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AN ODD LOVE-STORY.
HAD been in Paris but a day or two, when Brownell and I literally
ran against each other on the street. He had been there for three years, but before that, in New York, we had occupied adjoining studios in the Rembrandt, and he was anxious for news of many of the craft. We were both on our way to dinner, and gladly enough decided to dine together.
After we had finished dessert and were enjoying our coffee and cigars, Brownell asked,
“What has become of Almy? There never was a more magnificent specimen of blonde beauty than that fellow. No wonder we nicknamed him the god.'”
“Poor Almy!" I replied, " he has been dead these three months. Brownell, you were fond of him too: come around to my hotel, and I'll show you something he wrote to me. It's the queerest love-story you ever heard, and has the saddest sequel. Do you know that now, looking back, one of the oddest things about it all is that we should have struck on the nickname for him that we did ?”
In a few minutes we were in my room at the Hôtel Marset, and, having taken Almy's story from my trunk, I read it aloud at Brownell's request. Here it is.
I was neither sleepy nor lonely, as long after midnight I sat before the open fire, holding in my hand a volume of old Persian quatrains. Among these was one which I read and re-read :
For I remember stopping by the way
And with its all-obliterated tongue
It murmured, "Gently, brother, gently, pray !" I was so forcibly struck by this idea of the strange evolution whereby the dust of those who had crumbled back to earth centuries ago might now be serving daily household uses or decorating the shelves of our cabinets, that, rising, I took from behind the glass doors that protect such treasures a small cup of Mexican pottery which I had been irresistibly impelled to purchase a few days before.
As I held it, a curious thrill ran through me, like the touch of a woman's magnetic hand, and there seemed to come from it a little fluttering sigh.
I was so startled that the cup fell from my hand, and, as it broke into a dozen fragments, I heard what sounded like the echo of a low moan. For a moment I was incapable of thought or action. Then there came over me the consciousness of a presence; and, raising my eyes from the shattered cup, I saw the loveliest vision conceivable.
The form was that of a young girl in the first perfection of womanhood. Warm color showed through her olive skin; from her head to her little feet rippled a mass of dusky hair; and a new fascination possessed me as I met the look from her soft dark
eyes. Her picturesque dress consisted of a pale-blue cotton skirt (deeply bordered with the brilliant plumage of tropical birds) and a sleeveless white overdress. This was richly embroidered in gold and held in place by a curiously-wrought girdle of the same precious metal. Her arms, neck, and ankles were hung with ornaments, and on her head rested a little golden diadem thickly studded with precious stones.
Strange though I realized the incident of this presence to be, it produced no fear. An indescribable delight filled me, and memory seemed to be struggling with the barrier of a thousand years; for, like a glimpse of a vanished dream, the Presence seemed dimly familiar.
Whenever I have read of spiritual manifestations,—in which I never put any faith, by the way, it has always seemed to me ridiculous that an audible voice should be attributed to an intangible form. So, in the confused consciousness of a mind partly under the influence of another will, I found amid the mental chaos of the moment a satisfaction that here the unities were to be preserved, as it were. For as the question, “Who and what can you be ?” was formed in my mind, the answer was borne in upon me: “The spirit of an Aztec girl, part of whose mortal clay lies in these broken fragments at your feet.' And during the hour or more that the vision stayed with me, not a sound was heard in the room but the crackling of the fire upon the hearth and the rattle of wintry winds outside the window-panes.
In the noiseless voice of a soul speaking to a sonl, Zuli told me her story. And as scenes were described and incidents narrated, there was ever within me that fruitless groping of memory to grasp somewhere in the past a dimly-remembered existence.
“Four hundred years have passed away,” said the voiceless Zuli, “since for one short month I wandered with my Indian lover through the cool shadows of the cypress groves at noonday, and floated on the rippling waves of Tezcuco, when night above us was deepest blue and silver sheen of stars. One little month of joy unspeakable, though overclouded by an unalterable fate.
“ Among my people it was necessary to propitiate the gods by offering human sacrifices. Sometimes these were criminals, sometimes helpless children, but generally they were the captives taken in war.
“Long before my time the Aztecs had tried unsuccessfully to exact tribute from the Tlascalans; and the two tribes were ever afterward deadly enemies.
“In the many wars between them, no Tlascalan was ever slain if he could be captured alive to serve as a sacrifice.
Among the captives thus 'secured was a noble Tlascalan named Nacetl, who, too brave to flee with his retreating warriors, fought on until overpowered by numbers.
“He was-oh, so beautiful! of majestic height and appearance. His eyes were as blue as the sky, and his hair shone like sunbeams."
She paused ; and as her dark eyes looked with tender steadfastness into mine, I felt again the curious thrill that had passed over me when I touched the now broken cup.
“Zuli,” I asked, “what is the meaning of this dim recognition ? Have I seen you in my dreams ?”
“Do not ask me,” she said. “It is not given to me to fold aside the veil that perplexes you. Hear all I have to tell you.
“Next to the great Supreme Being, we Aztecs worshipped Tezca, the god of all beauty and beneficence. Every year the priests chose from the thousands of captives one of perfect physical beauty to represent this Tezca. He was clothed in magnificent apparel ; stately palaces and gardens were at his disposal, and the king, nobles, and merchants honored and feasted him as if he were the god himself.
“At the end of eleven months a bride was chosen for him, always a maiden of high birth and loveliness ; for it was esteemed a distinguished honor for a family to have one of its daughters wedded to this representative of the god.
“I have told you of the beautiful Nacetl. Upon him fell the fatal choice of the priests.
“Often at banquets and festivals we met, and soon tender words and glances passed between us. Admiration for his beauty and pity for his fate had deepened into unutterable love. And one heavenly night, when we two were alone in the palace gardens, we exchanged our vows of constancy.
“The moonlight fell upon a thousand flowers, whose perfume filled the air. The soft plashing of fountains mingled with the tinkling of distant music, and down below the terrace and far away to Huitlapan rippled the waters of Tezcuco.”
Again Zuli paused. Again I met the trembling radiance of her eyes; and far away in some forgotten century, on some forgotten shore, I seemed to stand with that moonlit lake before me. I heard the plashing fountains and distant music, and the faint ecstasy of a passion long dead seemed to mingle with the perfume of tropical flowers for a moment, and then, as if it were a flash from some unremembered dream, the scene vanished away.
Zuli continued : “After that imagine what joy it was to us when the priests proclaimed that I was to be Nacetl's bride !—and I blessed my beauty, which before had been but little prized by me.
“All this time my lover was unconscious of the fate that awaited him. Immediate death would have been the punishment of any one who informed him of it. So during that golden month nothing marred his happiness but the thought of distant home and people; while I paid for every moment of joy with an agony of fear.
“So the wine of life kept oozing drop by drop, the leaves kept dropping one by one,' until the dawning of the day of doom.
We were standing on the parapet of the palace, looking down upon the hurrying throng pressing towards the lake and across it on their way to the temple of Tezca, to witness the sacrifice.
“ Nearer and nearer drew the procession of priests coming to lead Nacetl to the barge which should bear him away from me forever ; and louder and louder sounded their songs and the music of the instruments.
“ With a sudden determination to die with him, I turned, and, throwing my arms about his neck, told him, with tears of anguish, the fate that lay before us both. And as the priests approached, with one last passionate kiss I unclasped his arms from about me and declared to them that I had revealed their sacred secret.
“Side by side we were led to the lake. Once more we were rocked together upon its trembling breast, and then, leaving it behind us, we began the ascent of the pyramid.
“My parents had been informed of my fate, which their wealth and powerful position could not prevent, and, heart-broken, they were forced to bid me farewell.
“Ah! it was hard to part from them whose love had surrounded all my life, but it would have been harder still to see Nacetl go alone to the sacrificial stone.
“ Higher and higher up the side of the pyramid wound our sad procession, until at last the summit was reached, and six black-robed priests received us.
“Nacetl was bound and laid upon the great jasper stone, and in an instant his heart lay at the feet of the god to whom he and the temple were dedicated.
“One awful moment of agony, and the same knife which had pierced the bosom of my Tlascalan lover sought my heart too; and out upon the great sea of silence floated the souls of Zuli and Nacetl.”
When she paused, my thoughts were for a little while filled with the story I had heard. And then I asked, “In the spirit-world, Zuli, are you and Nacetl always together ?”
“ I may not tell you of the spirit-world," she replied," but through all changes it is given me to sometimes look again into the eyes of my beloved. And for one moment through those windows of the soul our spirits seemed to meet face to face. Then the firelight still flickered on the hearth, and the wintry wind rattled at the casement, but I was alone.
As I laid down the paper from which I had been reading, Brownell relieved his mind by a long whistle.
“I say, Meredith, did you ever notice anything queer about the god' before all this?" he asked.
“Never," I replied. “He was as level-headed a fellow as I ever knew. He sent this to me from Mexico, whither he went early in the winter. After his return he painted a picture of the Indian girl, which attracted a good deal of attention, but he refused to sell it.
“He changed sadly in the next few months. He was no longer the bon camarade of old. And in the studios it began to be whispered that Almy was going mad.
“One night I entered his room, and found him standing before the picture, grasping the fragments of that broken cup.
“I asked him to go out with me; but he only replied, 'Let me alone, Meredith. I am trying to solve the problem of existence.
Good-night, dear friend. — Good-night, my boy,' I said; and, with an uncomfortable feeling that I was the third in that room, I closed the door and came away.
“The next day none of us saw anything of Almy, and, becoming alarmed, we entered his studio and found him lifeless upon the floor before the picture of Zuli. On the table was a package addressed to It contained the volume of Persian quatrains.
Between the leaves was a note, which ran thus :
“I am convinced that just out of reach of my hand—just beyond the portal of this tent which we call life—is waiting for me one who has been my companion spirit since the foundation of time. Before you read these words, old friend, I shall have pushed aside the flimsy barrier that divides me from my beloved.
“Bury this broken cup with me. This picture, so precious to me, I leave to you, my faithful friend.
666 ALMY “Two wavering strokes of a pencil on the enfolding page marked the lines,
“ The Bird of Time has but a little way
“Meredith,” said Brownell, after I had ceased speaking, “ you have let me into a psychological problem, to-night, that I would give a good deal to see through. Truly enough, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. Poor Almy! Come on, old fellow : I must get out into the air and walk off this queer feeling. When I met you this evening I thought I was thirty-six, but now, by Jove! I half believe I am as old as Time himself. Come on p And, lighting our cigars, we tried to forget our friend's fate, and strolled out into the brilliant streets of Paris.
Virginia Bioren Harrison.
EST as thou art,
Just as thou art this bright October morn,
Rest as thou art !
Enriched with all that nature can bestow ;
Fears that a mother's dread alone can know;
A gift from heaven,-