an ebook published by Project Gutenberg Australia
Author: William Carlton Dawe
Date first posted: 2022
Most recent update: 2022
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore
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The Old Piano
Some time ago, while visiting my old friend, Dr. Rochlet, in Paris, I encountered an incident which, for its surprising uniqueness and astonishing peculiarity, was the cause of many an hour’s deep study to me, and will no doubt continue to be while I have one spark of remembrance left. Even now, as I stretch my memory back into the fierce gloom of that horrid detail, strange and wonderful sensations fill me.
I had gone over to Paris, from London, for a few weeks’ holiday, intent on enjoying myself and seeing everything that was to be seen. My friend, Rochlet, who was a Parisian born and bred, placed himself at my disposal, so with such an excellent guide I had great opportunities of seeing “the gay city of the world,” of which I took every advantage.
By the time three weeks had elapsed I was beginning to tire of the one continual sight-seeing, so I made it known to my friend that I thought of returning home during the week. That night we were having a friendly chat over a pipe and glass, when he suddenly turned to me, saying, “Stay, you have not been over the lunatic asylum!”
“No,” said I, carelessly, “I have not, nor do I think the viewing of mankind in such deplorable misery would altogether charm or interest me.”
“Then you must go,” said he, not taking the slightest notice of the latter part of my speech; “I will show you a subject there that would puzzle a world of scientists. One whom Nature framed for Nature, not mankind. A living enigma, of which heaven alone holds the key. A poetic madman—an intellectual lunatic. One whose manners and depth of knowledge are alone remarkable, but which in a madman are incomprehensible. He will tell you the story of his life, you will listen without interrupting, and if the fascinations of his narrative do not blind you to the fact that he is mad, never again place faith in what I say. I have taken especial pains with him. Operation after operation have I performed upon him, but all of no avail. His is a peculiar case; so peculiar that I never remember hearing of one like it before. I sometimes believe he has gone through the whole of what he describes. He will talk to me as rationally as you do. Theology, poetry, and history are all thoroughly within his grasp. Plutarch never handled the lives of eminent men better than he, nor Gibbon paint a page of history with more glowing colours. He will compose by the hour, but I am the only one to whom he will show what he has written. He will not even let me take it away from his sight, but always insists on my giving it to him immediately I have read it, whereupon he, with all possible speed, proceeds to tear it to pieces. But I have preserved, for several months now, two or three things he has written. I will tell you how. The first, and most necessary thing, to gain the good faith of a lunatic is to agree with him in every little way. This most people who deal with madmen do. It is about seven years ago since he first came to our asylum, but it is only two since I have had anything to do with him. Of course, the principal reason he was sent to the asylum was on account of his extraordinary story, which all sane minds were convinced none but a madman could tell; and he was almost starving. Well, he took a fancy to me, I suppose because I was kind to him, and would often relate to me his story, which I must tell you was a thing he would not do to many people. From that came talks on popular sciences, ethics, evolution, poetry, and all that we would speak of. I, at first, answered and spoke to him simply to please the maniac; soon I learned that the maniac was too great a man, too skilled, too learned for a practical doctor of common-sense. But surprises never come singly. One day he drew forth a piece of paper from his breast, and handed it to me. I opened it, and what was my astonishment to find that my madman had been attempting to climb Parnassus. Yes, as I live, fifty heroic couplets, splendidly written, stared me in the face. He read bewilderment on my countenance, and said in a sweet, sorrowful tone, ‘Yes, sir, they are mine,’ and then held out his hand for them. I returned them, when, to my surprise and regret, he at once tore them up. And so at intervals, sometimes long, sometimes short, he used to show me these productions, which pleased me greatly, but I could never get him to give me one. He used to destroy them immediately they were given back. Once he showed me a drinking song that he had written, in which some of the sentiments were very harsh. On returning it to him I showed my disapprobation of it by an ominous look and a sedate shake of the head—mind you, I had got to reprove him by this time—which he seemed to accept in a penitent manner, but to my great surprise he folded it carefully and put it back in his breast. It was the first one he had not torn up. Such a peculiar thing as the tearing up of these verses I could not understand, nor could I get him to tell me why he did it. Perhaps he had courted the muse when young, and had been disappointed, and so inflicted pain on himself instead of trying to triumph. There are many such men. And the greater the genius, the more sensitive his nature. Well, to resume. On my next visit he showed me the same song, with a little alteration, but still its sentiments were rather wild, and I showed him, by facial expression, that it was not altogether to my liking, and again he folded it up and put it away. It now struck me that by appearing to dislike these effusions would be the means of preserving them, so I determined henceforth to reject all his writings with seeming displeasure. It was something like three months before he showed me his song again. It was greatly cut down, but still I refused to be pleased with it, and so he has kept it. Two other pieces he has written since then, but I have expressed myself the reverse of pleased, and so he has kept them. His verses seem to grow weaker and weaker. Their fire is burnt out. The continual poring on the one thought seems to deaden an imagination that should range through a world in a minute, instead of everlastingly thinking on one thing, which seems to grow mystified in its own individuality. In fact, he is not what he has been; yet, notwithstanding all, I cannot help but look on him as a wonder. We will go in the morning and see him. We will hear his story, and if he does not give you good food for great reflection I know nothing of human nature.”
“You take an interest in him.”
“An interest, mon Dieu! I think more of him than I do of the President. We understand each other, and, in a way, I believe we appreciate each other.”
“A fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind,” said I, rather mockingly, for really the strange enthusiasm of my friend seemed bordering on insanity.
I saw a shade of annoyance pass quickly over his face. I knew at once that I had made a fool of myself.
I did not perceive, idiot that I was, that this man of sense and learning had found a subject so great and wonderful that he could not conceal his admiration, and would even claim a kindred mind with one who was shut up in a public lunatic asylum as a common maniac. I did not know what pleasures existed in that boundless world of enthusiasm. I felt like sinking through the floor with shame. What a fool he must have thought me. I would have given a world to have unsaid those few words—those few words which could not but stamp me, in the enthusiast’s eyes, as a shallow idiot, without soul, sense, or learning, one who could not see in such marvellous doings of nature the creation of a wondrous world. Here was a subject, as my friend had said, “would puzzle a world of scientists,” and yet I had the idiotic audacity to sneer at him, knowing as I did how clever a scholar he was. As these things flashed before me, each instant I perceived more and more my error. The look of annoyance on his face had relaxed into a little smile, for he knew well that I was sorry for my unthinking remark. This made me feel more uneasy. I must say something.
“Well, Paul,” said I, in an unnaturally jovial manner, trying to make the best of a sad mistake, “I confess to you that at the first glance this affair did not seem of much import to me, because I had never heard the like of it before. I know that madmen will do a thousand different tricks, and say a thousand different things, but I had yet to learn that it was possible for a lunatic to defeat a scholar in sane arguments time after time. But your assurances of this man’s powers dispel all suspicions, and I humbly beg your pardon for my frivolous remark.” This I said with a candour that could leave no room for sarcasm or doubt.
“It’s all right, old fellow,” said Paul; “but I did feel annoyed, for I take an extraordinary interest in this man. But never mind, we will see him in the morning; meanwhile let us have a night-cap, and retire. Then, turning to me with a quiet smile, “I suppose you will come,” he said.
Banteringly I replied, “I would not miss seeing this wonder, doctor, for all the world.”
“Agreed,” said he, and proceeded to pour out the hot water.
We both sat staring into the fire, and sipping our grog, or at least I did, for many minutes, when all at once I was aroused from my thinking fit by a hearty laugh. Its suddenness was its strangeness, for neither of us had spoken a word all the time. There was my friend staring at me, and literally bursting with laughter.
“I see my lunatic has made no small impression on you already; how will you feel when you have seen him?”
It was true. I had been thinking of this madman, imagining all sorts of things, with my mouth open, and the most vacant expression on my face, my friend said, that he had ever seen.
“Confound you, Paul—good night!”
“Good night, old boy,” said he, with a pleasant ring in his voice, “Good night,” and then, coming to the foot of the stairs, he cried to me in a stage whisper, with truly harrowing effect.
“Seek him not in thy dreams.”
“Go to the devil,” were the last words that assailed his ears that night of our Lord.
The following morning we were up betimes. The day broke beautifully. A mild, warm sun threw its welcome rays in profusion over the city, and everything seemed to grow brighter beneath its influence. I was all anxiety to start. It was a great novelty to me, but it was part of my friend’s profession, so he put off starting till it was absolutely necessary, which was not till ten o’clock. For two hours I had been treading on pins of curiosity, which drove expectation into me with such alarming force that I was beginning to despair. I had raised my imaginings to such a pitch that I was fully prepared to meet with something that could astonish the world. The pleasant anticipations arising from expectancy are far more delightful than the realisation of the dream.
I believe he saw my uneasiness, and therefore put off his departure as long as he could purposely to aggravate me. I would not show him I was in a hurry to go, but tried to look as though it were a matter of perfect indifference to me whether we went or not, and I know I succeeded in acting my part very badly. At last he rose up, put on his hat and coat, and we descended into the street.
“Which hospital is he in?”
“Hotel S— , this way!” said he, as we turned off from the Boulevard Haussmann.
From the Rue de Rivoli we crossed the river, and a smart walk brought us into Boulevard l’Hopital, where Hotel S— rose before our eyes.
He being a surgeon, we had no difficulty in gaining admittance, and we were let in through a small door in the gate, by a bloated, greasy-looking warder, with a smile which he meant should say, “Perceive that I am sane,” but which in reality said as plainly as it could, “Perceive, I am a consummate ass.”
We passed on a little way, till we came to a kind of courtyard, where several people were walking up and down, while some were standing, and others sitting. As we entered, each stopped in his walk, gazed curiously at us for some time, then, turning away with an ominous shake of the head, resumed his exercise. There was nothing very marked in these people to attract attention, but on observing them closely one could not help noticing the vacant staring expression of the eyes; and as they paraded up and down before us, there was another peculiarity that showed itself. Each, as he walked along, stared at us full in the face, in a strange, weird way. As he passed, he still kept his eyes fixed on us, though his body did not turn, which gave him the appearance of a reptile backing out of danger, still watching its adversary. These were the harmless lunatics. They would walk up and down, stop suddenly, and stare into each others’ faces for a considerable length of time, yet never utter a syllable.
The only noise that came from the courtyard was made by an old man who groaned fearfully. He was nursing his head between his hands, moaning and groaning dismally, when of a sudden he would spring up, rub his hands like lightning over his head, kick with might and main anything that was near him, and screech and curse horribly. Soon as the fit would leave him, he would sit with his head between his hands, moaning in a low key the whole day. He always fancied that his head was full of bees, and that they were continually stinging and buzzing through his brain. Such had been his life for ten years.
Another tall, dark, savage-looking man, stood staring into a window, with his arms stretched over the sill. He had not spoken a single word for eight years, the full length of time he had been in the asylum. My friend told me he was a fierce fellow, and the most sulky in the institution. He could speak well enough if he liked, but he would not. Day after day, and year after year, he had leant on the window-sill, gazing into the dark, little room, with the one fixed, savage expression on his face. They had tried all imaginable ways to make him speak, but all was useless. It was a strange case. The determined will the man possessed must have been wonderful. My friend put it down to sheer sulkiness more than anything else. But, if one had only known the man’s life! It must have been a strange one.
There was another, a peculiar, grey-headed little fellow, who walked up and down in the shadow of the wall, at the far end of the yard. He had a religious mania, and was for ever shouting out sermons, hymns, and prayers at the top of his voice. He would tell you one minute that he was our Saviour whom the Jews crucified, but that he had risen again, and that he had come to give the world one more chance; the next, that he was God himself, and that he intended that very night to destroy this abominable world by fire. Again, he would take a few horrified steps backward, raise his hands tremblingly before his eyes, and howl at a fancied image of Satan. His ravings were fearful. I turned away, saddened almost to death.
But one of the most fearful sights was in a cell we passed. There was an old man, with long attenuated features which looked ghastly, lying on his stretcher, he had been bedridden for a terrible time, but on occasions passion so gleamed in his thin face that it would frighten an ordinary individual. His legs were under the influence of that horrible disease called gangrene. His feet were no more—only the stumps remained. It was a sickening sight. When I beheld him, sorrow so smote me that even the disgust for the disease was almost forgotten. Presently he opened his eyes, and perceived us standing over him. Then issued from his throat such a string of horrible blasphemies that I could not help but wonder why his breath was not immediately stopped. Of all the oaths that ever polluted God’s atmosphere since the world was made, none surpassed these. They seemed to issue with such whirlwind-like rapidity that it almost appeared as though it were a gift.
I hurried quickly from his fearful presence. To get in the damp air of the gloomy courtyard, after his cell, was being transported to another world. Countless numbers of exceedingly sad cases fell across my eye. There was one especially, which, though ridiculous, was one of the most affecting things I have ever seen. Sitting by himself, in one of the corners of the yard, was a man. In the ground before him he had placed a few sticks and a few old pieces of china. It represented a child’s play. In his arms he had a rude wooden doll, which ever and anon he pressed passionately to his bosom, and showered kiss after kiss upon it. He thought it was his child. He used to get up the little play for it every morning and, by telling it that everything was ready, try to wake it up. Then he would stand it on its feet, and as it fell down he would lift it carefully, and speak soft, soothing words to it, as a mother would a child. Then you would see a strange expression come over his face, as no sound or recognition of his presence came from the object. His eyes would grow wilder and wilder, till they glared with an unearthly light. Then a long, piercing shriek would escape him, and, throwing up his arms, he would scream, “She is dead! she is dead!” and, fiercely folding the wooden image to his breast, he would burst into a torrent of tears, while heart-breaking moans and groans escaped him. It was a sad picture. He was a tall, powerful-looking man. It would have been better had he never been born.
No doubt there were plenty more cases equally as bad, if not worse, but I had no time to see them, for at that moment a warder came up to Paul, saying that during the night old Zantha had been very ill —in fact, they thought he was dying — but that he was better now.
It seems he continually called for Rochlet, and was greatly annoyed when he came round and found that the doctor was not there.
“Very well,” said Paul to the warder, “I will be with him in an instant.” Then, turning to me, he said, “It was one of his fits; he gets them often. I wonder they have not carried him away long before this. But let us get along, and you will now see, old fellow, the most extraordinary patient in Paris.”
He led the way across the courtyard, into a large dining-room, which was about as dismal and black as it could possibly be. The rafters and ceiling seemed thoroughly begrimed with smoke. The atmosphere, too, was very obnoxious, and seemed impregnated with the odours of an unsavoury dinner and the damp smell so peculiar to earth and rotten wood. I felt a shudder pass over me as I entered the edifice, and I truly felt that it was the abode of woe. On the benches round the room, sitting in listless attitudes, were men—lunatics. It was terrible. Everything here spoke of madness. Illustrated in, alas! too many colours, the decay and ruin of that noblest gift God has given to man—reason. Ah, a mad-house is a frightful place! Its horrors should not be spoken abroad. It should live by itself, like a tomb.
At the farthest end of this room, seated with his back to a cold-looking stove, which did not seem to give any warmth to the wretches who were crowding round it, was a grey-headed old man. His eyes were fixed on the floor, his head between his hands. We stood before him for several seconds. He did not seem to know we were there, for he never moved.
I began to wonder at our silence, and from off the old man I turned my eyes towards my friend. I was surprised at the change his face had undergone. I always knew he was handsome, but now he looked beautiful. There he stood before the bowed form of the old man, his head bent slightly forward and an ineffable expression of love and tenderness beaming on his face. His eyes seemed to glow with a lustre that was at once bright and soft. His lips quivered with emotion; a deeper, sweeter shade passed over his countenance, and inexpressible pity stamped itself in loving letters on each and every feature. Sad, how sad he seemed! Never till that moment did I know the depth of soul my friend possessed. Never till that moment had I felt the presence of a great soul, that was as tender as it was great.
And as I gazed upon his face, I felt a wild, passionate longing to take him in my arms—and kiss him. Still we stood before the old man, who seemed totally unconscious of our presence. Our conduct struck me as strange, but Paul would not speak, and I felt I dared not. I kept watching my friend with all the ardour of a thorough enthusiast. He was still in the same attitude. I scanned the wonderful expression of his face with a fierce joy. Suddenly I saw his lips move:—
The word fell on my ear, in one soft roll of love. The divine sweetness of its tone was beyond expression. It might have been an angel’s sigh that took the sound of “Zantha.”
It so greatly surprised me that I could scarcely believe he had said it. How could he teach his voice such sweetness?—he who had, more or less, an outward form of being matter-of-fact. How could he do it? Alas, I know not, but each minute now brought forth some trait I never dreamed he had. The old man, too, shook at the sound, like one under the influence of mesmerism. He swayed to and fro, but did not lift his eyes.
Again the sweet sound sighed itself through the room. The old man started up; tears stood in his eyes as he grasped Rochlet’s hand and covered it with kisses.
Not a sound was uttered; but the maniac and the doctor stood looking into each other’s eyes, while over each face a pale shade passed as they clasped hands—brothers, friends! Never before had I seen such a strange meeting. Everything was astonishment and wonder. I was becoming quite bewildered, for the curious events that had passed had left a strange impression on me.
“Paul!” I ventured to say.
“Yes,” he said, turning from Zantha; “excuse me, old fellow, but we always meet like that.”
He had the old ring in his voice, and I was glad of it. Then he once more turned to the lunatic, and in that sweet, tender accent said—
“Zantha, this is my friend,” particularly emphasising the last two words.
The old man turned his gaze slowly on me, and I beheld a face that once was handsome, and which even now was fine, although time had furrowed it to excess. The broad, clear brow denoted exceptional intelligence, while the deep grey eye seemed to pierce me in two. The nose was straight; the chin large and determined. His figure, which now was bent, I could perceive had once been broad and strong—in fact, he was one whom you could imagine had been born to command. His long silver hair was brought straight back from his brow, and fell in thin ringlets on his shoulders. He was like the portrait of some old patriarch or bard. He gazed at me intently for some time, and then, as if approving of my appearance, held out his hand and grasped me warmly. I returned his pressure with equal fervour, and he then sank back on his seat, not having spoken a word the whole time.
He, unlike the rest of the lunatics, had not the wild, vacant look in the eyes, and although age had set them deep in the head, they were still large and clear; but, with all their prepossessing points, one could see that they were capable of terrible fascination. At intervals, even in his quiet moments, they would shift with such suddenness that a flash of light seemed to fly from them.
Once more the old man turned his eyes towards us, and, as he looked upon the face of my friend, a shade similar to that I had seen upon Paul’s countenance swept over his, and as he gazed with a longing, loving look into Rochlet’s face, great tears dimmed the brilliancy of his fine eyes, and as they again clasped hands, he, in a soft, low, and almost sweet voice, murmured, “My friend!”
The doctor heaved a great sigh of joy and sorrow. “Yes, Zantha, your friend, always your friend,” he said, and a tear stood quivering on his eye-lash.
“You are good,” said Zantha, “to come and be so kind to a poor old man whom nobody cared for, whom not a soul on earth took an interest in. But you came; you had a kind face; you were good; you did not despise the old man. God will bless you—ah, yes, I know He will. For when I die I will take up to heaven with me your love, your goodness, and I will show them to God, and say to Him, ‘See, Paul possesses these,’ and He will smile and bless you, for He, too, is good.”
Such was the strange speech, uttered with childlike simplicity, with which the old man accosted the doctor, who, in turn, bowed his head with reverence that could not have been greater had he been standing in the presence of his Creator.
“Zantha, you were unwell last night, they told me,” said Rochlet, as much as anything, I suppose, to change the topic of conversation.
“Yes,” said the old man, “they all thought I was going to die, but it takes a lot to kill a lunatic, ha! ha! ha!” And here he laughed in a tone which seemed to say that it was pleasant to hang on the brink of death and then come back to proper life again, just, as it were, to annoy people.
But before the laugh had naturally died on his lips he turned his eyes towards Paul, and his countenance immediately resumed its wonted expression, for the doctor was gazing at him with that look of sorrow which always had a strange influence over Zantha’s wandering brain, and could recall him to what you might call his senses at any moment.
“How are you now?” said the doctor, still keeping his gaze on him.
“Very well, indeed, sir; in fact, I feel stronger and brighter than I have felt for a long time.”
“That is well,” said Rochlet, and taking him by the hand he looked him earnestly in the face; “Zantha, try if you can remember the story you told me not long ago, about—”
Here the doctor broke off purposely, for he knew that all the old man’s senses were at play, and he wished to let them try to discover what he was really aiming at. He saw the grey head pressed hard by those long thin hands, but Zantha only mumbled. Presently the grey eyes were turned heavenwards; then he closed them, so as to let no earthly obstacle meet his view. He remained like that for fully a minute, when suddenly he uttered a word, “Zina!”
“Yes,” said the doctor, with a bright smile, “Zina.”
“It is a long time since I have seen her, Paul” — he never by any chance called him doctor; he seemed to have a great aversion to the word— “a very long time; but I shall see her again, shall I not? Ah! I know you will say yes, for you are good; but I know I shall, else I would not be content to hang out a miserable existence this side of the grave. I should kill myself to know my fate.” And as he said this his eyes gleamed with almost terrible brilliancy.
“Come, come, my old friend, be calm, be calm,” said the doctor, in a soothing voice, “because I want to see if you can tell your tale better than you did before.”
The old man, instead of paying attention to the doctor, was looking at me with inquisitive eyes. Rochlet saw his look, and guessed his thoughts in a moment.
“Zantha, you may speak before him; he is my friend.”
This seemed to satisfy him, for he bowed his head and smiled gently. Again he placed his head between his hands and sat gazing for some considerable time on the floor. As the brain began to work, the head kept sinking lower and lower. Suddenly he started up with a bound, struck his forehead wildly with the palm of his hand, and uttered an exclamation which ended in a long mumbling sound. He had found what he sought, only to lose it immediately on its discovery. The doctor’s face bore an expression that was indescribable. But here again Zantha sprang up, and this time uttered a sound of joy. His face was lit with a happy smile, and he started off with an abruptness which plainly told you that he was again afraid of losing what he had found.
I was born in Missolonghi. My father was one of the chief magistrates of that town, and dispensed justice while peace reigned through the land; but when his down-trodden slavish countrymen, whose fame, honour, and civilisation had been debased through years of serfdom, rose at last against their oppressors, as men with free souls, he cast aside the scales of justice for the sabre, the bloody field, and the death cry. Each heart beat with that boundless enthusiasm which stimulated the heroes of Thermopylae and Marathon. The spirit of ancient Greece rose in her degenerate sons, and their long-forsaken gods once more came to their aid, as they saw the martial ardour survive in them.
I was fourteen years of age when the news first came that we had risen against our enemies, our masters. I remember even now how my heart beat as I cried aloud with a child’s enthusiasm for weapons to wreak vengeance on our oppressors. I, like every true Greek, hated the name of Turk; and often, while my father was at the wars, did I sketch some childish plan whereby our army might annihilate them as one man.
Once, in a dream, I interviewed Leonidas and Miltiades. The former had his brows bound with a crown of light, and supreme joy sat smiling upon his countenance. The other walked with slow, stately steps and downcast head, while sorrow had stamped itself in ineffaceable letters on all surrounding him. They told me with what inexpressible grief our great warriors viewed the decline of the land; how from the day we had become subject to the Moslem they had never smiled, nor would they till the land was free.
“Will it be free?” I asked, with a beating heart, but instead of answering me the shades slowly vanished from my sight.
But on the countenance of Leonidas methought I saw a reassuring smile. I woke happy, for the shades of these god-like men would not have come to a land that was for ever destined to be the home of slavery. Greece may never be what she was, but some Spartan spirit must still remain to make her better than she is. My father fell at Corinth, and I, boy as I was, envied his glorious death.
Well, it is unnecessary to talk longer of that struggle. We gained our end. Greece was free. And we could look once more, without blushing, into the eyes of the world. She only wanted that great poet to sing of her freedom, as he had wept over her misery. His song would have made the heart of the Greek swell with pride, and he would have placed him in immortality’s niche, beside that mighty chief who sang of Troy. And yet the terrible cruelties committed during the engagements spoil what might have been a glorious struggle.
I served during the latter part of the contest, and received fully my share of fatigue and wounds. My first encounter was nearly my last. A bayonet was forced into my shoulder. See, here is the wound. Quick as light my sword was through the Mahometan’s heart. It was the first human being I had killed. He turned his eyes upon me in his death throes. God, I shall never forget that look. Nought of rage was in it; only a mute appeal to me—and heaven.
“You have robbed me of life; you have sent me unprepared to meet my Maker,” it seemed to say.
He fell back dead. The battle raged round me like a burning hell. Men fell slaughtered on my right and left. A man beside me was struck on the head by a ball. His brains flew into my face. It was only then, sickened and disgusted, that I could turn away from my slain adversary. And even in the thick of battle, as I cut down man after man, when all round me men roared like beasts over their feast of blood, his face haunted me, and even in the smoke that curled upwards I imagined I could see it. Outwardly, I was one of the most daring soldiers, but I did not know it. Excitement had taken possession of me. That war taught me to look on bloodshed as on other things; alas, how little did I think then of the horrible deed I was to commit—of the horrible future God would make me lead! How well it is the Book of Fate is hidden! How merciful our Creator is! And yet, is He merciful? Was He merciful to let me do that deed? I was mad, mad! I knew not what I did.
[Here the old man, who had risen in his excitement, trembling fearfully, leaned against the wall. His face was ashy pale, as though some horrible doubt existed in his mind. He gasped, and stared before him, as though he were piercing an imaginary gloom. I looked at my friend, but he was intently watching the narrator, who presently got a little calmer, and continued:—]
Well, to go on with my story. Zina was a beautiful girl, with a bright, fair face, and great brown liquid eyes, which seemed to be always gazing into a heaven of unutterable bliss. And such was their beauty that, looking into them, one seemed to see a phantasmagoria of beautiful visions within their depths. One gaze into those eyes, and all self-control was lost. An abundance of rich brown hair flowed luxuriously over her shoulders, while the exquisite outline of her figure was one that sculptors would delight to model. Such was Zina! Such was my love! I met her soon after my return from the war. She was travelling through Missolonghi to Athens. Her equipage was one that was commonly used by the élite of those days. I saw her as she passed me in the street. Rich and splendid furs enveloped her, while her beautiful face shone in sweetness over them like some lovely flower.
Musing upon the delightful features of the beautiful woman I had just seen, I walked on for some time, and, as I emerged into another street, I beheld a little knot of excited people who shouted to me, as I was in the middle of the road, to “stand back.” I looked up, and saw a pair of horses within a few yards of me. They had bolted. One rapid glance at the carriage—her carriage—and they were on me. I heard a piercing shriek come from that carriage, which was echoed by the people along the road. It was followed by something like a cheer. For they now saw me clinging, with set teeth, to the horses’ heads. I had sprung on to the shaft of the carriage. I could see her, as she watched me with a death-like face. It seemed to give me power. With a fierce wrench at the bits I almost brought the horses to a standstill, and crowds of eager hands rushed forward and seized them, and all was well. I then made my way towards the beauteous occupant of the carriage. She leant towards me with an excited eagerness. I could see her bosom heaving wildly as she said, in short gasps, “Signor—you have saved—my life—I thank you!” and she held out her hand, and gazed straight into my eyes. It was then, for the first time, I saw their wondrous beauty. They overpowered me. There were tears of gratitude in them. I bent forward, and pressed her hand to my lips with silent passion. She sat gazing at me for a little time without speaking. Whether it was admiration for my bravery or at my personal appearance. I cannot tell. In those days, they told me I was handsome, and a uniform always lends a good effect to a man’s figure. There can be no doubt that I pleased her, for she, after looking at me for some time, handed me a card, saying—“You will come to that address, and let me once more thank you for the great service you have rendered me. I am excited now—forgive me if I appear to want gratitude.” And while upon her face there shone an almost divine expression of that gratitude, she sank back amongst her furs. I turned my eyes to her’s —one quick, beautiful glance. I felt my frame tremble. I stepped back with a low bow, and the carriage shot along the road. I watched it till it turned the corner of a street, and, as it disappeared, I could hardly believe but that the whole affair was a day-dream. But no, the card she left was still in my hand. I looked at it. The only writing on it was the name of our principal hotel.
This I thought strange, but, after a while, I came to the conclusion that she had given me the card by mistake. Of course, what else could it be? She had been given that card, and, in her excitement, had given it to me, thinking it to be her own. This was the way I argued. All that night I dreamt of my fair beauty, for she seemed to be already mine. Dreams pleasant and horrible. One moment she was an angel of paradise, the next—oh, fearful!—a filthy, loathsome demon, selling to foolish youth intoxicating delights, which led them down, down, till they were lost to my sight in howling darkness. Never did I curse absurd dreams in my life till then, and then I cursed them heartily. Laughed, pooh- poohed—in fact, did all I could to drive away dreaming, but it was no use. The harder I tried to stop, the fiercer it attacked me.
The next day I called on her. I think I took extra pains over my toilet on that occasion. I am conscious that I endeavoured, like a young girl, to look my best. She received me with evident pleasure. I begged her to excuse the earliness of my visit, saying that I was not certain at what time she would resume her journey, and that I more particularly wished to know if her health had suffered by yesterday’s shock? She was pleased to say it had not. Through the braveness of my action, I had made her my servant for ever. These were dangerous words for a beautiful woman to say to a young man like myself. Could I have said the thing nearest my heart then, it would have been—but no! I did not even have the courage to look at her. I held down my head, and mumbled about the littleness of the deed.
“Ah, you soldiers think everything little that is not done in war. I do not. Your stopping my horses yesterday, though a common occurrence, is none the less heroic. You risked your life. What could you do more? And were you not single-handed—alone? It is when we do an action singly that the world applauds. The man who springs from the deck of a vessel to save a fellow-creature who must, if left to his own resources, inevitably perish, is far braver than he who faces a whole line of gleaming bayonets, surrounded by his comrades. It is not terrible death to die in the arms of friends. But to feel yourself tossed hither and thither on the boiling waves—to feel a heavy, inanimate mass dragging you down, down, down; to lose in the hollow of the waves even a sight of the ship from which you sprang; to feel your strength going, going, whilst the noise of the water beats louder and louder in your ears, till you feel as though the ocean surged through your brain; to see the gleaming eyes and sharp teeth of the fish, as they glide round and round you, waiting till the waters shall subdue your struggle; to feel that there is no human eye to see, no hand to help—that you are alone—alone, with the beautiful and unpitying sky above you—the cold, cruel, merciless waves around, that seem to clasp you every minute tighter, tighter, tighter!—breathing their hoarse, monotonous sounds into your ear, till, with a wild shriek of despair, you are launched into eternity—this is terrible death. Misfortunes are not half so dreadful when there are others to share them. It is when we alone suffer, when we alone feel, that we find the horror unbearable,” and her face grew pale, and her bosom heaved wildly.
During this strange speech I had remained spellbound—fascinated by the workings of her lovely face, and the gleamings of her beautiful eyes. What could this sweet creature know of such horrible things? I was astounded, but I felt her arguments stir things within me I knew were there, but that I had never dared to touch. So completely did her language overpower me that I was surprised at the feeling that had taken possession of me.
“And are not some lives alone, surrounded by thousands?” I asked.
She turned on me a passionate look almost of appeal. “Yes, yes, the more terribly so because they are surrounded by myriads of volatile souls. There are lives that live midst the frivolities of the world; that cannot keep aloof from them; that must and will share them, and yet are callous to them, aye, even hate them as they hate the grave. And yet all this is their life. This they cling to with a fierceness, as wild, if not wilder, than that which makes the miser claw his glittering heaps. They cling to their destruction, and they know it.”
More and more was I astonished at the manner in which she expressed herself. Doubts as to her sanity rose within me, but I hurriedly expelled them.
“And, again, their pride! Ah, it is that which ruins half the world.” She spoke quickly, as though agitated. Yes, she was right. The angels fell by pride.
“But have not some people every reason to be proud?” said I. “Heaven does not scatter beauty too profusely over the earth for us to pass it by with a glance. The sun is beautiful! The sky is beautiful! Do we not worship day after day the glories that live above us, the things that seem beyond our reach? And shall we only continue to worship them while they are from us? Because a star descends on earth, are we to look no longer at it? No, no! God made beauty to be admired, else why are the stars, the moon, the sun, the sky, all so lovely. True, the beauty of the soul is greatest. But the eye cannot discover it; we do not perceive it with a glance. It is the appearance of the stars that makes us love them, it is the sun’s face that lights the world. I do not sneer at Zoroaster and his followers for their reverence of the sun. Who knows but what it may be the flaming face of the Almighty watching over His creation?”
She now looked at me with as much interest as I before had gazed at her. She was undoubtedly astonished to hear me talk so, and looked at me with peculiar curiosity.
“But cannot beauty be put to a wrong account? Is not the beauty of some people their utter ruin? Is not beauty the cause of false vows, broken hearts, intrigue, and death? Beauty in the good is heaven; in the bad, hell! Nothing is more terrible to the ruination of a soul than evil beauty. It succeeds where mountains of gold would not. Therefore should we worship the stars and the sky, they are beyond our reach—they are incorruptible. Aught that touches earth becomes earthly—debased. Nothing is proof against its contamination. We can worship the heavens, because we know them not! We cannot worship mankind, because we know it! An angel from paradise would not escape corruption if allowed to range over this earth at large. Temptation, shame, and death are the three things which comprise this earth of ours. Temptation holds out its licentious arms to you in the broad, bright glare of day, beneath the eye of heaven. Where’er you look, where’er you turn, it stares you boldly in the face. The world seems to be created out of it. All animate, aye, and even inanimate matter, seems to have some tempting charm. Shame stalks in the background with bowed head and sunken cheek. It—God knows how it has come to this pass—is afraid of itself, would shrink from itself, dare not look into heaven, nor has it the moral courage to be honest. As it passes along the cold, bleak, pitiless street—it sighs. What is that? Nothing! Only a poor wretched outcast wending its way towards the river to end this life—this life which God gave; this life which once was an unclouded blaze of joy; this life which might have been so happy—in death. And the two extremes, Life and Death, meet in those mysterious depths of darkness, out of which their victims spring, and to which they go, and hold strange whispered conversations about the world of men.”
She looked excitedly at me for a moment, and then said with a sigh, “You see, I know the world.” And she shook her beautiful head with restrained sorrow.
Puzzled more and more with the strangeness of her speech, I had a hundred thousand questions that I would fain have asked. I only managed to say—
“But surely with you the world has gone well?”
“Well!” here she tried to laugh heartily, but I could perceive a sneer in it; “well, of course. How could the world help doing that?” She spoke with an archness that was truly charming.
“Yes, how could it help doing that?” I repeated, gazing passionately into her face. “When a star descends to earth, it must be worshipped.”
“No, no, not worshipped! Loved, petted, caressed if you will, but no more. Worship it while it beams on you from yonder blue vault, but when it touches deceit and death it is nothing but polished clay.”
“Perhaps continual flattery has made you callous to truth,” said I, not quite understanding in what manner to address her, and feeling that I should say something; “but believe me, madam, I cannot lie—and smile.”
She held out her hand with a sweet, sad look. “It is your truthfulness that most affects me.”
I bowed, blushing over it, like a great schoolboy. She must have felt my lips quiver as I pressed it earnestly to them. God! I would have given the world to have taken her in my arms, to press kiss after kiss upon her face; to feel the beat of her heart against mine, and her warm breath on my cheek; to watch her bosom heave ’neath the excitement—to feel that she was mine!
Here she gently withdrew her hand, which I unconsciously had detained.
“Pardon me, madam, I was thinking of something.”
“Whilst I am here; oh, fie!” and she gave a short laugh.
“Perhaps I was thinking of you.”
“Of me, oh yes—a great number of people think of me—at least they tell me so. But listen, Signor, were I to die to-morrow, not one real tear would be shed for me,” and for the first time her voice seemed hard and cold. “Yet stay,” said she, as her face grew sad, and her voice more melodious, while her eyes wandered out through the window, with a pained longing, in the direction of Thessaly. “Far on the other side of Pindus there resides an old woman who took care of me when I was—a child! She, morning and evening, pours forth her lonely prayer for me, and sits in her porch day after day, watching the dusty road that leads to Athens, for signs of that being who can never come. She will weep, even though her fount of tears be dry.” And emotion deep and solemn seemed to fill this fair creature’s breast.
Who can she be? I asked myself a thousand times. Thoughts of all descriptions flashed through me, but one look at her face, so open, fair, and sweet, dispelled all evil imaginings, and ended in absolute idolatry.
“Can I not be your friend?” I ventured to ask.
She must have thought that I felt pity for her, for she turned round with an almost sarcastic look on her face. “I never have friends, only acquaintances,” and then, as if sorry for such an uncalled for rebuke, she said, “I only had one friend—many years ago—I forget what friendship is like. I see from the world what it is—I do not wish to try it myself.”
“You will pardon me—I did not know.”
“I have nothing to pardon,” she said.
I bowed low and prepared to quit the room.
“I stay here for a little while; you will come and see me again?”
“Yes,” said I, and in that word tried to tell her that I would live and die in her presence, if permitted. Such was my first talk with Zina. Such was the strange way we conversed. I doubt if two people had ever before such a first conversation. She was melancholy itself. I was an enthusiast. I loved her for her strangeness. I pitied her depression of spirits; for that the world had not been all sunshine and roses to her I verily believed. The keen edge of the thorn and the intense blackness of the dark cloud of life were too perceptible. But how could the world have been hard to one so beautiful?
I asked myself that question then. I had only been a soldier—not a man of the world. A few months later nothing on this wide earth would have surprised me.
I walked out into the road like one in a dream. Everything seemed to have taken a different hue. The sun shone brighter, and the clouds seemed to unfold themselves, discovering spots of radiant blue which smiled down on me. I moved with a free, swinging gait, and cleft the air more like a bird than a mortal.
Well, the next two days I visited her, and, at the end of that time, we had become fast friends. She had dropped her melancholy style of talk, and was now all life and animation. She seemed to be happy in my society. As for my love, it grew stronger and stronger every hour I knew her. I felt it consuming me, and yet I dared not murmur one word. But it gleamed through my eyes. My actions spoke, although my tongue was still.
I was aware that she knew I loved her, and often did I fancy that I could perceive looks and smiles, which were not merely looks and smiles alone.
Zina Sestros was her name. She was on the road to Athens. I need not attempt to tell you the feelings that passed through me as I contemplated her departure. Neither need I attempt to describe the anxiety with which I broached the subject, nor the pain her laughing answer gave me.
She was going! Well, let her go. It would perhaps be better for me—and her. How could I hope for the love of one so beautiful, where princes only might succeed, or kings?
It was in such foolish fashions I tried to argue her image from my mind. I might as well have endeavoured to keep back the tide that rolls up the Patras.
She was a perfect stranger in the town, so my society was all she got, and that I was sometimes afraid she was beginning to get too much of. And yet, how could I help feeling flattered, seeing her prolong her stay, and knowing well that it could only be through me?
It was on the third day after our strange conversation that we set off together to visit the olive groves. She was attired in a dress of soft Indian muslin; a great straw hat tied under her chin with ribbons, set off her beautiful face, while a small bunch of yellow roses, nestling on her bosom, completed an attire which was both charming and simple. She was fond of yellow roses—in fact, she would not wear any other flowers. It was a whim of her own. She said she had never worn any other for three or four years.
As we drove along she laughed, talked, and clapped her hands as though she were a child of ten.
“I am giving myself up to rustic bliss,” she said, with a merry laugh; but I could see that the carelessness was partly assumed.
“You are happy,” I whispered in her ear.
She turned towards me with a look which seemed one of almost entreaty.
“Yes, so happy, I could live here always.”
“Then, why not do so?” said I, bending closer to her.
“Because, oh, because it cannot be!” And she heaved a great sigh.
I was silent. I knew not what to say, and I would not for the world rouse old sorrows within her breast. On we drove through a country that was blooming beneath the bright sun of a delicious spring.
We talked of all light matters, criticised the peasantry, and made remarks on whatever we saw—in fact, laughed light-heartedly at everything, like children out for a holiday. At last we arrived at our destination, and strayed through the shady walks side by side.
“Oh, to live amidst these peaceful shades for ever!” she murmured.
“Aye, for ever!” I whispered back, as I gazed steadfastly into her face, while I felt my heart throbbing, as though it would burst. I knew that soon my confession must leave my lips, and I trembled with fear for my future.
We had paced along some distance without speaking. Her eyes were fixed on the ground, while the face showed that the brain was working on some not too pleasant memory.
I had, during this time, been trying to suppress my feelings, to keep down that love which almost drove me mad; but every turn of her graceful figure, every movement of her beautiful head, fanned the flame, till its glow was almost unbearable.
As we wandered on my hand touched hers. I felt a quick, nervous flow of blood through my frame. I clasped it gently, and she, gracious angel, allowed it to nestle in mine. Oh, how my soul expanded; how passions, soft, sweet, and now wild and terrible, rose within me. I knew not how I moved,
I lived. I only noticed the form beside me, the sweet face so near my own, and the bosom that seemed to heave faster and faster, as though anticipating what was to come. I bent closer to her, and murmured—
She started, trembled, and the blood forsook her cheeks, but she did not reprove me.
“Zina—-I love you!”
She turned a sad, fair face to me, and whispered as one in a dream—
“You love me! You love me!”
“Yes, yes, as God is my witness. I love you better than life, better than the world. You are my idol, my joy, my all! Oh, Zina, I have loved you since first I gazed into those eyes, and read the purity of your spotless soul. You are my star, my divinity— the light of my world, my life. Without you all is darkness and despair. Oh, Zina, darling, life, may I hope, may I hope?”
She turned on me one long loving glance. Her great eyes were full of tears, while the sweetness of heaven seemed to shine over her face. Slowly came the words of pearl from her mouth—
“I love you!”
“God be praised,” I cried in my joy, as I pressed her to me. She was mine at last. I felt her heart beat against my own; her cheek touched mine, and threw a thrill of exquisite pleasure through my whole being. I kissed with ecstasy the tears from her eyes; I clasped her tighter, tighter, till all the world seemed a glowing mass of rapture. Her beautiful hair streamed like threads of burnished gold upon my breast. It blew across my face, and mingled with my own. God! The memory of that time always floats o’er my soul like a visit into Paradise. She remained wrapped in my passionate embrace; her head gently reclining on my bosom, her lips sweetly yielding to my caresses. How beautiful she looked, aye, and how happy! I pressed her closer, closer.
“You are happy, Zina!” I murmured.
She turned her eyes upon me. Inexpressible joy shone from their wondrous depths. Contentment was upon her face—that face that looked a look of joy, sorrow, pity, sweetness.
“Too happy, too happy!” and the last accents of her voice sounded like a sob.
“No, no, I will make you happier yet—when I make you my wife.”
As I said this, she disengaged herself from me with some coldness.
“That is impossible; it can never be!”
Surprise was my first emotion; then followed consternation; then, like lightning, demon that it is, jealousy.
“Zina, for God’s sake, do not say that! Look at me, darling, you do not know what you are saying— you are my life, my soul! My station may not be as great as yours, but I am a soldier and a gentleman. I have a sword and a brave and true heart, and with heaven’s help I will win a name that you may proudly wear.”
“Hush, hush! As you value my peace of mind —my soul—Zantha, forbear!” Then turning her eyes with a frenzied look to heaven, she cried, “Oh God, be just, and strike me dead!”
As she uttered these terrible words she fell on her knees, weeping. I was terrified at her awful appeal. What could it mean?
“Zina, Zina, my darling, my beautiful life, speak to me. Rise, rise, do not invoke heaven with such dreadful words.”
I lifted her as I spoke, and strained her with protecting fervour to my bosom.
“Zantha, pity me!” And she turned her weeping eyes upon me, through which there seemed to shine a world of sorrow and love.
I folded her closer to me, and poured passionate words into her ears—words which could but faintly echo the sentiments of my heart. And yet they seemed to comfort her, for over her face there spread a peaceful shade, while she whispered, as her bosom thrilled again—
“My darling!” And she sank sobbing on my breast.
“Zina, what does this mean?”
“Do not ask me, I cannot tell you!”
“Is it that your heart—your hand—?”
“No, Zantha, no! To you belongs my heart. I love you as I never dreamed I could love, nor did I think that such passion existed on earth. Oh, why did I stay here? Oh, my cursed destiny! Zantha, to you I have given my heart, and with it my purer, better love. I could not take it from you even if I wished. Rest, ah, my Zantha, rest contented with that. Seek not what destiny forbids, but let aught that is unknown remain obscure. I give thee my heart, my happiness—what more would you have?”
“God help me, that is impossible!” And the great tone of sorrow in which she spoke these words banished all my imaginings. I thought only of this beauteous creature, weeping over the burden of some great trouble, and I clasped her with ecstasy in my arms, as I whispered—
“Tell me that you love me, and I will be satisfied.” She looked once more into my face, ah, such a look, and murmured, “You, you alone I love!”
One long, passionate embrace, all tears were dried, and love was happy.
Three days after the declaration of our love, she was still in the town. Ah, such days. We were in each other’s society the whole time. Life was love!
My existence was hers, to preserve or destroy. I had no thought that did not lead directly or indirectly to her. She was as necessary to my life as breath. As at her feet I reclined and gazed into her eyes, the height of consummate joy was reached. She was the only heaven to which my soul could raise itself. I could not dream of the world living, of the sun shining, of the birds singing, if she were not alive. And yet, how could she die? How could nature destroy so lovely a being? How could it hide such beauty in death? Death! And then the thought of that horrid monster, who seeks out the loveliest and best for his paramours in his palace of night, who breathes over them that sepulchral breath that withers the bright flush of beauty on the cheek, deadens the brilliancy of the eye, and makes of the greatest brains a heap of senseless matter, would flash over me and appal my soul. But I could not live and see her dead! No, no! How was it possible to see my life die? And yet he was the only thing I feared!
I little knew that death is often preferable to life, because I had not dreamt of deceit. I did not know my heaven was false, my idol a corruptible mass of flesh; mankind a brood of vampires; women, fragile, tender, lovely as they are, were creatures of a dream, that have no real independent heart, soul, or existence. Well, well, life is made up of joys and sorrows. Exquisite happiness is our lot to-day—to-morrow, black care assails us, and we no longer see the sun shine or hear the birds sing. Thus two distinct natures form the animated being and make him laugh, cry, sing, and shout; instil him with passions great and small; make of him a marvel, and then upset the scales, and he returns to nothing.
It was on the evening of the fourth day, that we were sitting together at the open window of her room. The sun had just sunk in
“One unclouded blaze of living light,”
and all the western world glowed with a delicious roseate hue. The perfume of numerous exotics blew in from a small conservatory, and seemed to embalm us in an atmosphere of sweetness.
I was reclining at her feet—my usual position, and looking into her eyes—my usual occupation. Ever and anon she would stoop down to kiss my forehead, and then her magnificent tresses, hanging in loose abundance round her shoulders, would stray thickly over my face, and fill me with intoxicating sensations.
I was madly, terribly in love. And then the soft, white arm would coil itself with delicious movements round my throat, gently, softly, and yet so sweetly tantalising that the rapturous frenzy it awakened within me was bordering on insanity.
My life now was merely an existence that depended on the smile, the love of a woman. I had passed from the energetic and enthusiastic young soldier of liberty, into a care-for-nothing slave of passions. Now it mattered not to me what became of my country, what became of the world. No life existed for me but in a woman’s eyes, no heaven but in her smile. Mother, sisters, all would pass from my memory, to make room for her. Even the God that I had prayed to on the battle field was forgotten. She was my heaven on earth, my all in all. I did not even dream of aught to come, so completely was I lost to myself. It was more like an ideal passion than a real one. Few mortals have felt it. It was a gift from heaven—or hell—I don’t know which. Its unquenchable fierceness was terrible—its joy, as soft and sweet as a zephyr made by an angel’s wing.
So life went on, and so I spent the hours, blind to everything except her love. For she did love me, aye, purely as woman ever loved—but unseen spirits worked our fates, and everything that I proposed some higher destiny forbade.
Twilight now filled the room, yet we each remained in the same positions, gazing out into the gradually darkening sky. Her hand that had been toying with my hair, now passed gently along my face, and she said in a low voice—
“Zantha, you are happy?”
“Happy!” I ejaculated, in astonishment, for the question was so unlooked for and unthought of that it sounded strange to me. “Yes, darling,” I murmured, as I drew her face down to mine, “too happy, too happy;” thereby unconsciously repeating the very words she had said to me.
“And why too happy?”
“I do not know, unless it is that I dread the awakening of this dream. I know, darling, it cannot last for ever. I know happiness is always shortlived. Ah, Zina, I know that you love me—that you have prolonged your visit here on that account. But we need not stay here always. I will accompany you to Athens.” I felt her breath come quicker as her bosom heaved strongly.
“We will start at once. When I have seen you safely with your friends I will be satisfied. Nay, nay, do not tremble; my love for you can never change, it is too deep, too holy—are you crying, Zina?” A tear had fallen on my hand. It was too dark to observe her features correctly.
“No, Zantha, no!” And then followed an interval, during which I thought that I had heard a sob. I could see, as I looked into her face, her eyes glisten, and I felt sure that tears had burnished them.
Then presently she said with great calmness, as though she had, during the silence, worked herself up to it, “I must go to Athens—to-morrow—and alone.”
Had hell at that moment yawned itself open beneath me, it could not have terrified me more than those few words. I was completely dazed. I could not believe my senses.
“Alone! alone!” I echoed. “Did you say alone?”
“Yes,” she said, “Yes, I received a letter to-day calling me back at once. Zantha, I must go. It is cruel, it is death to tear myself away; but we must part.”
“Part! part!” I could only echo her words. My senses seemed to have suddenly forsaken me.
“Yes, part! It is better. It is fit that it should be so. Oh, Zantha, we can never be to each other more than we are now. Our love has been a mistake It was not sanctioned by heaven, no, no! Satan has watched its birth with smiles. It will be a curse—it can only be a curse. Learn to forget me—hate me if you will, but for God’s sake do not love me longer.” And here a passionate burst of sobs came from her, as though her heart had broken.
I clasped her in my arms and attempted to soothe her, but she withdrew herself from my embrace.
“Zina, what does this mean?”
She answered me in a cold, cruel voice—
“It means that we must part, that we can never be anything to each other again. It means—” here her voice faltered a little, but quickly regained its former coldness, “it means that we may never more see each other.”
“God, that is impossible! Are all our vows, our words, to pass for nothing? Can the soul cast aside its idol in a moment? Can you still the sea by human command? Ah, think, think of what you say. You loved me once?”
No answer. The quick breath, mingled with a suppressed sob, was all that could be heard. I could tell that some power was working within her, for she gasped and moved restlessly.
When once more I heard her voice it was colder and harder than before.
I felt my heart stop beating, and it seemed to shrivel, shrivel until nothing remained. Then of a sudden it started to swell and burn; my brain rolled to and fro in my head like fiery coals; my breath came short and fast — I was approaching insanity. I shouted out with terrific fury—
“Then you are false—”
The fever seemed contagious, for she, too, had risen, gesticulating as wildly as myself. She stood before me with clenched hands and blazing eyes.
“Yes, as false as hell!” And she laughed a cold, shrill, cruel laugh.
I fell down, a worthless, broken-hearted thing, and wept. Then I rose. Indignation burned on my cheeks—fury in my breast. I upbraided her faithlessness, her falseness, and a thousand other things that come first to the injured lover’s thoughts. She meekly listened to my words. No sound, no breath of anger came from her. As I saw her standing so humbly, I forgot myself for a moment and held out my arms to embrace her. She repulsed me with coldness.
“Go! I never loved you—I never wish to see your face again.”
At that horrible speech my wrath. seemed to evaporate. I saw the uselessness of passion. My heart was too crushed for anger. I turned towards her with a broken voice.
“Oh, you have killed my soul. May God forgive you!” And ere the words had quite died away I was in the street, with the cool night breeze blowing upon my heated brain.
If you have ever had the life of your soul cruelly mutilated, killed, crushed beyond all hope, you will understand my feelings on that night—if not, I dare not attempt to describe them. The recording angel must have wept as he indited the excessive depths of my misery. Oh God, if a long life of wretchedness can atone for one misdeed, surely I have gained redemption!
Early the next morning she had gone—gone, and I was left despairing and alone.
My state of mind did not take the form of anger, all the spirit was crushed within me. Hard as I tried to forget, hate, and even loathe her, it was impossible. I was still her slave, and I knew that a glimpse of her form would have seemed to me like paradise almost regained. I became moody; ate little, spoke little, sought for consolation in long, solitary walks and deep thought. No military accoutrements now equipped me.
My cheeks had grown pale and thin, my eyes sunken and hollow, while hair grew untrimmed over my face. My mother continually prayed to heaven for my restoration, while my sisters clung weeping to me, and added their prayers with hers. It was not that I was wicked, it was not that I felt callous, that made me turn angrily from them. It was because my life was not my own—because I indistinctly heard them, for my mind was always wandering far away to Athens.
Desolation had now spread itself over me, and as it cruelly pierced me with pain after pain, I felt more resigned to my fate; yet a passionate and eternal love filled my bosom for the woman who had killed my life. And so life went on, and weeks passed by. My existence had become a bane to myself.
I wandered listlessly through street and grove like one in a dream. It was obvious to all that some terrible calamity had befallen me. Each person marked my aspect, and spoke of the change. The least interested of all was myself. Yet it is needless to retail all this misery; let it be enough for me to say that I had descended in the scale of humanity so low that the day passed with no more approbation from me than if I had been a senseless beast. I lived on, heaven knows how. People will live who have no interest in life. It is a strange thing that often the poor, half-starved wretched creature, whose death would be a blessing and a release to himself, lives on in filth and hunger, in defiance of all physical laws, and seems to almost thrive on misery. Death would have been a blessing to me.
God, if I had only died!
You will forgive me, Paul, if I digress from the main theme occasionally, or if my narrative in places should be weak and uninteresting. I try my best to make it intelligent and faithful; if I fail it is not on account of my will, but that I am deficient in power. You know, old friend, that I am growing weaker every day—the time must come soon now, well let it, I am ready. I have had sorrow enough; God knows. Yet why should I complain. I had love! Surely to love and be beloved, is worth a life of misery. You have two heavens.
Well, well, let me continue. One afternoon as I was walking from the grove where we had plighted our loves (I had visited the spot every day since her departure), a stranger, travel-stained, accosted me by name. I answered. Whereupon he thrust a letter on me, and departed as mysteriously as he had come.
I went on for some time with the letter in my hand, not thinking of it, into such a lethargic state had I fallen.
Presently I looked at it, and to my great amazement, found it had come from Athens—from Zina.
I need not speak of the terrible excitement that filled my soul as I, stupified, gazed on and read the writing. It was as follows:—
“They tell me you are ill, very ill, and that I am the cause of it all. God help me! I would not willingly be the miserable medium of one pang to you. What I did was better for you, as it was for me. You will know some time. Zantha, I thought you would have more pride than to weep for such as I. You grieve for a creature that is not worth any man’s love. Forget her, sink her in oblivion, as dross that infects the purity of life. Your intellect will raise you high in the estimation of your countrymen. You will make a name that some worthy woman will bear with pride, and happy young souls will play at your knee, round your own bright fireside. I can conjure up a bright future, but alas, I can never share it. Had things been different! Had fate allowed us to link our destinies long ago! But why, why these useless thoughts? We are severed—at least it is better for you. Think, Zantha, that the splendour of fame awaits a soul like yours. Live, live, Zantha, for a bright future. And I from my obscurity, will watch your ascending star, and bless the world I have a right to hate. My love for you was great—is great, but it could only bring shame and death. Good-bye!
Live, live and be happy, and forget that Zina ever walked the earth.”
After reading this, emotions deep and powerful filled me. I stood gazing on the ground like one bewildered; but through the clouds that enveloped my mind, a star shot forth, rendered rarer, and far more brilliant by the surrounding darkness, it was— her love!
Yes, some mystery was the cause of this sorrow; she loved me, she had always loved me; she had acted from some vague impulse. What was to be done?
As I lifted my eyes from the ground to ask the clouds, the travel-stained messenger stood before me. he looked at me intently for a minute, and then said—
“If you would know who and what Zina Sestros is —go to Athens!” And he turned round and disappeared quickly.
Go to Athens, said the olive trees as they bent to and fro; go to Athens, sung the birds in the air. “Go to Athens,” I ejaculated unconsciously.
Yes, my mind was prepared in an instant. I would set out for Athens at once! I should see her! I would banish her sorrows with my love, and no fatal mistake should ever part us again.
A new world was open to me. I lived once more. Her entreaties for me to forget her were nothing.
Had she not said, “My love for you was great—is great?” Can you wonder at all else appearing insignificantly small?
I moved with a freer, easier motion. A new world seemed to unfold itself to my gaze. I felt my whole spirit rise anew within me. The assurance of her love, terrible as she said it was, made me feel once more a living being.
I started for Athens that evening, travelled all night, and, as quickly as horses could do it, I was landed in the capital.
Now I had arrived safely, but the great task was to find her. I was almost a stranger to the place, and I was alone. Some of my brother officers would be certain to know her or her family. And that there were plenty of them in Athens I knew well. And yet I felt so uncertain of her, of everything, that I forbore to go near them. The people where I stayed knew her not, so the only thing I could do was walk the streets in hopes of seeing her.
Many days went by in this way; days of doubt and excruciating agony.
On the evening of the sixth day, as I was walking disconsolately home after a futile search, I heard the hurried gallop of horses in a carriage coming up behind me. In a minute they were alongside.
I lifted my head to look at them as they passed, and a magnificent little bunch of roses was thrown in my face by a woman, who, with a ringing laugh, threw herself back in the carriage, and was borne away like the wind by her thoroughbreds. The woman’s face I could have sworn was hers, but the glance was so rapid, and the sky had begun to darken, and I was uncertain. But how absurd it was to think that she would be guilty of such audacity. She, my love, my better self, throwing flowers to idlers in the street?
I was ashamed of myself for harbouring such a thought. Then I looked at the roses; they were her favourite colour—yellow! I could not suppress a start. I looked again. Great God, they were three! I remembered her strange whim of always having no more nor less than that number. I was lost in astonishment and wonder. Horrible doubts now assailed me. Could, could they be true? And the thought of them made my heart tremble.
I was recalled abruptly from my imaginings by hearing a voice saying, in a jaunty tone—
“By my brightest star’s head, but you’re a lucky fellow to get such an honour paid to you from her.”
I looked at the speaker of these words. He was a short, dumpy, ill-dressed looking individual, with a pair of small, twinkling eyes. He seemed to be one of the commonest of the people. Dirt was in abundance on his face, and his hair, unkempt and matted, seemed to give him the appearance of some new species of animal.
I was turning from him in disgust, but curiosity stopped me. I cast looks up and down the street, nobody was in sight, so I drew closer to him.
“Her—who is she?”
His little eyes twinkled with delight, and a humorous grin spread over his dirty face. He seemed to gloat over my ignorance.
“Who is she? In what uninhabited part of the world have you been living that you do not know her. You, a Greek, and, by appearance, a fine gentleman— don’t know Athens’ Queen of Night—Zina Sestros!”
“Zina Sestros!” I exclaimed, in tones which made my hearer jump, “Was that Zina Sestros?”
“By my brightest star’s head, it was. The loveliest creature beneath the sun, but with a heart as false as a devil’s. Two men have been killed through her since she came back from the country about two months ago. One a month—a very good average. She has changed her lovers three times. First the Prince of M. was the lucky man, then came the Marquis of S., and now the idiotic Duke of B. is the infatuated fool. She reigns in his palace, ha! ha! ha! like what she is—the Queen of the—”
Here all further utterance on his part was cut short by my hurling him with fury to the road. I neither looked nor cared if he was alive or not, but hurried on with a thousand horrid passions tearing my heart to pieces.
Oh, Paul, friend, brother, if you only knew the agony I have suffered, you would not wonder at my being here.
As I walked along, unconscious of everything but my own thoughts, a voice whispered, close to me—
“If you would see the Queen of Night in all her glory, go this evening to the gardens of A—”
I turned quickly round, only to see my acquaintance of the dirty face dart away from my side with the rapid bound of a dog.
“The gardens of A—!” I murmured with despairing sigh.
I knew that these gardens were a notorious rendezvous for people of indifferent fame; where the hopeful heir of the aristocrat wastes life and lands; where the widow’s only son goes with the money he has stolen from his master; where women, some young, some old, and some beautiful, pass the time in drinking, dancing, singing; all strung to the highest pitch of excitement; all wallowing in the excess of pleasure.
Here the elder leads the younger through the paths of vice, pushes her forward in its lowest scenes, nor leaves her till every spark of modesty is fully burnt from out her young breast. Towards this place I wended my way, as the city clocks were striking eight.
I need not trouble you with details of the place, suffice to say that dozens of gorgeously dressed females flitted to and fro beneath the light of countless numbers of many coloured lamps, like huge butterflies; while the males—well, they were not men.
For nearly three hours I wandered amidst this voluptuous scene, without speaking a word to anyone ignoring everything and everybody. I was beginning to feel that I had been duped. I prayed to heaven that it might be so. Never would there have been a dupe more glad, more joyous. The very thought that after all she was not so bad as that, though wretched, was comforting.
Here I was aroused from my reveries, by a voice crying, “Make way for the Queen of Night.”
I started, like one suddenly stabbed to the heart and a cry burst from me almost like a shriek. Some people who were hurrying past looked at me and laughed.
Ah, God, they little knew with what intoxicant my soul was charged.
Presently I saw, at the further end of the avenue, being borne on a chair, while those who surrounded it chanted a song, the purport of which was long life and happiness (oh, the irony of the word), to their queen.
As it came nearer I saw that their queen was my Zina! She was arrayed in a blue satin, covered with diamond stars. It was her official dress! the badge of her royalty! Heaven, how lovely she looked.
I slunk behind a tree as the procession passed, and heard a hundred throats sing, “Long life to your majesty,” as they went by.
I followed in the rear, and saw them place her on a platform that I before had noticed. Here she sat in her velvet chair, with two chosen people on each side, and more in the background.
Presently a personage, dressed in knee-breeches, and bearing an enormous gold-headed cane in his hand, came forward and asked, “If any of her majesty’s subjects had a complaint to make?”
Two or three females came up weeping, and complained of the falseness of their lovers. It was a sickening farce.
Then the individual in the knee-breeches once more came forward—
“It is her majesty’s wish that the person who received a bunch of flowers from her to-day, will come forward—if he be here—and claim the usual reward.” A long silence ensued. Each gazed enquiringly at his neighbour, but not one of them moved. Each seemed to look “Who is the lucky man?” while the female curiosity was aroused to the fullest pitch.
I stood watching the whole scene with a frightened and anxious heart. There she sat in her cushioned chair, in all her beauty, graciously smiling on a mass of—. Why should I have all the pain? Why should she not suffer as well?
Just then I felt a form moving beside me, and a voice said—
“Why not go up and claim the reward?”
It was my acquaintance of the dirty face, who shot away immediately he had spoken.
A sudden passion to make her feel entered me. I took the roses from my pocket and, waving them in the air, made towards the platform. They quickly formed a passage for me, and in a minute I stood on the stage before them. The queen was talking to a courtier on her left and did not perceive me come up.
The individual in the knee-breeches went softly to her, and bowing, said, “Your majesty, the flowers!” She turned round with a gracious smile. But it died out, and her face became pale as death, as her eyes met mine. She gasped and would have fainted, had not support been given her. She tried to speak, but the words died away on her lips. Everyone looked into the other’s face with blank astonishment. They seemed to regard me as something more than human, to thus employ such power over their queen.
Eventually she managed to whisper, “Zantha, what do you want?”
I said this with such cold calmness that I shuddered at my own voice.
She held out her hand for me to kiss—that was the reward!
I ignored it. The people saw my action, and hissed me. What cared I? The wind tearing through the trees disturbed me as much. I advanced a pace nearer to her, and in a horrible voice charged with rage said—
“So you are Zina Sestros; you are that beautiful devil who wanders hither and thither destroying the lives and souls of men; you are that blot upon creation, that curse; you are—” Here the angry exclamations of the people would not allow me to continue. It was well—for passion had got the better of me.
She silenced them with a wave of her hand, and then, with a smile, said—
“Peace, my children. Let this poor fellow speak, he is harmless. His love for me is great, but I cannot help that. He refused my hand because he would kiss my lips. But, sir, that cannot be—unless in private. A queen must never lose her dignity—before her subjects.”
And she bowed very low to me.
A howl of delight broke from her listeners. They shouted longer life to her than ever, while I, dumbfounded at this audacious speech, drew back a step. I could not understand it, my brain seemed to have forgotten its functions through the shock. She had acted, assumed a tone and bearing which was not hers.
She came to me with a voice full of emotion, saying, “For God’s sake, Zantha, leave this place.”
Instead of her emotion soothing, it but irritated me. I seized her by the arm and almost dragged her to the end of the platform. I behaved more like a savage than a man. I forgot where I was and who were looking at me. I only saw the woman who had ruined my life, the woman who had killed my hopes! And my soul was like a blaze of wrath against her. I felt a thousand demons urging me to seize her by that white, beautiful throat and choke her. I felt my fingers crushing her flesh, and a wild cry burst from her. My grip upon her arm was like a vice. The people hissed, but what of that? It was only her, her I wanted. My anger gave vent to itself in a few wild upbraidings.
“What right have you to use the name of God? You, who are false to heaven as you are false to hell! You, who are false to everything and everybody—you—” Here I was forced to stop, for she had turned to me with eyes flashing and cheeks aglow. One look subdued me. It was not of its fierceness. No, no! But of the pity, love, and shame that seemed to be in it.
She held out her hand. I carried it humbly to my lips. I felt the gentle pressure of her fingers, and with a low bow, I departed from the scene.
As I walked along, two small, twinkling eyes and a dirty face peeped through the shrubbery, “Isn’t the Queen of Night a beauty, ha! ha! ha!” It was like the chuckle of a gloating demon. I turned round, but the individual was gone. I went forth from the home of revelry, now more terribly alone than ever.
Here was an end to my pure, fond, and beautiful love. And such an end! The being whom I considered my angel, my saviour! Well, well, it was too frightful for me to think of, I was afraid I should go mad. As I walked along the street, I heard a peal of laughter come from a wine shop. What! were there people in the world who could laugh? Aye, and there was a beverage that would make the dullest heart rejoice.
I crossed over, entered, drank!
What need to tell the rest! It can be easily imagined. Wine was to drown my sorrow, and its associations to please my passions. Women caressed me, while I despised them. The world thought me a good sort of companion; I detested it. But since I was forced to live in it I would take my revenge. Henceforth I was nothing better than the worst. As I would have risen higher than most of my fellow men in any branch of life, so I now rose higher than them in debauchery. I had become notorious, and I gloated in my notoriety. At the gardens of A— I had become the star; the Queen of Night was eclipsed. She never came there now. Many and many were the jokes my friends and I had had over that adventure.
But they could never understand my instantaneous submission. Nor would I tell them. Even in the midst of revelry, when the bright wine ran through my head like fire, when the lights danced before me and each person seemed to grow in size, they have asked me, but unsuccessfully. I kept it a secret, like one guarding a holy thing. And yet what was it? A look! But it kindled my soul into a flame of love.
So time went on, and I was still the hero of the place. I had written song after song for them, and each went well, and they knew not which was best. The looser its moral tone the better it was liked. Alas, such was now my society.
I was a fool, you will say. Verily, it may be true— it was true. I knew it all along, but it was the only thing that made me forget my misery. Had I not sought excitement, and given myself change after change, I should have gone mad.
One day, as I was sitting alone in my chambers, my servant entered and told me in his most secret manner that a lady wished to see me—and was I at home?
I asked what she was like. She seemed very beautiful, was the answer, although a veil partly concealed her features.
“Bring her up, then,” said I.
It was by no means an unusual thing for women to call on me, and I considered this but another of my many frivolous intrigues.
The lady was shown in. I started to my feet with a bound. Although a dark veil almost hid her features, I perceived that it was Zina! I felt my heart beat terribly, but, man of the world as I had now grown to be, I concealed my sudden excitement under a cold exterior.
I bowed her to a chair; she took it with a sigh. I chuckled inwardly as I heard it. Surely she would not have the audacity to try any maudlin jokes on me now? No, I could not think it of her, even though I tried. I loved her once! God, I loved her still—but it was no longer the love that sighed itself among the groves of Missolonghi.
The silence was irksome, so I opened the conversation with—
“Well, madam, what’s your will with me?”
She trembled visibly for a moment. My tone was off-handed, cold, and distant.
“Zantha, I want to ask a favour of you.”
I laughed a horrible, jarring laugh.
“You want a favour of me?”
“Yes, yes, I—I—” and her voice seemed broken and low. Devilish satisfaction rose within me, and I absolutely gloated over the misery of my unhappy visitor.
I then said, in oh, such tones, that even sent a shiver through my own frame—
“Raise your veil, madam; it is unnecessary to hide your face, for you, no doubt, can make any request without blushing.”
She rose to her feet. Indignation swelled in her heart—her pride was stung. However, she managed to calm her rising emotions.
“Zantha, you are cruel!”
I echoed the word with a maniacal laugh.
“Cruel! You call me cruel? You who have killed my hopes, my life, my soul. You who have brought me to this—you call me cruel!”
She had raised her veil during this speech, and now looked imploringly towards me.
“No, no, Zantha, for God’s sake, don’t say that! Did I not warn you?”
Another wild, low laugh came from me.
“Warn me, aye! When tumbling headlong into the fires of hell you shrieked out from above, ‘Come back, come back, you are falling to destruction,’ knowing well that only air was beneath me, and my fate. You warned me, say you—yes, when it was too late!”
Her face had gone deadly pale, while she gazed at me with a long, steadfast look.
“You do not know me yet!”
“I don’t! ha! ha!”
She pressed her lips closer, while a faint flush spread over her fair face.
“You are unmanly, Zantha!”
Even such a rebuke as that did not recall me to my senses. I felt more like a fiend than a human being.
“You have made me what I am, I cannot help it!” I answered with a sneer. Some horrid devil had entered my soul and seemed to urge me on. I would fain have stopped, but could not. “It is unnecessary to repeat the story. We know the moral—if there be one? Let us drop the curtain.”
I could not control my temper. It was horrible.
“But listen to me.”
“Never mind—we know each other—let us not bandy words. Truth is not our life.”
If fate had blistered my tongue at these words, I would not have been angry with it. It would have been but just. A saint would have lost his patience.
She looked at me for several seconds without speaking, then, suddenly rising, said, in a soft, yet strained voice—
“Fool, fool! Know you not, or are you willingly blind to the fact, that those hours of your pure love were more to me than a lifetime of it, alloyed, could be? I was happy in your love. Well, well, I know all was a sham—I stole it from you—but it was none the less sweet, for it made me forget my former existence, and allowed me to dream of happiness. I could not tell you for what reason I went to Athens; I would not, I dared not, because I knew it would irrevocably destroy your love. I would rather you thought me a false-hearted jilt, anything, God help me, than what I was. You might have retained some feeling of affection for the frivolous girl, but for the outcast woman, no, no! But even amid all this, may not something be said for me? Misfortune, more than an evil heart! Poverty, a beautiful face, and a fancied early love for one whose mission was to destroy. Poverty, and a beautiful face! Are there any two such enemies to happiness? Spare me a recital! One evening I left my home! I never returned! But they tell me that far on the other side of Pindus a mother still watches, waits, and prays.”
And here she burst into a fit of sobs.
I felt my heart bursting. All was forgotten! I sprang up, and clasped her to my heart.
The reconciliation was complete. All the past was counted as dead, we were to live for the future. We parted that evening, never to part again—in life. She was to come to me on the morrow. Ah, how happy I felt. Again life seemed new, and I had something to live for.
Early that evening, as I was taking a solitary walk through the streets, ruminating on the pleasures that would come with the morrow, simultaneously with the noise of fast approaching carriage-wheels, I was touched on the elbow, while a voice that I had heard before, said—
“The Queen of Night will shine at the opera with his dukeship this evening—see, they come.” I recognised the voice and figure of my dirty-faced acquaintance, though he shot with rapidity into the darkness.
I was standing beneath a lamp. One quick searching glance as the carriage flashed by was enough. Yes, it was her, and a man sat beside her.
I cannot describe to you the feelings which passed through me. But a few hours ago I had parted from her, when she clung to me as though I was her life, and now she dared to—Heavens!
Jealousy, strong and terrible, entered me. I no longer felt a man—my blood coursed madly, I was raving. What had I done that heaven should curse me so? Murderous thoughts flashed through me, and all the world seemed changed to horrible night. I grasped my pocket-pistol with fury. I had always carried one lately.
I followed the carriage to the theatre, and there, from the darkest corner of an upper circle, I gazed into her box, and watched her the whole performance. Each time he touched her hand, each time she smiled at him, pangs, bitter as death, passed through me. Who amongst the many that night that saw her there in all her glory dreamed of the miserable wretch in yon dark circle bearing a world of agony in his breast, caused by that fair face and that false heart? Once it seemed as though she had observed me, for she looked straight to where I was standing. Up went her glasses, but I had slunk back further into the darkness and hidden my face. And so I stood, with my eyes rivetted upon her, never once looking at the stage, or heeding the divine melodies that floated through the house. Nor did bursts of applause make me unfix my gaze for a moment. I saw the performance in my “mind’s eye.”
“That man must be mad,” whispered somebody beside me. I knew they meant me. I felt that I was mad, and so I laughed inwardly, but took no outward notice.
Presently one said, “Zina seems to enjoy herself tonight!”
“By my brightest star’s head,” said another, whose voice I immediately recognised, “but she always does, when she is with the duke;” and they giggled to themselves.
“By-the-by,” chimed in a third, “they say that her last exploit was in ruining a young soldier from Missolonghi. Is it true?”
“As true as gospel,” said he of the dirty face.
“I wonder who’ll be the next victim?” asked the first speaker.
“Not you, for certain,” said the man of the dirty face.
“You may rest assured of that,” said he, in answer; “I like something respectable.”
Again they giggled. I listened to this jabbering till my blood boiled within me. I would have given anything to have taken them up one by one and dashed them into the stalls below. And yet I did not even look towards them. I saw her smile, smile, and smile! Was not that enough? How could I notice those senseless idiots?
Presently I heard the dirty-faced man’s voice again, “See, she is kissing him now!”
“Liar!” I hissed, as I sprang towards him, but he eluded my grasp. I was not foolish enough to make a scene in a theatre, and get expelled, so I scowled at him from my corner.
It seems that his remark was of the actors.
My sudden fury stopped the gossiping tongues around me, and so I stood in my dark corner gazing on my lover—and her lover—without molestation, while jealousy burned all softer feeling from my breast.
At last the opera is over!
I watch him arrange her wraps, while she laughs gaily in his face.
Then they go out.
I descend from my gallery, and mingle with the crowd that flocks about the entrance. Forth she comes, radiant as a star, leaning upon his arm. My eyes are fixed upon her, while my soul glows with a deadly desire to kill loveliness.
“The moon always was an inconstant creature.” Such were the words whispered in my ear. I knew the voice, it had haunted me too much lately. I knew from whence the sound came, but the man with the dirty face was invisible.
“Home!” said the duke to his footman.
The door was closed, and off shot the carriage along the street.
“Home!” I hissed, as I followed the route taken by the carriage with a quick step, while I ground my teeth with rage. I had shut all tender feelings from my heart, and nothing now but the desire to do an injury filled me. With clenched hands and head down I hurried madly along the road that led to the duke’s abode. What I should do when there never occurred to me; I only knew that she had gone, and that I must go. Something would ensue. What I never thought or cared. My mind was so full of her outrageous perfidiousness that no other thought was admitted. I felt like killing her and him, and all who crossed my path. It was a cold, a bitterly cold night. The rain was falling and the slush lay thick on the road, but I had a volcano within me. I little knew how soon it would burst and destroy life’s habitations.
On arriving at the duke’s abode, I, of course, found it impossible to be admitted by the door, but I was not to be outdone. I would gain admittance even if I had to do it by stealth, as a common thief. I easily scaled the wall, and found myself in a large garden, through which I crept softly to the house. Here I clambered on to a verandah, and found at the extreme end of it a conservatory, through which a light glimmered faintly from a room at the farther end. Luckily, or unluckily, the door was not locked, and so I entered. I felt my way carefully along till I had come up to the glass door through which the light streamed. Then I peered from behind a lilac bush into the room. I saw—oh, God, that ever I should have done so! —I saw her sitting by his side, his arm was round her, they were laughing, aye—and kissing! I felt my blood rise within me as a torrent of fire. With one bound I was through the door, and before them. A scream of terror from her, and an oath from him greeted me. I did not deign to notice his presence. My soul was kindled against her. My face was all aglow with excited rage. I felt my eye-balls bursting— I must have looked terrible. My frame so shook that I could not speak, the words died away in a discordant mumble. I felt all at once an uncontrollable fit of fury seize me. I advanced a step closer to her, drew forth my pistol, and fired. The bullet entered her left breast. A deadly shriek issued from her lips, as she fell like a statue to the floor. With that shriek all my fury vanished. I was down by her side, had her in my arms, endeavoured to staunch the blood, but all was in vain.
She rapidly sank lower and lower. I felt her breath coming shorter, shorter. I kissed her a thousand times in my agony.
“Zina, Zina, for the love of God, speak!” I cried aloud.
Slowly her beautiful eyes opened.
Oh, heaven! the angelic look of tenderness almost killed me.
“Zantha, our lives have been a mistake; but heaven truly knows that I have loved you better than aught else on earth. Do not weep for me. I—I forgive you!”
And she closed her eyes and sank back as though she were dead. As I pressed my lips with frenzy to hers, I felt them growing colder and colder. Slowly she opened her eyes once more. Their loveliness was dimmed. A film had grown over them. She looked at me, and yet no ray of intelligence beamed from them.
I leaned closer and closer—she whispered so low that it was scarcely audible—
“Good-bye—Zantha! Tell—tell that—sweet soul —who—who waits and prays—on—on the other side of Pindus—that her—child—is—is—no—no—no—” She fell back with the death-rattle in her throat— her eyes closed.
They never opened again.
I knelt, holding her form, like one stupified. I smoothed back the hair from her brow, kissed her pallid cheeks, called her by name a thousand times, but all was silent. The light even seemed to glow duller in the presence of death. The feelings that flooded my soul were a thousand times worse than the fiercest of hell’s tortures could ever be. I lived the agony of a million years in those few minutes.
How long I knelt, gazing into her pale face, I know not. It might have been seconds, minutes, hours. I was called back to earth by the duke saying—
“Well, well! what are you going to do now?”
His tone was cold and peevish. I looked towards him with a vacant stare.
“I don’t know!”
“But, my fine fellow, you must know. Are you aware that you’ve committed murder, and that your arrest means death?”
“I don’t care!”
“But I do. I can’t have such a deed as this discovered in my house. Poor devil! what an end to come to;—and yet I don’t see how she could well hope for any other.”
“Silence, you hound!” I exclaimed, with flashing eyes; “she is dead!”
“Of course she is; that’s the very reason I want to bring you to your senses. Listen to me! You must at once take this body away—I tell you I cannot let it be found in my house!”
I looked at the heartless wretch, one long, terrible look, clasped her in my arms—
“Lead the way,” I cried, and bore her from the house.
He took me through the conservatory, along the verandah, across the garden, opened a small gate with a key he took from his pocket, and my corpse and I found ourselves in the road.
Now what was to be done?
I could not bear it through the streets, for fear of meeting some officer of justice, and even in death I loved it too well to leave it out of my sight. Presently I heard the rumbling of a conveyance coming towards me. As it came nearer I perceived that it was a vehicle I could hire. I hailed it. The driver was half drunk. I told him that a lady had fainted, and that I wished him to drive with rapidity to the Piranis. I lifted my lifeless charge in, and pressed her with agony to my bosom.
Oh, how horribly long the journey seemed! I thought that we would never get there. Time after time I called to the driver to urge his horse on, to which some unintelligible answer was always given.
Eventually we arrived there. I discharged the conveyance, the driver of which remarked that the “lady didn’t seem in a hurry to come to.”
“No,” said I to myself with a jeering laugh, as I turned away, “I don’t think she’ll ever do so again.”
It was now fully two o’clock in the morning. Not a soul was stirring as I made my way along the wharf where the fishing boats were moored, with my corpse in my arms.
At last I saw one that seemed suitable to the carrying out of my project.
I placed her carefully in it and sat her beside me. I pushed off the boat with an oar, and soon we were gliding away.
This idea had struck me the moment I heard the conveyance rumbling along the street. To my maddened brain it was a glorious thought. I would at least be the only soul that could gaze at her. Even such an idea as that made me feel happier, and I looked forward with insane excitement to the moment when we should be alone at last. Vague ideas, like phantoms, of the fearfulness of my proceeding would flit before me, but then I was mad, and my horrible situation but heightened my insanity.
Swiftly sailed the boat over the sparkling bay. A strong land breeze was blowing. The little craft heeled over on one side as she cut the waters, and soon we had quitted it.
Once outside, we got the full benefit of the wind and sea. It struck her with tremendous force, and for a moment she seemed uncertain whether to float or sink. Then righting herself she quivered like a huge dog, as he shakes the water from his coat, and away she went.
The sea broke hissing all around us, the wind screeched like a maniac. The clouds above us were as black as death, and wherever a break did appear it was of that ashy paleness, like the eyes of a corpse.
I felt my brain turning under the influence of so wild a scene. With one hand I held the tiller, with the other I clasped my dead companion closer to me; pressed kiss after kiss upon her cold lips, and shouted in an ecstasy of madness—
“At last you are mine!”
I poured my love into her ears—spoke to her— cheered her—sang to her—but she remained passive.
Oh, it was a glorious ride, my corpse and I had that night! We two, alone, alone with the wind and sea, while heaven’s black face scowled at us, and all the elements seemed joined in one great conflict. The thunder roared, and the lightning flashed beautifully around us, illuminating with hideous brilliancy the ghastly scene. The ocean foamed like a wild animal in its death throes. Spurning us now high on its crest, and then cradling us in its hollow. The slimy fish looked at us with dull, cold eyes, as though in wonderment. Yet on we went over the boiling, tumbling waves, swift as a shooting star. Now up, now down, now on this side, now on that, but always flying, flying! We seemed to be rushing into some vast, dark world of which we knew nothing. Oh, it was sublime to feel a world roaring and fretting around, while we shot over it with glee, as the eagle skims the mountain.
I pulled back the cloak from the pallid face of my companion.
“Look, look!” I cried, “how she cuts the foam, see how she casts it aside! Ah, she is a fine bird, she flies with folded wings! Listen to that song the wind is singing now! Is it not mournful? Is it not sad? Death, death, everything is death! Is the world dead? No! How can death be, when there is life like this?”
And I laughed aloud, while the wind seemed to increase in fury.
On, on we sped! Over the billows we tore, plunging into darkness. It was pleasant to be balanced on the top of a wave, and then hurled into the gloom below. We could not tell but that we would be dashed into eternity.
As I grew colder, I pressed her to me for warmth, but she was like ice, like death? Was she not death? I felt myself growing as cold as she was. The blood within me chilled to ice, and lay cold and heavy in my veins. Death seemed to be entering my body from hers. And yet we flew on, on over the boisterous sea. Wild as the sky scowled upon us— wild as the waters beat around—wild as the wind howled in our ears, nothing could frighten the wildness that raged in our souls.
It was a strange journey—a strange picture! The little boat, quivering, shaking, creaking, and yet bounding over the waters like lightning, casting its enemies on each side as it plunged its bows into their midst. The man sitting at the helm, clasping with fervour a dead body to his bosom, and ever and anon pressing passionate kisses on its cold lips, and shouting with maniacal glee, as the waves rose higher and higher. My corpse and I were drenched to the skin —I long before she was, for I had wrapped my coat round her to keep the cold away. She was more delicate than I.
Such were my fancies, such was my state of mind. All through the long, dull hours of the early morning I kept the same position, staring straight before me. I but looked occasionally at my corpse, and yet I knew I had it—I could feel it!
Several times beams of reason passed through my brain, and for a moment had effect, but they so quickly vanished that I was left as before.
Gradually the day began to dawn, and occasionally the sun would peep darkly from his murky home. Yet on we tore, still in the same positions. The face of my companion had gone blue, while the jaw had dropped. I tied a piece of lace round her head, and so kept it closed. The eyes were open too. I did not like the look of them, so I pressed her face upon my breast and hid them.
The morning had now far advanced, when I perceived that we were bearing down upon a small island.
“Land ho!” I cried, with a wild laugh, but my silent companion made no answer. So on we went, the living and the dead! There was nothing so very strange in that—for is the dead not always with the living? We rapidly approached the island, which looked nothing but a mass of rocks. I could not perceive a landing-place, nor did that trouble me in the least, for a curious feeling was upon me. I would not have felt disturbed had I been certain that I was sailing into the Maelstrom. Closer and closer we approached, and the nearer we got the wilder the excitement within me rose. I felt mad with joy. I ran the boat straight in amongst the foam and rocks. It was a terrible crash, and she went to pieces in a minute. A wild delight at my work seized me, and I felt a savage pleasure in being drenched and tossed about by the foam.
My dead companion and I were still together. She seemed as though she purposely clung to me. The water breaking over us had washed the band away with which I had tied her face. The jaw sank, and the mouth was open again.
We struggled on, and by dint of much labour managed to drag ourselves up on a patch of dry sand. Here my first object was to tie up my companion’s face, for I seemed to have a terror of that sunken jaw.
On looking round I saw that I was at the entrance of a valley, which seemed to lead to the other side of the island. On my right and left great brown rocks frowned down, with scarce a scrap of herbage on them. Here and there a long, thin, leafless tree showed itself. All else seemed the same.
After we had dried and rested ourselves a little, I once more took up my companion and started to walk along the valley. I had not proceeded very far before I discovered, hidden behind a huge rock, to protect it from the strong sea winds, a hut. I immediately went up to it, knocked at the door, and, as I got no answer, burst it open.
It seemed a mariner’s abode, for it was full of nautical things—ropes, sails, oars, spars, fishing-tackle, etc. I placed my corpse on the bed and had a good look round. My eyes rested on a packet of lights. I seized them eagerly. There was a lot of wood in the fireplace, and soon I had a roaring flame. I then brought my corpse in front of it and tried to infuse some warmth into those pale, cold cheeks. But it was impossible. I cried aloud to it, took it in my arms, covered it with feverish kisses, but it never moved—it never grew warmer. All was so cold and terrible.
Here apprehensions great and powerful filled me. What I was doing now seemed to strike me, and I trembled at its horror. But quick again it went, and I once more worshipped the dead. The day passed, and the night came on. The fire threw a gloomy light through the building and lit it up with all sorts of fantastic shapes, but it was enough for me—and her!
All through the icy night I sat by her side, her cold hand clasped firmly in mine, while my head reposed on her breast—that breast, that I had seen beat and glow with life and beauty. Alas! how cold and still it was now!
Aye, throughout the whole night I sat watching over the dead, only rising now and then to kiss those cold lips and heap more fuel on the fire. I had no other thought than to watch over her. She seemed to be a part of me that was indispensable to existence.
The sun rose and set on the next day, but what was it to me? I only knew it had risen. I sat gazing on the dead, waiting for it to speak.
Perhaps you will shudder, and think my behaviour to my corpse terrible? I grant, in many ways, it will seem appalling, but my sudden misery had driven me mad. The thought that played upon my fancy most was that she had never thoroughly been mine, and a wild longing to possess her, even in death, came over me. Perhaps, too, it was the faint remembrance that I had caused her destruction which made me so eager to protect her. I can’t exactly tell. I only know to touch her hand, her face, cold as they were, satisfied me. It did not strike me as being so terrible to keep her in the house. They embalm people in death and then exhibit them. Well, she was not embalmed, but there was no one to see her but me. She was embalmed enough for that. And do not people love to keep a corpse in a room long after death? Why? Because they are loth to part with that which is dear to them. She was my life, my only joy, my hope of future happiness. Then, can you wonder that I kept her as long as I could? I did not feel so very lonely while I had her. I could conjure up what we had been and what we might have been. And how all the world might have glowed with sunshine for us. And I could feel her hand, and sometimes I thought she might come back to life. Yes, you will think my proceedings terrible, but you have never had misery.
Paul, I loved, I murdered the being I loved. Aye,
I saw the blood—her dear blood—mingle with the crimson carpet and leave a dark blot. That blot was transferred to my soul, where it grows larger and larger. It will spread over it, and I shall die. Then earthly misery will end. If hell follows it cannot be worse. Let me resume.
That night, as I leaned stupidly gazing into the fire, it suddenly went out, and a nervous feeling of extraordinary power took possession of me. I sat on the stool beside my corpse, with her cold hand clasped in mine, trembling, shaking, and a heart beating with terror. I cannot account for the feeling. Nothing of what I had done rose up before me—nothing of what I might suffer in the future made me fearful. It was an ague of the soul. I was fully convinced that I should see some unearthly sight, and my heart quaked within me. I trembled so much that my teeth jarred horribly against each other. The cold perspiration rolled off me. I was in a fearful fright. Throughout the whole of that night my terror kept possession of me. I would not spend another such for all the world.
All the next day I sat beside her, nor ever once moved from off my seat, or let her hand fall from mine. I was afraid to look at her, afraid to stir. I sat motionless, senseless as a statue, gazing with a dull vacancy into the cold ashes of the once bright fire.
By degrees I became callous to my corpse. I could not clasp it in my arms. I could not kiss it now, and the thought of pressing its cold lips to mine would make me shiver with sensations of horror. But I could not leave it. No, no! she was mine! She must always be mine! I may not kiss or embrace her, but I must not leave her! Did she not love me? Did I not love her? Is she not as beautiful as an angel? as pure as—yes, yes! she is pure—now. Her soul, yes, her beautiful soul, it—it is bright. It was only the form, the clay that broke! That will return to nothing—nothing is expected of it. It comes and goes as the wind blows a feather through the air. But her soul! ah, could you have known it as I did; could you have heard it speak loving, beautiful words —words that shaped themselves in characters, golden and bright as heaven. Could you have heard it in the silent groves of Missolonghi, mingling its love-strains with the wind, till you knew not whether the maiden or the zephyr spoke. Could you have heard these things; could you have seen it sparkle from those eyes, you would not doubt to what region it has departed. If you come to me to-night I will show you her. She always stands opposite my window, always watches over me. There are a lot of other stars about her, but she rides on a little white cloud above them, and they are contented to gaze up with rapture at her throne. She was a queen on earth; she is a queen in heaven. She was born a queen. You cannot mistake her. She always sits in the west, the brightest of them all. But last night, as I was talking to her, she suddenly fell from her eminence, shot through the air—a blaze of light illuminated the heavens, oh, so gloriously—and then rushed into oblivion.
The sky now had no life, no light. The stars paled away till they were invisible. Huge clouds came rolling up over the face of heaven and hid the moon, and made night more than night. I cast myself upon my bed and wept—wept, oh so bitterly, for that which had sunk, sunk from its sphere, sunk from its heaven, sunk from itself. And then I prayed, prayed for the restoration of that star, prayed for its soul. And when I rose from my couch and looked up into the sky everything was in its place again. The clouds had disappeared, the moon and the countless glories of the sky had come forth, and she, the brightest star in heaven, smiled radiantly on me once more. Prayers will avail, they must avail!
Again I digress, and my digression is useless, for it does nothing but add to the length of my story.
You will forgive me. It is a weakness of mine to divert from one thing to another—my brain seems to take jumps in different directions, and I cannot control it. However, I will endeavour to be as concise as I can.
How long I remained sitting by the side of my corpse I know not; but I distinctly recollected seeing the sun rise and set, and rise and set again. Yet I never moved. Sleep came not near me. Through the long cold nights I sat clasping that cold hand. I did not call upon her now. I never spoke a word. I was a living corpse.
In time came that which could but come—a nauseous smell. It was so offensive, and irritated me to such a degree that it brought back a sort of wild reason. I stood up to see from whence it came. My eyes instinctively wandered to my corpse. Need I tell you? It had begun to decay!
The sight of that face, once so lovely, now so terrible; those lips, those eyes that were once—oh, God! it is impossible to describe what they were— to see them in an advanced stage of decay; to know that that loathsome smell issued from those lips— was horrible! It seemed as though Nature took a horrid delight in spoiling, as quickly as possible, the loveliness she had made. I felt the horror, oh so greatly. It seemed to take a material form, and entered my frame as a sheet of ice, and completely enshrouded my heart. But it left me wiser, calmer.
I now saw the necessity for removing the corpse, and consigning it to a proper grave. Outside the hut, in the soft sand, I dug one, and then returned to bring her forth. I put my hand upon her eyelid to cover those eyes through which the vile matter seemed to ooze, when, to my inexpressible horror, it gave way beneath the weight of my finger, and showed a fearful sight.
I bound the body in all the blankets and canvas I could find, and bore her out into the open. Poor, poor Zina! she could not even have a coffin.
I placed her upon the brink of the grave, sprang into it myself, and lifted her in carefully. I laid her as tenderly as I could, with the pillow from the hut as a rest for her head.
For some time I looked down wistfully into the grave. I had not courage to throw the sand upon her. How could I hide in the cold earth, for ever, that form? When the knowledge of the necessity for doing so flashed across my mind I picked up a handful of sand and scattered it over her canvas shroud. “Ashes to ashes!” I gave her a burial. There were no weeping relatives around her tomb—no priest to send a prayer for her soul, but at that instant the sun shone out—God was watching. I knelt on the brink of her lone grave, and, with my eyes fixed into the blue sky above, gave the only prayer I knew—“Our Father.” And I thought that everything grew brighter. I then seized my spade and threw some sand into the pit.
The noise it made as it fell on the canvas heap sounded like a dull knell. It was like throwing it on my own heart.
At last my task was done, the sand heaped up in the usual form of graves, and Zina had found her last home. I made my way back to the hut, but oh, how terribly different everything seemed. She was no longer there—that was a world in itself. I should no more hold her hand, nor see her face—-not her face as I last saw it—no, it was not then, but when she was beautiful with life, in Missolonghi—that was the only face I saw.
I could not bear to stay within the hut for any length of time, for when I entered it a thousand horrid shadows seemed always to flit around me, grin hideously into my face, and come so close that their fiery eyes scorched it, and in the very wildness of my despair I would rush shrieking from the place and throw myself upon her grave, and there I always found consolation. It seemed as though a Divine breath of peace and comfort hung continually over that mound of sand; for, immediately I threw myself upon it, my agony would cease, and a beautiful calm rest upon my soul.
I know not how I lived—I know not how the sun shone, or the night passed. Stretched upon her grave, I scarcely noticed day from night. I had become almost inanimate. One solitary thought was all my brain seemed possessed of—one thought alone kept me alive and told me that I was living (cursed fate), that she was dead—that all was over between us—that never again would we view each other— perhaps not even in the hereafter.
A terrific and terrible longing now seized me—the longing to behold her once more, to once more look upon her face and satisfy myself that all was not a horrid dream. My conscience did not upbraid me for what I was about to do. No qualms at the horror of my thought assailed me, or if they did they vanished almost as soon as they arrived.
I must see her! I must know whence all this strangeness comes. I cannot live with this terrible suspense on my soul. My brain had now become excited to a terrible pitch, and my only thought was to see her as soon as possible. I seized with insane fury a spade that was lying beside me and vigorously commenced to clear out the grave. The sand being soft and yielding, I quickly threw it out, and soon my spade grated on her canvas shroud. An inexpressible feeling of horror crept over me as the iron blade scraped with a ghastly noise this canvas. Cold shivers ran over my body and forced themselves into my head, where they seemed to freeze my brain. The perspiration dropped from my brow on to the shroud, with a hollow, sickening sound, which seemed to say that nought was left of body within those ghastly bounds.
I then commenced to scrape tenderly the sand from its sides, and soon had it ready to lift to the surface. Should I look upon it now—or wait?
For many minutes I stood staring down at the huge misshapen form at my feet, thinking, and yet not thinking, for my senses seemed to have deserted me one by one, and yet I knew that I was looking at the shroud that enveloped my Zina.
But suddenly an immense terror flashed upon me. The hideousness of my action rushed over my soul. I felt afraid, and leaping out of the grave I hurriedly filled it in. What followed I can scarcely say. Whether I rushed back to the hut, or whether I wandered about the island, I know not; I only know I found my way back to her grave (if I had ever left it), and there, pillowing my head on the mound I fell into a deep sleep, during which I dreamed a terrible dream. It was a vision of my life.
I beheld in succession the principal events of my unhappy existence. The war for liberty—Missolonghi —Zina—the carriage and horses—her sweet gratitude —our first strange talk—the love we plighted in the olive groves—her noble sacrifice to save me from pain —my despair—my jealousy!
The queen of night—our reconciliation, and then the opera—and then—and then a terrible feeling crept over me. I seemed possessed of a thousand demons, who instilled within my breast their thousands of sins, till I became a burning mass of evil.
I now found myself transported to a garden. It was the duke’s. I passed along the verandah into the conservatory, and then followed my fearful crime. God help her—and me!
Then came plainly before my eyes my departure from the house with her body—my strange journey in the boat—the landing—my life inside the hut with the corpse—and then the nauseous vapour that came from her decaying form—and then her burial.
It is to this dream I mostly owe the return of my memory.
Here I arose from my sepulchral couch, and began to walk slowly along the valley of which I before have spoken.
I wandered along for some time with my head bent towards the ground, thinking with almost maddening emotions of my awful doom—her awful doom! My poor, poor Zina! One of the most beautiful flowers that ever bloomed on this dull earth! One of the fairest souls that ever shone was gone! And I—I above all men in the world, was the wretched cause.
I have attempted too often to describe my feelings —I shall not do so again. Words, at least my words, fall too short, can give you no idea.
The night now crept on. The stars beamed forth from their azure home, and anon the moon peeped from behind the rocks above me, and with its streams of silver flooded the valley below. It was a weird, solemn sight, and was in perfect harmony with my spirit. Enveloped in the beaming rays that poured around, I stood and peered tremblingly into the rocks that rose frowning on each side of me, for a strange feeling now possessed me. I seemed to be no longer alone. My soul told me that something was near, and yet nothing was perceptible. I felt the presence of a moving thing. I knew that something trod the path beside me. I seemed to hear the noise of a body gliding, and yet I was alone. Alone with the moonlight streaming on me, and the deep emotions that came crowding on my brain.
I still pursued my winding route along the valley. The ground got higher as I advanced, so that, after walking for some time, I found myself on a lofty eminence which commanded an extensive view of the sea and shore. Here, upon a huge mass of granite that towered boldly above the surrounding rocks, I sat me down and surveyed, with calm despair, the ghostly scene.
The wind now blew with great force from the sea, and, tearing along the valley, shrieked dreadfully. Each fresh wail made my heart leap, and my blood almost freeze in my veins. It sounded as though some spirit was suffering immortal agony. Such a cry Prometheus might have uttered as “heaven’s winged hound” tore piece by piece his heart. I could not but think that Zina’s soul was crying to me in the wind.
“Oh, God!” I shrieked, “what can it mean? Is my life to be so dark, so terrible, so void of one glimpse of happiness? If Thou art inflexible, I ask not mercy hereafter, but grant me peace now—only peace!”
And with eyes turned heavenwards I gazed steadfastly on a star that twinkled in the western sky. When I had finished my mad appeal it for a moment stood motionless, then blazed forth with a fierce light —and died away.
Had God forsaken me?
I closed my eyes and wept. Long, long did I weep, but tears brought me no comfort, no hope. I sprang to my feet, mad with heaven, myself, and all the world. In that brief space a hell raged through my soul. I was—but what is this?
As I opened my eyes, standing, or rather floating, in the air above me was a white, shadowy form. I fell back as one struck with a heavy blow. My senses seemed to suddenly freeze. By degrees the airy vision transformed itself into a more human shape. The form and face seemed to develop into huge proportions. It was Zina, my Zina, but oh, so changed, so fearful. Her eyes resembled two glaring moons, whose hollow light seemed to enter me and wither my soul. Her figure expanded till it stretched over me like a huge cloud. But most horrible of all sights! On her left side I saw a huge, red hole, from which a stream of blood continuously rushed. I could also see the quick heavings of the heart, for it was exposed to view. Gradually they grew slower and slower, and then stopped dead. The stream of blood also ceased. Then followed a moment of horrible contortions.
The immense figure seemed convulsed with pain. Agony seemed to rack it to pieces. The huge hole in its side, which a second before was red with blood, was now frightfully livid.
And then I saw—aye, as I stand before you now— I saw its soul take flight!
It was not of the shape of man, of insect, or of animal. I have never seen anything by which I could describe it to you, but that it was its soul there could be no doubt, for as it passed away in the air something seemed to say to me, “Behold, there is a soul!”
Then from forth the wound dozens of horrid shapes seemed to flit. They uttered fearful cries—the air was filled with pestilence—and a sickening odour almost overpowered me. They wheeled round several times in the air, then shrieking a gleeful shout, the ferocity of which made my heart cower, they darted off in the direction the soul had taken. What could it mean? A noise in the air cut short the query I could have answered only too well. I turned my eyes upwards, and beheld the soul darting through the air. It shone like a great star, and seemed to flutter with excitement. It was coming towards me with the rapidity of lightning. Far in its rear, shooting with a pace as quick, came a dark cloud, whose intense blackness threw a gloom over the heavens. The soul now shot past me. The strange form I saw come from the livid wound had now transformed itself into her shape. Her face was sad, oh, so sad. Her star-like eyes flashed on me such a glance. They too were sad—like an angel’s. Then she peered behind at the approaching dark cloud, and vanished into space. Before I could collect my thoughts the howling cloud was over me. A thousand frightful demons, vomiting forth flame and smoke, with fiery eyes, and outstretched murderous claws, formed the huge cloud that was chasing her sweet soul. But ah, they would chase in vain. Their fearful shrieks spoke of disappointment. Heaven was opening its gates to that poor lone thing. Refuge would be given. And as they passed out of sight and sound I threw myself upon the rock, and rendered unto heaven a prayer. And then I either fell asleep—or fainted, I don’t know which, but I was transported on a fair white cloud, far from this desolate earth, to a place where all was life and light. Here I was surrounded by twelve men, all noble and patriarchal in appearance, and to them I put questions, which they answered, not in their own words, but in those of the Scripture, it apparently being the language used among them. I guessed where I was, yet was afraid to ask.
I spoke of Zina, and the eldest of the twelve, a noble old man, with a head of living silver, stepped forth and exclaimed in a slow, yet beauteous tone—
“There is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, than ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance.”
The recollection of that great mercy and goodness fell on my soul like the sweetest of balms. Then in a voice of ecstasy I cried—
“Then this is— ”
The light turned to darkness. I awoke with a start. I had been dreaming of heaven in the midst of a terrible storm on earth.
* * * * * * * * *
Here the old man ended abruptly. We stood for some time gazing at him, but he did not speak again. The rest is quickly told. He was found fainting on the steps of Notre Dame, and carried to the hospital, where the recital of his strange story caused him to be immured as a lunatic. How he reached Paris, or how he spent the major portion of his life, can never be known. From my own inquiries, I have found that such a family as his did live in Missolonghi, but no one at present living there knew what had become of them. In several of the country districts in the south of Germany, I had heard of an old Greek who used to sing his own compositions in the streets, and hint occasionally at the story of some strange crime, but they knew nothing more. Something told me it was Zantha.
Let me turn to the last scene.
After he had finished his narrative, we thanked him exceedingly, and departed. As soon as we were free of the place, I shook myself as of a sorrow.
Paul turned to me—
“Well, what do you think of him?”
“Is he mad, Paul?” I asked.
“If you can believe his story, no; if you cannot, yes!”
Such was the strange way he answered me.
About ten o’clock that evening, as we sat smoking and discussing the peculiarities of Zantha’s case, a messenger came from the asylum with a note for Paul. It was from one of the doctors.
Zantha was dying.
“Let us go,” said Rochlet, and we put on our hats and coats, called a conveyance, and drove to the hospital.
On arriving we found that the old man was indeed in an extremely low state. They said he could not recognise any of them, and seemed to be sinking fast. Paul went up to him and took his hand—
It was the same voice, the same softness, the same sweetness. The old fellow opened his eyes, and a pleased expression spread over his livid features. He knew a friend was near, but who it was he could not tell. Presently his eyes opened wider, and he said in a soft, childish tone—
“Why have you put out the light?”
When told that the light was burning, he said— “Then I must be dying. Good-bye all—good-bye friend Paul, and may God bless you.”
And as the asylum bell was tolling the hour of midnight, the soul of Zantha was winging its way to its Creator.
by the same author
It was in the year 18—that I returned to England, after a sojourn of five years on the Continent, where I had gone to pursue with more advantage —as I thought—my studies. The alchemists of old had made a strong impression on me as a boy, and I was even wild enough to follow in their footsteps when a man. Fortune had blessed me with no inconsiderable income, which allowed me to undertake whatever pleased my fancy most. But it was not an idle fancy that made me take chemistry for a subject; I really loved it, and my whole soul went into my work. Besides, I was considered by some old, long-headed German professors to be remarkably clever in the science. My transmuting process was once almost crowned with success, and but one flaw held the supreme mastership from me. That flaw I was determined to attempt to remedy.
After arriving in London I was neither pleased with it nor myself. I felt the want of something, what—I could not tell, but an indescribable feeling seemed always to gain an ascendency over me; my mind was restless and would not allow me to work, and yet it was for ever upbraiding me for my negligence. I felt that in each hour I wasted wandering along the streets some great secret might have been discovered— some clue come to light through deep research. My grand study was the one thought that pervaded my mind from dawn to dark. It worked itself clearly and distinctly before my fancy even in London’s crowded streets, midst all the gaiety and rabble of thousands, and yet I would not settle down to earnest work. I wanted quietness, though in reality one can be as isolated in a great city, if one pleases, as in a forest. Still I thought the pure air of the country would be preferable, and I, for certain, would not be so likely to get disturbed. While another thing that favours the country is that we know we are in the midst of quietness, though our feelings may not share it; yet by degrees the soul will become influenced by its surroundings. I likewise wanted to be within a few miles of the City, so that I could at any time drop into the Museum or Library, for these are institutions indispensable to the plodding student.
After searching for nearly a week, I found a very quaint, old-fashioned, solitary-looking house in the village of T—, on the borders of Hadley Woods.
It was some little distance from the village, encompassed by a large garden full of huge cypress and other dismal-looking trees. The ivy had crept all over the house, till it resembled a habitation cut out of leaves. There was a pond in the desolated garden, which might have gleamed with loveliness once; but now it was full of weeds, and the thick, green water gave it an ugly appearance, while to preserve the harmony a huge frog gave a terribly large croak every alternate minute. Everything about the place looked as melancholy as the tomb. The surroundings pleased me immensely. My heart’s desires were realised. It was near London, and below it stretched the beautiful woods, where I pictured to myself many a pleasant walk. But the strangeness of the place charmed me most. It was quiet—almost to death.
I made all arrangements with the housekeeper, who was a very pleasant, shrivelled-up-looking old soul. Her face was yellow, but clean, her apron was as white as snow, and she wore a very smart cap which she had coquettishly stuck a little on one side. She promised to make me comfortable and look after my interests, and I believe she would have done so had not unforeseen events separated us. I told her I would send my baggage the next day, and perhaps follow it myself. We parted excellent friends, for I found her, mentally, a very superior old woman.
The next afternoon saw my baggage arrive, as promised, but it was not till the day after that I became installed in my new quarters. I then made a thorough survey of the house, which I found suited me admirably. My study was all that could be desired. Several of my books and instruments were already spread out, and my thoughtful old housekeeper had made a splendid fire, which gave things a very cosy appearance. The bed-room was old-fashioned, but that alone, I was certain, would not debar me from sleeping soundly. There was nothing exquisite or beautiful in the drawing-room to mark it from others of ordinary pretentions; but a very curious grand piano which stood opposite the door could not help striking the eye the moment on entering. The legs of this instrument had the most fantastic devices in the way of horrible heads, hissing snakes, and all imaginable creeping vermin. The candles were placed in the mouths of two ferocious-looking reptiles. The music-stand was composed of two lizards, whose teeth, worked by a spring, held securely the open leaves; while at each end of the keyboard the monstrous head of an alligator grinned horribly at the player. The top and sides of the instrument were covered with the same hideous designs; and so, to make it more realistically ghostly, each object was painted with its living colours. When I first saw the piano it presented such a frightful appearance that I did not like to look at it. The thing had begun to decay, so, as a natural course, everything was discoloured, while some parts of it were rotten. For instance, the alligator’s gums and throat had all lost their original colour, whilst many of the teeth had disappeared altogether, which did not make these objects by any means delightful to gaze at.
The housekeeper told me that it was brought from Germany by an eccentric English nobleman, who eventually had to part with it himself, and it had been standing in this same place for five-and-twenty years. The individual who carved this mass of beauty had, no doubt, a great idea of the grotesque, which must have raised him almost to sublime insanity when he saw the creatures of his brain stuck up to music.
I sat down and touched lightly the old yellow keys, but not a sound came from them: which did not surprise me much on taking appearances into consideration. It was with the greatest difficulty that I got anything like a tune out of it, and to make it sound decently for ten minutes together was quite a feat of manual labour. I felt certain there could not be an instrument, in any part of the world, with more discordant sounds in it than that old piano. It only seemed fit to jerk out noises that were in keeping with the reptiles about it; and one could almost believe that they themselves had got the music made to order.
I soon rose up from my curious friend, nor did I feel as though I wished to renew its acquaintance again for some time. “So,” said I to myself, “there’s an end to music.” The day quickly passed, for I spent the time in looking over things, and arranging my books and crucibles.
I was determined, as I had now a quiet spot, to work night and day to discover the great secret for which the alchemists of old toiled so hard. If I were successful? The thought almost maddened me! But had I not a little success? and success, no matter how small it may be, stimulates the energies to work till the soul takes pity on the brain, and Heaven guides the mortal along the road of triumph. I could scarcely hope for my exertions to be crowned with victory, and yet I dared to do so, for I had skill, and when a man knows he possesses more than ordinary talent there is really only one light by which he views his undertakings, and that is the brightest. Eight o’clock saw me hard at work, and in all probability three would, too, if nothing happened.
It was a cold night. I could hear the wind blowing fiercely, and the rain as it beat with tremendous force against the window-panes. I pitied all poor devils out in it from the bottom of my heart, but I had a great fire roaring in my own chimney, and, like other comfortable Christians, I but gave them a passing thought.
It was a glorious night to start my mysterious science. The howling elements seemed to keep beautiful time with my excited soul. As the steam escaped from the crucibles it seemed to take the tint of gold, shadowy, but yet gold. I gazed with ecstasy on the bubbling metal, and thousands of wild, vague fancies swept in burning clouds through all my brain. I was no longer of the earth. Thought bore me on its wings through regions where my hopes and joys were real. All the elements seemed to smile on my enterprise, and even the atmosphere, through which I sailed, grew gradually into a golden tint, till I (such is the power of thought) moved with an easy motion midst a new and glorious world. Even the fearful sequel to my golden dream has not, nor can it ever, efface from my memory the delicious rapture of that vision. The clock on the mantelpiece striking twelve recalled me to my senses.
The lamp flickered, whilst the fire seemed to go dull of a sudden; my frame turned cold as though an invisible sheet of ice enveloped me. I shivered and trembled horribly. All at once there came, slowly stealing upon my ear, a low, mournful, wailing chord of music. I started violently; my heart almost stood still: I then rose from my chair, shook myself, and tried to laugh—but it was in vain, the attempt ended in a dry unnatural chuckle. I listened quietly again but not a sound could I hear. “What a fool I am,” said I to myself, stamping my foot, “to be startled at a mere sound! Heavens, I shall soon be getting afraid to sit with my crucibles after dark.” Saying this I threw myself with a vicious jerk into the chair, determined that I would drive the strangeness from me by hard study. Scarcely had I seated myself, and begun to try, when once more I heard the same melancholy, ghostly cadence. But what was the most surprising part, it seemed to come direct from the drawing-room where the Old Piano was kept.
I first thought it was the wind, for the sound rose and fell with that soughing noise which we hear when the wind drops from anger to sadness. Never dreaming of aught being wrong, I easily convinced myself that it must be the wind, though at the same time wondering how in the name of everything it could create such sounds. I had heard the wind in Alpine passes; I had heard it in forests; I had heard it on the seas; but never had I heard it so terribly like human agony before. I turned from my studies, and threw myself into an arm-chair before a few dying coals. There I listened with a beating heart to these wild-wind strains, which now rose almost angrily, now died away in a convulsive wail. I vow that I was one of the least superstitious of beings, but I then believed that some wretched soul was casting its woe upon the world. Still the sound kept on! still I listened to it! Thinking, thinking, as the coals died out spark by spark.
I must have fallen asleep in my chair, or rather, dozed off. I woke up with a bound; my room was in darkness: but a noise came up from below, terrible in its wild hysterical wails. The Old Piano seemed to howl and shriek with pain and agony. Peal on peal of demoniacal laughter came rushing up, confused with the most horrible sounds that ever assailed mortal ear. Moans, groans, shrieks, yells, cries—all that was necessary to denote the presence of hell, seemed to fill the house.
Gradually the sounds grew louder, louder, the wails more harrowing and terrible, till they reached an unbearable fury. Then, of a horrid sudden, the noise stopped—so quickly that the quietness was far more terrible than the awful confusion.
My clock struck one.
I was in darkness; my heart had almost stopped beating; cold drops of perspiration stood out on my brow; my limbs shook, as one with palsy; I was not certain that I was not mad. I lit a candle. There were my books and instruments lying on the table as I had left them. The lamp had gone out—that was natural—I had not watched it. The fire had burnt out—there was nothing strange in that. Then flashed the thought across me—could I have been dreaming? Was all I heard but the phantasy of nightmare? I knew that I had heard these sounds. Stay, was I certain? Did I really hear those improbable and impossible strains—those strains that could but come from another world? Those strains that—oh, ridiculous —came from that old piano? And yet, to satisfy myself, I took the candle in my hand and descended to the drawing-room, not without—I must confess— a little fear.
Everything was the same as I had seen it before I retired to my study. The old piano looked so wretched and dilapidated that I almost laughed. Yes! I must have been dreaming was the only reasonable conclusion I could come to. I sat down to the old instrument and beat it as hard as I dared, but very, very meagre were the sounds it gave forth. It was a strange dream, thought I to myself, but a dream it must have been. Returning to my study I listened, listened, but no sound reached me. Not even a leaf seemed to quiver. All was quiet and peaceful. It was the calm after the storm. I gradually fell off into a sleep, which for length of time was great, but which likewise was one long, uneasy doze.
I slept very late into the next morning, and on rising found my limbs to be weak and trembling. I felt like a man recovering from a short illness. I longed, with all the ardour of a child, to tell the old housekeeper what had passed during the night, but I was foolish and sensitive enough to think that she might laugh at my childish superstitions, and as I rather flattered myself to a little knowledge, I was determined, if possible, not to display a little ignorance. If uncertainty hovers o’er our mind, we certainly cannot do a wiser thing than keep it to ourselves. And to say to a sensible being, that the old piano, which he or she knows, played wild ghostly tunes in the night, would be but to pronounce yourself a madman. For what rational being would we get, in these intelligent times, to think for one moment that such a thing were possible. Besides I was scarcely convinced myself, for although I felt sure that I had heard the sounds, yet the whole affair was so improbable and unnatural to me, when I came to consider it, that I abandoned the idea of conveying my impressions to a single soul, without further proof.
A good part of that day I spent in examining the windows, doors, and general surroundings of the place, all of which I found perfectly snug and secure. There was one ventilator that had got a little out of working order, but not enough to allow a gale of wind to enter and create the furious tumult of last night. The tiles of the chimneys were very small, and the roof had scarcely a flaw in it. In fact, everything I looked at so plainly denied what I would have, that I was beginning to doubt the sanity of my own mind.
Indoors there was nothing I could see capable of making such a noise. The Venetian blinds, I was certain, could not possibly do it, supposing that a gale of wind did blow through them. Truly, there was an old cat—standing on the brink of the grave—that had lost one eye and a joint of its front paw; but it I had never seen stir from off a small table that stood near the fire-place. It was not black, nor had it red eyes, so I felt pretty sure that it at least was not the devil. I went through that day like one in a dream. Now up in my study; now down in the drawing-room; now interrogating the cat; but never an answer gave it to my fiercest questions. It slept them out with tantalising complacency. Then out I would go and walk furiously up and down the weedy path. Once, an insect (what sort I don’t know) flew past my face and gave a very impudent buzz. I threw my hat at it; down it came; I killed it; I thought it might be the devil; but even the execution of this unknown insect did not make me feel one jot better. So after a whole day’s worry, I found that I was not the slightest bit wiser, but a thousand times more troubled.
The night came round once again. At ten o’clock I saw myself that the doors and windows were properly secured. I locked the piano carefully, put the key in my pocket, and for further security, placed two large books and several other things on it; at the same time calling myself all the fools and idiots that I could think of. There is no doubt that I made rather more of this affair than I ought; but the idea of a person coming from the other world, and in what shape I could not even guess, naturally made me look out for some blood-curdling object.
It was now midnight. The clock must have struck, although I did not hear it, for I was letting some molten copper flow from one of my crucibles, when I suddenly felt a terrible coldness pervade my whole being. The copper turned solid in a second, and the light spluttered as though a dewy shower were falling on it. I felt my heart stop beating. My blood seemed turned to ice. I was as cold as death. I lifted my hand two or three times before my eyes: yes! I was awake! I had not dreamt, but all was real. Slowly, and yet too horribly distinct, the weird notes once more floated across me. How terrible they were; they seemed to enter me and shrivel up my soul. I tried to rise from my chair, but only sank fainting. When I awoke, my room was again in darkness, and my fire out. The clock was striking two. Trembling, sick, and tired, I crept off to my bed, and I—yes, I prayed.
Next morning I woke up not feeling at all happy. My brain seemed dull, my limbs felt a little weak, and on the whole, I was most surprisingly out of sorts. I bathed my head with cold water till it became painful. I felt as though I had visited the infernal regions, instead of only hearing remarkable sounds. Descending to the drawing-room, I found that all was the same as I had left it last night. The old piano was locked and the two large books, etc., that I had put on it, were in their proper places. The one-eyed cat still stretched at full length on the table; nor did it take the slightest notice of my entering. I was completely at a loss to understand things. I was bewildered! When my housekeeper brought me my breakfast I was no longer ashamed of my suspicions, for I was sure that something was not right. As she came in, I said:—“Do you know, Mrs. B—, that I have heard some most remarkable sounds in this house, these two nights? It seemed as though somebody was playing the old piano, but yet the strains were so unnatural and ghostly, that I have become quite startled.”
As I said this, the poor old soul turned as white as her yellow skin would allow her. “Good lord, sir!” she gasped out, “Did you hear it?”
“I did,” said I, now thoroughly interested, for the poor old woman had sunk down in a chair, and seemed quite moved.
“Then it was true,” she said, “And he was not mad.”
“Who was not mad? and what is true?” said I, glowing with interest: for anything concerning the strange sounds was to me, in my present state, everything.
“I will tell you, sir,” she said, “It was a horrible thing, too horrible to repeat; but since you, sir, have heard the same noise, there must be some truth in it. It is nearly three years ago since I came to take care of this place. For nearly a year before that it had been empty. People said it was haunted, and no one would come near it after nightfall. In the day time, some boy, bolder than the rest of his companions, would go up and peep through the gate, just one hurried, frightened glance, then fly back as fast as he could, and tell his friends he had seen or heard the ghost. In the night time they would not pass on this side of the road for a world of gold. It was always on the other; and even then they would give one terrifying glance at the windows, hold their heads down, and (if the frogs in the pond happened to croak) bound away as fast as their legs would carry them. When I applied to the owner for leave to take care of this house, he told me of what people said, but, sir, I never believed in spirits, for I always thought that if a soul went to heaven, it would be extremely foolish to want to come back again to such a place as this earth; and, if it went the other way, the sable monarch might not be over-fond of allowing his subjects to depart from his realms; unless, sir, this world is a part of his dominions. Besides, I know that ghosts never come about till midnight, and if I could just fall a little to sleep, all the ghosts in the world might come and dance downstairs, and they’d never wake me. For as you must know by this time, I am rather hard of hearing. Well, sir, I came, and although I have been here nearly three years, I have never heard a noise.”
“Yes, yes, I understand,” said I. “But what about the man who wasn’t mad?”
“Would you like to hear the story now, sir, or wait till—?”
“No, no, tell it now by all means,” I said, drawing my chair round that I could see her better.
She carefully smoothed down her apron, set her cap the slightest little bit on one side, settled herself comfortably in the chair, and began.
It is now four years ago since a man named James J— came with his little daughter (as he called her), and a housekeeper, to reside in this place. It was not known whether he had an income or not, or whether he did any work. About three times each week he would go away in the morning and return again the same night at hours unknown to his neighbours. He was not a gentleman, nor yet was he a working man. Nobody ever came to see him, nor was he known to speak to any one outside his house. As the time flew on, the people who live round here (whom I must say, sir, are a common lot) began to whisper things of him far from pleasing. He was a big, tall man with a full black beard, shaggy eyebrows, and piercing black eyes. The little boys would get off the footpath to let him pass, and stare curiously at him from the road. Once he stopped to ask them the way to a certain place, but instead of answering him, they turned round, and bawling, fled along the road with all their might. A beautiful little golden-haired child had been seen in the garden on several occasions, and of course the mystery grew greater, whilst the curiosity swelled to an alarming extent.
“The only person who gained admittance to this house then was Ethel Vane. She lived about a mile from here and came to teach the little girl music. Twice a week her sweet face and form were seen coming from the wizard’s house (as some of them used to call it). When asked by any of the curious neighbours what the people were like, or what she saw in the house, she always made answer that the owner was a very nice, kind man, and the child a little angel. They would shake their heads and mutter, ‘Little Angel, more like a little demon he has made assume a pleasing form to beguile you.’ And from that time the innocent little pet came in for a terrible share of their hatred. So, as she could tell them nothing they would like to hear, they had to remain without information, till one day they were startled by the report of an action, that made them shiver from head to foot.
“It seems—I speak now, sir, from the confession James made himself—that Ethel had not gone many times to his house before he began to conceive a liking for her, which grew stronger every time they met. But, sir, although neighbours are always too curious and inquisitive, and over fond of minding other peoples’ business, yet they had struck pretty near his true character. He was a bad man. He had, as I said before, conceived a liking for her, which grew into a great passion, but it was an evil one in which no good thought ever came.
“Every time now that Ethel attended the child, James was sure to be about, and have a few words with her. His first action towards his desired goal was in buying a piece of popular music, which he begged her to accept, and which she, after much pressing, did. From that time he would sit in the room right through the child’s lesson, and allow his tongue far too much freedom, in the way of remarks, which were not too refined or polite. He would then ask her to play, and in turning the music, would lean over her, till his beard mingled with her hair, and often he would let his hand fall purposely on hers. The poor girl used to get terrified out of her life; but as he paid two guineas a quarter (double her usual terms), and she had to support an invalid mother, she with a great effort bore it, and entered the “wizard’s house” as regularly as usual, but with a heart that beat till it almost sickened her. You see, sir, what people can put up with when necessity compels.
“And so things went on some time, till one day he was so rude to her, that she burst out crying and fled from the house, determined never again to enter it. What it was he said or did she did not even tell her mother, so it is impossible for me to tell you, sir! She had stayed away more than a week, when one Friday morning she received a letter from him, saying that he was extremely sorry if he had in the slightest way offended her, but that he meant marriage, and although he may have proposed in a rough, rude fashion, still he could swear before God and man that his intentions were honourable. He hoped that she would not discontinue instructing his daughter, and to save her any inconvenience, as far as his presence went, he promised that she should never again see his face, or if she would not continue to give lessons he entreated her, as a great favour, to call once more, just to see his little girl and say good-bye to her, for she wept often and cried for Miss Vane.
“This insidious letter took poor Ethel and her mother by surprise. Pity at once for the fair-haired child entered their breasts, and although both despised and detested James to the utmost degree, yet, after much talking, they said that there could be little harm in one more visit. Ay, sir, it’s that ‘one more’ that ruins the world, for past success tempts us to future, and nine times out of every ten we fall. The philosopher and poet will work out their brains; the sculptor will lose the cunning of his hand; the burglar will steal till he is caught; the murderer will murder till he is hanged. Ah! Ethel, it was cruel of Heaven to let thee walk to thy doom without one little warning.
“Well, sir, as I said, it was a Friday morning, such a day as this,—ay, this, too, is Friday—the sun shone beautifully then, but between three and four o’clock a terrific storm broke all over the country. It became horribly dark and cold, the thunder rolled so terribly that the earth seemed to shake like the sea; gleam on gleam of lightning lit the darkness with terrible brilliancy; the wind sighed as though it were faint and weary with the oppression of its own weight; then it roared, screamed, and shrieked, as though of a sudden it had burst its airy bounds and gone mad with its freedom; then the long suspended rain came down in tremendous volumes, and soon the whole face of the country was flooded. Whether it was God’s anger or not, sir, I don’t know; but all this happened on the day that one of the foulest crimes man ever did was committed.
“And the fact of it being Friday lends additional interest to people who are inclined to be superstitious. When I first came here the neighbours all studiously avoided doing anything with the slightest bit of danger in it on that day, nor would they allow their children out of their sight—although it would have been a blessing if some of them had disappeared.
“Well, poor Ethel, with a wildly beating heart, lifted the latch of the garden gate and came slowly up that path there. The little girl met her at the door and covered her with tears and kisses, delighted that she should be back again. Ethel was fond of the child, and hardly knew how to tell her that she had come to say good-bye. But after talking with her for some time she said, ‘And now, my darling, I must begone; you won’t see me again, for I am going to leave off coming to teach you.’
“‘You surely won’t do that, Miss Vane,’ said a deep sarcastic voice behind her.
“She sprang up, and there stood James leering insolently into her face. She turned on him with flashing eyes. ‘Sir, you have broken your promise; I will have no conversation with you!’ and she made towards the door. He quickly placed himself before her.
“‘Stop,’ he said, in an excited tone, ‘You must!’ and his eyes shone with fearful light. He then roughly ordered the child out of the room, locked the doors, and confronted her.
“We can imagine, sir, what the poor girl’s feelings were like. God keep me from ever being in such a situation. Well, sir, first he spoke of marriage, but she would not listen to him; she begged him to allow her to go, but he would not; she became indignant, and he offensive. He next made overtures to her, seized her and kissed her passionately; threw a handful of gold on the table all to tempt—but all was vain. By force he accomplished his desires; and to further secure himself from the law, he (while she was yet unconscious) carried her to the entrance of the woods and deliberately cut her throat. He did not wish to have a trace of the crime about his premises; and his idea was to get rid of the body in the night. But Heaven, though it looked on and saw the crime committed, would not allow it to escape detection. For, perhaps not half an hour after the murder, the body of one of the sweetest maidens in this country was discovered not quite cold.
“Like lightning the news spread of the murder, and people pointed at once to the occupant of this house. When the policemen came to arrest him on suspicion, he was found reading the Bible, and tears were trickling down his cheeks. The police smiled grimly, and adjusted the bracelets to his wrists, and he was marched off amongst the hisses and groans of the people. When he was informed that Ethel Vane was dead, he professed the utmost sorrow, and wept like a child, but when he was told the state she was found in he cried aloud:—‘Oh, my affianced wife, my beautiful Ethel! have they robbed you of life, have they taken you from me? Curse them, curse them, curse them!’ Here his boisterous lamentations seemed to choke him, and he could but gasp out a lot of maniacal sounds. He then sunk quiet, seeming overpowered with grief. Well, he was sent from here to be tried in the Old Bailey. The sessions were a week off. A little after twelve that night the warders were alarmed to hear terrible shrieks and groans coming from his cell. He was crying:—‘Light, light, oh God! Quick, quick, or I shall be in hell! I am sinking, sinking! give me your hand! Oh! take your throat away, it is bleeding yet! The blood falls on my face! It burns, burns, burns! Play no more, oh, play no more! I did not do it! It was you, it was you! Can’t you see my soul afire? Mercy, mercy, mercy!’ Then he fainted. He was quickly brought round, but no sooner came his senses again, than he started once more to rave:—‘Stop, stop, in the name of Heaven, pity! Come, that piano is hideous, it frightens me! I do not like that air; it’s horrible; it is death! Play something sweet! I love you, love you! Oh, turn that throat from me; it is too ghastly, too terrible! Listen, listen! I will give you all the gold in the world if you will love me! Heaps of pearls, mountains of diamonds shall be yours. What? Then I must— The razor is sharp! yes, yes, yes! It will do the work! No one will know! Since you will not love me, I must—Oh!’ As he gasped out this interjection the prison clock struck one. His madness forsook him with its stroke. He saw the warders looking at him with open eyes, and guessed he had done something.
“‘Well, has her throat stopped bleeding now?’ said one of the warders with a knowing wink; and as a small giggle came from his companions, he added:— ‘Another throat will soon be tampered with, but razors won’t have a say in it!’ Another giggle from his companions, and they again left the prisoner to darkness, and his darker thoughts. The hours of agony the wretched man must have spent were surely, in themselves, sufficient punishment for his horrible crime. That evening he went to his cell a great powerful man; the morning found him pale, weak, trembling, and almost silly.
“The second night he went mad again; saw the same vision; uttered the same wild things; and through the whole hour of midnight, he shrieked, groaned, cursed, cried for mercy in a most heart-rending voice; but no sooner did the clock strike the hour of one, than his reason returned, only to make him more wretched, more dejected. The third night was the same. On the morning of the fourth day he confessed all; and begged them to do away with his life at once; for his misery was more than mortal could bear. But, of course, in this country, whether a man is guilty or not, he must be tried, and it was not till nearly three weeks after his confession, that he appeared before his Maker to answer for his sins. Yes, sir, he was hanged, and thousands assembled to witness the execution. But, sir, it was cruel of them to keep him so long, for every night he saw this ghost, heard the music, went mad. And another strange thing was that Ethel Vane’s mother died on the same day, and in the same hour, as the murderer. They would confront each other before their Judge. That day was a Friday.
“And since then this house has got the name of being haunted, though not a soul ever came at midnight to find out. If it is visited by ghosts, they don’t trouble me; and therefore, why should I, in the name of reason, trouble them? I never heard what became of the little girl or the housekeeper—and that’s all I know about it—but, goodness, sir, you have let your chop and coffee go cold!”
“Never mind, Mrs. B—” said I, “I have enjoyed your story more than I would the food.” I need not say that, by the time that same story was finished, I had very little appetite for breakfast.
“So this is the cause of the sounds I have heard,” said I to myself, rising from my seat, “Can a ghost really visit this house?” I felt a strangely wonderful sensation pervade my frame. All was so terribly awful, and yet so apparently truthful! My housekeeper had told her story with an air of candour, unmixed with any degree of superstition. But why should I hear the sounds when the prison warders could not? True, the piano was in the house, and that was the only reason I could sensibly see. They thought the prisoner mad, and very likely would think the same of me, if I went and told them what I had heard. I knew that I was as sane as most people, but it is always easier to convince ourselves than others as to our intellectual possessions. I thought of packing up that very morning and bidding adieu to the horrible place, but my curiosity and half unbelief of the affair overcame everything else; and I determined to at least spend one more night there, and try and find out the mystery.
Study was a thing not to be thought of that day; so I lit my pipe, put on my hat, and went for a ramble through the wood. Everything seemed to teem with this restless spirit. I could hear the peculiar strains in the air, as the wind whistled through the leaves; the forked branches of the trees as they bent forth and back against the blue sky looked spectral; and I could even distinguish in the smoke, as it curled up from my pipe, the bleeding throat of the murdered girl. All my thoughts were centred on the visitations of this spectre, nor could I for one moment get the ghostly idea out of my head.
It is strange, what remarkable effect the possibility of beholding a ghost has upon us. We are not superstitious (in the full meaning of the word) in these times; and yet, superstitious to a degree we certainly are. For anything concerning the soul gives us a feeling within that all the physical tortures in the world could not. The ghost-story curdles the blood of the child, he feels that he sees the spectre, shivers with horror, and crouches closer to his mother’s side; opens his eyes with fright, while his cheek grows pale as death; he thinks, dreams of it, all is frightful reality. The man will laugh at the idea, as befits one now-a-days, but he cannot wholly forget that he was once a child; and so some childish imaginations will still cling to him, despite all. There is a great something about the idea, that has both fascinated the soul of the sage, and the child. But when one had heard such sounds, and such a story as I had, one could not help but doubt that there was “something rotten in the State of Denmark.”
Well, after much thinking, I resolved to secrete myself in the drawing-room, and find out whether all was phantasy or reality. My suspense was horrible, and I felt sure that a week of this style of living would make me a veritable lunatic. The old housekeeper never spoke another word of it during the day, and I did not feel like questioning her any more. About four o’clock that afternoon a terrible storm raged over the country; the thunder roared, the lightning flashed; and the rain descended in torrents. Everything was similar to the account of that eventful day, I learnt afterwards that that day four years ago the murder was committed. The night came on, slower by far than ever I remembered it to come before, the minutes seemed hours, the hours days. At half-past eleven I locked the doors and windows carefully; placed four large books on the piano; and having seen that everything was ready I got behind the window curtain near the door, and waited, scarcely daring to breathe. I thought by getting near the door I would be able to obtain a good view of the spectre as it entered from the passage, for I was fully convinced that I would see it, and not knowing whether it would be a brilliant one or not, I thought I would get as near as possible. At a quarter to twelve I took a long pull at my brandy flask, to prepare for the coming ordeal.
The wind howled and tore through the trees outside, till they seemed to groan with pain. It was a night suited to the wandering of the unquiet spirits of the other world. I shudder even now, when I think of the time I spent waiting and watching for the apparition. Suddenly I felt that horrible coldness once more come over me, and I involuntarily closed my eyes. In a brief space they opened again, and on peering through the curtain, I beheld a tall white shadowy form, slowly gliding to the old piano which was right opposite me. The figure was that of a young girl, and an abundance of golden hair flowed luxuriously over her shoulders. I could not see her face, nor could I move one step, or even raise my hand. I felt as though I had been suddenly turned to stone; my heart stopped beating; I was dead, in all but thought—it remained clear and distinct. I knew that I was in the presence of no earthly soul. I knew that this feeling which paralysed me was the contagion of death; I knew that the faint smell which pervaded the room was of the grave; I knew that cold perspiration was dropping with rapidity from my brow; I knew, to my indescribable agony, everything that was passing, yet I could not stir hand or foot, nor utter one sound. How I longed to faint—to be deprived of my senses, for then all would be oblivion—heaven alone can tell.
Now could I see the piano opened, for the spectre threw a dull, pale light from its form, which made things look more horrible and ghastly. The grinning jaws of the alligators gleamed hideously beneath the ghostly light. The many colours of the other serpents sparkled with terrible brilliancy. Everything seemed to glow to frightful life, till the whole piano shone one hissing mass of reptiles. And now came a low, soft wail, as though the soul of the spirit was melting in an agonising sorrow. Note on note of awful melancholy floated through the room. The air was pregnant with sadness and despair. Now would the instrument sigh as though its heart were breaking: now leap in agony, and shriek out its death-cry in terrible tones. Every chord that was struck seemed to leave me less and less of life, if such were possible! Meanwhile the sounds kept growing louder and louder. The soft, sorrowful notes changed into wild, shrill cries. The piano seemed to yell with fury. Shriek, shriek, shriek! as ghostly fingers touched the discoloured keys, and the rusty strings answered to the call with cries, which seemed as though a heart was torn with every stroke. Stream on stream of ghastly music howled through the room. I felt my soul bounding within me to keep time to the magic strains, which grew wilder and wilder every minute. In spirit I was dancing, dancing, dancing ’midst a crowd of invisible-souls. Shouts, shrieks, yells, wails—all assailed my ear. Faster, faster went the music; louder and louder grew the noise. Frightful bursts of horrid laughter filled the air. All was an awful, wild confusion. My soul was mad! I knew it! I felt it! And so through the long hour of midnight did this being of another world pour forth its spectral strains, which grew fiercer and fiercer as the morning drew near. The noise swelled, till the very house seemed to shake. Then of a sudden it ceased, ceased so quickly, that the effect was dreadful. With the last chord the wild excitement of the soul ceased too, and all was once more a deadly-cold reality.
I saw the spectre slowly rise. I knew now that I would see its face, and a thrill ran through me that seemed to tear my frame in two. Now more fascinated than ever I gazed upon the figure. It turned round. Oh, awful sight! There was a pale, sad, beautiful face, with large eyes that gleamed forth sorrow and pain, weariness, and woe. But the great gash in her throat stood open, and one could easily gaze into it. The head was merely held on by a piece of skin, and as she moved, the blood gushed from the wound. I tried to shriek! I could not! I tried to hide the sight; but all was vain. I saw it go slowly, slowly, to the couch. I knew what part that couch had played in the sad drama. The apparition now stood over it. I watched its face. A more sorrowful look overspread its features, and it seemed to weep. Then the face changed into a fierce, hateful sight; it grew black, and shone with all the wildest passions of hell. The angel’s head had changed into a demon’s, and then—oh, horrible to relate—the head fell off, and hung by the skin, while from the headless neck a torrent of blood rushed out which seemed to fill the room. I felt it suffocating me. I remember uttering one wild cry—no more. I had fainted.
When I came to myself I was in darkness. The clock was striking three. I felt cold and ill; I trembled like an old man. When I woke in the morning, I found my hair was almost grey, and in appearance I was ten years older.
* * * * * *
To be brief: I left that day, and sought a quieter spot in which I could pursue the grand study of my life. These experiences of mine are strange, but stranger things have happened.
Six months after that eventful night (for it took me fully three to recover from the shock to my nervous system), I called at the same village, but the house had been destroyed by fire shortly after I had left it.
None knew where the old housekeeper had gone; but they said that along with some of the things that were burnt, was a very curious Old Piano.
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