SOMEWHERE in the middle of the sea lies a small island, called the Island of Snakes. It looks like an enormous rock which has been dropped there, nobody knows why, nobody knows when.
Nobody knows either why the island is called the Island of Snakes, nobody has ever seen any snakes upon it, but I know why, and I am going to tell you all about it; it is a very curious story, and I am sure it will interest you very much.
Right in the centre of the island stands a lighthouse. Snow-white its tower rises like a mysterious giant column towards the skies. An old Turk with a white beard guards it. He is a lonesome old fellow, who has almost forgotten the human tongue, so long has he lived there in utter solitude, and when anyone visits him, he mostly talks in gestures, nods his head, shrugs his shoulders, moves his hands about, winks with his eyes, so that you can understand him even if you do not talk Turkish.
One day his grand-daughter came to live with him, because people were getting afraid that the old man might go mad with loneliness, with no company except that of the white seagulls which lived by hundreds and thousands amongst the rocks, filling the air with their weird, melancholy cries—just like distressed little children calling for their mothers.
"He might go mad and forget to light the lamp," people declared, "and so he must have a companion."
The old Turk had too few words to explain that he did not mind his solitude, but that it might be too much for such a very young girl. Nobody seemed to understand his objections, so he gave up trying to explain, nodded his old head and accepted a situation which, after all, had its advantages. Now he need no more cook his own meals, nor tidy up the house; there was something in that, yes, indeed, there was something in that! He would make long, lazy mornings of it, lying in bed, puffing at his old pipe and thinking of I know not what, whilst his grand-daughter cooked and tidied up.
What do you think that a lonely old Turk on a rock in the middle of the sea can think of?
Perhaps of the light which he lights every evening, perhaps of the ships which might pass that way, perhaps of his youth? Perhaps of his Turkish paradise, or perhaps only of his supper? Who knows?
Zuleika, his grand-daughter, was a very beautiful girl with extraordinary red hair; so beautiful was she, in fact, that it really seemed a pity that she should live all alone on a desert island with an old man who only talked in gestures.
But Zuleika had a happy nature, and sang all day long as she went about her work. She loved the blue sky and the deep, restless sea which encircled her; she loved the screeching, twirling, restless seagulls, so white that their wings were like flashes of silver in the moonlight; she loved the smell of camomile flowers, the only plant which grew amongst the rocks, she even loved the storms and the furious winds which tried to tear her red hair from her head. She did not mind the solitude; there was so much joy and youth in her heart that it brightened all things for her, even her mute old grandfather whom she dearly cherished.
"His beard is as white as the walls of his tower," she would declare, "and I like things that harmonize. Also the seagulls seem to have brushed their wings against the whitewash, but I do wonder what they have lost, so as to screech like that all day long!"
Zuleika, as you see, was not to be pitied, and I know that you would have loved the smile of her lips, and the flash of her fine white teeth.
She could take her work easily, because there was never any hurry in this desolate place, no visits to prepare for, no fuss, no worry, no distraction; of course, it could have been called dull, but Zuleika's heart was too merry ever to feel dull; besides she had a vivid imagination, and that is almost like a companion.
Zuleika felt sure that one day something wonderful would happen to her. She dreamed of adventures of all sorts. Beautiful princes generally appeared in these dreams; they had golden curls, and their rich clothing was always of the brightest hue.
"If the sky and the sea are so beautiful," argued Zuleika with herself, "there must be also other beautiful things on earth—so why not also beautiful princes with golden locks?" Then she would laugh, and her glorious teeth would flash in the sunshine, white as her grandfather's lighthouse, white as the seagulls' wings.
"It's a glorious thing to be young," she cried, "and to have a heart that laughs within you, just because you are alive."
She was standing on a high rock on the very edge of the sea. The wind had got hold of her fiery tresses, and was tossing them about like flames. Circling above her against the bright blue sky were a thousand, thousand seagulls, filling the air with their shrieks. The sea was blue as a dark sapphire, and foam, white as snow, dashed up against the foot of the rock where she stood.
All of a sudden her eye was attracted by something extraordinarily shiny, which was gliding towards her over the ground.
It was green and gold and blue, really it had beautiful colours. What could it be? The sun made it shine and flash, then suddenly, when it dipped into a piece of uneven ground, it would become shadowy, then flash again. Zuleika stood quite still, her hair tossed all around her head by the wind. The wind knew how beautiful she was, also the laughing blue sky overhead knew it, and the white foam beneath seemed to long to kiss her feet.
All at once Zuleika understood that what was gliding towards her was a large glittering snake! She stood quite still, overcome by fear at the sight.
"What shall I do?" she said to herself. "I do not want to have to pass the creature, and yet I cannot retreat, because I am quite on the edge of the rock!" And she began to tremble all over, and the seagulls circling above her head shrieked louder than ever.
Once, in very ancient times, Mother Eve was fascinated by a serpent who led her into really bad trouble, and ever since its aspect has had a curious effect upon the daughters of man; they are attracted and repelled all in one.
This is just what was happening to red-haired Zuleika. The serpent had ceased moving, and was staring at the beautiful girl with luminous eyes. The longer it stared, the more completely without will did Zuleika feel; her blood seemed to be turning to water in her veins, she was no more Zuleika at all, only a very submissive being, entirely fascinated by those two eyes which were staring at her.
All at once the snake turned and began sliding off in the opposite direction, and the young girl, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, followed it obediently, just as if an order had been given to her.
The seagulls shrieked their warning, but Zuleika had no ears for their calls; the sea beneath dashed up against the rocks, imploring her to turn back, but Zuleika, with a smile on her lips, followed the serpent over the whole island's length.
* * * * * *
That evening the old Turk waited in vain for his grand-daughter. She did not come. His supper was uncooked, and with much grumbling he scraped together the cold remains of his midday meal, then with stiff legs climbed the long stairs to light his lamp. When he came down again Zuleika had not yet returned.
Of course the old fellow ought to have been very anxious, but he was calm by nature and old age, and the solitude he had for so many years lived in had made him quite unemotional. He simply took his pipe and went to sit outside, watching the stars come out one by one.
"Ah! but that was a nasty supper I ate this evening," he murmured. "It's a pity indeed the lass did not return, I don't want to have to begin my own cooking all over again," and he sighed, rubbing his forehead with his trembling old hand as one who would like to think and cannot.
It became darker and darker, and still he sat there puffing at his pipe. The wind made his white beard tremble, but the stars paid no attention to him at all. All about him was the sound of the sea, the sound he had lived with for so many years.
"The island is not very big," murmured the old man, "one can scarcely get lost upon it, and if the child has fallen into the sea, it's not I who'll be able to fish her out again—but a rare pity it would be!"
And two visions kept rising in his stiff old brain, that of cold suppers and of Zuleika's beautiful red hair floating upon the waves like prodigious seaweed.
"And certainly it would be a pity," he murmured, "such young blood," but more than that he would not worry, except that instead of going inside, he sat there all night under the stars, with his back against the white wall of his lighthouse, even after his pipe had gone out.
And Zuleika, what had happened to Zuleika? Of course you will be wondering, and having a more lively brain than the lighthouse keeper, you will be impatient to know.
The truth is that what happened to Zuleika is so extraordinary, that I am sure it will be difficult for you to believe!
She continued to follow the uncanny but beautiful reptile as though it had been the most natural thing in the world.
Right across the island did the serpent lead her, till they reached the further side, where the rocks were very rough and uneven. Zuleika had generally bare feet, or they were stuck into loose "papuci,"1 for you must not forget that Zuleika was a Turkish girl, and that she wore large baggy trousers of faded blue cotton, a very attractive colour, which made a pleasant harmony with her red hair, and over these trousers she wore a sort of wide cloak of the same material, covering head and shoulders. This cloak she held together under her eyes if she was in male company, but here on the desert island it was not necessary, her grandfather was too old to count as a man; besides, he was her grandfather.
All at once the serpent began gliding down between two rocks, down, down, until it paused before the narrow entry to a cave. Never had the girl, though she had thoroughly explored the island, discovered this cave. This was really most exciting! And so entirely under the snake's spell was Zuleika, that not for a moment did she hesitate to enter the dark tunnel in its wake.
Phew! but it was dark! Zuleika kept stumbling and bumping her head and arms. In places the passage was quite low, so that Zuleika had almost to bend in two. Her strange companion had become faintly phosphorescent, so that she could see it in the dark like a phantom streak of light.
The passage seemed endless, and the girl was beginning to like her adventure no more when suddenly the passage opened out and . . .
Oh, dear, what a sight! Zuleika stood as though frozen to the spot. A shudder of fear ran through her body, but she could not move, her feet seemed rooted to the ground, she simply stood still and stared.
She found herself in a sort of cave, and in the middle of it sat the most terrifying old hag you can possibly imagine. She looked hundreds of years old, and was squatting all of a heap, surrounded by a circle of glittering snakes. Two dripping candles burned on each side of her. Like streaks of mildew her grey-green locks hung down over her withered cheeks. Her eyes were deep-sunken and red-rimmed, her lower lip hung loosely, and her head had a trembling movement, as though mounted on wires.
I cannot tell you what she was dressed in, there was no shape about her at all, her body looked like a thrown-away heap of filthy rags. She certainly was a frightening and horrible sight, and no less frightening were her uncanny companions—really poor Zuleika had been lured into a terrible place!
The horrible old witch had a sort of tom-tom in her hands. This does not sound as though it were a very attractive instrument, but the strange thing was that each time the old horror struck it, a most enchanting melody rose from beneath her skeleton fingers, and it was this music which fascinated the snakes as well as the girl, who never in her life had heard sound more beautiful. It was a strange mixture of harps, bells, and violins, so sweet and alluring that she felt her heart become quite soft within her, and a warm, glorious feeling flow through her veins, as though sunshine had entered her blood.
The old hag kept staring at Zuleika as she beat on her tom-tom; her horrible red-rimmed eyes seemed to have the same power as that of the serpent who had led her to this place, and the girl felt that she was being irresistibly drawn within the circle of snakes, till at last she found herself seated by the side of the old monster, quite near her, and in a dazed way she saw how all the serpents were staring at her, whilst the magic music held her completely under its spell.
All at once the witch stopped playing, and the snakes glided away, rolling themselves up into uncanny coils against the walls of the cave.
"I've been waiting many years for you!" declared the old hag to Zuleika.
"What are you?" asked the girl with quaking voice.
"I'm Zampura, the snake charmer and guardian of treasures and secrets. My years have never been numbered, my wisdom has never been fathomed. All knowledge of things on the earth and under the earth is mine."
"What do you want with me?" asked the frightened girl.
"That you will learn in good time," said the witch, with a toothless grin.
With a shudder, Zuleika moved away a little.
"Oh, no one cares much for me," chuckled the old horror, "except when I play on my tom-tom," and again Zampura touched her wonderful instrument.
Immediately Zuleika felt that extraordinary sensation of well- being, as though the music were sunshine running through her veins.
Putting down her tom-tom, Zampura suddenly called out, "Turo, Turo!" and the serpent who had been Zuleika's leader came gliding towards them from somewhere out of the shade.
"Lead this earth-born with the fiery locks there where thou knowest, and when thou hast reached the last door, there shalt thou leave her. Go!" said the witch, turning to her captive. "Go there where my servant shall lead thee."
"Oh, but I must get back to my grandfather," protested Zuleika; "besides, I would rather go home!"
"Follow my servant," commanded the terrible woman, and as the girl still hesitated between her fear of the witch and her desire to escape, she was suddenly enwrapped again in waves of irresistible harmony, so that tamely she rose to her feet and without further protest followed the serpent, who led her away past its coiled companions, down another tunnel, where there were many doors. These doors opened one after another as Zuleika passed, revealing unheard-of treasures of gold and precious stones. In each room lay different-coloured gems stored up in glittering heaps which dazzled the eye—red, blue, green, violet, flame-coloured—as well as pearls and diamonds; so brilliant were the diamonds that sparks flew out of them like small flashes of lightning.
"Oh, oh, oh!" exclaimed the girl, and she found no other word but "oh!" so dazzled and fascinated was she by these extraordinary riches. She quite forgot to be frightened, it was all like some wonderful dream. Who did this treasure belong to? How in the world had it come there? But the serpent said nothing, nor did it pause; it simply glided on and Zuleika had to follow it.
At last it stopped before a closed door, and hit its head against it three times, like a miniature battering ram. The door opened and Zuleika drew back with a gasp. . . .
She was looking into a small domed cave all of glittering stones, as though the rock were shot through and through with gold. On the floor a rare Persian carpet all blue, green, and brown had been spread, and coiled in the centre lay a huge, huge serpent. . . . But what made this serpent so distinctive from any other was that it had the colour of old ivory, white with yellow shades, and upon its head was a small golden crown, each spike of which was tipped with a pear-shaped pearl! Repulsive and yet beautiful was the terrible creature, and when it raised its head, Zuleika had the uncanny sensation that it was looking at her with human eyes.
Almost without knowing that she was moving, Zuleika stepped into the cave, and as she did so the door shut behind her, and with a shudder she realized that she had been left all alone face to face with the ghostly reptile.
Slowly the creature uncoiled itself and came sliding noiselessly towards the frightened girl's feet. She flattened herself against the wall, tried to scream, but no sound came from her blanched lips.
Nearer, nearer came the sliding, gliding monster! Zuleika had lost her slippers long ago, her feet were quite bare; now she could feel the serpent's cold coils passing over her toes; again she tried to scream, but she seemed to have quite lost her voice. With a gesture of instinctive self-protection she folded her arms over her face, and began to sob convulsively.
All at once the same soft sounds of sweet music which already twice had charmed her came floating through the air, enwrapping her in its waves of irresistible harmony. What happened then she never quite realized, but as the music died down, becoming fainter and fainter, she found herself seated upon the beauteous Persian carpet and coiled in white rings around her was the giant serpent, its head resting upon her knees, looking up at her with its human eyes so full of pain.
This cave also was lighted by two tall, thick candles, stuck into queer-shaped bronze holders. Softly, softly the wax dripped; a faint odour of incense rose from their flames, pervading the place.
"I'm dreaming," said Zuleika to herself, and quite unconsciously she began stroking the great snake's head. "It's no good struggling against a dream, one just has to let oneself live through it, and the happy moment will come when I'll wake up. Now I won't be a bit astonished if this gruesome creature suddenly begins talking to me, it would be well in keeping with all the rest," and hardly had this thought come to the girl, than the serpent lifted its head and actually did speak.
"I'm sad, fair maiden," it said; "sad, so sad, for indeed I am not really a snake at all, but an unfortunate prince under a dreadful spell!" "A prince!" cried Zuleika. Had she not always dreamed of meeting a prince?—but oh, not in this form! She shuddered.
"I make you shudder!" pursued the sad voice, "yet so long have I yearned for human companionship! But it has always been refused me. Lately the burden of my captivity has weighed so heavily upon me that I began to pine away. Old Zampura became anxious, afraid that I should die, therefore has she lured you into my cave, so that I should not mope so much, but I know that I disgust you, and yet I can only be saved through a maiden's love."
Yes, the strange dream was continuing—did ever human maid have so queer a dream! She had always desired adventure, now she was in the middle of adventure so strange that her wildest imagination had never even pictured it—or was it a dream? Was it? The soft voice continued: "All those treasures have been gathered by the terrible old woman through centuries; she is old, old, no one can calculate how old! They are all the treasures gathered in from ships which used to be wrecked upon these rocks, but since the lighthouse has burned upon it there are no more wrecks. This enrages old Zampura, and she hates your grandfather. In hopes of making him forget to light his lamp she has lured you into her caves—and she has sent you to me because she knows I am pining for human company, but she does not know that you could save me!"
"How could I save you?" whispered Zuleika—the serpent's head was now lying on her shoulder.
"You must love me," murmured the creature.
"Oh, but how can I love you!" cried the unfortunate girl.
"Look into my eyes and perhaps you will be able to," implored the poor serpent.
"Oh no, oh no, I want to wake up, I want to go home!" sobbed Zuleika like a little child.
The serpent coiled itself a little nearer and began relating in a whisper, "I am in reality a prince; I belong to a country where the flowers bloom all the year round, where soft silken stuffs are woven, and carpets thick as freshly fallen snow. I possess a palace built of sea-green marble, with ten tall towers which overlook all the land. Birds of paradise fly in and out of the trees in my gardens, where silver fountains tell their secrets to the lovers who stroll 'neath the light of the moon! Fifty milk-white stallions stand in my stables, their hoofs are of polished gold. Peacocks strut over the twenty terraces, and when the sun sets, each evening a silver bell sounds from the highest tower, and its voice is like a prayer which is heard all over my land . . . the serpent paused.
"Go on," murmured Zuleika—her eyes were closed—"go on speaking, it's like a wondrous fairy tale."
"Within the palace," continued the snake, "there are seven different halls in seven different-coloured stones. One is blue as hills seen at a distance, one is pink as the first almond blossom kissed by spring. One is golden as the sun's first greeting, one is green as Paradise meadows, one is white as the North Pole's icefields, one is purple as an emperor's mantle, and the last is black as a starless night. In the centre of its floor splashes a magic fountain, throwing up blue, shining bubbles to the ceiling, which is so high that the eye can hardly see it, and one wonders if it is but the dark sky overhead—the palace floors are each day strewn with the heads of freshly cut roses, red as bleeding hearts. Sweet music sounds from every corner, and in the royal bed-chamber is a couch all covered with silken draperies the colour of the moon. . . ." For a moment the serpent paused, then very gently it said, "And all this can be thine, oh, sweet, sweet maiden, if thou couldst but love a snake!" and now the serpent's head lay under Zuleika's cheek, and Zuleika did not shudder. Indeed, indeed it was a wondrous dream.
* * * * * *
The old lighthouse keeper was standing beneath his tower. The light of the sun shining on rocks and sea dazzled his tired eyes; he had raised his hand to shade them as he gazed out towards the horizon. What was he expecting? What was he waiting for? Really the old man hardly knew.
Something uncomfortable was stirring in his heart, something was wrong with the world. Solitude had never weighed upon him before, but now somehow everything seemed horribly still.
He had hardly held converse with his grand-daughter, had never realized that her glorious youth had gladdened his days. Oh, if only she had never come here! formerly he had not felt his loneliness, but now he could have cried aloud with the desire to see the red-haired maiden once more come towards him with that wondrous smile on her lips.
With a weary sigh the old Turk let his hand sink to his side; no ship gladdened the horizon, no figure of youth came striding towards him over the blooming camomile flowers, crushing their heads 'neath her bare brown feet till the air was full of their pungent perfume.
With dragging steps the lonely man crept back to his small white room. Lighting his pipe he sat down upon his bed, head bent, his hands hanging between his knees. He was not hungry, nothing tasted good any more; even his pipe brought little comfort, and the sea seemed to be sobbing—never before had he noticed how it sobbed.
Suddenly a little sound made him look up, and there stood Zuleika on the doorstep—all the sunshine seemed to stream into the room with her, her head was a blaze of fiery red.
But was it really Zuleika, that pale-faced girl! and where was the smile on her lips?
"Zuleika," said the old man, "Zuleika," and with a little cry Zuleika ran towards him, and throwing herself down on the ground, hid her face on his knees and sobbed.
"Zuleika, Zuleika," no word but her name came to the old Turk's lips, who had quite forgotten how to talk or to express any emotion.
And it was better so; Zuleika did not want to talk. A week had she been absent, and now she knew that what she had lived through had not been a dream; she had returned different from what she was when she had gone away, a lifetime seemed to have been lived through since then.
It was the ivory-coloured serpent who had helped her to escape; it knew the old witch's habits, and had been able to tell her when the cave's entry was unguarded, and thus had she this morning managed to steal away.
But though free, Zuleika was not happy. Something cruelly heavy weighed on her heart. Something like a regret, or more truly, something like a remorse.
The bewitched prince had asked for her love, had implored her to kiss him, once, only once, declaring that thus would the spell which held him captive be broken. But Zuleika had shuddered at the thought, again and again had she tried to overcome her repulsion, and had failed. With eyes as sad as human eyes when filled with grief, the great serpent had looked at her—but even those looks which made the tears start to her eyes had not been able to overcome her repulsion—she could not, could not kiss a snake. . . .
Silently Zuleika went about her work. But how changed she was! The old Turk watched her, and his heart was sad. Zuleika sang no more, laughed no more, Zuleika was like a pale ghost of herself.
Is that the end of Zuleika's adventure? you will be wondering. No, oh no, for this, as I told you, is a very curious story.
When the sun went down, and the old Turk had gone up the long stairs to light his lamp, a great unrest came over the red-haired maiden.
She had prepared and laid out her grandfather's supper, tidied up the room, set things in order; now her work was done, so she sat down on the bed. Everything seemed strange to her, unreal, or was it she who had become unreal? The last rays of the sun were filling the white little room till it became all golden yellow, and then gradually turned rosy-red. And as she sat there a vision rose suddenly before her eyes, the vision of a great palace somewhere in a far-distant land. She was treading on marble floors, which changed colour beneath her feet, till her steps directed her towards a hall all black, so black, that it was as though all at once she had stepped from day into night. . . .
Something was gliding towards her over the marble slabs, something ghostly, and although all around her was dark, impenetrable night, two eyes were gazing at her, two great sad eyes with a look so pleading that Zuleika rose from the bed with a cry, clutching at her red locks with both hands in a wild gesture of fear.
An intolerable longing had stolen into her heart, something that seemed to torture the very soul within her, filling her with aching, pulsing pain.
What was it? Something was driving her, forcing her to leave the small white room. And was that music? Oh, yes, well did she know that tune—she could not resist, it was calling her, calling her away. . . .
Zuleika sprang towards the door; her face was ghastly, pale and trembling were her half-open lips.
But on the threshold she met her grandfather, who stared at her with a puzzled look, then laying his hand on her arm, he quietly led her back into the house.
"Zuleika, Zuleika," he repeated many times, "Zuleika!" and patted her head gently, as we sometimes pat a restive, frightened horse—and that night Zuleika lay all huddled up on the floor beside her grandfather's bed, her head nestling close to his rough old hand.
Four days running, at the hour of sunset, did the same strange unrest come over Zuleika, and each time it was her mute old grandfather who brought some sort of quiet back to her troubled spirit; but the fifth evening the old Turk lingered somewhat longer up there with the lighting of his lamp, and when he came back, the little white room was empty, quite empty, except for the last golden rays of the dying sun, which made it gloriously bright.
"Zuleika, Zuleika," cried the old man, quite distracted, "Zuleika, Zuleika! don't leave me quite alone!"
But his voice received no answer, gradually the golden glow faded quite away, and the old Turk was left all alone, shivering in the gathering shadows of night. . . .
Yes, Zuleika had stolen back to the cave of snakes!
She too had been bewitched! When the hour of sunset came she could remain no more in the lighthouse, a thousand threads seemed drawing soul and body towards the dark place whence she had so desired to escape.
Was it old Zampura's charmed music which was drawing her, or was it . . . was it something else . . .?
Zuleika did not know, did not argue with herself; she was unaccustomed to complicated soul-problems, she only knew that her heart was aching with almost physical pain, tears were in her throat, and her arms felt empty, she knew not of what!
Oh, it could not be that she had really come to love the gruesome ivory-white snake?
Yet she saw its eyes everywhere, in all things; their pleading was always with her, and with it an overwhelming yearning to hear once more the dreaded reptile's soft, tender voice.
Its fate had lain in her hands, hers had been the power to release it from captivity, from the deadly power Zampura had over it, and she had failed. Now peace fled from her, her once quiet life sufficed her no more, all the time she was longing, longing she knew not for what! Was love really stirring within her heart?
As Zuleika reached the cave's entry, she found Turo the snake waiting for her there, as though it had been the most natural thing in the world. Unhesitatingly, she followed him as she had done the first time . . . and there in the centre of the first grotto sat the fearful witch, her wobbly old head shaking and trembling more than ever; her awful red-rimmed eyes staring at her victim, whilst a grin of triumph rendered still more hideous her repulsive mouth.
"Ah, ha, ah, ha!" she chuckled, "so you have come back, have you? and at last some sort of emotion is shaking the half-witted old grandfather of yours, and now when you won't go back at all any more, then perhaps he'll become distracted, and at last forget to light his lamp, which may cause new treasures to find their way to my dwelling; it's already too long since we've had any wrecks!" and the monster laughed a gruesome, sinister laugh.
Zuleika stood quite still, she could not move. Pale as death was she.
"I'm going to make it quite impossible for you ever to go back to your grandfather," continued the tormentor. "Drink this, then you'll be mine, for all time mine!" and with a skeleton hand the witch held out to her captive a small white-jade bowl, filled with some unknown beverage.
Still Zuleika did not move; fascinated as she was by the sorceress, some vestige of will still remained in her; she would not, oh no, she would not swallow that philtre which would change her, God knows into what!
"How dare you disobey me!" screamed the hag, "drink this immediately, or I shall have you stung to death by my snakes!"
But still Zuleika did not budge, it was as though some secret power were urging her to resist.
"Rise up, all my followers," cried the terrible woman, clapping her hands together with a sound of rattling bones; and oh, horror! from all corners of the cave snakes began sliding towards her, a gruesome company, which seemed to rise out of the shadows to destroy this unruly child of man.
Zuleika began to tremble, all her flesh shivered, every drop of blood was turning to ice in her veins, and yet something, something within her urged her to resist.
Now the serpents had formed a circle around her. Their beady eyes were fixed upon her; their forked tongues were darting in and out of their mouths, as though ready at any moment, nay, eager, to strike.
"Once more I call upon you either to drink the draught I offer you, and to become a snake among snakes, or to die by a thousand stings, which those into whose ranks you refuse to enter will inflict upon you with a thousand pains!"
Just as Zuleika was stepping forward to accept the fatal cup, overcome with horror no words can describe, there was a flash like white light, and suddenly she felt that something appallingly powerful was clasping her body in an iron grip! A scream of terror escaped her lips; now, indeed, death was upon her, there was no escape! no escape . . . !
Then all at once, amidst sounds of deadly sweet music, she heard a voice whispering into her ear, "Kiss me, kiss me, and with that one kiss save us both!" and there on her shoulder lay the great white serpent's head, imploring her with its eyes so human in their pain.
Without hesitating, as one who feels death quite near, Zuleika bent down and pressed her warm young lips to the cold, repulsive head of the snake . . . !
A wild cry . . . ! the hissing of many furious reptiles . . . flashes of light, magic strains of music . . . then a sensation of relief, oh, what exquisite relief, and looking up, Zuleika saw smiling down upon her the face of the fairy prince which had haunted the dreams of her youth.
Yes! she was in his arms, her head lay against his heart, he was kissing her eyes, her cheeks, her lips. Golden were his curls as she had always seen them in her visions, upon his head he wore a crown tipped by pear-shaped pearls, and his eyes, his wonderful eyes, were those which had called her so irresistibly back to this gruesome place. . . .
"Thou hast delivered me, O Zuleika!" he said, pressing her passionately against his breast. "With thy kiss of pity and love thou hast given me back life and hope. Now thou art mine, and I shall carry thee off to that enchanted sea-green palace, with its ten tall towers which overlook the whole land. Thou shalt hear my fountains splash, my fifty white stallions will neigh when they hear thee approaching, and all the birds of paradise will follow wherever thou goest!"
Zuleika said nothing, she only knew that this was reality, that now she was not dreaming, and that her heart, her young heart, was burning with love.
Crouched in a horrible heap, all livid with fear, sat the evil witch. It was her turn to shudder and tremble.
"Look not upon the deed I must now do, my Zuleika," spoke the prince, "but justice has to be done; I have been delivered, and now it is my turn to deliver others as unfortunate as I!" and drawing his sword, with one mighty stroke he severed the wicked woman's head from her body, so that it rolled like a horrid ball all over the floor of the cave!
As he did so, a great cry of joy was heard echoing through the place, and a crowd of eager young faces pressed round the lovers, who were clasped in each other's arms.
"We are delivered, we are delivered!" they cried, for all the other snakes had also once been human beings who had fallen into Zampura's hands. Now their former shapes had been given back to them, and therefore mightily did they rejoice.
"Now all is well, thanks to thee," said the prince, "come with me; we shall go to thy grandfather to receive his blessing, then away together over the blue sea towards joy shall we sail!" and taking his bride by the hand, the prince, followed by the happy throng of those who had been delivered, led his beloved out of the fatal cave—but as she passed the terrible head of Zampura, Zuleika hid her face in her hands, for
there it lay grinning, a ghastly, harmless thing.
* * * * * *
The light of the moon was vying with the old Turk's lamp, for in spite of his pain and anxiety he had not forgotten to light the signal which shone far out to sea.
All lonely he sat, propped up against the whitewashed wall. His pipe had gone out, and his hands were trembling, he hardly knew why.
All at once it seemed to him that he espied a great white sail, floating o'er the dark sea towards his rocky isle. And what was that? The sound of many voices all singing together in chorus a song which sounded like a hymn of thanksgiving! Who could be singing on this lonely, lonely night?
Nearer and nearer it came and so beautiful it was that involuntarily the old man folded his hands.
And there stood Zuleika, the moonshine streaming down upon her fiery head, making it look all silvery. By the hand she was holding a young man in costly raiment; so costly, indeed, was his raiment, and so beautiful was his countenance, that naught else could he be but the son of a King.
Behind them in long file were other couples, singing, singing a happy chant, which rejoiced both the moon and the stars. Or were they all but ghostly apparitions? Was he dreaming, was he dreaming? Oh! what had come to pass?
I know not if the old lighthouse keeper ever quite understood what had happened; although Zuleika tried to explain it to him, you must also admit that it was asking rather much of his stiff old brains.
But this he knew: that the ship he had seen sailing towards him 'neath the face of the moon had been no phantom ship, but a costly vessel, such as never before had anchored near his isle, and that next morning it had sailed away with his red-haired Zuleika, sailed away for a far-off shore.
Wrapped in her old faded blue cloak had she stood, holding its worn folds together under her eyes, whilst sacks and sacks of treasure were being heaped about her upon the deck. Oh! what did it all mean, what did it mean?
But one thing was certain: it was a King's son who was standing beside her, and love, ardent love, was shining in both their eyes. Behind them those who had come with them yesterday were once more singing that song which sounded like a hymn of thanksgiving. . . .
Then the ship had begun moving away, slowly, slowly, like a stately swan who knows naught of haste. Zuleika had waved her hand, waved and waved it till he could distinguish her figure no more.
Sadly had the old man wandered back to his lighthouse; never before had the way seemed so long, never had his legs felt so weary, so heavy the weight of years. . . .
A small sack full of something very heavy had the beautiful prince pressed into his hands as he went. . . .
The old man sat down on his usual seat, his back to the whitewashed walls of his tower, face turned towards the heaving, sailless sea. Without curiosity he opened the sack and, diving his hand deep into it, he drew out a number of shining precious stones—blue, green, red, white, violet, they lay sparkling in his palm. Oh, what were they? whence did they come? What did it all mean?
The old Turk shook his head: "I really do not understand anything any more," he sighed. "It's all too confusing; such things ought not to happen to a solitary old man on a rock in the middle of the sea, because his brain simply cannot comprehend what it is all about! But Zuleika? Why did Zuleika leave me? If she meant to leave me, why did Zuleika come here at all?" and again he shook his head.
Round about his tower the seagulls sailed and screeched; there were thousands and thousands of them, and all of them seemed to want to explain to him the things he did not understand, but it was too complicated; then, really they ought not all to talk at once. But none of them really told him why Zuleika had gone!
"Zuleika," murmured the old man, "Zuleika," and a great shining tear rolled down on to his palm, amongst the precious, many-coloured gems. . . .
What did he need with gems? He was old, he was old, and if the seagulls wanted him to understand what they were saying, then why did they all talk at once?
1 "Papuci," heelless slippers.