Meanwhile there were no signs of an inhabitant, either in the house or out of it. It wore in parts an air of emptiness and neglect, not exactly as though gone to seed, but as if little human love and care had been expended there. The deep-set windows of the brick wing, like the sunken eyes of an old woman, peered at the visitor with dusky forlornness. Lonely and stern on the other side stood the Egyptian pilasters, as though unused to the eye of man; the hieroglyphics along the cornice intensified the impression of desertion. As the young man set foot beneath the portico, he laid a hand on one of the slender pillars, to assure himself that it was real, and not a vision. Cool, solid marble met his grasp; the building did not vanish in a peal of thunder, with an echo of demoniac laughter. Yes, all was real!
But the stillness was impressive, and Balder struck the pillar sharply with his palm, merely for the sake of hearing a noise. There was no answering sound, so, after a moment’s hesitation, he walked to the door,—which stood ajar,—purposing to call in the aid of bell and knocker. Neither of these civilized appliances was to be found. While debating whether to use his voice or to enter and use his eyes, the note of the hoopoe fell on his ear. An instant after came an answering note, deeper, sweeter, and stronger,—it thrilled to Balder’s heart, bringing to his mind, by some subtile process, the goddess of the cliff.
He crossed the oak-panelled hall (where the essence of mediaeval England lingered) and came to the threshold of the conservatory. It was a scene confusedly beautiful. The air, as it touched his face, was tropically warm and indolent with voluptuous fragrance of flowers and plants. Luxuriant shrubs, with broad-drooping leaves, stood motionless in the heat. Two palm-trees uplifted their heavy plumes forty feet aloft, on slender stalks, brushing the high glass roof. In the midst of the conservatory a pool slumbered between rocky margins, overgrown with a profusion of reeds, grasses, and water-plants. There floated the giant leaves and blossoms of the tropic water-lily; and on a fragment of rock rising above the surface dozed a small crocodile, not more than four feet long, but looking as old, dried up, and coldly cruel as sin itself!
The place looked like an Indian jungle, and Balder half expected to see the glancing spits of a tiger crouching beneath the overarching leaves; or a naked savage with bow and arrows. But amid all this vegetable luxuriance appeared no human being,—no animal save the evil crocodile. Whence, then, that melodious voice,—clear essence of nature’s sweetest utterances?
At the left of the conservatory was a door, the entrance to the Egyptian temple. It was square and heavy-browed, flanked by short thick columns rising from a base of sculptured papyrus-leaves, and flowering in lotus capitals. Three marble steps led to the threshold, while on either side reclined a sphinx in polished granite, softened, however, by a delicate flowering vine, which had been trained to cling round their necks. On the deep panels of the door were mystic emblems carved in relief. A line of hieroglyphics inscribed the lintel in deep blue, red, and black,—to what purport Balder could not divine.