. It seems to me she knows everything, and has studied human life more accurately than the wisest philosopher I've ever heard of."
"And did you discuss all those subjects during the course of a Turkish Bath?" said a voice near her.
Mrs Jefferson started. The gentleman who had spoken was a recent arrival. She only knew him as Colonel Estcourt. He was a singularly interesting-looking man, home from India on sick leave, and the maidens, and wives, and widows, of this polyglot assemblage at the Hotel were all inclined to admiration of his physical perfections, and to dissatisfaction at a certain coldness and disdainfulness of themselves, which, to use their mildest form of reproach, was "odd and unmilitary."
Mrs Jefferson started slightly. "Oh, it's you, Colonel," she said. "Yes, we did talk about all those subjects, and I surmise if all of you people here heard her carry on against the way you live your lives, you'd feel rather small."
"Did you?" asked Mrs Masterman unkindly.
The bath had not improved her complexion, and her left foot was paining her excessively. These two facts had not combined to sweeten the natural acerbity of her temper. Mrs Ray Jefferson did not heed the question, or the smile it provoked on one or two feminine lips.
"I should like to know who she is," she persisted. "She's been in India too. I suppose you never met her, Colonel Estcourt? No one could forget her who had!"
That cold impassive face changed ever so slightly. "India," he said, "is a somewhat vague term, and covers a somewhat large area for a possible meeting-place. Your description, Mrs Jefferson, is tantalising in the extreme to a male mind, but I fail to recognise its charming original as any personal acquaintance."
"I suppose so," said the little American, discontentedly. "I'm just dying to know who she is, and therefore no one can tell me. Seems I shall have to call her 'the Mystery,' until she condescends to throw off this incognita business."
"But we are sure to see her," interposed Orval Molyneux, the young poet. "She must go out sometimes, I suppose."
"If you'll take my advice," said Mrs Jefferson brusquely, "you won't try to see her, for it's my belief that she's not the woman any man can look at and forget, and you poets are mostly impressionable."
"Such a warning is only adding zest to temptation," said Colonel Estcourt, with a grave smile. "You really have aroused my curiosity in no small degree. But perhaps the mysterious beauty may not be so obdurate as you imagined. Why should she not show herself among us? It is contrary to all known rules of Nature for a beautiful woman to hide herself from the admiration her charms would exact. When those charms are coupled with mental gifts of so diverse and unusual a nature as Mrs Jefferson has described, the probability is that seclusion is only a whim, unless indeed—"
He broke off abruptly. A certain look of disturbance and perplexity came into his deep grey eyes.
"Unless what?" queried Mrs Jefferson, sharply. "You look as if you saw a vision. Unless she's committed a crime, were you going to say? She talked of some tragedy—something that had upset her life, and affected her mental equilibrium."
"She said—that?" His face grew suddenly very pale. The firm mouth quivered beneath the fair thick moustache that shaded it.
"Yes," said Mrs Jefferson. "Do tell, Colonel. What is it you suspect? A mystery—a secret crime? My, that would be interesting."
"Suspect!" he said, almost fiercely. "How should I suspect? What do you mean? I was only wondering if indeed she possessed one of those rare minds, sufficient for their own happiness, and living an inner life of which the world knows nothing, and which, even if it knew, it could not comprehend."
"Ah," said Mrs Jefferson, quickly. "Now this gets interesting. That's just the sort of way she talked, and I confess I got a bit out of my depth. But you, Colonel, you've come from the very land of it all. Do sit down and explain. Is the world going to be turned upside down? Are we to have a new religion, or rather an old one brought to light, that will upset what we've been hugging as truth for the last eighteen hundred years. We've been pretty crazy over spiritualism on our side of the water, but I guess this new philosophy can just make our mediums and seance-givers take a back seat. Isn't that so?"
"My dear madam," answered Colonel Estcourt, gravely, "you really must not call upon me to expound the doctrines of the East to the scoffers of the West. I know a little—a very little—of this school of philosophy; but I am not vain enough to attempt an explanation of its profound wisdom. The mysteries of Nature demand the deepest and most earnest consideration of the human mind. Do you think I could presume to rattle off a few explanations or give the key to certain problems just to satisfy the vague curiosity of an idle hour. I will only say one thing—it is a thing that cannot be too often repeated and thoroughly kept in memory. Every life has to live out itself, and work out for itself the higher mysteries that are shut within its own consciousness. No one can do that for it, any more than they could take its love, or its sorrows, or its misfortunes away, and bear them in its place. If humanity took that truth to heart, and lived according to the higher instead of the lower instincts, the world would be a very different place."
"But," objected a pretty feminine voice in the back-ground, "what about the obligations of position and society? I suppose the 'higher instinct' would tell us that amusements are a waste of time—vanity and vexation in fact—yet even they have a good result, they give employment, and help other folk to live. And it's a pleasant relief to be gay and frivolous. It's awfully fatiguing to be grave and good. Just look at us on Sundays. We're all more or less cross and disagreeable, and I'm sure no clergyman could honestly say that he wasn't heartily sick of droning and intoning that same eternal form embodied in the Church Service."
"The higher life," said Colonel Estcourt, gravely, "is not a matter of form. Far from it. It is an unceasing and inexhaustible pursuit; it has infinite gradations, and is full of infinite possibilities. Its tendency is to elevate all that is best, and eliminate all that is worst, in man."
"Oh!" cried Mrs Jefferson with rapture, "I'm sure you ought to meet my 'Mystery.' That's just her sort of talk. I must say it sounds beautiful; but I shouldn't think it was practicable. It's a very hard thing to change people's ideas. When they've held them a certain time they get used to them, and don't like the trouble of altering."
"True," said Colonel Estcourt, "and therein lies the secret of all the misery and mistakes that have made the world what it is. The few enthusiasts and propagandists have always been confronted by that mountain of inertness, prejudice, and indolence, which the aggregate portion of all nations oppose to anything newer, or wiser, or better than the sloth and ignorance of the past."
"Well," laughed Mrs Jefferson, "let's see what this new era will bring about. There's a grand opening for it, and it has this advantage— people are much more dissatisfied with old creeds, and much more eager for new, than they have ever been. The reins are slack, if only there's a firm and judicious hand to seize them."
"Suppose," drawled Mr Ray Jefferson, who had the rare virtue of being an admirable listener to any controversy or discussion. "Suppose, my dear, we have a game of poker."
"Agreed," laughed his wife. "This meeting's adjourned, Colonel Estcourt. Will you join us."
He shook his head. "No," he said, "I'm going out on the terrace to smoke."
"And meditate on the Unknown?" queried the little American. "Perhaps you'll see her at her window. I wish you luck."
He did not answer, but his brow clouded and his face grew anxious and absorbed. In his heart those light words echoed with a thrill of mingled pain and dread. "If it should be," he said to himself. "My God—if it should be she?"
The stars were gleaming above the dusky pine trees. The soft December air, mild as spring on that sheltered coast, scarcely stirred the drooping boughs that overshadowed the terrace. Colonel Estcourt lit his cigar, and began to pace with slow and thoughtful steps beneath the many lighted windows of the great building. Mrs Jefferson's words haunted him, despite his efforts to dispel them. One of those windows belonged to the room where this strange and beautiful woman might even now be seated. Why did he picture to himself the pale exquisite face—the full dark eyes—the lovely rippling hair—as if they were charms already recognised and remembered. Why?—save that when he had heard their description they had struck home to his memory with a shock of pain, and a feverish dread that longed yet feared to find itself realised. To and fro—to and fro—he paced the terraced walk, and again and again his eyes sought that long line of light above his head.
There was a strange stillness in the brooding air—that mysterious hush, which is the music of night's gentle footsteps, and insensibly its soothing influence stole over the unquiet of his restless thoughts—the warring powers of soul and sense grew silent and at rest.
Then something—a sound sweet as song—yet without the vibratory passion of a human voice—seemed to float out of the darkness and hold his ear enchained like a spell. It was the divinest beauty of music, divinely interpreted, and it seemed to him as he listened that all the discord and woe and misery that oppressed his earthly senses, disappeared and died away into the very perfection of peace.
He stood there quite silent—quite motionless—waiting, so it seemed to himself, for some fuller revelation to which these exquisite sounds were but a prelude.
It was a matter of no surprise when he quietly lifted his dreamy glance to the stone balcony above, and saw there, in the soft glow of light from the rooms beyond, the fair form of the woman he had expected to see.
A faint tremor of fear and apprehension thrilled his heart, but it died away as a low remembered voice stole through the space that parted him from a visible form he had never thought to see again.
"I told you we should meet. But I scarcely thought it would be so soon. Will you come up here, or shall I join you?"
The voice and greeting roused him. He bared his head and bent low to the speaker in a deeper homage than that of conventional courtesy.
"Is it really you, Princess? And may I be permitted to join you?"
The mute sign of assent showed him also a flight of steps leading up from the terrace to the balcony. A moment, and he was by her side.
No ordinary greeting passed between them. Perhaps none could have conveyed what that long silent gaze did; seeming to go straight to the heart of each, full of memories that time had softened, but sad with the sadness that is in all deep human love.
"A strange meeting-place," she said. "Yet why more strange than the mountains of the East, or the lonely plains of the Desert, the steppes of Russia, or the house-tops of Damascus?"
"You read my thoughts, as ever," he said. "I must confess that it seemed strange to see you here, treading the narrow path of English conventionalism, after—after—"
"I know," she said. "But life is full of the unexpected. You do not ask how these five years have been spent. The years that have changed the dreamy enthusiastic girl into a woman such as you see before you."
"I do not ask," he said, his voice vibrating beneath an emotion he could not conceal, "because it can be no pleasure to me to learn. Do you forget what I told you? Do you think that the memory of these five years is a pleasant one for me? Against my prayers, against my warnings, you chose your own life. Are you free—now?"
"No," she said, in a strange stifled voice, "never that—never while I wear the shackles of humanity!" She sank suddenly down in a low seat, and buried her face in her hands. "Oh," she cried, faintly, "if I could tell you—if I only dared; but I cannot! My bondage is deeper—my chains are heavier. Sometimes I think those years were only a dream—a horrible, frightful dream—but then, again, I know they were not."
"What do you mean?" he asked, his voice sharp with terror, for this shame and remorse that convulsed her, and made her one with the common weakness of her common womanhood, was something altogether different to the supremacy she had always shown in her proud girlhood.
"I cannot tell you," she said, "I dare not."
"Do you forget," he said, severely, "that if I wish to know, I shall learn it?"
"Not now," she said, suddenly, and raised her face and looked calmly, yet not defiantly, back at him with her great, sad, and most lovely eyes. "I have passed beyond your power," she went on. "Beyond most human influence, I might say—" then she shuddered and her eyes sank again. "But oh!" she cried, "at what a cost!—at what a cost!"
He felt as if his heart grew suddenly chill and stony. "I believe you are right," he said; "my power is gone—yours is the strongest now."
He was silent for a few moments. "One question only," he then said; "I don't wish to pry into your past. It is enough that we have met—for that would never have taken place if you had not needed me. So much I know. Your marriage—was it as I foretold?"
"It was worse," she said, bitterly—"a million times worse! Body and soul, how I have suffered! And yet, as I told you then, it had to be."
"I did not believe it then," he said stormily; "I refuse to believe it now. Your misery was self-created. You voluntarily degraded yourself. What result could there be? Only suffering and shame."
"The good of others," she answered mournfully. "You cannot see it yet; but I know—it was foretold me. I did my work there. Sometimes I hope it is finished; but I do not know. One can never tell; at any time the summons may come again. God help me if it does."
"Is your life in danger, then?" he asked, and again that chill and horror seemed to thrill the pulses of his beating heart.
"My life!" She lifted her eyes and looked back at his with something intensely mournful in her gaze. "As if that mattered! What is my life to me now, any more than it was then? Did I count the cost—did I call it a sacrifice? Life—the mere material actual life of the body— has never weighed with me for one moment. And yet," she added, in a dull, strange voice, "I failed at the crucial test! Failed!—I, who had denied to myself all woman's weakness, all mortal love, all fleshly vanities—failed! I am no more now than the veriest beginner on the path. I, who deemed myself so wise!"
Then she rose and came close to him, and laid her white hand on his arm. "That," she said, "is why I needed you again. You can help me—you can tell me where and how I failed."
That light touch thrilled his veins like sorcery. He bent his head and passionately kissed the white, soft hand. "You failed, oh, my Princess! because you are still mortal woman. Thank Heaven for it! You failed because memory and love were still strong in your heart. You failed— and I am by your side once more. Oh, let the past be forgotten! Brief is life, but love is its Paradise, and into that Paradise our feet once strayed. Fate stayed them on the threshold. But now—now—"
She raised her white face. "Do not deceive yourself," she said. "You have always loved me too well—but I—"
"Only let me love you!" he whispered passionately. "It is honour enough. All the wide earth holds no other woman such as you. Having once known you, there has never been a disloyal thought within my heart. Read it—see for yourself."
"I read it," she said, "even while the music was sounding in your ears, as you stood on the terrace there below; even while you moved amidst that chattering, flippant throng, and heard what they said of me. No, dear friend. You have nothing in that great frank, loyal soul to hide. But I—there is something that whispers I shall only bring you suffering. I am not for mortal love. True, I cannot see beyond, but Fear meets me on the threshold. The hour I gave myself to you would bring you an evil I dimly realise. I cannot foretell, and I cannot avert it; but it is there. It lurks like a hidden foe where our lives should join... No, no!—do not tempt me. Happiness is not for me, as we count it on the earth plane."
"And in the next I may lose you altogether. Oh listen—listen, and let the woman defy the priestess. Give me your love, and, even with Death as its bridal gift I shall receive it as the deepest joy of earth."
"There," she said sadly, "speaks the mortal. Passion sways your senses. You too will lose your powers—and for what?—a few brief years of joy—a longer darkness—then the old weary round—the old sad effort to climb the long stairway from the bottom rung that once you proudly spurned. It was not this that Channa taught us in the sweet peace of our youth—it was not this for which our souls thirsted, and to which our faces were set."
"Channa is dead, and to the dead all is peace. Even he said that Life's one good gift was Love."
"True, but not selfish love. 'The feet of the soul must be washed in the blood of the heart.' Love to all humanity—to the poor—the sad— the suffering. Love, even to the Fate that gives us sorrow and misfortune. Love to the eternal and immutable. Love for all that is purest and best in each life with which we mingle. Such a love is not sensual—not earthly. It gives without necessity of return; it is the soul's devotion, not the heart's impulse. But you are not content with loving me, you claim mine in return, and so far as I have lost or you have gained a firmer foothold since last we met, so far you can compel my lower nature to answer yours. We have loved before, and unhappy was our fate. Once more we meet, and your cry is still for me. And I—"
She ceased; her arms fell to her side. Her face, lovely beyond all mere mortal loveliness, looked back to his yearning, passionate gaze. Had she been temptress, devil, saint, there could have been but one answer from the throbbing heart and leaping pulse of manhood. He caught her to his heart, and his lips drank from hers the sweetness that only earthly passion drains from earthly love.
She did not resist. She lay there like a white lily in the moonlight, but her lips were cold as marble and her eyes held the mute sorrow of despair, not the rapture of a granted joy.
When a proud woman yields to the entreaties of a lover, she yields with a grander humility, a more complete self-surrender, than one to whom coquetry and conquests are natural attributes of vanity.
The Princess Zairoff, to whom men's admiration was as familiar as the air of Heaven, who possessed rank and wealth and loveliness such as dower few women, had yet never granted to one human being a sign of tenderness, or unveiled, so to speak, the deep strange depths of her strange nature, to any beseechment.
But now, for one brief hour she threw back the portals of emotion. She was a woman, pure and simple. The man beside her was the one man in the world to whom her memory had been faithful. Boy and girl they had known each other in years long past. As boy and girl they had shared in the same tastes, and been penetrated with the same desires for the Mystic and the Unknown.
Living in a remote part of India under very careless guardianship, and with no one to care for their pursuits, or remark them, they had made the acquaintance of a learned and somewhat mysterious native, and from his lips they first heard some hints of the wonders that nature reveals to the earnest student. As time went on they were separated—the boy was sent to England, the girl remained in the East. When they met again he was a young lieutenant in an infantry regiment stationed at one of the most popular stations of a popular Presidency, and she was the reigning queen of the same station. Again fate parted them. Two years went by. Their next meeting was in Egypt, where she was travelling with her guardian.
Julian Estcourt had learnt his heart's secret by then, but there was a coldness, a strangeness, about the girl who had been his boyhood's friend that kept him back from anything bearing the imputation of love-making.
Much as they were together, long and frequent as were their talks, those talks were yet curiously impersonal for their age and sex, and, however much the young man's heart might throb with its hidden passion, there yet lay between them a barrier, a restraint, light, yet strangely strong, and his lips never dared betray the secret of his long-cherished devotion.
Another separation—another meeting. Time had worked changes in both. She was a beautiful woman, proud, cold, queenly—he had acquired strength of character, loftier ideals, and a sense of the value of intellectual gifts, which had kept him singularly free from and indifferent to, the temptations of the senses. He had learnt to drink mental stimulants with avidity. He had made one or two brilliant successes in literature, and was looked upon as a supremely "odd fish," by his brother officers.
That third meeting decided his fate. He spoke out his love, spurred on by a rivalry he had good cause to dread, but spoke to no purpose. Calmly, though with a sorrow she did not attempt to disguise, she told her old playmate and friend that her choice was made. She was going to marry the old, vicious, and fabulously wealthy Russian Prince, Fedor Ivanovitch Zairoff. She made no pretence of caring for the man whom, out of a host of suitors, she had selected to wed. When her young lover stormed and upbraided her she only raised those wonderful stag-like eyes to his face and said:
"I have a reason, Julian. I cannot explain it. I dare not say more. Believe me I could not make you happy, it would not be permitted."
And having long ago learnt that arguments were utterly useless before that formula, he had to stand aside—to crush back a strong and unconquerable passion—to see her pass from his sight and knowledge—and to bear his life as best he could, with that feeling in his heart of having staked all on one throw, and lost, that makes so many men desperate and vicious. That it did not make Julian Estcourt so was entirely due to great strength of moral character, and a belief in the responsibilities with which life is charged, and for the abuse of which it is destined to suffer in future states or conditions, as well as in its present.
If such belief were universally accepted and pursued, we should soon cease to hear those ridiculous and humiliating phrases with which popular favourites are extenuated for the reckless and disgraceful waste of mind, energy, and usefulness, occasioned by some trifling disappointment or misfortune. There would be no more sins glossed over as "sowing wild oats," and "having his fling," or "driven to the bad," because once an individual feels he is responsible to himself for undue physical indulgences—for laws of natural life set at naught, and spiritual impulses disregarded—he will try to emerge from the slough of evil, and he will learn with startling rapidity to value all joys of the senses less and less. There can be no high order of morality without this sense of responsibility, for when a man feels he is moulding his own character, forming, as it were, fresh links in the chain of endurance, adding by every act and thought and word to that personality he is bound to confront as himself, to re-inhabit as himself, and to judge as himself, then life rises into an importance that words cannot convey, but which the soul alone recognises and feels in those better moments that are mercifully granted to each and all of us.
So Julian Estcourt took up his burden—saddened, aged, embittered perhaps, but not one whit more inclined to squander the gifts of life or the fruits of discipline than he had been in his dreamy, studious youth.
He neither sought distraction in evil and dissipated courses, nor death by any of those foolhardy and rash exploits which have far too often been glorified as "courage" or "pluck."
He was graver, more reticent, more studious than of yore, and he found his reward, though few even of his intimate associates were aware of his abnormal gifts, or his superior knowledge. Such was the man who, still in the prime of life's best years, still with thirst unslaked for that one divine draught of love which, once at least, is offered to mortal lips, stood now in the soft December moonlight by the side of the woman he had worshipped for long in secret and in pain, and cried aloud in triumph to his heart, "At last happiness is mine!"
His whole consciousness was pervaded with a sense of ecstasy that seemed to make all past pain and regret sink into utter insignificance. To stand there by her side, to drink in that wonderful beauty of face and form, was a joy that brought absolute forgetfulness of everything outside and apart from its new and magical acquisition. The world was forgotten. Even the possibility of a formal and imperative ceremonial by which his newly-won treasure must be secured to himself at last, barely flashed across his consciousness. He did not trouble himself to put it into words. He listened to the brief disjointed fragments of her speech—fragments which gave a dim picture of her life in these empty years of division. Now and then he spoke of himself. She listened. Once she turned to him with an impulse of tenderness strange in one so cold and self-possessed.
"Ah!" she cried, softly, "I have made you suffer... but it was not my will... Oh, always believe that... And I will give you compensation.— I can promise it—now."
They seemed to him the sweetest words that ever fell from mortal lips, and no less sweet—though infinitely puzzling—was that exquisite humility with which she crowned the wonder of her self-surrender. Yet even as he heard his brain grew bewildered—his senses seemed to reel. Strange thoughts and shapes seemed to hover around him, and all the soft, dim space of night appeared a black and peopled horror. For a moment he felt that consciousness was forsaking him... that the shock of this unexpected joy was beyond his strength to bear. Dizzy and sick he swayed suddenly forwards.—A cool hand touched his brow—a voice reached his ear. With a mighty effort he shook off the paralysing weakness, and sank down by the side of his enchantress.
"Is it a dream?" he murmured, vaguely; "shall I wake to-morrow and know you have mocked me again?"
"Nay, my beloved," she whispered; "this—is no dream... Never again shall I mock you. I am but a woman now who loves. Earth holds no weaker thing."
When Julian Estcourt entered the public drawing-room, nearly two hours after he had left it, several curious eyes turned towards him. The card-players had finished their game and broken up into various groups. A few men were yawning and apparently meditating a retreat to the smoking-room. No one seemed particularly energetic, but the entrance of that tall soldierly figure struck a new note of interest in the languid assemblage. He seemed to bring—as it were—a breeze of vitality, a sense of freshness and energy along with him from the starlit air and the pine-scented woods. His head was erect, his eyes shone with the radiance of happiness, a certain sense of pride—of triumph—and yet of deep intense content, was in his aspect and his smile.
Mrs Ray Jefferson, her spirits still unimpaired by losses at "poker," was the first to remark audibly on the change.
"Why, Colonel!" she said. "Have you been having a Turkish Bath? Guess you look as fresh and perky as if you'd taken a new lease of life."
He laughed. "The only bath I have taken," he said, "is one of moonlight. You should all be out on the terrace. Far healthier and more enjoyable than these hot, gas-lit rooms, I assure you."
"The terrace," said Mrs Jefferson, looking at him with a sudden stern accusing glance. "Ladies and gentlemen, what did I tell you? I—do— believe—"
She paused dramatically, every eye turned fully and searchingly upon the handsome face and erect figure so calmly and easily confronting this sudden criticism.
"Well?" he said at last. "What is it you believe?"
"You've seen—her," burst out Mrs Jefferson eagerly. "Now Colonel, no tricks—plain yes or no; I'm certain sure you've seen her—my Mystery. Haven't you?"
"I will not pretend," he said, "to misunderstand you. I have met an old friend, and I hope soon to have the pleasure of introducing her to you all. Not with any mystery about her, as our American friend seems determined to suppose, but simply as the Princess Zairoff—of whom you may have heard before this."
There was a buzz—a stir—a confused murmur. "Heard of her—I should think so. You never mean to say she's here? I thought she was in Russia—"
"Gracious!" almost shrieked Mrs Jefferson. "Why it was her husband who died so mysteriously, on the eve of that awful conspiracy. You never mean to say, Colonel Estcourt, that you know her. Why she's one of the celebrities of Europe, and to come here, to this quiet place—and incognito?"
"Do you not think," he said, "that the fact of being quiet and unknown would just be the one fact she would appreciate? I hope I am not claiming too much from your courtesy when I say that the privilege of her society can only be obtained by a due regard to her wishes in that respect. She wishes only to be known as Madame Zairoff, here."
"I'm sure," exclaimed Mrs Jefferson eagerly, "I'm only too willing to promise anything for the privilege of seeing her. Isn't that the general opinion also?"
There was a murmur of assent, specially eager on the part of the men.
"I can only assure you," continued Colonel Estcourt gravely, "that you will not regret the slight inconvenience of repressing personal curiosity, for Madame Zairoff is a woman whose gifts and graces are of a marvellous nature and calculated to delight the most critical society. As Mrs Jefferson told us, she is here for her health. It is an incident we cannot deplore if we are to benefit by her society."
"You'd better all look out for your hearts, gentlemen," laughed Mrs Jefferson gaily and excitedly. "I assure you I don't believe there's another woman in the world like her. I've seen her under trying circumstances, and I give you my word of honour that a woman who can preserve any charm of personal appearance under the ordeal of a Turkish Bath—"
There came a discreet little cough from the neighbourhood of Mrs Masterman. The little American stopped abruptly.
"I'd best say no more," she said. Then she laughed. "All the same, if you only could see us—"
There was suppressed but general excitement throughout the hotel all the next day.
Someone had caught sight of the Princess Zairoff, who had driven out after luncheon in a low open carriage with three horses harnessed abreast in Russian fashion, that went like the wind. Colonel Estcourt was beside her, and curiosity was rife as to how he should have known her, and whether accident only was responsible for the meeting of two people, one of whom had come from Russia, and the other from India, to this prosaic English nook, for their health.
Mrs Masterman sniffed ominously, as one who scents scandal and impropriety in facts that do not adapt themselves to every-day rules of life. A few other women, suffering from one or other of the fashionable complaints in vogue at this season, agreed with her, that "it certainly looked very odd." They did not specify the "it," but they were quite convinced of the oddity. It did not occur to them to reflect that there was not the slightest reason for any mystery on the part of the Princess, she being perfectly free and untrammelled, or that Colonel Estcourt had been singularly gloomy and depressed before Mrs Jefferson's graphic description of the mysterious beauty attracted his notice.
There is a certain class of people who always shake their heads, and purse up their lips, at the mere suggestion of "chance," or "accident," having a fortunate or happy application. They do not apply the same train of reasoning to the reverse side of the picture; the bias of their nature is evidently suspicious. These are the minds that refuse to credit those little misfortunes of picnic and pleasure parties, by which young people lose themselves in mysterious ways, and get into wrong boats and carriages, and generally contrive to upset the plans of their elders, when these plans have been framed with a deeper regard for rationality than for romance. Mrs Masterman belonged to this class, which doubtless has its uses, though those uses are not plainly evident on the surface of life; she spent the day in gloomy hints, and mysterious shakes of the head, and insinuations that no good was ever known to spring from a superabundance of feminine charms, which, in the course of nature, must have an evil tendency, and be productive of overweening vanity, extravagance, and even immorality.
Still, even evil prognostications cannot quell the fires of curiosity in the female breast, and every woman in the hotel made her toilette with special care on this eventful evening, as befitting one who owed it to her sex to vindicate even the smallest personal attraction in the presence of rivalry. Colonel Estcourt was not at dinner, so his presence did not restrain comment and speculation, and the tongues did quite as much work as the knives and forks.
"I do wonder what sort of gown she'll wear," sighed Mrs Ray Jefferson, who was attired in a "creation" of the great French man-milliner, accursed by husbands of fashionable wives, and whose power is only another note in that ascending scale of absurdity struck by the hands of fashion.
"Perhaps she won't come down in the drawing-room at all," said Mrs Masterman spitefully, after listening for some time to the remarks around her. "Colonel Estcourt did not specify any particular night."
"Oh, I'm sure she'll come," said Mrs Jefferson, whose nature was specially happy in always assuring her of what she desired. "I've got an impression that she will—they never fail me. You know I've a singularly magnetic organisation. A great spiritualist in Boston once told me I only needed developing to exhibit extraordinary powers. But I hadn't the time or the patience to go in thoroughly for psychic development. Besides it's really a very exacting pursuit."
"Exacting rubbish!" exclaimed Mrs Masterman impatiently; "I can't stand all that bosh about higher powers, and developing magnetism. Of course there are a set of people who'd believe anything that seemed to give them a superior organisation; it's only another way of pandering to human vanity. Spiritualism is perfect rubbish. I've seen and heard enough of it to know. I once held a seance at my house, just to convince myself as to its being a trick or not, I was told that the medium could materialise spirit forms. I, of course, asked some people to meet him, and we selected a room and put him behind a screen as he desired, and there we all sat in the dark, like so many fools, for about half-an-hour.—"
"Well," interposed Mrs Jefferson eagerly, "and did you have any manifestation?"
"Oh, yes," laughed the gouty sufferer grimly, "a very material one indeed. By some accident the medium knocked down the screen just after we'd seen a spirit face floating above it. In the confusion some one struck a light, and there was our medium—standing on the chair without his coat, and wrapping some transparent India muslin about himself, which had been dipped in phosphorus I believe, so that it gave out a curious shimmering light in the dark. You may suppose I never went in for materialistic seances again."
"Still," said Mrs Jefferson, "although you may have been tricked, it doesn't stand to reason that spiritualism is trickery. I've come from the very core and centre of it—so to speak. I've been at more seances than I could count, and I've seen tests applied that prove the manifestations are genuine. Still there are heaps of professional mediums who are not to be depended on, I grant. If you want to know the truth of spiritualism, you can always work it out for yourself. That's quite possible, only it's a deal of trouble."
"I don't believe in it," reiterated Mrs Masterman stubbornly. "All mediums are cheats and humbugs."
"Oh!" said Mrs Jefferson. "If it comes to exceptions laying down the rule, where are we? The other day a clergyman was taken before the courts for drunkenness, but I suppose you're not going to say all clergymen are drunkards. A doctor poisoned a patient by mistake, but surely we're not to class our dear medical men as poisoners and murderers on that account. It's just the same with any abnormal or extraordinary facts that set up a new theory for investigation. Impostors are sure to creep in, and the lazy and the indifferent and the sceptical call their exposure 'results.' Depend on it we don't half investigate subjects now-a-days, and we suffer for it by giving place and opportunity for the development of a certain class of beings who prey on our credulity, and make profit out of our indolence and superstition."
"There's something in spiritualism, you bet," drawled the nasal voice of Mr Ray Jefferson. "I've had messages written to me, and things said that no third person could possibly have known about."
"Ah, slate writing," sneered Mrs Masterman. "I've seen that too. Just another trick."
"How do you explain that?" asked Mrs Jefferson quickly.
"Well, this way. I went to two or three different mediums so as to test them all. I found they had no objections to bringing your own slates and writing your own questions, but while they held the slate under the table they kept you talking to distract your attention, and from time to time they got convulsive jerks and movements by which it was quite possible for them to see what was written. Then you heard a scratching (the medium probably had a little bit of pencil in his finger-nail), and your answer was given you. Well, let that pass for what it's worth, but I always noticed the medium asked if I wouldn't like a message, and when I said 'yes,' he brought out his own slate."
"But," said Mrs Jefferson, "didn't he let you examine it first?"
"Oh yes, and wiped it over with a damp cloth. Then it was held under the table, and in a few seconds covered with 'spirit-writing.' But I found out afterwards that you can buy slates with a false cover, this cover fits within the frame and is exactly like the other side of the slate, but, your spirit-message is already written, a touch makes the cover drop off, the medium covers it with his foot in case you should look under the table, out comes the slate, and there you are!"
"On," said Mrs Jefferson angrily, "it's plain you've only been to the charlatans and impostors of spiritualism. Why, I've had a message written in a locked slate while I held the key and held the slate too. What do you say to that?"
"I've only your word for it," said Mrs Masterman sarcastically. "My slates were never locked."
"And I've only your word for what you've told us," answered Mrs Jefferson with rising wrath. "I suppose my evidence may be as trustworthy."
"Well," interposed another voice, "my view of spiritualism is, that it's an intensely humiliating idea after you've done with this world to be at the beck and call of any other human being who can make you go through a variety of tricks, as if you were a performing dog, in order to convince people still in the body that there is another life. If that other life permits us to come back here and play tambourines, and knock furniture about, and write silly and ambiguous messages on slates, I don't— myself—think it's a very desirable one."
This view of the question produced a blank silence. It proceeded from a gentleman who was supposed to be a little "odd"—partly because he spoke seldom, and then with a startling originality, on any subject of discussion.
Mr and Mrs Ray Jefferson looked at one another, somewhat dismayed. Mrs Masterman smiled triumphantly, the young poet murmured something vague about the inestimable beauty of sublime "mysteries," but the subject was temporarily extinguished. The only side hitherto considered had been the 'phenomenal,' and people—once the idea was originated— felt really inclined to think that after all, when they quitted the earth plane, it would not be a very elevating prospect to find themselves dragged back to give seances and perform tricks like a French poodle in order to convince their friends and relatives that they were still in existence!
The conversation only went on in subdued murmurs, and presently there was a feminine move towards the drawing-room.
Once there the great subject as to whether Madame Zairoff would or would not appear that evening, was again freely discussed. That it was an equally interesting probability to the sterner sex was soon made evident by the unusual alacrity with which they joined the circle. They broke up into groups and knots, scattered through the length of the handsome, brilliantly lighted room, but a curious restlessness was apparent; no one settled down to cards or music. Even the "odd" individual moved about and dropped cynical remarks along the route of his progress, instead of sitting down to backgammon as was his wont. A few other misguided individuals, of the male sex, offered and accepted bets sotto voce on the chances of the Unknown appearing.
At last, when expectation had been strained almost to breaking point, it was set at rest. The doors were thrown open, and, lightly leaning on Colonel Estcourt's arm, appeared Mrs Jefferson's much talked of, and beautiful "Mystery."
An involuntary hush fell upon the whole assemblage. Not a man or woman there but felt their breath come a little quicker, their hearts beat with suppressed excitement, as that perfect figure, with its magical indolent grace, swept slowly through the room and into their midst.
It was the usual homage paid to Princess Zairoff, for she possessed that rare and delicate mixture of indifference, languor, and disdain that is in itself a distinction, and makes ordinary womanhood and beauty suddenly feel coarse and commonplace.
She paused before Mrs Ray Jefferson, and greeted her with a soft indescribable grace, and after a few minutes' conversation permitted herself to be introduced to a few of the group around the little American. That perfect ease of manner, which held not a vestige of condescension, soon exerted its charm. One after another drew near that envied circle, anxious to pick up some stray pearl of speech from those lovely lips. The women forgot to be envious, because she never for one moment forgot or ignored them. Even gouty Mrs Masterman found that her ailment had been remembered, and was sympathetically enquired about in a way to which she was entirely unaccustomed. The poet talked as if he drew in inspiration with every glance from those starry eyes, the musician at her request moved to the piano and played some of his "Music of the Future," and it no longer seemed incomprehensible. A sense of exhilaration, of pleasure, of content, spread through the group, and animated discussion, and gave even ordinary conversation a sudden grace and charm.