Read CHAPTER XVI of The Secret Power , free online book, by Marie Corelli, on ReadCentral.com.

That evening Morgana was in one of her most bewitching moods even the old Highland word “fey” scarcely described her many brilliant variations from grave to gay, from gay to romantic, and from romantic to a kind of humorous-satiric vein which moved her to utter quick little witticisms which might have seemed barbed with too sharp a point were they not so quickly covered with a sweetness of manner which deprived them of all malice. She looked her best, too, she had robed herself in a garment of pale shimmering blue which shone softly like the gleam of moonbeams through crystal her wonderful hair was twisted up in a coronal held in place by a band of diamonds, tiny diamonds twinkled in her ears, and a star of diamonds glittered on her breast. Her elfin beauty, totally unlike the beauty of accepted standards, exhaled a subtle influence as a lily exhales fragrance and the knowledge she had of her own charm combined with her indifference as to its effect upon others gave her a dangerous attractiveness. As she sat at the head of her daintily adorned dinner-table she might have posed for a fairy queen in days when fairies were still believed in and queens were envied, and Giulio Rivardi’s thoughts were swept to and fro in his brain by cross-currents of emotion which were not altogether disinterested or virtuous. For years his spirit had been fretted and galled by poverty, he, the descendant of a long line of proud Sicilian nobles, had been forced to earn a precarious livelihood as an art decorator and adviser to “newly rich” people who had neither taste nor judgment, teaching them how to build, restore or furnish their houses according to the pure canons of art, in the knowledge of which he excelled, and now, when chance or providence had thrown Morgana in his way, Morgana with her millions, and an enchanting personality, he inwardly demanded why he should not win her to have and to hold for his own? He was a personable man, nobly born, finely educated, was it possible that he had not sufficient resolution and force of character to take the precious citadel by storm? These ideas flitted vaguely across his mind as he watched his fair hostess talking, now to Don Aloysius, now to Lady Kingswood, and sometimes flinging him a light word of badinage to rally him on what she chose to call his “sulks.”

“He can’t get over it!” she declared, smiling “Poor Marchese Giulio! That I should have dared to steer my own air-ship was too much for him, and he can’t forgive me!”

“I cannot forgive your putting yourself into danger,” said Rivardi “You ran a great risk you must pardon me if I hold your life too valuable to be lightly lost.”

“It is good of you to think it valuable,” and her wonderful blue eyes were suddenly shadowed with sadness “To me it is valueless.”

“My dear!” exclaimed Lady Kingswood “How can you say such a thing!”

“Only because I feel it” replied Morgana “I dare say my life is not more valueless than other lives they are all without ultimate meaning. If I knew, quite positively, that I was all in all to some one being who would be unhappy without me, to whom I could be helper and inspirer, I dare say I should value my life more, but unfortunately I have seen too much of the modern world to believe in the sincerity of even that ‘one’ being, could I find him or her. I am very positively alone in life, no woman was ever more alone than I!”

“But is not that your own fault?” suggested Don Aloysius, gently.

“Quite!” she answered, smiling “I fully admit it. I am what they call ‘difficult’ I know, I do not like ‘society’ or its amusements, which to me seem very vulgar and senseless, I do not like its conversation, which I find excessively banal and often coarse I cannot set my soul on tennis or golf or bridge so I’m quite an ‘outsider.’ But I’m not sorry! I should not care to be INside the human menagerie. Too much barking, biting, scratching, and general howling among the animals! it wouldn’t suit me!”

She laughed lightly, and continued,

“That’s why I say my life is valueless to anyone but myself. And that’s why I’m not afraid to risk it in flying the ‘White Eagle’ alone.”

Her hearers were silent. Indeed there was nothing to be said. Whatever her will or caprice there was no one with any right to gainsay it. Rivardi was inwardly seething with suppressed irritation but his handsome face showed no sign of annoyance save in an extreme pallor and gravity of expression.

“I think,” said Don Aloysius, after a pause “I think our hostess will do us the grace of believing that whatever she has experienced of the world in general, she has certainly won the regard and interest of those whom she honours with her company at the present moment!” and his voice had a thrill of irresistible kindness “And whatever she chooses to do, and however she chooses to do it, she cannot avoid involving such affection and interest as those friends represent ”

“Dear Father Aloysius!” interrupted Morgana, quickly and impulsively “Forgive me! I did not think! I am sure you and the Marchese and Lady Kingswood have the kindest feeling for me! but ”

“But!” and Aloysius smiled “But it is a little lady that will not be commanded or controlled! Yes that is so! However this may be, let us not imagine that in the rush of commerce and the marvels of science the world is left empty of love! Love is still the strongest force in nature!”

Morgana’s eyes flashed up, then drooped under their white lids fringed with gold.

“You think so?” she murmured “To me, love leads nowhere!”

“Except to Heaven!” said Aloysius.

There followed a silence.

It was broken by the entrance of a servant announcing that coffee was served in the loggia. They left the dinner-table and went out into the wonder of a perfect Sicilian moonlight. All the gardens were illumined and the sea beyond, with wide strands of silver spreading on all sides, falling over the marble pavements and steps of the loggia and glistening on certain white flowering shrubs with the smooth sheen of polished pearl. The magical loveliness of the scene, made lovelier by the intense silence of the hour, held them as with a binding spell, and Morgana, standing by one of the slender columns which not only supported the loggia but the whole Palazzo d’Oro as with the petrified stems of trees, made a figure completely in harmony with her surroundings.

“Could anything be more enchantingly beautiful!” sighed Lady Kingswood “One ought to thank God for eyes to see it!”

“And many people with eyes would not see it at all,” said Don Aloysius “They would go indoors, shut the shutters and play Bridge! But those who can see it are the happiest!”

And he quoted

“’On such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise, on such a night
Troilus, methinks, mounted the Trojan walls
And sighed his soul towards the Grecian tents
Where Cressid lay!’”

“You know your Shakespeare!” said Rivardi.

“Who would not know him!” replied Aloysius “One is not blind to the sun!”

“Ah, poor Shakespeare!” said Morgana “What a lesson he gives us miserable little moderns in the worth of fame! So great, so unapproachable, and yet! doubted and slandered and reviled three hundred years after his death by envious detractors who cannot write a line!”

“But what does that matter?” returned Aloysius. “Envy and detraction in their blackness only emphasise his brightness, just as a star shines more brilliantly in a dark sky. One always recognises a great spirit by the littleness of those who strive to wound it, if it were not great it would not be worth wounding!”

“Shakespeare might have imagined my air-ship!” said Morgana, suddenly “He was perhaps dreaming vaguely of something like it when he wrote about ”

’A winged messenger of heaven
When he bestrides the lazy-pacing clouds
And sails upon the bosom of the air!’

“The ‘White Eagle’ sails upon the bosom of the air!”

“Quite true” said the Marchese Rivardi, looking at her as she stood, bathed in the moonlight, a nymph-like figure of purely feminine charm, as unlike the accepted idea of a “science” scholar as could well be imagined “And the manner of its sailing is a mystery which you only can explain! Surely you will reveal this secret? especially when so many rush into the air-craft business without any idea of the scientific laws by which you uphold your great design? Much has been said and written concerning new schemes for air-vessels moved by steam ”

“That is so like men!” interrupted Morgana, with a laugh “They will think of steam power when they are actually in possession of electricity! and they will stick to electricity without moving the one step further which would give them the full use of radio-activity! They will ‘bungle’ to the end! and their bungling is always brought about by an ineffable conceit of their own so-called ‘logical’ conclusions! Poor dears! they ‘get there’ at last and in the course of centuries find out what they could have discovered in a month if they had opened their minds as well as their eyes!”

“Well, then, help them now,” said Rivardi “Give them the chance to learn your secret!”

Morgana moved away from the column where she had leaned, and came more fully into the broad moonlight.

“My dear Marchese Giulio!” she said, indulgently, “You really are a positive child in your very optimistic look-out on the world of to-day! Suppose I were to ‘give them the chance,’ as you suggest, to learn my secret, how do you think I should be received? I might go to the great scientific institutions of London and Paris and I might ask to be heard I might offer to give a ‘demonstration,’” here she began to laugh; “Oh dear! it would never do for a woman to ‘demonstrate’ and terrify all the male professors, would it! No! well, I should probably have to wait months before being ’heard,’ then I should probably meet with the chill repudiation dealt out to that wonderful Hindu scientist, Jagadis Bose, by Burdon Sanderson when the brilliant Indian savant tried to teach men what they never knew before about the life of plants. Not only that, I should be met with incredulity and ridicule ’a woman! a woman dares to assume knowledge superior to ours!’ and so forth. No, no! Let the wise men try their steam air-ships and spoil the skies by smoke and vapour, so that agriculture becomes more and more difficult, and sunshine an almost forgotten benediction! let them go their own foolish way till they learn wisdom of themselves no one could ever teach them what they refuse to learn, till they tumble into a bog or quicksand of dilemma and have to be forcibly dragged out.”

“By a woman?” hinted Don Aloysius, with a smile.

She shrugged her shoulders carelessly.

“Very often! Marja Sklodowska Curie, for example, has pulled many scientists out of the mud, but they are not grateful enough to acknowledge it. One of the greatest women of the age, she is allowed to remain in comparative obscurity, even Anatole France, though he called her a ‘genius,’ had not the generosity or largeness of mind to praise her as she deserves. Though, of course, like all really great souls she is indifferent to praise or blame the notice of the decadent press, noisy and vulgar like the beating of the cheap-jack’s drum at a country fair, has no attraction for her. Nothing is known of her private life, not a photograph of her is obtainable she has the lovely dignity of complete reserve. She is one of my heroines in this life she does not offer herself to the cheap journalist like a milliner’s mannequin or a film face. She will not give herself away neither will I!”

“But you might benefit the human race” said Rivardi “Would not that thought weigh with you?”

“Not in the least!” and she smiled “The human race in its present condition is ’an unweeded garden, things rank and gross in nature possess it merely,’ and it wants clearing. I have no wish to benefit it. It has always murdered its benefactors. It deludes itself with the idea that the universe is for it alone, it ignores the fact that there are many other sharers in its privileges and surroundings presences and personalities as real as itself. I am almost a believer in what the old-time magicians called ’elementals’ especially now.”

Don Aloysius rose from his chair and put aside his emptied coffee-cup. His tall fine figure silhouetted more densely black by the whiteness of the moon-rays had a singularly imposing effect.

“Why especially now?” he asked, almost imperatively “What has chanced to make you accept the idea an old idea, older than the lost continent of Atlantis! of creatures built up of finer life-cells than ours?”

Morgana looked at him, vaguely surprised by his tone and manner.

“Nothing has chanced that causes me any wonder,” she said “or that would ‘make’ me accept any theory which I could not put to the test for myself. But, out in New York while I have been away, a fellow-student of mine just a boy, has found out the means of ’creating energy from some unknown source’ that is, unknown to the scientists of rule-and-line. They call his electric apparatus ’an atmospheric generator.’ Naturally this implies that the atmosphere has something to ‘generate’ which has till now remained hidden and undeveloped. I knew this long ago. Had I not known it I could not have thought out the secret of the ’White Eagle’!”

She paused to allow the murmured exclamations of her hearers to subside, then she went on “You can easily understand that if atmosphere generates one form of energy it is capable of many other forms, and on these lines there is nothing to be said, against the possibility of ‘elementals.’ I feel quite ‘elemental’ myself in this glorious moonlight! just as if I could slip out of my body like a butterfly out of a chrysalis and spread my wings!”

She lifted her fair arms upward with a kind of expansive rapture, the moonbeams seemed to filter through the delicate tissue of her garments adding brightness to their folds and sparkling frostily on the diamonds in her hair, and even Lady Kingswood’s very placid nature was conscious of an unusual thrill, half of surprise and half of fear, at the quite “other world” appearance she thus presented.

“You have rather the look of a butterfly!” she said, kindly “One of those beautiful tropical things or a fairy! only we don’t know what fairies are like as we have never seen any!”

Morgana laughed, and let her arms drop at her sides. She felt rather than saw the admiring eyes of the two men upon her and her mood changed.

“Yes it is a lovely night, for Sicily,” she said. “But it would be lovelier in California!”

“In California!” echoed Rivardi “Why California?”

“Why? Oh, I don’t know why! I often think of California it is so vast! Sicily is a speck of garden-land compared with it and when the moon rises full over the great hills and spreads a wide sheet of silver over the Pacific Ocean you begin to realise a something beyond ordinary nature it helps you to get to the ‘beyond’ yourself if you have the will to try!”

Just then the soft slow tolling of a bell struck through the air and Don Aloysius prepared to take his leave.

“The ‘beyond’ calls to me from the monastery,” he said, smiling “I have been too long absent. Will you walk with me, Giulio?”

“Willingly!” and the Marchese bowed over Lady Kingswood’s hand as he bade her “Good night.”

“I will accompany you both to the gate,” said Morgana, suddenly “and then when you are both gone I shall wander a little by myself in the light of the moon!”

Lady Kingswood looked dubiously at her, but was too tactful to offer any objection such as the “danger of catching cold” which the ordinary duenna would have suggested, and which would have seemed absurd in the warmth and softness of such a summer night. Besides, if Morgana chose to “wander by the light of the moon” who could prevent her? No one! She stepped off the loggia on to the velvety turf below with an aerial grace more characteristic of flying than walking, and glided along between the tall figures of the Marchese and Don Aloysius like a dream-spirit of the air, and Lady Kingswood, watching her as she descended the garden terraces and gradually disappeared among the trees, was impressed, as she had often been before, by a strange sense of the supernatural, as if some being wholly unconnected with ordinary mortal happenings were visiting the world by a mere chance. She was a little ashamed of this “uncanny” feeling, and after a few minutes’ hesitation she decided to retire within the house and to her own apartments, rightly judging that Morgana would be better pleased to find her so gone than waiting for her return like a sentinel on guard. She gave a lingering look at the exquisite beauty of the moonlit scene, and thought with a sigh

“What it would be if one were young once more!”

And then she turned, slowly pacing across the loggia and entering the Palazzo, where the gleam of electric lamps within rivalled the moonbeams and drew her out of sight.

Meanwhile, Morgana, between her two escorts stepped lightly along, playfully arguing with them both on their silence.

“You are so very serious, you good Padre Aloysius!” she said “And you, Marchese you who are generally so charming! to-night you are a very morose companion! You are still in the dumps about my steering the ’White Eagle!’ how cross of you!”

“Madama, I think of your safety,” he said, curtly.

“It is kind of you! But if I do not care for my safety?”

“I do!” he said, decisively.

“And I also!” said Aloysius, earnestly “Dear lady, be advised! Think no more of flying in the vast spaces of air alone alone with an enormous piece of mechanism which might fail at any moment ”

“It cannot fail unless the laws of nature fail!” said Morgana, emphatically “How strange it is that neither of you seems to realise that the force which moves the ‘White Eagle’ is natural force alone! However you are but men!” Here she stopped in her walk, and her brilliant eyes flashed from one to the other “Men! with pre-conceived ideas wedged in obstinacy! yes! you cannot help yourselves! Even Father Aloysius ” she paused, as she met his grave eyes fixed full upon her.

“Well!” he said gently “What of Father Aloysius? He is ‘but man’ as you say! a poor priest having nothing in common with your wealth or your self-will, my child! one whose soul admits no other instruction than that of the Great Intelligence ruling the universe, and from whose ordinance comes forth joy or sorrow, wisdom or ignorance. We are but dust on the wind before this mighty power! even you, with all your study and attainment are but a little phantom on the air!”

She smiled as he spoke.

“True!” she said “And you would save this phantom from vanishing into air utterly?”

“I would!” he answered “I would fain place you in God’s keeping,” and with a gesture infinitely tender and solemn, he made the sign of the cross above her head “with a prayer that you may be guided out of the tangled ways of life as lived in these days, to the true realisation of happiness!”

She caught his hand and impulsively kissed it.

“You are good! far too good!” she said “And I am wild and wilful forgive me! I will say good night here we are just at the gate. Good night, Marchese! I promise you shall fly with me to the East I will not go alone. There! be satisfied!” And she gave him a bewitching smile then with another markedly gentle “Good night” to Aloysius, she turned away and left them, choosing a path back to the house which was thickly overgrown with trees, so that her figure was almost immediately lost to view.

The two men looked at each other in silence.

“You will not succeed by thwarting her!” said Aloysius, warningly.

Rivardi gave an impatient gesture.

“And you?”

“I? My son, I have no aim in view with regard to her! I should like to see her happy she has great wealth, and great gifts of intellect and ability but these do not make real happiness for a woman. And yet I doubt whether she could ever be happy in the ordinary woman’s way.”

“No, because she is not an ‘ordinary’ woman,” said Rivardi, quickly “More’s the pity I think for her!”

“And for you!” added Aloysius, meaningly.

Rivardi made no answer, and they walked on in silence, the priest parting with his companion at the gate of the monastery, and the Marchese going on to his own half-ruined villa lifting its crumbling walls out of wild verdure and suggesting the historic past, when a Cæsar spent festal hours in its great gardens which were now a wilderness.

Meanwhile, Morgana, the subject of their mutual thoughts, followed the path she had taken down to the seashore. Alone there, she stood absorbed, a fairylike figure in her shimmering soft robe and the diamonds flashing in her hair now looking at the moonlit water, now back to the beautiful outline of the Palazzo d’Oro, lifted on its rocky height and surrounded by a paradise of flowers and foliage then to the long wide structure of the huge shed where her wonderful air-ship lay, as it were, in harbour. She stretched out her arms with a fatigued, appealing gesture.

“I have all I want!” she said softly aloud, “All! all that money can buy more than money has ever bought! and yet the unknown quantity called happiness is not in the bargain. What is it? Why is it? I am like the princess in the ‘Arabian Nights’ who was quite satisfied with her beautiful palace till an old woman came along and told her that it wanted a roc’s egg to make it perfect. And she became at once miserable and discontented because she had not the roc’s egg! I thought her a fool when I read that story in my childhood but I am as great a fool as she to-day. I want that roc’s egg!”

She laughed to herself and looked up at the splendid moon, round as a golden shield in heaven.

“How the moon shone that night in California!” she murmured “And Roger Seaton bear-man as he is would have given worlds to hold me in his arms and kiss me as he did once when he ‘didn’t mean it!’ Ah! I wonder if he ever will mean it! Perhaps when it is too late!”

And there swept over her mind the memory of Manella her rich, warm, dark beauty her frank abandonment to passions purely primitive, and she smiled, a cold little weird smile.

“He may marry her,” she said “And yet I think not! But if he does marry her he will never love her as he loves me! How we play at cross-purposes in our lives! he is not a marrying man I am not a marrying woman we are both out for conquest on other lines, and if either of us wins our way, what then? Shall we be content to live on a triumph of power, without love?”