Constantinople; the month of August; the early days of the century. It was the hour of the city's most perfect beauty. The sun was setting, and flung a mellowing glow over the great golden domes and minarets of the mosques, the bazaars glittering with trifles and precious with elements of Oriental luxury, the tortuous thoroughfares with their motley throng, the quiet streets with their latticed windows, and their atmosphere heavy with silence and mystery, the palaces whose cupolas and towers had watched over so many centuries of luxury and intrigue, pleasure and crime, the pavilions, groves, gardens, kiosks which swarmed with the luxuriance of tropical growth over the hills and valleys of a city so vast and so beautiful that it tired the brain and fatigued the senses. Scutari, purple and green and gold, blended in the dying light into exquisite harmony of color; Stamboul gathered deeper gloom under her overhanging balconies, behind which lay hidden the loveliest of her women; and in the deserted gardens of the Old Seraglio, beneath the heavy pall of the cypresses, memories of a grand, terrible, barbarous, but most romantic Past crept forth and whispered ruin and decay.
High up in Pera the gray walls of the English Embassy stood out sharply defined against the gold-wrought sky. The windows were thrown wide to invite the faint, capricious breeze which wandered through the hot city; but the silken curtains were drawn in one of the smaller reception-rooms. The room itself was a soft blaze of wax candles against the dull richness of crimson and gold. Men and women were idling about in that uneasy atmosphere which precedes the announcement of dinner. Many of the men wore orders on their breasts, and the uniforms of the countries they represented, and a number of Turks gave a picturesque touch to the scene, with their jewelled turbans and flowing robes. The women were as typical as their husbands; the wife of the Russian Ambassador, with her pale hair and moonlight eyes, her delicate shoulders and jewel-sewn robe; the Italian, with her lithe grace and heavy brows, the Spanish beauty, with her almond, dreamy eyes, her chiselled features and mantilla-draped head; the Frenchwoman, with her bright, sallow, charming, unrestful face; the Austrian, with her cold repose and latent devil. In addition were the Secretaries of Legation, with their gaily-gowned young wives, and one or two English residents; all assembled at the bidding of Sir Dafyd-ap-Penrhyn, the famous diplomatist who represented England at the court of the Sultan.
Sir Dafyd was standing between the windows and underneath one of the heavy candelabra. He was a small but striking-looking man, with a great deal of head above the ears, light blue eyes deeply set and far apart, a delicate arched nose, and a certain expression of brutality about the thin lips, so faint as to be little more than a shadow. He was blandly apologizing for the absence of his wife. She had dressed to meet her guests, but had been taken suddenly ill and obliged to retire.
As he finished speaking he turned to a woman who sat on a low chair at his right. She was young and very handsome. Her eyes were black and brilliant, her mouth was pouting and petulant, her chin curved slightly outward. Her features were very regular, but there was neither softness nor repose in her face. She looked like a statue that had been taken possession of by the Spirit of Discontent.
"I am sorry not to see Dartmouth," said the great minister, affably. "Is he ill again? He must be careful; the fever is dangerous."
Mrs. Dartmouth drew her curved brows together with a frown which did not soften her face. "He is writing," she said, shortly. "He is always writing."
"O, but you know that is a Dartmouth failing--ambition," said Sir Dafyd, with a smile. "They must be either in the study or dictating to the King."
"Well, I wish my Fate had been a political Dartmouth. Lionel sits in his study all day and writes poetry--which I detest. I shall bring up my son to be a statesman."
"So that his wife may see more of him?" said Sir Dafyd, laughing. "You are quite capable of making whatever you like of him, however, for you are a clever woman--if you are not poetical. But it is hard that you should be so much alone, Catherine. Why are not you and Sioned more together? There are so few of you here, you should try and amuse each other. Diplomatists, like poets, see little of their wives, and Sioned, I have no doubt, is bored very often."
Dinner was announced at the moment, and Mrs. Dartmouth stood up and looked her companion full in the eyes. "I do not like Sioned," she said, harshly. "She, too, is poetical."
For a moment there was a suspicion of color in Sir Dafyd's pale face, and the shadow on his mouth seemed to take shape and form. Then he bowed slightly, and crossing the room offered his arm to the wife of the Russian Ambassador.
* * * * *
The sun sank lower, Constantinople's richer tints faded into soft opal hues, and the muezzin called the people to prayer. From a window in a wing of the Embassy furthest from the banqueting hall, and overlooking the city, a woman watched the shifting panorama below. She was more beautiful than any of her neglected guests, although her eyes were heavy and her face was pale. Her hair was a rich, burnished brown, and drawn up to the crown of her head in a loose mass of short curls, held in place by a half-coronet of diamonds. In front the hair was parted and curled, and the entire head was encircled by a band of diamond stars which pressed the bronze ringlets low over the forehead. The features were slightly aquiline; the head was oval and admirably poised. But it was the individuality of the woman that made her beauty, not features or coloring. The keen, intelligent eyes, with their unmistakable power to soften, the spiritual brow, the strong, sensuous chin, the tender mouth, the spirited head, each a poet's delight, each an artist's study, all blended, a strange, strong, passionate story in flesh and blood--a remarkable face. Her neck and arms were bare, and she wore a short-waisted gown of yellow satin, which fell in shining lines from belt to hem.
Pale as she was she assuredly did not look ill enough to justify her desertion of her guests. As a matter of fact she had forgotten both guests and excuse. When a woman has taken a resolution which flings her suddenly up to the crisis of her destiny she is apt to forget state dinners and whispered comment. To-morrow state dinners would pass out of her life, and they would go unregretted. She turned suddenly and picked up some loose sheets of manuscript which lay on a table beside her--a poem which would immortalize the city her window overlooked. A proud smile curved her mouth, then faded swiftly as she pressed the pages passionately to her lips. She put them back on the table and turning her head looked down the room with much of the affection one gives a living thing. The room was as Oriental as any carefully secluded chamber in the city below. The walls were hung with heavy, soft Eastern stuffs, dusky and rich, which shut out all suggestion of doors. The black marble floor was covered with a strange assortment of wild beasts' skins, pale, tawny, sombre, ferocious. There were deep, soft couches and great piles of cushions, a few rare paintings stood on easels, and the air was heavy with jasmine. The woman's lids fell over her eyes, and the blood mounted slowly, making her temples throb. Then she threw back her head, a triumphant light flashing in her eyes, and brought her open palm down sharply on the table. "If I fall," she said, "I fall through strength, not through weakness. If I sin, I do so wittingly, not in a moment of overmastering passion."
She bent suddenly forward, her breath coming quickly. There were footsteps at the end of the marble corridor without. For a moment she trembled from head to foot. Remorse, regret, horror, fear, chased each other across her face, her convulsed features reflecting the emotions which for weeks past had oppressed heart and brain. Then, before the footsteps reached the door, she was calm again and her head erect. The glory of the sunset had faded, and behind her was the short grey twilight of the Southern night; but in her face was that magic light that never was on sea or land.
The heavy portiere at the end of the room was thrust aside and a man entered. He closed the door and pushed the hanging back into place, then went swiftly forward and stood before her. She held out her hand and he took it and drew her further within the room. The twilight had gone from the window, the shadows had deepened, and the darkness of night was about them.
* * * * *
In the great banqueting-hall the stout mahogany table upheld its weight of flashing gold and silver and sparkling crystal without a groan, and solemn, turbaned Turks passed wine and viand. Around the board the diplomatic colony forgot their exile in remote Constantinople, and wit and anecdote, spicy but good-humored political discussion, repartee and flirtation made a charming accompaniment to the wonderful variety displayed in the faces and accents of the guests. The stately, dignified ministers of the Sultan gazed at the fair faces and jewel-laden shoulders of the women of the North, and sighed as they thought of their dusky wives; and the women of the North threw blue, smiling glances to the Turks and wondered if it were romantic to live in a harem.
At the end of the second course Sir Dafyd raised a glass of wine to his lips, and, as he glanced about the table, conversation ceased for a moment.
"Will you drink to my wife's health?" he said. "It has caused me much anxiety of late."
Every glass was simultaneously raised, and then Sir Dafyd pushed back his chair and rose to his feet. "If you will pardon me," he said, "I will go and see how she is."
He left the room, and the wife of the Spanish Ambassador turned to her companion with a sigh. "So devot he is, no?" she murmured. "You Eenglish, you have the fire undere the ice. He lover his wife very moocho when he leaver the dinner. And she lover him too, no?"
"I don't know," said the Englishman to whom she spoke. "It never struck me that Penrhyn was a particularly lovable fellow. He's so deuced haughty; the Welsh are worse for that than we English. He's as unapproachable as a stone. I don't fancy the Lady Sioned worships the ground he treads upon. But then, he's the biggest diplomate in Great Britain; one can't have everything."
"I no liker all the Eenglish, though," pursued the pretty Spaniard. "The Senora Dar-muth, I no care for her. She looker like she have the tempere--how you call him?--the dev-vil, no? And she looker like she have the fire ouside and the ice in."
"Oh, she's not so bad," said the Englishman, loyally. "She has some admirable traits, and she's deuced clever, but she has an ill-regulated sort of a nature, and is awfully obstinate and prejudiced. It's a sort of vanity. She worries Dartmouth a good deal. He's a born poet, if ever a man was, and she wants him to go into politics. Wants a salon and all that sort of thing. She ought to have it, too. Political intrigue would just suit her; she's diplomatic and secretive. But Dartmouth prefers his study."
The lady from Spain raised her sympathetic, pensive eyes to the Englishman's. "And the Senor Dar-muth? How he is? He is nice fellow? I no meeting hime?"
"The best fellow that ever lived, God bless him!" exclaimed the young man, enthusiastically. "He has the temperament of genius, and he isn't always there when you want him--I mean, he isn't always in the right mood; but he's a splendid specimen of a man, and the most likeable fellow I ever knew--poor fellow!"
"Why you say 'poor fel-low'? He is no happy, no?"
"Well, you see," said the young man, succumbing to those lovely, pitying eyes, and not observing that they gazed with equal tenderness at the crimson wine in the cup beside her plate--"you see, he and his wife are none too congenial, as I said. It makes her wild to have him write, not only because she wants to cut a figure in London, and he will always live in some romantic place like this, but she's in love with him, in her way, and she's jealous of his very desk. That makes things unpleasant about the domestic hearthstone. And then she doesn't believe a bit in his talent, and takes good care to let him know it. So, you see, he's not the most enviable of mortals."
"Much better she have be careful," said the Spanish woman; "some day he feel tire out and go to lover someone else. Please you geeve me some more clarette?"
"Here comes Sir Dafyd," said the Englishman, as he filled her glass. "It has taken him a long time to find out how she is."
The shadow had wholly disappeared from Sir Dafyd's mouth, a faint smile hovering there instead. As he took his seat the Austrian Ambassador leaned forward and inquired politely about the state of Lady Sioned's health.
"She is sleeping quietly," said Sir Dafyd.
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