"PASSION BORN OF A GLANCE!"
With his rifle resting against his knee, its butt bedded in the moss, Erceldoune sat alone a few months later on, in the warm Turkish night, on the Bosphorus shores. He had been shooting sea-gulls, jackals, or a stray hill deer, if such came within range, through the last half of the day, whilst waiting for return despatches in Constantinople, and was now resting on a boulder of rock under a cypress, in his white burnous and sun-helmet, the Monarch, a fine English chestnut, straying loose at his side, a pile of dead game at his feet, and the starlight full on his face, as his eyes looked seaward thoughtfully.
A year had gone by since he had stood before the altar-piece in Monastica, and he was no nearer to either aim of his twofold quest. Power, patience, vigilance, inquiry—all had failed to bring him on the track of his assassins; masked nobles, reckless adventurers, political secret agents, whichever they were, they had had wit and wisdom to organise their plot so that no trace was left of it and them, and they were beyond all reach of justice, as it seemed, for ever. And of the woman, to whom his only clue was the fairness of her face, he had learned nothing. Shadowy, fugitive, lost in mystery, fantastic as a madman's dream, the hold she had gained upon his thoughts was so utterly foreign to them, that it was the stronger once admitted there. Speculation was wholly antagonistic to him—his nature was forcible, single, vigorous; that he acted greatly when great occasions arose, was due to the mould in which his character was naturally cast, not to any premeditation or previous contest and sifting of principles; he lived, as all hold men do, meeting accident or emergency as it came, content with the activity of the present, looking very rarely to anything past, never to anything future. To sift moral problems, to torture himself with theoretical questions, was what would no more have occurred to Erceldoune than to have sat twisting ropes of the Bosphorus sand; hence the poetic unreality of the memory which possessed him was so abhorrent and antagonistic to his whole temperament that it gave a deeper colouring to his life, once received, than it would have done to any other to which it had been less alien. Mental disquietude, moral tumult, were unknown to him; a shadowy pursuit, a speculative meditation, were no mere in consonance with his character than it would have been to study the stars for Chaldean knowledge of things obscure. Therefore it was with the stronger force and the more unbelief that Erceldoune felt that a well-nigh mythical mystery had power over him, and touched his heart, and stirred his thoughts, as no living woman had ever done through the varied course of his life.
So sacred had the vision of his ministering angel become to him, so intimately interwoven with holiness, loftiness, purity, with the compassion of the luminous eyes, and the hush of the convent solitudes where her picture hung, that to have seen her at the entrance of the Opera had given him a sharp and unwelcome recall to the fact of how utterly he followed—a phantom; how utterly he knew nothing of the woman who had wound herself into his thoughts.
The face which he had seen in the haze of golden light in what he had deemed his dying hour, the loveliness that he had found afresh, only afresh to lose it, in the softness of the Sicilian seas, among the heat, the noise, the maskers, the false brilliants, false flowers, false laces, false beauty of the Rigolbochade!—it gave Erceldoune a bitter revulsion. True there might be nothing in it to do so; she might go thither, not to the lawless whirl of the stage, but simply to the boxes as a spectator of the scene below; he knew this was common enough with the proudest and purest of women. Still, it revolted him; his memory of her» his belief in her, was as of a life as unlike, and as above the world, as the stars that shone now across the sea above the classic shores where old Olympus rose. It wad an instinct, an impulse, a folly, never analysed, only felt; but to think of her in the gas and throngs of the masked midnight gathering, had given him much each a shock as an artist, soul-devoted to his art, would feel if he could come suddenly on a Raphael or Correggio Madonna made the sign and centre of a riotous casino, or flung by a drunken soldier as worthless loot into the flames of a bivouac fire. This woman, all unknown though she was, had become the single poetic faith, the single haunting weakness of a passionate and earnest temperament, of a changeful and self-sustained life; to have seen her at the Bal de l'Opéra grated jarringly on both.
He thought of it now—and the thought was full of tempestuous pain to him; to find in her a leader of the artificial worlds of fashion; a coquette, worn, brilliant and chill as her own diamonds, with every smile a beautiful lie, with every glance a demand for accustomed homage, would be scarce better than to find in her one of the cancan worshippers of the Opera throng, a débardeur in rose and silver, laughing through her velvet mask of Venice! Of all places, of all hours, were there none in the width of the world, in the vastness of time, to have found her in at the last than at midnight in the Rue Lépelletier! Who was she? What was she?—this phantom which pursued him? He wondered restlessly, as he did often in lonely moments like these, while he sat looking down the Bosphorus as the lights gleamed in the distance among the oypress and orange groves of the city of the Moslem, and the far-off cry of the Imaum wailed deep and mournful through the silence, chanting the evening prayer of the Faithful.
As he sat thus he did not notice or hear a man approach him on horseback, riding slowly along the sea-shore, unarmed, and lightly chanting a little French air—a handsome, careless, graceful Greek, whose saddle reveries seemed of the lightest and brightest as he swayed a bunch of Turkish lilies idly in his hand. His roin mare's hoofs—she was a Barbary—sank noiselessly in the sands; and Erceldoune did not lift his head; he sat motionless under the cypress, resting on his rifle, with the starlight falling fitfully on the white folds of the Arab cloak and the Rembrandt darkness of his face, as his head was bent down and his eyes gazed seaward. The rider came nearer, the hoofs still noiseless on the loose soil; and the hummed song on his lips broke louder, till he sang the words dearly and mellowly on the air, in the mischievous truth of Dufresny's chanson:
"Deux époux dit un grand oracle,
Tout d'un coup deviendront heureax,
Quand deux époux, pas un miracle,
Pourront devinir veufs touts deux!"
The voice fell on Erceldoune's ear, rich, harmonious; soft as a woman's contralto—the voice that had given the word to "kill the Border Eagle." He started to his feet, flinging back his burnous; in the silvery silent Eastern night they met once more—and knew each other at a glance: there is no instinct so rapid and so unerring as the instinct of a foe. With an oath that rang over the silent seas, Erceldoune sprang forward, as lions spring, and covered him with his rifle; swift as an unconsidered thought, Phaunleon wheeled and dashed his spurs into his mare's flanks, which sprang off at a headlong gallop a hundred paces in advance by that second's start; in an instant the other caught at the loose rein of his English horse, flung himself into saddle at a leap; and tore down the Bosphorous shore, his rifle levelled, the bridle between his teeth, the Monarch racing at full speed. They were in chase—the pursuer and the pursued.
"Halt!—or you are a dead man."
The challenge rolled through the night out and away to the Bosphorus;—the sole answer of the Qxeek was to dash the rowels again into his roan's sides, and tear on without other thought than flight, tasting all the long bitterness of death with every time that the beat of the gallop grew closer
- behind him, with every moment that the shriek of
the bullet might whistle down on the wind and the shot pierce his heart from the hand he had once thought picked bare to the bone by the vultures, and buried safe in Moldavian snows.
The blood coursed like fire through Erceldoune's veins, every muscle in him strained like those of a gallant hound in chase; he longed, as the hound longs, to be at the throat of his flying foe: he had a mortal debt to pay, and a deadly wrath to pay it with; the life of his murderer lay at his mercy, and he panted—with brute thirsty perhaps—to take it, and trample it ont on the sands in a just and pitiless vengeance. Yet—he did not fire.
All that was boldest and truest in him refused to let him do as he had been done by;—forbade him. to shoot down an unarmed man.
With the hoofs now thundering loud on barren rock, now scattering in clouds the loosened sand, now trampling out the fragrance from acres of wild myrtles and basilica, he rode on in close hot chase, the bridle held in the grip of his teeth, his rifle covering his assassin, while Conrad Phaulcon fled for his life. A single shot, from an aim which never missed, and the coward would be slain as he would have slain, would die the death that he would have dealt; a single ball sent screaming, with its shrill hiss, crash through his spine, and he would drop from the saddle dead as a dog. The Greek knew that as well as the man who held his life in his hands, to take it when he would; and the sweat of his agony gathered in great drops on his brow, the horror of his death-blow seemed to him to quiver already through all his limbs, and as he turned in his saddle once—once only—he saw the stretching head of the Monarch within fifty paces, the face of his pursuer stern and dark as though cast in bronze, and the long lean barrel of steel glistening bright in the moonlight, lifted to deal him the fate he had dealt.
Onward, while the chant of the Muezzin grew fainter and fainter, and the lighted mosques of Stamboul were left distant behind; onward, through the night lit with a million stars, and all on fire with glittering fire-flies; onward, down the beach of the luminous phosphor-radiant sea, along stretches of yellow sand, under beetling brows of granite, over rocky strips foam-splashed with spray, through fields of sweet wild lavender and roses blowing rich with dew, and tangled withes of tamarind tendrils, and myrtle thickets sloping to the shore, and netted screens of drooping orange-boughs, all white with bloom; onward they swept—hunter and hunted—in a race for life and death.
The Greek was always before him; now and again they well-nigh touched, and the foam from his horse's bit was flung on the steaming flanks of the mare he chased; now and again the dull thud of the hoofs thundered almost side by side as they scattered sand and surf, or trampled out the odorous dews from trodden roses. His enemy's life lay in the hollow of his hand; he saw the womanish beauty of Phaoleon's face, white and ghastly with a craven terror, turned backward one instant in the light of the moon, and a fierce delight, a just vengeance, heated his senses and throbbed in his veins. He panted for his foe*s life, as he hunted him on through the hot night, as the lion in chase may pant for the tiger's; all the passions in him, rare to rise, but wild, as the wildest tempest when once roused, were at their darkest, and the creed which chained them, and forbade him to fire on a man unarmed, served but to make each fibre strain, each nerve strengthen, with the fiercer thirst to race his injurer down, and—side to side, man to man—hurl him from his saddle and fling him to earth, held under his heel as he would have held the venomous coil of a snake, imprisoned and powerless, till its poisonous breath was trodden out on the sands.
They rode in hard and fearful chase, as men ride only for life and death.
The surf flashed its salt spray in their eyes as they splashed through the sea-pools girth-deep in water; startled nest-birds flew with a rush from bud and bough, as they crashed through the wild pomegranates; white-winged galls rose up with a shrill scream in the light of the moon, as the tramp of horses rang out on the rocks, or scattered the sands in a whirling cloud. There was savage delight to him in the breathless ride, in the intoxication of the odours trampled out from trodden roses and crushed citrons, in the fierce and sense of living, as he swept down the lonely shore the side of the luminous sea, hunting his murderer into his lair;—the wolf in its own steppes, the boar in its own pjne-forests, the tiger in the hot Indian night, the lion in the palm-plains of Libya; he had hunted them all in their tarn, but he had known no chase like that he rode now, when the quarry was not brute, but man.
The snorting nostrils of the Monarch touched the flanks of the straining Barbary, the hot steam of the one blent with the blood-flaked foam of the other. They raced together almost side by side, dashing down a precipitous ridge of shore, entangled with a riotous growth of aloes and oleander: Erceldoune saw that his assassin was making for some known and near lair, as a fox hard-pressed heads for covert, and he thundered on in hotter and hotter pursuit, till the steel of the rifle glittered close in Count Conrad's sight as he turned again, his face livid and the breath of the horse that was scorching and noxious against his cheek, like the breath of the bloodhound on the murderer's. There were barely six paces between them, going headlong thus down the sloping ridge, and through the cactus thickets; as he turned backward, with that dastard gesture of pitiful despair, they looked on one another by the light of the moon, and the fairness of the Greek's face was ghastly with a coward's prayer, and the dark bronze of his pursuer's was set in deadly menace, in fierce lust of blood. Phaulcon knew why, with that lean tube flashing in the starlight, he was still spared; he knew, too, that once side by side in fair struggle, he would be hurled from his saddle, and crushed out under a just retribution, till all life was dead, as pitilessly as righteously as men crush out the snake whose fangs have bit them.
And the pursuit gained on him. Erceldoune rode him down, dashing through the wilderness of vegetation, with the surf of the sea thundering loudly below, and a loathing hate, a riotous joy seething through his veins. The horses ran almost neck by neck now, nothing between them and the billows lashing below hut a span's breadth of rock and a frail fence of cactus. One effort more and he would be beside him; the bloodshot eyes of the mare were blinded with the foam flung off the Monarch's curb, and his own arm was stretched to seize his assassin and hurl him out to the waters boiling beneath, or tread him down on the rock under his feet, while he wrung out his confession in the terror of death. He leaned from his saddle; his hand all but grasped his enemy in a hold Phaulcon could no more have shaken off than he could have loosened the grip of an eagle, or the fangs of a lion: he was even with him» and had run him to earth in that wild night race. Then—suddenly, with a swerve and a plunge as the spurs tore her reeking flanks—the mare was lifted to a mad leap, a wall of marble gleaming white in the starlight, and rising straight in face of the sea; she cleared it with a bound of agony, and the dull crash that smote the silence as she fell, told the price with which she paid that gallant effort of brute life.
His foe was lost.
A fierce oath broke from bis lips and rang over the seas. As he put the Monarch at the leap, he reared and refused it; a second was already lost, and eternity in value to him whom he pursued. His face grew dark—all that was worst in him was roused and at its height; he wheeled the hunter and rode him back, then turned again and put him full gallop at the barrier, nursing him for the leap; the marble wall rose before them, clothed with the foliage of fig and tamarisk trees; he lifted the horse in the air, cleared the stracture, and came down on the yielding bed of wild geranium that broke the sheer descent.
On the ground lay the Barbary mare, panting and quivering on her side: the saddle was empty.
A darkness like the night came upon Erceldoune's face as he saw that his enemy had escaped him—a darkness closely and terribly like crime on his soul.
Wolf, and boar, and lion, he had chased them all to their lair, and brought them down, now and again, a thousand times other, by the surety of his shot, by the victory of his strength. His secret assassin, hunted and run to earth, at his mercy and given up to his will through the whole length of that race down the Bosphorus waters, had outstripped his speed, had baffled his vengeance, and was let loose again on the world with his name unconfessedy with his brute guilt unavenged, lost once more in the solitudes of the night, in the vastness of the Ottoman empire. A second more, and his hand would have been at the throat of this man: he would have hurled under his feet the dainty silken beauty of the coward who was thief and murderer in one, and would have crushed the truth from his throat and the craven life from his limbs under the iron grind of his heel, giving back vengeance as great as his wrongs. A second more, and the traitor who had laughed with him in good fellowship in the Parisian café, and butchered him in cold blood in the Danubian solitudes, would have answered to him for that work. Now, the Barbary mare lay riderless at his feet, and before him, around him, stretching dim in the distance, were thickets of myrtle, labyrinths of cactus, dense groups of oleander, of palm, of pomegranate, where his quarry had headed for a known covert, or had found one by chance, and from which it was as hopeless to draw him again as to unearth a fox once outran the hounds' scent, or pursue a stag that had once swam the loch.
A curse broke, again from Erceldoune's lips, that the distant wail of the Imaum seemed to mock, and fling back, as he rode the Monarch headlong down into the wilderness of shrubs and flowers, trampling the boughs asunder, crushing luscious fruit and odorous blossom under the horse's hoofs, searching beneath the shadows and under the tangled aisles of foliage for the dastard who must be refuged there; one dusky glimpse of a crouching form, one flash of the starlight on a hidden lace, and he would have fired on him now without a moment's check; his blood was up, his passions were let loose, and the Greek might as well have sought for leniency from the jaws of a panther as for mercy from Erceldoune then, had he ridden him down in his cover and dragged him out in the still Eastern night.
He rode furiously, hither and thither, through the thickest glades and where the shadows were deepest, searching for that to which he had no clue, in chase of a quarry which every turn he missed, every clump of shrubs he passed, every screen of aloes whose spines his horse refused to breast, might hide and shelter from his vengeance. Nothing met his eye or ear but the frightened birds that flew from their sleep among the piles of blossom, and the shrill hiss of the cicala, scared from its bed in the grasses. In the leafy recesses and the winding aisles of those hanging gardens overlooking the Bosphorus, a hundred men might have been secreted, and defied the search of one who was a strange to the ground; «iid he was cheated at every torn by the fntastic shadows of the moonlight and the palms. His foe had escaped him; before the dawn broke he might have slipped down to the shore and be far out at sea beyond the Dardanelles; or if the gardens were the known lair for which he had purposely headed in the race along the beach, he would be safe beyond pursuit wherever he made his den.
Erceldoune dropped the bridle on the chestnut's neck, and let him take his own pace; a terrible bitterness of baffled effort, of foiled wrath, was on him—a passion, like a weapon which recoils, and bits the one who holds it hard. This man's life had been in his hands, and had escaped him!—and the unexpiated vengeance rolled back on his own heart, fierce, heavy, dark, almost as though it were twin crime with what it had hitherto failed to punish. A night-assassin, only of the viler stamp because of the gentler breed, went through the world unbranded and unpunished, whilst honest men died by the score of cold and famine in the snows of Caucasus and the streets of cities! Erceldoune's teeth ground together; when they met again, he swore it should be for shorter shrive and deadlier work.
The Monarch, with his head drooped and the steam reeking from his hot flanks, took his own course over the unknown ground, and turning out of thickets, paced down a long winding aisle of cedars: the night was perfectly still, nothing was heard but the surging of the Bosphorus waters, nothing was stirring save the incessant motion of the fire-flies, that sparkled over all the boughs with starry points of light. Erceldoune had no knowledge where he was except the sea was still beside him, and he let his horse take his own way. Suddenly, through the dark masses of the cedars, light gleamed, which came neither from the fire-flies nor from the moon, but from the Turkish lattice-work of a distant easement.
Was that where his foe had found covert? He raised the Monarch's drooping head with the curb, and urged him at a canter down the cedar-aisle, the noise of the hoofs muffled in the grass, that grew untrimmed, as though the wild luxuriance of the gardens had long been left untouched. Sultan's palace, Queen's serail, sacred Mosque, or Moslem harem, he swore to that he would break down its gates, with the menace of England, and have his murderer delivered up to him, though he were surrounded by an Emir's eunuchs, or harboured in the sanctuary of the Odá itself. For anything that he knew, the light might glitter from the dwelling where his enemy and all his gang had made stronghold, or the place might swarm with Mussulmans, who would think there was no holier service to Allah than to smite, down the life of a Frank, or the latticed window might be that of a seraglio, into whose anderūm it was death for a man and a Giaour to enter. But these memories, never weighed with Erceldoune; he was armed, his blood was up and if his foe were sheltered there, he vowed that all the might of Mahmoud, all the yataghans of Islam, should not serve to shield him.
A flight of steps ending the cedar-walk stopped the chestnut's passage: above ran a terrace, and on that terrace looked the few lattice casements allowed to a Turkish dwelling, whose light from within had caught his eyes. He threw himself out of saddle, passed the bridle over a bough, and went on foot up the stairs. Erceldoune's rifle was loaded; he had on him, too, the hunting-knife with which he had grallocked the hill deer; and he went straight on—into the den of the assassins, as he believed. Foolhardy he was not; but he had found sinew and coolness serve him too well in many an avater, east and west, not to have learned to trust to them, and he had resolved, moreover, to go through with this thing cost what it might, bring what it would.He hurried on the terrace, laden with the scarlet
blossoms of the trumpet-flower and japonica, and heavy with odours from the nyctanthus and musk-roses trailing over the stone; a door stood open on to it, leading into the large court which forms the customary entrance of a Turkish house; he paused moment and looked through; there was only a dim light thrown on its walls and floor, and there was no sound but of the falling of the water into the central fountain. He passed the threshold, and entered, the dang of his step resounding on the variegated mosaic of the pavement: its own echo was the only sound which answered—for its stillness the place might have been deserted. But the court opened into a chamber beyond, flooded with warm, mellow light, its dome-like ceiling wreathed with carved pomegranates, while another fountain was flinging its shower upward in the centre, and the fragrance of aloe-wood filled the air from where it burned, like incense, in a brazier;—a picture, full of oriental colouring. With his rifle in his hand, his white burnous flung behind him, and his single thought the longing which possessed him to unearth his foe, and have his hand upon his throat, he swept aside the purple draperies, that partially shadowed the portico, and passed within the entrance.
A woman rose from her couch in the distance, startled, yet with the look of one who disdains to give its reins to fear—as a sovereign would rise were her solitude desecrated;—and he paused, his steps arrested and his passions silenced, as in ancient days he who came to slay in the deadliness of wrath, uncovered his head, and dropped his unsheathed sword, entering the holy shrine at whose altar his foe had taken sanctuary. His enemy was forgotten;—he stood before Idalia.
He saw her in the flood of amber light that fell upon the lustre of her hair, on the white folds of her dress with its hem of gold, on the scarlet blossom of the roses clustering about her feet, on the aromatic mist of the aloe wood burning near;—and in an instant he had crossed the marble that severed them, his head uncovered, his hand disarmed, his eyes blinded.
"At last!—at last!"
And he had never known how strong had become the power, how eager had grown his quest, of the memory which had pursued him, until now, when he bowed before her, when his lips were on her hand, when a hot joy that he had never known swept through his life, when in that sudden meeting his gaze looked upward to the face which had mocked him a thousand times, from the blue depths of sea waves, in the tawny stretch of eastern plains, in the stillness of starry nights and the darkness of convent aisles, and now at length was found.
She drew herself with haughty amazed anger from him—she saw her solitude violated by the abrupt entrance of an armed man when the night was so late that the chant of the Imaum was calling to prayer: she saw a stranger, by his dress an Arab, bend before her in homage that was insult She wrenched herself away, and signed him back with a gesture too grand in its grace for fear, and in her eyes a glance which spoke without words.
Then, as he raised his head, she saw the features which she had last beheld in what had seemed their death hour, while up to hers gazed the eyes that but for her succour the vulture's beak would have struck, and torn out for ever; then she knew him;—and over her proud loveliness came a sudden flush, a softness that changed it as by a miracle; and she looked down upon him with that glance which he had seen and remembered through the dizzy mists of delirium, and had given to his Madonna in the altar-picture at Monastica.
It was but one word; but by that word he knew that as he had never forgot, so he had not been forgotten.
He bent lower yet, till his lips touched her hand again.
"At last! I thought that we should never meet! And now—I have no words. To strive to pay my debt were hopeless; God grant the day may come when I can show you how I hold it. You saved my life; you shall command it as you will."
His words broke from his heart's depths, and in the rapid breathless tide of emotion, strongly felt and hard to utter; few women would have failed to read in them that, with his bold, keen, dauntless nature, self-reliant, danger-tested though it was, there went a faith that would be loyal to his of utter ruin, once pledged and given, and a tenderness passionate and exhaustless, through which he might be lured on to any belief, dashed down to any destruction. A dangerous knowledge; there are scarce any women to be trusted with it.
Silence fell between them for the moment, where she stood beside the scarlet roses of the fountain, with the heavy sloes perfume rising round, and at her feet, bowed low before her, the man whose life was owed to her by so vast a debt—stranger and unknown, yet bound to her by the golden bonds of service that had loosed and freed him from his grave. All the glory of her beauty was deepened and softened as she looked on him, startled still, and hardly conscious of his words; and Erceldoune gazed upward to her face, with a dim mist before his sight, as he had never gazed before upon the face of woman:—he had forgotten all in that luminance of light, that glow of colour, that delicious dreamy fragrance.
Remembxance returned to him as she released her hands from his hold, and drew slightly from him. They could not meet as strangers, while betwixt them was the tie of a life restored, and the memory of that hour of awful peril in which she had been his saviour. But he had come, armed and alone, by violent entrance into her solitary chamber in the lateness of the night; and on her face was the look of one to whom insult was intolerable and all fear unknown—then he remembered what had brought him thither, and spoke ere she could speak.
"Pardon me for the rude abruptness with which I have broken on you; nothing can excuse it save the truth—I followed, as I thought, one of my Moldavian assassins; I hunted him down the Bosphorus, and lost his track in the gardens here. I fanccied——"
"Doubtles it was an error of mine!" he broke in hastily; that this house could be his murderer's lair was impossible, since it was hers, and he forebore to tell her how closely he had hunted his quarry to her presence, lest he should give her alarm. "I rode him down into a wilderness of palm-trees and cactus, and missed his trail in the darkness;—the coward was unarmed, I could not fire on him, and he escaped me. I saw a light gleam through the cedars; and I forced my entrance; then I forgot all—even forgot what my own violence must appear—since it led me to you!"
His voice dropped and softened as he spoke the last word; the pitiless passion which had alone possessed him as he had dashed aside the draperies and forced his way into what he had believed the covert of the man he hunted, were outweighed and forgotten; even while he spoke he had no memory but for her.
She shuddered slightly, and glanced into the dim twilight gloom of the court on to which her chamber opened.
"If yon tracked him into these gardens, he may be there, or may have hidden here. Search;—have my people with you—let them take torches, and seek through the gardens. No one can have entered; but the grounds are a wilderness——"
"More likely he has escaped to the sea-shore; and all I know, or care now, is, that he has served to bringing—here! Oh! my God, if you knew how I have sought you!—and now that we have met, what can I say? Nothing that will not leave me deeper your debtor than before."
"Say no more. You owe me nothing. Who would not have done for you the little that I did?"
"Yon perilled your life to save mine, and mine is owed to you if a man's life was ever owed for angel work," broke in Erceldoone, while the force of a new and strange softness trembled through his voice as he stood alone in the stillness of the night with this woman, of whom he knew nothing—nothing, save that she filled his soul and his senses with a sweet fierce joy that had never touched them before, and that he had been rescued from his grave by her hand.
Over her face swept a look almost of pain:
"Call nothing I did by that name. And—why should you feel it as a debt, as a merit even? A little cold water held to a stranger's lips! It is not worth a thought."
"It was worth my life, and with my life I will pay it, if you will take the payment, he it made in what guise it may."
They were no empty words of courteous requital; they were an oath to the death, if need be; she was silent, while her glance dwelt on him where he stood, reared now to his full stature, in the amber flood of the lamps, the snowy folds of the burnous flung back, and on his face a grandeur from the stormy passions an instant ago lashed to their height, silent with the eager light with which he looked on her. Then she held her hand out to him, with the beautiful impulse of a proud and gracious nature, touched and bending with a sovereign grace.
"I thank yon for your words. There is no question of debt now; they more than pay the little I could do to serve yon in your peril. We cannot meet as strangers; let us part as friends."
The words were even in their gentleness, a sign of dismissal. He had broken in on her abruptly, and the night was late. He bowed low over her hand—as we bow over that of an Empress.
"Part! True;—I come unbidden here; I have no right to linger in your presence; but we cannot part until I know that we shall meet again. I have not found to night what I have sought so long unceasingly and hopelessly, only to-night once more to lose it."
She drew back slightly, and her face grew paler, while over its brilliance swept a troubled feverish shadow: she answered nothing.
"You can know nothing of me now, but at least you will consent to know more?" he pursued. "A name alone tells little; yet had I had one by which to seek the saviour of my life, it would not have been so long before you had heard mine."
In the hot night, in the perfumed stillness, in the sudden revulsion from the violence of vengeance to the wild sweetness of this woman's presence, words far different reeled through his thoughts and rose to his lips; but they were held back by his own sense of their madness, and by the dignify, nameless yet resistless, which surrounded her.
"You would know my name? It is Idalia Vassalis."
She uttered it almost with defiance, yet a defiance which had a profound sadness in it, like the defiance of the slave.
"And why conceal it so long? Can you not think what it was to owe so great a gratitude to you, yet to be left in such strange ignorance of my preserver that, for anything which I could tell, we might never have met on earth?"
"I had reasons for desiring my own name untold," she answered, coldly, as though interrogation were unknown to her. "Besides I never thought that you would have any remembrance of me."
"To have lost remembrance I must have lost the life you rescued."
The brief words said a volume; she knew they were no offspring of hollow courtesy, but a passionate truth broken up unbidden from a character in which a bold and noble simplicity prevailed over all that the world had taught, in motive, in purpose, in action, and in speech; to understand her, might for years bewilder and mislead the man; to understand him, the few moments of that night sufficed to the woman.
"It is few remember as you do," she said, and the soft lingering richness of her voice, with an unspoken melancholy vibrating through it, thrilled through him. "Life is no great gift given back to merit gratitude! Bat, while we lose time in words, your murderer will escape; if you chased him to these gardens, there is no outlet seaward. Take my people with you; some are Albanians, and will serve well and boldly under need; let the grounds be searched, for my safety if not for your own."
Whilst she spoke she rang a hand-bell; a negress obeyed the summons, an Abyssinian, clothed in scarlet and white.
"Bid Paulus and his sons take arms and torches, and wait without on the terrace," said the mistress to her slave, who gave the salaam silently, and left the chamber. "The men will be faithful to you," she resumed to Erceldoune. "Let them accompany you home; if your assassins be in Turkey, the Bosphorus shores cannot be safe for you alone. No—you will not refuse me; yon can set little store on the life you say I gave yon back if you would risk it wantonly so soon."
"My life will be richer and dearer to me from to-night"
The words broke from him on impulse and almost unaware, as he bent before her in farewell: he could not linger after her dismissal; to have disputed it would hare been impossible, for there was about her that nameless royalty which is its own defence, and which no man ever insulted with impunity, or insulted twice.
She avoided all notice of his words as she gave him her adieu, speakings as she had hitherto done, in French.
He bowed over her hand, but he held it still.
"And to-morrow I may have permission to return, and seek to say all for which I have no words to-night? The debt that you disclaim must, at least, be sufficient bond between as for us not to part as strangers?"
Looking upward he saw a certain hesitation upon her face; her eyes were suddenly darkened by a shadow it were hard to describe, and she was silent. Chivalrous in his courtesy to women, pride was too strong in him for him to sue where he was repulsed, to entreat where he was undesired. He released her, and raised his head.
"It is not for me to force my presence on you. Farewell, then, and take, once for all, my gratitude for a debt that it has pleasured you to embitter."
The words were proud, but they were also pained; they were the terse, uustudied phrases of a man who was wounded, but who could not be lowered, and would not be angered; they served him better, and touched her more keenly, than more servile or more honeyed utterances would have done. She smiled with a certain amusemeat, yet with a graver and a gentler feeling too.
"Nay—you need not read my silence so. Come here again—if you wish."
Just then the clang of the Albanians' arms announced their readiness on the terrace without; he bowed down once more before her, and left her standing there, with the clusters of the roses at her feet, and the colour of the rich chamber stretching away into dim distance around her as she had suddenly broken on his sight, when he had dashed back the purple draperies in pursuit of his assassin.
And he went out into the night with one thought alone upon him; he felt blind with the glow of the light, intoxicated with the incense odours, dizzy with all that lustre and maze of delicate hues, of golden arabesques, of gleaming marbles, and of scarlet blossoms; but what had blinded his sight and made his thoughts reel, was not these, but was the smile of the woman who had suddenly lit his life to a beauty which he had passed through half the years that are allotted to man, never having known or cared to know.