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ARDATH

THE STORY OF A DEAD SELF

BY MARIE CORELLI

AUTHOR OF "THELMA," ETC.

PART I.--SAINT AND SCEPTIC

"What merest whim Seems all this poor endeavor after Fame To one who keeps within his steadfast aim A love immortal, an Immortal too! Look not so 'wildered, for these things are true And never can be borne of atomics That buzz about our slumbers like brain-flies Leaving us fancy-sick. No, I am sure My restless spirit never could endure To brood so long upon one luxury. Unless it did, though fearfully, espy A HOPE BEYOND THE SHADOW OF A DREAM!"

KEATS.

CHAPTER I.

THE MONASTERY.

Deep in the heart of the Caucasus mountains a wild storm was gathering. Drear shadows drooped and thickened above the Pass of Dariel,--that terrific gorge which like a mere thread seems to hang between the toppling frost-bound heights above and the black abysmal depths below,--clouds, fringed ominously with lurid green and white, drifted heavily yet swiftly across the jagged peaks where, looming largely out of the mist, the snow-capped crest of Mount Kazbek rose coldly white against the darkness of the threatening sky. Night was approaching, though away to the west a road gash of crimson, a seeming wound in the breast of heaven, showed where the sun had set an hour since. Now and again the rising wind moaned sobbingly through the tall and spectral pines that, with knotted roots fast clenched in the reluctant earth, clung tenaciously to their stony vantageground; and mingling with its wailing murmur, there came a distant hoarse roaring as of tumbling torrents, while at far-off intervals could be heard the sweeping thud of an avalanche slipping from point to point on its disastrous downward way. Through the wreathing vapors the steep, bare sides of the near mountains were pallidly visible, their icy pinnacles, like uplifted daggers, piercing with sharp glitter the density of the low-hanging haze, from which large drops of moisture began presently to ooze rather than fall. Gradually the wind increased, and soon with sudden fierce gusts shook the pine- trees into shuddering anxiety,--the red slit in the sky closed, and a gleam of forked lightning leaped athwart the driving darkness. An appalling crash of thunder followed almost instantaneously, its deep boom vibrating in sullenly grand echoes on all sides of the Pass, and then--with a swirling, hissing rush of rain--the unbound hurricane burst forth alive and furious. On, on! splitting huge boughs and flinging them aside like straws, swelling the rivers into riotous floods that swept hither and thither, carrying with them masses of rock and stone and tons of loosened snow--on, on! with pitiless force and destructive haste, the tempest rolled, thundered, and shrieked its way through Dariel. As the night darkened and the clamor of the conflicting elements grew more sustained and violent, a sudden sweet sound floated softly through the turbulent air--the slow, measured tolling of a bell. To and fro, to and fro, the silvery chime swung with mild distinctness--it was the vesper-bell ringing in the Monastery of Lars far up among the crags crowning the ravine. There the wind roared and blustered its loudest; it whirled round and round the quaint castellated building, battering the gates and moving their heavy iron hinges to a most dolorous groaning; it flung rattling hailstones at the narrow windows, and raged and howled at every corner and through every crevice; while snaky twists of lightning played threateningly over the tall iron Cross that surmounted the roof, as though bent on striking it down and splitting open the firm old walls it guarded. All was war and tumult without:--but within, a tranquil peace prevailed, enhanced by the grave murmur of organ music; men's voices mingling together in mellow unison chanted the Magnificat, and the uplifted steady harmony of the grand old anthem rose triumphantly above the noise of the storm. The monks who inhabited this mountain eyrie, once a fortress, now a religious refuge, were assembled in their little chapel--a sort of grotto roughly hewn out of the natural rock. Fifteen in number, they stood in rows of three abreast, their white woollen robes touching the ground, their white cowls thrown back, and their dark faces and flashing eyes turned devoutly toward the altar whereon blazed in strange and solitary brilliancy a Cross of Fire. At the first glance it was easy to see that they were a peculiar Community devoted to some peculiar form of worship, for their costume was totally different in character and detail from any such as are worn by the various religious fraternities of the Greek, Roman, or Armenian faith, and one especial feature of their outward appearance served as a distinctly marked sign of their severance from all known monastic orders--this was the absence of the disfiguring tonsure. They were all fine-looking men seemingly in the prime of life, and they intoned the Magnificat not drowsily or droningly, but with a rich tunefulness and warmth of utterance that stirred to a faint surprise and contempt the jaded spirit of one reluctant listener present among them. This was a stranger who had arrived that evening at the monastery, and who intended remaining there for the night--a man of distinguished and somewhat haughty bearing, with a dark, sorrowful, poetic face, chiefly remarkable for its mingled expression of dreamy ardor and cold scorn, an expression such as the unknown sculptor of Hadrian's era caught and fixed in the marble of his ivy-crowned Bacchus-Antinous, whose half-sweet, half-cruel smile suggests a perpetual doubt of all things and all men. He was clad in the rough-and-ready garb of the travelling Englishman, and his athletic figure in its plain-cut modern attire looked curiously out of place in that mysterious grotto which, with its rocky walls and flaming symbol of salvation, seem suited only to the picturesque prophet-like forms of the white-gowned brethren whom he now surveyed, as he stood behind their ranks, with a gleam of something like mockery in his proud, weary eyes.

"What sort of fellows are these?" he mused--"fools or knaves? They must be one or the other,--else they would not thus chant praises to a Deity of whose existence there is, and can be, no proof. It is either sheer ignorance or hypocrisy,--or both combined. I can pardon ignorance, but not hypocrisy; for however dreary the results of Truth, yet Truth alone prevails; its killing bolt destroys the illusive beauty of the Universe, but what then? Is it not better so than that the Universe should continue to seem beautiful only through the medium of a lie?"

His straight brows drew together in a puzzled, frowning line as he asked himself this question, and he moved restlessly. He was becoming impatient; the chanting of the monks grew monotonous to his ears; the lighted cross on the altar dazzled him with its glare. Moreover he disliked all forms of religious service, though as a lover of classic lore it is probable he would have witnessed a celebration in honor of Apollo or Diana with the liveliest interest. But the very name of Christianity was obnoxious to him. Like Shelley, he considered that creed a vulgar and barbarous superstition. Like Shelley, he inquired, "If God has spoken, why is the world not convinced?" He began to wish he had never set foot inside this abode of what he deemed a pretended sanctity, although as a matter of fact he had a special purpose of his own in visiting the place-a purpose so utterly at variance with the professed tenets of his present life and character that the mere thought of it secretly irritated him, even while he was determined to accomplish it. As yet he had only made acquaintance with two of the monks, courteous, good-humored personages, who had received him on his arrival with the customary hospitality which it was the rule of the monastery to afford to all belated wayfarers journeying across the perilous Pass of Dariel. They had asked him no questions as to his name or nation, they had simply seen in him a stranger overtaken by the storm and in need of shelter, and had entertained him accordingly. They had conducted him to the refectory, where a well-piled log fire was cheerfully blazing, and there had set before him an excellent supper, flavored with equally excellent wine. He had, however, scarcely begun to converse with them when the vesper-bell had rung, and, obedient to its summons, they had hurried away, leaving him to enjoy his repast in solitude. When he had finished it, he had sat for a while dreamily listening to the solemn strains of the organ, which penetrated to every part of the building, and then moved by a vague curiosity to see how many men there were dwelling thus together in this lonely retreat, perched like an eagle's nest among the frozen heights of Caucasus, he had managed to find his way, guided by the sound of the music, through various long corridors and narrow twisting passages, into the cavernous grot where he now stood, feeling infinitely bored and listlessly dissatisfied. His primary object in entering the chapel had been to get a good full view of the monks, and of their faces especially,--but at present this was impossible, as from the position he was obliged to occupy behind them their backs alone were visible.

"And who knows," he thought moodily, "how long they will go on intoning their dreary Latin doggerel? Priestcraft and Sham! There's no escape from it anywhere, not even in the wilds of Caucasus! I wonder if the man I seek is really here, or whether after all I have been misled? There are so many contradictory stories told about him that one doesn't know what to believe. It seems incredible that he should be a monk; it is such an altogether foolish ending to an intellectual career. For whatever may be the form of faith professed by this particular fraternity, the absurdity of the whole system of religion remains the same. Religion's day is done; the very sense of worship is a mere coward instinct--a relic of barbarism which is being gradually eradicated from our natures by the progress of civilization. The world knows by this time that creation is an empty jest; we are all beginning to understand its bathos! And if we must grant that there is some


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