THE PROBLEM OF A WICKED FEME SOLE
The great pyramid towered up from the desert with its apex toward the moon which hung in the sky. For centuries it had stood thus, disdaining the aid of gods or man, being, as the Sphinx herself observed, able to stand up for itself. And this was no small praise from that sublime yet mysterious female who had seen the ages come and go, empires rise and fall, novelist succeed novelist, and who, for eons and cycles the cynosure and centre of admiration and men's idolatrous worship, had yet—wonderful for a woman— through it all kept her head, which now alone remained to survey calmly the present. Indeed, at that moment that magnificent and peaceful face seemed to have lost—with a few unimportant features— its usual expression of speculative wisdom and intense disdain; its mouth smiled, its left eyelid seemed to droop. As the opal tints of dawn deepened upon it, the eyelid seemed to droop lower, closed, and quickly recovered itself twice. You would have thought the Sphinx had winked.
Then arose a voice like a wind on the desert,—but really from the direction of the Nile, where a hired dahabiyeh lay moored to the bank,—"'Arry Axes! 'Arry Axes!" With it came also a flapping, trailing vision from the water—the sacred Ibis itself—and with wings aslant drifted mournfully away to its own creaking echo: "K'raksis! K'raksis!" Again arose the weird voice: "'Arry Axes! Wotcher doin' of?" And again the Ibis croaked its wild refrain: "K'raksis! K'raksis!" Moonlight and the hour wove their own mystery (for which the author is not responsible), and the voice was heard no more. But when the full day sprang in glory over the desert, it illuminated the few remaining but sufficiently large features of the Sphinx with a burning saffron radiance! The Sphinx had indeed blushed!
It was the full season at Cairo. The wealth and fashion of Bayswater, South Kensington, and even the bosky Wood of the Evangelist had sent their latest luxury and style to flout the tombs of the past with the ghastly flippancy of to-day. The cheap tripper was there—the latest example of the Darwinian theory— apelike, flea and curio hunting! Shamelessly inquisitive and always hungry, what did he know of the Sphinx or the pyramids or the voice—and, for the matter of that, what did they know of him? And yet he was not half bad in comparison with the "swagger people,"—these people who pretend to have lungs and what not, and instead of galloping on merry hunters through the frost and snow of Piccadilly and Park, instead of enjoying the roaring fires of piled logs in the evening, at the first approach of winter steal away to the Land of the Sun, and decline to die, like honest Britons, on British soil. And then they know nothing of the Egyptians and are horrified at "bakshish," which they really ought to pay for the privilege of shocking the straight-limbed, naked-footed Arab in his single rough garment with their baggy elephant-legged trousers! And they know nothing of the mystic land of the old gods, filled with profound enigmas of the supernatural, dark secrets yet unexplored except in this book. Well might the great Memnon murmur after this lapse of these thousand years, "They're making me tired!"
Such was the blissful, self-satisfied ignorance of Sir Midas Pyle, or as Lord Fitz-Fulke, with his delightful imitation of the East London accent, called him, Sir "Myde His Pyle," as he leaned back on his divan in the Grand Cairo Hotel. He was the vulgar editor and proprietor of a vulgar London newspaper, and had brought his wife with him, who was vainly trying to marry off his faded daughters. There was to be a fancy-dress ball at the hotel that night, and Lady Pyle hoped that her girls, if properly disguised, might have a better chance. Here, too, was Lady Fitz-Fulke, whose mother was immortalized by Byron—sixty if a day, yet still dressing youthfully—who had sought the land of the Sphinx in the faint hope that in the contiguity of that lady she might pass for being young. Alaster McFeckless, a splendid young Scotchman,— already dressed as a Florentine sailor of the fifteenth century, which enabled him to show his magnificent calves quite as well as in his native highland dress, and who had added with characteristic noble pride a sporran to his costume, was lolling on another divan.
"Oh, those exquisite, those magnificent eyes of hers! Eh, sirs!" he murmured suddenly, as waking from a dream.
"Oh, damn her eyes!" said Lord Fitz-Fulke languidly. "Tell you what, old man, you're just gone on that girl!"
"Ha!" roared MeFeckless, springing to his feet, "ye will be using such language of the bonniest"—
"You will excuse me, gentlemen," said Sir Midas,—who hated scenes unless he had a trusted reporter with him,—"but I think it is time for me to go upstairs and put on my Windsor uniform, which I find exceedingly convenient for these mixed assemblies." He withdrew, caressing his protuberant paunch with some dignity, as the two men glanced fiercely at each other.
In another moment they might have sprung at each other's throats. But luckily at this instant a curtain was pushed aside as if by some waiting listener, and a thin man entered, dressed in cap and gown,—which would have been simply academic but for his carrying in one hand behind him a bundle of birch twigs. It was Dr. Haustus Pilgrim, a noted London practitioner and specialist, dressed as "Ye Olde-fashioned Pedagogue." He was presumably spending his holiday on the Nile in a large dahabiyeh with a number of friends, among whom he counted the two momentary antagonists he had just interrupted; but those who knew the doctor's far-reaching knowledge and cryptic researches believed he had his own scientific motives.
The two men turned quickly as he entered; the angry light faded from their eyes, and an awed and respectful submission to the intruder took its place. He walked quietly toward them, put a lozenge in the mouth of one and felt the pulse of the other, gazing critically at both.
"We will be all right in a moment," he said with professional confidence.
"I say!" said Fitz-Fulke, gazing at the doctor's costume, "you look dooced smart in those togs, don'tcherknow."
"They suit me," said the doctor, with a playful swish of his birch twigs, at which the two grave men shuddered. "But you were speaking of somebody's beautiful eyes."
"The Princess Zut-Ski's," returned McFeckless eagerly; "and this daft callant said"—
"He didn't like them," put in Fitz-Fulke promptly.
"Ha!" said the doctor sharply, "and why not, sir?" As Fitz-Fulke hesitated, he added brusquely: "There! Run away and play! I've business with this young man," pointing to McFeckless.
As Fitz-Fulke escaped gladly from the room, the doctor turned to McFeckless. "It won't do, my boy. The Princess is not for you— you'll only break your heart and ruin your family over her! That's my advice. Chuck her!"
"But I cannot," said McFeckless humbly. "Think of her weirdly beautiful eyes."
"I see," said the doctor meditatively; "sort of makes you feel creepy? Kind of all-overishness, eh? That's like her. But whom have we here?"
He was staring at a striking figure that had just entered, closely followed by a crowd of admiring spectators. And, indeed, he seemed worthy of the homage. His magnificent form was closely attired in a velveteen jacket and trousers, with a singular display of pearl buttons along the seams, that were absolutely lavish in their quantity; a hat adorned with feathers and roses completed his singularly picturesque equipment.
"Chevalier!" burst out McFeckless in breathless greeting.
"Ah, mon ami! What good chance?" returned the newcomer, rushing to him and kissing him on both cheeks, to the British horror of Sir Midas, who had followed. "Ah, but you are perfect!" he added, kissing his fingers in admiration of McFeckless's Florentine dress.
"But you?—what is this ravishing costume?" asked McFeckless, with a pang of jealousy. "You are god-like."
"It is the dress of what you call the Koster, a transplanted Phenician tribe," answered the other. "They who knocked 'em in the road of Old Kent—know you not the legend?" As he spoke, he lifted his superb form to a warrior's height and gesture.
"But is this quite correct?" asked Fitz-Fulke of the doctor.
"Perfectly," said the doctor oracularly. "The renowned Arry Axes'—I beg his pardon," he interrupted himself hastily, "I mean the Chevalier—is perfect in his archaeology and ethnology. The Koster is originally a Gypsy, which is but a corruption of the word 'Egyptian,' and, if I mistake not, that gentleman is a lineal descendant."
"But he is called 'Chevalier,' and he speaks like a Frenchman," said Fluffy.
"And, being a Frenchman, of course knows nothing outside of Paris," said Sir Midas.
"We are in the Land of Mystery," said the doctor gravely in a low voice. "You have heard of the Egyptian Hall and the Temple of Mystery?"
A shudder passed through many that were there; but the majority were following with wild adulation the superb Koster, who, with elbows slightly outward and hands turned inward, was passing toward the ballroom. McFeckless accompanied him with conflicting emotions. Would he see the incomparable Princess, who was lovelier and even still more a mystery than the Chevalier? Would she— terrible thought!—succumb to his perfections?
The Princess was already there, surrounded by a crowd of admirers, equal if not superior to those who were following the superb Chevalier. Indeed, they met almost as rivals! Their eyes sought each other in splendid competition. The Chevalier turned away, dazzled and incoherent. "She is adorable, magnificent!" he gasped to McFeckless. "I love her on the instant! Behold, I am transported, ravished! Present me."
Indeed, as she stood there in a strange gauzy garment of exquisite colors, apparently shapeless, yet now and then revealing her perfect figure like a bather seen through undulating billows, she was lovely. Two wands were held in her taper fingers, whose mystery only added to the general curiosity, but whose weird and cabalistic uses were to be seen later. Her magnificent face— strange in its beauty—was stranger still, since, with perfect archaeological Egyptian correctness, she presented it only in profile, at whatever angle the spectator stood. But such a profile! The words of the great Poet-King rose to McFeckless's lips: "Her nose is as a tower that looketh toward Damascus."
He hesitated a moment, torn with love and jealousy, and then presented his friend. "You will fall in love with her—and then— you will fall also by my hand," he hissed in his rival's ear, and fled tumultuously.
"Voulez-vous danser, mademoiselle?" whispered the Chevalier in the perfect accent of the boulevardier.
"Merci, beaucoup," she replied in the diplomatic courtesies of the Ambassadeurs.
They danced together, not once, but many times, to the admiration, the wonder and envy of all; to the scandalized reprobation of a proper few. Who was she? Who was he? It was easy to answer the last question: the world rang with the reputation of "Chevalier the Artist." But she was still a mystery.
Perhaps they were not so to each other! He was gazing deliriously into her eyes. She was looking at him in disdainful curiosity. "I've seen you before somewhere, haven't I?" she said at last, with a crushing significance.
He shuddered, he knew not why, and passed his hand over his high forehead. "Yes, I go there very often," he replied vacantly. "But you, mademoiselle—you—I have met before?"
"Oh, ages, ages ago!" There was something weird in her emphasis.
"Ha!" said a voice near them, "I thought so!" It was the doctor, peering at them curiously. "And you both feel rather dazed and creepy?" He suddenly felt their pulses, lingering, however, as the Chevalier fancied, somewhat longer than necessary over the lady's wrist and beautiful arm. He then put a small round box in the Chevalier's hand, saying, "One before each meal," and turning to the lady with caressing professional accents said, "We must wrap ourselves closely and endeavor to induce perspiration," and hurried away, dragging the Chevalier with him. When they reached a secluded corner, he said, "You had just now a kind of feeling, don't you know, as if you'd sort of been there before, didn't you?"
"Yes, what you call a—preexistence," said the Chevalier wonderingly.
"Yes; I have often observed that those who doubt a future state of existence have no hesitation in accepting a previous one," said the doctor dryly. "But come, I see from the way the crowd are hurrying that your divinity's number is up—I mean," he corrected himself hastily, "that she is probably dancing again."
"Aha! with him, the imbecile McFeckless?" gasped the Chevalier.
She was indeed alone, in the centre of the ballroom—with outstretched arms revolving in an occult, weird, dreamy, mystic, druidical, cabalistic circle. They now for the first time perceived the meaning of those strange wands which appeared to be attached to the many folds of her diaphanous skirts and involved her in a fleecy, whirling cloud. Yet in the wild convolutions of her garments and the mad gyrations of her figure, her face was upturned with the seraphic intensity of a devotee, and her lips parted as with the impassioned appeal for "Light! more light!" And the appeal was answered. A flood of blue, crimson, yellow, and green radiance was alternately poured upon her from the black box of a mysterious Nubian slave in the gallery. The effect was marvelous; at one moment she appeared as a martyr in a sheet of flame, at another as an angel wrapped in white and muffled purity, and again as a nymph of the cerulean sea, and then suddenly a cloud of darkness seemed to descend upon her, through which for an instant her figure, as immaculate and perfect as a marble statue, showed distinctly—then the light went out and she vanished!
The whole assembly burst into a rapturous cry. Even the common Arab attendants who were peeping in at the doors raised their melodious native cry, "Alloe, Fullah! Aloe, Fullah!" again and again.
A shocked silence followed. Then the voice of Sir Midas Pyle was heard addressing Dr. Haustus Pilgrim:
"May we not presume, sir, that what we have just seen is not unlike that remarkable exhibition when I was pained to meet you one evening at the Alhambra?"
The doctor coughed slightly. "The Alhambra—ah, yes!—you—er— refer, I presume, to Granada and the Land of the Moor, where we last met. The music and dance are both distinctly Moorish—which, after all, is akin to the Egyptian. I am gratified indeed that your memory should be so retentive and your archaeological comparison so accurate. But see! the ladies are retiring. Let us follow."
The intoxication produced by the performance of the Princess naturally had its reaction. The British moral soul, startled out of its hypocrisy the night before, demanded the bitter beer of self-consciousness and remorse the next morning. The ladies were now openly shocked at what they had secretly envied. Lady Pyle was, however, propitiated by the doctor's assurance that the Princess was a friend of Lady Fitz-Fulke, who had promised to lend her youthful age and aristocratic prestige to the return ball which the Princess had determined to give at her own home. "Still, I think the Princess open to criticism," said Sir Midas oracularly.
"Damn all criticism and critics!" burst out McFeckless, with the noble frankness of a passionate and yet unfettered soul. Sir Midas, who employed critics in his business, as he did other base and ignoble slaves, drew up himself and his paunch and walked away.
The Chevalier cast a superb look at McFeckless. "Voila! Regard me well! I shall seek out this Princess when she is with herself! Alone, comprenez? I shall seek her at her hotel in the Egyptian Hall! Ha! ha! I shall seek Zut-Ski! Zut!" And he made that rapid yet graceful motion of his palm against his thigh known only to the true Parisian.
"It's a rum hole where she lives, and nobody gets a sight of her," said Flossy. "It's like a beastly family vault, don't you know, outside, and there's a kind of nigger doorkeeper that vises you and chucks you out if you haven't the straight tip. I'll show you the way, if you like."
"Allons, en avant!" said the Chevalier gayly. "I precipitate myself there on the instant."
"Remember!" hissed McFeckless, grasping his arm, "you shall account to me!"
"Bien!" said the Chevalier, shaking him off lightly. "All a-r-r- right." Then, in that incomparable baritone, which had so often enthralled thousands, he moved away, trolling the first verse of the Princess's own faint, sweet, sad song of the "Lotus Lily," that thrilled McFeckless even through the Chevalier's marked French accent:—
"Oh, a hard zing to get is ze Lotus Lillee!
She lif in ze swamp—in ze watair chillee;
She make your foot wet—and you look so sillee,
But you buy her for sixpence in Piccadillee!"
In half an hour the two men reached the remote suburb where the Princess lived, a gloomy, windowless building. Pausing under a low archway over which in Egyptian characters appeared the faded legend, "Sta Ged Oor," they found a Nubian slave blocking the dim entrance.
"I leave you here," said Flossy hurriedly, "as even I left once before—only then I was lightly assisted by his sandaled foot," he added, rubbing himself thoughtfully. "But better luck to you."
As his companion retreated swiftly, the Chevalier turned to the slave and would have passed in, but the man stopped him. "Got a pass, boss?"
"No," said the Chevalier.
The man looked at him keenly. "Oh, I see! one of de profesh."
The Chevalier nodded haughtily. The man preceded him by devious, narrow ways and dark staircases, coming abruptly upon a small apartment where the Princess sat on a low divan. A single lamp inclosed in an ominous wire cage flared above her. Strange things lay about the floor and shelves, and from another door he could see hideous masks, frightful heads, and disproportionate faces. He shuddered slightly, but recovered himself and fell on his knees before her. "I lofe you," he said madly. "I have always lofed you!"
"For how long?" she asked, with a strange smile.
He covertly consulted his shirt cuff. "For tree tousand fife hundred and sixty-two years," he said rapidly.
She looked at him disdainfully. "The doctor has been putting you up to that! It won't wash! I don't refer to your shirt cuff," she added with deep satire.
"Adorable one!" he broke out passionately, attempting to embrace her, "I have come to take you." Without moving, she touched a knob in the wall. A trap-door beyond him sank, and out of the bowels of the earth leaped three indescribable demons. Then, rising, she took a cake of chalk from the table and, drawing a mystic half circle on the floor, returned to the divan, lit a cigarette, and leaning comfortably back, said in a low, monotonous voice, "Advance one foot within that magic line, and on that head, although it wore a crown, I launch the curse of Rome."
"I—only wanted to take you—with a kodak," he said, with a light laugh to conceal his confusion, as he produced the instrument from his coat-tail pocket.
"Not with that cheap box," she said, rising with magnificent disdain. "Come again with a decent instrument—and perhaps"— Then, lightly humming in a pure contralto, "I've been photographed like this—I've been photographed like that," she summoned the slave to conduct him back, and vanished through a canvas screen, which nevertheless seemed to the dazed Chevalier to be the stony front of the pyramids.
"And you saw her?" said the doctor in French.
"Yes; but the three-thousand-year gag did not work! She spotted you, cher ami, on the instant. And she wouldn't let me take her with my kodak."
The doctor looked grave. "I see," he mused thoughtfully. "You must have my camera, a larger one and more bulky perhaps to carry; but she will not object to that,—she who has stood for full lengths. I will give you some private instructions."
"But, cher doctor, this previous-existence idea—at what do you arrive?"
"There is much to say for it," said the doctor oracularly. "It has survived in the belief of all ages. Who can tell? That some men in a previous existence may have been goats or apes," continued the doctor, looking at him curiously, "does not seem improbable! From the time of Pythagoras we have known that; but that the individual as an individual ego has been remanded or projected, has harked back or anticipated himself, is, we may say, with our powers of apperception,—that is, the perception that we are perceiving,— is"—
But the Chevalier had fled. "No matter," said the doctor, "I will see McFeckless." He did. He found him gloomy, distraught, baleful. He felt his pulse. "The mixture as before," he said briefly, "and a little innocent diversion. There is an Aunt Sally on the esplanade—two throws for a penny. It will do you good. Think no more of this woman! Listen,—I wish you well; your family have always been good patients of mine. Marry some good Scotch girl; I know one with fifty thousand pounds. Let the Princess go!"
"To him—never! I will marry her! Yet," he murmured softly to himself, "feefty thousand pun' is nae small sum. Aye! Not that I care for siller—but feefty thousand pun'! Eh, sirs!"
Dr. Haustus knew that the Chevalier had again visited the Princess, although he had kept the visit a secret,—and indeed was himself invisible for a day or two afterwards. At last the doctor's curiosity induced him to visit the Chevalier's apartment. Entering, he was surprised—even in that Land of Mystery—to find the room profoundly dark, smelling of Eastern drugs, and the Chevalier sitting before a large plate of glass which he was examining by the aid of a lurid ruby lamp,—the only light in the weird gloom. His face was pale and distraught, his locks were disheveled.
"Voila!" he said. "Mon Dieu! It is my third attempt. Always the same—hideous, monstrous, unearthly! It is she, and yet it is not she!"
The doctor, professional man as he was and inured to such spectacles, was startled! The plate before him showed the Princess's face in all its beautiful contour, but only dimly veiling a ghastly death's-head below. There was the whole bony structure of the head and the eyeless sockets; even the graceful, swan-like neck showed the articulated vertebral column that supported it in all its hideous reality. The beautiful shoulders were there, dimly as in a dream—but beneath was the empty clavicle, the knotty joint, the hollow sternum, and the ribs of a skeleton half length!
The doctor's voice broke the silence. "My friend," he said dryly, "you see only the truth! You see what she really is, this peerless Princess of yours. You see her as she is to-day, and you see her kinship to the bones that have lain for centuries in yonder pyramid. Yet they were once as fair as this, and this was as fair as they—in effect the same! You that have madly, impiously adored her superficial beauty, the mere dust of tomorrow, let this be a warning to you! You that have no soul to speak of, let that suffice you! Take her and be happy. Adieu!"
Yet, as he passed out of the fitting tomblike gloom of the apartment and descended the stairs, he murmured to himself: "Odd that I should have lent him my camera with the Rontgen-ray attachment still on. No matter! It is not the first time that the Princess has appeared in two parts the same evening."
In spite of envy, jealousy, and malice, a certain curiosity greater than all these drew everybody to the Princess Zut-Ski's ball. Lady Fitz-Fulke was there in virgin white, looking more youthful than ever, in spite of her sixty-five years and the card labeled "Fresh Paint" which somebody had playfully placed upon her enameled shoulder. The McFecklesses, the Pyles, Flossy, the doctor, and the Chevalier—looking still anxious—were in attendance.
The mysterious Nubian doorkeeper admitted the guests through the same narrow passages, much to the disgust of Lady Pyle and the discomfiture of her paunchy husband; but on reaching a large circular interior hall, a greater surprise was in store for them. It was found that the only entrance to the body of the hall was along a narrow ledge against the bare wall some distance from the floor, which obliged the guests to walk slowly, in single file, along this precarious strip, giving them the attitudes of an Egyptian frieze, which was suggested in the original plaster above them. It is needless to say that, while the effect was ingenious and striking from the centre of the room, where the Princess stood with a few personal friends, it was exceedingly uncomfortable to the figures themselves, in their enforced march along the ledge,— especially a figure of Sir Midas Pyle's proportions. Suddenly an exclamation broke from the doctor.
"Do you see," he said to the Princess, pointing to the figure of the Chevalier, who was filing along with his sinewy hands slightly turned inward, "how surprisingly like he is to the first attendant on the King in the real frieze above? And that," added the doctor, "was none other than 'Arry Axes, the Egyptian you are always thinking of." And he peered curiously at her.
"Goodness me!" murmured the Princess, in an Arabic much more soft and fluent than the original gum. "So he does—look like him."
"And do you know you look like him, too? Would you mind taking a walk around together?"
They did, amid the acclamations of the crowd. The likeness was perfect. The Princess, however, was quite white as she eagerly rejoined the doctor.
"And this means—?" she hissed in a low whisper.
"That he is the real 'Arry Axes! Hush, not a word now! We join the dahabiyeh to-night. At daybreak you will meet him at the fourth angle of the pyramid, first turning from the Nile!"
The crescent moon hung again over the apex of the Great Pyramid, like a silver cutting from the rosy nail of a houri. The Sphinx— mighty guesser of riddles, reader of rebuses and universal solver of missing words—looked over the unfathomable desert and these few pages, with the worried, hopeless expression of one who is obliged at last to give it up. And then the wailing voice of a woman, toiling up the steep steps of the pyramid, was heard above the creaking of the Ibis: "'Arry Axes! Where are you? Wait for me."
"J'y suis," said a voice from the very summit of the stupendous granite bulk, "yet I cannot reach it."
And in that faint light the figure of a man was seen, lifting his arms wildly toward the moon.
"'Arry Axes," persisted the voice, drifting higher, "wait for me; we are pursued."
And indeed it was true. A band of Nubians, headed by the doctor, was already swarming like ants up the pyramid, and the unhappy pair were secured. And when the sun rose, it was upon the white sails of the dahabiyeh, the vacant pyramid, and the slumbering Sphinx.
There was great excitement at the Cairo Hotel the next morning. The Princess and the Chevalier had disappeared, and with them Alaster McFeckless, Lady Fitz-Fulke, the doctor, and even his dahabiyeh! A thousand rumors had been in circulation. Sir Midas Pyle looked up from the "Times" with his usual I-told-you-so expression.
"It is the most extraordinary thing, don'tcherknow," said Fitz- Fulke. "It seems that Dr. Haustus Pilgrim was here professionally— as a nerve specialist—in the treatment of hallucinations produced by neurotic conditions, you know."
"A mad doctor, here!" gasped Sir Midas.
"Yes. The Princess, the Chevalier, McFeckless, and even my mother were all patients of his on the dahabiyeh. He believed, don'tcherknow, in humoring them and letting them follow out their cranks, under his management. The Princess was a music-hall artist who imagined she was a dead and gone Egyptian Princess; and the queerest of all, 'Arry Axes was also a music-hall singer who imagined himself Chevalier—you know, the great Koster artist—and that's how we took him for a Frenchman. McFeckless and my poor old mother were the only ones with any real rank and position—but you know what a beastly bounder Mac was, and the poor mater DID overdo the youthful! We never called the doctor in until the day she wanted to go to a swell ball in London as Little Red Riding-hood. But the doctor writes me that the experiment was a success, and they'll be all right when they get back to London."
"Then, it seems, sir, that you and I were the only sane ones here," said Sir Midas furiously.
"Really it's as much as I can do to be certain about myself, old chappie," said Fitz-Fulke, turning away.