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´╗┐Title: Ayesha, the Return of She
Author: Haggard, H. Rider (Henry Rider), 1856-1925
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Ayesha, the Return of She" ***

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AYESHA

THE RETURN OF SHE

By H. Rider Haggard


     "Here ends this history so far as it concerns science and the
     outside world. What its end will be as regards Leo and myself is
     more than I can guess. But we feel that it is not reached. . . .
     Often I sit alone at night, staring with the eyes of my mind into
     the blackness of unborn time, and wondering in what shape and form
     the great drama will be finally developed, and where the scene of
     its next act will be laid. And when, ultimately, that _final_
     development occurs, as I have no doubt it must and will occur, in
     obedience to a fate that never swerves and a purpose which cannot
     be altered, what will be the part played therein by that beautiful
     Egyptian Amenar-tas, the Princess of the royal house of the
     Pharaohs, for the love of whom the priest Kallikrates broke his
     vows to Isis, and, pursued by the vengeance of the outraged
     goddess, fled down the coast of Lybia to meet his doom at Kor?"--
     _She_, Silver Library Edition, p. 277.


DEDICATION

My dear Lang,

The appointed years--alas! how many of them--are gone by, leaving Ayesha
lovely and loving and ourselves alive. As it was promised in the Caves
of Kor _She_ has returned again.

To you therefore who accepted the first, I offer this further history of
one of the various incarnations of that Immortal.

My hope is that after you have read her record, notwithstanding her
subtleties and sins and the shortcomings of her chronicler (no easy
office!) you may continue to wear your chain of "loyalty to our lady
Ayesha." Such, I confess, is still the fate of your old friend

H. RIDER HAGGARD.

DITCHINGHAM, 1905.



AUTHOR'S NOTE

Not with a view of conciliating those readers who on principle object to
sequels, but as a matter of fact, the Author wishes to say that he does
not so regard this book.

Rather does he venture to ask that it should be considered as the
conclusion of an imaginative tragedy (if he may so call it) whereof one
half has been already published.

This conclusion it was always his desire to write should he be destined
to live through those many years which, in obedience to his original
design, must be allowed to lapse between the events of the first and
second parts of the romance.

In response to many enquiries he may add that the name Ayesha, which
since the days of the prophet Mahomet, who had a wife so called, and
perhaps before them, has been common in the East, should be pronounced
_Assha_.



INTRODUCTION

Verily and indeed it is the unexpected that happens! Probably if there
was one person upon the earth from whom the Editor of this, and of a
certain previous history, did not expect to hear again, that person was
Ludwig Horace Holly. This, too, for a good reason; he believed him to
have taken his departure from the earth.

When Mr. Holly last wrote, many, many years ago, it was to transmit the
manuscript of _She_, and to announce that he and his ward, Leo Vincey,
the beloved of the divine Ayesha, were about to travel to Central Asia
in the hope, I suppose, that there she would fulfil her promise and
appear to them again.

Often I have wondered, idly enough, what happened to them there; whether
they were dead, or perhaps droning their lives away as monks in some
Thibetan Lamasery, or studying magic and practising asceticism under
the tuition of the Eastern Masters trusting that thus they would build a
bridge by which they might pass to the side of their adored Immortal.

Now at length, when I had not thought of them for months, without a
single warning sign, out of the blue as it were, comes the answer to
these wonderings!

To think--only to think--that I, the Editor aforesaid, from its
appearance suspecting something quite familiar and without interest,
pushed aside that dingy, unregistered, brown-paper parcel directed in an
unknown hand, and for two whole days let it lie forgotten. Indeed there
it might be lying now, had not another person been moved to curiosity,
and opening it, found within a bundle of manuscript badly burned upon
the back, and with this two letters addressed to myself.

Although so great a time had passed since I saw it, and it was shaky
now because of the author's age or sickness, I knew the writing at
once--nobody ever made an "H" with that peculiar twirl under it except
Mr. Holly. I tore open the sealed envelope, and sure enough the first
thing my eye fell upon was the signature, _L. H. Holly_. It is long
since I read anything so eagerly as I did that letter. Here it is:--

"My dear sir,--I have ascertained that you still live, and strange to
say I still live also--for a little while.

"As soon as I came into touch with civilization again I found a copy of
your book _She_, or rather of my book, and read it--first of all in a
Hindostani translation. My host--he was a minister of some religious
body, a man of worthy but prosaic mind--expressed surprise that a 'wild
romance' should absorb me so much. I answered that those who have wide
experience of the hard facts of life often find interest in romance. Had
he known what were the hard facts to which I alluded, I wonder what that
excellent person would have said?

"I see that you carried out your part of the business well and
faithfully. Every instruction has been obeyed, nothing has been added or
taken away. Therefore, to you, to whom some twenty years ago I entrusted
the beginning of the history, I wish to entrust its end also. You were
the first to learn of _She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed_, who from century to
century sat alone, clothed with unchanging loveliness in the sepulchres
of Kor, waiting till her lost love was born again, and Destiny brought
him back to her.

"It is right, therefore, that you should be the first to learn also of
Ayesha, Hesea and Spirit of the Mountain, the priestess of that Oracle
which since the time of Alexander the Great has reigned between the
flaming pillars in the Sanctuary, the last holder of the sceptre of Hes
or Isis upon the earth. It is right also that to you first among men
I should reveal the mystic consummation of the wondrous tragedy which
began at Kor, or perchance far earlier in Egypt and elsewhere.

"I am very ill; I have struggled back to this old house of mine to die,
and my end is at hand. I have asked the doctor here, after all is over,
to send you the Record, that is unless I change my mind and burn it
first. You will also receive, if you receive anything at all, a case
containing several rough sketches which may be of use to you, and a
_sistrum_, the instrument that has been always used in the worship of
the Nature goddesses of the old Egyptians, Isis and Hathor, which you
will see is as beautiful as it is ancient. I give it to you for two
reasons; as a token of my gratitude and regard, and as the only piece of
evidence that is left to me of the literal truth of what I have written
in the accompanying manuscript, where you will find it often mentioned.
Perhaps also you will value it as a souvenir of, I suppose, the
strangest and loveliest being who ever was, or rather, is. It was her
sceptre, the rod of her power, with which I saw her salute the Shadows
in the Sanctuary, and her gift to me.

"It has virtues also; some part of Ayesha's might yet haunts the symbol
to which even spirits bowed, but if you should discover them, beware how
they are used.

"I have neither the strength nor the will to write more. The Record must
speak for itself. Do with it what you like, and believe it or not as you
like. I care nothing who know that it is true.

"Who and what was Ayesha, nay, what _is_ Ayesha? An incarnate essence,
a materialised spirit of Nature the unforeseeing, the lovely, the cruel
and the immortal; ensouled alone, redeemable only by Humanity and its
piteous sacrifice? Say you! I have done with speculations who depart to
solve these mysteries.

"_I_ wish you happiness and good fortune. Farewell to you and to all.

"L. Horace Holly."


I laid the letter down, and, filled with sensations that it is useless
to attempt to analyse or describe, opened the second envelope, of which
I also print the contents, omitting only certain irrelevant portions,
and the name of the writer as, it will be noted, he requests me to do.

This epistle, that was dated from a remote place upon the shores of
Cumberland, ran as follows:--

"Dear sir,--As the doctor who attended Mr. Holly in his last illness I
am obliged, in obedience to a promise that I made to him, to become an
intermediary in a some what strange business, although in truth it is
one of which I know very little, however much it may have interested me.
Still I do so only on the strict understanding that no mention is to
be made of my name in connexion with the matter, or of the locality in
which I practise.

"About ten days ago I was called in to see Mr. Holly at an old house
upon the Cliff that for many years remained untenanted except by the
caretakers, which house was his property, and had been in his family for
generations. The housekeeper who summoned me told me that her master had
but just returned from abroad, somewhere in Asia, she said, and that
he was very ill with his heart--dying, she believed; both of which
suppositions proved to be accurate.

"I found the patient sitting up in bed (to ease his heart), and a
strange-looking old man he was. He had dark eyes, small but full of fire
and intelligence, a magnificent and snowy-white beard that covered a
chest of extraordinary breadth, and hair also white, which encroached
upon his forehead and face so much that it met the whiskers upon his
cheeks. His arms were remarkable for their length and strength, though
one of them seemed to have been much torn by some animal. He told me
that a dog had done this, but if so it must have been a dog of unusual
power. He was a very ugly man, and yet, forgive the bull, beautiful. I
cannot describe what I mean better than by saying that his face was
not like the face of any ordinary mortal whom I have met in my
limited experience. Were I an artist who wished to portray a wise and
benevolent, but rather grotesque spirit, I should take that countenance
as a model.

"Mr. Holly was somewhat vexed at my being called in, which had been done
without his knowledge. Soon we became friendly enough, however, and he
expressed gratitude for the relief that I was able to give him, though
I could not hope to do more. At different times he talked a good deal
of the various countries in which he had travelled, apparently for very
many years, upon some strange quest that he never clearly denned to
me. Twice also he became light-headed, and spoke, for the most part in
languages that I identified as Greek and Arabic; occasionally in English
also, when he appeared to be addressing himself to a being who was the
object of his veneration, I might almost say of his worship. What
he said then, however, I prefer not to repeat, for I heard it in my
professional capacity.

"One day he pointed to a rough box made of some foreign wood (the same
that I have now duly despatched to you by train), and, giving me your
name and address, said that without fail it was to be forwarded to you
after his death. Also he asked me to do up a manuscript, which, like the
box, was to be sent to you.

"He saw me looking at the last sheets, which had been burned away, and
said (I repeat his exact words)--

"'Yes, yes, that can't be helped now, it must go as it is. You see I
made up my mind to destroy it after all, and it was already on the fire
when the command came--the clear, unmistakable command--and I snatched
it off again.'

"What Mr. Holly meant by this 'command' I do not know, for he would
speak no more of the matter.

"I pass on to the last scene. One night about eleven o'clock, knowing
that my patient's end was near, I went up to see him, proposing to
inject some strychnine to keep the heart going a little longer. Before
I reached the house I met the caretaker coming to seek me in a great
fright, and asked her if her master was dead. She answered No; but he
was _gone_--had got out of bed and, just as he was, barefooted, left
the house, and was last seen by her grandson among the very Scotch firs
where we were talking. The lad, who was terrified out of his wits, for
he thought that he beheld a ghost, had told her so.

"The moonlight was very brilliant that night, especially as fresh snow
had fallen, which reflected its rays. I was on foot, and began to search
among the firs, till presently just outside of them I found the track of
naked feet in the snow. Of course I followed, calling to the housekeeper
to go and wake her husband, for no one else lives near by. The spoor
proved very easy to trace across the clean sheet of snow. It ran up the
slope of a hill behind the house.

"Now, on the crest of this hill is an ancient monument of upright
monoliths set there by some primeval people, known locally as the
Devil's Ring--a sort of miniature Stonehenge in fact. I had seen it
several times, and happened to have been present not long ago at a
meeting of an archaeological society when its origin and purpose were
discussed. I remember that one learned but somewhat eccentric gentleman
read a short paper upon a rude, hooded bust and head that are cut within
the chamber of a tall, flat-topped cromlech, or dolmen, which stands
alone in the centre of the ring.

"He said that it was a representation of the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and
that this place had once been sacred to some form of her worship, or at
any rate to that of a Nature goddess with like attributes, a suggestion
which the other learned gentlemen treated as absurd. They declared that
Isis had never travelled into Britain, though for my part I do not see
why the Phoenicians, or even the Romans, who adopted her cult, more
or less, should not have brought it here. But I know nothing of such
matters and will not discuss them.

"I remembered also that Mr. Holly was acquainted with this place, for
he had mentioned it to me on the previous day, asking if the stones were
still uninjured as they used to be when he was young. He added also, and
the remark struck me, that yonder was where he would wish to die. When I
answered that I feared he would never take so long a walk again, I noted
that he smiled a little.

"Well, this conversation gave me a clue, and without troubling more
about the footprints I went on as fast as I could to the Ring, half a
mile or so away. Presently I reached it, and there--yes, there--standing
by the cromlech, bareheaded, and clothed in his night-things only,
stood Mr. Holly in the snow, the strangest figure, I think, that ever I
beheld.

"Indeed never shall I forget that wild scene. The circle of rough,
single stones pointing upwards to the star-strewn sky, intensely lonely
and intensely solemn: the tall trilithon towering above them in the
centre, its shadow, thrown by the bright moon behind it, lying long
and black upon the dazzling sheet of snow, and, standing clear of this
shadow so that I could distinguish his every motion, and even the rapt
look upon his dying face, the white-draped figure of Mr. Holly. He
appeared to be uttering some invocation--in Arabic, I think--for long
before I reached him I could catch the tones of his full, sonorous
voice, and see his waving, outstretched arms. In his right hand he held
the looped sceptre which, by his express wish I send to you with the
drawings. I could see the flash of the jewels strung upon the wires, and
in the great stillness, hear the tinkling of its golden bells.

"Presently, too, I seemed to become aware of another presence, and now
you will understand why I desire and must ask that my identity should
be suppressed. Naturally enough I do not wish to be mixed up with a
superstitious tale which is, on the face of it, impossible and absurd.
Yet under all the circumstances I think it right to tell you that I saw,
or thought I saw, something gather in the shadow of the central dolmen,
or emerge from its rude chamber--I know not which for certain--something
bright and glorious which gradually took the form of a woman upon whose
forehead burned a star-like fire.

"At any rate the vision or reflection, or whatever it was, startled me
so much that I came to a halt under the lee of one of the monoliths, and
found myself unable even to call to the distraught man whom I pursued.

"Whilst I stood thus it became clear to me that Mr. Holly also saw
something. At least he turned towards the Radiance in the shadow,
uttered one cry; a wild, glad cry, and stepped forward; then seemed to
fall _through it_ on to his face.

"When I reached the spot the light had vanished, and all I found was Mr.
Holly, his arms still outstretched, and the sceptre gripped tightly in
his hand, lying quite dead in the shadow of the trilithon."


The rest of the doctor's letter need not be quoted as it deals only with
certain very improbable explanations of the origin of this figure of
light, the details of the removal of Holly's body, and of how he managed
to satisfy the coroner that no inquest was necessary.

The box of which he speaks arrived safely. Of the drawings in it I need
say nothing, and of the _sistrum_ or sceptre only a few words. It was
fashioned of crystal to the well-known shape of the _Crux-ansata_, or
the emblem of life of the Egyptians; the rod, the cross and the loop
combined in one. From side to side of this loop ran golden wires, and on
these were strung gems of three colours, glittering diamonds, sea-blue
sapphires, and blood-red rubies, while to the fourth wire, that at the
top, hung four little golden bells.

When I took hold of it first my arm shook slightly with excitement, and
those bells began to sound; a sweet, faint music like to that of chimes
heard far away at night in the silence of the sea. I thought too, but
perhaps this was fancy, that a thrill passed from the hallowed and
beautiful thing into my body.

On the mystery itself, as it is recorded in the manuscript, I make no
comment. Of it and its inner significations every reader must form his
or her own judgment. One thing alone is clear to me--on the hypothesis
that Mr. Holly tells the truth as to what he and Leo Vincey saw
and experienced, which I at least believe--that though sundry
interpretations of this mystery were advanced by Ayesha and others, none
of them are quite satisfactory.

Indeed, like Mr. Holly, I incline to the theory that She, if I may still
call her by that name although it is seldom given to her in these pages,
put forward some of them, such as the vague Isis-myth, and the wondrous
picture-story of the Mountain-fire, as mere veils to hide the truth
which it was her purpose to reveal at last in that song she never sang.

The Editor.



AYESHA

The Further History of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed



CHAPTER I

THE DOUBLE SIGN

Hard on twenty years have gone by since that night of Leo's vision--the
most awful years, perhaps, which were ever endured by men--twenty years
of search and hardship ending in soul-shaking wonder and amazement.

My death is very near to me, and of this I am glad, for I desire to
pursue the quest in other realms, as it has been promised to me that I
shall do. I desire to learn the beginning and the end of the spiritual
drama of which it has been my strange lot to read some pages upon earth.

I, Ludwig Horace Holly, have been very ill; they carried me, more dead
than alive, down those mountains whose lowest slopes I can see from my
window, for I write this on the northern frontiers of India. Indeed any
other man had long since perished, but Destiny kept my breath in me,
perhaps that a record might remain. I, must bide here a month or two
till I am strong enough to travel homewards, for I have a fancy to die
in the place where I was born. So while I have strength I will put the
story down, or at least those parts of it that are most essential, for
much can, or at any rate must, be omitted. I shrink from attempting too
long a book, though my notes and memory would furnish me with sufficient
material for volumes.

I will begin with the Vision.

After Leo Vincey and I came back from Africa in 1885, desiring solitude,
which indeed we needed sorely to recover from the fearful shock we had
experienced, and to give us time and opportunity to think, we went to an
old house upon the shores of Cumberland that has belonged to my family
for many generations. This house, unless somebody has taken it believing
me to be dead, is still my property and thither I travel to die.

Those whose eyes read the words I write, if any should ever read them,
may ask--What shock?

Well, I am Horace Holly, and my companion, my beloved friend, my son in
the spirit whom I reared from infancy was--nay, is--Leo Vincey.

We are those men who, following an ancient clue, travelled to the Caves
of Kor in Central Africa, and there discovered her whom we sought,
the immortal _She-who-must-be-obeyed_. In Leo she found her love, that
re-born Kallikrates, the Grecian priest of Isis whom some two thousand
years before she had slain in her jealous rage, thus executing on him
the judgment of the angry goddess. In her also I found the divinity whom
I was doomed to worship from afar, not with the flesh, for that is all
lost and gone from me, but, what is sorer still, because its burden
is undying, with the will and soul which animate a man throughout the
countless eons of his being. The flesh dies, or at least it changes, and
its passions pass, but that other passion of the spirit--that longing
for oneness--is undying as itself.

What crime have I committed that this sore punishment should be laid
upon me? Yet, in truth, is it a punishment? May it not prove to be
but that black and terrible Gate which leads to the joyous palace of
Rewards? She swore that I should ever be her friend and his and dwell
with them eternally, and I believe her.

For how many winters did we wander among the icy hills and deserts!
Still, at length, the Messenger came and led us to the Mountain, and on
the Mountain we found the Shrine, and in the Shrine the Spirit. May not
these things be an allegory prepared for our instruction? I will take
comfort. I will hope that it is so. Nay, I am sure that it is so.

It will be remembered that in Kor we found the immortal woman. There
before the flashing rays and vapours of the Pillar of Life she declared
her mystic love, and then in our very sight was swept to a doom so
horrible that even now, after all which has been and gone, I shiver at
its recollection. Yet what were Ayesha's last words? "_Forget me
not . . . have pity on my shame. I die not. I shall come again and shall
once more be beautiful. I swear it--it is true._"

Well, I cannot set out that history afresh. Moreover it is written; the
man whom I trusted in the matter did not fail me, and the book he made
of it seems to be known throughout the world, for I have found it here
in English, yes, and read it first translated into Hindostani. To it
then I refer the curious.

In that house upon the desolate sea-shore of Cumberland, we dwelt a
year, mourning the lost, seeking an avenue by which it might be found
again and discovering none. Here our strength came back to us, and Leo's
hair, that had been whitened in the horror of the Caves, grew again from
grey to golden. His beauty returned to him also, so that his face was as
it had been, only purified and saddened.

Well I remember that night--and the hour of illumination. We were
heart-broken, we were in despair. We sought signs and could find none.
The dead remained dead to us and no answer came to all our crying.

It was a sullen August evening, and after we had dined we walked upon
the shore, listening to the slow surge of the waves and watching the
lightning flicker from the bosom of a distant cloud. In silence we
walked, till at last Leo groaned--it was more of a sob than a groan--and
clasped my arm.

"I can bear it no longer, Horace," he said--for so he called me now--"I
am in torment. The desire to see Ayesha once more saps my brain. Without
hope I shall go quite mad. And I am strong, I may live another fifty
years."

"What then can you do?" I asked.

"I can take a short road to knowledge--or to peace," he answered
solemnly, "I can die, and die I will--yes, tonight."

I turned upon him angrily, for his words filled me with fear.

"Leo, you are a coward!" I said. "Cannot you bear your part of pain
as--others do?"

"You mean as you do, Horace," he answered with a dreary laugh, "for on
you also the curse lies--with less cause. Well, you are stronger than I
am, and more tough; perhaps because you have lived longer. No, I cannot
bear it. I will die."

"It is a crime," I said, "the greatest insult you can offer to the
Power that made you, to cast back its gift of life as a thing outworn,
contemptible and despised. A crime, I say, which will bring with it
worse punishment than any you can dream; perhaps even the punishment of
everlasting separation."

"Does a man stretched in some torture-den commit a crime if he snatches
a knife and kills himself, Horace? Perhaps; but surely that sin should
find forgiveness--if torn flesh and quivering nerves may plead for
mercy. I am such a man, and I will use that knife and take my chance.
She is dead, and in death at least I shall be nearer her."

"Why so, Leo? For aught you know Ayesha may be living."

"No; for then she would have given me some sign. My mind is made up, so
talk no more, or, if talk we must, let it be of other things."

Then I pleaded with him, though with little hope, for I saw that what I
had feared for long was come to pass. Leo was mad: shock and sorrow
had destroyed his reason. Were it not so, he, in his own way a very
religious man, one who held, as I knew, strict opinions on such matters,
would never have purposed to commit the wickedness of suicide.

"Leo," I said, "are you so heartless that you would leave me here alone?
Do you pay me thus for all my love and care, and wish to drive me to my
death? Do so if you will, and my blood be on your head."

"Your blood! Why your blood, Horace?"

"Because that road is broad and two can travel it. We have lived long
years together and together endured much; I am sure that we shall not be
long parted."

Then the tables were turned and he grew afraid for me. But I only
answered, "If you die I tell you that I shall die also. It will
certainly kill me."

So Leo gave way. "Well," he exclaimed suddenly, "I promise you it shall
not be to-night. Let us give life another chance."

"Good," I answered; but I went to my bed full of fear. For I was certain
that this desire of death, having once taken hold of him, would grow
and grow, until at length it became too strong, and then--then I should
wither and die who could not live on alone. In my despair I threw out my
soul towards that of her who was departed.

"Ayesha!" I cried, "if you have any power, if in any way it is
permitted, show that you still live, and save your lover from this sin
and me from a broken heart. Have pity on his sorrow and breathe hope
into his spirit, for without hope Leo cannot live, and without him I
shall not live."

Then, worn out, I slept.

I was aroused by the voice of Leo speaking to me in low, excited tones
through the darkness.

"Horace," he said, "Horace, my friend, my father, listen!"

In an instant I was wide awake, every nerve and fibre of me, for the
tones of his voice told me that something had happened which bore upon
our destinies.

"Let me light a candle first," I said.

"Never mind the candle, Horace; I would rather speak in the dark. I went
to sleep, and I dreamed the most vivid dream that ever came to me. I
seemed to stand under the vault of heaven, it was black, black, not a
star shone in it, and a great loneliness possessed me. Then suddenly
high up in the vault, miles and miles away, I saw a little light and
thought that a planet had appeared to keep me company. The light began
to descend slowly, like a floating flake of fire. Down it sank, and down
and down, till it was but just above me, and I perceived that it was
shaped like a tongue or fan of flame. At the height of my head from the
ground it stopped and stood steady, and by its ghostly radiance I saw
that beneath was the shape of a woman and that the flame burned upon her
forehead. The radiance gathered strength and now I saw the woman.

"Horace, it was Ayesha herself, her eyes, her lovely face, her cloudy
hair, and she looked at me sadly, reproachfully, I thought, as one might
who says, 'Why did you doubt?'

"I tried to speak to her but my lips were dumb. I tried to advance and
to embrace her, my arms would not move. There was a barrier between us.
She lifted her hand and beckoned as though bidding me to follow her.

"Then she glided away, and, Horace, my spirit seemed to loose itself
from the body and to be given the power to follow. We passed swiftly
eastward, over lands and seas, and--I knew the road. At one point
she paused and I looked downwards. Beneath, shining in the moonlight,
appeared the ruined palaces of Kor, and there not far away was the gulf
we trod together.

"Onward above the marshes, and now we stood upon the Ethiopian's Head,
and gathered round, watching us earnestly, were the faces of the Arabs,
our companions who drowned in the sea beneath. Job was among them also,
and he smiled at me sadly and shook his head, as though he wished to
accompany us and could not.

"Across the sea again, across the sandy deserts, across more sea, and
the shores of India lay beneath us. Then northward, ever northward,
above the plains, till we reached a place of mountains capped with
eternal snow. We passed them and stayed for an instant above a building
set upon the brow of a plateau. It was a monastery, for old monks droned
prayers upon its terrace. I shall know it again, for it is built in the
shape of a half-moon and in front of it sits the gigantic, ruined statue
of a god who gazes everlastingly across the desert. I knew, how I cannot
say, that now we were far past the furthest borders of Thibet and that
in front of us lay untrodden lands. More mountains stretched beyond that
desert, a sea of snowy peaks, hundreds and hundreds of them.

"Near to the monastery, jutting out into the plain like some rocky
headland, rose a solitary hill, higher than all behind. We stood upon
its snowy crest and waited, till presently, above the mountains and the
desert at our feet shot a sudden beam of light that beat upon us like
some signal flashed across the sea. On we went, floating down the
beam--on over the desert and the mountains, across a great flat land
beyond, in which were many villages and a city on a mound, till we lit
upon a towering peak. Then I saw that this peak was loop-shaped like the
symbol of Life of the Egyptians--the _crux-ansata_--and supported by
a lava stem hundreds of feet in height. Also I saw that the fire which
shone through it rose from the crater of a volcano beyond. Upon the very
crest of this loop we rested a while, till the Shadow of Ayesha pointed
downward with its hand, smiled and vanished. Then I awoke.

"Horace, I tell you that the sign has come to us."

His voice died away in the darkness, but I sat still, brooding over what
I had heard. Leo groped his way to me and, seizing my arm, shook it.

"Are you asleep?" he asked angrily. "Speak, man, speak!"

"No," I answered, "never was I more awake. Give me time."

Then I rose, and going to the open window, drew up the blind and stood
there staring at the sky, which grew pearl-hued with the first faint
tinge of dawn. Leo came also and leant upon the window-sill, and I could
feel that his body was trembling as though with cold. Clearly he was
much moved.

"You talk of a sign," I said to him, "but in your sign I see nothing but
a wild dream."

"It was no dream," he broke in fiercely; "it was a vision."

"A vision then if you will, but there are visions true and false, and
how can we know that this is true? Listen, Leo. What is there in all
that wonderful tale which could not have been fashioned in your own
brain, distraught as it is almost to madness with your sorrow and your
longings? You dreamed that you were alone in the vast universe. Well, is
not every living creature thus alone? You dreamed that the shadowy shape
of Ayesha came to you. Has it ever left your side? You dreamed that she
led you over sea and land, past places haunted by your memory, above the
mysterious mountains of the Unknown to an undiscovered peak. Does she
not thus lead you through life to that peak which lies beyond the Gates
of Death? You dreamed----"

"Oh! no more of it," he exclaimed. "What I saw, I saw, and that I shall
follow. Think as you will, Horace, and do what you will. To-morrow I
start for India, with you if you choose to come; if not, without you."

"You speak roughly, Leo," I said. "You forget that _I_ have had no sign,
and that the nightmare of a man so near to insanity that but a few hours
ago he was determined upon suicide, will be a poor staff to lean on when
we are perishing in the snows of Central Asia. A mixed vision, this of
yours, Leo, with its mountain peak shaped like a _crux-ansata_ and the
rest. Do you suggest that Ayesha is re-incarnated in Central Asia--as a
female Grand Lama or something of that sort?"

"I never thought of it, but why not?" asked Leo quietly. "Do you
remember a certain scene in the Caves of Kor yonder, when the living
looked upon the dead, and dead and living were the same? And do you
remember what Ayesha swore, that she would come again--yes, to this
world; and how could that be except by re-birth, or, what is the same
thing, by the transmigration of the spirit?"

I did not answer this argument. I was struggling with myself.

"No sign has come to me," I said, "and yet I have had a part in the
play, humble enough, I admit, and I believe that I have still a part."

"No," he said, "no sign has come to you. I wish that it had. Oh! how I
wish you could be convinced as I am, Horace!"

Then we were silent for a long while, silent, with our eyes fixed upon
the sky.

It was a stormy dawn. Clouds in fantastic masses hung upon the ocean.
One of them was like a great mountain, and we watched it idly. It
changed its shape, the crest of it grew hollow like a crater. From this
crater sprang a projecting cloud, a rough pillar with a knob or lump
resting on its top. Suddenly the rays of the risen sun struck upon this
mountain and the column and they turned white like snow. Then as though
melted by those fiery arrows, the centre of the excrescence above the
pillar thinned out and vanished, leaving an enormous loop of inky cloud.

"Look," said Leo in a low, frightened voice, "that is the shape of the
mountain which I saw in my vision. There upon it is the black loop, and
there through it shines the fire. _It would seem that the sign is for
both of us, Horace._"

I looked and looked again till presently the vast loop vanished into the
blue of heaven. Then I turned and said--"I will come with you to Central
Asia, Leo."



CHAPTER II

THE LAMASERY

Sixteen years had passed since that night vigil in the old Cumberland
house, and, behold! we two, Leo and I, were still travelling, still
searching for that mountain peak shaped like the Symbol of Life which
never, never could be found.

Our adventures would fill volumes, but of what use is it to record them.
Many of a similar nature are already written of in books; those that we
endured were more prolonged, that is all. Five years we spent in Thibet,
for the most part as guests of various monasteries, where we studied the
law and traditions of the Lamas. Here we were once sentenced to death in
punishment for having visited a forbidden city, but escaped through the
kindness of a Chinese official.

Leaving Thibet, we wandered east and west and north, thousands and
thousands of miles, sojourning amongst many tribes in Chinese territory
and elsewhere, learning many tongues, enduring much hardship. Thus we
would hear a legend of a place, say nine hundred miles away, and spend
two years in reaching it, to find when we came there, nothing.

And so the time went on. Yet never once did we think of giving up the
quest and returning, since, before we started, we had sworn an oath that
we would achieve or die. Indeed we ought to have died a score of times,
yet always were preserved, most mysteriously preserved.

Now we were in country where, so far as I could learn, no European had
ever set a foot. In a part of the vast land called Turkestan there is a
great lake named Balhkash, of which we visited the shores. Two hundred
miles or so to the westward is a range of mighty mountains marked on the
maps as Arkarty-Tau, on which we spent a year, and five hundred or so to
the eastward are other mountains called Cherga, whither we journeyed at
last, having explored the triple ranges of the Tau.

Here it was that at last our true adventures began. On one of the spurs
of these awful Cherga mountains--it is unmarked on any map--we well-nigh
perished of starvation. The winter was coming on and we could find no
game. The last traveller we had met, hundreds of miles south, told us
that on that range was a monastery inhabited by Lamas of surpassing
holiness. He said that they dwelt in this wild land, over which no power
claimed dominion and where no tribes lived, to acquire "merit," with no
other company than that of their own pious contemplations. We did not
believe in its existence, still we were searching for that monastery,
driven onward by the blind fatalism which was our only guide through
all these endless wanderings. As we were starving and could find no
"argals," that is fuel with which to make a fire, we walked all night by
the light of the moon, driving between us a single yak--for now we had
no attendant, the last having died a year before.

He was a noble beast, that yak, and had the best constitution of any
animal I ever knew, though now, like his masters, he was near his end.
Not that he was over-laden, for a few rifle cartridges, about a hundred
and fifty, the remnant of a store which we had fortunately been able to
buy from a caravan two years before, some money in gold and silver, a
little tea and a bundle of skin rugs and sheepskin garments were his
burden. On, on we trudged across a plateau of snow, having the great
mountains on our right, till at length the yak gave a sigh and stopped.
So we stopped also, because we must, and wrapping ourselves in the skin
rugs, sat down in the snow to wait for daylight.

"We shall have to kill him and eat his flesh raw," I said, patting the
poor yak that lay patiently at our side.

"Perhaps we may find game in the morning," answered Leo, still hopeful.

"And perhaps we may not, in which case we must die."

"Very good," he replied, "then let us die. It is the last resource of
failure. We shall have done our best."

"Certainly, Leo, we shall have done our best, if sixteen years of
tramping over mountains and through eternal snows in pursuit of a dream
of the night can be called best."

"You know what I believe," he answered stubbornly, and there was silence
between us, for here arguments did not avail. Also even then I could not
think that all our toils and sufferings would be in vain.

The dawn came, and by its light we looked at one another anxiously,
each of us desiring to see what strength was left to his companion. Wild
creatures we should have seemed to the eyes of any civilized person.
Leo was now over forty years of age, and certainly his maturity had
fulfilled the promise of his youth, for a more magnificent man I never
knew. Very tall, although he seemed spare to the eye, his girth matched
his height, and those many years of desert life had turned his muscles
to steel. His hair had grown long, like my own, for it was a protection
from sun and cold, and hung upon his neck, a curling, golden mane, as
his great beard hung upon his breast, spreading outwards almost to
the massive shoulders. The face, too--what could be seen of it--was
beautiful though burnt brown with weather; refined and full of thought,
sombre almost, and in it, clear as crystal, steady as stars, shone his
large grey eyes.

And I--I was what I have always been--ugly and hirsute, iron-grey now
also, but in spite of my sixty odd years, still wonderfully strong, for
my strength seemed to increase with time, and my health was perfect. In
fact, during all this period of rough travels, although now and again
we had met with accidents which laid us up for awhile, neither of us
had known a day of sickness. Hardship seemed to have turned our
constitutions to iron and made them impervious to every human ailment.
Or was this because we alone amongst living men had once inhaled the
breath of the Essence of Life?

Our fears relieved--for notwithstanding our foodless night, as yet
neither of us showed any signs of exhaustion--we turned to contemplate
the landscape. At our feet beyond a little belt of fertile soil, began
a great desert of the sort with which we were familiar--sandy,
salt-encrusted, treeless, waterless, and here and there streaked with
the first snows of winter. Beyond it, eighty or a hundred miles away--in
that lucent atmosphere it was impossible to say how far exactly--rose
more mountains, a veritable sea of them, of which the white peaks soared
upwards by scores.

As the golden rays of the rising sun touched their snows to splendour,
I saw Leo's eyes become troubled. Swiftly he turned and looked along the
edge of the desert.

"See there!" he said, pointing to something dim and enormous. Presently
the light reached it also. It was a mighty mountain not more than ten
miles away, that stood out by itself among the sands. Then he turned
once more, and with his back to the desert stared at the slope of the
hills, along the base of which we had been travelling. As yet they were
in gloom, for the sun was behind them, but presently light began to flow
over their crests like a flood. Down it crept, lower, and yet lower,
till it reached a little plateau not three hundred yards above us.
There, on the edge of the plateau, looking out solemnly across the
waste, sat a great ruined idol, a colossal Buddha, while to the rear of
the idol, built of yellow stone, appeared the low crescent-shaped mass
of a monastery.

"At last!" cried Leo, "oh, Heaven! at last!" and, flinging himself down,
he buried his face in the snow as though to hide it there, lest I should
read something written on it which he did not desire that even I should
see.

I let him lie a space, understanding what was passing in his heart,
and indeed in mine also. Then going to the yak that, poor brute, had
no share in these joyous emotions but only lowed and looked round with
hungry eyes, I piled the sheepskin rugs on to its back. This done, I
laid my hand on Leo's shoulder, saying, in the most matter-of-fact voice
I could command--"Come. If that place is not deserted, we may find food
and shelter there, and it is beginning to storm again."

He rose without a word, brushed the snow from his beard and garments and
came to help me to lift the yak to its feet, for the worn-out beast was
too stiff and weak to rise of itself. Glancing at him covertly, I saw
on Leo's face a very strange and happy look; a great peace appeared to
possess him.

We plunged upwards through the snow slope, dragging the yak with us, to
the terrace whereon the monastery was built. Nobody seemed to be about
there, nor could I discern any footprints. Was the place but a ruin? We
had found many such; indeed this ancient land is full of buildings that
had once served as the homes of men, learned and pious enough after
their own fashion, who lived and died hundreds, or even thousands, of
years ago, long before our Western civilization came into being.

My heart, also my stomach, which was starving, sank at the thought,
but while I gazed doubtfully, a little coil of blue smoke sprang from
a chimney, and never, I think, did I see a more joyful sight. In the
centre of the edifice was a large building, evidently the temple, but
nearer to us I saw a small door, almost above which the smoke appeared.
To this door I went and knocked, calling aloud--"Open! open, holy
Lamas. Strangers seek your charity." After awhile there was a sound of
shuffling feet and the door creaked upon its hinges, revealing an old,
old man, clad in tattered, yellow garments.

"Who is it? Who is it?" he exclaimed, blinking at me through a pair of
horn spectacles. "Who comes to disturb our solitude, the solitude of the
holy Lamas of the Mountains?"

"Travellers, Sacred One, who have had enough of solitude," I answered in
his own dialect, with which I was well acquainted. "Travellers who are
starving and who ask your charity, which," I added, "by the Rule you
cannot refuse."

He stared at us through his horn spectacles, and, able to make nothing
of our faces, let his glance fall to our garments which were as ragged
as his own, and of much the same pattern. Indeed, they were those of
Thibetan monks, including a kind of quilted petticoat and an outer
vestment not unlike an Eastern burnous. We had adopted them because we
had no others. Also they protected us from the rigours of the climate
and from remark, had there been any to remark upon them.

"Are you Lamas?" he asked doubtfully, "and if so, of what monastery?"

"Lamas sure enough," I answered, "who belong to a monastery called the
World, where, alas! one grows hungry."

The reply seemed to please him, for he chuckled a little, then shook his
head, saying--"It is against our custom to admit strangers unless they
be of our own faith, which I am sure you are not."

"And much more is it against your Rule, holy Khubilghan," for so these
abbots are entitled, "to suffer strangers to starve"; and I quoted a
well-known passage from the sayings of Buddha which fitted the point
precisely.

"I perceive that you are instructed in the Books," he exclaimed with
wonder on his yellow, wrinkled face, "and to such we cannot refuse
shelter. Come in, brethren of the monastery called the World. But stay,
there is the yak, who also has claims upon our charity," and, turning,
he struck upon a gong or bell which hung within the door.

At the sound another man appeared, more wrinkled and to all appearance
older than the first, who stared at us open-mouthed.

"Brother," said the abbot, "shut that great mouth of yours lest an evil
spirit should fly down it; take this poor yak and give it fodder with
the other cattle."

So we unstrapped our belongings from the back of the beast, and the old
fellow whose grandiloquent title was "Master of the Herds," led it away.

When it had gone, not too willingly--for our faithful friend disliked
parting from us and distrusted this new guide--the abbot, who was
named Kou-en, led us into the living room or rather the kitchen of the
monastery, for it served both purposes. Here we found the rest of the
monks, about twelve in all, gathered round the fire of which we had seen
the smoke, and engaged, one of them in preparing the morning meal, and
the rest in warming themselves.

They were all old men; the youngest could not have been less than
sixty-five. To these we were solemnly introduced as "Brethren of the
Monastery called the World, where folk grow hungry," for the abbot
Kou-en could not make up his mind to part from this little joke.

They stared at us, they rubbed their thin hands, they bowed and wished
us well and evidently were delighted at our arrival. This was not
strange, however, seeing that ours were the first new faces which they
had seen for four long years.

Nor did they stop at words, for while they made water hot for us to wash
in, two of them went to prepare a room--and others drew off our rough
hide boots and thick outer garments and brought us slippers for our
feet. Then they led us to the guest chamber, which they informed us was
a "propitious place," for once it had been slept in by a noted saint.
Here a fire was lit, and, wonder of wonders! clean garments, including
linen, all of them ancient and faded, but of good quality, were brought
for us to put on.

So we washed--yes, actually washed all over--and having arrayed
ourselves in the robes, which were somewhat small for Leo, struck the
bell that hung in the room and were conducted by a monk who answered it,
back to the kitchen, where the meal was now served. It consisted of a
kind of porridge, to which was added new milk brought in by the "Master
of the Herds," dried fish from a lake, and buttered tea, the last two
luxuries produced in our special honour. Never had food tasted more
delicious to us, and, I may add, never did we eat more. Indeed, at last
I was obliged to request Leo to stop, for I saw the monks staring at him
and heard the old abbot chuckling to himself.

"Oho! The Monastery of the World, where folk grow _hungry_," to which
another monk, who was called the "Master of the Provisions," replied
uneasily, that if we went on like this, their store of food would
scarcely last the winter. So we finished at length, feeling, as some
book of maxims which I can remember in my youth said all polite people
should do--that we could eat more, and much impressed our hosts by
chanting a long Buddhist grace.

"Their feet are in the Path! Their feet are in the Path!" they said,
astonished.

"Yes," replied Leo, "they have been in it for sixteen years of our
present incarnation. But we are only beginners, for you, holy Ones, know
how star-high, how ocean-wide and how desert-long is that path. Indeed
it is to be instructed as to the right way of walking therein that we
have been miraculously directed by a dream to seek you out, as the most
pious, the most saintly and the most learned of all the Lamas in these
parts."

"Yes, certainly we are that," answered the abbot Kou-en, "seeing that
there is no other monastery within five months' journey," and again he
chuckled, "though, alas!" he added with a pathetic little sigh, "our
numbers grow few."

After this we asked leave to retire to our chamber in order to rest, and
there, upon very good imitations of beds, we slept solidly for four and
twenty hours, rising at last perfectly refreshed and well.

Such was our introduction to the Monastery of the Mountains--for it had
no other name--where we were destined to spend the next six months of
our lives. Within a few days--for they were not long in giving us their
complete confidence--those good-hearted and simple old monks told us all
their history.

It seemed that of old time there was a Lamasery here, in which dwelt
several hundred brethren. This, indeed, was obviously true, for the
place was enormous, although for the most part ruined, and, as the
weather-worn statue of Buddha showed, very ancient. The story ran,
according to the old abbot, that two centuries or so before, the monks
had been killed out by some fierce tribe who lived beyond the desert and
across the distant mountains, which tribe were heretics and worshippers
of fire. Only a few of them escaped to bring the sad news to other
communities, and for five generations no attempt was made to re-occupy
the place.

At length it was revealed to him, our friend Kou-en, when a young man,
that he was a re-incarnation of one of the old monks of this monastery,
who also was named Kou-en, and that it was his duty during his present
life to return thither, as by so doing he would win much merit and
receive many wonderful revelations. So he gathered a band of zealots
and, with the blessing and consent of his superiors, they started out,
and after many hardships and losses found and took possession of the
place, repairing it sufficiently for their needs.

This happened about fifty years before, and here they had dwelt ever
since, only communicating occasionally with the outside world. At first
their numbers were recruited from time to time by new brethren, but
at length these ceased to come, with the result that the community was
dying out.

"And what then?" I asked.

"And then," the abbot answered, "nothing. _We_ have acquired much merit;
we have been blest with many revelations, and, after the repose we have
earned in Devachan, our lots in future existences will be easier. What
more can we ask or desire, removed as we are from all the temptations of
the world?"

For the rest, in the intervals of their endless prayers, and still more
endless contemplations, they were husbandmen, cultivating the soil,
which was fertile at the foot of the mountain, and tending their herd of
yaks. Thus they wore away their blameless lives until at last they died
of old age, and, as they believed--and who shall say that they were
wrong--the eternal round repeated itself elsewhere.

Immediately after, indeed on the very day of our arrival at the
monastery the winter began in earnest with bitter cold and snowstorms
so heavy and frequent that all the desert was covered deep. Very soon it
became obvious to us that here we must stay until the spring, since
to attempt to move in any direction would be to perish. With some
misgivings we explained this to the abbot Kou-en, offering to remove to
one of the empty rooms in the ruined part of the building, supporting
ourselves with fish that we could catch by cutting a hole in the ice of
the lake above the monastery, and if we were able to find any, on game,
which we might trap or shoot in the scrub-like forest of stunted pines
and junipers that grew around its border. But he would listen to no such
thing. We had been sent to be their guests, he said, and their guests
we should remain for so long as might be convenient to us. Would we lay
upon them the burden of the sin of inhospitality? Besides, he remarked
with his chuckle--"We who dwell alone like to hear about that other
great monastery called the World, where the monks are not so favoured as
we who are set in this blessed situation, and where folk even go hungry
in body, and," he added, "in soul."

Indeed, as we soon found out, the dear old man's object was to keep our
feet in the Path until we reached the goal of Truth, or, in other words,
became excellent Lamas like himself and his flock.

So we walked in the Path, as we had done in many another Lamasery,
and assisted at the long prayers in the ruined temple and studied the
_Kandjur_, or "Translation of the Words" of Buddha, which is their bible
and a very long one, and generally showed that our "minds were open."
Also we expounded to them the doctrines of our own faith, and greatly
delighted were they to find so many points of similarity between it and
theirs. Indeed, I am not certain but that if we could have stopped there
long enough, say ten years, we might have persuaded some of them to
accept a new revelation of which we were the prophets. Further, in spare
hours we told them many tales of "the Monastery called the World," and
it was really delightful, and in a sense piteous, to see the joy with
which they listened to these stories of wondrous countries and new races
of men; they who knew only of Russia and China and some semi-savage
tribes, inhabitants of the mountains and the deserts.

"It is right for us to learn all this," they declared, "for, who knows,
perhaps in future incarnations we may become inhabitants of these
places."

But though the time passed thus in comfort and indeed, compared to many
of our experiences, in luxury, oh! our hearts were hungry, for in them
burned the consuming fire of our quest. We felt that we were on the
threshold--yes, we knew it, we knew it, and yet our wretched physical
limitations made it impossible for us to advance by a single step. On
the desert beneath fell the snow, moreover great winds arose suddenly
that drove those snows like dust, piling them in heaps as high as trees,
beneath which any unfortunate traveller would be buried. Here we must
wait, there was nothing else to be done.

One alleviation we found, and only one. In a ruined room of the
monastery was a library of many volumes, placed there, doubtless, by the
monks who were massacred in times bygone. These had been more or less
cared for and re-arranged by their successors, who gave us liberty to
examine them as often as we pleased. Truly it was a strange collection,
and I should imagine of priceless value, for among them were to be found
Buddhistic, Sivaistic and Shamanistic writings that we had never before
seen or heard of, together with the lives of a multitude of Bodhisatvas,
or distinguished saints, written in various tongues, some of which we
did not understand.

What proved more interesting to us, however, was a diary in many tomes
that for generations had been kept by the Khubilghans or abbots of the
old Lamasery, in which every event of importance was recorded in great
detail. Turning over the pages of one of the last volumes of this
diary, written apparently about two hundred and fifty years earlier, and
shortly before the destruction of the monastery, we came upon an
entry of which the following--for I can only quote from memory--is the
substance--

"In the summer of this year, after a very great sandstorm, a brother
(the name was given, but I forget it) found in the desert a man of the
people who dwell beyond the Far Mountains, of whom rumours have reached
this Lamasery from time to time. He was living, but beside him were the
bodies of two of his companions who had been overwhelmed by sand and
thirst. He was very fierce looking. He refused to say how he came into
the desert, telling us only that he had followed the road known to the
ancients before communication between his people and the outer world
ceased. We gathered, however, that his brethren with whom he fled had
committed some crime for which they had been condemned to die, and that
he had accompanied them in their flight. He told us that there was a
fine country beyond the mountains, fertile, but plagued with droughts
and earthquakes, which latter, indeed, we often feel here.

"The people of that country were, he said, warlike and very numerous but
followed agriculture. They had always lived there, though ruled by Khans
who were descendants of the Greek king called Alexander, who conquered
much country to the south-west of us. This may be true, as our records
tell us that about two thousand years ago an army sent by that invader
penetrated to these parts, though of his being with them nothing is
said.

"The stranger-man told us also that his people worship a priestess
called Hes or the Hesea, who is said to reign from generation to
generation. She lives in a great mountain, apart, and is feared and
adored by all, but is not the queen of the country, in the government
of which she seldom interferes. To her, however, sacrifices are offered,
and he who incurs her vengeance dies, so that even the chiefs of that
land are afraid of her. Still their subjects often fight, for they hate
each other.

"We answered that he lied when he said that this woman was immortal--for
that was what we supposed he meant--since nothing is immortal; also we
laughed at his tale of her power. This made the man very angry. Indeed
he declared that our Buddha was not so strong as this priestess, and
that she would show it by being avenged upon us.

"After this we gave him food and turned him out of the Lamasery, and he
went, saying that when he returned we should learn who spoke the truth.
We do not know what became of him, and he refused to reveal to us the
road to his country, which lies beyond the desert and the Far Mountains.
We think that perhaps he was an evil spirit sent to frighten us, in
which he did not succeed."


Such is a _precis_ of this strange entry, the discovery of which, vague
as it was, thrilled us with hope and excitement. Nothing more appeared
about the man or his country, but within a little over a year from that
date the diary of the abbot came to a sudden end without any indication
that unusual events had occured or were expected.

Indeed, the last item written in the parchment book mentioned the
preparation of certain new lands to be used for the sowing of grain in
future seasons, which suggested that the brethren neither feared nor
expected disturbance. We wondered whether the man from beyond the
mountains was as good as his word and had brought down the vengeance of
that priestess called the Hesea upon the community which sheltered him.
Also we wondered--ah! how we wondered--who and what this Hesea might be.

On the day following this discovery we prayed the abbot, Kou-en, to
accompany us to the library, and having read him the passage, asked
if he knew anything of the matter. He swayed his wise old head, which
always reminded me of that of a tortoise, and answered--"A little.
Very little, and that mostly about the army of the Greek king who is
mentioned in the writing."

We inquired what he could possibly know of this matter, whereon Kou-en
replied calmly--"In those days when the faith of the Holy One was still
young, I dwelt as a humble brother in this very monastery, which was
one of the first built, and I saw the army pass, that is all. That,"
he added meditatively, "was in my fiftieth incarnation of this present
Round--no, I am thinking of another army--in my seventy-third."[*]

     [*] As students of their lives and literature will be aware,
     it is common for Buddhist priests to state positively that
     they remember events which occurred during their previous
     incarnations.--ed.

Here Leo began a great laugh, but I managed to kick him beneath the
table and he turned it into a sneeze. This was fortunate, as such ribald
merriment would have hurt the old man's feelings terribly. After all,
also, as Leo himself had once said, surely we were not the people to
mock at the theory of re-incarnation, which, by the way, is the first
article of faith among nearly one quarter of the human race, and this
not the most foolish quarter.

"How can that be--I ask for instruction, learned One--seeing that memory
perishes with death?"

"Ah!" he answered, "Brother Holly, it may seem to do so, but oftentimes
it comes back again, especially to those who are far advanced upon the
Path. For instance, until you read this passage I had forgotten all
about that army, but now I see it passing, passing, and myself with
other monks standing by the statue of the big Buddha in front yonder,
and watching it go by. It was not a very large army, for most of the
soldiers had died, or been killed, and it was being pursued by the wild
people who lived south of us in those days, so that it was in a great
hurry to put the desert between it and them. The general of the army was
a swarthy man--I wish that I could remember his name, but I cannot.

"Well," he went on, "that general came up to the Lamasery and demanded a
sleeping place for his wife and children, also provisions and medicines,
and guides across the desert. The abbot of that day told him it was
against our law to admit a woman under our roof, to which he answered
that if we did not, we should have no roof left, for he would burn the
place and kill every one of us with the sword. Now, as you know, to be
killed by violence means that we must pass sundry incarnations in the
forms of animals, a horrible thing, so we chose the lesser evil and
gave way, and afterwards obtained absolution for our sins from the Great
Lama. Myself I did not see this queen, but I saw the priestess of their
worship--alas! alas!" and Kou-en beat his breast.

"Why alas?" I asked, as unconcernedly as I could, for this story
interested me strangely.

"Why? Oh! because I may have forgotten the army, but I have never
forgotten that priestess, and she has been a great hindrance to me
through many ages, delaying me upon my journey to the Other Side, to the
Shore of Salvation. I, as a humble Lama, was engaged in preparing her
apartment when she entered and threw aside her veil; yes, and perceiving
a young man, spoke to me, asking many questions, and even if I was not
glad to look again upon a woman."

"What--what was she like?" said Leo, anxiously.

"What was she like? Oh! She was all loveliness in one shape; she was
like the dawn upon the snows; she was like the evening star above the
mountains; she was like the first flower of the spring. Brother, ask me
not what she was like, nay, I will say no more. Oh! my sin, my sin. I am
slipping backward and you draw my black shame out into the light of day.
Nay, I will confess it that you may know how vile a thing I am--I whom
perhaps you have thought holy--like yourselves. That woman, if woman
she were, lit a fire in my heart which will not burn out, oh! and more,
more," and Kou-en rocked himself to and fro upon his stool while tears
of contrition trickled from beneath his horn spectacles, "_she made me
worship her!_ For first she asked me of my faith and listened eagerly as
I expounded it, hoping that the light would come into her heart; then,
after I had finished she said--"'So your Path is Renunciation and your
Nirvana a most excellent Nothingness which some would think it scarce
worth while to strive so hard to reach. Now _I_ will show you a more
joyous way and a goddess more worthy of your worship.'

"'What way, and what goddess?' I asked of her.

"'The way of Love and Life!" she answered, 'that makes all the world
to be, that made _you_, O seeker of Nirvana, and the goddess called
Nature!'

"Again I asked where is that goddess, and behold! she drew herself up,
looking most royal, and touching her ivory breast, she said, 'I am She.
Now kneel you down and do me homage!'

"My brethren, I knelt, yes, I kissed her foot, and then I fled away
shamed and broken-hearted, and as I went she laughed, and cried:
'Remember me when you reach Devachan, O servant of the Budda-saint, for
though I change, I do not die, and even there I shall be with you who
once gave me worship!'

"And it is so, my brethren, it is so; for though I obtained absolution
for my sin and have suffered much for it through this, my next
incarnation, yet I cannot be rid of her, and for me the Utter Peace is
far, far away," and Kou-en placed his withered hands before his face and
sobbed outright.

A ridiculous sight, truly, to see a holy Khublighan well on the wrong
side of eighty, weeping like a child over a dream of a beautiful woman
which he imagined he had once dreamt in his last life more than two
thousand years ago. So the reader will say. But I, Holly, for reasons
of my own, felt deep sympathy with that poor old man, and Leo was also
sympathetic. We patted him on the back; we assured him that he was
the victim of some evil hallucination which could never be brought up
against him in this or any future existence, since, if sin there were,
it must have been forgiven long ago, and so forth. When his calm was
somewhat restored we tried also to extract further information from him,
but with poor results, so far as the priestess was concerned.

He said that he did not know to what religion she belonged, and did not
care, but thought that it must be an evil one. She went away the next
morning with the army, and he never saw or heard of her any more, though
it came into his mind that he was obliged to be locked in his cell for
eight days to prevent himself from following her. Yes, he had heard one
thing, for the abbot of that day had told the brethren. This priestess
was the real general of the army, not the king or the queen, the latter
of whom hated her. It was by her will that they pushed on northwards
across the desert to some country beyond the mountains, where she
desired to establish herself and her worship.

We asked if there really was any country beyond the mountains, and
Kou-en answered wearily that he believed so. Either in this or in a
previous life he had heard that people lived there who worshipped fire.
Certainly also it was true that about thirty years ago a brother who had
climbed the great peak yonder to spend some days in solitary meditation,
returned and reported that he had seen a marvellous thing, namely, a
shaft of fire burning in the heavens beyond those same mountains, though
whether this were a vision, or what, he could not say. He recalled,
however, that about that time they had felt a great earthquake.

Then the memory of that fancied transgression again began to afflict
Kou-en's innocent old heart, and he crept away lamenting and was seen no
more for a week. Nor would he ever speak again to us of this matter.

But we spoke of it much with hope and wonder, and made up our minds that
we would at once ascend this mountain.



CHAPTER III

THE BEACON LIGHT

A week later came our opportunity of making this ascent of the mountain,
for now in mid-winter it ceased storming, and hard frost set in, which
made it possible to walk upon the surface of the snow. Learning from
the monks that at this season _ovis poli_ and other kinds of big-horned
sheep and game descended from the hills to take refuge in certain
valleys, where they scraped away the snow to find food, we announced
that we were going out to hunt. The excuse we gave was that we were
suffering from confinement and needed exercise, having by the teaching
of our religion no scruples about killing game.

Our hosts replied that the adventure was dangerous, as the weather might
change at any moment. They told us, however, that on the slopes of this
very mountain which we desired to climb, there was a large natural cave
where, if need be, we could take shelter, and to this cave one of them,
somewhat younger and more active than the rest, offered to guide us. So,
having manufactured a rougri tent from skins, and laden our old yak, now
in the best of condition, with food and garments, on one still morning
we started as soon as it was light. Under the guidance of the monk, who,
notwithstanding his years, walked very well, we reached the northern
slope of the peak before mid-day. Here, as he had said, we found a great
cave of which the opening was protected by an over-hanging ledge of
rock. Evidently this cave was the favourite place of shelter for game at
certain seasons of the year, since in it were heaped vast accumulations
of their droppings, which removed any fear of a lack of fuel.

The rest of that short day we spent in setting up our tent in the cave,
in front of which we lit a large fire, and in a survey of the slopes of
the mountain, for we told the monk that we were searching for the tracks
of wild sheep. Indeed, as it happened, on our way back to the cave we
came across a small herd of ewes feeding upon the mosses in a sheltered
spot where in summer a streamlet ran. Of these we were so fortunate as
to kill two, for no sportsman had ever come here, and they were tame
enough, poor things. As meat would keep for ever in that temperature,
we had now sufficient food to last us for a fortnight, and dragging the
animals down the snow slopes to the cave, we skinned them by the dying
light.

That evening we supped upon fresh mutton, a great luxury, which the
monk enjoyed as much as we did, since, whatever might be his views as to
taking life, he liked mutton. Then we turned into the tent and huddled
ourselves together for warmth, as the temperature must have been some
degrees below zero. The old monk rested well enough, but neither Leo nor
I slept over much, for wonder as to what we might see from the top of
that mountain banished sleep.

Next morning at the dawn, the weather being still favourable, our
companion returned to the monastery, whither we said we would follow him
in a day or two.

Now at last we were alone, and without wasting an instant began our
ascent of the peak. It was many thousand feet high and in certain places
steep enough, but the deep, frozen snow made climbing easy, so that by
midday we reached the top. Hence the view was magnificent. Beneath
us stretched the desert, and beyond it a broad belt of fantastically
shaped, snow-clad mountains, hundreds and hundreds of them; in front, to
the right, to the left, as far as the eye could reach.

"They are just as I saw them in my dream so many years ago," muttered
Leo; "the same, the very same."

"And where was the fiery light?" I asked.

"Yonder, I think;" and he pointed north by east.

"Well, it is not there now," I answered, "and this place is cold."

So, since it was dangerous to linger, lest the darkness should overtake
us on our return journey, we descended the peak again, reaching the cave
about sunset. The next four days we spent in the same way. Every morning
we crawled up those wearisome banks of snow, and every afternoon we
slid and tobogganed down them again, till I grew heartily tired of the
exercise.

On the fourth night, instead of coming to sleep in the tent Leo sat
himself down at the entrance to the cave. I asked him why he did this,
but he answered impatiently, because he wished it, so I left him alone.
I could see, indeed, that he was in a strange and irritable mood, for
the failure of our search oppressed him. Moreover, we knew, both of us,
that it could not be much prolonged, since the weather might break at
any moment, when ascents of the mountain would become impossible.

In the middle of the night I was awakened by Leo shaking me and
saying--"Come here, Horace, I have something to show you."

Reluctantly enough I crept from between the rugs and out of the tent. To
dress there was no need, for we slept in all our garments. He led me
to the mouth of the cave and pointed northward. I looked. The night was
very dark; but far, far away appeared a faint patch of light upon the
sky, such as might be caused by the reflection of a distant fire.

"What do you make of it?" he asked anxiously.

"Nothing in particular," I answered, "it may be anything. The moon--no,
there is none, dawn--no, it is too northerly, and it does not break for
three hours. Something burning, a house, or a funeral pyre, but how can
there be such things here? I give it up."

"I think it is a reflection, and that if we were on the peak we should
see the light which throws it," said Leo slowly.

"Yes, but we are not, and cannot get there in the dark."

"Then, Horace, we must spend a night there."

"It will be our last in this incarnation," I answered with a laugh,
"that is if it comes on to snow."

"We must risk it, or I will risk it. Look, the light has faded;" and
there at least he was right, for undoubtedly it had. The night was as
black as pitch.

"Let's talk it over to-morrow," I said, and went back to the tent, for I
was sleepy and incredulous, but Leo sat on by the mouth of the cave.

At dawn I awoke and found breakfast already cooked.

"I must start early," Leo explained.

"Are you mad?" I asked. "How can we camp on that place?"

"I don't know, but I am going. I must go, Horace."

"Which means that we both must go. But how about the yak?"

"Where we can climb, it can follow," he answered.

So we strapped the tent and other baggage, including a good supply of
cooked meat, upon the beast's back, and started. The tramp was long
since we were obliged to make some detours to avoid slopes of frozen
snow in which, on our previous ascents, we had cut footholds with an
axe, for up these the laden animal could not clamber. Reaching the
summit at length, we dug a hole, and there pitched the tent, piling the
excavated snow about its sides. By this time it began to grow dark, and
having descended into the tent, yak and all, we ate our food and waited.

Oh! what cold was that. The frost was fearful, and at this height a wind
blew whose icy breath passed through all our wrappings, and seemed to
burn our flesh beneath as though with hot irons. It was fortunate that
we had brought the yak, for without the warmth from its shaggy body I
believe that we should have perished, even in our tent. For some hours
we watched, as indeed we must, since to sleep might mean to die, yet saw
nothing save the lonely stars, and heard nothing in that awful silence,
for here even the wind made no noise as it slid across the snows.
Accustomed as I was to such exposure, my faculties began to grow numb
and my eyes to shut, when suddenly Leo said--"Look, below the red star!"

I looked, and there high in the sky was the same curious glow which we
had seen upon the previous night. There was more than this indeed, for
beneath it, almost on a line with us and just above the crests of the
intervening peaks, appeared a faint sheet of fire and revealed against
it, something black. Whilst we watched, the fire widened, spread upwards
and grew in power and intensity. Now against its flaming background the
black object became clearly visible, and lo! it was the top of a soaring
pillar surmounted by a loop. Yes, we could see its every outline. It was
the _crux ansata_, the Symbol of Life itself.

The symbol vanished, the fire sank. Again it blazed up more fiercely
than before and the loop appeared afresh, then once more disappeared.
A third time the fire shone, and with such intensity, that no lightning
could surpass its brilliance. All around the heavens were lit up, and,
through the black needle-shaped eye of the symbol, as from the flare of
a beacon, or the search-light of a ship, one fierce ray shot across the
sea of mountain tops and the spaces of the desert, straight as an arrow
to the lofty peak on which we lay. Yes, it lit upon the snow, staining
it red, and upon the wild, white faces of us who watched, though to the
right and left of us spread thick darkness. My compass lay before me on
the snow, and I could even see its needle; and beyond us the shape of
a white fox that had crept near, scenting food. Then it was gone as
swiftly as it came. Gone too were the symbol and the veil of flame
behind it, only the glow lingered a little on the distant sky.

For awhile there was silence between us, then Leo said--"Do you
remember, Horace, when we lay upon the Rocking Stone where _her_
cloak fell upon me--" as he said the words the breath caught in his
throat--"how the ray of light was sent to us in farewell, and to show us
a path of escape from the Place of Death? Now I think that it has been
sent again in greeting to point out the path to the Place of Life where
Ayesha dwells, whom we have lost awhile."

"It may be so," I answered shortly, for the matter was beyond speech
or argument, beyond wonder even. But I knew then, as I know now that
we were players in some mighty, predestined drama; that our parts were
written and we must speak them, as our path was prepared and we must
tread it to the end unknown. Fear and doubt were left behind, hope was
sunk in certainty; the fore-shadowing visions of the night had found an
actual fulfilment and the pitiful seed of the promise of her who died,
growing unseen through all the cruel, empty years, had come to harvest.

No, we feared no more, not even when with the dawn rose the roaring
wind, through which we struggled down the mountain slopes, as it would
seem in peril of our lives at every step; not even as hour by hour we
fought our way onwards through the whirling snow-storm, that made us
deaf and blind. For we knew that those lives were charmed. We could not
see or hear, yet we were led. Clinging to the yak, we struggled downward
and homewards, till at length out of the turmoil and the gloom its
instinct brought us unharmed to the door of the monastery, where the old
abbot embraced us in his joy, and the monks put up prayers of thanks.
For they were sure that we must be dead. Through such a storm, they
said, no man had ever lived before.

It was still mid-winter, and oh! the awful weariness of those months of
waiting. In our hands was the key, yonder amongst those mountains lay
the door, but not yet might we set that key within its lock. For between
us and these stretched the great desert, where the snow rolled like
billows, and until that snow melted we dared not attempt its passage. So
we sat in the monastery, and schooled our hearts to patience.

Still even to these frozen wilds of Central Asia spring comes at last.
One evening the air felt warm, and that night there were only a few
degrees of frost. The next the clouds banked up, and in the morning
not snow was falling from them, but rain, and we found the old monks
preparing their instruments of husbandry, as they said that the season
of sowing was at hand. For three days it rained, while the snows melted
before our eyes. On the fourth torrents of water were rushing down the
mountain and the desert was once more brown and bare, though not for
long, for within another week it was carpeted with flowers. Then we knew
that the time had come to start.

"But whither go you? Whither go you?" asked the old abbot in dismay.
"Are you not happy here? Do you not make great strides along the Path,
as may be known by your pious conversation? Is not everything that we
have your own? Oh! why would you leave us?"

"We are wanderers," we answered, "and when we see mountains in front of
us we must cross them."

Kou-en looked at us shrewdly, then asked--"What do you seek beyond the
mountains? And, my brethren, what merit is gathered by hiding the truth
from an old man, for such concealments are separated from falsehoods but
by the length of a single barleycorn. Tell me, that at least my prayers
may accompany you."

"Holy abbot," I said, "awhile ago yonder in the library you made a
certain confession to us."

"Oh! remind me not of it," he said, holding up his hands. "Why do you
wish to torment me?"

"Far be the thought from us, most kind friend and virtuous man," I
answered. "But, as it chances, your story is very much our own, and we
think that we have experience of this same priestess."

"Speak on," he said, much interested.

So I told him the outlines of our tale; for an hour or more I told it
while he sat opposite to us swaying his head like a tortoise and saying
nothing. At length it was done.

"Now," I added, "let the lamp of your wisdom shine upon our darkness. Do
you not find this story wondrous, or do you perchance think that we are
liars?"

"Brethren of the great monastery called the World," Kou-en answered
with his customary chuckle, "why should I think you liars who, from the
moment my eyes fell upon you, knew you to be true men? Moreover, why
should I hold this tale so very wondrous? You have but stumbled upon
the fringe of a truth with which we have been acquainted for many, many
ages.

"Because in a vision she showed you this monastery, and led you to a
spot beyond the mountains where she vanished, you hope that this woman
whom you saw die is re-incarnated yonder. Why not? In this there is
nothing impossible to those who are instructed in the truth, though the
lengthening of her last life was strange and contrary to experience.
Doubtless you will find her there as you expect, and doubtless her
_khama_, or identity, is the same as that which in some earlier life of
hers once brought me to sin.

"Only be not mistaken, she is no immortal; nothing is immortal. She is
but a being held back by her own pride, her own greatness if you will,
upon the path towards Nirvana. That pride will be humbled, as already it
has been humbled; that brow of majesty shall be sprinkled with the dust
of change and death, that sinful spirit must be purified by sorrows and
by separations. Brother Leo, if you win her, it will be but to lose, and
then the ladder must be reclimbed. Brother Holly, for you as for me loss
is our only gain, since thereby we are spared much woe. Oh! bide here
and pray with me. Why dash yourselves against a rock? Why labour to pour
water into a broken jar whence it must sink into the sands of profitless
experience, and there be wasted, whilst you remain athirst?"

"Water makes the sand fertile," I answered. "Where water falls, life
comes, and sorrow is the seed of joy."

"Love is the law of life," broke in Leo; "without love there is no
life. I seek love that I may live. I believe that all these things are
ordained to an end which we do not know. Fate draws me on--I fulfil my
fate----"

"And do but delay your freedom. Yet I will not argue with you, brother,
who must follow your own road. See now, what has this woman, this
priestess of a false faith if she be so still, brought you in the past?
Once in another life, or so I understand your story, you were sworn to
a certain nature-goddess, who was named Isis, were you not, and to her
alone? Then a woman tempted you, and you fled with her afar. And there
what found you? The betrayed and avenging goddess who slew you, or if
not the goddess, one who had drunk of her wisdom and was the minister
of her vengeance. Having that wisdom this minister--woman or evil
spirit--refused to die because she had learned to love you, but waited
knowing that in your next life she would find you again, as indeed she
would have done more swiftly in Devachan had she died without living on
alone in so much misery. And she found you, and she died, or seemed to
die, and now she is re-born, as she must be, and doubtless you will
meet once more, and again there must come misery. Oh! my friends, go not
across the mountains; bide here with me and lament your sins."

"Nay," answered Leo, "we are sworn to a tryst, and we do not break our
word."

"Then, brethren, go keep your tryst, and when you have reaped its
harvest think upon my sayings, for I am sure that the wine you crush
from the vintage of your desire will run red like blood, and that in its
drinking you shall find neither forgetfulness nor peace. Made blind by
a passion of which well I know the sting and power, you seek to add a
fair-faced evil to your lives, thinking that from this unity there shall
be born all knowledge and great joy.

"Rather should you desire to live alone in holiness until at length your
separate lives are merged and lost in the Good Unspeakable, the eternal
bliss that lies in the last Nothingness. Ah! you do not believe me now;
you shake your heads and smile; yet a day will dawn, it may be after
many incarnations, when you shall bow them in the dust and weep, saying
to me, 'Brother Kou-en, yours were the words of wisdom, ours the deeds
of foolishness;'" and with a deep sigh the old man turned and left us.

"A cheerful faith, truly," said Leo, looking after him, "to dwell
through aeons in monotonous misery in order that consciousness may be
swallowed up at last in some void and formless abstraction called the
'Utter Peace.' I would rather take my share of a bad world and keep my
hope of a better. Also I do not think that he knows anything of Ayesha
and her destiny."

"So would I," I answered, "though perhaps he is right after all. Who can
tell? Moreover, what is the use of reasoning? Leo, we have no choice;
we follow our fate. To what that fate may lead us we shall learn in due
season."

Then we went to rest, for it was late, though I found little sleep that
night. The warnings of the ancient abbot, good and learned man as he
was, full also of ripe experience and of the foresighted wisdom that
is given to such as he, oppressed me deeply. He promised us sorrow and
bloodshed beyond the mountains, ending in death and rebirths full of
misery. Well, it might be so, but no approaching sufferings could stay
our feet. And even if they could, they should not, since to see her face
again I was ready to brave them all. And if this was my case what must
be that of Leo!

A strange theory that of Kou-en's, that Ayesha was the goddess in
old Egypt to whom Kallikrates was priest, or at the least her
representative. That the royal Amenartas, with whom he fled, seduced him
from the goddess to whom he was sworn. That this goddess incarnate
in Ayesha--or using the woman Ayesha and her passions as her
instruments--was avenged upon them both at Kor, and that there in an
after age the bolt she shot fell back upon her own head.

Well, I had often thought as much myself. Only I was sure that _She_
herself could be no actual divinity, though she might be a manifestation
of one, a priestess, a messenger, charged to work its will, to avenge or
to reward, and yet herself a human soul, with hopes and passions to be
satisfied, and a destiny to fulfil. In truth, writing now, when all is
past and done with, I find much to confirm me in, and little to turn me
from that theory, since life and powers of a quality which are more than
human do not alone suffice to make a soul divine. On the other hand,
however, it must be borne in mind that on one occasion at any rate,
Ayesha did undoubtedly suggest that in the beginning she was "a daughter
of Heaven," and that there were others, notably the old Shaman Simbri,
who seemed to take it for granted that her origin was supernatural. But
of all these things I hope to speak in their season.

Meanwhile what lay beyond the mountains? Should we find her there who
held the sceptre and upon earth wielded the power of the outraged Isis,
and with her, that other woman who wrought the wrong? And if so, would
the dread, inhuman struggle reach its climax around the person of the
sinful priest? In a few months, a few days even, we might begin to know.

Thrilled by this thought at length I fell asleep.



CHAPTER IV

THE AVALANCHE

On the morning of the second day from that night the sunrise found us
already on our path across the desert. There, nearly a mile behind us,
we could see the ruined statue of Buddha seated in front of the ancient
monastery, and in that clear atmosphere could even distinguish the bent
form of our friend, the old abbot, Kou-en, leaning against it until we
were quite lost to sight. All the monks had wept when we parted from
them, and Kou-en even more bitterly than the rest, for he had learned to
love us.

"I am grieved," he said, "much grieved, which indeed I should not be,
for such emotion partakes of sin. Yet I find comfort, for I know well
that although I must soon leave this present life, yet we shall meet
again in many future incarnations, and after you have put away these
follies, together tread the path to perfect peace. Now take with you my
blessings and my prayers and begone, forgetting not that should you live
to return"--and he shook his head, doubtfully--"here you will be ever
welcome."

So we embraced him and went sorrowfully.

It will be remembered that when the mysterious light fell upon us on the
peak I had my compass with me and was able roughly to take its bearings.
For lack of any better guide we now followed these bearings, travelling
almost due north-east, for in that direction had shone the fire. All
day in the most beautiful weather we marched across the flower-strewn
desert, seeing nothing except bunches of game and one or two herds of
wild asses which had come down from the mountains to feed upon the new
grass. As evening approached we shot an antelope and made our camp--for
we had brought the yak and a tent with us--among some tamarisk scrub, of
which the dry stems furnished us with fuel. Nor did we lack for water,
since by scraping in the sand soaked with melted snow, we found plenty
of fair quality. So that night we supped in luxury upon tea and antelope
meat, which indeed we were glad to have, as it spared our little store
of dried provisions.

The next morning we ascertained our position as well as we could, and
estimated that we had crossed about a quarter of the desert, a guess
which proved very accurate, for on the evening of the fourth day of our
journey we reached the bottom slopes of the opposing mountains, without
having experienced either accident or fatigue. As Leo said, things were
"going like clockwork," but I reminded him that a good start often meant
a bad finish. Nor was I wrong, for now came our hardships. To begin
with, the mountains proved to be exceeding high; it took us two days
to climb their lower slopes. Also the heat of the sun had softened the
snow, which made walking through it laborious, whilst, accustomed
though we were to such conditions through long years of travelling, its
continual glitter affected our eyes.

The morning of the seventh day found us in the mouth of a defile which
wound away into the heart of the mountains. As it seemed the only
possible path, we followed it, and were much cheered to discover that
here must once have run a road. Not that we could see any road, indeed,
for everything was buried in snow. But that one lay beneath our feet we
were certain, since, although we marched along the edge of precipices,
our path, however steep, was always flat; moreover, the rock upon one
side of it had often been scarped by the hand of man. Of this there
could be no doubt, for as the snow did not cling here, we saw the tool
marks upon its bare surface.

Also we came to several places where galleries had been built out from
the mountain side, by means of beams let into it, as is still a common
practice in Thibet. These beams of course had long since rotted away,
leaving a gulf between us and the continuation of the path. When we met
with such gaps we were forced to go back and make a detour round or over
some mountain; but although much delayed thereby, as it happened, we
always managed to regain the road, if not without difficulty and danger.

What tried us more--for here our skill and experience as mountaineers
could not help us--was the cold at night, obliged as we were to camp
in the severe frost at a great altitude, and to endure through the long
hours of darkness penetrating and icy winds, which soughed ceaselessly
down the pass.

At length on the tenth day we reached the end of the defile, and as
night was falling, camped there in the most bitter cold. Those were
miserable hours, for now we had no fuel with which to boil water, and
must satisfy our thirst by eating frozen snow, while our eyes smarted
so sorely that we could not sleep, and notwithstanding all our wraps and
the warmth that we gathered from the yak in the little tent, the cold
caused our teeth to chatter like castanets.

The dawn came, and, after it, the sunrise. We crept from the tent, and
leaving it standing awhile, dragged our stiffened limbs a hundred yards
or so to a spot where the defile took a turn, in order that we might
thaw in the rays of the sun, which at that hour could not reach us where
we had camped.

Leo was round it first, and I heard him utter an exclamation. In a few
seconds I reached his side, and lo! before us lay our Promised Land.

Far beneath us, ten thousand feet at least--for it must be remembered
that we viewed it from the top of a mountain--it stretched away and away
till its distances met the horizon. In character it was quite flat, an
alluvial plain that probably, in some primeval age, had been the bottom
of one of the vast lakes of which a number exist in Central Asia, most
of them now in process of desiccation. One object only relieved this
dreary flatness, a single, snow-clad, and gigantic mountain, of which
even at that distance--for it was very far from us--we could clearly see
the outline. Indeed we could see more, for from its rounded crest rose a
great plume of smoke, showing that it was an active volcano, and on the
hither lip of the crater an enormous pillar of rock, whereof the top was
formed to the shape of a loop.

Yes, there it stood before us, that symbol of our vision which we had
sought these many years, and at the sight of it our hearts beat fast and
our breath came quickly. We noted at once that although we had not seen
it during our passage of the mountains, since the peaks ahead and the
rocky sides of the defile hid it from view, so great was its height that
it overtopped the tallest of them. This made it clear to us how it came
to be possible that the ray of light passing through the loop could fall
upon the highest snows of that towering pinnacle which we had climbed
upon the further side of the desert.

Also now we were certain of the cause of that ray, for the smoke behind
the loop explained this mystery. Doubtless, at times when the volcano
was awake, that smoke must be replaced by flame, emitting light of
fearful intensity, and this light it was that reached us, concentrated
and directed by the loop.

For the rest we thought that about thirty miles away we could make out a
white-roofed town set upon a mound, situated among trees upon the banks
of a wide river, which flowed across the plain. Also it was evident that
this country had a large population who cultivated the soil, for by
the aid of a pair of field glasses, one of our few remaining and most
cherished possessions, we could see the green of springing crops pierced
by irrigation canals and the lines of trees that marked the limits of
the fields.

Yes, there before us stretched the Promised Land, and there rose the
mystic Mount, so that all we had to do was to march down the snow slopes
and enter it where we would.

Thus we thought in our folly, little guessing what lay before us, what
terrors and weary suffering we must endure before we stood at length
beneath the shadow of the Symbol of Life.

Our fatigues forgotten, we returned to the tent, hastily swallowed some
of our dried food, which we washed down with lumps of snow that gave us
toothache and chilled us inside, but which thirst compelled us to eat,
dragged the poor yak to its feet, loaded it up, and started.

All this while, so great was our haste and so occupied were each of
us with our own thoughts that, if my memory serves me, we scarcely
interchanged a word. Down the snow slopes we marched swiftly and without
hesitation, for here the road was marked for us by means of pillars of
rock set opposite to one another at intervals. These pillars we observed
with satisfaction, for they told us that we were still upon a highway
which led to the Promised Land.

Yet, as we could not help noting, it was one which seemed to have gone
out of use, since with the exception of a few wild-sheep tracks and the
spoor of some bears and mountain foxes, not a single sign of beast or
man could we discover. This, however, was to be explained, we reflected,
by the fact that doubtless the road was only used in the summer season.
Or perhaps the inhabitants of the country were now stay-at-home people
who never travelled it at all.

Those slopes were longer than we thought; indeed, when darkness closed
in we had not reached the foot of them. So we were obliged to spend
another night in the snow, pitching our tent in the shelter of
an over-hanging rock. As we had descended many thousand feet, the
temperature proved, fortunately, a little milder; indeed, I do not
think that there were more than eighteen or twenty degrees of frost that
night. Also here and there the heat of the sun had melted the snow in
secluded places, so that we were able to find water to drink, while the
yak could fill its poor old stomach with dead-looking mountain mosses,
which it seemed to think better than nothing.

Again, the still dawn came, throwing its red garment over the lonesome,
endless mountains, and we dragged ourselves to our numbed feet, ate some
of our remaining food, and started onwards. Now we could no longer see
the country beneath, for it and even the towering volcano were hidden
from us by an intervening ridge that seemed to be pierced by a single
narrow gulley, towards which we headed. Indeed, as the pillars showed
us, thither ran the buried road. By mid-day it appeared quite close to
us, and we tramped on in feverish haste. As it chanced, however, there
was no need to hurry, for an hour later we learned the truth.

Between us and the mouth of the gulley rose, or rather sank, a sheer
precipice that was apparently three or four hundred feet in depth, and
at its foot we could hear the sound of water.

Right to the edge of this precipice ran the path, for one of the stone
pillars stood upon its extreme brink, and yet how could a road descend
such a place as that? We stared aghast; then a possible solution
occurred to us.

"Don't you see," said Leo, with a hollow laugh, "the gulf has opened
since this track was used: volcanic action probably."

"Perhaps, or perhaps there was a wooden bridge or stairway which has
rotted. It does not matter. We must find another path, that is all," I
answered as cheerfully as I could.

"Yes, and soon," he said, "if we do not wish to stop here for ever."

So we turned to the right and marched along the edge of the precipice
till, a mile or so away, we came to a small glacier, of which the
surface was sprinkled with large stones frozen into its substance. This
glacier hung down the face of the cliff like a petrified waterfall, but
whether or no it reached the foot we could not discover. At any rate,
to think of attempting its descent seemed out of the question. From this
point onwards we could see that the precipice increased in depth and far
as the eye could reach was absolutely sheer.

So we went back again and searched to the left of our road. Here the
mountains receded, so that above us rose a mighty, dazzling slope of
snow and below us lay that same pitiless, unclimbable gulf. As the light
began to fade we perceived, half a mile or more in front a bare-topped
hillock of rock, which stood on the verge of the precipice, and hurried
to it, thinking that from its crest we might be able to discover a way
of descent.

When at length we had struggled to the top, it was about a hundred and
fifty feet high; what we did discover was that, here also, as beyond the
glacier, the gulf was infinitely deeper than at the spot where the road
ended, so deep indeed that we could not see its bottom, although from it
came the sound of roaring water. Moreover, it was quite half a mile in
width.

Whilst we stared round us the sinking sun vanished behind a mountain
and, the sky being heavy, the light went out like that of a candle. Now
the ascent of this hillock had proved so steep, especially at one place,
where we were obliged to climb a sort of rock ladder, that we scarcely
cared to attempt to struggle down it again in that gloom. Therefore,
remembering that there was little to choose between the top of this
knoll and the snow plain at its foot in the matter of temperature or
other conveniences, and being quite exhausted, we determined to spend
the night upon it, thereby, as we were to learn, saving our lives.

Unloading the yak, we pitched our tent under the lee of the topmost knob
of rock and ate a couple of handfuls of dried fish and corn-cake. This
was the last of the food that we had brought with us from the Lamasery,
and we reflected with dismay that unless we could shoot something, our
commissariat was now represented by the carcass of our old friend the
yak. Then we wrapped ourselves up in our thick rugs and fur garments and
forgot our miseries in sleep.

It cannot have been long before daylight when we were awakened by a
sudden and terrific sound like the boom of a great cannon, followed by
thousands of other sounds, which might be compared to the fusillade of
musketry.

"Great Heaven! What is that?" I said.

We crawled from the tent, but as yet could see nothing, whilst the yak
began to low in a terrified manner. But if we could not see we could
hear and feel. The booming and cracking had ceased, and was followed by
a soft, grinding noise, the most sickening sound, I think, to which
I ever listened. This was accompanied by a strange, steady, unnatural
wind, which seemed to press upon us as water presses. Then the dawn
broke and we saw.

The mountain-side was moving down upon us in a vast avalanche of snow.

Oh! what a sight was that. On from the crest of the precipitous slopes
above, two miles and more away, it came, a living thing, rolling,
sliding, gliding; piling itself in long, leaping waves, hollowing itself
into cavernous valleys, like a tempest-driven sea, whilst above its
surface hung a powdery cloud of frozen spray.

As we watched, clinging to each other terrified, the first of these
waves struck our hill, causing the mighty mass of solid rock to quiver
like a yacht beneath the impact of an ocean roller, or an aspen in
a sudden rush of wind. It struck and slowly separated, then with a
majestic motion flowed like water over the edge of the precipice on
either side, and fell with a thudding sound into the unmeasured depths
beneath. And this was but a little thing, a mere forerunner, for after
it, with a slow, serpentine movement, rolled the body of the avalanche.

It came in combers, it came in level floods. It piled itself against our
hill, yes, to within fifty feet of the head of it, till we thought that
even that rooted rock must be torn from its foundations and hurled like
a pebble to the deeps beneath. And the turmoil of it all! The screaming
of the blast caused by the compression of the air, the dull, continuous
thudding of the fall of millions of tons of snow as they rushed through
space and ended their journey in the gulf.

Nor was this the worst of it, for as the deep snows above thinned, great
boulders that had been buried beneath them, perhaps for centuries, were
loosened from their resting-places and began to thunder down the hill.
At first they moved slowly, throwing up the hard snow around them as the
prow of a ship throws foam. Then gathering momentum, they sprang into
the air with leaps such as those of shells ricocheting upon water, till
in the end, singing and hurtling, many of them rushed past and even over
us to vanish far beyond. Some indeed struck our little mountain with the
force of shot fired from the great guns of a battle-ship, and shattered
there, or if they fell upon its side, tore away tons of rock and passed
with them into the chasm like a meteor surrounded by its satellites.
Indeed, no bombardment devised and directed by man could have been half
so terrible or, had there been anything to destroy, half so destructive.

The scene was appalling in its unchained and resistless might evolved
suddenly from the completest calm. There in the lap of the quiet
mountains, looked down upon by the peaceful, tender sky, the powers
hidden in the breast of Nature were suddenly set free, and, companioned
by whirlwinds and all the terrifying majesty of sound, loosed upon the
heads of us two human atoms.

At the first rush of snow we had leapt back behind our protecting peak
and, lying at full length upon the ground, gripped it and clung there,
fearing lest the wind should whirl us to the abyss. Long ago our tent
had gone like a dead leaf in an autumn gale, and at times it seemed as
if we must follow.

The boulders hurtled over and past us; one of them, fell full upon the
little peak, shattering its crest and bursting into fragments, which
fled away, each singing its own wild song. We were not touched, but
when we looked behind us it was to see the yak, which had risen in its
terror, lying dead and headless. Then in our fear we lay still, waiting
for the end, and wondering dimly whether we should be buried in the
surging snow or swept away with the hill, or crushed by the flying
rocks, or lifted and lost in the hurricane.

How long did it last? We never knew. It may have been ten minutes or
two hours, for in such a scene time loses its proportion. Only we became
aware that the wind had fallen, while the noise of grinding snow and
hurtling boulders ceased. Very cautiously we gained our feet and looked.

In front of us was sheer mountain side, for a depth of over two miles,
the width of about a thousand yards, which had been covered with many
feet of snow, was now bare rock. Piled up against the face of our hill,
almost to its summit, lay a tongue of snow, pressed to the consistency
of ice and spotted with boulders that had lodged there. The peak itself
was torn and shattered, so that it revealed great gleaming surfaces
and pits, in which glittered mica, or some other mineral. The vast gulf
behind was half filled with the avalanche and its debris. But for
the rest, it seemed as though nothing had happened, for the sun shone
sweetly overhead and the solemn snows reflected its rays from the sides
of a hundred hills. And we had endured it all and were still alive; yes,
and unhurt.

But what a position was ours! We dared not attempt to descend the mount,
lest we should sink into the loose snow and be buried there. Moreover,
all along the breadth of the path of the avalanche boulders from time to
time still thundered down the rocky slope, and with them came patches of
snow that had been left behind by the big slide, small in themselves,
it is true, but each of them large enough to kill a hundred men. It
was obvious, therefore, that until these conditions changed, or death
released us, we must abide where we were upon the crest of the hillock.

So there we sat, foodless and frightened, wondering what our old friend
Kou-en would say if he could see us now. By degrees hunger mastered all
our other sensations and we began to turn longing eyes upon the headless
body of the yak.

"Let's skin him," said Leo, "it will be something to do, and we shall
want his hide to-night."

So with affection, and even reverence, we performed this office for the
dead companion of our journeyings, rejoicing the while that it was not
we who had brought him to his end. Indeed, long residence among peoples
who believed fully that the souls of men could pass into, or were risen
from, the bodies of animals, had made us a little superstitious on this
matter. It would be scarcely pleasant, we reflected, in some future
incarnation, to find our faithful friend clad in human form and to hear
him bitterly reproach us for his murder.

Being dead, however, these arguments did not apply to eating him, as we
were sure he would himself acknowledge. So we cut off little bits of
his flesh and, rolling them in snow till they looked as though they were
nicely floured, hunger compelling us, swallowed them at a gulp. It was a
disgusting meal and we felt like cannibals: but what could we do?



CHAPTER V

THE GLACIER

Even that day came to an end at last, and after a few more lumps of
yak, our tent being gone, we drew his hide over us and rested as best
we could, knowing that at least we had no more avalanches to fear. That
night it froze sharply, so that had it not been for the yak's hide and
the other rugs and garments, which fortunately we were wearing when the
snow-slide began, it would, I think, have gone hard with us. As it was,
we suffered a great deal.

"Horace," said Leo at the dawn, "I am going to leave this. If we have
to die, I would rather do so moving; but I don't believe that we shall
die."

"Very well," I said, "let us start. If the snow won't bear us now, it
never will."

So we tied up our rugs and the yak's hide in two bundles and, having cut
off some more of the frozen meat, began our descent. Now, although the
mount was under two hundred feet high, its base, fortunately for us--for
otherwise it must have been swept away by the mighty pressure of the
avalanche--was broad, so that there was a long expanse of piled-up snow
between us and the level ground.

Since, owing to the overhanging conformation of the place, it was quite
impossible for us to descend in front where pressure had made the snow
hard as stone, we were obliged to risk a march over the looser material
upon its flank. As there was nothing to be gained by waiting, off
we went, Leo leading and step by step trying the snow. To our joy we
discovered that the sharp night frost had so hardened its surface that
it would support us. About half way down, however, where the pressure
had been less, it became much softer, so that we were forced to lie
upon our faces, which enabled us to distribute our weight over a larger
surface, and thus slither gently down the hill.

All went well until we were within twenty paces of the bottom, where
we must cross a soft mound formed of the powdery dust thrown off by the
avalanche in its rush. Leo slipped over safely, but I, following a yard
or two to his right, of a sudden felt the hard crust yield beneath
me. An ill-judged but quite natural flounder and wriggle, such as a
newly-landed flat-fish gives upon the sand, completed the mischief, and
with one piercing but swiftly stifled yell, I vanished.

Any one who has ever sunk in deep water will know that the sensation
is not pleasant, but I can assure him that to go through the same
experience in soft snow is infinitely worse; mud alone could surpass its
terrors. Down I went, and down, till at length I seemed to reach a rock
which alone saved me from disappearing for ever. Now I felt the snow
closing above me and with it came darkness and a sense of suffocation.
So soft was the drift, however, that before I was overcome I contrived
with my arms to thrust away the powdery dust from about my head, thus
forming a little hollow into which air filtered slowly. Getting my hands
upon the stone, I strove to rise, but could not, the weight upon me was
too great.

Then I abandoned hope and prepared to die. The process proved not
altogether unpleasant. I did not see visions from my past life as
drowning men are supposed to do, but--and this shows how strong was her
empire over me--my mind flew back to Ayesha. I seemed to behold her and
a man at her side, standing over me in some dark, rocky gulf. She was
wrapped in a long travelling cloak, and her lovely eyes were wild with
fear. I rose to salute her, and make report, but she cried in a fierce,
concentrated voice--"What evil thing has happened here? Thou livest;
then where is my lord Leo? Speak, man, and say where thou hast hid my
lord--or die."

The vision was extraordinarily real and vivid, I remember, and,
considered in connection with a certain subsequent event, in all ways
most remarkable, but it passed as swiftly as it came.

Then my senses left me.

I saw a light again. I heard a voice, that of Leo. "Horace," he cried,
"Horace, hold fast to the stock of the rifle." Something was thrust
against my outstretched hand. I gripped it despairingly, and there came
a strain. It was useless, I did not move. Then, bethinking me, I drew
up my legs and by chance or the mercy of Heaven, I know not, got my
feet against a ridge of the rock on which I was lying. Again I felt the
strain, and thrust with all my might. Of a sudden the snow gave, and out
of that hole I shot like a fox from its earth.

I struck something. It was Leo straining at the gun, and I knocked him
backwards. Then down the steep slope we rolled, landing at length upon
the very edge of the precipice. I sat up, drawing in the air with great
gasps, and oh! how sweet it was. My eyes fell upon my hand, and I saw
that the veins stood out on the back of it, black as ink and large as
cords. Clearly I must have been near my end.

"How long was I in there?" I gasped to Leo, who sat at my side, wiping
off the sweat that ran from his face in streams.

"Don't know. Nearly twenty minutes, I should think."

"Twenty minutes! It seemed like twenty centuries. How did you get me
out? You could not stand upon the drift dust."

"No; I lay upon the yak skin where the snow was harder and tunnelled
towards you through the powdery stuff with my hands, for I knew where
you had sunk and it was not far off. At last I saw your finger tips;
they were so blue that for a few seconds I took them for rock, but
thrust the butt of the rifle against them. Luckily you still had life
enough to catch hold of it, and you know the rest. Were we not both very
strong, it could never have been done."

"Thank you, old fellow," I said simply.

"Why should you thank me?" he asked with one of his quick smiles. "Do
you suppose that I wished to continue this journey alone? Come, if you
have got your breath, let us be getting on. You have been sleeping in a
cold bed and want exercise. Look, my rifle is broken and yours is
lost in the snow. Well, it will save us the trouble of carrying the
cartridges," and he laughed drearily.

Then we began our march, heading for the spot where the road ended four
miles or so away, for to go forward seemed useless. In due course we
reached it safely. Once a mass of snow as large as a church swept down
just in front of us, and once a great boulder loosened from the mountain
rushed at us suddenly like an attacking lion, or the stones thrown
by Polyphemus at the ship of Odysseus, and, leaping over our heads,
vanished with an angry scream into the depths beneath. But we took
little heed of these things: our nerves were deadened, and no danger
seemed to affect them.

There was the end of the road, and there were our own footprints and the
impress of the yak's hoofs in the snow. The sight of them affected me,
for it seemed strange that we should have lived to look upon them
again. We stared over the edge of the precipice. Yes, it was sheer and
absolutely unclimbable.

"Come to the glacier," said Leo.

So we went on to it, and scrambling a little way down its root, made an
examination. Here, so far as we could judge, the cliff was about four
hundred feet deep. But whether or no the tongue of ice reached to the
foot of it we were unable to tell, since about two thirds of the way
down it arched inwards, like the end of a bent bow, and the conformation
of the overhanging rocks on either side was such that we could not see
where it terminated. We climbed back again and sat down, and despair
took hold of us, bitter, black despair.

"What are we to do?" I asked. "In front of us death. Behind us death,
for how can we recross those mountains without food or guns to shoot
it with? Here death, for we must sit and starve. We have striven and
failed. Leo, our end is at hand. Only a miracle can save us."

"A miracle," he answered. "Well, what was it that led us to the top of
the mount so that we were able to escape the avalanche? And what was it
which put that rock in your way as you sank into the bed of dust, and
gave me wit and strength to dig you out of your grave of snow? And what
is it that has preserved us through seventeen years of dangers such as
few men have known and lived? Some directing Power. Some Destiny that
will accomplish itself in us. Why should the Power cease to guide? Why
should the Destiny be baulked at last?"

He paused, then added fiercely, "I tell you, Horace, that even if we had
guns, food, and yaks, I would not turn back upon our spoor, since to do
so would prove me a coward and unworthy of her. I will go on."

"How?" I asked.

"By that road," and he pointed to the glacier.

"It is a road to death!"

"Well, if so, Horace, it would seem that in this land men find life in
death, or so they believe. If we die now, we shall die travelling our
path, and in the country where we perish we may be born again. At least
I am determined, so you must choose."

"I have chosen long ago. Leo, we began this journey together and we will
end it together. Perhaps Ayesha knows and will help us," and I laughed
drearily. "If not--come, we are wasting time."

Then we took counsel, and the end of it was that we cut a skin rug and
the yak's tough hide into strips and knotted these together into two
serviceable ropes, which we fastened about our middles, leaving one end
loose, for we thought that they might help us in our descent.

Next we bound fragments of another skin rug about our legs and knees
to protect them from the chafing of the ice and rocks, and for the same
reason put on our thick leather gloves. This done, we took the remainder
of our gear and heavy robes and, having placed stones in them, threw
them over the brink of the precipice, trusting to find them again,
should we ever reach its foot. Now our preparations were complete,
and it was time for us to start upon perhaps one of the most desperate
journeys ever undertaken by men of their own will.

Yet we stayed a little, looking at each other in piteous fashion, for
we could not speak. Only we embraced, and I confess, I think I wept
a little. It all seemed so sad and hopeless, these longings endured
through many years, these perpetual, weary travellings, and now--the
end. I could not bear to think of that splendid man, my ward, my most
dear friend, the companion of my life, who stood before me so full of
beauty and of vigour, but who must within a few short minutes be turned
into a heap of quivering, mangled flesh. For myself it did not matter.
I was old, it was time that I should die. I had lived innocently, if it
were innocent to follow this lovely image, this Siren of the caves, who
lured us on to doom.

No, I don't think that I thought of myself then, but I thought a great
deal of Leo, and when I saw his determined face and flashing eyes as he
nerved himself to the last endeavour, I was proud of him. So in broken
accents I blessed him and wished him well through all the aeons, praying
that I might be his companion to the end of time. In few words and short
he thanked me and gave me back my blessing. Then he muttered--"Come."

So side by side we began the terrible descent. At first it was easy
enough, although a slip would have hurled us to eternity. But we were
strong and skilful, accustomed to such places moreover, and made none.
About a quarter of the way down we paused, standing upon a great boulder
that was embedded in the ice, and, turning round cautiously, leaned our
backs against the glacier and looked about us. Truly it was a horrible
place, almost sheer, nor did we learn much, for beneath us, a hundred
and twenty feet or more, the projecting bend cut off our view of what
lay below.

So, feeling that our nerves would not bear a prolonged contemplation of
that dizzy gulf, once more we set our faces to the ice and proceeded on
the downward climb. Now matters were more difficult, for the stones were
fewer and once or twice we must slide to reach them, not knowing if we
should ever stop again. But the ropes which we threw over the angles
of the rocks, or salient points of ice, letting ourselves down by their
help and drawing them after us when we reached the next foothold, saved
us from disaster.

Thus at length we came to the bend, which was more than half way down
the precipice, being, so far as I could judge, about two hundred and
fifty feet from its lip, and say one hundred and fifty from the darksome
bottom of the narrow gulf. Here were no stones, but only some rough ice,
on which we sat to rest.

"We must look," said Leo presently.

But the question was, how to do this. Indeed, there was only one way,
to hang over the bend and discover what lay below. We read each other's
thought without the need of words, and I made a motion as though I would
start.

"No," said Leo, "I am younger and stronger than you. Come, help me," and
he began to fasten the end of his rope to a strong, projecting point of
ice. "Now," he said, "hold my ankles."

It seemed an insanity, but there was nothing else to be done, so, fixing
my heels in a niche, I grasped them and slowly he slid forward till his
body vanished to the middle. What he saw does not matter, for I saw it
all afterwards, but what happened was that suddenly all his great weight
came upon my arms with such a jerk that his ankles were torn from my
grip.

Or, who knows! perhaps in my terror I loosed them, obeying the natural
impulse which prompts a man to save his own life. If so, may I be
forgiven, but had I held on, I must have been jerked into the abyss.
Then the rope ran out and remained taut.

"Leo!" I screamed, "Leo!" and I heard a muffled voice saying, as I
thought, "Come." What it really said was--"Don't come." But indeed--and
may it go to my credit--I did not pause to think, but face outwards,
just as I was sitting, began to slide and scramble down the ice.

In two seconds I had reached the curve, in three I was over it. Beneath
was what I can only describe as a great icicle broken off short, and
separated from the cliff by about four yards of space. This icicle was
not more than fifteen feet in length and sloped outwards, so that my
descent was not sheer. Moreover, at the end of it the trickling of
water, or some such accident, had worn away the ice, leaving a little
ledge as broad, perhaps, as a man's hand. There were roughnesses on the
surface below the curve, upon which my clothing caught, also I gripped
them desperately with my fingers. Thus it came about that I slid down
quite gently and, my heels landing upon the little ledge, remained
almost upright, with outstretched arms--like a person crucified to a
cross of ice.

Then I saw everything, and the sight curdled the blood within my veins.
Hanging to the rope, four or five feet below the broken point, was Leo,
out of reach of it, and out of reach of the cliff; as he hung turning
slowly round and round, much as--for in a dreadful, inconsequent fashion
the absurd similarity struck me even then--a joint turns before the
fire. Below yawned the black gulf, and at the bottom of it, far, far
beneath, appeared a faint, white sheet of snow. That is what I saw.

Think of it! Think of it! I crucified upon the ice, my heels resting
upon a little ledge; my fingers grasping excrescences on which a bird
could scarcely have found a foothold; round and below me dizzy space.
To climb back whence I came was impossible, to stir even was impossible,
since one slip and I must be gone.

And below me, hung like a spider to its cord, Leo turning slowly round
and round!

I could see that rope of green hide stretch beneath his weight and the
double knots in it slip and tighten, and I remember wondering which
would give first, the hide or the knots, or whether it would hold till
he dropped from the noose limb by limb.

Oh! I have been in many a perilous place, I who sprang from the Swaying
Stone to the point of the Trembling Spur, and missed my aim, but never,
never in such a one as this. Agony took hold of me; a cold sweat burst
from every pore. I could feel it running down my face like tears; my
hair bristled upon my head. And below, in utter silence, Leo turned
round and round, and each time he turned his up-cast eyes met mine with
a look that was horrible to see.

The silence was the worst of it, the silence and the helplessness. If
he had cried out, if he had struggled, it would have been better. But
to know that he was alive there, with every nerve and perception at its
utmost stretch. Oh! my God! Oh! my God!

My limbs began to ache, and yet I dared not stir a muscle. They
ached horribly, or so I thought, and beneath this torture, mental and
physical, my mind gave.

I remembered things: remembered how, as a child, I had climbed a tree
and reached a place whence I could move neither up nor down, and what I
suffered then. Remembered how once in Egypt a foolhardy friend of mine
had ascended the Second Pyramid alone, and become thus crucified upon
its shining cap, where he remained for a whole half hour with four
hundred feet of space beneath him. I could see him now stretching his
stockinged foot downwards in a vain attempt to reach the next crack, and
drawing it back again; could see his tortured face, a white blot upon
the red granite.

Then that face vanished and blackness gathered round me, and in
the blackness visions: of the living, resistless avalanche, of the
snow-grave into which I had sunk--oh! years and years ago; of Ayesha
demanding Leo's life at my hands. Blackness and silence, through which I
could only hear the cracking of my muscles.

Suddenly in the blackness a flash, and in the silence a sound. The flash
was the flash of a knife which Leo had drawn. He was hacking at the cord
with it fiercely, fiercely, to make an end. And the sound was that of
the noise he made, a ghastly noise, half shout of defiance and half yell
of terror, as at the third stroke it parted.

I saw it part. The tough hide was half cut through, and its severed
portion curled upwards and downwards like the upper and lower lips of an
angry dog, whilst that which was unsevered stretched out slowly, slowly,
till it grew quite thin. Then it snapped, so that the rope flew upwards
and struck me across the face like the lash of a whip.

Another instant and I heard a crackling, thudding sound. Leo had struck
the ground below. Leo was dead, a mangled mass of flesh and bone as I
had pictured him. I could not bear it. My nerve and human dignity came
back. I would not wait until, my strength exhausted, I slid from my
perch as a wounded bird falls from a tree. No, I would follow him at
once, of my own act.

I let my arms fall against my sides, and rejoiced in the relief from
pain that the movement gave me. Then balanced upon my heels, I stood
upright, took my last look at the sky, muttered my last prayer. For an
instant I remained thus poised.

Shouting, "I come," I raised my hands above my head and dived as a
bather dives, dived into the black gulf beneath.



CHAPTER VI

IN THE GATE

Oh! that rush through space! Folk falling thus are supposed to lose
consciousness, but I can assert that this is not true. Never were my
wits and perceptions more lively than while I travelled from that broken
glacier to the ground, and never did a short journey seem to take a
longer time. I saw the white floor, like some living thing, leaping up
through empty air to meet me, then--_finis!_

Crash! Why, what was this? I still lived. I was in water, for I could
feel its chill, and going down, down, till I thought I should never rise
again. But rise I did, though my lungs were nigh to bursting first. As I
floated up towards the top I remembered the crash, which told me that
I had passed through ice. Therefore I should meet ice at the surface
again. Oh! to think that after surviving so much I must be drowned like
a kitten and beneath a sheet of ice. My hands touched it. There it was
above me shining white like glass. Heaven be praised! My head broke
through; in this low and sheltered gorge it was but a film no thicker
than a penny formed by the light frost of the previous night. So I rose
from the deep and stared about me, treading water with my feet.

Then I saw the gladdest sight that ever my eyes beheld, for on the
right, not ten yards away, the water running from his hair and beard,
was Leo. Leo alive, for he broke the thin ice with his arms as he
struggled towards the shore from the deep river.[*] He saw me also, and
his grey eyes seemed to start out of his head.

     [*] Usually, as we learned afterwards, the river at this
     spot was quite shallow; only a foot or two in depth. It was
     the avalanche that by damming it with fallen heaps of snow
     had raised its level very many feet. Therefore, to this
     avalanche, which had threatened to destroy us, we in reality
     owed our lives, for had the stream stood only at its normal
     height we must have been dashed to pieces upon the stones.
     --L. H. H.

"Still living, both of us, and the precipice passed!" he shouted in a
ringing, exultant voice. "I told you we were led."

"Aye, but whither?" I answered as I too fought my way through the film
of ice.

Then it was I became aware that we were no longer alone, for on the
bank of the river, some thirty yards from us, stood two figures, a man
leaning upon a long staff and a woman. He was a very old man, for his
eyes were horny, his snow-white hair and beard hung upon the bent breast
and shoulders, and his sardonic, wrinkled features were yellow as wax.
They might have been those of a death mask cut in marble. There, clad in
an ample, monkish robe, and leaning upon the staff, he stood still as
a statue and watched us. I noted it all, every detail, although at the
time I did not know that I was doing so, as we broke our way through the
ice towards them and afterwards the picture came back to me. Also I saw
that the woman, who was very tall, pointed to us.

Nearer the bank, or rather to the rock edge of the river, its surface
was free of ice, for here the stream ran very swiftly. Seeing this, we
drew close together and swam on side by side to help each other if need
were. There was much need, for in the fringe of the torrent the strength
that had served me so long seemed to desert me, and I became helpless;
numbed, too, with the biting coldness of the water. Indeed, had not Leo
grasped my clothes I think that I should have been swept away by the
current to perish. Thus aided I fought on a while, till he said--"I am
going under. Hold to the rope end."

So I gripped the strip of yak's hide that was still fast about him, and,
his hand thus freed, Leo made a last splendid effort to keep us both,
cumbered as we were with the thick, soaked garments that dragged us down
like lead, from being sucked beneath the surface. Moreover, he succeeded
where any other swimmer of less strength must have failed. Still, I
believe that we should have drowned, since here the water ran like a
mill-race, had not the man upon the shore, seeing our plight and urged
thereto by the woman, run with surprising swiftness in one so aged, to a
point of rock that jutted some yards into the stream, past which we were
being swept, and seating himself, stretched out his long stick towards
us.

With a desperate endeavour, Leo grasped it as we went by, rolling over
and over each other, and held on. Round we swung into the eddy, found
our feet, were knocked down again, rubbed and pounded on the rocks. But
still gripping that staff of salvation, to his end of which the old
man clung like a limpet to a stone, while the woman clung to him, we
recovered ourselves, and, sheltered somewhat by the rock, floundered
towards the shore. Lying on his face--for we were still in great
danger--the man extended his arm. We could not reach it; and worse,
suddenly the staff was torn from him; we were being swept away.

Then it was that the woman did a noble thing, for springing into the
water--yes, up to her armpits--and holding fast to the old man by
her left hand, with the right she seized Leo's hair and dragged him
shorewards. Now he found his feet for a moment, and throwing one arm
about her slender form, steadied himself thus, while with the other he
supported me. Next followed a long confused struggle, but the end of it
was that three of us, the old man, Leo and I, rolled in a heap upon the
bank and lay there gasping.

Presently I looked up. The woman stood over us, water streaming from her
garments, staring like one in a dream at Leo's face, smothered as it was
with blood running from a deep cut in his head. Even then I noticed how
stately and beautiful she was. Now she seemed to awake and, glancing
at the robes that clung to her splendid shape, said something to her
companion, then turned and ran towards the cliff.

As we lay before him, utterly exhausted, the old man, who had risen,
contemplated us solemnly with his dim eyes. He spoke, but we did not
understand. Again he tried another language and without success. A third
time and our ears were opened, for the tongue he used was Greek; yes,
there in Central Asia he addressed us in Greek, not very pure, it is
true, but still Greek.

"Are you wizards," he said, "that you have lived to reach this land?"

"Nay," I answered in the same tongue, though in broken words--since of
Greek I had thought little for many a year--"for then we should have
come otherwise," and I pointed to our hurts and the precipice behind us.

"They know the ancient speech; it is as we were told from the Mountain,"
he muttered to himself. Then he asked--"Strangers, what seek you?"

Now I grew cunning and did not answer, fearing lest, should he learn
the truth, he would thrust us back into the river. But Leo had no such
caution, or rather all reason had left him; he was light-headed.

"We seek," he stuttered out--his Greek, which had always been feeble,
now was simply barbarous and mixed with various Thibetan dialects--"we
seek the land of the Fire Mountain that is crowned with the Sign of
Life."

The man stared at us. "So you know," he said, then broke off and added,
"and _whom_ do you seek?"

"Her," answered Leo wildly, "the Queen." I think that he meant to say
the priestess, or the goddess, but could only think of the Greek for
Queen, or rather something resembling it. Or perhaps it was because the
woman who had gone looked like a queen.

"Oh!" said the man, "you seek a queen--then you _are_ those for whom we
were bidden to watch. Nay, how can I be sure?"

"Is this a time to put questions?" I gasped angrily. "Answer me one
rather: who are you?"

"I? Strangers, my title is Guardian of the Gate, and the lady who was
with me is the Khania of Kaloon."

At this point Leo began to faint.

"That man is sick," said the Guardian, "and now that you have got your
breath again, you must have shelter, both of you, and at once. Come,
help me."

So, supporting Leo on either side, we dragged ourselves away from that
accursed cliff and Styx-like river up a narrow, winding gorge. Presently
it opened out, and there, stretching across the glade, we saw the Gate.
Of this all I observed then, for my memory of the details of this scene
and of the conversation that passed is very weak and blurred, was
that it seemed to be a mighty wall of rock in which a pathway had been
hollowed where doubtless once passed the road. On one side of this
passage was a stair, which we began to ascend with great difficulty, for
Leo was now almost senseless and scarcely moved his legs. Indeed at the
head of the first flight he sank down in a heap, nor did our strength
suffice to lift him.

While I wondered feebly what was to be done, I heard footsteps, and
looking up, saw the woman who had saved him descending the stair,
and after her two robed men with a Tartar cast of countenance, very
impassive; small eyes and yellowish skin. Even the sight of us did
not appear to move them to astonishment. She spoke some words to them,
whereon they lifted Leo's heavy frame, apparently with ease, and carried
him up the steps.

We followed, and reached a room that seemed to be hewn from the rock
above the gateway, where the woman called Khania left us. From it we
passed through other rooms, one of them a kind of kitchen, in which
a fire burned, till we came to a large chamber, evidently a sleeping
place, for in it were wooden bedsteads, mattresses and rugs. Here Leo
was laid down, and with the assistance of one of his servants, the old
Guardian undressed him, at the same time motioning me to take off my own
garments. This I did gladly enough for the first time during many days,
though with great pain and difficulty, to find that I was a mass of
wounds and bruises.

Presently our host blew upon a whistle, and the other servant appeared
bringing hot water in a jar, with which we were washed over. Then the
Guardian dressed our hurts with some soothing ointment, and wrapped us
round with blankets. After this broth was brought, into which he mixed
medicine, and giving me a portion to drink where I lay upon one of the
beds, he took Leo's head upon his knee and poured the rest of it down
his throat. Instantly a wonderful warmth ran through me, and my aching
brain began to swim. Then I remembered no more.

After this we were very, very ill. What may be the exact medical
definition of our sickness I do not know, but in effect it was such as
follows loss of blood, extreme exhaustion of body, paralysing shock
to the nerves and extensive cuts and contusions. These taken together
produced a long period of semi-unconsciousness, followed by another
period of fever and delirium. All that I can recall of those weeks while
we remained the guests of the Guardian of the Gate, may be summed up in
one word--dreams, that is until at last I recovered my senses.

The dreams themselves are forgotten, which is perhaps as well, since
they were very confused, and for the most part awful; a hotch-potch of
nightmares, reflected without doubt from vivid memories of our recent
and fearsome sufferings. At times I would wake up from them a little,
I suppose when food was administered to me, and receive impressions
of whatever was passing in the place. Thus I can recollect that
yellow-faced old Guardian standing over me like a ghost in the
moonlight, stroking his long beard, his eyes fixed upon my face, as
though he would search out the secrets of my soul.

"They are the men," he muttered to himself, "without doubt they are the
men," then walked to the window and looked up long and earnestly, like
one who studies the stars.

After this I remember a disturbance in the room, and dominating it, as
it were, the rich sound of a woman's voice and the rustle of a woman's
silks sweeping the stone floor. I opened my eyes and saw that it was she
who had helped to rescue us, who _had_ rescued us in fact, a tall and
noble-looking lady with a beauteous, weary face and liquid eyes which
seemed to burn. From the heavy cloak she wore I thought that she must
have just returned from a journey.

She stood above me and looked at me, then turned away with a gesture
of indifference, if not of disgust, speaking to the Guardian in a low
voice. By way of answer he bowed, pointing to the other bed where Leo
lay, asleep, and thither she passed with slow, imperious movements. I
saw her bend down and lift the corner of a wrapping which covered his
wounded head, and heard her utter some smothered words before she turned
round to the Guardian as though to question him further.

But he had gone, and being alone, for she thought me senseless, she drew
a rough stool to the side of the bed, and seating herself studied Leo,
who lay thereon, with an earnestness that was almost terrible, for
her soul seemed to be concentrated in her eyes, and to find expression
through them. Long she gazed thus, then rose and began to walk swiftly
up and down the chamber, pressing her hands now to her bosom and now
to her brow, a certain passionate perplexity stamped upon her face, as
though she struggled to remember something and could not.

"Where and when?" she whispered. "Oh! where and when?"

Of the end of that scene I know nothing, for although I fought hard
against it, oblivion mastered me. After this I became aware that the
regal-looking woman called Khania, was always in the room, and that she
seemed to be nursing Leo with great care and tenderness. Sometimes even
she nursed me when Leo did not need attention, and she had nothing else
to do, or so her manner seemed to suggest. It was as though I excited
her curiosity, and she wished me to recover that it might be satisfied.

Again I awoke, how long afterwards I cannot say. It was night, and
the room was lighted by the moon only, now shining in a clear sky. Its
steady rays entering at the window-place fell on Leo's bed, and by them
I saw that the dark, imperial woman was watching at his side. Some sense
of her presence must have communicated itself to him, for he began to
mutter in his sleep, now in English, now in Arabic. She became intensely
interested; as her every movement showed. Then rising suddenly she
glided across the room on tiptoe to look at me. Seeing her coming I
feigned to be asleep, and so well that she was deceived.

For I was also interested. Who was this lady whom the Guardian had
called the Khania of Kaloon? Could it be she whom we sought? Why not?
And yet if I saw Ayesha, surely I should know her, surely there would be
no room for doubt.

Back she went again to the bed, kneeling down beside Leo, and in the
intense silence which followed--for he had ceased his mutterings--I
thought that I could hear the beating of her heart. Now she began to
speak, very low and in that same bastard Greek tongue, mixed here and
there with Mongolian words such as are common to the dialects of Central
Asia. I could not hear or understand all she said, but some sentences I
did understand, and they frightened me not a little.

"Man of my dreams," she murmured, "whence come you? Who are you? Why did
the Hesea bid me to meet you?" Then some sentences I could not catch.
"You sleep; in sleep the eyes are opened. Answer, I bid you; say what
is the bond between you and me? Why have I dreamt of you? Why do I know
you? Why----?" and the sweet, rich voice died slowly from a whisper into
silence, as though she were ashamed to utter what was on her tongue.

As she bent over him a lock of her hair broke loose from its jewelled
fillet and fell across his face. At its touch Leo seemed to wake, for
he lifted his gaunt, white hand and touched the hair, then said in
English--"Where am I? Oh! I remember;" and their eyes met as he strove
to lift himself and could not. Then he spoke again in his broken,
stumbling Greek, "You are the lady who saved me from the water. Say, are
you also that queen whom I have sought so long and endured so much to
find?"

"I know not," she answered in a voice as sweet as honey, a low,
trembling voice; "but true it is I am a queen--if a Khania be a queen."

"Say, then, Queen, do you remember me?"

"We have met in dreams," she answered, "I think that we have met in a
past that is far away. Yes; I knew it when first I saw you there by the
river. Stranger with the well remembered face, tell me, I pray you, how
you are named?"

"Leo Vincey."

She shook her head, whispering--"I know not the name, yet you I know."

"You know me! How do you know me?" he said heavily, and seemed to sink
again into slumber or swoon.

She watched him for a while very intently. Then as though some force
that she could not resist drew her, I saw her bend down her head over
his sleeping face. Yes; and I saw her kiss him swiftly on the lips, then
spring back crimson to the hair, as though overwhelmed with shame at
this victory of her mad passion.

Now it was that she discovered me.

Bewildered, fascinated, amazed, I had raised myself upon my bed, not
knowing it; I suppose that I might see and hear the better. It was
wrong, doubtless, but no common curiosity over-mastered me, who had my
share in all this story. More, it was foolish, but illness and wonder
had killed my reason.

Yes, she saw me watching them, and such fury seemed to take hold of her
that I thought my hour had come.

"Man, have you dared----?" she said in an intense whisper, and snatching
at her girdle. Now in her hand shone a knife, and I knew that it was
destined for my heart. Then in this sore danger my wit came back to me
and as she advanced I stretched out my shaking hand, saying--"Oh! of
your pity, give me to drink. The fever burns me, it burns," and I looked
round like one bewildered who sees not, repeating, "Give me drink, you
who are called Guardian," and I fell back exhausted.

She stopped like a hawk in its stoop, and swiftly sheathed the dagger.
Then taking a bowl of milk that stood on a table near her, she held
it to my lips, searching my face the while with her flaming eyes, for
indeed passion, rage, and fear had lit them till they seemed to flame.
I drank the milk in great gulps, though never in my life did I find it
more hard to swallow.

"You tremble," she said; "have dreams haunted you?"

"Aye, friend," I answered, "dreams of that fearsome precipice and of the
last leap."

"Aught else?" she asked.

"Nay; is it not enough? Oh! what a journey to have taken to befriend a
queen."

"To befriend a queen," she repeated puzzled. "What means the man? You
swear you have had no other dreams?"

"Aye, I swear by the Symbol of Life and the Mount of the Wavering Flame,
and by yourself, O Queen from the ancient days."

Then I sighed and pretended to swoon, for I could think of nothing else
to do. As I closed my eyes I saw her face that had been red as dawn turn
pale as eve, for my words and all which might lie behind them, had gone
home. Moreover, she was in doubt, for I could hear her fingering the
handle of the dagger. Then she spoke aloud, words for my ears if they
still were open.

"I am glad," she said, "that he dreamed no other dreams, since had he
done so and babbled of them it would have been ill-omened, and I do not
wish that one who has travelled far to visit us should be hurled to
the death-dogs for burial; one, moreover, who although old and hideous,
still has the air of a wise and silent man."

Now while I shivered at these unpleasant hints--though what the
"death-dogs" in which people were buried might be, I could not
conceive--to my intense joy I heard the foot of the Guardian on the
stairs, heard him too enter the room and saw him bow before the lady.

"How go these sick men, niece?"[*] he said in his cold voice.

     [*] I found later that the Khania, Atene, was not Simbri's
     niece but his great-niece, on the mother's side.--L. H. H.

"They swoon, both of them," she answered.

"Indeed, is it so? I thought otherwise. I thought they woke."

"What have you heard, Shaman (i.e. wizard)?" she asked angrily.

"I? Oh! I heard the grating of a dagger in its sheath and the distant
baying of the death-hounds."

"And what have you seen, Shaman?" she asked again, "looking through the
Gate you guard?"

"Strange sight, Khania, my niece. But--men awake from swoons."

"Aye," she answered, "so while this one sleeps, bear him to another
chamber, for he needs change, and the lord yonder needs more space and
untainted air."

The Guardian, whom she called "Shaman" or Magician, held a lamp in his
hand, and by its light it was easy to see his face, which I watched
out of the corner of my eye. I thought that it wore a very strange
expression, one moreover that alarmed me somewhat. From the beginning
I had misdoubted me of this old man, whose cast of countenance was
vindictive as it was able; now I was afraid of him.

"To which chamber, Khania?" he said with meaning.

"I think," she answered slowly, "to one that is healthful, where he
will recover. The man has wisdom," she added as though in explanation,
"moreover, having the word from the Mountain, to harm him would be
dangerous. But why do you ask?"

He shrugged his shoulders.

"I tell you I heard the death-hounds bay, that is all. Yes, with you I
think that he has wisdom, and the bee which seeks honey should suck the
flower--before it fades! Also, as you say, there are commands with which
it is ill to trifle, even if we cannot guess their meaning."

Then going to the door he blew upon his whistle, and instantly I heard
the feet of his servants upon the stairs. He gave them an order, and
gently enough they lifted the mattress on which I lay and followed him
down sundry passages and past some stairs into another chamber shaped
like that we had left, but not so large, where they placed me upon a
bed.

The Guardian watched me awhile to see that I did not wake. Next he
stretched out his hand and felt my heart and pulse; an examination
the results of which seemed to _puzzle_ him, for he uttered a little
exclamation and shook his head. After this he left the room, and I heard
him bolt the door behind him. Then, being still very weak, I fell asleep
in earnest.

When I awoke it was broad daylight. My mind was clear and I felt better
than I had done for many a day, signs by which I knew that the fever had
left me and that I was on the high road to recovery. Now I remembered
all the events of the previous night and was able to weigh them
carefully. This, to be sure, I did for many reasons, among them that I
knew I had been and still was, in great danger.

I had seen and heard too much, and this woman called Khania guessed that
I had seen and heard. Indeed, had it not been for my hints about the
Symbol of Life and the Mount of Flame, after I had disarmed her first
rage by my artifice, I felt sure that she would have ordered the old
Guardian or Shaman to do me to death in this way or the other; sure also
that he would not have hesitated to obey her. I had been spared partly
because, for some unknown reason, she was afraid to kill me, and partly
that she might learn how much I knew, although the "death-hounds had
bayed," whatever that might mean. Well, up to the present I was safe,
and for the rest I must take my chance. Moreover it was necessary to
be cautious, and, if need were, to feign ignorance. So, dismissing the
matter of my own fate from my mind, I fell to considering the scene
which I had witnessed and what might be its purport.

Was our quest at an end? Was this woman Ayesha? Leo had so dreamed, but
he was still delirious, therefore here was little on which to lean.
What seemed more to the point was that she herself evidently appeared to
think that there existed some tie between her and this sick man. Why
had she embraced him? I was sure that she could be no wanton, nor indeed
would any woman indulge for its own sake in such folly with a stranger
who hung between life and death. What she had done was done because
irresistible impulse, born of knowledge, or at least of memories, drove
her on, though mayhap the knowledge was imperfect and the memories were
undefined. Who save Ayesha could have known anything of Leo in the past?
None who lived upon the earth to-day.

And yet, why not, if what Kou-en the abbot and tens of millions of his
fellow-worshippers believed were true? If the souls of human beings were
in fact strictly limited in number, and became the tenants of an endless
succession of physical bodies which they change from time to time as we
change our worn-out garments, why should not others have known him? For
instance that daughter of the Pharaohs who "caused him through love to
break the vows that he had vowed" knew a certain Kallikrates, a priest
of "Isis whom the gods cherish and the demons obey;" even Amenartas, the
mistress of magic.

Oh! now a light seemed to break upon me, a wonderful light. What if
Amenartas and this Khania, this woman with royalty stamped on every
feature, should be the same? Would not that "magic of my own people
that I have" of which she wrote upon the Sherd, enable her to pierce the
darkness of the Past and recognize the priest whom she had bewitched to
love her, snatching him out of the very hand of the goddess? What if it
were not Ayesha, but Amenartas re-incarnate who ruled this hidden land
and once more sought to make the man she loved break through his vows?
If so, knowing the evil that must come, I shook even at its shadow. The
truth must be learned, but how?

Whilst I wondered the door opened, and the sardonic,
inscrutable-old-faced man, whom this Khania had called Magician, and who
called the Khania, niece, entered and stood before me.



CHAPTER VII

THE FIRST ORDEAL

The shaman advanced to my side and asked me courteously how I fared.

I answered, "Better. Far better, oh, my host--but how are you named?"

"Simbri," he answered, "and, as I told you by the water, my title is
Hereditary Guardian of the Gate. By profession I am the royal Physician
in this land."

"Did you say physician or magician?" I asked carelessly, as though I had
not caught the word. He gave me a curious look.

"I _said_ physician, and it is well for you and your companion that I
have some skill in my art. Otherwise I think, perhaps, you would not
have been alive to-day, O my guest--but how are _you_ named?"

"Holly," I said.

"O my guest, Holly."

"Had it not been for the foresight that brought you and the lady Khania
to the edge of yonder darksome river, certainly we should _not_ have
been alive, venerable Simbri, a foresight that seems to me to savour
of magic in such a lonely place. That is why I thought you might have
described yourself as a magician, though it is true that you may have
been but fishing in those waters."

"Certainly I was fishing, stranger Holly--for men, and I caught two."

"Fishing by chance, host Simbri?"

"Nay, by design, guest Holly. My trade of physician includes the study
of future events, for I am the chief of the Shamans or Seers of this
land, and, having been warned of your coming quite recently, I awaited
your arrival."

"Indeed, that is strange, most courteous also. So here physician and
magician mean the same."

"You say it," he answered with a grave bow; "but tell me, if you will,
how did you find your way to a land whither visitors do not wander?"

"Oh!" I answered, "perhaps we are but travellers, or perhaps we also
have studied--medicine."

"I think that you must have studied it deeply, since otherwise you would
not have lived to cross those mountains in search of--now, what did you
seek? Your companion, I think, spoke of a queen--yonder, on the banks of
the torrent."

"Did he? Did he, indeed? Well, that is strange since he seems to have
found one, for surely that royal-looking lady, named Khania, who sprang
into the stream and saved us, must be a queen."

"A queen she is, and a great one, for in our land Khania means queen,
though how, friend Holly, a man who has lain senseless can have learned
this, I do not know. Nor do I know how you come to speak our language."

"That is simple, for the tongue you talk is very ancient, and as it
chances in my own country it has been my lot to study and to teach
it. It is Greek, but although it is still spoken in the world, how it
reached these mountains I cannot say."

"I will tell you," he answered. "Many generations ago a great conqueror
born of the nation that spoke this tongue fought his way through the
country to the south of us. He was driven back, but a general of his of
another race advanced and crossed the mountains, and overcame the
people of this land, bringing with him his master's language and his own
worship. Here he established his dynasty, and here it remains, for being
ringed in with deserts and with pathless mountain snows, we hold no
converse with the outer world."

"Yes, I know something of that story; the conqueror was named Alexander,
was he not?" I asked.

"He was so named, and the name of the general was Rassen, a native of
a country called Egypt, or so our records tell us. His descendants hold
the throne to this day, and the Khania is of his blood."

"Was the goddess whom he worshipped called Isis?"

"Nay," he answered, "she was called Hes."

"Which," I interrupted, "is but another title for Isis. Tell me, is her
worship continued here? I ask because it is now dead in Egypt, which was
its home."

"There is a temple on the Mountain yonder," he replied indifferently,
"and in it are priests and priestesses who practise some ancient cult.
But the real god of this people now, as long before the day of Rassen
their conqueror, is the fire that dwells in this same Mountain, which
from time to time breaks out and slays them."

"And does a goddess dwell in the fire?" I asked.

Again he searched my face with his cold eyes, then answered--"Stranger
Holly, I know nothing of any goddess. That Mountain is sacred, and to
seek to learn its secrets is to die. Why do you ask such questions?"

"Only because I am curious in the matter of old religions, and seeing
the symbol of Life upon yonder peak, came hither to study yours, of
which indeed a tradition still remains among the learned."

"Then abandon that study, friend Holly, for the road to it runs through
the paws of the death-hounds, and the spears of savages. Nor indeed is
there anything to learn."

"And what, Physician, are the death-hounds?"

"Certain dogs to which, according to our ancient custom, all offenders
against the law or the will of the Khan, are cast to be torn to pieces."

"The will of the Khan! Has this Khania of yours a husband then?"

"Aye," he answered, "her cousin, who was the ruler of half the land. Now
they and the land are one. But you have talked enough; I am here to say
that your food is ready," and he turned to leave the room.

"One more question, friend Simbri. How came I to this chamber, and where
is my companion?"

"You were borne hither in your sleep, and see, the change has bettered
you. Do you remember nothing?"

"Nothing, nothing at all," I answered earnestly. "But what of my
friend?"

"He also is better. The Khania Atene nurses him."

"Atene?" I said. "That is an old Egyptian name. It means the Disk of the
Sun, and a woman who bore it thousands of years ago was famous for her
beauty."

"Well, and is not my niece Atene beautiful?"

"How can I tell, O uncle of the Khania," I answered wearily, "who have
scarcely seen her?"

Then he departed, and presently his yellow-faced, silent servants
brought me my food.

Later in the morning the door opened again, and through it, unattended,
came the Khania Atene, who shut and bolted it behind her. This action
did not reassure me, still, rising in my bed, I saluted her as best I
could, although at heart I was afraid. She seemed to read my doubts for
she said--"Lie down, and have no fear. At present you will come by no
harm from me. Now, tell me what is the man called Leo to you? Your son?
Nay, it cannot be, since--forgive me--light is not born of darkness."

"I have always thought that it was so born, Khania. Yet you are right;
he is but my adopted son, and a man whom I love."

"Say, what seek you here?" she asked.

"We seek, Khania, whatsoever Fate shall bring us on yonder Mountain,
that which is crowned with flame."

Her face paled at the words, but she answered in a steady voice--"Then
there you will find nothing but doom, if indeed you do not find it
before you reach its slopes, which are guarded by savage men. Yonder is
the College of Hes, and to violate its Sanctuary is death to any man,
death in the ever-burning fire."

"And who rules this college, Khania--a priestess?"

"Yes, a priestess, whose face I have never seen, for she is so old that
she veils herself from curious eyes."

"Ah! she veils herself, does she?" I answered, as the blood went
thrilling through my veins, I who remembered another who also was
_so_ old that she veiled herself from curious eyes. "Well, veiled or
unveiled, we would visit her, trusting to find that we are welcome."

"That you shall not do," she said, "for it is unlawful, and I will not
have your blood upon my hands."

"Which is the stronger," I asked of her, "you, Khania, or this priestess
of the Mountain?"

"I am the stronger, Holly, for so you are named, are you not? Look you,
at my need I can summon sixty thousand men in war, while she has naught
but her priests and the fierce, untrained tribes."

"The sword is not the only power in the world," I answered. "Tell me,
now, does this priestess ever visit the country of Kaloon?"

"Never, never, for by the ancient pact, made after the last great
struggle long centuries ago between the College and the people of the
Plain, it was decreed and sworn to that should she set her foot across
the river, this means war to the end between us, and rule for the victor
over both. Likewise, save when unguarded they bear their dead to burial,
or for some such high purpose, no Khan or Khania of Kaloon ascends the
Mountain."

"Which then is the true master--the Khan of Kaloon or the head of the
College of Hes?" I asked again.

"In matters spiritual, the priestess of Hes, who is our Oracle and the
voice of Heaven. In matters temporal, the Khan of Kaloon."

"The Khan. Ah! you are married, lady, are you not?"

"Aye," she answered, her face flushing. "And I will tell you what you
soon must learn, if you have not learned it already, I am the wife of a
madman, and he is--hateful to me."

"I _have_ earned the last already, Khania."

She looked at me with her piercing eyes.

"What! Did my uncle, the Shaman, he who is called Guardian, tell you?
Nay, you saw, as I knew you saw, and it would have been best to slay you
for, oh! what must you think of me?"

I made no answer, for in truth I did not know what to think, also
I feared lest further rash admissions should be followed by swift
vengeance.

"You must believe," she went on, "that I, who have ever hated men, that
I--I swear that it is true--whose lips are purer than those mountain
snows, I, the Khania of Kaloon, whom they name Heart-of-Ice, am but a
shameless thing." And, covering her face with her hand, she moaned in
the bitterness of her distress.

"Nay," I said, "there may be reasons, explanations, if it pleases you to
give them."

"Wanderer, there are such reasons; and since you know so much, you shall
learn them also. Like that husband of mine, I have become mad. When
first I saw the face of your companion, as I dragged him from the river,
madness entered me, and I--I----"

"Loved him," I suggested. "Well, such things have happened before to
people who were not mad."

"Oh!" she went on, "it was more than love; I was possessed, and that
night I knew not what I did. A Power drove me on; a Destiny compelled
me, and to the end I am his, and his alone. Yes, I am his, and I swear
that he shall be mine;" and with this wild declaration dangerous enough
under the conditions, she turned and fled the room.

She was gone, and after the struggle, for such it was, I sank back
exhausted. How came it that this sudden passion had mastered her? Who
and what was this Khania, I wondered again, and--this was more to the
point, who and what would Leo believe her to be? If only I could be with
him before he said words or did deeds impossible to recall.

Three days went by, during which time I saw no more of the Khania, who,
or so I was informed by Simbri, the Shaman, had returned to her city to
make ready for us, her guests. I begged him to allow me to rejoin Leo,
but he answered politely, though with much firmness, that my foster-son
did better without me. Now, I grew suspicious, fearing lest some harm
had come to Leo, though how to discover the truth I knew not. In my
anxiety I tried to convey a note to him, written upon a leaf of a
water-gained pocket-book, but the yellow-faced servant refused to touch
it, and Simbri said drily that he would have naught to do with writings
which he could not read. At length, on the third night I made up my mind
that whatever the risk, with leave or without it, I would try to find
him.

By this time I could walk well, and indeed was almost strong again. So
about midnight, when the moon was up, for I had no other light, I crept
from my bed, threw on my garments, and taking a knife, which was the
only weapon I possessed, opened the door of my room and started.

Now, when I was carried from the rock-chamber where Leo and I had
been together, I took note of the way. First, reckoning from my
sleeping-place, there was a passage thirty paces long, for I had counted
the footfalls of my bearers. Then came a turn to the left, and ten more
paces of passage, and lastly near certain steps running to some place
unknown, another sharp turn to the right which led to our old chamber.

Down the long passage I walked stealthily, and although it was pitch
dark, found the turn to the left, and followed it till I came to the
second sharp turn to the right, that of the gallery from which rose
the stairs. I crept round it only to retreat hastily enough, as well
I might, for at the door of Leo's room, which she was in the act of
locking on the outside, as I could see by the light of the lamp that she
held in her hand, stood the Khania herself.

My first thought was to fly back to my own chamber, but I abandoned
it, feeling sure that I should be seen. Therefore I determined, if she
discovered me, to face the matter out and say that I was trying to find
Leo, and to learn how he fared. So I crouched against the wall, and
waited with a beating heart. I heard her sweep down the passage,
and--yes--begin to mount the stair.

Now, what should I do? To try to reach Leo was useless, for she had
locked the door with the key she held. Go back to bed? No, I would
follow her, and if we met would make the same excuse. Thus I might get
some tidings, or perhaps--a dagger thrust.

So round the corner and up the steps I went, noiselessly as a snake.
They were many and winding, like those of a church tower, but at length
I came to the head of them, where was a little landing, and opening from
it a door. It was a very ancient door; the light streamed through cracks
where its panels had rotted, and from the room beyond came the sound of
voices, those of the Shaman Simbri and the Khania.

"Have you learned aught, my niece?" I heard him say, and also heard her
answer---"A little. A very little."

Then in my thirst for knowledge I grew bold, and stealing to the door,
looked through one of the cracks in its wood. Opposite to me, in the
full flood of light thrown by a hanging lamp, her hand resting on a
table at which Simbri was seated, stood the Khania. Truly she was a
beauteous sight, for she wore robes of royal purple, and on her brow a
little coronet of gold, beneath which her curling hair streamed down
her shapely neck and bosom. Seeing her I guessed at once that she had
arrayed herself thus for some secret end, enhancing her loveliness by
every art and grace that is known to woman. Simbri was looking at her
earnestly, with fear and doubt written on even his cold, impassive
features.

"What passed between you, then?" he asked, peering at her.

"I questioned him closely as to the reason of his coming to this
land, and wrung from him the answer that it was to seek some beauteous
woman--he would say no more. I asked him if she were more beauteous than
_I_ am, and he replied with courtesy--nothing else, I think--that it
would be hard to say, but that she had been different. Then I said that
though it behooved me not to speak of such a matter, there was no lady
in Kaloon whom men held to be so fair as I; moreover, that I was its
ruler, and that I and no other had saved him from the water. Aye, and I
added that my heart told me I was the woman whom he sought."

"Have done, niece," said Simbri impatiently, "I would not hear of the
arts you used--well enough, doubtless. What then?"

"Then he said that it might be so, since he thought that this woman
was born again, and studied me a while, asking me if I had ever 'passed
through fire.' To this I replied that the only fires I had passed were
those of the spirit, and that I dwelt in them now. He said, 'Show me
your hair,' and I placed a lock of it in his hand. Presently he let
it fall, and from that satchel which he wears about his neck drew out
another tress of hair--oh! Simbri, my uncle, the loveliest hair that
ever eyes beheld, for it was soft as silk, and reached from my coronet
to the ground. Moreover, no raven's wing in the sunshine ever shone as
did that fragrant tress.

"'Yours is beautiful,' he said, 'but see, they are not the same.'

"'Mayhap,' I answered, 'since no woman ever wore such locks.'

"'You are right,' he replied, 'for she whom I seek was more than a
woman.'

"And then--and then--though I tried him in many ways he would say no
more, so, feeling hate against this Unknown rising in my heart, and
fearing lest I should utter words that were best unsaid, I left him. Now
I bid you, search the books which are open to your wisdom and tell me of
this woman whom he seeks, who she is, and where she dwells. Oh! search
them swiftly, that I may find her and--kill her if I can."

"Aye, if you can," answered the Shaman, "and if she lives to kill. But
say, where shall we begin our quest? Now, this letter from the Mountain
that the head-priest Oros sent to your court a while ago?"--and he
selected a parchment from a pile which lay upon the table and looked at
her.

"Read," she said, "I would hear it again."

So he read: "From the Hesea of the House of Fire, to Atene, Khania of
Kaloon.

"My sister--Warning has reached me that two strangers of a western
race journey to your land, seeking my Oracle, of which they would ask a
question. On the first day of the next moon, I command that you and with
you Simbri, your great-uncle, the wise Shaman, Guardian of the Gate,
shall be watching the river in the gulf at the foot of the ancient road,
for by that steep path the strangers travel. Aid them in all things and
bring them safely to the Mountain, knowing that in this matter I shall
hold him and you to account. Myself I will not meet them, since to do so
would be to break the pact between our powers, which says that the Hesea
of the Sanctuary visits not the territory of Kaloon, save in war. Also
their coming is otherwise appointed."

"It would seem," said Simbri, laying down the parchment, "that these are
no chance wanderers, since Hes awaits them."

"Aye, they are no chance wanderers, since my heart awaited one of them
also. Yet the Hesea cannot be that woman, for reasons which are known to
you."

"There are many women on the Mountain," suggested the Shaman in a dry
voice, "if indeed any woman has to do with this matter."

"I at least have to do with it, and he shall not go to the Mountain."

"Hes is powerful, my niece, and beneath these smooth words of hers lies
a dreadful threat. I say that she is mighty from of old and has servants
in the earth and air who warned her of the coming of these men, and
will warn her of what befalls them. I know it, who hate her, and to your
royal house of Rassen it has been known for many a generation. Therefore
thwart her not lest ill befall us all, for she is a spirit and terrible.
She says that it is appointed that they shall go----"

"And _I_ say it is appointed that he shall not go. Let the other go if
he desires."

"Atene, be plain, what will you with the man called Leo--that he should
become your lover?" asked the Shaman.

She stared him straight in the eyes, and answered boldly--"Nay, I will
that he should become my husband."

"First he must will it too, who seems to have no mind that way. Also,
how can a woman have two husbands?"

She laid her hand upon his shoulder and said--"I have no husband. You
know it well, Simbri. _I_ charge you by the close bond of blood between
us, brew me another draught----"

"That we may be bound yet closer in a bond of murder! Nay, Atene, I will
not; already your sin lies heavy on my head. You are very fair; take the
man in your own net, if you may, or let him be, which is better far."

"I cannot let him be. Would that I were able. I must love him as I must
hate the other whom he loves, yet some power hardens his heart against
me. Oh! great Shaman, you that peep and mutter, you who can read the
future and the past, tell me what you have learned from your stars and
divinations."

"Already I have sought through many a secret, toilsome hour and learned
this, Atene," he answered. "You are right, the fate of yonder man is
intertwined with yours, but between you and him there rises a mighty
wall that my vision cannot pierce nor my familiars climb. Yet I am
taught that in death you and he--aye, and I also, shall be very near
together."

"Then come death," she exclaimed with sullen pride, "for thence at least
I'll pluck out my desire."

"Be not so sure," he answered, "for I think that the Power follows
us even down this dark gulf of death. I think also that I feel the
sleepless eyes of Hes watching our secret souls."

"Then blind them with the dust of illusions--as you can. To-morrow,
also, saying nothing of their sex, send a messenger to the Mountain and
tell the Hesea that two old strangers have arrived--mark you, _old_--but
that they are very sick, that their limbs were broken in the river, and
that when they have healed again, I will send them to ask the question
of her Oracle--that is, some three moons hence. Perchance she may
believe you, and be content to wait; or if she does not, at least no
more words. I must sleep or my brain will burst. Give me that medicine
which brings dreamless rest, for never did I need it more, who also feel
eyes upon me," and she glanced towards the door.

Then I left, and not too soon, for as I crept down the darksome passage,
I heard it open behind me.



CHAPTER VIII

THE DEATH-HOUNDS

It may have been ten o'clock on the following morning, or a little past
it, when the Shaman Simbri came into my room and asked me how I had
slept.

"Like a log," I answered, "like a log. A drugged man could not have
rested more soundly."

"Indeed, friend Holly, and yet you look fatigued."

"My dreams troubled me somewhat," I answered. "I suffer from such
things. But surely by your face, friend Simbri, you cannot have slept at
all, for never yet have I seen you with so weary an air."

"I am weary," he said, with a sigh. "Last night I spent up on my
business--watching at the Gates."

"What gates?" I asked. "Those by which we entered this kingdom, for, if
so, I would rather watch than travel them."

"The Gates of the Past and of the Future. Yes, those two which you
entered, if you will; for did you not travel out of a wondrous Past
towards a Future that you cannot _guess?_"

"But both of which interest you," I suggested.

"Perhaps," he answered, then added, "I come to tell you that within an
hour you are to start for the city, whither the Khania has but now gone
on to make ready for you."

"Yes; only you told me that she had gone some days ago. Well, I am sound
again and prepared to march, but say, how is my foster-son?"

"He mends, he mends. But you shall see him for yourself. It is the
Khania's will. Here come the slaves bearing your robes, and with them I
leave you."

So with their assistance I dressed myself, first in good, clean
under-linen, then in wide woollen trousers and vest, and lastly in a
fur-lined camel-hair robe dyed black that was very comfortable to wear,
and in appearance not unlike a long overcoat. A flat cap of the same
material and a pair of boots made of untanned hide completed my attire.

Scarcely was I ready when the yellow-faced servants, with many bows,
took me by the hand and led me down the passages and stairs of the
Gate-house to its door. Here, to my great joy, I found Leo, looking
pale and troubled, but otherwise as well as I could expect after his
sickness. He was attired like myself, save that his garments were of a
finer quality, and the overcoat was white, with a hood to it, added, I
suppose, to protect the wound in his head from cold and the sun. This
white dress I thought became him very well, also about it there was
nothing grotesque or even remarkable. He sprang to me and seized my
hand, asking how I fared and where I had been hidden away, a greeting
of which, as I could see, the warmth was not lost upon Simbri, who stood
by.

I answered, well enough now that we were together again, and for the
rest I would tell him later.

Then they brought us palanquins, carried, each of them, by two ponies,
one of which was harnessed ahead and the other behind between long
shaft-like poles. In these we seated ourselves, and at a sign from
Simbri slaves took the leading ponies by the bridle and we started,
leaving behind us that grim old Gate-house through which we were the
first strangers to pass for many a generation.

For a mile or more our road ran down a winding, rocky gorge, till
suddenly it took a turn, and the country of Kaloon lay stretched before
us. At our feet was a river, probably the same with which we had made
acquaintance in the gulf, where, fed by the mountain snows, it had its
source. Here it flowed rapidly, but on the vast, alluvial lands
beneath became a broad and gentle stream that wound its way through the
limitless plains till it was lost in the blue of the distance.

To the north, however, this smooth, monotonous expanse was broken by
that Mountain which had guided us from afar, the House of Fire. It was
a great distance from us, more than a hundred miles, I should say, yet
even so a most majestic sight in that clear air. Many leagues from the
base of its peak the ground began to rise in brown and rugged hillocks,
from which sprang the holy Mountain itself, a white and dazzling point
that soared full twenty thousand feet into the heavens.

Yes, and there upon the nether lip of its crater stood the gigantic
pillar, surmounted by a yet more gigantic loop of virgin rock, whereof
the blackness stood out grimly against the blue of the sky beyond and
the blinding snow beneath.

We gazed at it with awe, as well we might, this beacon of our hopes that
for aught we knew might also prove their monument, feeling even then
that yonder our fate would declare itself. I noted further that all
those with us did it reverence by bowing their heads as they caught
sight of the peak, and by laying the first finger of the right hand
across the first finger of the left, a gesture, as we afterwards
discovered, designed to avert its evil influence. Yes, even Simbri
bowed, a yielding to inherited superstition of which I should scarcely
have suspected him.

"Have you ever journeyed to that Mountain?" asked Leo of him.

Simbri shook his head and answered evasively.

"The people of the Plain do not set foot upon the Mountain. Among its
slopes beyond the river which washes them, live hordes of brave and most
savage men, with whom we are oftentimes at war; for when they are hungry
they raid our cattle and our crops. Moreover, there, when the Mountain
labours, run red streams of molten rock, and now and again hot ashes
fall that slay the traveller."

"Do the ashes ever fall in your country?" asked Leo.

"They have been known to do so when the Spirit of the Mountain is angry,
and that is why we fear her."

"Who is this Spirit?" said Leo eagerly.

"I do not know, lord," he answered with impatience. "Can men see a
spirit?"

"_You_ look as though you might, and had, not so long ago," replied Leo,
fixing his gaze on the old man's waxen face and uneasy eyes. For now
their horny calm was gone from the eyes of Simbri, which seemed as
though they had beheld some sight that haunted him.

"You do me too much honour, lord," he replied; "my skill and vision do
not reach so far. But see, here is the landing-stage, where boats await
us, for the rest of our journey is by water."

These boats proved to be roomy and comfortable, having flat bows and
sterns, since, although sometimes a sail was hoisted, they were designed
for towing, not to be rowed with oars. Leo and I entered the largest of
them, and to our joy were left alone except for the steersman.

Behind us was another boat, in which were attendants and slaves, and
some men who looked like soldiers, for they carried bows and swords. Now
the ponies were taken from the palanquins, that were packed away, and
ropes of green hide, fastened to iron rings in the prows of the
boats, were fixed to the towing tackle with which the animals had been
reharnessed. Then we started, the ponies, two arranged tandem fashion
to each punt, trotting along a well-made towing path that was furnished
with wooden bridges wherever canals or tributary streams entered the
main river.

"Thank Heaven," said Leo, "we are together again at last! Do you
remember, Horace, that when we entered the land of Kor it was thus, in a
boat? The tale repeats itself."

"I can quite believe it," I answered. "I can believe anything. Leo,
I say that we are but gnats meshed in a web, and yonder Khania is
the spider and Simbri the Shaman guards the net. But tell me all you
remember of what has happened to you, and be quick, for I do not know
how long they may leave us alone."

"Well," he said, "of course I remember our arrival at that Gate after
the lady and the old man had pulled us out of the river, and, Horace,
talking of spiders reminds me of hanging at the end of that string
of yak's hide. Not that I need much reminding, for I am not likely to
forget it. Do you know I cut the rope because I felt that I was going
mad, and wished to die sane. What happened to you? Did you slip?"

"No; I jumped after you. It seemed best to end together, so that we
might begin again together."

"Brave old Horace!" he said affectionately, the tears starting to his
grey eyes.

"Well, never mind all that," I broke in; "you see you were right when
you said that we should get through, and we have. Now for your tale."

"It is interesting, but not very long," he answered, colouring. "I went
to sleep, and when I woke it was to find a beautiful woman leaning over
me, and Horace--at first I thought that it was--you know who, and that
she kissed me; but perhaps it was all a dream."

"It was no dream," I answered. "I saw it."

"I am sorry to hear it--very sorry. At any rate there was the beautiful
woman--the Khania--for I saw her plenty of times afterwards, and talked
to her in my best modern Greek--by the way, Ayesha knew the old Greek;
that's curious."

"She knew several of the ancient tongues, and so did other people. Go
on."

"Well, she nursed me very kindly, but, so far as I know, until last
night there was nothing more affectionate, and I had sense enough to
refuse to talk about our somewhat eventful past. I pretended not to
understand, said that we were explorers, etc., and kept asking her where
you were, for I forgot to say I found that you had gone. I think that
she grew rather angry with me, for she wanted to know something, and, as
you can guess, I wanted to know a good deal. But I could get nothing out
of her except that she was the Khania--a person in authority. There was
no doubt about that, for when one of those slaves or servants came in
and interrupted her while she was trying to draw the facts out of me,
she called to some of her people to throw him out of the window, and he
only saved himself by going down the stairs very quickly.

"Well, I could make nothing of her, and she could make little of me,
though why she should be so tenderly interested in a stranger, I don't
know--unless, unless--oh! who is she, Horace?"

"If you will go on I will tell you what I think presently. One tale at a
time."

"Very good. I got quite well and strong, comparatively speaking, till
the climax last night, which upset me again. After that old prophet,
Simbri, had brought me my supper, just as I was thinking of going to
sleep, the Khania came in alone, dressed like a queen. I can tell you
she looked really royal, like a princess in a fairy book, with a crown
on, and her chestnut black hair flowing round her.

"Well, Horace, then she began to make love to me in a refined sort of
way, or so I thought, looked at me and sighed, saying that we had known
each other in the past--very well indeed I gathered--and implying that
she wished to continue our friendship. I fenced with her as best I
could; but a man feels fairly helpless lying on his back with a very
handsome and very imperial-looking lady standing over him and paying him
compliments.

"The end of it was that, driven to it by her questions and to stop that
sort of thing, I told her that I was looking for my wife, whom I
had lost, for, after all, Ayesha is my wife, Horace. She smiled and
suggested that I need _not_ look far; in short, that the lost wife was
already found--in herself, who had come to save me from death in the
river. Indeed, she spoke with such conviction that I grew sure that she
was not merely amusing herself, and felt very much inclined to believe
her, for, after all, Ayesha may be changed now.

"Then while I was at my wits' end I remembered the lock of hair--all
that remains to us of _her_," and Leo touched his breast. "I drew it
out and compared it with the Khania's, and at the sight of it she became
quite different, jealous, I suppose, for it is longer than hers, and not
in the least like.

"Horace, I tell you that the touch of that lock of hair--for she did
touch it--appeared to act upon her nature like nitric acid upon sham
gold. It turned it black; all the bad in her came out. In her anger her
voice sounded coarse; yes, she grew almost vulgar, and, as you know,
when Ayesha was in a rage she might be wicked as we understand it, and
was certainly terrible, but she was never either coarse or vulgar, any
more than lightning is.

"Well, from that moment I was sure that whoever this Khania may be, she
had nothing to do with Ayesha; they are so different that they never
could have been the same--like the hair. So I lay quiet and let her
talk, and coax, and threaten on, until at length she drew herself up and
marched from the room, and I heard her lock the door behind her. That's
all I have to tell you, and quite enough too, for I don't think that the
Khania has done with me, and, to say the truth, I am afraid of her."

"Yes," I said, "quite enough. Now sit still, and don't start or talk
loud, for that steersman is probably a spy, and I can feel old Simbri's
eyes fixed upon our backs. Don't interrupt either, for our time alone
may be short."

Then I set to work and told him everything I knew, while he listened in
blank astonishment.

"Great Heavens! what a tale," he exclaimed as I finished. "Now, who is
this Hesea who sent the letter from the Mountain? And who, who is the
Khania?"

"Who does your instinct tell you that she is, Leo?"

"Amenartas?" he whispered doubtfully. "The woman who wrote the _Sherd_,
whom Ayesha said was the Egyptian princess--my wife two thousand years
ago? Amenartas re-born?"

I nodded. "I think so. Why not? As I have told you again and again, I
have always been certain of one thing, that if we were allowed to see
the next act of the piece, we should find Amenartas, or rather the
spirit of Amenartas, playing a leading part in it; you will remember I
wrote as much in that record.

"If the old Buddhist monk Kou-en could remember _his_ past, as thousands
of them swear that they do, and be sure of his identity continued from
that past, why should not this woman, with so much at stake, helped as
she is by the wizardry of the Shaman, her uncle, faintly remember hers?

"At any rate, Leo, why should she not still be sufficiently under its
influence to cause her, without any fault or seeking of her own, to fall
madly in love at first sight with a man whom, after all, she has always
loved?"

"The argument seems sound enough, Horace, and if so I am sorry for the
Khania, who hasn't much choice in the matter--been forced into it, so to
speak."

"Yes, but meanwhile your foot is in a trap again. Guard yourself,
Leo, guard yourself. I believe that this is a trial sent to you, and
doubtless there will be more to follow. But I believe also that it would
be better for you to die than to make any mistake."

"I know it well," he answered; "and you need not be afraid. Whatever
this Khania may have been to me in the past--if she was anything at
all--that story is done with. I seek Ayesha, and Ayesha alone, and Venus
herself shall not tempt me from her."

Then we began to speak with hope and fear of that mysterious Hesea who
had sent the letter from the Mountain, commanding the Shaman Simbri to
meet us: the priestess or spirit whom he declared was "mighty from of
old" and had "servants in the earth and air."

Presently the prow of our barge bumped against the bank of the river,
and looking round I saw that Simbri had left the boat in which he sat
and was preparing to enter ours. This he did, and, placing himself
gravely on a seat in front of us, explained that nightfall was coming
on, and he wished to give us his company and protection through the
dark.

"And to see that we do not give him the slip in it," muttered Leo.

Then the drivers whipped up their ponies, and we went on again.

"Look behind you," said Simbri presently, "and you will see the city
where you will sleep to-night."

We turned ourselves, and there, about ten miles away, perceived a
flat-roofed town of considerable, though not of very great size. Its
position was good, for it was set upon a large island that stood a
hundred feet or more above the level of the plain, the river dividing
into two branches at the foot of it, and, as we discovered afterwards,
uniting again beyond.

The vast mound upon which this city was built had the appearance of
being artificial, but very possibly the soil whereof it was formed
had been washed up in past ages during times of flood, so that from
a mudbank in the centre of the broad river it grew by degrees to its
present proportions. With the exception of a columned and towered
edifice that crowned the city and seemed to be encircled by gardens, we
could see no great buildings in the place.

"How is the city named?" asked Leo of Simbri.

"Kaloon," he answered, "as was all this land even when my fore-fathers,
the conquerors, marched across the mountains and took it more than two
thousand years ago. They kept the ancient title, but the territory
of the Mountain they called Hes, because they said that the loop upon
yonder peak was the symbol of a goddess of this name whom their general
worshipped."

"Priestesses still live there, do they not?" said Leo, trying in his
turn to extract the truth.

"Yes, and priests also. The College of them was established by the
conquerors, who subdued all the land. Or rather, it took the place of
another College of those who fashioned the Sanctuary and the Temple,
whose god was the fire in the Mountain, as it is that of the people of
Kaloon to-day."

"Then who is worshipped there now?"

"The goddess Hes, it is said; but we know little of the matter, for
between us and the Mountain folk there has been enmity for ages. They
kill us and we kill them, for they are jealous of their shrine, which
none may visit save by permission, to consult the Oracle and to make
prayer or offering in times of calamity, when a Khan dies, or the waters
of the river sink and the crops fail, or when ashes fall and earthquakes
shake the land, or great sickness comes. Otherwise, unless they attack
us, we leave them alone, for though every man is trained to arms, and
can fight if need be, we are a peaceful folk, who cultivate the soil
from generation to generation, and thus grow rich. Look round you. Is it
not a scene of peace?"

We stood up in the boat and gazed about us at the pastoral prospect.
Everywhere appeared herds of cattle feeding upon meadow lands, or troops
of mules and horses, or square fields sown with corn and outlined by
trees. Village folk, also, clad in long, grey gowns, were labouring on
the land, or, their day's toil finished, driving their beasts homewards
along roads built upon the banks of the irrigation dykes, towards the
hamlets that were placed on rising knolls amidst tall poplar groves.

In its sharp contrast with the arid deserts and fearful mountains
amongst which we had wandered for so many years, this country struck us
as most charming, and indeed, seen by the red light of the sinking sun
on that spring day, even as beautiful with the same kind of beauty
which is to be found in Holland. One could understand too that these
landowners and peasant-farmers would by choice be men of peace, and what
a temptation their wealth must offer to the hungry, half-savage tribes
of the mountains.

Also it was easy to guess when the survivors of Alexander's legions
under their Egyptian general burst through the iron band of snow-clad
hills and saw this sweet country, with its homes, its herds, and its
ripening grass, that they must have cried with one voice, "We will march
and fight and toil no more. Here we will sit us down to live and die."
Thus doubtless they did, taking them wives from among the women of the
people of the land which they had conquered--perhaps after a single
battle.

Now as the light faded the wreaths of smoke which hung over the distant
Fire-mountain began to glow luridly. Redder and more angry did they
become while the darkness gathered, till at length they seemed to be
charged with pulsing sheets of flame propelled from the womb of the
volcano, which threw piercing beams of light through the eye of the
giant loop that crowned its brow. Far, far fled those beams, making
a bright path across the land, and striking the white crests of the
bordering wall of mountains. High in the air ran that path, over the
dim roofs of the city of Kaloon, over the river, yes, straight above
us, over the mountains, and doubtless--though there we could not follow
them--across the desert to that high eminence on its farther side
where we had lain bathed in their radiance. It was a wondrous and most
impressive sight, one too that filled our companions with fear, for the
steersmen in our boats and the drivers on the towing-path groaned aloud
and began to utter prayers. "What do they say?" asked Leo of Simbri.

"They say, lord, that the Spirit of the Mountain is angry, and passes
down yonder flying light that is called the Road of Hes to work some
evil to our land. Therefore they pray her not to destroy them."

"Then does that light not always shine thus?" he asked again.

"Nay, but seldom. Once about three months ago, and now to-night, but
before that not for years. Let us pray that it portends no misfortune to
Kaloon and its inhabitants."

For some minutes this fearsome illumination continued, then it ceased
as suddenly as it had begun, and there remained of it only the dull glow
above the crest of the peak.

Presently the moon rose, a white, shining ball, and by its rays we
perceived that we drew near to the city. But there was still something
left for us to see before we reached its shelter. While we sat quietly
in the boat--for the silence was broken only by the lapping of the still
waters against its sides and the occasional splash of the slackened
tow-line upon their surface--we heard a distant sound as of a hunt in
full cry.

Nearer and nearer it came, its volume swelling every moment, till it
was quite close at last. Now echoing from the trodden earth of the
towing-path--not that on which our ponies travelled, but the other on
the west bank of the river--was heard the beat of the hoofs of a horse
galloping furiously. Presently it appeared, a fine, white animal, on the
back of which sat a man. It passed us like a flash, but as he went by
the man lifted himself and turned his head, so that we saw his face in
the moonlight; saw also the agony of fear that was written on it and in
his eyes.

He had come out of the darkness. He was gone into the darkness, but
after him swelled that awful music. Look! a dog appeared, a huge, red
dog, that dropped its foaming muzzle to the ground as it galloped, then
lifted it and uttered a deep-throated, bell-like bay. Others followed,
and yet others: in all there must have been a hundred of them, every one
baying as it took the scent.

"_The death-hounds!_" I muttered, clasping Leo by the arm.

"Yes," he answered, "they are running that poor devil. Here comes the
huntsman."

As he spoke there appeared a second figure, splendidly mounted, a cloak
streaming from his shoulders, and in his hand a long whip, which he
waved. He was big but loosely jointed, and as he passed he turned his
face also, and we saw that it was that of a madman. There could be
no doubt of it; insanity blazed in those hollow eyes and rang in that
savage, screeching laugh.

"The Khan! The Khan!" said Simbri, bowing, and I could see that he was
afraid.

Now he too was gone, and after him came his guards. I counted eight of
them, all carrying whips, with which they flogged their horses.

"What does this mean, friend Simbri?" I asked, as the sounds grew faint
in the distance.

"It means, friend Holly," he answered, "that the Khan does justice in
his own fashion--hunting to death one that has angered him."

"What then is his crime? And who is that poor man?"

"He is a great lord of this land, one of the royal kinsmen, and the
crime for which he has been condemned is that he told the Khania he
loved her, and offered to make war upon her husband and kill him, if she
would promise herself to him in marriage. But she hated the man, as she
hates all men, and brought the matter before the Khan. That is all the
story."

"Happy is that prince who has so virtuous a wife!" I could not help
saying unctuously, but with meaning, and the old wretch of a Shaman
turned his head at my words and began to stroke his white beard.

It was but a little while afterwards that once more we heard the baying
of the death-hounds. Yes, they were heading straight for us, this time
across country. Again the white horse and its rider appeared, utterly
exhausted, both of them, for the poor beast could scarcely struggle on
to the towing-path. As it gained it a great red hound with a black ear
gripped its flank, and at the touch of the fangs it screamed aloud in
terror as only a horse can. The rider sprang from its back, and, to our
horror, ran to the river's edge, thinking evidently to take refuge in
our boat. But before ever he reached the water the devilish brutes were
upon him.

What followed I will not describe, but never shall I forget the scene of
those two heaps of worrying wolves, and of the maniac Khan, who yelled
in his fiendish joy, and cheered on his death-hounds to finish their red
work.



CHAPTER IX

THE COURT OF KALOON

Horrified, sick at heart, we continued our journey. No wonder that the
Khania hated such a mad despot. And this woman was in love with Leo,
and this lunatic Khan, her husband, was a victim to jealousy, which he
avenged after the very unpleasant fashion that we had witnessed. Truly
an agreeable prospect for all of us! Yet, I could not help reflecting,
as an object lesson that horrid scene had its advantages.

Now we reached the place where the river forked at the end of the
island, and disembarked upon a quay. Here a guard of men commanded by
some Household officer, was waiting to receive us. They led us through
a gate in the high wall, for the town was fortified, up a narrow,
stone-paved street which ran between houses apparently of the usual
Central Asian type, and, so far as I could judge by moonlight, with no
pretensions to architectural beauty, and not large in size.

Clearly our arrival was expected and excited interest, for people were
gathered in knots about the street to watch us pass; also at the windows
of the houses and even on their flat roofs. At the top of the long
street was a sort of market place, crossing which, accompanied by a
curious crowd who made remarks about us that we could not understand, we
reached a gate in an inner wall. Here we were challenged, but at a
word from Simbri it opened, and we passed through to find ourselves in
gardens. Following a road or drive, we came to a large, rambling house
or palace, surmounted by high towers and very solidly built of stone in
a heavy, bastard Egyptian style.

Beyond its doorway we found ourselves in a courtyard surrounded by a
kind of verandah from which short passages led to different rooms. Down
one of these passages we were conducted by the officer to an apartment,
or rather a suite, consisting of a sitting and two bed-chambers,
which were panelled, richly furnished in rather barbaric fashion, and
well-lighted with primitive oil lamps.

Here Simbri left us, saying that the officer would wait in the outer
room to conduct us to the dining-hall as soon as we were ready. Then
we entered the bed-chambers, where we found servants, or slaves,
quiet-mannered, obsequious men. These valets changed our foot-gear,
and taking off our heavy travelling robes, replaced them with others
fashioned like civilized frock-coats, but made of some white material
and trimmed with a beautiful ermine fur.

Having dressed us in these they bowed to show that our toilette was
finished, and led us to the large outer room where the officer awaited
us. He conducted us through several other rooms, all of them spacious
and apparently unoccupied, to a great hall lit with many lamps and
warmed--for the nights were still cold--with large peat fires. The roof
of this hall was flat and supported by thick, stone columns with carved
capitals, and its walls were hung with worked tapestries, that gave it
an air of considerable comfort.

At the head of the hall on a dais stood a long, narrow table, spread
with a cloth and set with platters and cups of silver. Here we waited
till butlers with wands appeared through some curtains which they drew.
Then came a man beating a silver gong, and after him a dozen or more
courtiers, all dressed in white robes like ourselves, followed by
perhaps as many ladies, some of them young and good-looking, and for
the most part of a fair type, with well-cut features, though others were
rather yellow-skinned. They bowed to us and we to them.

Then there was a pause while we studied one another, till a trumpet blew
and heralded by footmen in a kind of yellow livery, two figures were
seen advancing down the passage beyond the curtains, preceded by the
Shaman Simbri and followed by other officers. They were the Khan and the
Khania of Kaloon.

No one looking at this Khan as he entered his dining-hall clad in festal
white attire would have imagined him to be the same raving human
brute whom we had just seen urging on his devilish hounds to tear a
fellow-creature and a helpless horse to fragments and devour them. Now
he seemed a heavy, loutish man, very strongly built and not ill-looking,
but with shifty eyes, evidently a person of dulled intellect, whom one
would have thought incapable of keen emotions of any kind. The Khania
need not be described. She was as she had been in the chambers of the
Gate, only more weary looking; indeed her eyes had a haunted air and
it was easy to see that the events of the previous night had left
their mark upon her mind. At the sight of us she flushed a little, then
beckoned to us to advance, and said to her husband--"My lord, these are
the strangers of whom I have told you."

His dull eyes fell upon me first, and my appearance seemed to amuse him
vaguely, at any rate he laughed rudely, saying in barbarous Greek mixed
with words from the local patois--"What a curious old animal! I have
never seen you before, have I?"

"No, great Khan," I answered, "but I have seen you out hunting this
night. Did you have good sport?"

Instantly he became wide awake, and answered, rubbing his
hands--"Excellent. He gave us a fine run, but my little dogs caught him
at last, and then----" and he snapped his powerful jaws together.

"Cease your brutal talk," broke in his wife fiercely, and he slunk away
from her and in so doing stumbled against Leo, who was waiting to be
presented to him.

The sight of this great, golden-bearded man seemed to astonish him, for
he stared at him, then asked--"Are you the Khania's other friend
whom she went to see in the mountains of the Gate? Then I could not
understand why she took so much trouble, but now I do. Well, be careful,
or I shall have to hunt you also."

Now Leo grew angry and was about to reply, but I laid my hand upon his
arm and said in English--"Don't answer; the man is mad."

"Bad, you mean," grumbled Leo; "and if he tries to set his cursed dogs
on me, I will break his neck."

Then the Khania motioned to Leo to take a seat beside her, placing me
upon her other hand, between herself and her uncle, the Guardian, while
the Khan shuffled to a chair a little way down the table, where he
called two of the prettiest ladies to keep him company.

Such was our introduction to the court of Kaloon. As for the meal that
followed, it was very plentiful, but coarse, consisting for the most
part of fish, mutton, and sweetmeats, all of them presented upon huge
silver platters. Also much strong drink was served, a kind of spirit
distilled from grain, of which nearly all present drank more than was
good for them. After a few words to me about our journey, the Khania
turned to Leo and talked to him for the rest of the evening, while I
devoted myself to the old Shaman Simbri.

Put briefly, the substance of what I learned from him then and
afterwards was as follows--Trade was unknown to the people of Kaloon,
for the reason that all communication with the south had been cut off
for ages, the bridges that once existed over the chasm having been
allowed to rot away. Their land, which was very large and densely
inhabited, was ringed round with unclimbable mountains, except to the
north, where stood the great Fire-peak. The slopes of this Peak and an
unvisited expanse of country behind that ran up to the confines of
a desert, were the home of ferocious mountain tribes, untamable
Highlanders, who killed every stranger they caught. Consequently,
although the precious and other metals were mined to a certain extent
and manufactured into articles of use and ornament, money did not exist
among the peoples either of the Plain or of the Mountain, all business
being transacted on the principle of barter, and even the revenue
collected in kind.

Amongst the tens of thousands of the aborigines of Kaloon dwelt a
mere handful of a ruling class, who were said to be--and probably
were--descended from the conquerors that appeared in the time of
Alexander. Their blood, however, was now much mixed with that of the
first inhabitants, who, to judge from their appearance and the yellow
hue of their descendants must have belonged to some branch of the great
Tartar race. The government, if so it could be called, was, on the
whole, of a mild though of a very despotic nature, and vested in an
hereditary Khan or Khania, according as a man or a woman might be in the
most direct descent.

Of religions there were two, that of the people, who worshipped the
Spirit of the Fire Mountain, and that of the rulers, who believed in
magic, ghosts and divinations. Even this shadow of a religion, if so
it can be called, was dying out, like its followers, for generation by
generation, the white lords grew less in number or became absorbed in
the bulk of the people.

Still their rule was tolerated. I asked Simbri why, seeing that they
were so few. He shrugged his shoulders and answered, because it suited
the country of which the natives had no ambition. Moreover, the present
Khania, our hostess, was the last of the direct line of rulers, her
husband and cousin having less of the blood royal in his veins, and as
such the people were attached to her.

Also, as is commonly the case with bold and beautiful women, she was
popular among them, especially as she was just and very liberal to
the poor. These were many, as the country was over-populated, which
accounted for its wonderful state of cultivation. Lastly they trusted to
her skill and courage to defend them from the continual attacks of the
Mountain tribes who raided their crops and herds. Their one grievance
against her was that she had no child to whom the khanship could
descend, which meant that after her death, as had happened after that of
her father, there would be struggles for the succession.

"Indeed," added Simbri, with meaning, and glancing at Leo, out of the
corners of his eyes, "the folk say openly that it would be a good thing
if the Khan, who oppresses them and whom they hate, should die, so that
the Khania might take another husband while she is still young. Although
he is mad, he knows this, and that is why he is so jealous of any lord
who looks at her, as, friend Holly, you saw to-night. For should such an
one gain her favour, Rassen thinks that it would mean his death."

"Also he may be attached to his wife," I suggested, speaking in a
whisper.

"Perhaps so," answered Simbri; "but if so, she loves not him, nor any of
these men," and he glanced round the hall.

Certainly they did not look lovable, for by this time most of them were
half drunk, while even the women seemed to have taken as much as was
good for them. The Khan himself presented a sorry spectacle, for he was
leaning back in his chair, shouting something about his hunting, in a
thick voice. The arm of one of his pretty companions was round his neck,
while the other gave him to drink from a gold cup; some of the contents
of which had been spilt down his white robe.

Just then Atene looked round and saw him and an expression of hatred and
contempt gathered on her beautiful face.

"See," I heard her say to Leo, "see the companion of my days, and learn
what it is to be Khania of Kaloon."

"Then why do you not cleanse your court?" he asked.

"Because, lord, if I did so there would be no court left. Swine will to
their mire and these men and women, who live in idleness upon the toil
of the humble folk, will to their liquor and vile luxury. Well, the end
is near, for it is killing them, and their children are but few; weakly
also, for the ancient blood grows thin and stale. But you are weary and
would rest. To-morrow we will ride together," and calling to an officer,
she bade him conduct us to our rooms.

So we rose, and, accompanied by Simbri, bowed to her and went, she
standing and gazing after us, a royal and pathetic figure in the midst
of all that dissolute revelry. The Khan rose also, and in his cunning
fashion understood something of the meaning of it all.

"You think us gay," he shouted; "and why should we not be who do not
know how long we have to live? But you yellow-haired fellow, you must
not let Atene look at you like that. I tell you she is my wife, and if
you do, I shall certainly have to hunt you."

At this drunken sally the courtiers roared with laughter, but taking Leo
by the arm Simbri hurried him from the hall.

"Friend," said Leo, when we were outside, "it seems to me that this Khan
of yours threatens my life."

"Have no fear, lord," answered the Guardian; "so long as the Khania does
not threaten it you are safe. She is the real ruler of this land, and I
stand next to her."

"Then I pray you," said Leo, "keep me out of the way of that drunken
man, for, look you, if I am attacked _I_ defend myself."

"And who can blame you?" Simbri replied with one of his slow, mysterious
smiles.

Then we parted, and having placed both our beds in one chamber, slept
soundly enough, for we were very tired, till we were awakened in the
morning by the baying of those horrible death-hounds, being fed, I
suppose, in a place nearby.

Now in this city of Kaloon it was our weary destiny to dwell for three
long months, one of the most hateful times, perhaps, that we ever passed
in all our lives. Indeed, compared to it our endless wanderings amid the
Central Asia snows and deserts were but pleasure pilgrimages, and our
stay at the monastery beyond the mountains a sojourn in Paradise. To set
out its record in full would be both tedious and useless, so I will only
tell briefly of our principal adventures.

On the morrow of our arrival the Khania Atene sent us two beautiful
white horses of pure and ancient blood, and at noon we mounted them and
went out to ride with her accompanied by a guard of soldiers. First she
led us to the kennels where the death-hounds were kept, great flagged
courts surrounded by iron bars, in which were narrow, locked gates.
Never had I seen brutes so large and fierce; the mastiffs of Thibet were
but as lap-dogs compared to them. They were red and black, smooth-coated
and with a blood-hound head, and the moment they saw us they came
ravening and leaping at the bars as an angry wave leaps against a rock.

These hounds were in the charge of men of certain families, who had
tended them for generations. They obeyed their keepers and the Khan
readily enough, but no stranger might venture near them. Also these
brutes were the executioners of the land, for to them all murderers and
other criminals were thrown, and with them, as we had seen, the Khan
hunted any who had incurred his displeasure. Moreover, they were used
for a more innocent purpose, the chasing of certain great bucks which
were preserved in woods and swamps of reeds. Thus it came about that
they were a terror to the country, since no man knew but what in the
end he might be devoured by them. "Going to the dogs" is a term full
of meaning in any land, but in Kaloon it had a significance that was
terrible.

After we had looked at the hounds, not without a prophetic shudder,
we rode round the walls of the town, which were laid out as a kind of
boulevard, where the inhabitants walked and took their pleasure in the
evenings. On these, however, there was not much to see except the river
beneath and the plain beyond, moreover, though they were thick and
high there were places in them that must be passed carefully, for, like
everything else with which the effete ruling class had to do, they had
been allowed to fall into disrepair.

The town itself was an uninteresting place also, for the most part
peopled by hangers-on of the Court. So we were not sorry when we crossed
the river by a high-pitched bridge, where in days to come I was destined
to behold one of the strangest sights ever seen by mortal man, and rode
out into the country. Here all was different, for we found ourselves
among the husbandmen, who were the descendants of the original owners of
the land and lived upon its produce. Every available inch of soil seemed
to be cultivated by the aid of a wonderful system of irrigation. Indeed
water was lifted to levels where it would not flow naturally, by means
of wheels turned with mules, or even in some places carried up by the
women, who bore poles on their shoulders to which were balanced buckets.

Leo asked the Khania what happened if there was a bad season. She
replied grimly that famine happened, in which thousands of people
perished, and that after the famine came pestilence. These famines were
periodical, and were it not for them, she added, the people would long
ago have been driven to kill each other like hungry rats, since having
no outlet and increasing so rapidly, the land, large as it was, could
not hold them all.

"Will this be a good year?" I asked.

"It is feared not," she answered, "for the river has not risen well and
but few rains have fallen. Also the light that shone last night on the
Fire-mountain is thought a bad omen, which means, they say, that the
Spirit of the Mountain is angry and that drought will follow. Let us
hope they will not say also that this is because strangers have visited
the land, bringing with them bad luck."

"If so," said Leo with a laugh, "we shall have to fly to the Mountain to
take refuge there."

"Do you then wish to take refuge in death?" she asked darkly. "Of this
be sure, my guests, that never while I live shall you be allowed to
cross the river which borders the slopes of yonder peak."

"Why not, Khania?"

"Because, my lord Leo--that is your name, is it not?--such is my will,
and while I rule here my will is law. Come, let us turn homewards."

That night we did not eat in the great hall, but in the room which
adjoined our bed-chambers. We were not left alone, however, for the
Khania and her uncle, the Shaman, who always attended her, joined our
meal. When we greeted them wondering, she said briefly that it was
arranged thus because she refused to expose us to more insults. She
added that a festival had begun which would last for a week, and that
she did not wish us to see how vile were the ways of her people.

That evening and many others which followed it--we never dined in the
central hall again--passed pleasantly enough, for the Khania made Leo
tell her of England where he was born, and of the lands that he had
visited, their peoples and customs. I spoke also of the history of
Alexander, whose general Rassen, her far-off forefather, conquered the
country of Kaloon, and of the land of Egypt, whence the latter came, and
so it went on till midnight, while Atene listened to us greedily, her
eyes fixed always on Leo's face.

Many such nights did we spend thus in the palace of the city of Kaloon
where, in fact, we were close prisoners. But oh! the days hung heavy
on our hands. If we went into the courtyard or reception rooms of the
palace, the lords and their followers gathered round us and pestered us
with questions, for, being very idle, they were also very curious.

Also the women, some of whom were fair enough, began to talk to us on
this pretext or on that, and did their best to make love to Leo; for,
in contrast with their slim, delicate-looking men, they found this
deep-chested, yellow-haired stranger to their taste. Indeed they
troubled him much with gifts of flowers and messages sent by servants or
soldiers, making assignations with him, which of course he did not keep.

If we went out into the streets, matters were as bad, for then the
people ceased from their business, such as it was, and followed us
about, staring at us till we took refuge again in the palace gardens.

There remained, therefore, only our rides in the country with the
Khania, but after three or four of them, these came to an end owing to
the jealousy of the Khan, who vowed that if we went out together any
more he would follow with the death-hounds. So we must ride alone, if at
all, in the centre of a large guard of soldiers sent to see that we did
not attempt to escape, and accompanied very often by a mob of peasants,
who with threats and entreaties demanded that we should give back the
rain which they said we had taken from them. For now the great drought
had begun in earnest.

Thus it came about that at length our only resource was making pretence
to fish in the river, where the water was so clear and low that we could
catch nothing, watching the while the Fire-mountain, that loomed in the
distance mysterious and unreachable, and vainly racking our brains for
plans to escape thither, or at least to communicate with its priestess,
of whom we could learn no more.

For two great burdens lay upon our souls. The burden of desire to
continue our search and to meet with its reward which we were sure that
we should pluck amid the snows of yonder peak, if we could but come
there; and the burden of approaching catastrophe at the hands of the
Khania Atene. She had made no love to Leo since that night in the
Gateway, and, indeed, even if she had wished to, this would have been
difficult, since I took care that he was never left for one hour alone.
No duenna could have clung to a Spanish princess more closely than I did
to Leo. Yet I could see well that her passion was no whit abated;
that it grew day by day, indeed, as the fire swells in the heart of a
volcano, and that soon it must break loose and spread its ruin round.
The omen of it was to be read in her words, her gestures, and her tragic
eyes.



CHAPTER X

IN THE SHAMAN'S CHAMBER

One night Simbri asked us to dine with him in his own apartments in the
highest tower of the palace--had we but known it, for us a fateful place
indeed, for here the last act of the mighty drama was destined to be
fulfilled. So we went, glad enough of any change. When we had eaten Leo
grew very thoughtful, then said suddenly--"Friend Simbri, I wish to ask
a favour of you--that you will beg the Khania to let us go our ways."

Instantly the Shaman's cunning old face became like a mask of ivory.

"Surely you had better ask your favours of the lady herself, lord; I do
not think that any in reason will be refused to you," he replied.

"Let us stop fencing," said Leo, "and consider the facts. It has seemed
to me that the Khania Atene is not happy with her husband."

"Your eyes are very keen, lord, and who shall say that they have
deceived you?"

"It has seemed, further," went on Leo, reddening, "that she has been so
good as to look on me with--some undeserved regard."

"Ah! perhaps you guessed that in the Gate-house yonder, if you have not
forgotten what most men would remember."

"I remember certain things, Simbri, that have to do with her and you."

The Shaman only stroked his beard and said: "Proceed!"

"There is little to add, Simbri, except that _I_ am not minded to bring
scandal on the name of the first lady in your land."

"Nobly said, lord, nobly said, though here they do not trouble much
about such things. But how if the matter could be managed without
scandal? If, for instance, the Khania chose to take another husband the
whole land would rejoice, for she is the last of her royal race."

"How can she take another husband when she has one living?"

"True; indeed that is a question which I have considered, but the answer
to it is that men die. It is the common lot, and the Khan has been
drinking very heavily of late."

"You mean that men can be murdered," said Leo angrily. "Well, I will
have nothing to do with such a crime. Do you understand me?"

As the words passed his lips I heard a rustle and turned my head. Behind
us were curtains beyond which the Shaman slept, kept his instruments of
divination and worked out his horoscopes. Now they had been drawn, and
between them, in her royal array, stood the Khania still as a statue.

"Who was it that spoke of crime?" she asked in a cold voice. "Was it
you, my lord Leo?"

Rising from his chair, he faced her and said--"Lady, I am glad that you
have heard my words, even if they should vex you."

"Why should it vex me to learn that there is one honest man in this
court who will have naught to do with murder? Nay, I honour you for
those words. Know also that no such foul thoughts have come near to me.
Yet, Leo Vincey, that which is written--is written."

"Doubtless, Khania; but what is written?"

"Tell him, Shaman."

Now Simbri passed behind the curtain and returned thence with a roll
from which he read: "The heavens have declared by their signs infallible
that before the next new moon, the Khan Rassen will lie dead at the
hands of the stranger lord who came to this country from across the
mountains."

"Then the heavens have declared a lie," said Leo contemptuously.

"That is as you will," answered Atene; "but so it must befall, not by my
hand or those of my servants, but by yours. And then?"

"Why by mine? Why not by Holly's? Yet, if so, then doubtless I shall
suffer the punishment of my crime at the hands of his mourning widow,"
he replied exasperated.

"You are pleased to mock me, Leo Vincey, well knowing what a husband
this man is to me."

Now I felt that the crisis had come, and so did Leo, for he looked her
in the face and said--"Speak on, lady, say all you wish; perhaps it will
be better for us both."

"I obey you, lord. Of the beginning of this fate I know nothing, but
I read from the first page that is open to me. It has to do with this
present life of mine. Learn, Leo Vincey, that from my childhood onwards
you have haunted me. Oh! when first I saw you yonder by the river, your
face was not strange to me, for I knew it--I knew it well in dreams.
When I was a little maid and slept one day amidst the flowers by the
river's brim, it came first to me--ask my uncle here if this be not so,
though it is true that your face was younger then. Afterwards again and
again I saw it in my sleep and learned to know that you were mine, for
the magic of my heart taught me this.

"Then passed the long years while I felt that you were drawing near to
me, slowly, very slowly, but ever drawing nearer, wending onward and
outward through the peoples of the world; across the hills, across the
plains, across the sands, across the snows, on to my side. At length
came the end, for one night not three moons ago, whilst this wise man,
my uncle, and I sat together here studying the lore that he has taught
me and striving to wring its secrets from the past, a vision came to me.

"Look you, I was lost in a charmed sleep which looses the spirit from
the body and gives it strength to stray afar and to see those things
that have been and that are yet to be. Then I saw you and your companion
clinging to a point of broken ice, over the river of the gulf. I do not
lie; it is written here upon the scroll. Yes, it was you, the man of
my dreams, and no other, and we knew the place and hurried thither and
waited by the water, thinking that perhaps beneath it you lay dead.

"Then, while we waited, lo! two tiny figures appeared far above upon the
icy tongue that no man may climb, and oh! you know the rest. Spellbound
we stood and saw you slip and hang, saw you sever the thin cord and rush
downwards, yes, and saw that brave man, Holly, leap headlong after you.

"But mine was the hand that drew you from the torrent, where otherwise
you must have drowned, you the love of the long past and of to-day, aye,
and of all time. Yes, you and no other, Leo Vincey. It was this spirit
that foresaw your danger and this hand which delivered you from death,
and--and would you refuse them now--when I, the Khania of Kaloon,
proffer them to you?"

So she spoke, and leaned upon the table, looking up into his face with
lips that trembled and with appealing eyes.

"Lady," said Leo, "you saved me, and again I thank you, though perhaps
it would have been better if you had let me drown. But, forgive me the
question, if all this tale be true, why did you marry another man?"

Now she shrank back as though a knife had pricked her.

"Oh! blame me not," she moaned, "it was but policy which bound me to
this madman, whom I ever loathed. They urged me to it; yes, even you,
Simbri, my uncle, and for that deed accursed be your head--urged me,
saying that it was necessary to end the war between Rassen's faction and
my own. That I was the last of the true race, moreover, which must be
carried on; saying also that my dreams and my rememberings were but
sick phantasies. So, alas! alas! I yielded, thinking to make my people
great."

"And yourself, the greatest of them, if all I hear is true," commented
Leo bluntly, for he was determined to end this thing. "Well, I do not
blame you, Khania, although now you tell me that I must cut a knot
you tied by taking the life of this husband of your own choice, for so
forsooth it is decreed by fate, that fate which _you_ have shaped. Yes,
I must do what you will not do, and kill him. Also your tale of the
decree of the heavens and of that vision which led you to the precipice
to save us is false. Lady, you met me by the river because the 'mighty'
Hesea, the Spirit of the Mountain, so commanded you."

"How know you that?" Atene said, springing up and facing him, while the
jaw of old Simbri dropped and the eyelids blinked over his glazed eyes.

"In the same way that I know much else. Lady, it would have been better
if you had spoken all the truth."

Now Atene's face went ashen and her cheeks sank in.

"Who told you?" she whispered. "Was it you, Magician?" and she turned
upon her uncle like a snake about to strike. "Oh! if so, be sure that
I shall learn it, and though we are of one blood and have loved each
other, I will pay you back in agony."

"Atene, Atene," Simbri broke in, holding up his claw-like hands, "you
know well it was not I."

"Then it was you, you ape-faced wanderer, you messenger of the evil
gods? Oh! why did I not kill you at the first? Well, that fault can be
remedied."

"Lady," I said blandly, "am I also a magician?"

"Aye," she answered, "I think that you are, and that you have a mistress
who dwells in fire."

"Then, Khania," I said, "such servants and such mistresses are ill to
meddle with. Say, what answer has the Hesea sent to your report of our
coming to this land?"

"Listen," broke in Leo before she could reply. "I go to ask a certain
question of the Oracle on yonder mountain peak. With your will or
without it I tell you that I go, and afterwards you can settle which is
the stronger--the Khania of Kaloon or the Hesea of the House of Fire."

Atene listened and for a while stood silent, perhaps because she had no
answer. Then she said with a little laugh--"Is that your will? Well, I
think that yonder are none whom you would wish to wed. There is fire
and to spare, but no lovely, shameless spirit haunts it to drive men mad
with evil longings;" and as though at some secret thought, a spasm of
pain crossed her face and caught her breath. Then she went on in the
same cold voice--"Wanderers, this land has its secrets, into which no
foreigner must pry. I say to you yet again that while I live you set no
foot upon that Mountain. Know also, Leo Vincey, I have bared my heart to
you, and I have been told in answer that this long quest of yours is
not for me, as I was sure in my folly, but, as I think, for some demon
wearing the shape of woman, whom you will never find. Now I make no
prayer to you; it is not fitting, but you have learned too much.

"Therefore, consider well to-night and before next sundown answer.
Having offered, I do not go back, and tomorrow you shall tell me whether
you will take me when the time comes, as come it must, and rule this
land and be great and happy in my love, or whether, you and your
familiar together, you will--die. Choose then between the vengeance of
Atene and her love, since I am not minded to be mocked in my own land as
a wanton who sought a stranger and was--refused."

Slowly, slowly, in an intense whisper she spoke the words, that fell one
by one from her lips like drops of blood from a death wound, and there
followed silence. Never shall I forget the scene. There the old wizard
watched us through his horny eyes, that blinked like those of some night
bird. There stood the imperial woman in her royal robes, with icy rage
written on her face and vengeance in her glance. There, facing her, was
the great form of Leo, quiet, alert, determined, holding back his doubts
and fears with the iron hand of will. And there to the right was _I_,
noting all things and wondering how long I, "the familiar," who had
earned Atene's hate, would be left alive upon the earth.

Thus we stood, watching each other, till suddenly I noted that the flame
of the lamp above us flickered and felt a draught strike upon my face.
Then I looked round, and became aware of another presence. For yonder
in the shadow showed the tall form of a man. See! it shambled forward
silently, and I saw that its feet were naked. Now it reached the ring of
the lamplight and burst into a savage laugh.

It was the Khan.

Atene, his wife, looked up and saw him, and never did I admire that
passionate woman's boldness more, who admired little else about her save
her beauty, for her face showed neither anger nor fear, but contempt
only. And yet she had some cause to be afraid, as she well knew.

"What do you here, Rassen?" she asked, "creeping on me with your naked
feet? Get you back to your drink and the ladies of your court."

But he still laughed on, an hyena laugh.

"What have you heard?" she said, "that makes you so merry?"

"What have I heard?" Rassen gurgled out between his screams of hideous
glee. "Oho! I have heard the Khania, the last of the true blood, the
first in the land, the proud princess who will not let her robes be
soiled by those of the 'ladies of the court' and my wife, my wife,
who asked me to marry her--mark that, you strangers--because I was her
cousin and a rival ruler, and the richest lord in all the land, and
thereby she thought she would increase her power--I have heard her offer
herself to a nameless wanderer with a great yellow beard, and I have
heard him, who hates and would escape from her"--here he screamed with
laughter--"refuse her in such a fashion as I would not refuse the lowest
woman in the palace.

"I have heard also--but that I always knew--that I am mad; for,
strangers, I was made mad by a hate-philtre which that old Rat," and he
pointed to Simbri, "gave me in my drink--yes, at my marriage feast. It
worked well, for truly there is no one whom I hate more than the Khania
Atene. Why, I cannot bear her touch, it makes me sick. I loathe to be
in the same room with her; she taints the air; there is a smell of
sorceries about her.

"It seems that it takes you thus also, Yellow-beard? Well, if so, ask
the old Rat for a love drink; he can mix it, and then you will think her
sweet and sound and fair, and spend some few months jollily enough. Man,
don't be a fool, the cup that is thrust into your hands looks
goodly. Drink, drink deep. You'll never guess the liquor's bad--till
to-morrow--though it be mixed with a husband's poisoned blood," and
again Rassen screamed in his unholy mirth.

To all these bitter insults, venomed with the sting of truth, Atene
listened without a word. Then, she turned to us and bowed.

"My guests," she said, "I pray you pardon me for all I cannot help. You
have strayed to a corrupt and evil land, and there stands its crown
and flower. Khan Rassen, your doom is written, and I do not hasten it,
because once for a little while we were near to each other, though you
have been naught to me for this many a year save a snake that haunts
my house. Were it otherwise, the next cup you drank should still your
madness, and that vile tongue of yours which gives its venom voice. My
uncle, come with me. Your hand, for I grow weak with shame and woe."

The old Shaman hobbled forward, but when he came face to face with the
Khan he stopped and looked him up and down with his dim eyes. Then he
said--"Rassen, I saw you born, the son of an evil woman, and your father
none knew but I. The flame flared that night upon the Fire-mountain, and
the stars hid their faces, for none of them would own you, no, not even
those of the most evil influence. I saw you wed and rise drunken from
your marriage feast, your arm about a wanton's neck. I have seen you
rule, wasting the land for your cruel pleasure, turning the fertile
fields into great parks for your game, leaving those who tilled them to
starve upon the road or drown themselves in ditches for very misery.
And soon, soon I shall see you die in pain and blood, and then the chain
will fall from the neck of this noble lady whom you revile, and another
more worthy shall take your place and rear up children to fill your
throne, and the land shall have rest again."

Now I listened to these words--and none who did not hear them can guess
the fearful bitterness with which they were spoken--expecting every
moment that the Khan would draw the short sword at his side and cut the
old man down. But he did not; he cowered before him like a dog before
some savage master, the weight of whose whip he knows. Yes, answering
nothing, he shrank into the corner and cowered there, while Simbri,
taking Atene by the hand, went from the room. At its massive, iron-bound
door he turned and pointing to the crouching figure with his staff,
said--"Khan Rassen, I raised you up, and now I cast you down. Remember
me when you lie dying--in blood and pain."

Their footsteps died away, and the Khan crept from his corner, looking
about him furtively.

"Have that Rat and the other gone?" he asked of us, wiping his damp brow
with his sleeve; and I saw that fear had sobered him and that for awhile
the madness had left his eyes.

I answered that they had gone.

"You think me a coward," he went on passionately, "and it is true, I am
afraid of him and her--as you, Yellow-beard, will be afraid when your
turn comes. I tell you that they sapped my strength and crazed me with
their drugged drink, making me the thing I am, for who can war against
their wizardries? Look you now. Once I was a prince, the lord of half
this land, noble of form and upright of heart, and I loved her accursed
beauty as all must love it on whom she turns her eyes. And she turned
them on me, she sought _me_ in marriage; it was that old Rat who bore
her message.

"So I stayed the great war and married the Khania and became the Khan;
but better had it been for me if I had crept into her kitchen as a
scullion, than into her chamber as a husband. For from the first she
hated me, and the more I loved, the more she hated, till at our wedding
feast she doctored me with that poison which made me loathe her, and
thus divorced us; which made me mad also, eating into my brain like
fire."

"If she hated you so sorely, Khan," I asked, "why did she not mix a
stronger draught and have done with you?"

"Why? Because of policy, for I ruled half the land. Because it suited
her also that I should live on, a thing to mock at, since while I was
alive no other husband could be forced upon her by the people. For
she is not a woman, she is a witch, who desires to live alone, or so I
thought until to-night"--and he glowered at Leo.

"She knew also that although I must shrink from her, I still love her in
my heart, and can still be jealous, and therefore that I should protect
her from all men. It was she who set me on that lord whom my dogs tore
awhile ago, because he was powerful and sought her favour and would not
be denied. But now," and again he glowered at Leo, "now I know why she
has always seemed so cold. It is because there lived a man to melt whose
ice she husbanded her fire."

Then Leo, who all this while had stood silent, stepped forward.

"Listen, Khan," he said. "Did the ice seem like melting a little while
ago?"

"No--unless you lied. But that was only because the fire is not yet hot
enough. Wait awhile until it burns up, and melt you must, for who can
match his will against Atene?"

"And what if the ice desires to flee the fire? Khan, they said that I
should kill you, but I do not seek your blood. You think that I would
rob you of your wife, yet I have no such thought towards her. We desire
to escape this town of yours, but cannot, because its gates are locked,
and we are prisoners, guarded night and day. Hear me, then. You have the
power to set us free and to be rid of us."

The Khan looked at him cunningly. "And if I set you free, whither would
you go? You could tumble down yonder gorge, but only the birds can climb
its heights."

"To the Fire-mountain, where we have business."

Rassen stared at him.

"Is it I who am mad, or are you, who wish to visit the Fire-mountain?
Yet that is nothing to me, save that I do not believe you. But if so
you might return again and bring others with you. Perchance, having
its lady, you wish this land also by right of conquest. It has foes up
yonder."

"It is not so," answered Leo earnestly. "As one man to another, I tell
you it is not so. _I_ ask no smile of your wife and no acre of your
soil. Be wise and help us to be gone, and live on undisturbed in such
fashion as may please you."

The Khan stood still awhile, swinging his long arms vacantly, till
something seemed to come into his mind that moved him to merriment, for
he burst into one of his hideous laughs.

"I am thinking," he said, "what Atene would say if she woke up to find
her sweet bird flown. She would search for you and be angry with me."

"It seems that she cannot be angrier than she is," I answered. "Give us
a night's start and let her search never so closely, she shall not find
us."

"You forget, Wanderer, that she and her old Rat have arts. Those who
knew where to meet you might know where to seek you. And yet, and yet,
it would be rare to see her rage. 'Oh, Yellow-beard, where are you,
Yellow-beard?' he went on, mimicking his wife's voice. 'Come back and
let me melt your ice, Yellow-beard.'"

Again he laughed; then said suddenly--"When can you be ready?"

"In half an hour," I answered.

"Good. Go to your chambers and prepare. I will join you there
presently."

So we went.



CHAPTER XI

THE HUNT AND THE KILL

We reached our rooms, meeting no one in the passages, and there made
our preparations. First we changed our festal robes for those warmer
garments in which we had travelled to the city of Kaloon. Then we ate
and drank what we could of the victuals which stood in the antechamber,
not knowing when we should find more food, and filled two satchels such
as these people sling about their shoulders, with the remains of the
meat and liquor and a few necessaries. Also we strapped our big hunting
knives about our middles and armed ourselves with short spears that were
made for the stabbing of game.

"Perhaps he has laid a plot to murder us, and we may as well defend
ourselves while we can," suggested Leo.

I nodded, for the echoes of the Khan's last laugh still rang in my ears.
It was a very evil laugh.

"Likely enough," I said. "I do not trust that insane brute. Still, he
wishes to be rid of us."

"Yes, but as he said, live men may return, whereas the dead do not."

"Atene thinks otherwise," I commented.

"And yet she threatened us with death," answered Leo.

"Because her shame and passion make her mad," I replied, after which we
were silent.

Presently the door opened, and through it came the Khan, muffled in a
great cloak as though to disguise himself.

"Come," he said, "if you are ready." Then, catching sight of the spears
we held, he added: "You will not need those things. You do not go
a-hunting."

"No," I answered, "but who can say--we might be hunted."

"If you believe that perhaps you had best stay where you are till the
Khania wearies of Yellow-beard and opens the gates for you," he replied,
eyeing me with his cunning glance.

"I think not," I said, and we started, the Khan leading the way and
motioning us to be silent.

We passed through the empty rooms on to the verandah, and from the
verandah down into the courtyard, where he whispered to us to keep in
the shadow. For the moon shone very clearly that night, so clearly, I
remember, that I could see the grass which grew between the joints of
the pavement, and the little shadows thrown by each separate blade upon
the worn surface of its stones. Now I wondered how we should pass the
gate, for there a guard was stationed, which had of late been doubled by
order of the Khania. But this gate we left upon our right, taking a path
that led into the great walled garden, where Rassen brought us to a
door hidden behind a clump of shrubs, which he unlocked with a key he
carried.

Now we were outside the palace wall, and our road ran past the kennels.
As we went by these, the great, sleepless death-hounds, that wandered
to and fro like prowling lions, caught our wind and burst into a sudden
chorus of terrific bays. I shivered at the sound, for it was fearful in
that silence, also I thought that it would arouse the keepers. But the
Khan went to the bars and showed himself, whereon the brutes, which knew
him, ceased their noise.

"Fear not," he said as he returned, "the huntsmen know that they are
starved to-night, for to-morrow certain criminals will be thrown to
them."

Now we had reached the palace gates. Here the Khan bade us hide in an
archway and departed. We looked at each other, for the same thought was
in both our minds--that he had gone to fetch the murderers who were to
make an end of us. But in this we did him wrong, for presently we heard
the sound of horses' hoofs upon the stones, and he returned leading the
two white steeds that Atene had given us.

"I saddled them with my own hands," he whispered. "Who can do more to
speed the parting guest? Now mount, hide your faces in your cloaks as I
do, and follow me."

So we mounted, and he trotted before us like a running footman, such as
the great lords of Kaloon employed when they went about their business
or their pleasure. Leaving the main street, he led us through a quarter
of the town that had an evil reputation, and down its tortuous by-ways.
Here we met a few revellers, while from time to time night-birds flitted
from the doorways and, throwing aside their veils, looked at us, but
as we made no sign drew back again, thinking that we passed to some
assignation. We reached the deserted docks upon the river's edge
and came to a little quay, alongside of which a broad ferryboat was
fastened.

"You must put your horses into it and row across," Rassen said, "for
the bridges are guarded, and without discovering myself I cannot bid the
soldiers to let you pass."

So with some little trouble we urged the horses into the boat, where I
held them by their bridles while Leo took the oars.

"Now go your ways, accursed wanderers," cried the Khan as he thrust us
from the quay, "and pray the Spirit of the Mountain that the old Rat and
his pupil--your love, Yellow-beard, your love--are not watching you in
their magic glass. For if so we may meet again."

Then as the stream caught us, sweeping the boat out towards the centre
of the river, he began to laugh that horrible laugh of his, calling
after us--"Ride fast, ride fast for safety, strangers; there is death
behind."

Leo put out his strength and backed water, so that the punt hung upon
the edge of the stream.

"I think that we should do well to land again and kill that man, for he
means mischief," he said.

He spoke in English, but Rassen must have caught the ring of his
voice and guessed its meaning with the cunning of the mad. At least he
shouted--"Too late, fools," and with a last laugh turned, ran so
swiftly up the quay that his cloak flew out upon the air behind him, and
vanished into the shadows at its head.

"Row on," I said, and Leo bent himself to the oars.

But the ferry-boat was cumbersome and the current swift, so that we were
swept down a long way before we could cross it. At length we reached
still water near the further shore, and seeing a landing-place, managed
to beach the punt and to drag our horses to the bank. Then leaving the
craft to drift, for we had no time to scuttle her, we looked to our
girths and bridles, and mounted, heading towards the far column of
glowing smoke which showed like a beacon above the summit of the House
of Fire.

At first our progress was very slow, for here there seemed to be no
path, and we were obliged to pick our way across the fields, and to
search for bridges that spanned such of the water-ditches as were too
wide for us to jump. More than an hour was spent in this work, till we
came to a village wherein none were stirring, and here struck a
road which seemed to run towards the mountain, though, as we learned
afterwards, it took us very many miles out of our true path. Now for the
first time we were able to canter, and pushed on at some speed, though
not too fast, for we wished to spare our horses and feared lest they
might fall in the uncertain light.

A while before dawn the moon sank behind the Mountain, and the gloom
grew so dense that we were forced to stop, which we did, holding the
horses by their bridles and allowing them to graze a little on some
young corn. Then the sky turned grey, the light faded from the column
of smoke that was our guide, the dawn came, blushing red upon the vast
snows of the distant peak, and shooting its arrows through the loop
above the pillar. We let the horses drink from a channel that watered
the corn, and, mounting them, rode onward slowly.

Now with the shadows of the night a weight of fear seemed to be lifted
off our hearts and we grew hopeful, aye, almost joyous. That hated city
was behind us. Behind us were the Khania with her surging, doom-driven
passions and her stormy loveliness, the wizardries of her horny-eyed
mentor, so old in years and secret sin, and the madness of that strange
being, half-devil, half-martyr, at once cruel and a coward--the Khan,
her husband, and his polluted court. In front lay the fire, the snow and
the mystery they hid, sought for so many empty years. Now we would solve
it or we would die. So we pressed forward joyfully to meet our fate,
whatever it might be.

For many hours our road ran deviously through cultivated land, where the
peasants at their labour laid down their tools and gathered into knots
to watch us pass, and quaint, flat-roofed villages, whence the women
snatched up their children and fled at the sight of us. They believed us
to be lords from the court who came to work them some harm in person or
in property, and their terror told _us_ how the country smarted beneath
the rod of the oppressor. By mid-day, although the peak seemed to be
but little nearer, the character of the land had changed. Now it sloped
gently upwards, and therefore could not be irrigated.

Evidently all this great district was dependent on the fall of
timely rains, which had not come that spring. Therefore, although the
population was still dense and every rod of the land was under the
plough or spade, the crops were failing. It was pitiful to see the
green, uneared corn already turning yellow because of the lack of
moisture, the beasts searching the starved pastures for food and the
poor husbandmen wandering about their fields or striving to hoe the iron
soil.

Here the people seemed to know us as the two foreigners whose coming had
been noised abroad, and, the fear of famine having made them bold, they
shouted at us as we went by to give them back the rain which we had
stolen, or so we understood their words. Even the women and the children
in the villages prostrated themselves before us, pointing first to the
Mountain and then to the hard, blue sky, and crying to us to send them
rain. Once, indeed, we were threatened by a mob of peasants armed with
spades and reaping-hooks, who seemed inclined to bar our path, so that
we were obliged to put our horses to a gallop and pass through them
with a rush. As we went forward the country grew ever more arid and its
inhabitants more scarce, till we saw no man save a few wandering herds
who drove their cattle from place to place in search of provender.

By evening we guessed that we had reached that border tract which was
harried by the Mountain tribes, for here strong towers built of stone
were dotted about the heaths, doubtless to serve as watch-houses or
places of refuge. Whether they were garrisoned by soldiers I do not
know, but I doubt it, for we saw none. It seems probable indeed that
these forts were relics of days when the land of Kaloon was guarded from
attack by rulers of a very different character to that of the present
Khan and his immediate predecessors.

At length even the watch-towers were left behind, and by sundown we
found ourselves upon a vast uninhabited plain, where we could see
no living thing. Now we made up our minds to rest our horses awhile,
proposing to push forward again with the moon, for having the wrath
of the Khania behind us we did not dare to linger. By this evening
doubtless she would have discovered our escape, since before sundown, as
she had decreed, Leo must make his choice and give his answer. Then,
as we were sure, she would strike swiftly. Perhaps her messengers
were already at their work rousing the country to capture us, and her
soldiers following on our path.

We unsaddled the horses and let them refresh themselves by rolling
on the sandy soil, and graze after a fashion upon the coarse tufts of
withering herbage which grew around. There was no water here; but this
did not so much matter, for both they and we had drunk at a little muddy
pool we found not more than an hour before. We were finishing our meal
of the food that we had brought with us, which, indeed, we needed sorely
after our sleepless night and long day's journey, when my horse, which
was knee-haltered close at hand, lay down to roll again. This it could
not do with ease because of the rope about its fore-leg, and I watched
its efforts idly, till at length, at the fourth attempt, after hanging
for a few seconds upon its back, its legs sticking straight into the
air, it fell over slowly towards me as horses do.

"Why are its hoofs so red? Has it cut itself?" asked Leo in an
indifferent voice.

As it chanced I also had just noticed this red tinge, and for the first
time, since it was most distinct about the animal's frogs, which until
it rolled thus I had not seen. So I rose to look at them, thinking that
probably the evening light had deceived us, or that we might have passed
through some ruddy-coloured mud. Sure enough they _were_ red, as though
a dye had soaked into the horn and the substance of the frogs. What was
more, they gave out a pungent, aromatic smell that was unpleasant, such
a smell as might arise from blood mixed with musk and spices.

"It is very strange," I said. "Let us look at your beast, Leo."

So we did, and found that its hoofs had been similarly-treated.

"Perhaps it is a native mixture to preserve the horn," suggested Leo.

I thought awhile, then a terrible idea struck me.

"I don't want to frighten you," I said, "but I think that we had better
saddle up and get on."

"Why?" he asked.

"Because I believe that villain of a Khan has doctored our horses."

"What for? To make them go lame?"

"No, Leo, to make them leave a strong scent upon dry ground."

He turned pale. "Do you mean--those hounds?"

I nodded. Then wasting no more time in words, we saddled up in frantic
haste. Just as I fastened the last strap of my saddle I thought that a
faint sound reached my ear.

"Listen," I said. Again it came, and now there was no doubt about it. It
was the sound of baying dogs.

"By heaven! the death-hounds," said Leo.

"Yes," I answered quietly enough, for at this crisis my nerves hardened
and all fear left me, "our friend the Khan is out a-hunting. That is why
he laughed."

"What shall we do?" asked Leo. "Leave the horses?"

I looked at the Peak. Its nearest flanks were miles and miles away.

"Time enough to do that when we are forced. We can never reach that
mountain on foot, and after they had run down the horses, they would
hunt us by spoor or gaze. No, man, ride as you never rode before."

We sprang to our saddles, but before we gave rein I turned and looked
behind me. It will be remembered that we had ridden up a long slope
which terminated in a ridge, about three miles away, the border of the
great plain whereon we stood. Now the sun had sunk behind that ridge
so that although it was still light the plain had fallen into shadow.
Therefore, while no distant object could be seen upon the plain,
anything crossing the ridge remained visible enough in that clear air,
at least to persons of keen sight.

This is what we saw. Over the ridge poured a multitude of little
objects, and amongst the last of these galloped a man mounted on a great
horse, who led another horse by the bridle.

"All the pack are out," said Leo grimly, "and Rassen has brought a
second mount with him. Now I see why he wanted us to leave the spears,
and I think," he shouted as we began to gallop, "that before all is done
the Shaman may prove himself a true prophet."

Away we sped through the gathering darkness, heading straight for the
Peak. While we went I calculated our chances. Our horses, as good as any
in the land, were still strong and fresh, for although we had ridden
far we had not over-pressed them, and their condition was excellent. But
doubtless the death-hounds were fresh also, for, meaning to run us down
at night when he thought that he might catch us sleeping, Rassen would
have brought them along easily, following us by inquiry among the
peasants and only laying them on our spoor after the last village had
been left behind.

Also he had two mounts, and for aught we knew--though afterwards this
proved not to be the case, for he wished to work his wickedness alone
and unseen--he might be followed by attendants with relays. Therefore it
would appear that unless we reached some place whither he did not dare
to follow, before him--that is the slopes of the Peak many miles away,
he must run us down. There remained the chance also that the dogs would
tire and refuse to pursue the chase.

This, however, seemed scarcely probable, for they were extraordinarily
swift and strong, and so savage that when once they had scented blood,
in which doubtless our horses' hoofs were steeped, they would fall dead
from exhaustion sooner than abandon the trail. Indeed, both the Khania
and Simbri had often told us as much. Another chance--they might lose
the scent, but seeing its nature, again this was not probable. Even an
English pack will carry the trail of a red herring breast high without a
fault for hours, and here was something stronger--a cunning compound of
which the tell-tale odour would hold for days. A last chance. If we were
forced to abandon our horses, we, their riders, might possibly escape,
could we find any place to hide in on that great plain. If not, we
should be seen as well as scented, and then----No, the odds were all
against us, but so they had often been before; meanwhile we had three
miles start, and perhaps help would come to us from the Mountain, some
help unforeseen. So we set our teeth and sped away like arrows while the
light lasted.

Very soon it failed, and whilst the moon was hidden behind the mountains
the night grew dark.

Now the hounds gained on us, for in the gloom, which to them was
nothing, we did not dare to ride full speed, fearing lest our horses
should stumble and lame themselves, or fall. Then it was for the second
time since we had dwelt in this land of Kaloon that of a sudden the fire
flamed upon the Peak. When we had seen it before, it had appeared to
flash across the heavens in one great lighthouse ray, concentrated
through the loop above the pillar, and there this night also the ray ran
far above us like a lance of fire. But now that we were nearer to its
fount we found ourselves bathed in a soft, mysterious radiance like that
of the phosphorescence on a summer sea, reflected downwards perhaps from
the clouds and massy rock roof of the column loop and diffused by the
snows beneath.

This unearthly glimmer, faint as it was, helped us much, indeed but for
it we must have been overtaken, for here the ground was very rough, full
of holes also made by burrowing marmots. Thus in our extremity help did
come to us from the Mountain, until at length the moon rose, when as
quickly as they had appeared the volcanic fires vanished, leaving behind
them nothing but the accustomed pillar of dull red smoke.

It is a commonplace to speak of the music of hounds at chase, but often
I have wondered how that music sounds in the ears of the deer or the fox
fleeing for its life.

Now, when we filled the place of the quarry, it was my destiny to solve
this problem, and I assert with confidence that the progeny of earth
can produce no more hideous noise. It had come near to us, and in the
desolate silence of the night the hellish harmonies of its volume
seemed terrific, yet I could discern the separate notes of which it was
composed, especially one deep, bell-like bay.

I remembered that I had heard this bay when we sat in the boat upon the
river and saw that poor noble done to death for the crime of loving the
Khania. As the hunt passed us then I observed that it burst from
the throat of the leading hound, a huge brute, red in colour, with
a coal-black ear, fangs that gleamed like ivory, and a mouth which
resembled a hot oven. I even knew the name of the beast, for afterwards
the Khan, whose peculiar joy it was, had pointed it out to me. He called
it Master, because no dog in the pack dared fight it, and told me that
it could kill an armed man alone.

Now, as its baying warned us, Master was not half a mile away!

The coming of the moonlight enabled us to gallop faster, especially as
here the ground was smooth, being covered with a short, dry turf, and
for the next two hours we gained upon the pack. Yes, it was only two
hours, or perhaps less, but it seemed a score of centuries. The slopes
of the Peak were now not more than ten miles ahead, but our horses were
giving out at last. They had borne us nobly, poor beasts, though we were
no light weights, yet their strength had its limits. The sweat ran from
them, their sides panted like bellows, they breathed in gasps, they
stumbled and would scarcely answer to the flogging of our spear-shafts.
Their gallop sank to a jolting canter, and I thought that soon they must
come to a dead stop.

We crossed the brow of a gentle rise, from which the ground, that was
sprinkled with bush and rocks, sloped downwards to where, some miles
below us, the river ran, bounding the enormous flanks of the Mountain.
When we had travelled a little way down this slope we were obliged to
turn in order to pass between two heaps of rock, which brought us side
on to its brow. And there, crossing it not more than three hundred yards
away, we saw the pack. There were fewer of them now; doubtless many
had fallen out of the hunt, but many still remained. Moreover, not far
behind them rode the Khan, though his second mount was gone, or more
probably he was riding it, having galloped the first to a standstill.

Our poor horses saw them also, and the sight lent them wings, for all
the while they knew that they were running for their lives. This we
could tell from the way they quivered whenever the baying came near
to them, not as horses tremble with the pleasureable excitement of the
hunt, but in an extremity of terror, as I have often seen them do when
a prowling tiger roars close to their camp. On they went as though they
were fresh from the stable, nor did they fail again until another four
miles or so were covered and the river was but a little way ahead, for
we could hear the rush of its waters.

Then slowly but surely the pack overtook us. We passed a clump of bush,
but when we had gone a couple of hundred yards or so across the open
plain beyond, feeling that the horses were utterly spent, I shouted
to Leo--"Ride round back to the bush and hide there." So we did, and
scarcely had we reached it and dismounted when the hounds came past.
Yes, they went within fifty yards of us, lolloping along upon our spoor
and running all but mute, for now they were too weary to waste their
breath in vain. "Run for it," I said to Leo as soon as they had gone by,
"for they will be back on the scent presently," and we set off to the
right across the line that the hounds had taken, so as not to cut our
own spoor.

About a hundred yards away was a rock, which fortunately we were able to
reach before the pack swung round upon the horses' tracks, and therefore
they did not view us. Here we stayed until following the loop, they came
to the patch of bush and passed behind it. Then we ran forward again as
far as we could go. Glancing backwards as we went, I saw our two poor,
foundered beasts plunging away across the plain, happily almost in the
same line along which we had ridden from the rise. They were utterly
done, but freed from our weights and urged on by fear, could still
gallop and keep ahead of the dogs, though we knew that this would not
be for very long. I saw also that the Khan, guessing what we had done
in our despair, was trying to call his hounds off the horses, but as
yet without avail, for they would not leave the quarry which they had
viewed.

All this came to my sight in a flash, but I remember the picture well.
The mighty, snow-clad Peak surmounted by its column of glowing smoke and
casting its shadow for mile upon mile across the desert flats; the plain
with its isolated rocks and grey bushes; the doomed horses struggling
across it with convulsive bounds; the trailing line of great dogs that
loped after them, and amongst these, looking small and lonely in that
vast place, the figure of the Khan and his horse, of which the black
hide was beflecked with foam. Then above, the blue and tender sky,
where the round moon shone so clearly that in her quiet, level light no
detail, even the smallest, could escape the eye.

Now youth and even middle age were far behind me, and although a very
strong man for my years, I could not run as I used to do. Also I was
most weary, and my limbs were stiff and chafed with long riding, so
I made but slow progress, and to worsen matters I struck my left foot
against a stone and hurt it much. I implored Leo to go on and leave me,
for we thought that if we could once reach the river our scent would be
lost in the water; at any rate that it would give us a chance of life.
Just then too, I heard the belling bay of the hound Master, and waited
for the next. Yes, it was nearer to us. The Khan had made a cast and
found our line. Presently we must face the end.

"Go, go!" I said. "I can keep them back for a few minutes and you may
escape. It is your quest, not mine. Ayesha awaits you, not me, and I am
weary of life. I wish to die and have done with it."

Thus I gasped, not all at once, but in broken words, as I hobbled along
clinging to Leo's arm. But he only answered in a low voice--"Be quiet,
or they will hear you," and on he went, dragging me with him.

We were quite near the water now, for we could see it gleaming below us,
and oh! how I longed for one deep drink. I remember that this was the
uppermost desire in my mind, to drink and drink. But the hounds were
nearer still to us, so near that we could hear the pattering of their
feet on the dry ground mingled with the thud of the hoofs of the Khan's
galloping horse. We had reached some rocks upon a little rise, just
where the bank began, when Leo said suddenly--"No use, we can't make it.
Stop and let's see the thing through."

So we wheeled round, resting our backs against the rock. There, about a
hundred yards off, were the death-hounds, but Heaven be praised! _only
three of them_. The rest had followed the flying horses, and doubtless
when they caught them at last, which may have been far distant, had
stopped to gorge themselves upon them. So they were out of the fight.
Only three, and the Khan, a wild figure, who galloped with them; but
those three, the black and red brute, Master, and two others almost as
fierce and big.

"It might be worse," said Leo. "If you will try to tackle the dogs, I'll
do my best with the Khan," and stooping down he rubbed his palms in the
grit, for they were wet as water, an example which I followed. Then we
gripped the spears in our right hands and the knives in our left, and
waited.

The dogs had seen us now and came on, growling and baying fearfully.
With a rush they came, and I am not ashamed to own that I felt terribly
afraid, for the brutes seemed the size of lions and more fierce. One,
it was the smallest of them, outstripped the others, and, leaping up the
little rise, sprang straight at my throat.

Why or how I do not know, but on the impulse of the moment I too sprang
to meet it, so that its whole weight came upon the point of my spear,
which was backed by my weight. The spear entered between its forelegs
and such was the shock that I was knocked backwards. But when I regained
my feet I saw the dog rolling on the ground before me and gnashing at
the spear shaft, which had been twisted from my hand.

The other two had jumped at Leo, but failed to get hold, though one of
them tore away a large fragment from his tunic. Foolishly enough, he
hurled his spear at it but missed, for the steel passed just under its
belly and buried itself deep in the ground. The pair of them did not
come on again at once. Perhaps the sight of their dying companion made
them pause. At any rate, they stood at a little distance snarling,
where, as our spears were gone, they were safe from us.

Now the Khan had ridden up and sat upon his horse glowering at us, and
his face was like the face of a devil. I had hoped that he might fear to
attack, but the moment I saw his eyes, I knew that this would not be. He
was quite mad with hate, jealousy, and the long-drawn excitement of the
hunt, and had come to kill or be killed. Sliding from the saddle, he
drew his short sword--for either he had lost his spear or had brought
none--and made a hissing noise to the two dogs, pointing at me with the
sword. I saw them spring and I saw him rush at Leo, and after that who
can tell exactly what happened?

My knife went home to the hilt in the body of one dog--and it came to
the ground and lay there--for its hindquarters were paralysed, howling,
snarling and biting at me. But the other, the fiend called Master, got
me by the right arm beneath the elbow, and I felt my bones crack in its
mighty jaws, and the agony of it, or so I suppose, caused me to drop the
knife, so that I was weaponless. The brute dragged me from the rock and
began to shake and worry me, although I kicked it in the stomach with
all my strength. I fell to my knees and, as it chanced, my left hand
came upon a stone of about the size of a large orange, which I gripped.
I gained my feet again and pounded at its skull with the stone, but
still it did not leave go, and this was well for me, for its next hold
would have been on my throat.

We twisted and tumbled to and fro, man and dog together. At one turn
I thought that I saw Leo and the Khan rolling over and over each other
upon the ground; at another, that he, the Khan, was sitting against a
stone looking at me, and it came into my mind that he must have killed
Leo and was watching while the dog worried me to death.

Then just as things began to grow black, something sprang forward and I
saw the huge hound lifted from the earth. Its jaws opened, my arm came
free and fell against my side. Yes! the brute was whirling round in
the air. Leo held it by its hind legs and with all his great strength
whirled it round and round.

_Thud!_

He had dashed its head against the rock, and it fell and lay still, a
huddled heap of black and red. Oddly enough, I did not faint; I suppose
that the pain and the shock to my nerves kept me awake, for I heard
Leo say in a matter-of-fact voice between his gasps for breath--"Well,
that's over, and I think that I have fulfilled the Shaman's prophecy.
Let's look and make sure."

Then he led me with him to one of the rocks, and there, resting supinely
against it, sat the Khan, still living but unable to move hand or foot.
The madness had quite left his face and he looked at us with melancholy
eyes, like the eyes of a sick child.

"You are brave men," he said, slowly, "strong also, to have killed those
hounds and broken my back. So it has come about as was foretold by the
old Rat. After all, I should have hunted Atene, not you, though now she
lives to avenge me, for her own sake, not mine. Yellow-beard, she hunts
you too and with deadlier hounds than these, those of her thwarted
passions. Forgive me and fly to the Mountain, Yellow-beard, whither I go
before you, for there one dwells who is stronger than Atene."

Then his jaw dropped and he was dead.



CHAPTER XII

THE MESSENGER

"He is gone," I panted, "and the world hasn't lost much."

"Well, it didn't give him much, did it, poor devil, so don't let's
speak ill of him," answered Leo, who had thrown himself exhausted to the
ground. "Perhaps he was all right before they made him mad. At any rate
he had pluck, for I don't want to tackle such another."

"How did you manage it?" I asked.

"Dodged in beneath his sword, closed with him, threw him and smashed
him up over that lump of stone. Sheer strength, that's all. A cruel
business, but it was his life or mine, and there you are. It's lucky I
finished it in time to help you before that oven-mouthed brute tore your
throat out. Did you ever see such a dog? It looks as large as a young
donkey. Are you much hurt, Horace?"

"Oh, my forearm is chewed to a pulp, but nothing else, I think. Let us
get down to the water; if I can't drink soon I shall faint. Also the
rest of the pack is somewhere about, fifty or more of them."

"I don't think they will trouble us, they have got the horses, poor
beasts. Wait a minute and I will come."

Then he rose, found the Khan's sword, a beautiful and ancient weapon,
and with a single cut of its keen edge, killed the second dog that I
had wounded, which was still yowling and snarling at us. After this he
collected the two spears and my knife, saying that they might be useful,
and without trouble caught the Khan's horse, which stood with hanging
head close by, so tired that even this desperate fight had not
frightened it away.

"Now," he said, "up you go, old fellow. You are not fit to walk any
farther;" and with his help I climbed into the saddle.

Then slipping the rein over his arm he led the horse, which walked
stiffly, on to the river, that ran within a quarter of a mile of
us, though to me, tortured as I was by pain and half delirious with
exhaustion, the journey seemed long enough.

Still we came there somehow, and, forgetting my wounds, I tumbled from
the horse, threw myself flat and drank and drank, more, I think,
than ever I did before. Not in all my life have I tasted anything so
delicious as was that long draught of water. When I had satisfied my
thirst, I dipped my head and made shift to jerk my wounded arm into it,
for its coolness seemed to still the pain. Presently Leo rose, the water
running from his face and beard, and said--"What shall we do now? The
river seems to be wide, over a hundred yards, and it is low, but there
may be deep water in the middle. Shall we try to cross, in which case we
might drown, or stop where we are till daylight and take our chance of
the death-hounds?"

"I can't go another foot," I murmured faintly, "much less try to ford an
unknown river."

Now, about thirty yards from the shore was an island covered with reeds
and grasses.

"Perhaps we could reach that," he said. "Come, get on to my back, and we
will try."

I obeyed with difficulty, and we set out, he feeling his way with the
handle of the spear. The water proved to be quite shallow; indeed, it
never came much above his knees, so that we reached the island without
trouble. Here Leo laid me down on the soft rushes, and, returning to the
mainland, brought over the black horse and the remaining weapons, and
having unsaddled the beast, knee-haltered and turned it loose, whereon
it immediately lay down, for it was too spent to feed.

Then he set to work to doctor my wounds. Well it proved for me that the
sleeve of my garment was so thick, for even through it the flesh of my
forearm was torn to ribbons, moreover a bone seemed to be broken. Leo
collected a double handful of some soft wet moss and, having washed the
arm, wrapped it round with a handkerchief, over which he laid the moss.
Then with a second handkerchief and some strips of linen torn from our
undergarments he fastened a couple of split reeds to serve as rough
splints to the wounded limb. While he was doing this I suppose that I
slept or swooned. At any rate, I remember no more.

Sometime during that night Leo had a strange dream, of which he told me
the next morning. I suppose that it must have been a dream as certainly
I saw or was aware of nothing. Well, he dreamed--I use his own words as
nearly as possible--that again he heard those accursed death-hounds in
full cry. Nearer and nearer they came, following our spoor to the edge
of the river--all the pack that had run down the horses. At the water's
brink they halted and were mute. Then suddenly a puff of wind brought
the scent of us upon the island to one of them which lifted up its head
and uttered a single bay. The rest clustered about it, and all at once
they made a dash at the water.

Leo could see and hear everything. He felt that after all our doom was
now at hand, and yet, held in the grip of nightmare, if nightmare it
were, he was quite unable to stir or even to cry out to wake and warn
me.

Now followed the marvel of this vision. Giving tongue as they came, half
swimming and half plunging, the hounds drew near to the island where we
slept. Then, suddenly Leo saw that we were no longer alone. In front of
us, on the brink of the water, stood the figure of a woman clad in some
dark garment. He could not describe her face or appearance, for her back
was towards him.

All he knew was that she stood there, like a guard, holding some object
in her raised hand, and that suddenly the advancing hounds caught sight
of her. In an instant it was as though they were paralysed by fear--for
their bays turned to fearful howlings. One or two of those that were
nearest to the island seemed to lose their footing and be swept away by
the stream. The rest struggled back to the bank, and fled wildly like
whipped curs.

Then the dark, commanding figure, which in his dream Leo took to be the
guardian Spirit of the Mountain, vanished. That it left no footprints
behind it I can vouch, for in the morning we looked to see.

When, awakened by the sharp pangs in my arm, I opened my eyes again, the
dawn was breaking. A thin mist hung over the river and the island, and
through it I could see Leo sleeping heavily at my side and the shape of
the black horse, which had risen and was grazing close at hand. I lay
still for a while remembering all that we had undergone and wondering
that I should live to wake, till presently above the murmuring of the
water I heard a sound which terrified me, the sound of voices. I sat up
and peered through the reeds, and there upon the bank, looking enormous
in the mist, I saw two figures mounted upon horses, those of a woman and
a man.

They were pointing to the ground as though they examined spoor in the
sand. I heard the man say something about the dogs not daring to enter
the territory of the Mountain, a remark which came back to my mind again
after Leo had told me his dream. Then I remembered how we were placed.

"Wake!" I whispered to Leo. "Wake, we are pursued."

He sprang to his feet, rubbing his eyes and snatching at a spear. Now
those upon the bank saw him, and a sweet voice spoke through the mist,
saying--"Lay down that weapon, my guest, for we are not come to harm
you."

It was the voice of the Khania Atene, and the man with her was the old
Shaman Simbri.

"What shall we do now, Horace?" asked Leo with something like a groan,
for in the whole world there were no two people whom he less wished to
see.

"Nothing," I answered, "it is for them to play."

"Come to us," called the Khania across the water. "I swear that we mean
no harm. Are we not alone?"

"I do not know," answered Leo, "but it seems unlikely. Where we are we
stop until we are ready to march again."

Atene spoke to Simbri. What she said we could not hear, for she
whispered, but she appeared to be arguing with him and persuading him to
some course of which he strongly disapproved. Then suddenly both of
them put their horses at the water and rode to us through the shallows.
Reaching the island, they dismounted, and we stood staring at each
other. The old man seemed very weary in body and oppressed in mind, but
the Khania was strong and beautiful as ever, nor had passion and fatigue
left any trace upon her inscrutable face. It was she who broke the
silence, saying--"You have ridden fast and far since last we met, my
guests, and left an evil token to mark the path you took. Yonder among
the rocks one lies dead. Say, how came he to his end, who has no wound
upon him?"

"By these," answered Leo, stretching out his hands.

"I knew it," she answered, "and I blame you not, for fate decreed that
death for him, and now it is fulfilled. Still, there are those to whom
you must answer for his blood, and I only can protect you from them."

"Or betray me to them," said Leo. "Khania, what do you seek?"

"That answer which you should have given me this twelve hours gone.
Remember, before you speak, that I alone can save your life--aye, and
will do it and clothe you with that dead madman's crown and mantle."

"You shall have your answer on yonder Mountain," said Leo, pointing to
the peak above us, "where I seek mine."

She paled a little and replied, "To find that it is death, for, as I
have told you, the place is guarded by savage folk who know no pity."

"So be it. Then Death is the answer that we seek. Come, Horace, let us
go to meet him."

"I swear to you," she broke in, "that there dwells not the woman of your
dreams. I am that woman, yes, even I, as you are the man of mine."

"Then, lady, prove it yonder upon the Mountain," Leo answered.

"There dwells there no woman," Atene went on hurriedly, "nothing dwells
there. It is the home of fire and--a Voice."

"What voice?"

"The Voice of the Oracle that speaks from the fire. The Voice of a
Spirit whom no man has ever seen, or shall see."

"Come, Horace," said Leo, and he moved towards the horse.

"Men," broke in the old Shaman, "would you rush upon your doom? Listen;
I have visited yonder haunted place, for it was I who according to
custom brought thither the body of the Khan Atene's father for burial,
and I warn you to set no foot within its temples."

"Which your mistress said that we should never reach," I commented, but
Leo only answered--"We thank you for your warning," and added, "Horace,
watch them while I saddle the horse, lest they do us a mischief."

So I took the spear in my uninjured hand and stood ready. But they made
no attempt to hurt us, only fell back a little and began to talk in
hurried whispers. It was evident to me that they were much perturbed.
In a few minutes the horse was saddled and Leo assisted me to mount it.
Then he said--"We go to accomplish our fate, whatever it may be, but
before we part, Khania, I thank you for the kindness you have shown us,
and pray you to be wise and forget that we have ever been. Through no
will of mine your husband's blood is on my hands, and that alone must
separate us for ever. We are divided by the doors of death and destiny.
Go back to your people, and pardon me if most unwillingly I have brought
you doubt and trouble. Farewell."

She listened with bowed head, then replied, very sadly--"I thank you for
your gentle words, but, Leo Vincey, we do not part thus easily. You have
summoned me to the Mountain, and even to the Mountain I shall follow
you. Aye, and there I will meet its Spirit, as I have always known I
must and as the Shaman here has always known I must. Yes, I will match
my strength and magic against hers, as it is decreed that I shall do. To
the victor be that crown for which we have warred for ages."

Then suddenly Atene sprang to her saddle, and turning her horse's head
rode it back through the water to the shore, followed by old Simbri, who
lifted up his crooked hands as though in woe and fear, muttering as he
went--"You have entered the forbidden river and now, Atene, the day of
decision is upon us all--upon us and her--that predestined day of ruin
and of war."

"What do they mean?" asked Leo of me.

"I don't know," I answered; "but I have no doubt we shall find out soon
enough and that it will be something unpleasant. Now for this river."

Before we had struggled through it I thought more than once that the day
of drowning was upon us also, for in places there were deep rapids which
nearly swept us away. But Leo, who waded, leading the Khan's horse by
the bridle, felt his path and supported himself with the spear shaft, so
that in the end we reached the other bank safely.

Beyond it lay a breadth of marshy lands, that doubtless were overflowed
when the torrent was in flood. Through these we pushed our way as fast
as we could, for we feared lest the Khania had gone to fetch her escort,
which we thought she might have left behind the rise, and would return
with it presently to hunt us down. At that time we did not know what
we learned afterwards, that with its bordering river the soil of the
Mountain was absolutely sacred and, in practice, inviolable. True, it
had been invaded by the people of Kaloon in several wars, but on each
occasion their army was destroyed or met with terrible disaster. Little
wonder then they had come to believe that the House of Fire was under
the protection of some unconquerable Spirit.

Leaving the marsh, we reached a bare, rising plain, which led to the
first slope of the Mountain three or four miles away. Here we expected
every moment to be attacked by the savages of whom we had heard so much,
but no living creature did we see. The place was a desert streaked with
veins of rock that once had been molten lava. _I_ do not remember much
else about it; indeed, the pain in my arm was so sharp that I had no
eyes for physical features. At length the rise ended in a bare, broad
donga, quite destitute of vegetation, of which the bottom was buried in
lava and a debris of rocks washed down by the rain or melting snows from
slopes above. This donga was bordered on the farther side by a cliff,
perhaps fifty feet in height, in which we could see no opening.

Still we descended the place, that was dark and rugged; pervaded,
moreover, by an extraordinary gloom, and as we went perceived that its
lava floor was sprinkled over with a multitude of white objects. Soon we
came to the first of these and found that it was the skeleton of a
human being. Here was a veritable Valley of Dead Bones, thousands upon
thousands of them; a gigantic graveyard. It seemed as though some great
army had perished here.

Indeed, we found afterwards that this was the case, for on one of those
occasions in the far past when the people of Kaloon had attacked the
Mountain tribes, they were trapped and slaughtered in this gully,
leaving their bones as a warning and a token. Among these sad skeletons
we wandered disconsolately, seeking a path up the opposing cliff, and
finding none, until at length we came to a halt, not knowing which way
to turn. Then it was that we met with our first strange experience on
the Mountain.

The gulf and its mouldering relics depressed us, so that for awhile
we were silent, and, to tell the truth, somewhat afraid. Yes, even
the horse seemed afraid, for it snorted a little, hung its head and
shivered. Close by us lay a pile of bones, the remains evidently of a
number of wretched creatures that, dead or living, had been hurled down
from the cliff above, and on the top of the pile was a little huddled
heap, which we took for more bones.

"Unless we can find a way out of this accursed charnel-house before
long, I think that we shall add to its company," I said, staring round
me.

As the words left my lips it seemed to me that from the corner of my eye
I saw the heap on the top of the bones stir. I looked round. Yes, it
was stirring. It rose, it stood up, a human figure, apparently that of
a woman--but of this I could not be sure--wrapped from head to foot in
white and wearing a hanging veil over its face, or rather a mask with
cut eye-holes. It advanced towards us while we stared at it, till the
horse, catching sight of the thing, shied violently and nearly threw me.
When at a distance of about ten paces it paused and beckoned with its
hand, that was also swathed in white like the arm of a mummy.

"What the devil are you?" shouted Leo, and his voice echoed drearily
among those naked rocks. But the creature did not answer, it only
continued to beckon.

Leo walked up to it to assure himself that we were not the victims of
some hallucination. As he came it glided back to its heap of bones and
stood there like a ghost of one dead arisen from amidst these grinning
evidences of death, or rather a swathed corpse, for that is what it
resembled. Leo followed with the intention of touching it to assure
himself of its reality, whereon it lifted its white-wrapped arm and
struck him lightly on the breast. Then as he recoiled it pointed with
its hand, first upwards as though to the Peak or the sky, and next at
the wall of rock which faced us.

He returned to me saying, "What shall we do?"

"Follow, I suppose. It may be a messenger from above," and I nodded
toward the mountain crest.

"From below, more likely," Leo muttered, "for I don't like the look of
this guide."

Still he motioned with his hand to the creature to proceed. Apparently
it understood, for it turned to the left and began to pick its way
amongst the stones and skeletons swiftly and without noise. We followed
for several hundred yards till it reached a shallow cleft in the rock.
This cleft we had seen already, but as it appeared to end at a depth of
about thirty feet, we passed on. The figure entered here and vanished.

"It must be a shadow," said Leo doubtfully.

"Nonsense," I answered, "shadows don't strike one. Go on."

So he led the horse up the cleft, to find that at the end it turned
sharply to the right and that the form was standing there awaiting us.
Forward it went again and we after it down a little gorge that grew ever
gloomier till it terminated in what might have been a cave, or a gallery
cut in the rock.

Here our guide came back to us apparently with the intention of taking
the horse by the bridle, but at this nearer sight of it the brute
snorted and reared up, so that it almost fell backwards upon me. As
it found its feet again the figure struck it on the head in the same
passionless, inhuman way that it had struck Leo, whereon the horse
trembled and burst into a sweat as though with fear, making no further
attempt to escape or to disobey. Then it took one side of the bridle
in its swathed hand and, Leo clinging to the other, we plunged into the
tunnel.

Our position was not pleasant, for we knew not whither we were being led
by this horrible conductor, and suspected that it might be to meet our
deaths in the darkness. Moreover, I guessed that the path was narrow and
bordered by some gulf, for as we went I heard stones fall, apparently to
a considerable depth, while the poor horse lifted its feet gingerly and
snorted in abject fear. At length we saw daylight, and never was I more
glad of its advent, although it showed us that there _was_ a gulf on our
right, and that the path we travelled could not measure more than ten
feet in width.

Now we were out of the tunnel, that evidently had saved us a wide
detour, and standing for the first time upon the actual slope of the
Mountain, which stretched upwards for a great number of miles till it
reached the snow-line above. Here also we saw evidences of human life,
for the ground was cultivated in patches and herds of mountain sheep and
cattle were visible in the distance.

Presently we entered a gully, following a rough path that led along the
edge of a raging torrent. It was a desolate place, half a mile wide
or more, having hundreds of fantastic lava boulders strewn about its
slopes. Before we had gone a mile I heard a shrill whistle, and suddenly
from behind these boulders sprang a number of men, quite fifty of them.
All we could note at the time was that they were brawny, savage-looking
fellows, for the most part red haired and bearded, although their
complexions were rather dark, who wore cloaks of white goat skins and
carried spears and shields. I should imagine that they were not unlike
the ancient Picts and Scots as they appeared to the invading Romans. At
us they came uttering their shrill, whistling cries, evidently with the
intention of spearing us on the spot.

"Now for it," said Leo, drawing his sword, for escape was impossible;
they were all round us. "Good-bye, Horace."

"Good-bye," I answered rather faintly, understanding what the Khania and
the old Shaman had meant when they said that we should be killed before
we ascended the first slope of the Mountain.

Meanwhile our ghastly-looking guide had slipped behind a great boulder,
and even then it occurred to me that her part in the tragedy being
played, she, if it were a woman at all, was withdrawing herself while
we met our miserable fate. But here I did her injustice, for she had, I
suppose, come to save us from this very fate which without her presence
we must most certainly have suffered. When the savages were within a few
yards suddenly she appeared on the top of the boulder, looking like a
second Witch of Endor, and stretched out her arm. Not a word did she
speak, only stretched out her draped arm, but the effect was remarkable
and instantaneous.

At the sight of her down on to their faces went those wild men, every
one of them, as though a lightning stroke had in an instant swept them
out of existence. Then she let her arm fall and beckoned, whereon a
great fellow who, I suppose, was the leader of the band, rose and crept
towards her with bowed head, submissive as a beaten dog. To him she
made signs, pointing to us, pointing to the far-off Peak, crossing and
uncrossing her white-wrapped arms, but so far as I could hear, speaking
no word. It was evident that the chief understood her, however, for
he said something in a guttural language. Then he uttered his shrill
whistle, whereon the band rose and departed thence at full speed,
this way and the other, so that in another minute they had vanished as
quickly as they came.

Now our guide motioned to us to proceed, and led the way upward as
calmly as though nothing had happened.

For over _two_ hours we went on thus till our path brought us from the
ravine on to a grassy declivity, across which it wound its way. Here, to
our astonishment, we found a fire burning, and hanging above the fire
an earthenware pot, which was on the boil, although we could see no man
tending it. The figure signalled to me to dismount, pointing to the pot
in token that we were to eat the food which doubtless she had ordered
the wild men to prepare for us, and very glad was _I_ to obey her.
Provision had been made for the horse also, for near the fire lay a
great bundle of green forage.

While Leo off-saddled the beast and spread the provender for it, taking
with me a spare earthen vessel that lay ready, I went to the edge of the
torrent to drink and steep my wounded arm in its ice-cold stream. This
relieved it greatly, though by now I was sure from various symptoms
that the brute Master's fangs had fortunately only broken or injured the
small bone, a discovery for which I was thankful enough. Having finished
attending to it as well as I was able, I filled the jar with water.

On my way back a thought struck me, and going to where our mysterious
guide stood still as Lot's wife after she had been turned into a pillar
of salt, I offered it to her, hoping that she would unveil her face and
drink. Then for the first time she showed some sign of being human,
or so I thought, for it seemed to me that she bowed ever so little
in acknowledgment of the courtesy. If so--and I may have been
mistaken--this was all, for the next instant she turned her back on me
to show that it was declined. So she would not, or for aught I
knew, could not drink. Neither would she eat, for when Leo tried her
afterwards with food she refused it in like fashion.

Meanwhile he had taken the pot off the fire, and as soon as its contents
grew cool enough we fell on them eagerly, for we were starving. After
we had eaten and drunk, Leo re-dressed my arm as best he could and we
rested awhile. Indeed, I think that, being very tired, we began to doze,
for I was awakened by a shadow falling on us and looked up to see our
corpse-like guide standing close by and pointing first to the sun, then
at the horse, as though to show us that we had far to travel. So we
saddled up and went on again somewhat refreshed, for at least we were no
longer ravenous.

All the rest of that day we journeyed on up the grassy slopes, seeing no
man, although occasionally we heard the wild whistle which told us that
we were being watched by the Mountain savages. By sundown the character
of the country had changed, for the grass was replaced with rocks,
amongst which grew stunted firs. We had left the lower slopes and were
beginning to climb the Mountain itself.

The sun sank and we went on through the twilight. The twilight died
and we went on through the dark, our path lit only by the stars and the
faint radiance of the glowing pillar of smoke above the Peak, which
was reflected on to us from the mighty mantle of its snows. Forward we
toiled, whilst a few paces ahead of us walked our unwearying guide. If
she had seemed weird and inhuman before, now she appeared a very ghost,
as, clad in her graveyard white, upon which the faint light shimmered,
never speaking, never looking back, she glided on noiselessly between
the black rocks and the twisted, dark-green firs and junipers.

Soon we lost all count of the road. We turned this way and turned that
way, we passed an open patch and through the shadows of a grove, till at
length as the moon rose we entered a ravine, and following a path
that ran down it, came to a place which is best described as a large
amphitheatre cut by the hand of nature out of the rock of the Mountain.
Evidently it was chosen as a place of defence, for its entrance was
narrow and tortuous, built up at the end also, so that only one person
could pass its gateway at a time. Within an open space and at its
farther side stood low, stone houses built against the rock. In front
of these houses, the moonlight shining full upon them, were gathered
several hundred men and women arranged in a semicircle and in alternate
companies, who appeared to be engaged in the celebration of some rite.

It was wild enough. In front of them, and in the exact centre of the
semi-circle, stood a gigantic, red-bearded man, who was naked except
for a skin girdle about his loins. He was swinging himself backwards
and forwards, his hands resting upon his hips, and as he swung, shouting
something like "_Ho, haha, ho!_" When he bent towards the audience it
bent towards him, and every time he straightened himself it echoed his
final shout of "_Ho!_" in a volume of sound that made the precipices
ring. Nor was this all, for perched upon his hairy head, with arched
back and waving tail, stood a great white cat.

Anything stranger, and indeed more fantastic than the general effect of
this scene, lit by the bright moonlight and set in that wild arena, it
was never my lot to witness. The red-haired, half-naked men and women,
the gigantic priest, the mystical white cat, that, gripping his
scalp with its claws, waved its tail and seemed to take a part in the
performance; the unholy chant and its volleying chorus, all helped to
make it extraordinarily impressive. This struck us the more, perhaps,
because at the time we could not in the least guess its significance,
though we imagined that it must be preliminary to some sacrifice or
offering. It was like the fragment of a nightmare preserved by the
awakened senses in all its mad, meaningless reality.

Now round the open space where these savages were celebrating their
worship, or whatever it might be, ran a rough stone wall about six feet
in height, in which wall was a gateway. Towards this we advanced quite
unseen, for upon our side of the wall grew many stunted pines. Through
these pines our guide led us, till in the thickest of them, some
few yards from the open gateway and a little to the right of it, she
motioned to us to stop.

Then she went to a low place in the wall and stood there as though she
were considering the scene beyond. It seemed to us, indeed, that she
saw what she had not expected and was thereby perplexed or angered.
Presently she appeared to make up her mind, for again she motioned to
us to remain where we were, enjoining silence upon us by placing her
swathed hand upon the mask that hid her face. Next moment she was gone.
How she went, or whither, I cannot say; all we knew was that she was no
longer there.

"What shall we do now?" whispered Leo to me.

"Stay where we are till she comes back again or something happens," I
answered.

So there being nothing else to be done, we stayed, hoping that the
horse would not betray us by neighing, or that we might not be otherwise
discovered, since we were certain that if so we should be in danger of
death. Very soon, however, we forgot the anxieties of our own position
in the study of the wild scene before us, which now began to develop a
fearful interest.

It would seem that what has been described was but preliminary to the
drama itself, and that this drama was the trial of certain people for
their lives. This we could guess, for after awhile the incantation
ceased and the crowd in front of the big man with the cat upon his head
opened out, while behind him a column of smoke rose into the air, as
though light had been set to some sunk furnace.

Into the space that had thus been cleared were now led seven persons,
whose hands were tied behind them. They were of both sexes and included
an old man and a woman with a tall and handsome figure, who appeared
to be quite young, scarcely more than a girl indeed. These seven were
ranged in a line where they stood, clearly in great fear, for the old
man fell upon his knees and one of the women began to sob. Thus they
were left awhile, perhaps to allow the fire behind them to burn up,
which it soon did with great fierceness, throwing a vivid light upon
every detail of the spectacle.

Now all was ready, and a man brought a wooden tray to the red-bearded
priest, who was seated on a stool, the white cat upon his knees, whither
we had seen it leap from his head a little while before. He took the
tray by its handles and at a word from him the cat jumped on to it and
sat there. Then amidst the most intense silence he rose and uttered some
prayer, apparently to the cat, which sat facing him. This done he turned
the tray round so that the creature's back was now towards him, and,
advancing to the line of prisoners, began to walk up and down in front
of them, which he did several times, at each turn drawing a little
nearer.

Holding out the tray, he presented it at the face of the prisoner on the
left, whereon the cat rose, arched its back and began to lift its paws
up and down. Presently he moved to the next prisoner and held it before
him awhile, and so on till he came to the fifth, that young woman of
whom I have spoken. Now the cat grew very angry, for in the death-like
stillness we could hear it spitting and growling. At length it seemed
to lift its paws and strike the girl upon the face, whereon she screamed
aloud, a terrible scream. Then all the audience broke out into a shout,
a single word, which we understood, for we had heard one very like it
used by the people of the Plain. It was "Witch! Witch! _Witch!_"

Executioners who were waiting for the victim to be chosen in this ordeal
by cat, rushed forward and seizing the girl began to drag her towards
the fire. The prisoner who was standing by her and whom we rightly
guessed to be her husband, tried to protect her, but his arms being
bound, poor fellow, he could do nothing. One of the executioners knocked
him down with a stick. For a moment his wife escaped and threw herself
upon him, but the brutes lifted her up again, haling her towards the
fire, whilst all the audience shouted wildly.

"I can't stand this," said Leo, "it's murder--coldblooded murder," and
he drew his sword.

"Best leave the beasts alone," I answered doubtfully, though my own
blood was boiling in my veins.

Whether he heard or not I do not know, for the next thing I saw was Leo
rushing through the gate waving the Khan's sword and shouting at the
top of his voice. Then I struck my heels into the ribs of the horse and
followed after him. In ten seconds we were among them. As we came the
savages fell back this way and that, staring at us amazed, for at first
I think they took us for apparitions. Thus Leo on foot and I galloping
after him, we came to the place.

The executioners and their victim were near the fire now--a very great
fire of resinous pine logs built in a pit that measured about eight feet
across. Close to it sat the priest upon his stool, watching the scene
with a cruel smile, and rewarding the cat with little gobbets of raw
meat, that he took from a leathern pouch at his side, occupations in
which he was so deeply engaged that he never saw us until we were right
on to him.

Shouting, "Leave her alone, you blackguards," Leo rushed at the
executioners, and with a single blow of his sword severed the arm of one
of them who gripped the woman by the nape of the neck.

With a yell of pain and rage the man sprang back and stood waving the
stump towards the people and staring at it wildly. In the confusion that
followed I saw the victim slip from the hands of her astonished would-be
murderers and run into the darkness, where she vanished. Also I saw
the witch-doctor spring up, still holding the tray on which the cat was
sitting, and heard him begin to shout a perfect torrent of furious abuse
at Leo, who in reply waved his sword and cursed him roundly in English
and many other languages.

Then of a sudden the cat upon the tray, infuriated, I suppose, by the
noise and the interruption of its meal, sprang straight at Leo's face.
He appeared to catch it in mid-air with his left hand and with all his
strength dashed it to the ground, where it lay writhing and screeching.
Then, as though by an afterthought, he stooped, picked the devilish
creature up again and hurled it into the heart of the fire, for he was
mad with rage and knew not what he did.

At the sight of that awful sacrilege--for such it was to them who
worshipped this beast--a gasp of horror rose from the spectators,
followed by a howl of execration. Then like a wave of the sea they
rushed at us. I saw Leo cut one man down, and next instant I was off the
horse and being dragged towards the furnace. At the edge of it I met Leo
in like plight, but fighting furiously, for his strength was great and
they were half afraid of him.

"Why couldn't you leave the cat alone?" I shouted at him in idiotic
remonstrance, for my brain had gone, and all I knew was that we were
about to be thrown into the fiery pit. Already I was over it; I felt
the flames singe my hair and saw its red caverns awaiting me, when of a
sudden the brutal hands that held me were unloosed and I fell backwards
to the ground, where I lay staring upwards.

This was what I saw. Standing in front of the fire, her draped form
quivering as though with rage, was our ghostly-looking guide, who
pointed with her hand at the gigantic, red-headed witch-doctor. But she
was no longer alone, for with her were a score or more of men clad in
white robes and armed with swords; black-eyed, ascetic-looking men, with
clean-shaved heads and faces, for their scalps shone in the firelight.

At the sight of them terror had seized that multitude which, mad as
goaded bulls but a few seconds before, now fled in every direction like
sheep frightened by a wolf. The leader of the white-robed priests, a man
with a gentle face, which when at rest was clothed in a perpetual smile,
was addressing the medicine-man, and I understood something of his talk.

"Dog," he said in effect, speaking in a smooth, measured voice that yet
was terrible, "accursed dog, beast-worshipper, what were you about to do
to the guests of the mighty Mother of the Mountain? Is it for this that
you and your idolatries have been spared so long? Answer, if you have
anything to say. Answer quickly, for your time is short."

With a groan of fear the great fellow flung himself upon his knees, not
to the head-priest who questioned him, but before the quivering shape of
our guide, and to her put up half-articulate prayers for mercy.

"Cease," said the high-priest, "she is the Minister who judges and the
Sword that strikes. I am the Ears and the Voice. Speak and tell
me--were you about to cast those men, whom you were commanded to receive
hospitably, into yonder fire because they saved the victim of your
devilries and killed the imp you cherished? Nay, I saw it all. Know that
it was but a trap set to catch you, who have been allowed to live too
long."

But still the wretch writhed before the draped form and howled for
mercy.

"Messenger," said the high-priest, "with thee the power goes. Declare
thy decree."

Then our guide lifted her hand slowly and pointed to the fire. At once
the man turned ghastly white, groaned and fell back, as I think, quite
dead, slain by his own terror.

Now many of the people had fled, but some remained, and to these
the priest called in cold tones, bidding them approach. They obeyed,
creeping towards him.

"Look," he said, pointing to the man, "look and tremble at the justice
of Hes the Mother. Aye, and be sure that as it is with him, so shall it
be with every one of you who dares to defy her and to practise sorcery
and murder. Lift up that dead dog who was your chief."

Some of them crept forward and did his bidding.

"Now, cast him into the bed which he had made ready for his victims."

Staggering forward to the edge of the flaming pit, they obeyed, and the
great body fell with a crash amongst the burning boughs and vanished
there.

"Listen, you people," said the priest, "and learn that this man deserved
his dreadful doom. Know you why he purposed to kill that woman whom the
strangers saved? Because his familiar marked her as a witch, you think.
I tell you it was not so. It was because she being fair, he would
have taken her from her husband, as he had taken many another, and she
refused him. But the Eye saw, the Voice spoke, and the Messenger did
judgment. He is caught in his own snare, and so shall you be, every one
of you who dares to think evil in his heart or to do it with his hands.

"Such is the just decree of the Hesea, spoken by her from her throne
amidst the fires of the Mountain."



CHAPTER XIII

BENEATH THE SHADOWING WINGS

One by one the terrified tribesmen crept away. When the last of them
were gone the priest advanced to Leo and saluted him by placing his hand
upon his forehead.

"Lord," he said, in the same corrupt Grecian dialect which was used by
the courtiers of Kaloon, "I will not ask if you are hurt, since from the
moment that you entered the sacred river and set foot within this land
you and your companion were protected by a power invisible and could not
be harmed by man or spirit, however great may have seemed your danger.
Yet vile hands have been laid upon you, and this is the command of the
Mother whom I serve, that, if you desire it, every one of those men who
touched you shall die before your eyes. Say, is that your will?"

"Nay," answered Leo; "they were mad and blind, let no blood be shed for
_us_. All we ask of you, friend--but, how are you called?"

"Name me Oros," he answered.

"Friend Oros--a good title for one who dwells upon the Mountain--all we
ask is food and shelter, and to be led swiftly into the presence of her
whom you name Mother, that Oracle whose wisdom we have travelled far to
seek."

He bowed and answered: "The food and shelter are prepared and to-morrow,
when you have rested, I am commanded to conduct you whither you desire
to be. Follow me, I pray you"; and he preceded us past the fiery pit to
a building that stood about fifty yards away against the rock wall of
the amphitheatre.

It would seem that it was a guest-house, or at least had been made ready
to serve that purpose, as in it lamps were lit and a fire burned, for
here the air was cold. The house was divided into two rooms, the second
of them a sleeping place, to which he led us through the first.

"Enter," he said, "for you will need to cleanse yourselves, and
you"--here he addressed himself to me--"to be treated for that hurt to
your arm which you had from the jaws of the great hound."

"How know you that?" I asked.

"It matters not if I do know and have made ready," Oros answered
gravely.

This second room was lighted and warmed like the first, moreover, heated
water stood in basins of metal and on the beds were laid clean linen
garments and dark-coloured hooded robes, lined with rich fur. Also upon
a little table were ointments, bandages, and splints, a marvellous thing
to see, for it told me that the very nature of my hurt had been divined.
But I asked no more questions; I was too weary; moreover, I knew that it
would be useless.

Now the priest Oros helped me to remove my tattered robe, and, undoing
the rough bandages upon my arm, washed it gently with warm water, in
which he mixed some spirit, and examined it with the skill of a trained
doctor.

"The fangs rent deep," he said, "and the small bone is broken, but you
will take no harm, save for the scars which must remain." Then, having
treated the wounds with ointment, he wrapped the limb with such a
delicate touch that it scarcely pained me, saying that by the morrow
the swelling would have gone down and he would set the bone. This indeed
happened.

After it was done he helped me to wash and to clothe myself in the clean
garments, and put a sling about my neck to serve as a rest for my arm.
Meanwhile Leo had also dressed himself, so that we left the chamber
together very different men to the foul, blood-stained wanderers who had
entered there. In the outer room we found food prepared for us, of which
we ate with a thankful heart and without speaking. Then, blind with
weariness, we returned to the other chamber and, having removed our
outer garments, flung ourselves upon the beds and were soon plunged in
sleep.

At some time in the night I awoke suddenly, at what hour I do not know,
as certain people wake, I among them, when their room is entered, even
without the slightest noise. Before I opened my eyes I felt that some
one was with us in the place. Nor was I mistaken. A little lamp still
burned in the chamber, a mere wick floating in oil, and by its light
I saw a dim, ghost-like form standing near the door. Indeed I thought
almost that it was a ghost, till presently I remembered, and knew it for
our corpse-like guide, who appeared to be looking intently at the bed on
which Leo lay, or so I thought, for the head was bent in that direction.

At first she was quite still, then she moaned aloud, a low and terrible
moan, which seemed to well from the very heart.

So the thing was not dumb, as I had believed. Evidently it could suffer,
and express its suffering in a human fashion. Look! it was wringing its
padded hands as in an excess of woe. Now it would seem that Leo began to
feel its influence also, for he stirred and spoke in his sleep, so low
at first that I could only distinguish the tongue he used, which was
Arabic. Presently I caught a few words.

"Ayesha," he said, "_Ayesha!_"

The figure glided towards him and stopped. He sat up in the bed still
fast asleep, for his eyes were shut. He stretched out his arms, as
though seeking one whom he would embrace, and spoke again in a low and
passionate voice--"Ayesha, through life and death I have sought thee
long. Come to me, my goddess, my desired."

The figure glided yet nearer, and I could see that it was trembling, and
now its arms were extended also.

At the bedside she halted, and Leo laid himself down again. Now the
coverings had fallen back, exposing his breast, where lay the leather
satchel he always wore, that which contained the lock of Ayesha's hair.
He was fast asleep, and the figure seemed to fix its eyes upon this
satchel. Presently it did more, for, with surprising deftness those
white-wrapped fingers opened its clasp, yes, and drew out the long
tress of shining hair. Long and earnestly she gazed at it, then gently
replaced the relic, closed the satchel and for a little while seemed to
weep. While she stood thus the dreaming Leo once more stretched out his
arms and spoke, saying, in the same passion-laden voice--"Come to me, my
darling, my beautiful, my beautiful!"

At those words, with a little muffled scream, like that of a scared
night-bird, the figure turned and flitted through the doorway.

When I was quite certain that she had gone, I gasped aloud.

What might this mean, I wondered, in a very agony of bewilderment. This
could certainly be no dream: it was real, for I was wide awake. Indeed,
what did it all mean? Who was the ghastly, mummy-like thing which had
guided us unharmed through such terrible dangers; the Messenger that all
men feared, who could strike down a brawny savage with a motion of its
hand? Why did it creep into the place thus at dead of night, like a
spirit revisiting one beloved? Why did its presence cause me to awake
and Leo to dream? Why did it draw out the tress; indeed, how knew it
that this tress was hidden there? And why--oh! why, at those tender and
passionate words did it flit away at last like some scared bat?

The priest Oros had called our guide Minister, and Sword, that is, one
who carries out decrees. But what if they were its own decrees? What if
this thing should be she whom we sought, _Ayesha herself?_ Why should I
tremble at the thought, seeing that if so, our quest was ended, we had
achieved? Oh! it must be because about this being there was something
terrible, something un-human and appalling. If Ayesha lived within
those mummy-cloths, then it was a different Ayesha whom we had known
and worshipped. Well could I remember the white-draped form of
_She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed_, and how, long before she revealed her glorious
face to us, we guessed the beauty and the majesty hidden beneath that
veil by which her radiant life and loveliness incarnate could not be
disguised.

But what of this creature? I would not pursue the thought. I was
mistaken. Doubtless she was what the priest Oros had said--some
half-supernatural being to whom certain powers were given, and,
doubtless, she had come to spy on us in our rest that she might make
report to the giver of those powers.

Comforting myself thus I fell asleep again, for fatigue overcame even
such doubts and fears. In the morning, when they were naturally less
vivid, I made up my mind that, for various reasons, it would be wisest
to say nothing of what I had seen to Leo. Nor, indeed, did I do so until
some days had gone by.

When I awoke the full light was pouring into the chamber, and by it I
saw the priest Oros standing at my bedside. I sat up and asked him what
time it was, to which he answered with a smile, but in a low voice, that
it lacked but two hours of mid-day, adding that he had come to set my
arm. Now I saw why he spoke low, for Leo was still fast asleep.

"Let him rest on," he said, as he undid the wrappings on my arm, "for
he has suffered much, and," he continued significantly, "may still have
more to suffer."

"What do you mean, friend Oros?" I asked sharply. "I thought you told us
that we were safe upon this Mountain."

"I told you, friend----" and he looked at me.

"Holly is my name----"

"--friend Holly, that your bodies are safe. I said nothing of all the
rest of you. Man is more than flesh and blood. He is mind and spirit as
well, and these can be injured also."

"Who is there that would injure them?" I asked.

"Friend," he answered, gravely, "you and your companion have come to a
haunted land, not as mere wanderers, for then you would be dead ere now,
but of set purpose, seeking to lift the veil from mysteries which have
been hid for ages. Well, your aim is known and it may chance that it
will be achieved. But if this veil is lifted, it may chance also that
you will find what shall send your souls shivering to despair and
madness. Say, are you not afraid?"

"Somewhat," I answered. "Yet my foster-son and I have seen strange
things and lived. We have seen the very Light of Life roll by in
majesty; we have been the guests of an Immortal, and watched Death seem
to conquer her and leave us untouched. Think you then that we will turn
cowards now? Nay, we march on to fulfil our destinies."

At these words Oros showed neither curiosity nor surprise; it was as
though I told him only what he knew.

"Good," he replied, smiling, and with a courteous bow of his shaven
head, "within an hour you shall march on--to fulfil your destinies. If
I have warned you, forgive me, for I was bidden so to do, perhaps to
try your mettle. Is it needful that I should repeat this warning to the
lord----" and again he looked at me.

"Leo Vincey," I said.

"Leo Vincey, yes, Leo Vincey," he repeated, as though the name were
familiar to him but had slipped his mind. "But you have not answered my
question. Is it needful that I should repeat the warning?"

"Not in the least; but you can do so if you wish when he awakes."

"Nay, I think with you, that it would be but waste of words,
for--forgive the comparison;--what the wolf dares"--and he looked at
me--"the tiger does not flee from," and he nodded towards Leo. "There,
see how much better are the wounds upon your arm, which is no longer
swollen. Now I will bandage it, and within some few weeks the bone will
be as sound again as it was before you met the Khan Rassen hunting in
the Plains. By the way, you will see him again soon, and his fair wife
with him."

"See him again? Do the dead, then, come to life upon this Mountain?"

"Nay, but certain of them are brought hither for burial. It is the
privilege of the rulers of Kaloon; also, I think, that the Khania has
questions to ask of its Oracle."

"Who is its Oracle?" I asked with eagerness.

"The Oracle," he replied darkly, "is a Voice. It was ever so, was it
not?"

"Yes; I have heard that from Atene, but a voice implies a speaker. Is
this speaker she whom you name Mother?"

"Perhaps, friend Holly."

"And is this Mother a spirit?"

"It is a point that has been much debated. They told you so in the
Plains, did they not? Also the Tribes think it on the Mountain. Indeed,
the thing seems reasonable, seeing that all of us who live are flesh and
spirit. But you will form your own judgment and then we can discuss the
matter. There, your arm is finished. Be careful now not to strike it or
to fall, and look, your companion awakes."

Something over an hour later we started upon our upward journey. I was
again mounted on the Khan's horse, which having been groomed and fed
was somewhat rested, while to Leo a litter had been offered. This he
declined, however, saying that he had now recovered and would not be
carried like a woman. So he walked by the side of my horse, using his
spear as a staff. We passed the fire-pit--now full of dead, white
ashes, among which were mixed those of the witch-finder and his horrible
cat--preceded by our dumb guide, at the sight of whom, in her pale
wrappings, the people of the tribe who had returned to their village
prostrated themselves, and so remained until she was gone by.

One of them, however, rose again and, breaking through our escort of
priests, ran to Leo, knelt before him and kissed his hand. It was that
young woman whose life he had saved, a noble-looking girl, with masses
of red hair, and by her was her husband, the marks of his bonds still
showing on his arms. Our guide seemed to see this incident, though how
she did so I do not know. At any rate she turned and made some sign
which the priest interpreted.

Calling the woman to him he asked her sternly how she dared to touch
the person of this stranger with her vile lips. She answered that it was
because her heart was grateful. Oros said that for this reason she was
forgiven; moreover, that in reward for what they had suffered he was
commanded to lift up her husband to be the ruler of that tribe during
the pleasure of the Mother. He gave notice, moreover, that all should
obey the new chief in his place, according to their customs, and if he
did any evil, make report that he might suffer punishment. Then waving
the pair aside, without listening to their thanks or the acclamations of
the crowd, he passed on.

As we went down the ravine by which we had approached the village on the
previous night, a sound of chanting struck our ears. Presently the path
turned, and we saw a solemn procession advancing up that dismal, sunless
gorge. At the head of it rode none other than the beautiful Khania,
followed by her great-uncle, the old Shaman, and after these came a
company of shaven priests in their white robes, bearing between them a
bier, upon which, its face uncovered, lay the body of the Khan, draped
in a black garment. Yet he looked better thus than he had ever done, for
now death had touched this insane and dissolute man with something of
the dignity which he lacked in life.

Thus then we met. At the sight of our guide's white form, the horse
which the Khania rode reared up so violently that I thought it would
have thrown her. But she mastered the animal with her whip and voice,
and called out--"Who is this draped hag of the Mountain that stops the
path of the Khania Atene and her dead lord? My guests, I find you in ill
company, for it seems that you are conducted by an evil spirit to meet
an evil fate. That guide of yours must surely be something hateful and
hideous, for were she a wholesome woman she would not fear to show her
face."

Now the Shaman plucked his mistress by the sleeve, and the priest
Oros, bowing to her, prayed her to be silent and cease to speak such
ill-omened words into the air, which might carry them she knew not
whither. But some instinctive hate seemed to bubble up in Atene, and
she would not be silent, for she addressed our guide using the direct
"thou," a manner of speech that we found was very usual on the Mountain
though rare upon the Plains.

"Let the air carry them whither it will," she cried. "Sorceress, strip
off thy rags, fit only for a corpse too vile to view. Show us what thou
art, thou flitting night-owl, who thinkest to frighten me with that
livery of death, which only serves to hide the death within."

"Cease, I pray lady, cease," said Oros, stirred for once out of his
imperturbable calm. "She is the Minister, none other, and with her goes
the Power."

"Then it goes not against Atene, Khania of Kaloon," she answered, "or so
I think. Power, forsooth! Let her show her power. If she has any it is
not her own, but that of the Witch of the Mountain, who feigns to be a
spirit, and by her sorceries has drawn away my guests"--and she pointed
to us--"thus bringing my husband to his death."

"Niece, be silent!" said the old Shaman, whose wrinkled face was white
with terror, whilst Oros held up his hands as though in supplication
to some unseen Strength, saying--"O thou that hearest and seest, be
merciful, I beseech thee, and forgive this woman her madness, lest the
blood of a guest should stain the hands of thy servants, and the ancient
honour of our worship be brought low in the eyes of men."

Thus he prayed, but although his hands were uplifted, it seemed to me
that his eyes were fixed upon our guide, as ours were. While he spoke,
I saw her hand raised, as she had raised it when she slew or rather
sentenced the witchdoctor. Then she seemed to reflect, and stayed it in
mid air, so that it pointed at the Khania. She did not move, she made
no sound, only she pointed, and, the angry words died upon Atene's lips,
the fury left her eyes, and the colour her face. Yes, she grew white
and silent as the corpse upon the bier behind her. Then, cowed by that
invisible power, she struck her horse so fiercely that it bounded by us
onward towards the village, at which the funeral company were to rest
awhile.

As the Shaman Simbri followed the Khania, the priest Oros caught his
horse's bridle and said to him--"Magician, we have met before, for
instance, when your lady's father was brought to his funeral. Warn her,
then, you that know something of the truth and of her power to speak
more gently of the ruler of this land. Say to her, from me, that had she
not been the ambassadress of death, and, therefore, inviolate, surely
ere now she would have shared her husband's bier. Farewell, tomorrow we
will speak again," and, loosing the Shaman's bridle, Oros passed on.

Soon we had left the melancholy procession behind us and, issuing from
the gorge, turned up the Mountain slope towards the edge of the bright
snows that lay not far above. It was as we came out of this darksome
valley, where the overhanging pine trees almost eclipsed the light, that
suddenly we missed our guide.

"Has she gone back to--to reason with the Khania?" I asked of Oros.

"Nay!" he answered, with a slight smile, "I think that she has gone
forward to give warning that the Hesea's guests draw near."

"Indeed," I answered, staring hard at the bare slope of mountain,
up which not a mouse could have passed without being seen. "I
understand--she has gone forward," and the matter dropped. But what
I did _not_ understand was--how she had gone. As the Mountain was
honeycombed with caves and galleries, I suppose, however, that she
entered one of them.

All the rest of that day we marched upwards, gradually drawing nearer to
the snow-line, as we went gathering what information we could from the
priest Oros. This was the sum of it--From the beginning of the world,
as he expressed it, that is, from thousands and thousands of years ago,
this Mountain had been the home of a peculiar fire-worship, of which the
head heirophant was a woman. About twenty centuries before, however, the
invading general named Rassen, had made himself Khan of Kaloon. Rassen
established a new priestess on the Mountain, a worshipper of the
Egyptian goddess, Hes, or Isis. This priestess had introduced certain
modifications in the ancient doctrines, superseding the cult of fire,
pure and simple, by a new faith, which, while holding to some of the old
ceremonies, revered as its head the Spirit of Life or Nature, of whom
they looked upon their priestess as the earthly representative.

Of this priestess Oros would only tell us that she was "ever present,"
although we gathered that when one priestess died or was "taken to
the fire," as he put it, her child, whether in fact or by adoption,
succeeded her and was known by the same names, those of "Hes" or the
"Hesea" and "Mother." We asked if we should see this Mother, to which he
answered that she manifested herself very rarely. As to her appearance
and attributes he would say nothing, except that the former changed from
time to time and that when she chose to use it she had "all power."

The priests of her College, he informed us, numbered three hundred,
never more nor less, and there were also three hundred priestesses.
Certain of those who desired it were allowed to marry, and from
among their children were reared up the new generation of priests
and priestesses. Thus they were a people apart from all others, with
distinct racial characteristics. This, indeed, was evident, for our
escort were all exceedingly like to each other, very handsome and
refined in appearance, with dark eyes, clean-cut features and olive-hued
skins; such a people as might well have descended from Easterns of high
blood, with a dash of that of the Egyptians and Greeks thrown in.

We asked him whether the mighty looped pillar that towered from the
topmost cup of the Mountain was the work of men. He answered, No; the
hand of Nature had fashioned it, and that the light shining through it
came from the fires which burned in the crater of the volcano. The first
priestess, having recognized in this gigantic column the familiar Symbol
of Life of the Egyptian worship, established her altars beneath its
shadow.

For the rest, the Mountain with its mighty slopes and borderlands was
peopled by a multitude of half-savage folk, who accepted the rule of the
Hesea, bringing her tribute of all things necessary, such as food and
metals. Much of the meat and grain however the priests raised themselves
on sheltered farms, and the metals they worked with their own hands.
This rule, however, was of a moral nature, since for centuries the
College had sought no conquests and the Mother contented herself with
punishing crime in some such fashion as we had seen. For the petty
wars between the Tribes and the people of the Plain they were not
responsible, and those chiefs who carried them on were deposed, unless
they had themselves been attacked. All the Tribes, however, were sworn
to the defence of the Hesea and the College, and, however much they
might quarrel amongst themselves, if need arose, were ready to die for
her to the last man. That war must one day break out again between
the priests of the Mountain and the people of Kaloon was recognized;
therefore they endeavoured to be prepared for that great and final
struggle.

Such was the gist of his history, which, as we learned afterwards,
proved to be true in every particular.

Towards sundown we came to a vast cup extending over many thousand
acres, situated beneath the snow-line of the peak and filled with rich
soil washed down, I suppose, from above. So sheltered was the place by
its configuration and the over-hanging mountain that, facing south-west
as it did, notwithstanding its altitude it produced corn and other
temperate crops in abundance. Here the College had its farms, and very
well cultivated these seemed to be. This great cup, which could not
be seen from below, we entered through a kind of natural gateway, that
might be easily defended against a host.

There were other peculiarities, but it is not necessary to describe them
further than to say that I think the soil benefited by the natural heat
of the volcano, and that when this erupted, as happened occasionally,
the lava streams always passed to the north and south of the cup of
land. Indeed, it was these lava streams that had built up the protecting
cliffs.

Crossing the garden-like lands, we came to a small town beautifully
built of lava rock. Here dwelt the priests, except those who were on
duty, no man of the Tribes or other stranger being allowed to set foot
within the place.

Following the main street of this town, we arrived at the face of the
precipice beyond, and found ourselves in front of a vast archway, closed
with massive iron gates fantastically wrought. Here, taking my horse
with them, our escort left us alone with Oros. As we drew near the great
gates swung back upon their hinges. We passed them--with what sensations
I cannot describe--and groped our way down a short corridor which ended
in tall, iron-covered doors. These also rolled open at our approach, and
next instant we staggered back amazed and half-blinded by the intense
blaze of light within.

Imagine, you who read, the nave of the vastest cathedral with which you
are acquainted. Then double or treble its size, and you will have some
conception of that temple in which we found ourselves. Perhaps in the
beginning it had been a cave, who can say? but now its sheer walls, its
multitudinous columns springing to the arched roof far above us, had all
been worked on and fashioned by the labour of men long dead; doubtless
the old fire-worshippers of thousands of years ago.

You will wonder how so great a place was lighted, but I think that never
would you guess. Thus--by twisted columns of living flame! I counted
eighteen of them, but there may have been others. They sprang from the
floor at regular intervals along the lines of what in a cathedral would
be the aisles. Right to the roof they sprang, of even height and girth,
so fierce was the force of the natural gas that drove them, and there
were lost, I suppose, through chimneys bored in the thickness of the
rock. Nor did they give off smell or smoke, or in that great, cold
place, any heat which could be noticed, only an intense white light like
that of molten iron, and a sharp hissing noise as of a million angry
snakes.

The huge temple was utterly deserted, and, save for this sybilant,
pervading sound, utterly silent; an awesome, an overpowering place.

"Do these candles of yours ever go out?" asked Leo of Oros, placing his
hand before his dazzled eyes.

"How can they," replied the priest, in his smooth, matter-of-fact voice,
"seeing that they rise from the eternal fire which the builders of this
hall worshipped? Thus they have burned from the beginning, and thus
they will burn for ever, though, if we wish it, we can shut off their
light.[*] Be pleased to follow me: you will see greater things."

     [*] This, as I ascertained afterwards, was done by thrusting
     a broad stone of great thickness over the apertures through
     which the gas or fire rushed and thus cutting off the air.
     These stones were worked to and fro by means of pulleys
     connected with iron rods.--L. H. H.

So in awed silence we followed, and, oh! how small and miserable we
three human beings looked alone in that vast temple illuminated by this
lightning radiance. We reached the end of it at length, only to find
that to right and left ran transepts on a like gigantic scale and lit in
the same amazing fashion. Here Oros bade us halt, and we waited a little
while, till presently, from either transept arose a sound of chanting,
and we perceived two white-robed processions advancing towards us from
their depths.

On they came, very slowly, and we saw that the procession to the right
was a company of priests, and that to the left a company of priestesses,
a hundred or so of them in all.

Now the men ranged themselves in front of us, while the women ranged
themselves behind, and at a signal from Oros, all of them still chanting
some wild and thrilling hymn, once more we started forward, this time
along a narrow gallery closed at the end with double wooden doors. As
our procession reached these they opened, and before us lay the crowning
wonder of this marvellous fane, a vast, ellipse-shaped apse. Now we
understood. The plan of the temple was the plan of the looped pillar
which stood upon the brow of the Peak, and as we rightly guessed, its
dimensions were the same.

At intervals around this ellipse the fiery columns flared, but otherwise
the place was empty.

No, not quite, for at the head of the apse, almost between two of the
flame columns, stood a plain, square altar of the size of a small room,
in front of which, as we saw when we drew nearer, were hung curtains of
woven silver thread. On this altar was placed a large statue of silver,
that, backed as it was by the black rock, seemed to concentrate and
reflect from its burnished surface the intense light of the two blazing
pillars.

It was a lovely thing, but to describe it is hard indeed. The figure,
which was winged, represented a draped woman of mature years, and pure
but gracious form, half hidden by the forward-bending wings. Sheltered
by these, yet shown between them, appeared the image of a male child,
clasped to its bearer's breast with her left arm, while the right was
raised toward the sky. A study of Motherhood, evidently, but how shall I
write of all that was conveyed by those graven faces?

To begin with the child. It was that of a sturdy boy, full of health and
the joy of life. Yet he had been sleeping, and in his sleep some terror
had over-shadowed him with the dark shades of death and evil. There was
fear in the lines of his sweet mouth and on the lips and cheeks, that
seemed to quiver. He had thrown his little arm about his mother's neck,
and, pressing close against her breast, looked up to her for safety, his
right hand and outstretched finger pointing downwards and behind him, as
though to indicate whence the danger came. Yet it was passing, already
half-forgotten, for the upturned eyes expressed confidence renewed,
peace of soul attained.

And the mother. She did not seem to mock or chide his fears, for
her lovely face was anxious and alert. Yet upon it breathed a very
atmosphere of unchanging tenderness and power invincible; care for the
helpless, strength to shelter it from every harm. The great, calm eyes
told their story, the parted lips were whispering some tale of hope,
sure and immortal; the raised hand revealed whence that hope arose. All
love seemed to be concentrated in the brooding figure, so human, yet so
celestial; all heaven seemed to lie an open path before those quivering
wings. And see, the arching instep, the upward-springing foot, suggested
that thither those wings were bound, bearing their God-given burden far
from the horror of the earth, deep into the bosom of a changeless rest
above.

The statue was only that of an affrighted child in its mother's
arms; its interpretation made clear even to the dullest by the simple
symbolism of some genius--Humanity saved by the Divine.

While we gazed at its enchanting beauty, the priests and priestesses,
filing away to right and left, arranged themselves alternately, first a
man and then a woman, within the ring of the columns of fire that burned
around the loop-shaped shrine. So great was its circumference that the
whole hundred of them must stand wide apart one from another, and, to
our sight, resembled little lonely children clad in gleaming garments,
while their chant of worship reached us only like echoes thrown from
a far precipice. In short, the effect of this holy shrine and its
occupants was superb yet overwhelming, at least I know that it filled me
with a feeling akin to fear.

Oros waited till the last priest had reached his appointed place. Then
he turned and said, in his gentle, reverent tones--"Draw nigh, now, O
Wanderers well-beloved, and give greeting to the Mother," and he pointed
towards the statue.

"Where is she?" asked Leo, in a whisper, for here we scarcely dared to
speak aloud. "I see no one."

"The Hesea dwells yonder," he answered, and, taking each of us by the
hand, he led us forward across the great emptiness of the apse to the
altar at its head.

As we drew near the distant chant of the priests gathered in volume,
assuming a glad, triumphant note, and it seemed to me--though this,
perhaps was fancy--that the light from the twisted columns of flame grew
even brighter.

At length we were there, and, Oros, loosing our hands, prostrated
himself thrice before the altar. Then he rose again, and, falling behind
us, stood in silence with bent head and folded fingers. We stood silent
also, our hearts filled with mingled hope and fear like a cup with wine.

Were our labours ended? Had we found her whom we sought, or were we,
perchance, but enmeshed in the web of some marvellous mummery and
about to make acquaintance with the secret of another new and mystical
worship? For years and years we had searched, enduring every hardness of
flesh and spirit that man can suffer, and now we were to learn whether
we had endured in vain. Yes, and Leo would learn if the promise was
to be fulfilled to him, or whether she whom he adored had become but a
departed dream to be sought for only beyond the gate of Death. Little
wonder that he trembled and turned white in the agony of that great
suspense.

Long, long was the time. Hours, years, ages, aeons, seemed to flow over
us as we stood there before glittering silver curtains that hid the
front of the black altar beneath the mystery of the sphinx-like face
of the glorious image which was its guardian, clothed with that frozen
smile of eternal love and pity. All the past went before us as we
struggled in those dark waters of our doubt. Item by item, event by
event, we rehearsed the story which began in the Caves of Kor, for our
thoughts, so long attuned, were open to each other and flashed from soul
to soul.

Oh! now we knew, they were open also to _another_ soul. We could see
nothing save the Altar and the Effigy, we could only hear the slow chant
of the priests and priestesses and the snake-like hiss of the rushing
fires. Yet we knew that our hearts were as an open book to One who
watched beneath the Mother's shadowing wings.



CHAPTER XIV

THE COURT OF DEATH

Now the curtains were open. Before us appeared a chamber hollowed from
the thickness of the altar, and in its centre a throne, and on the
throne a figure clad in waves of billowy white flowing from the head
over the arms of the throne down to its marble steps. We could see no
more in the comparative darkness of that place, save that beneath the
folds of the drapery the Oracle held in its hand a loop-shaped, jewelled
sceptre.

Moved by some impulse, we did as Oros had done, prostrating ourselves,
and there remained upon our knees. At length we heard a tinkling as of
little bells, and, looking up, saw that the sistrum-shaped sceptre was
stretched towards us by the draped arm which held it. Then a thin, clear
voice spoke, and I thought that it trembled a little. It spoke in Greek,
but in a much purer Greek than all these people used.

"I greet you, Wanderers, who have journeyed so far to visit this most
ancient shrine, and although doubtless of some other faith, are not
ashamed to do reverence to that unworthy one who is for this time its
Oracle and the guardian of its mysteries. Rise now and have no fear of
me; for have I not sent my Messenger and servants to conduct you to this
Sanctuary?"

Slowly we rose, and stood silent, not knowing what to say.

"I greet you, Wanderers," the voice repeated. "Tell me thou"--and the
sceptre pointed towards Leo--"how art thou named?"

"I am named Leo Vincey," he answered.

"Leo Vincey! I like the name, which to me well befits a man so goodly.
And thou, the companion of--Leo Vincey?"

"I am named Horace Holly."

"So. Then tell me, Leo Vincey and Horace Holly, what came ye so far to
seek?"

We looked at each other, and I said--"The tale is long and strange.
O--but by what title must we address thee?"

"By the name which I bear here, Hes."

"O Hes," I said, wondering what name she bore elsewhere.

"Yet I desire to hear that tale," she went on, and to me her voice
sounded eager. "Nay, not all to-night, for I know that you both are
weary; a little of it only. In sooth, Strangers, there is a sameness in
this home of contemplations, and no heart can feed only on the past, if
such a thing there be. Therefore I welcome a new history from the world
without. Tell it me, thou, Leo, as briefly as thou wilt, so that thou
tell the truth, for in the Presence of which I am a Minister, may
nothing else be uttered."

"Priestess," he said, in his curt fashion, "I obey. Many years ago when
I was young, my friend and foster-father and I, led by records of the
past, travelled to a wild land, and there found a certain divine woman
who had conquered time."

"Then that woman must have been both aged and hideous."

"I said, Priestess, that she had conquered time, not suffered it, for
the gift of immortal youth was hers. Also she was not hideous; she was
beauty itself."

"Therefore stranger, thou didst worship her for her beauty's sake, as a
man does."

"I did not worship her; I loved her, which is another thing. The priest
Oros here worships thee, whom he calls Mother. I loved that immortal
woman."

"Then thou shouldst love her still. Yet, not so, since love is very
mortal."

"I love her still," he answered, "although she died."

"Why, how is that? Thou saidst she was immortal."

"Perchance she only seemed to die; perchance she changed. At least I
lost her, and what I lost I seek, and have sought this many a year."

"Why dost thou seek her in my Mountain, Leo Vincey?"

"Because a vision led me to ask counsel of its Oracle. I am come hither
to learn tidings of my lost love, since here alone these may be found."

"And thou, Holly, didst thou also love an immortal woman whose
immortality, it seems, must bow to death?"

"Priestess," I answered, "I am sworn to this quest, and where my
foster-son goes I follow. He follows beauty that is dead----"

"And thou dost follow him. Therefore both of you follow beauty as men
have ever done, being blind and mad."

"Nay," I answered, "if they were blind, beauty would be naught to them
who could not see it, and if they were mad, they would not know it when
it was seen. Knowledge and vision belong to the wise, O Hes."

"Thou art quick of wit and tongue, Holly, as----" and she checked
herself, then of a sudden, said, "Tell me, did my servant the Khania of
Kaloon entertain both of you hospitably in her city, and speed you on
your journey hither, as I commanded her?"

"We knew not that she was thy servant," I replied. "Hospitality we
had and to spare, but we were sped from her Court hitherward by the
death-hounds of the Khan, her husband. Tell us, Priestess, what thou
knowest of this journey of ours."

"A little," she answered carelessly. "More than three moons ago my
spies saw you upon the far mountains, and, creeping very close to you at
night, heard you speak together of the object of your wanderings, then,
returning thence swiftly, made report to me. Thereon I bade the Khania
Atene, and that old magician her great-uncle, who is Guardian of the
Gate, go down to the ancient gates of Kaloon to receive you and bring
you hither with all speed. Yet for men who burned to learn the answer to
a riddle, you have been long in coming."

"We came as fast as we might, O Hes," said Leo; "and if thy spies could
visit those mountains, where no man was, and find a path down that
hideous precipice, they must have been able also to tell thee the reason
of our delay. Therefore I pray, ask it not of us."

"Nay, I will ask it of Atene herself, and she shall surely answer me,
for she stands without," replied the Hesea in a cold voice. "Oros, lead
the Khania hither and be swift."

The priest turned and walking quickly to the wooden doors by which we
had entered the shrine, vanished there.

"Now," said Leo to me nervously in the silence that followed, and
speaking in English, "now I wish we were somewhere else, for I think
that there will be trouble."

"I don't think, I am sure," I answered; "but the more the better,
for out of trouble may come the truth, which we need sorely." Then I
stopped, reflecting that the strange woman before us said that her spies
had overheard our talk upon the mountains, where we had spoken nothing
but English.

As it proved, I was wise, for quite quietly the Hesea repeated after
me--"Thou hast experience, Holly, for out of trouble comes the truth, as
out of wine."

Then she was silent, and, needless to say, I did not pursue the
conversation.

The doors swung open, and through them came a procession clad in black,
followed by the Shaman Simbri, who walked in front of a bier, upon which
lay the body of the Khan, carried by eight priests. Behind it was Atene,
draped in a black veil from head to foot, and after her marched another
company of priests. In front of the altar the bier was set down and the
priests fell back, leaving Atene and her uncle standing alone before the
corpse.

"What seeks my vassal, the Khania of Kaloon?" asked the Hesea in a cold
voice.

Now Atene advanced and bent the knee, but with little graciousness.

"Ancient Mother, Mother from of old, I do reverence to thy holy Office,
as my forefathers have done for many a generation," and again she
curtseyed. "Mother, this dead man asks of thee that right of sepulchre
in the fires of the holy Mountain which from the beginning has been
accorded to the royal departed who went before him."

"It has been accorded as thou sayest," answered the Hesea, "by those
priestesses who filled my place before me, nor shall it be refused to
thy dead lord--or to thee Atene--when thy time comes."

"I thank thee, O Hes, and I pray that this decree may be written down,
for the snows of age have gathered on thy venerable head and soon thou
must leave us for awhile. Therefore bid thy scribes that it be written
down, so that the Hesea who rules after thee may fulfil it in its
season."

"Cease," said the Hesea, "cease to pour out thy bitterness at that which
should command thy reverence, oh! thou foolish child, who dost not know
but that to-morrow the fire shall claim the frail youth and beauty which
are thy boast. I bid thee cease, and tell me how did death find this
lord of thine?"

"Ask those wanderers yonder, that were his guests, for his blood is on
their heads and cries for vengeance at thy hands."

"I killed him," said Leo, "to save my own life. He tried to hunt us down
with his dogs, and there are the marks of them," and he pointed to my
arm. "The priest Oros knows, for he dressed the hurts."

"How did this chance?" asked the Hesea of Atene.

"My lord was mad," she answered boldly, "and such was his cruel sport."

"So. And was thy lord jealous also? Nay, keep back the falsehood I see
rising to thy lips. Leo Vincey, answer thou me. Yet, I will not ask thee
to lay bare the secrets of a woman who has offered thee her love. Thou,
Holly, speak, and let it be the truth."

"It is this, O Hes," I answered. "Yonder lady and her uncle the Shaman
Simbri saved us from death in the waters of the river that bounds
the precipices of Kaloon. Afterwards we were ill, and they treated us
kindly, but the Khania became enamoured of my foster-son."

Here the figure of the Priestess stirred beneath its gauzy wrappings,
and the Voice asked--"And did thy foster-son become enamoured of the
Khania, as being a man he may well have done, for without doubt she is
fair?"

"He can answer that question for himself, O Hes. All I know is that he
strove to escape from her, and that in the end she gave him a day to
choose between death and marriage with her, when her lord should be
dead. So, helped by the Khan, her husband, who was jealous of him, we
fled towards this Mountain, which we desired to reach. Then the Khan set
his hounds upon us, for he was mad and false-hearted. We killed him and
came on in spite of this lady, his wife, and her uncle, who would have
prevented us, and were met in a Place of Bones by a certain veiled
guide, who led us up the Mountain and twice saved us from death. That is
all the story."

"Woman, what hast thou to say?" asked the Hesea in a menacing voice.

"But little," Atene answered, without flinching. "For years I have been
bound to a madman and a brute, and if my fancy wandered towards this man
and his fancy wandered towards me--well, Nature spoke to us, and that is
all. Afterwards it seems that he grew afraid of the vengeance of Rassen,
or this Holly, whom I would that the hounds had torn bone from bone,
grew afraid. So they strove to escape the land, and perchance wandered
to thy Mountain. But I weary of this talk, and ask thy leave to rest
before to-morrow's rite."

"Thou sayest, Atene," said the Hesea, "that Nature spoke to this man
and to thee, and that his heart is thine; but that, fearing thy lord's
vengeance, he fled from thee, he who seems no coward. Tell me, then,
is that tress he hides in the satchel on his breast thy gage of love to
him?"

"I know nothing of what he hides in the satchel," answered the Khania
sullenly.

"And yet, yonder in the Gatehouse when he lay so sick he set the lock
against thine own--ah, dost remember now?"

"So, O Hes, already he has told thee all our secrets, though they
be such as most men hide within their breasts;" and she looked
contemptuously at Leo.

"I told her nothing of the matter, Khania," Leo said in an angry voice.

"Nay, _thou_ toldest me nothing, Wanderer; my watching wisdom told me.
Oh, didst thou think, Atene, that thou couldst hide the truth from the
all-seeing Hesea of the Mountain? If so, spare thy breath, for I know
all, and have known it from the first. I passed thy disobedience by; of
thy false messages I took no heed. For my own purposes I, to whom time
is naught, suffered even that thou shouldst hold these, my guests, thy
prisoners whilst thou didst strive by threats and force to win a love
denied."

She paused, then went on coldly: "Woman, I tell thee that, to complete
thy sin, thou hast even dared to lie to me here, in my very Sanctuary."

"If so, what of it?" was the bold answer. "Dost thou love the man
thyself? Nay, it is monstrous. Nature would cry aloud at such a shame.
Oh! tremble not with rage. Hes, I know thy evil powers, but I know also
that I am thy guest, and that in this hallowed place, beneath yonder
symbol of eternal Love, thou may'st shed no blood. More, thou canst not
harm me, Hes, who am thy equal."

"Atene," replied the measured Voice, "did I desire it, I could destroy
thee where thou art. Yet thou art right, I shall not harm thee, thou
faithless servant. Did not my writ bid thee through yonder searcher
of the stars, thy uncle, to meet these guests of mine and bring them
straight to my shrine? Tell me, for I seek to know, how comes it that
thou didst disobey me?"

"Have then thy desire," answered Atene in a new and earnest voice,
devoid now of bitterness and falsehood. "I disobeyed because that man is
not thine, but mine, and no other woman's; because I love him and have
loved him from of old. Aye, since first our souls sprang into life I
have loved him, as he has loved me. My own heart tells me so; the magic
of my uncle here tells me so, though how and where and when these things
have been I know not. Therefore I come to thee, Mother of Mysteries,
Guardian of the secrets of the past, to learn the truth. At least _thou_
canst not lie at thine own altar, and I charge thee, by the dread name
of that Power to which thou also must render thy account, that thou
answer now and here.

"Who is this man to whom my being yearns? What has he been to me? What
has he to do with thee? Speak, O Oracle and make the secret clear.
Speak, I command, even though afterwards thou dost slay me--if thou
canst."

"Aye, speak! speak!" said Leo, "for know I am in sore suspense. I also
am bewildered by memories and rent with hopes and fears."

And I too echoed, "Speak!"

"Leo Vincey," asked the Hesea, after she had thought awhile, "whom dost
thou believe me to be?"

"I believe," he answered solemnly, "that thou art that Ayesha at whose
hands I died of old in the Caves of Kor in Africa. I believe thou art
that Ayesha whom not twenty years ago I found and loved in those same
Caves of Kor, and there saw perish miserably, swearing that thou wouldst
return again."

"See now, how madness can mislead a man," broke in Atene triumphantly.
"'Not twenty years ago,' he said, whereas I know well that more than
eighty summers have gone by since my grandsire in his youth saw this
same priestess sitting on the Mother's throne."

"And whom dost thou believe me to be, O Holly?" the Priestess asked,
taking no note of the Khania's words.

"What he believes I believe," I answered. "The dead come back to
life--sometimes. Yet alone thou knowest the truth, and by thee only it
can be revealed."

"Aye," she said, as though musing, "the dead come back to
life--sometimes--and in strange shape, and, mayhap, I know the truth.
To-morrow when yonder body is borne on high for burial we will speak
of it again. Till then rest you all, and prepare to face that fearful
thing--the Truth."

While the Hesea still spoke the silvery curtains swung to their place
as mysteriously as they had opened. Then, as though at some signal, the
black-robed priests advanced. Surrounding Atene, they led her from the
Sanctuary, accompanied by her uncle the Shaman, who, as it seemed to me,
either through fatigue or fear, could scarcely stand upon his feet, but
stood blinking his dim eyes as though the light dazed him. When these
were gone, the priests and priestesses, who all this time had been
ranged round the walls, far out of hearing of our talk, gathered
themselves into their separate companies, and still chanting, departed
also, leaving us alone with Oros and the corpse of the Khan, which
remained where it had been set down.

Now the head-priest Oros beckoned to us to follow him, and we went
also. Nor was I sorry to leave the place, for its death-like
loneliness--enhanced, strangely enough, as it was, by the flood of light
that filled it; a loneliness which was concentrated and expressed in the
awful figure stretched upon the bier, oppressed and overcame us, whose
nerves were broken by all that we had undergone. Thankful enough was I
when, having passed the transepts and down the length of the vast nave,
we came to the iron doors, the rock passage, and the outer gates, which,
as before, opened to let us through, and so at last into the sweet, cold
air of the night at that hour which precedes the dawn.

Oros led us to a house well-built and furnished, where at his bidding,
like men in a dream, we drank of some liquor which he gave us. I think
that drink was drugged, at least after swallowing it I remembered no
more till I awoke to find myself lying on a bed and feeling wonderfully
strong and well. This I thought strange, for a lamp burning in the room
showed me that it was still dark, and therefore that I could have rested
but a little time.

I tried to sleep again, but was not able, so fell to thinking till I
grew weary of the task. For here thoughts would not help me; nothing
could help, except the truth, "that fearful thing," as the veiled
Priestess had called it.

Oh! what if she should prove not the Ayesha whom we desired, but some
"fearful thing"? What were the meaning of the Khania's hints and of
her boldness, that surely had been inspired by the strength of a hidden
knowledge? What if--nay, it could not be--I would rise and dress my arm.
Or I would wake Leo and make him dress it--anything to occupy my mind
until the appointed hour, when we must learn--the best--or the worst.

I sat up in the bed and saw a figure advancing towards me. It was Oros,
who bore a lamp in his hand.

"You have slept long, friend Holly," he said, "and now it is time to be
up and doing."

"Long?" I answered testily. "How can that be, when it is still dark?"

"Because, friend, the dark is that of a new night. Many hours have gone
by since you lay down upon this bed. Well, you were wise to rest you
while you may, for who knows when you will sleep again! Come, let me
bathe your arm."

"Tell me," I broke in----"Nay, friend," he interrupted firmly, "I will
tell you nothing, except that soon you must start to be present at
the funeral of the Khan, and, perchance, to learn the answer to your
questions."

Ten minutes later he led me to the eating-chamber of the house, where I
found Leo already dressed, for Oros had awakened him before he came to
me and bidden him to prepare himself. Oros told us here that the Hesea
had not suffered us to be disturbed until the night came again since we
had much to undergo that day. So presently we started.

Once more we were led through the flame-lit hall till we came to the
loop-shaped apse. The place was empty now, even the corpse of the Khan
had gone, and no draped Oracle sat in the altar shrine, for its silver
curtains were drawn, and we saw that it was untenanted.

"The Mother has departed to do honour to the dead, according to the
ancient custom," Oros explained to us.

Then we passed the altar, and behind the statue found a door in the
rock wall of the apse, and beyond the door a passage, and a hall as of a
house, for out of it opened other doors leading to chambers. These, our
guide told us, were the dwelling-places of the Hesea and her maidens.
He added that they ran to the side of the Mountain and had windows that
opened on to gardens and let in the light and air. In this hall six
priests were waiting, each of whom carried a bundle of torches beneath
his arm and held in his hand a lighted lamp.

"Our road runs through the dark," said Oros, "though were it day we
might climb the outer snows, but this at night it is dangerous to do."

Then taking torches, he lit them at a lamp and gave one to each of us.

Now our climb began. Up endless sloping galleries we went, hewn with
inconceivable labour by the primeval fire-worshippers from the living
rock of the Mountain. It seemed to me that they stretched for miles, and
indeed this was so, since, although the slope was always gentle, it took
us more than an hour to climb them. At length we came to the foot of a
great stair.

"Rest awhile here, my lord," Oros said, bowing to Leo with the reverence
that he had shown him from the first, "for this stair is steep and long.
Now we stand upon the Mountain's topmost lip, and are about to climb
that tall looped column which soars above."

So we sat down in the vault-like place and let the sharp draught of air
rushing to and from the passages play upon us, for we were heated with
journeying up those close galleries. As we sat thus I heard a roaring
sound and asked Oros what it might be. He answered that we were very
near to the crater of the volcano, and that what we heard through the
thickness of the rock was the rushing of its everlasting fires. Then the
ascent commenced.

It was not dangerous though very wearisome, for there were nearly six
hundred of those steps. The climb of the passages had reminded me of
that of the gallery of the Great Pyramid drawn out for whole furlongs;
that of the pillar was like the ascent of a cathedral spire, or rather
of several spires piled one upon another.

Resting from time to time, we dragged ourselves up the steep steps, each
of them quite a foot in height, till the pillar was climbed and only the
loop remained. Up it we went also, Oros leading us, and glad was I that
the stairway still ran within the substance of the rock, for I could
feel the needle's mighty eye quiver in the rush of the winds which swept
about its sides.

At length we saw light before us, and in another twenty steps emerged
upon a platform. As Leo, who went in front of me, walked from the
stairway I saw Oros and another priest seize him by the arms, and called
to him to ask what they were doing.

"Nothing," he cried back, "except that this is a dizzy place and they
feared lest I should fall. Mind how you come, Horace," and he stretched
out his hand to me.

Now I was clear of the tunnel, and I believe that had it not been for
that hand I should have sunk to the rocky floor, for the sight before me
seemed to paralyse my brain. Nor was this to be wondered at, for I doubt
whether the world can show such another.

We stood upon the very apex of the loop, a flat space of rock about
eighty yards in length by some thirty in breadth, with the star-strewn
sky above us. To the south, twenty thousand feet or more below,
stretched the dim Plain of Kaloon, and to the east and west the
snow-clad shoulders of the peak and the broad brown slopes beneath.
To the north was a different sight, and one more awesome. There, right
under us as it seemed, for the pillar bent inwards, lay the vast crater
of the volcano, and in the centre of it a wide lake of fire that broke
into bubbles and flowers of sudden flame or spouted, writhed and twisted
like an angry sea.

From the surface of this lake rose smoke and gases that took fire as
they floated upwards, and, mingling together, formed a gigantic sheet of
living light. Right opposite to us burned this sheet and, the flare of
it passing through the needle-eye of the pillar under us, sped away in
one dazzling beam across the country of Kaloon, across the mountains
beyond, till it was lost on the horizon.

The wind blew from south to north, being sucked in towards the hot
crater of the volcano, and its fierce breath, that screamed through the
eye of the pillar and against its rugged surface, bent the long crest
of the sheet of flame, as an ocean roller is bent over by the gale, and
tore from it fragments of fire, that floated away to leeward like the
blown-out sails of a burning ship.

Had it not been for this strong and steady wind indeed, no creature
could have lived upon the pillar, for the vapours would have poisoned
him; but its unceasing blast drove these all away towards the north. For
the same reason, in the thin air of that icy place the heat was not too
great to be endured.

Appalled by that terrific spectacle, which seemed more appropriate to
the terrors of the Pit than to this earth of ours, and fearful lest the
blast should whirl me like a dead leaf into the glowing gulf beneath, I
fell on to my sound hand and my knees, shouting to Leo to do likewise,
and looked about me. Now I observed lines of priests wrapped in great
capes, kneeling upon the face of the rock and engaged apparently in
prayer, but of Hes the Mother, or of Atene, or of the corpse of the dead
Khan I could see nothing.

Whilst I wondered where they might be, Oros, upon whose nerves this
dread scene appeared to have no effect, and some of our attendant
priests surrounded us and led us onwards by a path that ran perilously
near to the rounded edge of the rock. A few downward steps and we found
that we were under shelter, for the gale was roaring over us. Twenty
more paces and we came to a recess cut, I suppose, by man in the face
of the loop, in such fashion that a lava roof was left projecting half
across its width.

This recess, or rock chamber, which was large enough to shelter a great
number of people, we reached safely, to discover that it was already
tenanted. Seated in a chair hewn from the rock was the Hesea, wearing
a broidered, purple mantle above her gauzy wrappings that enveloped
her from head to foot. There, too, standing near to her were the Khania
Atene and her uncle the old Shaman, who looked but ill at ease, and
lastly, stretched upon his funeral couch, the fiery light beating upon
his stark form and face, lay the dead Khan, Rassen.

We advanced to the throne and bowed to her who sat thereon. The Hesea
lifted her hooded head, which seemed to have been sunk upon her breast
as though she were overcome by thought or care, and addressed Oros the
priest. For in the shelter of those massive walls by comparison there
was silence and folk could hear each other speak.

"So thou hast brought them safely, my servant," she said, "and I am
glad, for to those that know it not this road is fearful. My guests,
what say you of the burying-pit of the Children of Hes?"

"Our faith tells us of a hell, lady," answered Leo, "and I think that
yonder cauldron looks like its mouth."

"Nay," she answered, "there is no hell, save that which from life to
life we fashion for ourselves within the circle of this little star. Leo
Vincey, I tell thee that hell is here, aye, _here_," and she struck her
hand upon her breast, while once more her head drooped forward as though
bowed down beneath some load of secret misery.

Thus she stayed awhile, then lifted it and spoke again,
saying--"Midnight is past, and much must be done and suffered before the
dawn. Aye, the darkness must be turned to light, or perchance the light
to eternal darkness."

"Royal woman," she went on, addressing Atene, "as is his right, thou
hast brought thy dead lord hither for burial in this consecrated place,
where the ashes of all who went before him have become fuel for the
holy fires. Oros, my priest, summon thou the Accuser and him who makes
defence, and let the books be opened that I may pass my judgment on the
dead, and call his soul to live again, or pray that from it the breath
of life may be withheld.

"Priest, I say the Court of Death is open."



CHAPTER XV

THE SECOND ORDEAL

Oros bowed and left the place, whereon the Hesea signed to us to stand
upon her right and to Atene to stand upon her left. Presently from
either side the hooded priests and priestesses stole into the chamber,
and to the number of fifty or more ranged themselves along its walls.
Then came two figures draped in black and masked, who bore parchment
books in their hands, and placed themselves on either side of the
corpse, while Oros stood at its feet, facing the Hesea.

Now she lifted the sistrum that she held, and in obedience to the signal
Oros said--"Let the books be opened."

Thereon the masked Accuser to the right broke the seal of his book and
began to read its pages. It was a tale of the sins of this dead man
entered as fully as though that officer were his own conscience given
life and voice. In cold and horrible detail it told of the evil doings
of his childhood, of his youth, and of his riper years, and thus massed
together the record was black indeed.

I listened amazed, wondering what spy had been set upon the deeds of
yonder man throughout his days; thinking also with a shudder of how
heavy would be the tale against any one of us, if such a spy should
companion him from the cradle to the grave; remembering too that
full surely this count is kept by scribes even more watchful than the
ministers of Hes.

At length the long story drew to its close. Lastly it told of the murder
of that noble upon the banks of the river; it told of the plot against
our lives for no just cause; it told of our cruel hunting with the
death-hounds, and of its end. Then the Accuser shut his book and cast it
on the ground, saying--"Such is the record, O Mother. Sum it up as thou
hast been given wisdom."

Without speaking, the Hesea pointed with her sistrum to the Defender,
who thereon broke the seal of his book and began to read.

Its tale spoke of all the good that the dead man had done; of every
noble word that he had said, of every kind action; of plans which he had
made for the welfare of his vassals; of temptations to ill that he had
resisted; of the true love that he had borne to the woman who became his
wife; of the prayers which he had made and of the offerings which he had
sent to the temple of Hes.

Making no mention of her name, it told of how that wife of his had hated
him, of how she and the magician, who had fostered and educated her, and
was her relative and guide, had set other women to lead him astray that
she might be free of him. Of how too they had driven him mad with a
poisonous drink which took away his judgment, unchained all the evil in
his heart, and caused him by its baneful influence to shrink unnaturally
from her whose love he still desired.

Also it set out that the heaviest of his crimes were inspired by this
wife of his, who sought to befoul his name in the ears of the people
whom she led him to oppress, and how bitter jealousy drove him to cruel
acts, the last and worst of which caused him foully to violate the law
of hospitality, and in attempting to bring about the death of blameless
guests at their hands to find his own.

Thus the Defender read, and having read, closed the book and threw it
on the ground, saying--"Such is the record, O Mother, sum it up as thou
hast been given wisdom."

Then the Khania, who all this time had stood cold and impassive, stepped
forward to speak, and with her her uncle, the Shaman Simbri. But before
a word passed Atene's lips the Hesea raised her sceptre and forbade
them, saying--"Thy day of trial is not yet, nor have we aught to do with
thee. When thou liest where he lies and the books of thy deeds are read
aloud to her who sits in judgment, then let thine advocate make answer
for these things."

"So be it," answered Atene haughtily and fell back.

Now it was the turn of the high-priest Oros. "Mother," he said, "thou
hast heard. Balance the writings, assess the truth, and according to thy
wisdom, issue thy commands. Shall we hurl him who was Rassen feet first
into the fiery gulf, that he may walk again in the paths of life, or
head first, in token that he is dead indeed?"

Then while all waited in a hushed expectancy, the great Priestess
delivered her verdict.

"I hear, I balance, I assess, but judge I do not, who claim no such
power. Let the Spirit who sent him forth, to whom he is returned again,
pass judgment on his spirit. This dead one has sinned deeply, yet has
he been more deeply sinned against. Nor against that man can be reckoned
the account of his deeds of madness. Cast him then to his grave feet
first that his name may be whitened in the ears of those unborn, and
that thence he may return again at the time appointed. It is spoken."

Now the Accuser lifted the book of his accusations from the ground and,
advancing, hurled it into the gulf in token that it was blotted out.
Then he turned and vanished from the chamber; while the Advocate, taking
up his book, gave it into the keeping of the priest Oros, that it might
be preserved in the archives of the temple for ever. This done, the
priests began a funeral chant and a solemn invocation to the great Lord
of the Under-world that he would receive this spirit and acquit it there
as here it had been acquitted by the Hesea, his minister.

Ere their dirge ended certain of the priests, advancing with slow steps,
lifted the bier and carried it to the edge of the gulf; then at a sign
from the Mother, hurled it feet foremost into the fiery lake below,
whilst all watched to see how it struck the flame. For this they held to
be an omen, since should the body turn over in its descent it was taken
as a sign that the judgment of mortal men had been refused in the Place
of the Immortals. It did not turn; it rushed downwards straight as a
plummet and plunged into the fire hundreds of feet below, and there
for ever vanished. This indeed was not strange since, as we discovered
afterwards, the feet were weighted.

In fact this solemn rite was but a formula that, down to the exact
words of judgment and committal, had been practised here from unknown
antiquity over the bodies of the priests and priestesses of the
Mountain, and of certain of the great ones of the Plain. So it was in
ancient Egypt, whence without doubt this ceremony of the trial of the
dead was derived, and so it continued to be in the land of Hes, for no
priestess ever ventured to condemn the soul of one departed.

The real interest of the custom, apart from its solemnity and awful
surroundings, centred in the accurate knowledge displayed by the masked
Accuser and Advocate of the life-deeds of the deceased. It showed that
although the College of Hes affected to be indifferent to the doings and
politics of the people of the Plain that they once ruled and over which,
whilst secretly awaiting an opportunity of re-conquest, they still
claimed a spiritual authority, the attitude was assumed rather than
real. Moreover it suggested a system of espionage so piercing and
extraordinary that it was difficult to believe it unaided by the
habitual exercise of some gift of clairvoyance.

The service, if I may call it so, was finished; the dead man had
followed the record of his sins into that lurid sea of fire, and by
now was but a handful of charred dust. But if his book had closed, ours
remained open and at its strangest chapter. We knew it, all of us, and
waited, our nerves thrilled, with expectancy.

The Hesea sat brooding on her rocky throne. She also knew that the hour
had come. Presently she sighed, then motioned with her sceptre and spoke
a word or two, dismissing the priests and priestesses, who departed
and were seen no more. Two of them remained however, Oros and the head
priestess who was called Papave, a young woman of a noble countenance.

"Listen, my servants," she said. "Great things are about to happen,
which have to do with the coming of yonder strangers, for whom I have
waited these many years as is well known to you. Nor can I tell the
issue since to me, to whom power is given so freely, foresight of the
future is denied. It well may happen, therefore, that this seat will
soon be empty and this frame but food for the eternal fires. Nay, grieve
not, grieve not, for I do not die and if so, the spirit shall return
again.

"Hearken, Papave. Thou art of the blood, and to thee alone have I opened
all the doors of wisdom. If I pass now or at any time, take thou the
ancient power, fill thou my place, and in all things do as I have
instructed thee, that from this Mountain light may shine upon the world.
Further I command thee, and thee also, Oros my priest, that if I be
summoned hence you entertain these strangers hospitably until it is
possible to escort them from the land, whether by the road they came or
across the northern hills and deserts. Should the Khania Atene attempt
to detain them against their will, then raise the Tribes upon her in the
name of the Hesea; depose her from her seat, conquer her land and hold
it. Hear and obey."

"Mother, we hear and we will obey," answered Oros and Papave as with a
single voice.

She waved her hand to show that this matter was finished; then after
long thought spoke again, addressing herself to the Khania.

"Atene, last night thou didst ask me a question--why thou dost love this
man," and she pointed to Leo. "To that the answer would be easy, for is
he not one who might well stir passion in the breast of a woman such as
thou art? But thou didst say also that thine own heart and the wisdom of
yonder magician, thy uncle, told thee that since thy soul first sprang
to life thou hadst loved him, and didst adjure me by the Power to whom I
must give my account to draw the curtain from the past and let the truth
be known.

"Woman, the hour has come, and I obey thy summons--not because thou
dost command but because it is my will. Of the beginning I can tell thee
nothing, who am still human and no goddess. I know not why we three
are wrapped in this coil of fate; I know not the destinies to which we
journey up the ladder of a thousand lives, with grief and pain climbing
the endless stair of circumstance, or, if I know, I may not say.
Therefore I take up the tale where my own memory gives me light."

The Hesea paused, and we saw her frame shake as though beneath some
fearful inward effort of the will. "Look now behind you," she cried,
throwing her arms wide.

We turned, and at first saw nothing save the great curtain of fire that
rose from the abyss of the volcano, whereof, as I have told, the crest
was bent over by the wind like the crest of a breaking billow. But
presently, as we watched, in the depths of this red veil, Nature's awful
lamp-flame, a picture began to form as it forms in the seer's magic
crystal.

Behold! a temple set amid sands and washed by a wide, palm-bordered
river, and across its pyloned court processions of priests, who pass
to and fro with flaunting banners. The court empties; I could see the
shadow of a falcon's wings that fled across its sunlit floor. A man clad
in a priest's white robe, shaven-headed, and barefooted, enters through
the southern pylon gate and walks slowly towards a painted granite
shrine, in which sits the image of a woman crowned with the double
crown of Egypt, surmounted by a lotus bloom, and holding in her hand the
sacred sistrum. Now, as though he heard some sound, he halts and looks
towards us, and by the heaven above me, his face is the face of Leo
Vincey in his youth, the face too of that Kallikrates whose corpse we
had seen in the Caves of Kor!

"Look, look!" gasped Leo, catching me by the arm; but I only nodded my
head in answer.

The man walks on again, and kneeling before the goddess in the shrine,
embraces her feet and makes his prayer to her. Now the gates roll open,
and a procession enters, headed by a veiled, noble-looking woman, who
bears offerings, which she sets on the table before the shrine, bending
her knee to the effigy of the goddess. Her oblations made, she turns
to depart, and as she goes brushes her hand against the hand of the
watching priest, who hesitates, then follows her.

When all her company have passed the gate she lingers alone in the
shadow of the pylon, whispering to the priest and pointing to the river
and the southern land beyond. He is disturbed; he reasons with her,
till, after one swift glance round, she lets drop her veil, bending
towards him and--their lips meet.

As time flies her face is turned towards us, and lo! it is the face of
Atene, and amid her dusky hair the aura is reflected in jewelled gold,
the symbol of her royal rank. She looks at the shaven priest; she laughs
as though in triumph; she points to the westering sun and to the river,
and is gone.

Aye, and that laugh of long ago is echoed by Atene at our side, for she
also laughs in triumph and cries aloud to the old Shaman--"True diviners
were my heart and thou! Behold how I won him in the past."

Then, like ice on fire fell the cold voice of the Hesea.

"Be silent, woman, and see how thou didst lose him in the past."

Lo! the scene changes, and on a couch a lovely shape lies sleeping.
She dreams; she is afraid; and over her bends and whispers in her ear a
shadowy form clad with the emblems of the goddess in the shrine, but now
wearing upon her head the vulture cap. The woman wakes from her dream
and looks round, and oh! the face is the face of Ayesha as it was seen
of us when first she loosed her veil in the Caves of Kor.

A sigh went up from us; we could not speak who thus fearfully once more
beheld her loveliness.

Again she sleeps, again the awful form bends over her and whispers. It
points, the distance opens. Lo! on a stormy sea a boat, and in the boat
two wrapped in each other's arms, the priest and the royal woman, while
over them like a Vengeance, raw-necked and ragged-pinioned, hovers a
following vulture, such a vulture as the goddess wore for headdress.

That picture fades from its burning frame, leaving the vast sheet
of fire empty as the noonday sky. Then another forms. First a great,
smooth-walled cave carpeted with sand, a cave that we remembered well.
Then lying on the sand, now no longer shaven, but golden-haired, the
corpse of the priest staring upwards with his glazed eyes, his white
skin streaked with blood, and standing over him two women. One holds
a javelin in her hand and is naked except for her flowing hair, and
beautiful, beautiful beyond imagining. The other, wrapped in a dark
cloak, beats the air with her hands, casting up her eyes as though to
call the curse of Heaven upon her rival's head. And those women are she
into whose sleeping ear the shadow had whispered, and the royal Egyptian
who had kissed her lover beneath the pylon gate.

Slowly all the figures faded; it was as though the fire ate them up, for
first they became thin and white as ashes; then vanished. The Hesea, who
had been leaning forward, sank backwards in her chair, as if weary with
the toil of her own magic.

For a while confused pictures flitted rapidly to and fro across the vast
mirror of the flame, such as might be reflected from an intelligence
crowded with the memories of over two thousand years which it was too
exhausted to separate and define.

Wild scenes, multitudes of people, great caves, and in them faces,
amongst others our own, starting up distorted and enormous, to grow
tiny in an instant and depart; stark imaginations of Forms towering and
divine; of Things monstrous and inhuman; armies marching, illimitable
battle-fields, and corpses rolled in blood, and hovering over them the
spirits of the slain.

These pictures died as the others had died, and the fire was blank
again.

Then the Hesea spoke in a voice very faint at first, that by slow
degrees grew stronger.

"Is thy question answered, O Atene?"

"I have seen strange sights, Mother, mighty limnings worthy of thy
magic, but how know I that they are more than vapours of thine own brain
cast upon yonder fire to deceive and mock us?"[*]

     [*] Considered in the light of subsequent revelations,
     vouchsafed to us by Ayesha herself, I am inclined to believe
     that Atene's shrewd surmise was accurate, and that these
     fearful pictures, although founded on events that had
     happened in the past, were in the main "vapours" cast upon
     the crater fire; visions raised in our minds to "deceive and
     mock us."--L. H. H.

"Listen then," said the Hesea, in her weary voice, "to the
interpretation of the writing, and cease to trouble me with thy doubts.
Many an age ago, but shortly after I began to live this last, long life
of mine, Isis, the great goddess of Egypt, had her Holy House at Behbit,
near the Nile. It is a ruin now, and Isis has departed from Egypt,
though still under the Power that fashioned it and her: she rules the
world, for she is Nature's self. Of that shrine a certain man, a Greek,
Kallikrates by name, was chief priest, chosen for her service by the
favour of the goddess, vowed to her eternally and to her alone, by the
dreadful oath that might not be broken without punishment as eternal.

"In the flame thou sawest that priest, and here at thy side he stands,
re-born, to fulfil his destiny and ours.

"There lived also a daughter of Pharaoh's house, one Amenartas, who cast
eyes of love upon this Kallikrates, and, wrapping him in her spells--for
then as now she practised witcheries--caused him to break his oaths and
fly with her, as thou sawest written in the flame. Thou, Atene, wast
that Amenartas.

"Lastly there lived a certain Arabian, named Ayesha, a wise and lovely
woman, who, in the emptiness of her heart, and the sorrow of much
knowledge, had sought refuge in the service of the universal Mother,
thinking there to win the true wisdom which ever fled from her. That
Ayesha, as thou sawest also, the goddess visited in a dream, bidding her
to follow those faithless ones, and work Heaven's vengeance on them,
and promising her in reward victory over death upon the earth and beauty
such as had not been known in woman.

"She followed far; she awaited them where they wandered. Guided by a
sage named Noot, one who from the beginning had been appointed to her
service and that of another--thou, O Holly, wast that man--she found
the essence in which to bathe is to outlive Generations, Faiths, and
Empires, saying--"'I will slay these guilty ones. I will slay them
presently, as I am commanded.'

"Yet Ayesha slew not, for now their sin was her sin, since she who had
never loved came to desire this man. She led them to the Place of Life,
purposing there to clothe him and herself with immortality, and let the
woman die. But it was not so fated, for then the goddess smote. The
life was Ayesha's as had been sworn, but in its first hour, blinded with
jealous rage because he shrank from her unveiled glory to the mortal
woman at his side, this Ayesha brought him to his death, and alas! alas!
left herself undying.

"Thus did the angry goddess work woe upon her faithless ministers,
giving to the priest swift doom, to the priestess Ayesha, long remorse
and misery, and to the royal Amenartas jealousy more bitter than life
or death, and the fate of unending effort to win back that love which,
defying Heaven, she had dared to steal, but to be bereft thereof again.

"Lo! now the ages pass, and, at the time appointed, to that undying
Ayesha who, whilst awaiting his re-birth, from century to century
mourned his loss, and did bitter penance for her sins, came back the
man, her heart's desire. Then, whilst all went well for her and him,
again the goddess smote and robbed her of her reward. Before her lover's
living eyes, sunk in utter shame and misery, the beautiful became
hideous, the undying seemed to die.

"Yet, O Kallikrates, I tell thee that she died not. Did not Ayesha swear
to thee yonder in the Caves of Kor that she would come again? for even
in that awful hour this comfort kissed her soul. Thereafter, Leo Vincey,
who art Killikrates, did not her spirit lead thee in thy sleep and stand
with thee upon this very pinnacle which should be thy beacon light to
guide thee back to her? And didst thou not search these many years, not
knowing that she companioned thy every step and strove to guard thee in
every danger, till at length in the permitted hour thou earnest back to
her?"

She paused, and looked towards Leo, as though awaiting his reply.

"Of the first part of the tale, except from the writing on the Sherd, I
know nothing, Lady," he said; "of the rest I, or rather we, know that it
is true. Yet I would ask a question, and I pray thee of thy charity let
thy answer be swift and short. Thou sayest that in the permitted hour
I came back to Ayesha. Where then is Ayesha? Art thou Ayesha? And if so
why is thy voice changed? Why art thou less in stature? Oh! in the name
of whatever god thou dost worship, tell me art thou Ayesha?"

"_I am Ayesha_" she answered solemnly, "that very Ayesha to whom thou
didst pledge thyself eternally."

"She lies, she lies," broke in Atene. "I tell thee, husband--for such
with her own lips she declares thou art to me--that yonder woman who
says that she parted from thee young and beautiful, less than twenty
years ago, is none other than the aged priestess who for a century at
least has borne rule in these halls of Hes. Let her deny it if she can."

"Oros," said the Mother, "tell thou the tale of the death of that
priestess of whom the Khania speaks."

The priest bowed, and in his usual calm voice, as though he were
narrating some event of every day, said mechanically, and in a fashion
that carried no conviction to my mind--"Eighteen years ago, on the
fourth night of the first month of the winter in the year 2333 of the
founding of the worship of Hes on this Mountain, the priestess of whom
the Khania Atene speaks, died of old age in my presence in the hundred
and eighth year of her rule. Three hours later we went to lift her from
the throne on which she died, to prepare her corpse for burial in this
fire, according to the ancient custom. Lo! a miracle, for she lived
again, the same, yet very changed.

"Thinking this a work of evil magic, the Priests and Priestesses of the
College rejected her, and would have driven her from the throne. Thereon
the Mountain blazed and thundered, the light from the fiery pillars
died, and great terror fell upon the souls of men. Then from the deep
darkness above the altar where stands the statue of the Mother of Men,
the voice of the living goddess spoke, saying--"'Accept ye her whom
I have set to rule over you, that my judgments and my purposes may be
fulfilled.'

"The Voice ceased, the fiery torches burnt again, and we bowed the knee
to the new Hesea, and named her Mother in the ears of all. That is the
tale to which hundreds can bear witness."

"Thou hearest, Atene," said the Hesea. "Dost thou still doubt?"

"Aye," answered the Khania, "for I hold that Oros also lies, or if he
lies not, then he dreams, or perchance that voice he heard was thine
own. Now if thou art this undying woman, this Ayesha, let proof be
made of it to these two men who knew thee in the past. Tear away those
wrappings that guard thy loveliness thus jealously. Let thy shape
divine, thy beauty incomparable, shine out upon our dazzled sight.
Surely thy lover will not forget such charms; surely he will know thee,
and bow the knee, saying, 'This is my Immortal, and no other woman.'

"Then, and not till then, will I believe that thou art even what thou
declarest thyself to be, an evil spirit, who bought undying life with
murder and used thy demon loveliness to bewitch the souls of men."

Now the Hesea on the throne seemed to be much troubled, for she rocked
herself to and fro, and wrung her white-draped hands.

"Kallikrates," she said in a voice that sounded like a moan, "is this
thy will? For if it be, know that I must obey. Yet I pray thee command
it not, for the time is not yet come; the promise unbreakable is not yet
fulfilled. _I am somewhat changed_, Kallikrates, since I kissed thee on
the brow and named thee mine, yonder in the Caves of Kor."

Leo looked about him desperately, till his eyes fell upon the mocking
face of Atene, who cried--"Bid her unveil, my lord. I swear to thee I'll
not be jealous."

At that taunt he took fire.

"Aye," he said, "I bid her unveil, that I may learn the best or worst,
who otherwise must die of this suspense. Howsoever changed, if she be
Ayesha I shall know her, and if she be Ayesha, I shall love her."

"Bold words, Kallikrates," answered the Hesea; "yet from my very heart I
thank thee for them: those sweet words of trust and faithfulness to thou
knowest not what. Learn now the truth, for I may keep naught back from
thee. When I unveil it is decreed that thou must make thy choice for
the last time on this earth between yonder woman, my rival from the
beginning, and that Ayesha to whom thou art sworn. Thou canst reject me
if thou wilt, and no ill shall come to thee, but many a blessing, as
men reckon them--power and wealth and love. Only then thou must tear my
memory from thy heart, for then I leave thee to follow thy fate alone,
till at the last the purpose of these deeds and sufferings is made
clear.

"Be warned. No light ordeal lies before thee. Be warned. I can promise
thee naught save such love as woman never gave to man, love that
perchance--I know not--must yet remain unsatisfied upon the earth."

Then she turned to me and said:

"Oh! thou, Holly, thou true friend, thou guardian from of old, thou,
next to him most beloved by me, to thy clear and innocent spirit
perchance wisdom may be given that is denied to us, the little children
whom thine arms protect. Counsel thou him, my Holly, with the counsel
that is given thee, and I will obey thy words and his, and, whatever
befalls, will bless thee from my soul. Aye, and should he cast me off,
then in the Land beyond the lands, in the Star appointed, where all
earthly passions fade, together will we dwell eternally in a friendship
glorious, thou and I alone.

"For _thou_ wilt not reject; thy steel, forged in the furnace of pure
truth and power, shall not lose its temper in these small fires of
temptation and become a rusted chain to bind thee to another woman's
breast--until it canker to her heart and thine."

"Ayesha, I thank thee for thy words," I answered simply, "and by them
and that promise of thine, I, thy poor friend--for more I never thought
to be--am a thousandfold repaid for many sufferings. This I will add,
that for my part I know that thou art She whom we have lost, since,
whatever the lips that speak them, those thoughts and words are Ayesha's
and hers alone."

Thus I spoke, not knowing what else to say, for I was filled with a
great joy, a calm and ineffable satisfaction, which broke thus feebly
from my heart. For now I knew that I was dear to Ayesha as I had always
been dear to Leo; the closest of friends, from whom she never would be
parted. What more could I desire?

We fell back; we spoke together, whilst they watched us silently. What
we said I do not quite remember, but the end of it was that, as the
Hesea had done, Leo bade me judge and choose. Then into my mind there
came a clear command, from my own conscience or otherwhere, who can
say? This was the command, that I should bid her to unveil, and let fate
declare its purposes.

"Decide," said Leo, "I cannot bear much more. Like that woman, whoever
she may be, whatever happens, I will not blame you, Horace."

"Good," I answered, "I have decided," and, stepping forward, I said: "We
have taken counsel, Hes, and it is our will, who would learn the truth
and be at rest, that thou shouldst unveil before us, here and now."

"I hear and obey," the Priestess answered, in a voice like to that of a
dying woman, "only, I beseech you both, be pitiful to me, spare me your
mockeries; add not the coals of your hate and scorn to the fires of a
soul in hell, for whate'er I am, I became it for thy sake, Kallikrates.
Yet, yet I also am athirst for knowledge; for though I know all wisdom,
although I wield much power, one thing remains to me to learn--what is
the worth of the love of man, and if, indeed, it can live beyond the
horrors of the grave?"

Then, rising slowly, the Hesea walked, or rather tottered to the
unroofed open space in front of the rock chamber, and stood there quite
near to the brink of the flaming gulf beneath.

"Come hither, Papave, and loose these veils," she cried in a shrill,
thin voice.

Papave advanced, and with a look of awe upon her handsome face began the
task. She was not a tall woman, yet as she bent over her I noted that
she seemed to tower above her mistress, the Hesea.

The outer veils fell revealing more within. These fell also, and now
before us stood the mummy-like shape, although it seemed to be of less
stature, of that strange being who had met us in the Place of Bones. So
it would seem that our mysterious guide and the high priestess Hes were
the same.

Look! Length by length the wrappings sank from her. Would they
never end? How small grew the frame within? She was very short now,
unnaturally short for a full-grown woman, and oh! I grew sick at heart.
The last bandages uncoiled themselves like shavings from a stick;
two wrinkled hands appeared, if hands they could be called. Then the
feet--once I had seen such on the mummy of a princess of Egypt, and even
now by some fantastic play of the mind, I remembered that on her coffin
this princess was named "The Beautiful."

Everything was gone now, except a shift and a last inner veil about the
head. Hes waved back the priestess Papave, who fell half fainting to
the ground and lay there covering her eyes with her hand. Then uttering
something like a scream she gripped this veil in her thin talons, tore
it away, and with a gesture of uttermost despair, turned and faced us.

Oh! she was--nay, I will not describe her. I knew her at once, for thus
had I seen her last before the Fire of Life, and, strangely enough,
through the mask of unutterable age, through that cloak of humanity's
last decay, still shone some resemblance to the glorious and superhuman
Ayesha: the shape of the face, the air of defiant pride that for an
instant bore her up--I know not what.

Yes, there she stood, and the fierce light of the heartless fires beat
upon her, revealing every shame.

There was a dreadful silence. I saw Leo's lips turn white and his knees
begin to give; but by some effort he recovered himself, and stayed still
and upright like a dead man held by a wire. Also I saw Atene--and this
is to her credit--turn her head away. She had desired to see her rival
humiliated, but that horrible sight shocked her; some sense of their
common womanhood for the moment touched her pity. Only Simbri, who, I
think, knew what to expect, and Oros remained quite unmoved; indeed, in
that ghastly silence the latter spoke, and ever afterwards I loved him
for his words.

"What of the vile vessel, rotted in the grave of time? What of the flesh
that perishes?" he said. "Look through the ruined lamp to the eternal
light which burns within. Look through its covering carrion to the
inextinguishable soul."

My heart applauded these noble sentiments. I was of one mind with Oros,
but oh, Heaven! I felt that my brain was going, and I wished that it
would go, so that I might hear and see no more.

That look which gathered on Ayesha's mummy face? At first there had been
a little hope, but the hope died, and anguish, anguish, _anguish_ took
its place.

Something must be done, this could not endure. My lips clave together,
no word would come; my feet refused to move.

I began to contemplate the scenery. How wonderful were that sheet of
flame, and the ripples which ran up and down its height. How awesome its
billowy crest. It would be warm lying in yonder red gulf below with the
dead Rassen, but oh! I wished that I shared his bed and had finished
with these agonies.

Thank Heaven, Atene was speaking. She had stepped to the side of the
naked-headed Thing, and stood by it in all the pride of her rich beauty
and perfect womanhood.

"Leo Vincey, or Kallikrates," said Atene, "take which name thou wilt;
thou thinkest ill of me perhaps, but know that at least I scorn to mock
a rival in her mortal shame. She told us a wild tale but now, a tale
true or false, but more false than true, I think, of how I robbed
a goddess of a votary, and of how that goddess--Ayesha's self
perchance--was avenged upon me for the crime of yielding to the man I
loved. Well, let goddesses--if such indeed there be--take their way and
work their will upon the helpless, and I, a mortal, will take mine
until the clutch of doom closes round my throat and chokes out life and
memory, and I too am a goddess--or a clod.

"Meanwhile, thou man, I shame not to say it before all these witnesses,
I love thee, and it seems that this--this woman or goddess--loves thee
also, and she has told us that now, _now_ thou must choose between us
once and for ever. She has told us too that if I sinned against Isis,
whose minister be it remembered she declares herself, herself she sinned
yet more. For she would have taken thee both from a heavenly mistress
and from an earthly bride, and yet snatch that guerdon of immortality
which is hers to-day. Therefore if I am evil, she is worse, nor does the
flame that burns within the casket whereof Oros spoke shine so very pure
and bright.

"Choose thou then Leo Vincey, and let there be an end. I vaunt not
myself; thou knowest what I have been and seest what I am. Yet I can
give thee love and happiness and, mayhap, children to follow after thee,
and with them some place and power. What yonder witch can give thee thou
canst guess. Tales of the past, pictures on the flame, wise maxims and
honeyed words, and after thou art dead once more, promises perhaps, of
joy to come when that terrible goddess whom she serves so closely shall
be appeased. I have spoken. Yet I will add a word:

"O thou for whom, if the Hesea's tale be true, I did once lay down my
royal rank and dare the dangers of an unsailed sea; O thou whom in ages
gone I would have sheltered with my frail body from the sorceries of
this cold, self-seeking witch; O thou whom but a little while ago at my
own life's risk I drew from death in yonder river, choose, choose!"

To all this speech, so moderate yet so cruel, so well-reasoned and
yet so false, because of its glosses and omissions, the huddled Ayesha
seemed to listen with a fierce intentness. Yet she made no answer, not
a single word, not a sign even; she who had said her say and scorned to
plead her part.

I looked at Leo's ashen face. He leaned towards Atene, drawn perhaps by
the passion shining in her beauteous eyes, then of a sudden straightened
himself, shook his head and sighed. The colour flamed to his brow, and
his eyes grew almost happy.

"After all," he said, thinking aloud rather than speaking, "I have to do
not with unknowable pasts or with mystic futures, but with the things
of my own life. Ayesha waited for me through two thousand years; Atene
could marry a man she hated for power's sake, and then could poison him,
as perhaps she would poison me when I wearied her. I know not what oaths
I swore to Amenartas, if such a woman lived. I remember the oaths I
swore to Ayesha. If I shrink from her now, why then my life is a lie and
my belief a fraud; then love will not endure the touch of age and never
can survive the grave.

"Nay, remembering what Ayesha was I take her as she is, in faith and
hope of what she shall be. At least love is immortal and if it must, why
let it feed on memory alone till death sets free the soul."

Then stepping to where stood the dreadful, shrivelled form, Leo knelt
down before it and kissed her on the brow.

Yes, he kissed the trembling horror of that wrinkled head, and I think
it was one of the greatest, bravest acts ever done by man.

"Thou hast chosen," said Atene in a cold voice, "and I tell thee, Leo
Vincey, that the manner of thy choice makes me mourn my loss the more.
Take now thy--thy bride and let me hence."

But Ayesha still said no word and made no sign, till presently she sank
upon her bony knees and began to pray aloud. These were the words of
her prayer, as I heard them, though the exact Power to which it was
addressed is not very easy to determine, as I never discovered who or
what it was that she worshipped in her heart--"O Thou minister of the
almighty Will, thou sharp sword in the hand of Doom, thou inevitable Law
that art named Nature; thou who wast crowned as Isis of the Egyptians,
but art the goddess of all climes and ages; thou that leadest the man
to the maid, and layest the infant on his mother's breast, that bringest
our dust to its kindred dust, that givest life to death, and into the
dark of death breathest the light of life again; thou who causest the
abundant earth to bear, whose smile is Spring, whose laugh is the ripple
of the sea, whose noontide rest is drowsy Summer, and whose sleep is
Winter's night, hear thou the supplication of thy chosen child and
minister:

"Of old thou gavest me thine own strength with deathless days, and
beauty above every daughter of this Star. But I sinned against thee
sore, and for my sin I paid in endless centuries of solitude, in the
vileness that makes me loathsome to my lover's eyes, and for its diadem
of perfect power sets upon my brow this crown of naked mockery. Yet in
thy breath, the swift essence that brought me light, that brought me
gloom, thou didst vow to me that I who cannot die should once more pluck
the lost flower of my immortal loveliness from this foul slime of shame.

"Therefore, merciful Mother that bore me, to thee I make my prayer.
Oh, let his true love atone my sin; or, if it may not be, then give me
death, the last and most blessed of thy boons!"



CHAPTER XVI

THE CHANGE

She ceased, and there was a long, long silence. Leo and I looked at
each other in dismay. We had hoped against hope that this beautiful
and piteous prayer, addressed apparently to the great, dumb spirit of
Nature, would be answered. That meant a miracle, but what of it? The
prolongation of the life of Ayesha was a miracle, though it is true that
some humble reptiles are said to live as long as she had done.

The transference of her spirit from the Caves of Kor to this temple was
a miracle, that is, to our western minds, though the dwellers in these
parts of Central Asia would not hold it so. That she should re-appear
with the same hideous body was a miracle. But was it the same body? Was
it not the body of the last Hesea? One very ancient woman is much like
another, and eighteen years of the working of the soul or identity
within might well wear away their trivial differences and give to the
borrowed form some resemblance to that which it had left.

At least the figures on that mirror of the flame were a miracle. Nay,
why so? A hundred clairvoyants in a hundred cities can produce or see
their like in water and in crystal, the difference being only one
of size. They were but reflections of scenes familiar to the mind of
Ayesha, or perhaps not so much as that. Perhaps they were only phantasms
called up in _our_ minds by her mesmeric force.

Nay, none of these things were true miracles, since all, however
strange, might be capable of explanation. What right then had we to
expect a marvel now?

Such thoughts as these rose in our minds as the endless minutes were
born and died and--nothing happened.

Yes, at last one thing did happen. The light from the sheet of flame
died gradually away as the flame itself sank downwards into the abysses
of the pit. But about this in itself there was nothing wonderful, for
as we had seen with our own eyes from afar this fire varied much, and
indeed it was customary for it to die down at the approach of dawn,
which now drew very near.

Still that onward-creeping darkness added to the terrors of the scene.
By the last rays of the lurid light we saw Ayesha rise and advance some
few paces to that little tongue of rock at the edge of the pit off
which the body of Rassen had been hurled; saw her standing on it, also,
looking like some black, misshapen imp against the smoky glow which
still rose from the depths beneath.

Leo would have gone forward to her, for he believed that she was about
to hurl herself to doom, which indeed I thought was her design. But the
priest Oros, and the priestess Papave, obeying, I suppose, some secret
command that reached them I know not how, sprang to him and seizing his
arms, held him back. Then it became quite dark, and through the darkness
we could hear Ayesha chanting a dirge-like hymn in some secret, holy
tongue which was unknown to us.

A great flake of fire floated through the gloom, rocking to and fro like
some vast bird upon its pinions. We had seen many such that night, torn
by the gale from the crest of the blazing curtain as I have described.
But--but--"Horace," whispered Leo through his chattering teeth, "that
flame is coming up _against the wind!_"

"Perhaps the wind has changed," I answered, though I knew well that it
had not; that it blew stronger than ever from the south.

Nearer and nearer sailed the rocking flame, two enormous wings was the
shape of it, with something dark between them. It reached the little
promontory. The wings appeared to fold themselves about the dwarfed
figure that stood thereon--illuminating it for a moment. Then the light
went out of them and they vanished--everything vanished.

A while passed, it may have been one minute or ten, when suddenly the
priestess Papave, in obedience to some summons which we could not hear,
crept by me. I knew that it was she because her woman's garments touched
me as she went. Another space of silence and of deep darkness, during
which I heard Papave return, breathing in short, sobbing gasps like one
who is very frightened.

Ah! I thought, Ayesha has cast herself into the pit. The tragedy is
finished!

Then it was that the wondrous music came. Of course it _may_ have been
only the sound of priests chanting beyond us, but I do not think so,
since its quality was quite different to any that I heard in the temple
before or afterwards: to any indeed that ever I heard upon the earth.

I cannot describe it, but it was awful to listen to, yet most
entrancing. From the black, smoke-veiled pit where the fire had burned
it welled and echoed--now a single heavenly voice, now a sweet chorus,
and now an air-shaking thunder as of a hundred organs played to time.

That diverse and majestic harmony seemed to include, to express
every human emotion, and I have often thought since then that in its
all-embracing scope and range, this, the song or paean of her re-birth
was symbolical of the infinite variety of Ayesha's spirit. Yet like that
spirit it had its master notes; power, passion, suffering, mystery and
loveliness. Also there could be no doubt as to the general significance
of the chant by whomsoever it was sung. It was the changeful story of a
mighty soul; it was worship, worship, worship of a queen divine!

Like slow clouds of incense fading to the bannered roof of some high
choir, the bursts of unearthly melodies grew faint; in the far distance
of the hollow pit they wailed themselves away.

Look! from the east a single ray of upward-springing light.

"Behold the dawn," said the quiet voice of Oros.

That ray pierced the heavens above our heads, a very sword of flame. It
sank downwards, swiftly. Suddenly it fell, not upon us, for as yet
the rocky walls of our chamber warded it away, but on to the little
promontory at its edge.

Oh! and there--a Glory covered with a single garment--stood a shape
celestial. It seemed to be asleep, since the eyes were shut. Or was it
dead, for at first that face was a face of death? Look, the sunlight
played upon her, shining through the thin veil, the dark eyes opened
like the eyes of a wondering child; the blood of life flowed up the
ivory bosom into the pallid cheeks; the raiment of black and curling
tresses wavered in the wind; the head of the jewelled snake that held
them sparkled beneath her breast.

Was it an illusion, or was this Ayesha as she had been when she entered
the rolling flame in the caverns of Kor? Our knees gave way beneath us,
and down, our arms about each other's necks, Leo and I sank till we
lay upon the ground. Then a voice sweeter than honey, softer than the
whisper of a twilight breeze among the reeds, spoke near to us, and
these were the words it said--"_Come hither to me, Kallikrates, who
would pay thee back that redeeming kiss of faith and love thou gavest me
but now!_"

Leo struggled to his feet. Like a drunken man he staggered to where
Ayesha stood, then overcome, sank before her on his knees.

"Arise," she said, "it is I who should kneel to thee," and she stretched
out her hand to raise him, whispering in his ear the while.

Still he would not, or could not rise, so very slowly she bent over him
and touched him with her lips upon the brow. Next she beckoned to me. I
came and would have knelt also, but she suffered it not.

"Nay," she said, in her rich, remembered voice, "thou art no suitor; it
shall not be. Of lovers and worshippers henceforth as before, I can find
a plenty if I will, or even if I will it not. But where shall I find
another friend like to thee, O Holly, whom thus I greet?" and leaning
towards me, with her lips she touched me also on the brow--just touched
me, and no more.

Fragrant was Ayesha's breath as roses, the odour of roses clung to her
lovely hair; her sweet body gleamed like some white sea-pearl; a faint
but palpable radiance crowned her head; no sculptor ever fashioned such
a marvel as the arm with which she held her veil about her; no stars in
heaven ever shone more purely bright than did her calm, entranced eyes.

Yet it is true, even with her lips upon me, all I felt for her was a
love divine into which no human passion entered. Once, I acknowledge to
my shame, it was otherwise, but I am an old man now and have done with
such frailties. Moreover, had not Ayesha named me Guardian, Protector,
Friend, and sworn to me that with her and Leo I should ever dwell where
all earthly passions fail. I repeat: what more could I desire?

Taking Leo by the hand Ayesha returned with him into the shelter of the
rock-hewn chamber and when she entered its shadows, shivered a little as
though with cold. I rejoiced at this I remember, for it seemed to show
me that she still was human, divine as she might appear. Here her priest
and priestess prostrated themselves before her new-born splendour, but
she motioned to them to rise, laying a hand upon the head of each as
though in blessing. "I am cold," she said, "give me my mantle," and
Papave threw the purple-broidered garment upon her shoulders, whence now
it hung royally, like a coronation robe.

"Nay," she went on, "it is not this long-lost shape of mine, which in
his kiss my lord gave back to me, that shivers in the icy wind, it is my
spirit's self bared to the bitter breath of Destiny. O my love, my
love, offended Powers are not easily appeased, even when they appear to
pardon, and though I shall no more be made a mockery in thy sight, how
long is given us together upon the world I know not; but a little hour
perchance. Well, ere we pass otherwhere, we will make it glorious,
drinking as deeply of the cup of joy as we have drunk of those of
sorrows and of shame. This place is hateful to me, for here I have
suffered more than ever woman did on earth or phantom in the deepest
hell. It is hateful, it is ill-omened. I pray that never again may I
behold it.

"Say, what is it passes in thy mind, magician?" and of a sudden she
turned fiercely upon the Shaman Simbri who stood near, his arms crossed
upon his breast.

"Only, thou Beautiful," he answered, "a dim shadow of things to come. I
have what thou dost lack with all thy wisdom, the gift of foresight, and
here I see a dead man lying----"

"Another word," she broke in with fury born of some dark fear, "and thou
shalt be that man. Fool, put me not in mind that now I have strength
again to rid me of the ancient foes I hate, lest I should use a sword
thou thrustest to my hand," and her eyes that had been so calm and
happy, blazed upon him like fire.

The old wizard felt their fearsome might and shrank from it till the
wall stayed him.

"Great One! now as ever I salute thee. Yes, now as at the first
beginning whereof we know alone," he stammered. "I had no more to say;
the face of that dead man was not revealed to me. I saw only that some
crowned Khan of Kaloon to be shall lie here, as he whom the flame has
taken lay an hour ago."

"Doubtless many a Khan of Kaloon will lie here," she answered coldly.
"Fear not, Shaman, my wrath is past, yet be wise, mine enemy, and
prophesy no more evil to the great. Come, let us hence."

So, still led by Leo, she passed from that chamber and stood presently
upon the apex of the soaring pillar. The sun was up now, flooding the
Mountain flanks, the plains of Kaloon far beneath and the distant,
misty peaks with a sheen of gold. Ayesha stood considering the mighty
prospect, then addressing Leo, she said--"The world is very fair; I give
it all to thee."

Now Atene spoke for the first time.

"Dost thou mean Hes--if thou art still the Hesea and not a demon
arisen from the Pit--that thou offerest my territories to this man as a
love-gift? If so, I tell thee that first thou must conquer them."

"Ungentle are thy words and mien," answered Ayesha, "yet I forgive them
both, for I also can scorn to mock a rival in my hour of victory. When
thou wast the fairer, thou didst proffer him these very lands, but say,
who is the fairer now? Look at us, all of you, and judge," and she stood
by Atene and smiled.

The Khania was a lovely woman. Never to my knowledge have I seen one
lovelier, but oh! how coarse and poor she showed beside the wild,
ethereal beauty of Ayesha born again. For that beauty was not altogether
human, far less so indeed than it had been in the Caves of Kor; now it
was the beauty of a spirit.

The little light that always shone upon Ayesha's brow; the wide-set,
maddening eyes which were filled sometimes with the fire of the stars
and sometimes with the blue darkness of the heavens wherein they float;
the curved lips, so wistful yet so proud; the tresses fine as glossy
silk that still spread and rippled as though with a separate life; the
general air, not so much of majesty as of some secret power hard to
be restrained, which strove in that delicate body and proclaimed its
presence to the most careless; that flame of the soul within whereof
Oros had spoken, shining now through no "vile vessel," but in a vase
of alabaster and of pearl--none of these things and qualities were
altogether human. I felt it and was afraid, and Atene felt it also, for
she answered--"I am but a woman. What thou art, thou knowest best. Still
a taper cannot shine midst yonder fires or a glow-worm against a fallen
star; nor can my mortal flesh compare with the glory thou hast earned
from hell in payment for thy gifts and homage to the lord of ill. Yet as
woman I am thy equal, and as spirit I shall be thy mistress, when robbed
of these borrowed beauties thou, Ayesha, standest naked and ashamed
before the Judge of all whom thou hast deserted and defied; yes, as thou
stoodest but now upon yonder brink above the burning pit where thou yet
shalt wander wailing thy lost love. For this I know, mine enemy, that
_man and spirit cannot mate_," and Atene ceased, choking in her bitter
rage and jealousy.

Now watching Ayesha, I saw her wince a little beneath these evil-omened
words, saw also a tinge of grey touch the carmine of her lips and her
deep eyes grow dark and troubled. But in a moment her fears had gone and
she was asking in a voice that rang clear as silver bells--"Why ravest
thou, Atene, like some short-lived summer torrent against the barrier
of a seamless cliff? Dost think, poor creature of an hour, to sweep away
the rock of my eternal strength with foam and bursting bubbles? Have
done and listen. I do not seek thy petty rule, who, if I will it, can
take the empire of the world. Yet learn, thou holdest it of my hand.
More--I purpose soon to visit thee in thy city--choose thou if it shall
be in peace or war! Therefore, Khania, purge thy court and amend thy
laws, that when I come I may find contentment in the land which now it
lacks, and confirm thee in thy government. My counsel to thee also is
that thou choose some worthy man to husband, let him be whom thou wilt,
if only he is just and upright and one upon whom thou mayest rest,
needing wise guidance as thou dost, Atene. Come, now, my guests, let
us hence," and she walked past the Khania, stepping fearlessly upon the
very edge of the wind-swept, rounded peak.

In a second the attempt had been made and failed, so quickly indeed that
it was not until Leo and I compared our impressions afterwards that we
could be sure of what had happened. As Ayesha passed her, the maddened
Khania drew a hidden dagger and struck with all her force at her rival's
back. I saw the knife vanish to the hilt in her body, as I thought, but
this cannot have been so since it fell to the ground, and she who should
have been dead, took no hurt at all.

Feeling that she had failed, with a movement like the sudden lurch of
a ship, Atene thrust at Ayesha, proposing to hurl her to destruction
in the depths beneath. Lo! her outstretched arms went past her although
Ayesha never seemed to stir. Yes it was Atene who would have fallen,
Atene who already fell, had not Ayesha put out her hand and caught
her by the wrist, bearing all her backward-swaying weight as easily as
though she were but an infant, and without effort drawing her to safety.

"Foolish woman!" she said in pitying tones. "Wast thou so vexed that
thou wouldst strip thyself of the pleasant shape which heaven has
given thee? Surely this is madness, Atene, for how knowest thou in what
likeness thou mightest be sent to tread the earth again? As no queen
perhaps, but as a peasant's child, deformed, unsightly; for such reward,
it is said, is given to those that achieve self-murder. Or even, as many
think, shaped like a beast--a snake, a cat, a tigress! Why, see," and
she picked the dagger from the ground and cast it into the air, "that
point was poisoned. Had it but pricked thee now!" and she smiled at her
and shook her head.

But Atene could bear no more of this mockery, more venomed than her own
steel.

"Thou art not mortal," she wailed. "How can I prevail against thee? To
Heaven I leave thy punishment," and there upon the rocky peak Atene sank
down and wept.

Leo stood nearest to her, and the sight of this royal woman in her
misery proved too much for him to bear. Stepping to her side he stooped
and lifted her to her feet, muttering some kind words. For a moment she
rested on his arm, then shook herself free of him and took the proffered
hand of her old uncle Simbri.

"I see," said Ayesha, "that as ever, thou art courteous, my lord Leo,
but it is best that her own servant should take charge of her, for--she
may hide more daggers. Come, the day grows, and surely we need rest."



CHAPTER XVII

THE BETROTHAL

Together we descended the multitudinous steps and passed the endless,
rock-hewn passages till we came to the door of the dwelling of the
high-priestess and were led through it into a hall beyond. Here Ayesha
parted from us saying that she was outworn, as indeed she seemed to be
with an utter weariness, not of the body, but of the spirit. For her
delicate form drooped like a rain-laden lily, her eyes grew dim as those
of a person in a trance, and her voice came in a soft, sweet whisper,
the voice of one speaking in her sleep.

"Good-bye," she said to us. "Oros will guard you both, and lead you to
me at the appointed time. Rest you well."

So she went and the priest led us into a beautiful apartment that opened
on to a sheltered garden. So overcome were we also by all that we had
endured and seen, that we could scarcely speak, much less discuss these
marvellous events.

"My brain swims," said Leo to Oros, "I desire to sleep."

He bowed and conducted us to a chamber where were beds, and on these we
flung ourselves down and slept, dreamlessly, like little children.

When we awoke it was afternoon. We rose and bathed, then saying that
we wished to be alone, went together into the garden where even at
this altitude, now, at the end of August, the air was still mild and
pleasant. Behind a rock by a bed of campanulas and other mountain
flowers and ferns, was a bench near to the banks of a little stream, on
which we seated ourselves.

"What have you to say, Horace?" asked Leo laying his hand upon my arm.

"Say?" I answered. "That things have come about most marvellously; that
we have dreamed aright and laboured not in vain; that you are the most
fortunate of men and should be the most happy."

He looked at me somewhat strangely, and answered--"Yes, of course;
she is lovely, is she not--but," and his voice dropped to its lowest
whisper, "I wish, Horace, that Ayesha were a little more human, even as
human as she was in the Caves of Kor. I don't think she is quite flesh
and blood, I felt it when she kissed me--if you can call it a kiss--for
she barely touched my hair. Indeed how can she be who changed thus in an
hour? Flesh and blood are not born of flame, Horace."

"Are you sure that she was so born?" I asked. "Like the visions on the
fire, may not that hideous shape have been but an illusion of our minds?
May she not be still the same Ayesha whom we knew in Kor, not re-born,
but wafted hither by some mysterious agency?"

"Perhaps. Horace, we do not know--I think that we shall never know.
But I admit that to me the thing is terrifying. I am drawn to her by
an infinite attraction, her eyes set my blood on fire, the touch of her
hand is as that of a wand of madness laid upon my brain. And yet between
us there is some wall, invisible, still present. Or perhaps it is only
fancy. But, Horace, I think that she is afraid of Atene. Why, in the
old days the Khania would have been dead and forgotten in an hour--you
remember Ustane?"

"Perhaps she may have grown more gentle, Leo, who, like ourselves, has
learned hard lessons."

"Yes," he answered, "I hope that is so. At any rate she has grown more
divine--only, Horace, what kind of a husband shall I be for that bright
being, if ever I get so far?"

"Why should you not get so far?" I asked angrily, for his words jarred
upon my tense nerves.

"I don't know," he answered, "but on general principles do you think
that such fortune will be allowed to a man? Also, what did Atene mean
when she said that man and spirit cannot mate--and--other things?"

"She meant that she _hoped_ they could not, I imagine, and, Leo, it is
useless to trouble yourself with forebodings that are more fitted to my
years than yours, and probably are based on nothing. Be a philosopher,
Leo. You have striven by wonderful ways such as are unknown in the
history of the world; you have attained. Take the goods the gods provide
you--the glory, the love and the power--and let the future look to
itself."

Before he could answer Oros appeared from round the rock, and, bowing
with more than his usual humility to Leo, said that the Hesea desired
our presence at a service in the Sanctuary. Rejoiced at the prospect
of seeing her again before he had hoped to do so, Leo sprang up and we
accompanied him back to our apartment.

Here priests were waiting, who, somewhat against his will, trimmed his
hair and beard, and would have done the same for me had I not refused
their offices. Then they placed gold-embroidered sandals on our feet and
wrapped Leo in a magnificent, white robe, also richly worked with gold
and purple; a somewhat similar robe but of less ornate design being
given to me. Lastly, a silver sceptre was thrust into his hand and into
mine a plain wand. This sceptre was shaped like a crook, and the sight
of it gave me some clue to the nature of the forthcoming ceremony.

"The crook of Osiris!" I whispered to Leo.

"Look here," he answered, "I don't want to impersonate any Egyptian god,
or to be mixed up in their heathen idolatries; in fact, I won't."

"Better go through with it," I suggested, "probably it is only something
symbolical."

But Leo, who, notwithstanding the strange circumstances connected with
his life, retained the religious principles in which I had educated him,
very strongly indeed, refused to move an inch until the nature of this
service was made clear to him. Indeed he expressed himself upon the
subject with vigour to Oros. At first the priest seemed puzzled what to
do, then explained that the forthcoming ceremony was one of betrothal.

On learning this Leo raised no further objections, asking only with some
nervousness whether the Khania would be present. Oros answered "No," as
she had already departed to Kaloon, vowing war and vengeance.

Then we were led through long passages, till finally we emerged into the
gallery immediately in front of the great wooden doors of the apse. At
our approach these swung open and we entered it, Oros going first, then
Leo, then myself, and following us, the procession of attendant priests.

As soon as our eyes became accustomed to the dazzling glare of the
flaming pillars, we saw that some great rite was in progress in the
temple, for in front of the divine statue of Motherhood, white-robed
and arranged in serried ranks, stood the company of the priests to
the number of over two hundred, and behind these the company of the
priestesses. Facing this congregation and a little in advance of the two
pillars of fire that flared on either side of the shrine, Ayesha herself
was seated in a raised chair so that she could be seen of all, while to
her right stood a similar chair of which I could guess the purpose.

She was unveiled and gorgeously apparelled, though save for the white
beneath, her robes were those of a queen rather than of a priestess.
About her radiant brow ran a narrow band of gold, whence rose the head
of a hooded asp cut out of a single, crimson jewel, beneath which in
endless profusion the glorious waving hair flowed down and around,
hiding even the folds of her purple cloak.

This cloak, opening in front, revealed an undertunic of white silk cut
low upon her bosom and kept in place by a golden girdle, a double-headed
snake, so like to that which She had worn in Kor that it might have been
the same. Her naked arms were bare of ornament, and in her right hand
she held the jewelled sistrum set with its gems and bells.

No empress could have looked more royal and no woman was ever half so
lovely, for to Ayesha's human beauty was added a spiritual glory,
her heritage alone. Seeing her we could see naught else. The rhythmic
movement of the bodies of the worshippers, the rolling grandeur of their
chant of welcome echoed from the mighty roof, the fearful torches of
living flame; all these things were lost on us. For there re-born,
enthroned, her arms stretched out in gracious welcome, sat that perfect
and immortal woman, the appointed bride of one of us, the friend and
lady of the other, her divine presence breathing power, mystery and
love.

On we marched between the ranks of hierophants, till Oros and the
priests left us and we stood alone face to face with Ayesha. Now she
lifted her sceptre and the chant ceased. In the midst of the following
silence, she rose from her seat and gliding down its steps, came to
where Leo stood and touched him on the forehead with her sistrum, crying
in a loud, sweet voice--"Behold the Chosen of the Hesea!" whereon all
that audience echoed in a shout of thunder--"Welcome to the Chosen of
the Hesea!"

Then while the echoes of that glad cry yet rang round the rocky walls,
Ayesha motioned to me to stand at her side, and taking Leo by the hand
drew him towards her, so that now he faced the white-robed company.
Holding him thus she began to speak in clear and silvery tones.

"Priests and priestesses of Hes, servants with her of the Mother of the
world, hear me. Now for the first time I appear among you as _I_ am, you
who heretofore have looked but on a hooded shape, not knowing its form
or fashion. Learn now the reason that I draw my veil. Ye see this man,
whom ye believed a stranger that with his companion had wandered to
our shrine. I tell you that he is no stranger; that of old, in lives
forgotten, he was my lord who now comes to seek his love again. Say, is
it not so, Kallikrates?"

"It is so," answered Leo.

"Priests and priestesses of Hes, as ye know, from the beginning it has
been the right and custom of her who holds my place to choose one to be
her lord. Is it not so?"

"It is so, O Hes," they answered.

She paused a while, then with a gesture of infinite sweetness turned to
Leo, bent towards him thrice and slowly sank upon her knee.

"Say thou," Ayesha said, looking up at him with her wondrous eyes, "say
before these here gathered, and all those witnesses whom thou canst not
see, dost thou again accept me as thy affianced bride?"

"Aye, Lady," he answered, in a deep but shaken voice, "now and for
ever."

Then while all watched, in the midst of a great silence, Ayesha rose,
cast down her sistrum sceptre that rang upon the rocky floor, and
stretched out her arms towards him.

Leo also bent towards her, and would have kissed her upon the lips. But
I who watched, saw his face grow white as it drew near to hers. While
the radiance crept from her brow to his, turning his bright hair to
gold, I saw also that this strong man trembled like a reed and seemed as
though he were about to fall.

I think that Ayesha noted it too, for ere ever their lips met, she
thrust him from her and again that grey mist of fear gathered on her
face.

In an instant it passed. She had slipped from him and with her hand held
his hand as though to support him. Thus they stood till his feet grew
firm and his strength returned.

Oros restored the sceptre to her, and lifting it she said--"O love and
lord, take thou the place prepared for thee, where thou shalt sit for
ever at my side, for with myself I give thee more than thou canst know
or than I will tell thee now. Mount thy throne, O Affianced of Hes, and
receive the worship of thy priests."

"Nay," he answered with a start as that word fell upon his ears. "Here
and now I say it once and for all. I am but a man who know nothing of
strange gods, their attributes and ceremonials. None shall bow the knee
to me and on earth, Ayesha, I bow mine to thee alone."

Now at this bold speech some of those who heard it looked astonished and
whispered to each other, while a voice called--"Beware, thou Chosen, of
the anger of the Mother!"

Again for a moment Ayesha looked afraid, then with a little laugh, swept
the thing aside, saying--"Surely with that I should be content. For me,
O Love, thy adoration for thee the betrothal song, no more."

So having no choice Leo mounted the throne, where notwithstanding his
splendid presence, enhanced as it was by those glittering robes, he
looked ill enough at ease, as indeed must any man of his faith and
race. Happily however, if some act of semi-idolatrous homage had been
proposed, Ayesha found a means to prevent its celebration, and soon all
such matters were forgotten both by the singers who sang, and us who
listened to the majestic chant that followed.

Of its words unfortunately we were able to understand but little, both
because of the volume of sound and of the secret, priestly language in
which it was given, though its general purport could not be mistaken.

The female voices began it, singing very low, and conveying a strange
impression of time and distance. Now followed bursts of gladness
alternating with melancholy chords suggesting sighs and tears and
sorrows long endured, and at the end a joyous, triumphant paean thrown
to and fro between the men and women singers, terminating in one
united chorus repeated again and again, louder and yet louder, till it
culminated in a veritable crash of melody, then of a sudden ceased.

Ayesha rose and waved her sceptre, whereon all the company bowed thrice,
then turned and breaking into some sweet, low chant that sounded like a
lullaby, marched, rank after rank, across the width of the Sanctuary and
through the carven doors which closed behind the last of them.

When all had gone, leaving us alone, save for the priest Oros and the
priestess Papave, who remained in attendance on their mistress, Ayesha,
who sat gazing before her with dreaming, empty eyes, seemed to awake,
for she rose and said--"A noble chant, is it not, and an ancient? It was
the wedding song of the feast of Isis and Osiris at Behbit in Egypt, and
there I heard it before ever I saw the darksome Caves of Kor. Often have
I observed, my Holly, that music lingers longer than aught else in this
changeful world, though it is rare that the very words should remain
unvaried. Come, beloved--tell me, by what name shall I call thee? Thou
art Kallikrates and yet----"

"Call me Leo, Ayesha," he answered, "as I was christened in the only
life of which I have any knowledge. This Kallikrates seems to have been
an unlucky man, and the deeds he did, if in truth he was aught other
than a tool in the hand of destiny, have bred no good to the inheritors
of his body--or his spirit, whichever it may be--or to those women with
whom his life was intertwined. Call me Leo, then, for of Kallikrates I
have had enough since that night when I looked upon the last of him in
Kor."

"Ah! I remember," she answered, "when thou sawest thyself lying in that
narrow bed, and I sang thee a song, did I not, of the past and of the
future? I can recall two lines of it; the rest I have forgotten--

     "'Onward, never weary, clad with splendour for a robe!
     Till accomplished be our fate, and the night is rushing down.'

"Yes, my Leo, now indeed we are 'clad with splendour for a robe,' and
now our fate draws near to its accomplishment. Then perchance will come
the down-rushing of the night;" and she sighed, looked up tenderly and
said, "See, I am talking to thee in Arabic. Hast thou forgotten it?"

"No."

"Then let it be our tongue, for I love it best of all, who lisped it at
my mother's knee. Now leave me here alone awhile; I would think. Also,"
she added thoughtfully, and speaking with a strange and impressive
inflexion of the voice, "there are some to whom I must give audience."

So we went, all of us, supposing that Ayesha was about to receive a
deputation of the Chiefs of the Mountain Tribes who came to felicitate
her upon her betrothal.



CHAPTER XVIII

THE THIRD ORDEAL

An hour, two hours passed, while we strove to rest in our sleeping
place, but could not, for some influence disturbed us.

"Why does not Ayesha come?" asked Leo at length, pausing in his walk up
and down the room. "I want to see her again; I cannot bear to be apart
from her. I feel as though she were drawing me to her."

"How can I tell you? Ask Oros; he is outside the door."

So he went and asked him, but Oros only smiled, and answered that the
Hesea had not entered her chamber, so doubtless she must still remain in
the Sanctuary.

"Then I am going to look for her. Come, Oros, and you too, Horace."

Oros bowed, but declined, saying that he was bidden to bide at our door,
adding that we, "to whom all the paths were open," could return to the
Sanctuary if we thought well.

"I do think well," replied Leo sharply. "Will you come, Horace, or shall
I go without you?"

I hesitated. The Sanctuary was a public place, it is true, but Ayesha
had said that she desired to be alone there for awhile. Without more
words, however, Leo shrugged his shoulders and started.

"You will never find your way," I said, and followed him.

We went down the long passages that were dimly lighted with lamps and
came to the gallery. Here we found no lamps; still we groped our way
to the great wooden doors. They were shut, but Leo pushed upon them
impatiently, and one of them swung open a little, so that we could
squeeze ourselves between them. As we passed it closed noiselessly
behind us.

Now we should have been in the Sanctuary, and in the full blaze of
those awful columns of living fire. But they were out, or we had strayed
elsewhere; at least the darkness was intense. We tried to work our way
back to the doors again, but could not. We were lost.

More, something oppressed us; we did not dare to speak. We went on a few
paces and stopped, for we became aware that we were not alone. Indeed,
it seemed to me that we stood in the midst of a thronging multitude,
but not of men and women. Beings pressed about us; we could feel their
robes, yet could not touch them; we could feel their breath, but it was
_cold_. The air stirred all round us as they passed to and fro, passed
in endless numbers. It was as though we had entered a cathedral filled
with the vast congregation of all the dead who once had worshipped
there. We grew afraid--my face was damp with fear, the hair stood up
upon my head. We seemed to have wandered into a hall of the Shades.

At length light appeared far away, and we saw that it emanated from the
two pillars of fire which had burned on either side of the Shrine, that
of a sudden became luminous. So we were in the Sanctuary, and still
near to the doors. Now those pillars were not bright; they were low
and lurid; the rays from them scarcely reached us standing in the dense
shadow.

But if we could not be seen in them we still could see. Look! Yonder sat
Ayesha on a throne, and oh! she was awful in her death-like majesty.
The blue light of the sunken columns played upon her, and in it she
sat erect, with such a face and mien of pride as no human creature ever
wore. Power seemed to flow from her; yes, it flowed from those wide-set,
glittering eyes like light from jewels.

She seemed a Queen of Death receiving homage from the dead. More, she
_was_ receiving homage from dead or living--I know not which--for, as I
thought it, a shadowy Shape arose before the throne and bent the knee to
her, then another, and another, and another.

As each vague Being appeared and bowed its starry head she raised her
sceptre in answering salutation. We could hear the distant tinkle of the
sistrum bells, the only sound in all that place, yes, and see her
lips move, though no whisper reached us from them. Surely spirits were
worshipping her!

We gripped each other. We shrank back and found the door. It gave to
our push. Now we were in the passages again, and now we had reached our
room.

At its entrance Oros was standing as we had left him. He greeted us with
his fixed smile, taking no note of the terror written on our faces. We
passed him, and entering the room stared at each other.

"What is she?" gasped Leo. "An angel?"

"Yes," I answered, "something of that sort." But to myself I thought
that there are doubtless many kinds of angels.

"And what were those--those _shadows_--doing?" he asked again.

"Welcoming her after her transformation, I suppose. But perhaps they
were not shadows--only priests disguised and conducting some secret
ceremonial!"

Leo shrugged his shoulders but made no other answer.

At length the door opened, and Oros, entering, said that the Hesea
commanded our presence in her chamber.

So, still oppressed with fear and wonder--for what we had seen was
perhaps more dreadful than anything that had gone before--we went, to
find Ayesha seated and looking somewhat weary, but otherwise unchanged.
With her was the priestess Papave, who had just unrobed her of the royal
mantle which she wore in the Sanctuary.

Ayesha beckoned Leo to her, taking his hand and searching his face with
her eyes, not without anxiety as I thought.

Now I turned, purposing to leave them alone, but she saw, and said to
me, smiling--"Why wouldst thou forsake us, Holly? To go back to the
Sanctuary once more?" and she looked at me with meaning in her glance.
"Hast thou questions to ask of the statue of the Mother yonder that thou
lovest the place so much? They say it speaks, telling of the future to
those who dare to kneel beside it uncompanioned from night till dawn.
Yet I have often done so, but to me it has never spoken, though none
long to learn the future more."

I made no answer, nor did she seem to expect any, for she went on at
once--"Nay, bide here and let us have done with all sad and solemn
thoughts. We three will sup together as of old, and for awhile forget
our fears and cares, and be happy as children who know not sin and
death, or that change which is death indeed. Oros, await my lord
without. Papave, I will call thee later to disrobe me. Till then let
none disturb us."

The room that Ayesha inhabited was not very large, as we saw by the
hanging lamps with which it was lighted. It was plainly though richly
furnished, the rock walls being covered with tapestries, and the tables
and chairs inlaid with silver, but the only token that here a woman had
her home was that about it stood several bowls of flowers. One of these,
I remember, was filled with the delicate harebells I had admired, dug up
roots and all, and set in moss.

"A poor place," said Ayesha, "yet better than that in which I dwelt
those two thousand years awaiting thy coming, Leo, for, see, beyond
it is a garden, wherein I sit," and she sank down upon a couch by the
table, motioning to us to take our places opposite to her.

The meal was simple; for us, eggs boiled hard and cold venison; for her,
milk, some little cakes of flour, and mountain berries.

Presently Leo rose and threw off his gorgeous, purple-broidered robe,
which he still wore, and cast upon a chair the crook-headed sceptre
that Oros had again thrust into his hand. Ayesha smiled as he did so,
saying--"It would seem that thou holdest these sacred emblems in but
small respect."

"Very small," he answered. "Thou heardest my words in the Sanctuary,
Ayesha, so let us make a pact. Thy religion I do not understand, but I
understand my own, and not even for thy sake will I take part in what I
hold to be idolatry."

Now I thought that she would be angered by this plain speaking, but she
only bowed her head and answered meekly--"Thy will is mine, Leo, though
it will not be easy always to explain thy absence from the ceremonies in
the temple. Yet thou hast a right to thine own faith, which doubtless is
mine also."

"How can that be?" he asked, looking up.

"Because all great Faiths are the same, changed a little to suit the
needs of passing times and peoples. What taught that of Egypt, which,
in a fashion, we still follow here? That hidden in a multitude of
manifestations, one Power great and good, rules all the universes: that
the holy shall inherit a life eternal and the vile, eternal death: that
men shall be shaped and judged by their own hearts and deeds, and here
and hereafter drink of the cup which they have brewed: that their real
home is not on earth, but beyond the earth, where all riddles shall be
answered and all sorrows cease. Say, dost thou believe these things, as
I do?"

"Aye, Ayesha, but Hes or Isis is thy goddess, for hast thou not told
us tales of thy dealings with her in the past, and did we not hear thee
make thy prayer to her? Who, then, is this goddess Hes?"

"Know, Leo, that she is what I named her--Nature's soul, no divinity,
but the secret spirit of the world; that universal Motherhood, whose
symbol thou hast seen yonder, and in whose mysteries lie hid all earthly
life and knowledge."

"Does, then, this merciful Motherhood follow her votaries with death
and evil, as thou sayest she has followed thee for thy disobedience, and
me--and another--because of some unnatural vows broken long ago?" Leo
asked quietly.

Resting her arm upon the table, Ayesha looked at him with sombre eyes
and answered--"In that Faith of thine of which thou speakest are there
perchance two gods, each having many ministers: a god of good and a god
of evil, an Osiris and a Set?"

He nodded.

"I thought it. And the god of ill is strong, is he not, and can put
on the shape of good? Tell me, then, Leo, in the world that is to-day,
whereof I know so little, hast thou ever heard of frail souls who for
some earthly bribe have sold themselves to that evil one, or to his
minister, and been paid their price in bitterness and anguish?"

"All wicked folk do as much in this form or in that," he answered.

"And if once there lived a woman who was mad with the thirst for beauty,
for life, for wisdom, and for love, might she not--oh! might she not
perchance----"

"Sell herself to the god called Set, or one of his angels? Ayesha,
dost thou mean"--and Leo rose, speaking in a voice that was full of
fear--"that thou art such a woman?"

"And if so?" she asked, also rising and drawing slowly near to him.

"If so," he answered hoarsely, "if so, I think that perhaps we had best
fulfil our fates apart----"

"Ah!" she said, with a little scream of pain as though a knife had
stabbed her, "wouldst thou away to Atene? I tell thee that thou canst
not leave me. I have power--above all men thou shouldst know it, whom
once I slew. Nay, thou hast no memory, poor creature of a breath, and
I--I remember too well. I will not hold thee dead again--I'll hold
thee living. Look now on my beauty, Leo"--and she bent her swaying
form towards him, compelling him with her glorious, alluring eyes--"and
begone if thou canst. Why, thou drawest nearer to me. Man, that is not
the path of flight.

"Nay, I will not tempt thee with these common lures. Go, Leo, if thou
wilt. Go, my love, and leave me to my loneliness and my sin. Now--at
once. Atene will shelter thee till spring, when thou canst cross the
mountains and return to thine own world again, and to those things of
common life which are thy joy. See, Leo, I veil myself that thou mayest
not be tempted," and she flung the corner of her cloak about her head,
then asked a sudden question through it--"Didst thou not but now return
to the Sanctuary with Holly after I bade thee leave me there alone?
Methought I saw the two of you standing by its doors."

"Yes, we came to seek thee," he answered.

"And found more than ye sought, as often chances to the bold--is it not
so? Well, I willed that ye should come and see, and protected you where
others might have died."

"What didst thou there upon the throne, and whose were those forms which
we saw bending before thee?" he asked coldly.

"I have ruled in many shapes and lands, Leo. Perchance they were ancient
companions and servitors of mine come to greet me once again and to hear
my tidings. Or perchance they were but shadows of thy brain, pictures
like those upon the fire, that it pleased me to summon to thy sight, to
try thy strength and constancy.

"Leo Vincey, know now the truth; that all things are illusions, even
that there exists no future and no past, that what has been and what
shall be already _is_ eternally. Know that I, Ayesha, am but a magic
wraith, foul when thou seest me foul, fair when thou seest me fair; a
spirit-bubble reflecting a thousand lights in the sunshine of thy smile,
grey as dust and gone in the shadow of thy frown. Think of the throned
Queen before whom the shadowy Powers bowed and worship, for that is I.
Think of the hideous, withered Thing thou sawest naked on the rock, and
flee away, for that is I. Or keep me lovely, and adore, knowing all evil
centred in my spirit, for that is I. Now, Leo, thou hast the truth. Put
me from thee for ever and for ever if thou wilt, and be safe; or clasp
me, clasp me to thy heart, and in payment for my lips and love take my
sin upon thy head! Nay, Holly, be thou silent, for now he must judge
alone."

Leo turned, as I thought, at first, to find the door. But it was not so,
for he did but walk up and down the room awhile. Then he came back to
where Ayesha stood, and spoke quite simply and in a very quiet voice,
such as men of his nature often assume in moments of great emotion.

"Ayesha," he said, "when I saw thee as thou wast, aged and--thou knowest
how--I clung to thee. Now, when thou hast told me the secret of this
unholy pact of thine, when with my eyes, at least, I have seen thee
reigning a mistress of spirits good or ill, yet I cling to thee. Let thy
sin, great or little--whate'er it is--be my sin also. In truth, I feel
its weight sink to my soul and become a part of me, and although I have
no vision or power of prophecy, I am sure that I shall not escape its
punishment. Well, though I be innocent, let me bear it for thy sake. I
am content."

Ayesha heard, the cloak slipped from her head, and for a moment she
stood silent like one amazed, then burst into a passion of sudden tears.
Down she went before him, and clinging to his garments, she bowed her
stately shape until her forehead touched the ground. Yes, that proud
being, who was more than mortal, whose nostrils but now had drunk the
incense of the homage of ghosts or spirits, humbled herself at this
man's feet.

With an exclamation of horror, half-maddened at the piteous sight, Leo
sprang to one side, then stooping, lifted and led her still weeping to
the couch.

"Thou knowest not what thou hast done," Ayesha said at last. "Let all
thou sawest on the Mountain's crest or in the Sanctuary be but visions
of the night; let that tale of an offended goddess be a parable, a
fable, if thou wilt. This at least is true, that ages since I sinned for
thee and against thee and another; that ages since I bought beauty and
life indefinite wherewith I might win thee and endow thee at a cost
which few would dare; that I have paid interest on the debt, in mockery,
utter loneliness, and daily pain which scarce could be endured, until
the bond fell due at last and must be satisfied.

"Yes, how I may not tell thee, thou and thou alone stoodst between me
and the full discharge of this most dreadful debt--for know that in
mercy it is given to us to redeem one another."

Now he would have spoken, but with a motion of her hand she bade him be
silent, and continued--"See now, Leo, three great dangers has thy
body passed of late upon its journey to my side; the Death-hounds,
the Mountains, and the Precipice. Know that these were but types and
ordained foreshadowings of the last threefold trial of thy soul. From
the pursuing passions of Atene which must have undone us both, thou hast
escaped victorious. Thou hast endured the desert loneliness of the
sands and snows starving for a comfort that never came. Even when the
avalanche thundered round thee thy faith stood fast as it stood above
the Pit of flame, while after bitter years of doubt a rushing flood
of horror swallowed up thy hopes. As thou didst descend the glacier's
steep, not knowing what lay beneath that fearful path, so but now and of
thine own choice, for very love of me, thou hast plunged headlong into
an abyss that is deeper far, to share its terrors with my spirit. Dost
thou understand at last?"

"Something, not all, I think," he answered slowly.

"Surely thou art wrapped in a double veil of blindness," she cried
impatiently. "Listen again:

"Hadst thou yielded to Nature's crying and rejected me but yesterday,
in that foul shape I must perchance have lingered for uncounted time,
playing the poor part of priestess of a forgotten faith. This was the
first temptation, the ordeal of thy flesh--nay, not the first--the
second, for Atene and her lurings were the first. But thou wast loyal,
and in the magic of thy conquering love my beauty and my womanhood were
re-born.

"Hadst thou rejected me to-night, when, as I was bidden to do, I showed
thee that vision in the Sanctuary and confessed to thee my soul's black
crime, then hopeless and helpless, unshielded by my earthly power, I
must have wandered on into the deep and endless night of solitude.
This was the third appointed test, the trial of thy spirit, and by thy
steadfastness, Leo, thou hast loosed the hand of Destiny from about my
throat. Now I am regenerate in thee--through thee may hope again for
some true life beyond, which thou shalt share. And yet, and yet, if thou
shouldst suffer, as well may chance----"

"Then I suffer, and there's an end," broke in Leo serenely. "Save for
a few things my mind is clear, and there must be justice for us all at
last. If I have broken the bond that bound thee, if I have freed thee
from some threatening, spiritual ill by taking a risk upon my head,
well, I have not lived, and if need be, shall not die in vain. So let us
have done with all these problems, or rather first answer thou me one.
Ayesha, how wast thou changed upon that peak?"

"In flame I left thee, Leo, and in flame I did return, as in flame,
mayhap, we shall both depart. Or perhaps the change was in the eyes of
all of you who watched, and not in this shape of mine. I have answered.
Seek to learn no more."

"One thing I do still seek to learn. Ayesha, we were betrothed to-night.
When wilt thou marry me?"

"Not yet, not yet," she answered hurriedly, her voice quivering as she
spoke. "Leo, thou must put that hope from thy thoughts awhile, and for
some few months, a year perchance, be content to play the part of friend
and lover."

"Why so?" he asked, with bitter disappointment. "Ayesha, those parts
have been mine for many a day; more, I grow no younger, and, unlike
thee, shall soon be old. Also, life is fleeting, and sometimes I think
that I near its end."

"Speak no such evil-omened words," she said, springing from the couch
and stamping her sandalled foot upon the ground in anger born of fear.
"Yet thou sayest truth; thou art unfortified against the accidents of
time and chance. Oh! horrible, horrible; thou mightest die again, and
leave me living."

"Then give me of thy life, Ayesha."

"That would I gladly, all of it, couldst thou but repay me with the boon
of death to come.

"Oh! ye poor mortals," she went on, with a sudden burst of passion; "ye
beseech your gods for the gift of many years, being ignorant that ye
would sow a seed within your breasts whence ye must garner ten thousand
miseries. Know ye not that this world is indeed the wide house of hell,
in whose chambers from time to time the spirit tarries a little while,
then, weary and aghast, speeds wailing to the peace that it has won.

"Think then what it is to live on here eternally and yet be human; to
age in soul and see our beloved die and pass to lands whither we may
not hope to follow; to wait while drop by drop the curse of the long
centuries falls upon our imperishable being, like water slow dripping on
a diamond that it cannot wear, till they be born anew forgetful of us,
and again sink from our helpless arms into the void unknowable.

"Think what it is to see the sins we sin, the tempting look, the word
idle or unkind--aye, even the selfish thought or struggle, multiplied
ten thousandfold and more eternal than ourselves, spring up upon the
universal bosom of the earth to be the bane of a million destinies,
whilst the everlasting Finger writes its endless count, and a cold
voice of Justice cries in our conscience-haunted solitude, 'Oh! soul
unshriven, behold the ripening harvest thy wanton hand did scatter, and
long in vain for the waters of forgetfulness.'

"Think what it is to have every earthly wisdom, yet to burn unsatisfied
for the deeper and forbidden draught; to gather up all wealth and power
and let them slip again, like children weary of a painted toy; to sweep
the harp of fame, and, maddened by its jangling music, to stamp it small
beneath our feet; to snatch at pleasure's goblet and find its wine is
sand, and at length, outworn, to cast us down and pray the pitiless gods
with whose stolen garment we have wrapped ourselves, to take it back
again, and suffer us to slink naked to the grave.

"Such is the life thou askest, Leo. Say, wilt thou have it now?"

"If it may be shared with thee," he answered. "These woes are born of
loneliness, but then our perfect fellowship would turn them into joy."

"Aye," she said, "while it was permitted to endure. So be it, Leo. In
the spring, when the snows melt, we will journey together to Libya, and
there thou shalt be bathed in the Fount of Life, that forbidden Essence
of which once thou didst fear to drink. Afterwards I will wed thee."

"That place is closed for ever, Ayesha."

"Not to my feet and thine," she answered. "Fear not, my love, were this
mountain heaped thereon, I would blast a path through it with mine eyes
and lay its secret bare. Oh! would that thou wast as I am, for then
before tomorrow's sun we'd watch the rolling pillar thunder by, and thou
shouldst taste its glory.

"But it may not be. Hunger or cold can starve thee, and waters drown;
swords can slay thee, or sickness sap away thy strength. Had it not been
for the false Atene, who disobeyed my words, as it was foredoomed
that she should do, by this day we were across the mountains, or had
travelled northward through the frozen desert and the rivers. Now we
must await the melting of the snows, for winter is at hand, and in it,
as thou knowest, no man can live upon their heights."

"Eight months till April before we can start, and how long to cross
the mountains and all the vast distances beyond, and the seas, and the
swamps of Kor? Why, at the best, Ayesha, two years must go by before we
can even find the place;" and he fell to entreating her to let them be
wed at once and journey afterwards.

But she said, Nay, and nay, and nay, it should not be, till at length,
as though fearing his pleading, or that of her own heart, she rose and
dismissed us.

"Ah! my Holly," she said to me as we three parted, "I promised thee and
myself some few hours of rest and of the happiness of quiet, and thou
seest how my desire has been fulfilled. Those old Egyptians were wont
to share their feasts with one grizzly skeleton, but here I counted four
to-night that you both could see, and they are named Fear, Suspense,
Foreboding, and Love-denied. Doubtless also, when these are buried
others will come to haunt us, and snatch the poor morsel from our lips.

"So hath it ever been with me, whose feet misfortune dogs. Yet I hope
on, and now many a barrier lies behind us; and Leo, thou hast been
tried in the appointed, triple fires and yet proved true. Sweet be thy
slumbers, O my love, and sweeter still thy dreams, for know, my soul
shall share them. I vow to thee that to-morrow we'll be happy, aye,
to-morrow without fail."

"Why will she not marry me at once?" asked Leo, when we were alone in
our chamber. "Because she is afraid," I answered.



CHAPTER XIX

LEO AND THE LEOPARD

During the weeks that followed these momentous days often and often I
wondered to myself whether a more truly wretched being had ever lived
than the woman, or the spirit, whom we knew as She, Hes, and Ayesha.
Whether in fact also, or in our imagination only, she had arisen from
the ashes of her hideous age into the full bloom of perpetual life and
beauty inconceivable.

These things at least were certain: Ayesha had achieved the secret of
an existence so enduring that for all human purposes it might be called
unending. Within certain limitations--such as her utter inability to
foresee the future--undoubtedly also, she was endued with powers that
can only be described as supernatural.

Her rule over the strange community amongst whom she lived was absolute;
indeed, its members regarded her as a goddess, and as such she was
worshipped. After marvellous adventures, the man who was her very life,
I might almost say her soul, whose being was so mysteriously intertwined
with hers, whom she loved also with the intensest human passion of which
woman can be capable, had sought her out in this hidden corner of the
world.

More, thrice he had proved his unalterable fidelity to her. First,
by his rejection of the royal and beautiful, if undisciplined, Atene.
Secondly, by clinging to Ayesha when she seemed to be repulsive to every
natural sense. Thirdly, after that homage scene in the Sanctuary--though
with her unutterable perfections before his eyes this did not appear to
be so wonderful--by steadfastness in the face of her terrible avowal,
true or false, that she had won her gifts and him through some
dim, unholy pact with the powers of evil, in the unknown fruits
and consequences of which he must be involved as the price of her
possession.

Yet Ayesha was miserable. Even in her lightest moods it was clear to
me that those skeletons at the feast of which she had spoken were her
continual companions. Indeed, when we were alone she would acknowledge
it in dark hints and veiled allegories or allusions. Crushed though her
rival the Khania Atene might be, also she was still jealous of her.

Perhaps "afraid" would be a better word, for some instinct seemed to
warn Ayesha that soon or late her hour would come to Atene again, and
that then it would be her own turn to drink of the bitter waters of
despair.

What troubled her more a thousandfold, however, were her fears for Leo.
As may well be understood, to stand in his intimate relationship to this
half divine and marvellous being, and yet not to be allowed so much as
to touch her lips, did not conduce to his physical or mental well-being,
especially as he knew that the wall of separation must not be climbed
for at least two years. Little wonder that Leo lost appetite, grew thin
and pale, and could not sleep, or that he implored her continually to
rescind her decree and marry him.

But on this point Ayesha was immovable. Instigated thereto by Leo, and
I may add my own curiosity, when we were alone I questioned her again
as to the reasons of this self-denying ordinance. All she would tell me,
however, was that between them rose the barrier of Leo's mortality, and
that until his physical being had been impregnated with the mysterious
virtue of the Vapour of Life, it was not wise that she should take him
as a husband.

I asked her why, seeing that though a long-lived one, she was still a
woman, whereon her face assumed a calm but terrifying smile, and she
answered--"Art so sure, my Holly? Tell me, do your women wear such
jewels as that set upon my brow?" and she pointed to the faint but
lambent light which glowed about her forehead.

More, she began slowly to stroke her abundant hair, then her breast and
body. Wherever her fingers passed the mystic light was born, until in
that darkened room--for the dusk was gathering--she shimmered from head
to foot like the water of a phosphorescent sea, a being glorious yet
fearful to behold. Then she waved her hand, and, save for the gentle
radiance on her brow, became as she had been.

"Art so sure, my Holly?" Ayesha repeated. "Nay, shrink not; that flame
will not burn thee. Mayhap thou didst but imagine it, as I have noted
thou dost imagine many things; for surely no woman could clothe herself
in light and live, nor has so much as the smell of fire passed upon my
garments."

Then at length my patience was outworn, and I grew angry.

"I am sure of nothing, Ayesha," I answered, "except that thou wilt make
us mad with all these tricks and changes. Say, art thou a spirit then?"

"We are all spirits," she said reflectively, "and I, perhaps, more than
some. Who can be certain?"

"Not I," I answered. "Yet I implore, woman or spirit, tell me one thing.
Tell me the truth. In the beginning what wast thou to Leo, and what was
he to thee?"

She looked at me very solemnly and answered--"Does my memory deceive
me, Holly, or is it written in the first book of the Law of the Hebrews,
which once I used to study, that the sons of Heaven came down to the
daughters of men, and found that they were fair?"

"It is so written," I answered.

"Then, Holly, might it not have chanced that once a daughter of Heaven
came down to a man of Earth and loved him well? Might it not chance that
for her great sin, she, this high, fallen star, who had befouled her
immortal state for him, was doomed to suffer till at length his love,
made divine by pain and faithful even to a memory, was permitted to
redeem her?"

Now at length I saw light and sprang up eagerly, but in a cold voice she
added:

"Nay, Holly, cease to question me, for there are things of which I can
but speak to thee in figures and in parables, not to mock and bewilder
thee, but because I must. Interpret them as thou wilt. Still, Atene
thought me no mortal, since she told us that man and spirit may not
mate; and there are matters in which I let her judgment weigh with me,
as without doubt now, as in other lives, she and that old Shaman, her
uncle, have wisdom, aye, and foresight. So bid my lord press me no more
to wed him, for it gives me pain to say him nay--ah! thou knowest not
how much.

"Moreover, I will declare myself to thee, old friend; whatever else
I be, at least I am too womanly to listen to the pleadings of my best
beloved and not myself be moved. See, I have set a curb upon desire
and drawn it until my heart bleeds; but if he pursues me with continual
words and looks of burning love, who knoweth but that I shall kindle in
his flame and throw the reins of reason to the winds?

"Oh, then together we might race adown our passions' steep; together
dare the torrent that rages at its foot, and there perchance be whelmed
or torn asunder. Nay, nay, another space of journeying, but a little
space, and we reach the bridge my wisdom found, and cross it safely, and
beyond for ever ride on at ease through the happy meadows of our love."

Then she was silent, nor would she speak more upon the matter. Also--and
this was the worst of it--even now I was not sure that she told me the
truth, or, at any rate, all of it, for to Ayesha's mind truth seemed
many coloured as are the rays of light thrown from the different faces
of a cut jewel. We never could be certain which shade of it she was
pleased to present, who, whether by preference or of necessity, as
she herself had said, spoke of such secrets in figures of speech and
parables.

It is a fact that to this hour I do not know whether Ayesha is spirit
or woman, or, as I suspect, a blend of both. I do not know the limits of
her powers, or if that elaborate story of the beginning of her love for
Leo was true--which personally I doubt--or but a fable, invented by her
mind, and through it, as she had hinted, pictured on the flame for her
own hidden purposes.

I do not know whether when first we saw her on the Mountain she was
really old and hideous, or did but put on that shape in our eyes in
order to test her lover. I do not know whether, as the priest Oros bore
witness--which he may well have been bidden to do--her spirit passed
into the body of the dead priestess of Hes, or whether when she
seemed to perish there so miserably, her body and her soul were wafted
straightway from the Caves of Kor to this Central Asian peak.

I do not know why, as she was so powerful, she did not come to seek us,
instead of leaving us to seek her through so many weary years, though I
suggest that some superior force forbade her to do more than companion
us unseen, watching our every act, reading our every thought, until at
length we reached the predestined place and hour. Also, as will appear,
there were other things of which this is not the time to speak, whereby
I am still more tortured and perplexed.

In short, I know nothing, except that my existence has been intertangled
with one of the great mysteries of the world; that the glorious being
called Ayesha won the secret of life from whatever power holds it in its
keeping; that she alleged--although of this, remember, we have no actual
proof--such life was to be attained by bathing in a certain emanation,
vapour or essence; that she was possessed by a passion not easy to
understand, but terrific in its force and immortal in its nature,
concentrated upon one other being and one alone. That through this
passion also some angry fate smote her again, again, and yet again,
making of her countless days a burden, and leading the power and the
wisdom which knew all but could foreknow nothing, into abysses of
anguish, suspense, and disappointment such as--Heaven be thanked!--we
common men and women are not called upon to plumb.

For the rest, should human eyes ever fall upon it, each reader must
form his own opinion of this history, its true interpretation and
significance. These and the exact parts played by Atene and myself in
its development I hope to solve shortly, though not here.

Well, as I have said, the upshot of it all was that Ayesha was devoured
with anxiety about Leo. Except in this matter of marriage, his every
wish was satisfied, and indeed forestalled. Thus he was never again
asked to share in any of the ceremonies of the Sanctuary, though,
indeed, stripped of its rites and spiritual symbols, the religion of
the College of Hes proved pure and harmless enough. It was but a diluted
version of the Osiris and Isis worship of old Egypt, from which it
had been inherited, mixed with the Central Asian belief in the
transmigration or reincarnation of souls and the possibility of drawing
near to the ultimate Godhead by holiness of thought and life.

In fact, the head priestess and Oracle was only worshipped as a
representative of the Divinity, while the temporal aims of the College
in practice were confined to good works, although it is true that they
still sighed for their lost authority over the country of Kaloon. Thus
they had hospitals, and during the long and severe winters, when
the Tribes of the Mountain slopes were often driven to the verge of
starvation, gave liberally to the destitute from their stores of food.

Leo liked to be with Ayesha continually, so we spent each evening in her
company, and much of the day also, until she found that this inactivity
told upon him who for years had been accustomed to endure every rigour
of climate in the open air. After this came home to her--although she
was always haunted by terror lest any accident should befall him--Ayesha
insisted upon his going out to kill the wild sheep and the ibex, which
lived in numbers on the mountain ridges, placing him in the charge of
the chiefs and huntsmen of the Tribes, with whom thus he became well
acquainted. In this exercise, however, I accompanied him but rarely, as,
if used too much, my arm still gave me pain.

Once indeed such an accident did happen. I was seated in the garden
with Ayesha and watching her. Her head rested on her hand, and she was
looking with her wide eyes, across which the swift thoughts passed
like clouds over a windy sky, or dreams through the mind of a
sleeper--looking out vacantly towards the mountain snows. Seen thus her
loveliness was inexpressible, amazing; merely to gaze upon it was an
intoxication. Contemplating it, I understood indeed that, like to that
of the fabled Helen, this gift of hers alone--and it was but one of
many--must have caused infinite sorrows, had she ever been permitted to
display it to the world. It would have driven humanity to madness: the
men with longings and the women with jealousy and hate.

And yet in what did her surpassing beauty lie? Ayesha's face and form
were perfect, it is true; but so are those of some other women. Not in
these then did it live alone, but rather, I think, especially while what
I may call her human moods were on her, in the soft mystery that dwelt
upon her features and gathered and changed in her splendid eyes. Some
such mystery may be seen, however faintly, on the faces of certain of
the masterpieces of the Greek sculptors, but Ayesha it clothed like
an ever-present atmosphere, suggesting a glory that was not of earth,
making her divine.

As I gazed at her and wondered thus, of a sudden she became terribly
agitated, and, pointing to a shoulder of the Mountain miles and miles
away, said--"Look!"

I looked, but saw nothing except a sheet of distant snow.

"Blind fool, canst thou not see that my lord is in danger of his life?"
she cried. "Nay, I forgot, thou hast no vision. Take it now from me and
look again;" and laying her hand, from which a strange, numbing current
seemed to flow, upon my head, she muttered some swift words.

Instantly my eyes were opened, and, not upon the distant Mountain, but
in the air before me as it were, I saw Leo rolling over and over at
grips with a great snow-leopard, whilst the chief and huntsmen with him
ran round and round, seeking an opportunity to pierce the savage brute
with their spears and yet leave him unharmed.

Ayesha, rigid with terror, swayed to and fro at my side, till presently
the end came, for I could see Leo drive his long knife into the bowels
of the leopard, which at once grew limp, separated from him, and after
a struggle or two in the bloodstained snow, lay still. Then he rose,
laughing and pointing to his rent garments, whilst one of the huntsmen
came forward and began to bandage some wounds in his hands and thigh
with strips of linen torn from his under-robe.

The vision vanished suddenly as it had come, and I felt Ayesha leaning
heavily upon my shoulder like any other frightened woman, and heard her
gasp--"That danger also has passed by, but how many are there to follow?
Oh! tormented heart, how long canst thou endure!"

Then her wrath flamed up against the chief and his huntsmen, and
she summoned messengers and sent them out at speed with a litter and
ointments, bidding them to bear back the lord Leo and to bring his
companions to her very presence.

"Thou seest what days are mine, my Holly, aye, and have been these many
years," she said; "but those hounds shall pay me for this agony."

Nor would she suffer me to reason with her.

Four hours later Leo returned, limping after the litter in which,
instead of himself, for whom it was sent, lay a mountain sheep and the
skin of the snow-leopard that he had placed there to save the huntsmen
the labour of carrying them. Ayesha was waiting for him in the hall of
her dwelling, and gliding to him--I cannot say she walked--overwhelmed
him with mingled solicitude and reproaches. He listened awhile, then
asked--"How dost thou know anything of this matter? The leopard skin has
not yet been brought to thee."

"I know because I saw," she answered. "The worst hurt was above thy
knee; hast thou dressed it with the salve I sent?"

"Not I," he said. "But thou hast not left this Sanctuary; how didst thou
see? By thy magic?"

"If thou wilt, at least I saw, and Holly also saw thee rolling in the
snow with that fierce brute, while those curs ran round like scared
children."

"I am weary of this magic," interrupted Leo crossly. "Cannot a man be
left alone for an hour even with a leopard of the mountain? As for those
brave men----"

At this moment Oros entered and whispered something, bowing low.

"As for those 'brave men,' I will deal with them," said Ayesha with
bitter emphasis, and covering herself--for she never appeared unveiled
to the people of the Mountain--she swept from the place.

"Where has she gone, Horace?" asked Leo. "To one of her services in the
Sanctuary?"

"I don't know," I answered; "but if so, I think it will be that chief's
burial service."

"Will it?" he exclaimed, and instantly limped after her.

A minute or two later I thought it wise to follow. In the Sanctuary a
curious scene was in progress. Ayesha was seated in front of the statue.
Before her, very much frightened, knelt a brawny, red-haired chieftain
and five of his followers, who still carried their hunting spears, while
with folded arms and an exceedingly grim look upon his face, Leo, who,
as I learned afterwards, had already interfered and been silenced, stood
upon one side listening to what passed. At a little distance behind were
a dozen or more of the temple guards, men armed with swords and picked
for their strength and stature.

Ayesha, in her sweetest voice, was questioning the men as to how the
leopard, of which the skin lay before her, had come to attack Leo. The
chief answered that they had tracked the brute to its lair between two
rocks; that one of them had gone in and wounded it, whereon it sprang
upon him and struck him down; that then the lord Leo had engaged it
while the man escaped, and was also struck down, after which, rolling
with it on the ground, he stabbed and slew the animal. That was all.

"No, not all," said Ayesha; "for you forget, cowards that you are,
that, keeping yourselves in safety, you left my lord to the fury of this
beast. Good. Drive them out on to the Mountain, there to perish also at
the fangs of beasts, and make it known that he who gives them food or
shelter dies."

Offering no prayer for pity or excuse, the chief and his followers rose,
bowed, and turned to go.

"Stay a moment, comrades," said Leo, "and, chief, give me your arm;
my scratch grows stiff; I cannot walk fast. We will finish this hunt
together."

"What doest thou? Art mad?" asked Ayesha.

"I know not whether I am mad," he answered, "but I know that thou
art wicked and unjust. Look now, than these hunters none braver ever
breathed. That man"--and he pointed to the one whom the leopard had
struck down--"took my place and went in before me because I ordered that
we should attack the creature, and thus was felled. As thou seest all,
thou mightest have seen this also. Then it sprang on me, and the rest of
these, my friends, ran round waiting a chance to strike, which at first
they could not do unless they would have killed me with it, since I
and the brute rolled over and over in the snow. As it was, one of them
seized it with his bare hands: look at the teeth marks on his arm. So if
they are to perish on the Mountain, I, who am the man to blame, perish
with them."

Now, while the hunters looked at him with fervent gratitude in their
eyes, Ayesha thought a little, then said cleverly enough--"In truth,
my lord Leo, had I known all the tale, well mightest thou have named
me wicked and unjust; but I knew only what I saw, and out of their own
mouths did I condemn them. My servants, my lord here has pleaded for
you, and you are forgiven; more, he who rushed in upon the leopard and
he who seized it with his hands shall be rewarded and advanced. Go; but
I warn you if you suffer my lord to come into more danger, you shall not
escape so easily again."

So they bowed and went, still blessing Leo with their eyes, since
death by exposure on the Mountain snows was the most terrible form of
punishment known to these people, and one only inflicted by the direct
order of Hes upon murderers or other great criminals.

When we had left the Sanctuary and were alone again in the hall, the
storm that I had seen gathering upon Leo's face broke in earnest. Ayesha
renewed her inquiries about his wounds, and wished to call Oros, the
physician, to dress them, and as he refused this, offered to do so
herself. He begged that she would leave his wounds alone, and then, his
great beard bristling with wrath, asked her solmenly if he was a child
in arms, a query so absurd that I could not help laughing.

Then he scolded her--yes, he scolded Ayesha! Wishing to know what she
meant (1) by spying upon him with her magic, an evil gift that he had
always disliked and mistrusted; (2) by condemning brave and excellent
men, his good friends, to a death of fiendish cruelty upon such
evidence, or rather out of temper, on no evidence at all; and (3) by
giving him into charge of them, as though he were a little boy, and
telling them that they would have to answer for it if he were hurt: he
who, in his time, had killed every sort of big game known and passed
through some perils and encounters?

Thus he beat her with his words, and, wonderful to say, Ayesha, this
being more than woman, submitted to the chastisement meekly. Yet had any
other man dared to address her with roughness even, I doubt not that his
speech and his life would have come to a swift and simultaneous end,
for I knew that now, as of old, she could slay by the mere effort of
her will. But she did not slay; she did not even threaten, only, as any
other loving woman might have done, she began to cry. Yes, great tears
gathered in those lovely eyes of hers and, rolling one by one down her
face, fell--for her head was bent humbly forward--like heavy raindrops
on the marble floor.

At the sight of this touching evidence of her human, loving heart all
Leo's anger melted. Now it was he who grew penitent and prayed
her pardon humbly. She gave him her hand in token of forgiveness,
saying--"Let others speak to me as they will" (sorry should I have been
to try it!) "but from thee, Leo, I cannot bear harsh words. Oh, thou art
cruel, cruel. In what have I offended? Can I help it if my spirit keeps
its watch upon thee, as indeed, though thou knewest it not, it has done
ever since we parted yonder in the Place of Life? Can I help it if, like
some mother who sees her little child at play upon a mountain's edge, my
soul is torn with agony when I know thee in dangers that I am powerless
to prevent or share? What are the lives of a few half-wild huntsmen that
I should let them weigh for a single breath against thy safety, seeing
that if I slew these, others would be more careful of thee? Whereas if I
slay them not, they or their fellows may even lead thee into perils that
would bring about--thy _death_," and she gasped with horror at the word.

"Listen, beloved," said Leo. "The life of the humblest of those men is
of as much value to him as mine is to me, and thou hast no more right to
kill him than thou hast to kill me. It is evil that because thou carest
for me thou shouldst suffer thy love to draw thee into cruelty and
crime. If thou art afraid for me, then clothe me with that immortality
of thine, which, although I dread it somewhat, holding it a thing
unholy, and, on this earth, not permitted by my Faith, I should still
rejoice to inherit for thy dear sake, knowing that then we could never
more be parted. Or, if as thou sayest, this as yet thou canst not do,
then let us be wed and take what fortune gives us. All men must die;
but at least before I die I shall have been happy with thee for a
while--yes, if only for a single hour."

"Would that I dared," Ayesha answered with a little piteous motion of
her hand. "Oh! urge me no more, Leo, lest that at last I should take the
risk and lead thee down a dreadful road. Leo, hast thou never heard of
the love which slays, or of the poison that may lurk in a cup of joy too
perfect?"

Then, as though she feared herself, Ayesha turned from him and fled.

Thus this matter ended. In itself it was not a great one, for Leo's
hurts were mere scratches, and the hunters, instead of being killed,
were promoted to be members of his body-guard. Yet it told us many
things. For instance, that whenever she chose to do so, Ayesha had
the power of perceiving all Leo's movements from afar, and even of
communicating her strength of mental vision to others, although to help
him in any predicament she appeared to have no power, which, of course,
accounted for the hideous and ever-present might of her anxiety.

Think what it would be to any one of us were we mysteriously acquainted
with every open danger, every risk of sickness, every secret peril
through which our best-beloved must pass. To see the rock trembling to
its fall and they loitering beneath it; to see them drink of water and
know it full of foulest poison; to see them embark upon a ship and be
aware that it was doomed to sink, but not to be able to warn them or to
prevent them. Surely no mortal brain could endure such constant terrors,
since hour by hour the arrows of death flit unseen and unheard past the
breasts of each of us, till at length one finds its home there.

What then must Ayesha have suffered, watching with her spirit's eyes all
the hair-breadth escapes of our journeyings? When, for instance, in the
beginning she saw Leo at my house in Cumberland about to kill himself
in his madness and despair, and by some mighty effort of her superhuman
will, wrung from whatever Power it was that held her in its fearful
thraldom, the strength to hurl her soul across the world and thereby in
his sleep reveal to him the secret of the hiding-place where he would
find her.

Or to take one more example out of many--when she saw him hanging by
that slender thread of yak's hide from the face of the waterfall of ice
and herself remained unable to save him, or even to look forward for
a single moment and learn whether or no he was about to meet a hideous
death, in which event she must live on alone until in some dim age he
was born again.

Nor can her sorrows have ended with these more material fears, since
others as piercing must have haunted her. Imagine, for instance, the
agonies of her jealous heart when she knew her lover to be exposed to
the temptations incident to his solitary existence, and more especially
to those of her ancient rival Atene, who, by Ayesha's own account, had
once been his wife. Imagine also her fears lest time and human change
should do their natural work on him, so that by degrees the memory of
her wisdom and her strength, and the image of her loveliness faded from
his thought, and with them his desire for her company; thus leaving her
who had endured so long, forgotten and alone at last.

Truly, the Power that limited our perceptions did so in purest mercy,
for were it otherwise with us, our race would go mad and perish raving
in its terrors.

Thus it would seem that Ayesha, great tormented soul, thinking to win
life and love eternal and most glorious, was in truth but another blind
Pandora. From her stolen casket of beauty and super-human power had
leapt into her bosom, there to dwell unceasingly, a hundred torturing
demons, of whose wings mere mortal kind do but feel the far-off, icy
shadowing.

Yes; and that the parallel might be complete, Hope alone still lingered
in that rifled chest.



CHAPTER XX

AYESHA'S ALCHEMY

It was shortly after this incident of the snow-leopard that one of these
demon familiars of Ayesha's, her infinite ambition, made its formidable
appearance. When we had dined with her in the evening, Ayesha's habit
was to discuss plans for our mighty and unending future, that awful
inheritance which she had promised to us.

Here I must explain, if I have not done so already, that she had
graciously informed me that notwithstanding my refusal in past years
of such a priceless opportunity, I also was to be allowed to bathe my
superannuated self in the vital fires, though in what guise I should
emerge from them, like Herodotus when he treats of the mysteries of old
Egypt, if she knew, she did not think it lawful to reveal.

Secretly I hoped that my outward man might change for the better, as the
prospect of being fixed for ever in the shape of my present and somewhat
unpleasing personality, did not appeal to me as attractive. In truth, so
far as I was concerned, the matter had an academic rather than an actual
interest, such as we take in a fairy tale, since I did not believe that
I should ever put on this kind of immortality. Nor, I may add, now as
before, was I at all certain that I wished to do so.

These plans of Ayesha's were far reaching and indeed terrific.
Her acquaintance with the modern world, its political and social
developments, was still strictly limited; for if she had the power to
follow its growth and activities, certainly it was one of which she made
no use.

In practice her knowledge seemed to be confined to what she had gathered
during the few brief talks which took place between us upon this subject
in past time at Kor. Now her thirst for information proved insatiable,
although it is true that ours was scarcely up to date, seeing that ever
since we lost touch with the civilized peoples, namely, for the last
fifteen years or so, we had been as much buried as she was herself.

Still we were able to describe to her the condition of the nations and
their affairs as they were at the period when we bade them farewell,
and, more or less incorrectly, to draw maps of the various countries and
their boundaries, over which she pondered long.

The Chinese were the people in whom she proved to be most interested,
perhaps because she was acquainted with the Mongolian type, and like
ourselves, understood a good many of their dialects. Also she had a
motive for her studies, which one night she revealed to us in the most
matter-of-fact fashion.

Those who have read the first part of her history, which I left in
England to be published, may remember that when we found her at Kor,
_She_ horrified us by expressing a determination to possess herself of
Great Britain, for the simple reason that we belonged to that country.
Now, however, like her powers, her ideas had grown, for she purposed to
make Leo the absolute monarch of the world. In vain did he assure her
most earnestly that he desired no such empire. She merely laughed at him
and said--"If I arise amidst the Peoples, I must rule the Peoples, for
how can Ayesha take a second place among mortal men? And thou, my Leo,
rulest me, yes, mark the truth, thou art my master! Therefore it is
plain that thou wilt be the master of this earth, aye, and perchance of
others which do not yet appear, for of these also I know something, and,
I think, can reach them if I will, though hitherto I have had no mind
that way. My true life has not yet begun. Its little space within this
world has been filled with thought and care for thee; in waiting till
thou wast born again, and during these last years of separation, until
thou didst return.

"But now a few more months, and the days of preparation past, endowed
with energy eternal, with all the wisdom of the ages, and with a
strength that can bend the mountains or turn the ocean from its bed,
and we begin to be. Oh! how I sicken for that hour when first, like twin
stars new to the firmament of heaven, we break in our immortal splendour
upon the astonished sight of men. It will please me, I tell thee,
Leo, it will please me, to see Powers, Principalities and Dominions,
marshalled by their kings and governors, bow themselves before our
thrones and humbly crave the liberty to do our will. At least," she
added, "it will please me for a little time, until we seek higher
things."

So she spoke, while the radiance upon her brow increased and spread
itself, gleaming above her like a golden fan, and her slumbrous eyes
took fire from it till, to my thought, they became glowing mirrors in
which I saw pomp enthroned and suppliant peoples pass.

"And how," asked Leo, with something like a groan--for this vision of
universal rule viewed from afar did not seem to charm him--"how, Ayesha,
wilt thou bring these things about?"

"How, my Leo? Why, easily enough. For many nights I have listened to
the wise discourses of our Holly here, at least he thinks them wise who
still has so much to learn, and pored over his crooked maps, comparing
them with those that are written in my memory, who of late have had
no time for the study of such little matters. Also I have weighed and
pondered your reports of the races of this world; their various follies,
their futile struggling for wealth and small supremacies, and I have
determined that it would be wise and kind to weld them to one whole,
setting ourselves at the head of them to direct their destinies, and
cause wars, sickness, and poverty to cease, so that these creatures of
a little day (ephemeridae was the word she used) may live happy from the
cradle to the grave.

"Now, were it not because of thy strange shrinking from bloodshed,
however politic and needful--for my Leo, as yet thou art no true
philosopher--this were quickly done, since I can command a weapon which
would crush their armouries and whelm their navies in the deep; yes, I,
whom even the lightnings and Nature's elemental powers must obey. But
thou shrinkest from the sight of death, and thou believest that Heaven
would be displeased because I make myself--or am chosen--the instrument
of Heaven. Well, so let it be, for thy will is mine, and therefore we
will tread a gentler path."

"And how wilt thou persuade the kings of the earth to place their crowns
upon thy head?" I asked, astonished.

"By causing their peoples to offer them to us," she answered suavely.
"Oh! Holly, Holly, how narrow is thy mind, how strained the quality of
thine imagination! Set its poor gates ajar, I pray, and bethink thee.
When we appear among men, scattering gold to satisfy their want, clad
in terrifying power, in dazzling beauty and in immortality of days, will
they not cry, 'Be ye our monarchs and rule over us!'"

"Perhaps," I answered dubiously, "but where wilt thou appear?"

She took a map of the eastern hemisphere which I had drawn and, placing
her finger upon Pekin, said--"There is the place that shall be our home
for some few centuries, say three, or five, or seven, should it take so
long to shape this people to my liking and our purposes. I have
chosen these Chinese because thou tellest me that their numbers are
uncountable, that they are brave, subtle, and patient, and though now
powerless because ill-ruled and untaught, able with their multitudes to
flood the little western nations. Therefore among them we will begin our
reign and for some few ages be at rest while they learn wisdom from us,
and thou, my Holly, makest their armies unconquerable and givest their
land good government, wealth, peace, and a new religion."

What the new religion was to be I did not ask. It seemed unnecessary,
since I was convinced that in practice it would prove a form of
Ayesha-worship, Indeed, my mind was so occupied with conjectures, some
of them quaint and absurd enough, as to what would happen at the first
appearance of Ayesha in China that I forgot this subsidiary development
of our future rule.

"And if the 'little western nations' will not wait to be flooded?"
suggested Leo with irritation, for her contemptuous tone angered him,
one of a prominent western nation. "If they combine, for instance, and
attack thee first?"

"Ah!" she said, with a flash of her eyes. "I have thought of it, and for
my part hope that it will chance, since then thou canst not blame me if
I put out my strength. Oh! then the East, that has slept so long, shall
awake--shall awake, and upon battlefield after battlefield such as
history cannot tell of, thou shalt see my flaming standards sweep on to
victory. One by one thou shalt watch the nations fall and perish, until
at length I build thy throne upon the hecatombs of their countless dead
and crown thee emperor of a world regenerate in blood and fire."

Leo, whom this new gospel of regeneration seemed to appall, who was,
in fact, a hater of absolute monarchies and somewhat republican in his
views and sympathies, continued the argument, but I took no further
heed. The thing was grotesque in its tremendous and fantastic absurdity;
Ayesha's ambitions were such as no imperial-minded madman could
conceive.

Yet--here came the rub--I had not the slightest doubt but that she was
well able to put them into practice and carry them to some marvellous
and awful conclusion. Why not? Death could not touch her; she had
triumphed over death. Her beauty--that "cup of madness" in her eyes, as
she named it once to me--and her reckless will would compel the hosts of
men to follow her. Her piercing intelligence would enable her to invent
new weapons with which the most highly-trained army could not possibly
compete. Indeed, it might be as she said, and as I for one believed,
with good reason, it proved, that she held at her command the elemental
forces of Nature, such as those that lie hid in electricity, which would
give all living beings to her for a prey.

Ayesha was still woman enough to have worldly ambitions, and the most
dread circumstance about her superhuman powers was that they appeared to
be unrestrained by any responsibility to God or man. She was as we might
well imagine a fallen angel to be, if indeed, as she herself once hinted
and as Atene and the old Shaman believed, this were not her true place
in creation. By only two things that I was able to discover could she be
moved--her love for Leo and, in a very small degree, her friendship for
myself.

Yet her devouring passion for this one man, inexplicable in its
endurance and intensity, would, I felt sure even then, in the future as
in the past, prove to be her heel of Achilles. When Ayesha was dipped in
the waters of Dominion and Deathlessness, this human love left her heart
mortal, that through it she might be rendered harmless as a child, who
otherwise would have devastated the universe.

I was right.

Whilst I was still indulging myself in these reflections and hoping
that Ayesha would not take the trouble to read them in my mind, I became
aware that Oros was bowing to the earth before her.

"Thy business, priest?" she asked sharply; for when she was with Leo
Ayesha did not like to be disturbed.

"Hes, the spies are returned."

"Why didst thou send them out?" she asked indifferently. "What need have
I of thy spies?"

"Hes, thou didst command me."

"Well, their report?"

"Hes, it is most grave. The people of Kaloon are desperate because of
the drought which has caused their crops to fail, so that starvation
stares them in the eyes, and this they lay to the charge of the
strangers who came into their land and fled to thee. The Khania Atene
also is mad with rage against thee and our holy College. Labouring night
and day, she has gathered two great armies, one of forty, and one of
twenty thousand men, and the latter of these she sends against the
Mountain under the command of her uncle, Simbri the Shaman. In case it
should be defeated she purposes to remain with the second and greater
army on the plains about Kaloon."

"Tidings indeed," said Ayesha with a scornful laugh. "Has her hate
made this woman mad that she dares thus to match herself against me? My
Holly, it crossed thy mind but now that it was I who am mad, boasting
of what I have no power to perform. Well, within six days thou shalt
learn--oh! verily thou shalt learn, and, though the issue be so very
small, in such a fashion that thou wilt doubt no more for ever. Stay,
I will look, though the effort of it wearies me, for those spies may be
but victims to their own fears, or to the falsehoods of Atene."

Then suddenly, as was common with her when thus Ayesha threw her sight
afar, which either from indolence, or because, as she said, it exhausted
her, she did but rarely, her lovely face grew rigid like that of a
person in a trance; the light faded from her brow, and the great pupils
of her eyes contracted themselves and lost their colour.

In a little while, five minutes perhaps, she sighed like one awakening
from a deep sleep, passed her hand across her forehead and was as she
had been, though somewhat languid, as though strength had left her.

"It is true enough," she said, "and soon I must be stirring lest many
of my people should be killed. My lord, wouldst thou see war? Nay,
thou shalt bide here in safety whilst I go forward--to visit Atene as I
promised."

"Where thou goest, I go," said Leo angrily, his face flushing to the
roots of his hair with shame.

"I pray thee not, I pray thee not," she answered, yet without venturing
to forbid him. "We will talk of it hereafter. Oros, away! Send round the
Fire of Hes to every chief. Three nights hence at the moonrise bid
the Tribes gather--nay, not all, twenty thousand of their best will be
enough, the rest shall stay to guard the Mountain and this Sanctuary.
Let them bring food with them for fifteen days. I join them at the
following dawn. Go."

He bowed and went, whereon, dismissing the matter from her mind, Ayesha
began to question me again about the Chinese and their customs.

It was in course of a somewhat similar conversation on the following
night, of which, however, I forget the exact details, that a remark of
Leo's led to another exhibition of Ayesha's marvellous powers.

Leo--who had been considering her plans for conquest, and again
combating them as best he could, for they were entirely repugnant to his
religious, social and political views--said suddenly that after all they
must break down, since they would involve the expenditure of sums of
money so vast that even Ayesha herself would be unable to provide
them by any known methods of taxation. She looked at him and laughed a
little.

"Verily, Leo," she said, "to thee, yes; and to Holly here I must seem as
some madcap girl blown to and fro by every wind of fancy, and building
me a palace wherein to dwell out of dew and vapours, or from the
substance of the sunset fires. Thinkest thou then that I would enter on
this war--one woman against all the world"--and as she spoke her shape
grew royal and in her awful eyes there came a look that chilled my
blood--"and make no preparation for its necessities? Why, since last we
spoke upon this matter, foreseeing all, I have considered in my mind,
and now thou shalt learn how, without cost to those we rule--and for
that reason alone shall they love us dearly--I will glut the treasuries
of the Empress of the Earth.

"Dost remember, Leo, how in Kor I found but a single pleasure during all
those weary ages--that of forcing my mother Nature one by one to yield
me up her choicest secrets; I, who am a student of all things which are
and of the forces that cause them to be born. Now follow me, both of
you, and ye shall look on what mortal eyes have not yet beheld."

"What are we to see?" I asked doubtfully, having a lively recollection
of Ayesha's powers as a chemist.

"That thou shalt learn, or shalt not learn if it pleases thee to stay
behind. Come, Leo, my love, my love, and leave this wise philosopher
first to find his riddle and next to guess it."

Then turning her back to me she smiled on him so sweetly that although
really he was more loth to go than I, Leo would have followed her
through a furnace door, as indeed, had he but known it, he was about to
do.

So they started, and I accompanied them since with Ayesha it was
useless to indulge in any foolish pride, or to make oneself a victim to
consistency. Also I was anxious to see her new marvel, and did not care
to rely for an account of it upon Leo's descriptive skill, which at its
best was never more than moderate.

She took us down passages that we had not passed before, to a door which
she signed to Leo to open. He obeyed, and from the cave within issued a
flood of light. As we guessed at once, the place was her laboratory,
for about it stood metal flasks and various strange-shaped instruments.
Moreover, there was a furnace in it, one of the best conceivable, for it
needed neither fuel nor stoking, whose gaseous fires, like those of the
twisted columns in the Sanctuary, sprang from the womb of the volcano
beneath our feet.

When we entered two priests were at work there: one of them stirring a
cauldron with an iron rod and the other receiving its molten contents
into a mould of clay. They stopped to salute Ayesha, but she bade them
to continue their task, asking them if all went well.

"Very well, O Hes," they answered; and we passed through that cave and
sundry doors and passages to a little chamber cut in the rock. There
was no lamp or flame of fire in it, and yet the place was filled with a
gentle light which seemed to flow from the opposing wall.

"What were those priests doing?" I said, more to break the silence than
for any other reason.

"Why waste breath upon foolish questions?" she replied. "Are no metals
smelted in thy country, O Holly? Now hadst thou sought to know what I am
doing--But that, without seeing, thou wouldst not believe, so, Doubter,
thou shalt see."

Then she pointed to and bade us don, two strange garments that hung upon
the wall, made of a material which seemed to be half cloth and half wood
and having headpieces not unlike a diver's helmet.

So under her directions Leo helped me into mine, lacing it up behind,
after which, or so I gathered from the sounds--for no light came through
the helmet--she did the same service for him.

"I seem very much in the dark," I said presently; for now there was
silence again, and beneath this extinguisher I felt alarmed and wished
to be sure that I was not left alone.

"Aye Holly," I heard Ayesha's mocking voice make answer, "in the dark,
as thou wast ever, the thick dark of ignorance and unbelief. Well, now,
as ever also, I will give thee light." As she spoke I heard something
roll back; I suppose that it must have been a stone door.

Then, indeed, there was light, yes, even through the thicknesses of that
prepared garment, such light as seemed to blind me. By it I saw that the
wall opposite to us had opened and that we were all three of us, on the
threshold of another chamber. At the end of it stood something like
a little altar of hard, black stone, and on this altar lay a mass of
substance of the size of a child's head, but fashioned, I suppose from
fantasy, to the oblong shape of a human eye.

Out of this eye there poured that blistering and intolerable light. It
was shut round by thick, funnel-shaped screens of a material that looked
like fire-brick, yet it pierced them as though they were but muslin.
More, the rays thus directed upwards struck full upon a lump of metal
held in place above them by a massive frame-work.

And what rays they were! If all the cut diamonds of the world were
brought together and set beneath a mighty burning-glass, the light
flashed from them would not have been a thousandth part so brilliant.
They scorched my eyes and caused the skin of my face and limbs to smart,
yet Ayesha stood there unshielded from them. Aye, she even went down the
length of the room and, throwing back her veil, bent over them, as it
seemed a woman of molten steel in whose body the bones were visible, and
examined the mass that was supported by the hanging cradle.

"It is ready and somewhat sooner than I thought," she said. Then as
though it were but a feather weight, she lifted the lump in her
bare hands and glided back with it to where we stood, laughing and
saying--"Tell me now, O thou well-read Holly, if thou hast ever heard of
a better alchemist than this poor priestess of a forgotten faith?" And
she thrust the glowing substance up almost to the mask that hid my face.

Then I turned and ran, or rather waddled, for in that gear I could not
run, out of the chamber until the rock wall beyond stayed me, and there,
with my back towards her, thrust my helmeted head against it, for I felt
as though red-hot bradawls had been plunged into my eyes. So I stood
while she laughed and mocked behind me until at length I heard the door
close and the blessed darkness came like a gift from Heaven.

Then Ayesha began to loose Leo from his ray-proof armour, if so it can
be called, and he in turn loosed me; and there in that gentle radiance
we stood blinking at each other like owls in the sunlight, while the
tears streamed down our faces.

"Well, art satisfied, my Holly?" she asked.

"Satisfied with what?" I answered angrily, for the smarting of my
eyes was unbearable. "Yes, with burnings and bedevilments I am well
satisfied."

"And I also," grumbled Leo, who was swearing softly but continuously to
himself in the other corner of the place.

But Ayesha only laughed, oh! she laughed until she seemed the goddess
of all merriment come to earth, laughed till she also wept, then
said--"Why, what ingratitude is this? Thou, my Leo, didst wish to see
the wonders that I work, and thou, O Holly, didst come unbidden after I
bade thee stay behind, and now both of you are rude and angry, aye, and
weeping like a child with a burnt finger. Here take this," and she gave
us some salve that stood upon a shelf, "and rub it on your eyes and the
smart will pass away."

So we did, and the pain went from them, though, for hours afterwards,
mine remained red as blood.

"And what are these wonders?" I asked her presently. "If thou meanest
that unbearable flame----"

"Nay, I mean what is born of the flame, as, in thine ignorance thou dost
call that mighty agent. Look now;" and she pointed to the metallic lump
she had brought with her, which, still gleaming faintly, lay upon the
floor. "Nay, it has no heat. Thinkest thou that I would wish to burn my
tender hands and so make them unsightly? Touch it, Holly."

But I would not, who thought to myself that Ayesha might be well
accustomed to the hottest fires, and feared her impish mischief. I
looked, however, long and earnestly.

"Well, what is it, Holly?"

"Gold," I said, then corrected myself and added, "Copper," for the dull,
red glow might have been that of either metal.

"Nay, nay," she answered, "it is gold, pure gold."

"The ore in this place must be rich," said Leo, incredulously, for I
would not speak any more.

"Yes, my Leo, the iron ore is rich."

"Iron ore?" and he looked at her.

"Surely," she answered, "for from what mine do men dig out gold in such
great masses? Iron ore, beloved, that by my alchemy I change to gold,
which soon shall serve us in our need."

Now Leo stared and I groaned, for I did not believe that it was gold,
and still less that she could make that metal. Then, reading my thought,
with one of those sudden changes of mood that were common to her, Ayesha
grew very angry.

"By Nature's self!" she cried; "wert thou not my friend, Holly, the fool
whom it pleases me to cherish, I would bind that right hand of thine
in those secret rays till the very bones within it were turned to gold.
Nay, why should I be vexed with thee, who art both blind and deaf?
Yet thou _shalt_ be persuaded," and leaving us, she passed down the
passages, called something to the priests who were labouring in the
workshop, then returned to us.

Presently they followed her, carrying on a kind of stretcher between
them an ingot of iron ore that seemed to be as much as they could lift.

"Now," she said, "how wilt thou that I mark this mass which as thou must
admit is only iron? With the sign of Life? Good," and at her bidding the
priests took cold-chisels and hammers and roughly cut upon its surface
the symbol of the looped cross--the _crux ansata_.

"It is not enough," she said when they had finished. "Holly, lend me
that knife of thine, to-morrow I will return it to thee, and of more
value."

So I drew my hunting knife, an Indian-made thing, that had a handle of
plated iron, and gave it her.

"Thou knowest the marks on it," and she pointed to various dents and to
the maker's name upon the blade; for though the hilt was Indian work the
steel was of Sheffield manufacture.

I nodded. Then she bade the priests put on the ray-proof armour that
we had discarded, and told us to go without the chamber and lie in the
darkness of the passage with our faces against the floor.

This we did, and remained so until, a few minutes later, she called us
again. We rose and returned into the chamber to find the priests, who
had removed the protecting garments, gasping and rubbing the salve upon
their eyes; to find also that the lump of iron ore and my knife were
gone. Next she commanded them to place the block of gold-coloured metal
upon their stretcher and to bring it with them. They obeyed, and we
noted that, although those priests were both of them strong men they
groaned beneath its weight.

"How came it," said Leo, "that thou, a woman, couldst carry what these
men find so heavy?"

"It is one of the properties of that force which thou callest fire," she
answered sweetly, "to make what has been exposed to it, if for a little
while only, as light as thistle-down. Else, how could I, who am so
frail, have borne yonder block of gold?"

"Quite so! I understand now," answered Leo.

Well, that was the end of it. The lump of metal was hid away in a kind
of rock pit, with an iron cover, and we returned to Ayesha's apartments.

"So all wealth is thine, as well as all power," said Leo, presently, for
remembering Ayesha's awful threat I scarcely dared to open my mouth.

"It seems so," she answered wearily, "since centuries ago I discovered
that great secret, though until ye came I had put it to no use. Holly
here, after his common fashion, believes that this is magic, but I tell
thee again that there is no magic, only knowledge which I have chanced
to win."

"Of course," said Leo, "looked at in the right way, that is in thy way,
the thing is simple." I think he would have liked to add, "as lying,"
but as the phrase would have involved explanations, did not. "Yet,
Ayesha," he went on, "hast thou thought that this discovery of thine
will wreck the world?"

"Leo," she answered, "is there then nothing that I can do which will
not wreck this world, for which thou hast such tender care, who shouldst
keep all thy care--for me?"

I smiled, but remembering in time, turned the smile into a frown at
Leo, then fearing lest that also might anger her, made my countenance as
blank as possible.

"If so," she continued, "well, let the world be wrecked. But what
meanest thou? Oh! my lord, Leo, forgive me if I am so dull that I cannot
always follow thy quick thought--I who have lived these many years
alone, without converse with nobler minds, or even those to which mine
own is equal."

"It pleases thee to mock me," said Leo, in a vexed voice, "and that is
not too brave."

Now Ayesha turned on him fiercely, and I looked towards the door. But
he did not shrink, only folded his arms and stared her straight in
the face. She contemplated him a little, then said--"After that great
ordained reason which thou dost not know, I think, Leo, that why I love
thee so madly is that thou alone art not afraid of me. Not like Holly
there, who, ever since I threatened to turn his bones to gold--which,
indeed, I was minded to do," and she laughed--"trembles at my footsteps
and cowers beneath my softest glance.

"Oh! my lord, how good thou art to me, how patient with my moods and
woman's weaknesses," and she made as though she were about to embrace
him. Then suddenly remembering herself, with a little start that somehow
conveyed more than the most tragic gesture, she pointed to the couch
in token that he should seat himself. When he had done so she drew a
footstool to his feet and sank upon it, looking up into his face with
attentive eyes, like a child who listens for a story.

"Thy reasons, Leo, give me thy reasons. Doubtless they are good, and,
oh! be sure I'll weigh them well."

"Here they are in brief," he answered. "The world, as thou knewest in
thy--" and he stopped.

"Thy earlier wanderings there," she suggested.

"Yes--thy earlier wanderings there, has set up gold as the standard of
its wealth. On it all civilizations are founded. Make it as common as it
seems thou canst, and these must fall to pieces. Credit will fail and,
like their savage forefathers, men must once more take to barter to
supply their needs as they do in Kaloon to-day."

"Why not?" she asked. "It would be more simple and bring them closer to
the time when they were good and knew not luxury and greed."

"And smashed in each other's heads with stone axes," added Leo.

"Who now pierce each other's hearts with steel, or those leaden missiles
of which thou hast told me. Oh! Leo, when the nations are beggared and
their golden god is down; when the usurer and the fat merchant tremble
and turn white as chalk because their hoards are but useless dross;
when I have made the bankrupt Exchanges of the world my mock, and laugh
across the ruin of its richest markets, why, then, will not true worth
come to its heritage again?

"What of it if I do discomfort those who think more of pelf than of
courage and of virtue; those who, as that Hebrew prophet wrote, lay
field to field and house to house, until the wretched whom they have
robbed find no place left whereon to dwell? What if I proved your sagest
chapmen fools, and gorge your greedy moneychangers with the gold that
they desire until they loathe its very sight and touch? What if I uphold
the cause of the poor and the oppressed against the ravening lusts of
Mammon? Why, will not this world of yours be happier then?"

"I do not know," answered Leo. "All that I know is that it would be a
different world, one shaped upon a new plan, governed by untried laws
and seeking other ends. In so strange a place who can say what might or
might not chance?"

"That we shall learn in its season, Leo. Or, rather, if it be against
thy wish, we will not turn this hidden page. Since thou dost desire it,
that old evil, the love of lucre, shall still hold its mastery upon the
earth. Let the peoples keep their yellow king, I'll not crown another
in his place, as I was minded--such as that living Strength thou sawest
burning eternally but now; that Power whereof I am the mistress, which
can give health to men, or even change the character of metals, and in
truth, if I so desire, obedient to my word, destroy a city or rend this
Mountain from its roots.

"But see, Holly is wearied with much wondering and needs his rest. Oh,
Holly! thou wast born a critic of things done, not a doer of them. I
know thy tribe for even in my day the colleges of Alexandria echoed with
their wranglings and already the winds blew thick with the dust of their
forgotten bones. Holly, I tell thee that at times those who create and
act are impatient of such petty doubts and cavillings. Yet fear not, old
friend, nor take my anger ill. Already thy heart is gold without alloy,
so what need have I to gild thy bones?"

I thanked Ayesha for her compliment, and went to my bed wondering which
was real, her kindness or her wrath, or if both were but assumed. Also
I wondered in what way she had fallen foul of the critics of Alexandria.
Perhaps once she had published a poem or a system of philosophy and been
roughly handled by them! It is quite possible, only if Ayesha had ever
written poetry I think that it would have endured, like Sappho's.

In the morning I discovered that whatever else about her might be false,
Ayesha was a true chemist, the very greatest, I suppose, who ever
lived. For as I dressed myself, those priests whom we had seen in
the laboratory, staggered into the room carrying between them a heavy
burden, that was covered with a cloth, and, directed by Oros, placed it
upon the floor.

"What is that?" I asked of Oros.

"A peace-offering sent by the Hesea," he said, "with whom, as I am told,
you dared to quarrel yesterday."

Then he withdrew the cloth, and there beneath it shone that great lump
of metal which, in the presence of myself and Leo, had been marked with
the Symbol of Life, that still appeared upon its surface. Only now it
was gold, not iron, gold so good and soft that I could write my name
upon it with a nail. My knife lay with it also, and of that too the
handle, though not the blade, had been changed from iron into gold.

Ayesha asked to see this afterwards and was but ill-pleased with the
result of her experiment. She pointed out to me that lines and blotches
of gold ran for an inch or more down the substance of the steel, which
she feared that they might weaken or distemper, whereas it had been her
purpose that the hilt only should be altered.[*]

     [*] I proved in after days how real were Ayesha's alchemy,
     and the knowledge which enabled her to solve the secret that
     chemists have hunted for in vain, and, like Nature's self,
     to transmute the commonest into the most precious of the
     metals. At the first town that I reached on the frontiers of
     India, I took this knife to a jeweller, a native, who was as
     clever as he proved dishonest, and asked him to test the
     handle. He did so with acids and by other means, and told me
     that it was of very pure gold, twenty-four carats, I think
     he said. Also he pointed out that this gold became gradually
     merged into the steel of the blade in a way which was quite
     inexplicable to him, and asked me to clear up the matter. Of
     course I could not, but at his request I left the knife in
     his shop to give him an opportunity of examining it further.
     The next day I was taken ill with one of the heart-attacks
     to which I have been liable of late, and when I became able
     to move about again a while afterwards, I found that this
     jeweller had gone, none knew whither. So had my knife.--L.
     H. H.

Often since that time I have marvelled how Ayesha performed this
miracle, and from what substances she gathered or compounded the
lightning-like material, which was her servant in the work; also,
whether or no it had been impregnated with the immortalizing fire of
Life that burned in the caves of Kor.[*] Yet to this hour I have found
no answer to the problem, for it is beyond my guessing.

     [*] Recent discoveries would appear to suggest that this
     mysterious "Fire of Life," which, whatever else it may have
     been, was evidently a force and no true fire, since it did
     not burn, owed its origin to the emanations from radium, or
     some kindred substance. Although in the year 1885, Mr. Holly
     would have known nothing of the properties of these
     marvellous rays or emanations, doubtless Ayesha was familiar
     with them and their enormous possibilities, of which our
     chemists and scientific men have, at present, but explored
     the fringe.--Editor.

I suppose that, in preparation for her conquest of the inhabitants of
this globe--to which, indeed, it would have sufficed unaided by any
other power--the manufacture of gold from iron went on in the cave
unceasingly.

However this may be, during the few days that we remained together
Ayesha never so much as spoke of it again. It seemed to have served her
purpose for the while, or in the press of other and more urgent matters
to have been forgotten or thrust from her mind. Still, amongst others,
of which I have said nothing, since it is necessary to select, I record
this strange incident, and our conversations concerning it at length,
for the reason that it made a great impression upon me and furnishes a
striking example of Ayesha's dominion over the hidden forces of Nature
whereof we were soon to experience a more fearful instance.



CHAPTER XXI

THE PROPHECY OF ATENE

On the day following this strange experience of the iron that was turned
to gold some great service was held in the Sanctuary, as we understood,
"to consecrate the war." We did not attend it, but that night we ate
together as usual. Ayesha was moody at the meal, that is, she varied
from sullenness to laughter.

"Know you," she said, "that to-day I was an Oracle, and those fools of
the Mountain sent their medicine-men to ask of the Hesea how the battle
would go and which of them would be slain, and which gain honour. And
I--I could not tell them, but juggled with my words, so that they might
take them as they would. How the battle will go I know well, for I
shall direct it, but the future--ah! that I cannot read better than thou
canst, my Holly, and that is ill indeed. For me the past and all the
present lie bathed in light reflected from that black wall--the future."

Then she fell to brooding, and looking up at length with an air of
entreaty, said to Leo--"Wilt thou not hear my prayer and bide where thou
art for some few days, or even go a-hunting? Do so, and I will stay with
thee, and send Holly and Oros to command the Tribes in this petty fray."

"I will not," answered Leo, trembling with indignation, for this plan
of hers that I should be sent out to war, while he bided in safety in a
temple, moved him, a man brave to rashness, who, although he disapproved
of it in theory, loved fighting for its own sake also, to absolute rage.

"I say, Ayesha, that I will not," he repeated; "moreover, that if thou
leavest me here I will find my way down the mountain alone, and join the
battle."

"Then come," she answered, "and on thine own head be it. Nay, not on
thine beloved, on mine, on mine."

After this, by some strange reaction, she became like a merry girl,
laughing more than I have ever seen her do, and telling us many tales of
the far, far past, but none that were sad or tragic. It was very strange
to sit and listen to her while she spoke of people, one or two of them
known as names in history and many others who never have been heard
of, that had trod this earth and with whom she was familiar over two
thousand years ago. Yet she told us anecdotes of their loves and hates,
their strength or weaknesses, all of them touched with some tinge of
humorous satire, or illustrating the comic vanity of human aims and
aspirations.

At length her talk took a deeper and more personal note. She spoke of
her searchings after truth; of how, aching for wisdom, she had explored
the religions of her day and refused them one by one; of how she had
preached in Jerusalem and been stoned by the Doctors of the Law. Of
how also she had wandered back to Arabia and, being rejected by her own
people as a reformer, had travelled on to Egypt, and at the court of the
Pharaoh of that time met a famous magician, half charlatan and half
seer who, because she was far-seeing, 'clairvoyante' we should call it,
instructed her in his art so well that soon she became his master and
forced him to obey her.

Then, as though she were unwilling to reveal too much, suddenly Ayesha's
history passed from Egypt to Kor. She spoke to Leo of his arrival there,
a wanderer who was named Kallikrates, hunted by savages and accompanied
by the Egyptian Amenartas, whom she appeared to have known and hated in
her own country, and of how she entertained them. Yes, she even told of
a supper that the three of them had eaten together on the evening before
they started to discover the Place of Life, and of an evil prophecy that
this royal Amenartas had made as to the issue of their journey.

"Aye," Ayesha said, "it was such a silent night as this and such a
meal as this we ate, and Leo, not so greatly changed, save that he was
beardless then and younger, was at my side. Where thou sittest, Holly,
sat the royal Amenartas, a very fair woman; yes, even more beautiful
than I before I dipped me in the Essence, fore-sighted also, though not
so learned as I had grown. From the first we hated each other, and more
than ever now, when she guessed how I had learned to look upon thee, her
lover, Leo; for her husband thou never wast, who didst flee too fast for
marriage. She knew also that the struggle between us which had begun of
old and afar was for centuries and generations, and that until the end
should declare itself neither of us could harm the other, who both had
sinned to win thee, that wast appointed by fate to be the lodestone
of our souls. Then Amenartas spoke and said--"'Lo! to my sight,
Kallikrates, the wine in thy cup is turned to blood, and that knife in
thy hand, O daughter of Yarab'--for so she named me--'drips red blood.
Aye, and this place is a sepulchre, and thou, O Kallikrates, sleepest
here, nor can she, thy murderess, kiss back the breath of life into
those cold lips of thine.'

"So indeed it came about as was ordained," added Ayesha reflectively,
"for I slew thee in yonder Place of Life, yes, in my madness I slew thee
because thou wouldst not or couldst not understand the change that had
come over me, and shrankest from my loveliness like a blind bat from
the splendour of flame, hiding thy face in the tresses of her dusky
hair--Why, what is it now, thou Oros? Can I never be rid of thee for an
hour?"

"O Hes, a writing from the Khania Atene," the priest said with his
deprecating bow.

"Break the seal and read," she answered carelessly. "Perchance she has
repented of her folly and makes submission."

So he read--

"To the Hesea of the College on the Mountain, known as Ayesha upon
earth, and in the household of the Over-world whence she has been
permitted to wander, as 'Star-that-hath-fallen--'"


"A pretty sounding name, forsooth," broke in Ayesha; "ah! but, Atene,
set stars rise again--even from the Under-world. Read on, thou Oros."


"Greetings, O Ayesha. Thou who art very old, hast gathered much wisdom
in the passing of the centuries, and with other powers, that of making
thyself seem fair in the eyes of men blinded by thine arts. Yet one
thing thou lackest that I have--vision of those happenings which are not
yet. Know, O Ayesha, that I and my uncle, the great seer, have searched
the heavenly books to learn what is written there of the issue of this
war.

"This is written:--For me, death, whereat I rejoice. For thee a spear
cast by thine own hand. For the land of Kaloon blood and ruin bred of
thee!

"Atene,

"Khania of Kaloon."


Ayesha listened in silence, but her lips did not tremble, nor her cheek
pale. To Oros she said proudly--"Say to the messenger of Atene that I
have received her message, and ere long will answer it, face to face
with her in her palace of Kaloon. Go, priest, and disturb me no more."

When Oros had departed she turned to us and said--"That tale of mine of
long ago was well fitted to this hour, for as Amenartas prophesied of
ill, so does Atene prophesy of ill, and Amenartas and Atene are one.
Well, let the spear fall, if fall it must, and I will not flinch from
it who know that I shall surely triumph at the last. Perhaps the Khania
does but think to frighten me with a cunning lie, but if she has read
aright, then be sure, beloved, that it is still well with us, since none
can escape their destiny, nor can our bond of union which was fashioned
with the universe that bears us, ever be undone."

She paused awhile then went on with a sudden outburst of poetic thought
and imagery.

"I tell thee, Leo, that out of the confusions of our lives and deaths
order shall yet be born. Behind the mask of cruelty shine Mercy's
tender eyes; and the wrongs of this rough and twisted world are but
hot, blinding sparks which stream from the all-righting sword of pure,
eternal Justice. The heavy lives we see and know are only links in a
golden chain that shall draw us safe to the haven of our rest; steep
and painful steps are they whereby we climb to the alloted palace of
our joy. Henceforth I fear no more, and fight no more against that which
must befall. For I say we are but winged seeds blown down the gales of
fate and change to the appointed garden where we shall grow, filling its
blest air with the immortal fragrance of our bloom.

"Leave me now, Leo, and sleep awhile, for we ride at dawn."

It was midday on the morrow when we moved down the mountain-side with
the army of the Tribes, fierce and savage-looking men. The scouts were
out before us, then came the great body of their cavalry mounted on wiry
horses, while to right and left and behind, the foot soldiers marched in
regiments, each under the command of its own chief.

Ayesha, veiled now--for she would not show her beauty to these wild
folk--rode in the midst of the horse-men on a white mare of matchless
speed and shape. With her went Leo and myself, Leo on the Khan's black
horse, and I on another not unlike it, though thicker built. About us
were a bodyguard of armed priests and a regiment of chosen soldiers,
among them those hunters that Leo had saved from Ayesha's wrath, and who
were now attached to his person.

We were merry, all of us, for in the crisp air of late autumn flooded
with sunlight, the fears and forebodings that had haunted us in those
gloomy, firelit caves were forgotten. Moreover, the tramp of thousands
of armed men and the excitement of coming battle thrilled our nerves.

Not for many a day had I seen Leo look so vigorous and happy. Of late
he had grown somewhat thin and pale, probably from causes that I have
suggested, but now his cheeks were red and his eyes shone bright again.
Ayesha also seemed joyous, for the moods of this strange woman were as
fickle as those of Nature's self, and varied as a landscape varies under
the sunshine or the shadow. Now she was noon and now dark night; now
dawn, now evening, and now thoughts came and went in the blue depths of
her eyes like vapours wafted across the summer sky, and in the press
of them her sweet face changed and shimmered as broken water shimmers
beneath the beaming stars.

"Too long," she said, with a little thrilling laugh, "have I been shut
in the bowels of sombre mountains, accompanied only by mutes and savages
or by melancholy, chanting priests, and now I am glad to look upon the
world again. How beautiful are the snows above, and the brown slopes
below, and the broad plains beyond that roll away to those bordering
hills! How glorious is the sun, eternal as myself; how sweet the keen
air of heaven.

"Believe me, Leo, more than twenty centuries have gone by since I was
seated on a steed, and yet thou seest I have not forgot my horsemanship,
though this beast cannot match those Arabs that I rode in the wide
deserts of Arabia. Oh! I remember how at my father's side I galloped
down to war against the marauding Bedouins, and how with my own hand I
speared their chieftain and made him cry for mercy. One day I will tell
thee of that father of mine, for I was his darling, and though we have
been long apart, I hold his memory dear and look forward to our meeting.

"See, yonder is the mouth of that gorge where lived the cat-worshipping
sorcerer, who would have murdered both of you because thou, Leo, didst
throw his familiar to the fire. It is strange, but several of the tribes
of this Mountain and of the lands behind it make cats their gods or
divine by means of them. I think that the first Rassen, the general
of Alexander, must have brought the practice here from Egypt. Of
this Macedonian Alexander I could tell thee much, for he was almost a
contemporary of mine, and when I last was born the world still rang with
the fame of his great deeds.

"It was Rassen who on the Mountain supplanted the primeval fire-worship
whereof the flaming pillars which light its Sanctuary remain as
monuments, by that of Hes, or Isis, or rather blended the two in one.
Doubtless among the priests in his army were some of Pasht or Sekket the
Cat-headed, and these brought with them their secret cult, that to-day
has dwindled down to the vulgar divinations of savage sorcerers. Indeed
I remember dimly that it was so, for I was the first Hesea of this
Temple, and journeyed hither with that same general Rassen, a relative
of mine."

Now both Leo and I looked at her wonderingly, and I could see that she
was watching us through her veil. As usual, however, it was I whom she
reproved, since Leo might think and do what he willed and still escape
her anger.

"Thou, Holly," she said quickly, "who art ever of a cavilling and
suspicious mind, remembering what I said but now, believest that I lie
to thee."

I protested that I was only reflecting upon an apparent variation
between two statements.

"Play not with words," she answered; "in thy heart thou didst write me
down a liar, and I take that ill. Know, foolish man, that when I said
that the Macedonian Alexander lived before me, I meant before this
present life of mine. In the existence that preceded it, though I
outlasted him by thirty years, we were born in the same summer, and
I knew him well, for I was the Oracle whom he consulted most upon his
wars, and to my wisdom he owed his victories. Afterwards we quarrelled,
and I left him and pushed forward with Rassen. From that day the
bright star of Alexander began to wane." At this Leo made a sound that
resembled a whistle. In a very agony of apprehension, beating back the
criticisms and certain recollections of the strange tale of the old
abbot, Kou-en, which would rise within me, I asked quickly--"And dost
thou, Ayesha, remember well all that befell thee in this former life?"

"Nay, not well," she answered, meditatively, "only the greater facts,
and those I have for the most part recovered by that study of secret
things which thou callest vision or magic. For instance, my Holly, I
recall that thou wast living in that life. Indeed I seem to see an
ugly philosopher clad in a dirty robe and filled both with wine and the
learning of others, who disputed with Alexander till he grew wroth with
him and caused him to be banished, or drowned: I forget which."

"I suppose that I was not called Diogenes?" I asked tartly, suspecting,
perhaps not without cause, that Ayesha was amusing herself by fooling
me.

"No," she replied gravely, "I do not think that was thy name. The
Diogenes thou speakest of was a much more famous man, one of real if
crabbed wisdom; moreover, he did not indulge in wine. I am mindful of
very little of that life, however, not of more indeed than are many of
the followers of the prophet Buddha, whose doctrines I have studied and
of whom thou, Holly, hast spoken to me so much. Maybe we did not meet
while it endured. Still I recollect that the Valley of Bones, where
I found thee, my Leo, was the place where a great battle was fought
between the Fire-priests with their vassals, the Tribes of the Mountain
and the army of Rassen aided by the people of Kaloon. For between these
and the Mountain, in old days as now, there was enmity, since in this
present war history does but rewrite itself."

"So thou thyself wast our guide," said Leo, looking at her sharply.

"Aye, Leo, who else? though it is not wonderful that thou didst not know
me beneath those deathly wrappings. I was minded to wait and receive
thee in the Sanctuary, yet when I learned that at length both of you had
escaped Atene and drew near, I could restrain myself no more, but came
forth thus hideously disguised. Yes, I was with you even at the river's
bank, and though you saw me not, there sheltered you from harm.

"Leo, I yearned to look upon thee and to be certain that thy heart had
not changed, although until the alloted time thou mightest not hear my
voice or see my face who wert doomed to undergo that sore trial of thy
faith. Of Holly also I desired to learn whether his wisdom could pierce
through my disguise, and how near he stood to truth. It was for this
reason that I suffered him to see me draw the lock from the satchel on
thy breast and to hear me wail over thee yonder in the Rest-house.
Well he did not guess so ill, but thou, thou knewest me--in thy
sleep--knewest me as I am, and not as I seemed to be, yes," she added
softly, "and didst say certain sweet words which I remember well."

"Then beneath that shroud was thine own face," asked Leo again, for he
was very curious on this point, "the same lovely face I see to-day?"

"Mayhap--as thou wilt," she answered coldly; "also it is the spirit that
matters, not the outward seeming, though men in their blindness think
otherwise. Perchance my face is but as thy heart fashions it, or as my
will presents it to the sight and fancy of its beholders. But hark! The
scouts have touched."

As Ayesha spoke a sound of distant shouting was borne upon the wind,
and presently we saw a fringe of horsemen falling back slowly upon our
foremost line. It was only to report, however, that the skirmishers of
Atene were in full retreat. Indeed, a prisoner whom they brought with
them, on being questioned by the priests, confessed at once that the
Khania had no mind to meet us upon the holy Mountain. She proposed to
give battle on the river's farther bank, having for a defence its waters
which we must ford, a decision that showed good military judgment.

So it happened that on this day there was no fighting.

All that afternoon we descended the slopes of the Mountain, more swiftly
by far than we had climbed them after our long flight from the city of
Kaloon. Before sunset we came to our prepared camping ground, a wide and
sloping plain that ended at the crest of the Valley of Dead Bones, where
in past days we had met our mysterious guide. This, however, we did not
reach through the secret mountain tunnel along which she had led us, the
shortest way by miles, as Ayesha told us now, since it was unsuited to
the passage of an army.

Bending to the left, we circled round a number of unclimbable koppies,
beneath which that tunnel passed, and so at length arrived upon the brow
of the dark ravine where we could sleep safe from attack by night.

Here a tent was pitched for Ayesha, but as it was the only one, Leo
and I with our guard bivouacked among some rocks at a distance of a
few hundred yards. When she found that this must be so, Ayesha was very
angry and spoke bitter words to the chief who had charge of the food and
baggage, although, he, poor man, knew nothing of tents.

Also she blamed Oros, who replied meekly that he had thought us captains
accustomed to war and its hardships. But most of all she was angry with
herself, who had forgotten this detail, and until Leo stopped her with a
laugh of vexation, went on to suggest that we should sleep in the tent,
since she had no fear of the rigours of the mountain cold.

The end of it was that we supped together outside, or rather Leo and I
supped, for as there were guards around us Ayesha did not even lift her
veil.

That evening Ayesha was disturbed and ill at ease, as though new fears
which she could not overcome assailed her. At length she seemed to
conquer them by some effort of her will and announced that she was
minded to sleep and thus refresh her soul; the only part of her, I
think, which ever needed rest. Her last words to us were--"Sleep you
also, sleep sound, but be not astonished, my Leo, if I send to summon
both of you during the night, since in my slumbers I may find new
counsels and need to speak of them to thee ere we break camp at dawn."

Thus we parted, but ah! little did we guess how and where the three of
us would meet again.

We were weary and soon fell fast asleep beside our camp-fire, for,
knowing that the whole army guarded us, we had no fear. I remember
watching the bright stars which shone in the immense vault above me
until they paled in the pure light of the risen moon, now somewhat past
her full, and hearing Leo mutter drowsily from beneath his fur rug that
Ayesha was quite right, and that it was pleasant to be in the open air
again, as he was tired of caves.

After that I knew no more until I was awakened by the challenge of a
sentry in the distance; then after a pause, a second challenge from
the officer of our own guard. Another pause, and a priest stood bowing
before us, the flickering light from the fire playing upon his shaven
head and face, which I seemed to recognize.

"I"--and he gave a name that was familiar to me, but which I forget--"am
sent, my lords, by Oros, who commands me to say that the Hesea would
speak with you both and at once."

Now Leo sat up yawning and asked what was the matter. I told him,
whereon he said he wished that Ayesha could have waited till daylight,
then added--"Well, there is no help for it. Come on, Horace," and he
rose to follow the messenger.

The priest bowed again and said--"The commands of the Hesea are that my
lords should bring their weapons and their guard."

"What," grumbled Leo, "to protect us for a walk of a hundred yards
through the heart of an army?"

"The Hesea," explained the man, "has left her tent; she is in the gorge
yonder, studying the line of advance."

"How do you know that?" I asked.

"I do not know it," he replied. "Oros told me so, that is all, and
therefore the Hesea bade my lords bring their guard, for she is alone."

"Is she mad," ejaculated Leo, "to wander about in such a place at
midnight? Well, it is like her."

I too thought it was like her, who did nothing that others would have
done, and yet I hesitated. Then I remembered that Ayesha had said she
might send for us; also I was sure that if any trick had been intended
we should not have been warned to bring an escort. So we called the
guard--there were twelve of them--took our spears and swords and
started.

We were challenged by both the first and second lines of sentries, and I
noticed that as we gave them the password the last picket, who of course
recognized us, looked astonished. Still, if they had doubts they did not
dare to express them. So we went on.

Now we began to descend the sides of the ravine by a very steep path,
with which the priest, our guide, seemed to be curiously familiar, for
he went down it as though it were the stairway of his own house.

"A strange place to take us to at night," said Leo doubtfully, when
we were near the bottom and the chief of the bodyguard, that great
red-bearded hunter who had been mixed up in the matter of the
snow-leopard also muttered some words of remonstrance. Whilst I was
trying to catch what he said, of a sudden something white walked into
the patch of moonlight at the foot of the ravine, and we saw that it
was the veiled figure of Ayesha herself. The chief saw her also and said
contentedly--"Hes! Hes!"

"Look at her," grumbled Leo, "strolling about in that haunted hole as
though it were Hyde Park;" and on he went at a run.

The figure turned and beckoned to us to follow her as she glided
forward, picking her way through the skeletons which were scattered
about upon the lava bed of the cleft. Thus she went on into the shadow
of the opposing cliff that the moonlight did not reach. Here in the wet
season a stream trickled down a path which it had cut through the rock
in the course of centuries, and the grit that it had brought with it
was spread about the lava floor of the ravine, so that many of the bones
were almost completely buried in the sand.

These, I noticed, as we stepped into the shadow, were more numerous than
usual just here, for on all sides I saw the white crowns of skulls, or
the projecting ends of ribs and thigh bones. Doubtless, I thought to
myself, that streamway made a road to the plain above, and in some past
battle, the fighting around it was very fierce and the slaughter great.

Here Ayesha had halted and was engaged in the contemplation of this
boulder-strewn path, as though she meditated making use of it that day.
Now we drew near to her, and the priest who guided us fell back with our
guard, leaving us to go forward alone, since they dared not approach the
Hesea unbidden. Leo was somewhat in advance of me, seven or eight yards
perhaps, and I heard him say--"Why dost thou venture into such places at
night, Ayesha, unless indeed it is not possible for any harm to come to
thee?"

She made no answer, only turned and opened her arms wide, then let them
fall to her side again. Whilst I wondered what this signal of hers might
mean, from the shadows about us came a strange, rustling sound.

I looked, and lo! everywhere the skeletons were rising from their sandy
beds. I saw their white skulls, their gleaming arm and leg bones, their
hollow ribs. The long-slain army had come to life again, and look! in
their hands were the ghosts of spears.

Of course I knew at once that this was but another manifestation of
Ayesha's magic powers, which some whim of hers had drawn us from our
beds to witness. Yet I confess that I felt frightened. Even the boldest
of men, however free from superstition, might be excused should their
nerve fail them if, when standing in a churchyard at midnight, suddenly
on every side they saw the dead arising from their graves. Also our
surroundings were wilder and more eerie than those of any civilized
burying-place.

"What new devilment of thine is this?" cried Leo in a scared and angry
voice. But Ayesha made no answer. I heard a noise behind me and looked
round. The skeletons were springing upon our body-guard, who for their
part, poor men, paralysed with terror, had thrown down their weapons and
fallen, some of them, to their knees. Now the ghosts began to stab at
them with their phantom spears, and I saw that beneath the blows they
rolled over. The veiled figure above me pointed with her hand at Leo and
said--"Seize him, but I charge you, harm him not."

I knew the voice; _it was that of Atene!_

Then too late I understood the trap into which we had fallen.

"Treachery!" I began to cry, and before the word was out of my lips, a
particularly able-bodied skeleton silenced me with a violent blow upon
the head. But though I could not speak, my senses still stayed with
me for a little. I saw Leo fighting furiously with a number of men who
strove to pull him down, so furiously, indeed that his frightful efforts
caused the blood to gush out of his mouth from some burst vessel in the
lungs.

Then sight and hearing failed me, and thinking that this was death, I
fell and remembered no more.

Why I was not killed outright I do not know, unless in their hurry the
disguised soldiers thought me already dead, or perhaps that my life was
to be spared also. At least, beyond the knock upon the head I received
no injury.



CHAPTER XXII

THE LOOSING OF THE POWERS

When I came to myself again, it was daylight. I saw the calm, gentle
face of Qros bending over me as he poured some strong fluid down my
throat that seemed to shoot through all my body, and melt a curtain in
my mind. I saw also that beside him stood Ayesha.

"Speak, man, speak," she said in a terrible voice. "What hast chanced
here? Thou livest, then where is my lord? Where hast thou hid my lord?
Tell me--or die."

It was the vision that I saw when my senses left me in the snow of the
avalanche, fulfilled to the last detail!

"Atene has taken him," I answered.

"Atene has taken him and thou art left alive?"

"Do not be wrath with me," I answered, "it is no fault of mine. Little
wonder we were deceived after thou hadst said that thou mightest summon
us ere dawn."

Then as briefly as I could I told the story.

She listened, went to where our murdered guards lay with unstained
spears, and looked at them.

"Well for these that they are dead," she exclaimed. "Now, Holly, thou
seest what is the fruit of mercy. The men whose lives I gave my lord
have failed him at his need."

Then she passed forward to the spot where Leo was captured. Here lay a
broken sword--Leo's--that had been the Khan Rassen's, and two dead men.
Both of these were clothed in some tight-fitting black garments, having
their heads and faces whitened with chalk and upon their vests a rude
imitation of a human skeleton, also daubed in chalk.

"A trick fit to frighten fools with," she said contemptuously. "But oh!
that Atene should have dared to play the part of Ayesha, that she should
have dared!" and she clenched her little hand. "See, surprised and
overwhelmed, yet he fought well. Say! was he hurt, Holly? It comes upon
me--no, tell me that I see amiss."

"Not much, I think," I answered doubtfully, "a little blood was running
from his mouth, no more. Look, there go the stains of it upon that
rock."

"For every drop I'll take a hundred lives. By myself I swear it," Ayesha
muttered with a groan. Then she cried in a ringing voice,

"Back and to horse, for I have deeds to do this day. Nay, bide thou
here, Holly; we go a shorter path while the army skirts the gorge. Oros,
give him food and drink and bathe that hurt upon his head. It is but a
bruise, for his hood and hair are thick."

So while Oros rubbed some stinging lotion on my scalp, I ate and drank
as best I could till my brain ceased to swim, for the blow, though
heavy, had not fractured the bone. When I was ready they brought the
horses to us, and mounting them, slowly we scrambled up the steep bed of
the water-course.

"See," Ayesha said, pointing to tracks and hoof-prints on the plain at
its head, "there was a chariot awaiting him, and harnessed to it were
four swift horses. Atene's scheme was clever and well laid, and I, grown
oversure and careless, slept through it all!"

On this plain the army of the Tribes that had broken camp before the
dawn was already gathering fast; indeed, the cavalry, if I may call them
so, were assembled there to the number of about five thousand men, each
of whom had a led horse. Ayesha summoned the chiefs and captains, and
addressed them. "Servants of Hes," she said, "the stranger lord, my
betrothed and guest, has been tricked by a false priest and, falling
into a cunning snare, captured as a hostage. It is necessary that I
follow him fast, before harm comes--to him. We move down to attack the
army of the Khania beyond the river. When its passage is forced I pass
on with the horsemen, for I must sleep in the city of Kaloon to-night.
What sayest thou, Oros? That a second and greater army defends its
walls? Man, I know it, and if there is need, that army I will destroy.
Nay, stare not at me. Already they are as dead. Horsemen, you accompany
me.

"Captains of the Tribes, you follow, and woe be to that man who hangs
back in the hour of battle, for death and eternal shame shall be his
portion, but wealth and honour to those who bear them bravely. Yes, I
tell you, theirs shall be the fair land of Kaloon. You have your orders
for the passing of yonder river. I, with the horsemen, take the central
ford. Let the wings advance."

The chiefs answered with a cheer, for they were fierce men whose
ancestors had loved war for generations. Moreover, mad as seemed the
enterprise, they trusted in their Oracle, the Hesea, and, like all hill
peoples, were easily fired by the promise of rich plunder.

An hour's steady march down the slopes brought the army to the edge
of the marsh lands. These, as it chanced, proved no obstacle to our
progress, for in that season of great drought they were quite dry, and
for the same reason the shrunken river was not so impassable a defence
as I feared that it would be. Still, because of its rocky bottom and
steep, opposing banks, it looked formidable enough, while on the crests
of those banks, in squadrons and companies of horse and foot, were
gathered the regiments of Atene.

While the wings of footmen deployed to right and left, the cavalry
halted in the marshes and let their horses fill themselves with the long
grass, now a little browned by frost, that grew on this boggy soil, and
afterwards drink some water.

All this time Ayesha stood silent, for she also had dismounted, that
the mare she rode and her two led horses might graze with the others.
Indeed, she spoke but once, saying--"Thou thinkest this adventure mad,
my Holly? Say, art afraid?"

"Not with thee for captain," I answered. "Still, that second army----"

"Shall melt before me like mist before the gale," she replied in a low
and thrilling voice. "Holly, I tell thee thou shalt see things such as
no man upon the earth has ever seen. Remember my words when I _loose the
Powers_ and thou followest the rent veil of Ayesha through the smitten
squadrons of Kaloon. Only--what if Atene should dare to murder him? Oh,
if she should dare!"

"Be comforted," I replied, wondering what she might mean by this loosing
of the Powers. "I think that she loves him too well."

"I bless thee for the words, Holly, yet--I know he will refuse her, and
then her hate for me and her jealous rage may overcome her love for him.
Should this be so, what will avail my vengeance? Eat and drink again,
Holly--nay, I touch no food until I sit in the palace of Kaloon--and
look well to girth and bridle, for thou ridest far and on a wild errand.
Mount thee on Leo's horse, which is swift and sure; if it dies the
guards will bring thee others."

I obeyed her as best I could, and once more bathed my head in a pool,
and with the help of Oros tied a rag soaked in the liniment on the
bruise, after which I felt sound enough. Indeed, the mad excitement of
those minutes of waiting, and some foreshadowing of the terrible wonders
that were about to befall, made me forget my hurts.

Now, Ayesha was standing staring upwards, so that although I could not
see her veiled face, I guessed that her eyes must be fixed on the sky
above the mountain top. I was certain, also, that she was concentrating
her fearful will upon an unknown object, for her whole frame quivered
like a reed shaken in the wind.

It was a very strange morning--cold and clear, yet curiously still,
and with a heaviness in the air such as precedes a great fall of snow,
although for much snow the season was yet too early. Once or twice, too,
in that utter calm, I thought that I felt everything shudder; not the
ordinary trembling of earthquake, however, for the shuddering seemed to
be of the atmosphere quite as much as of the land. It was as though all
Nature around us were a living creature which is very much afraid.

Following Ayesha's earnest gaze, I perceived that thick, smoky clouds
were gathering one by one in the clear sky above the peak, and that they
were edged, each of them, with a fiery rim. Watching these fantastic and
ominous clouds, I ventured to say to her that it looked as though the
weather would change--not a very original remark, but one which the
circumstances suggested.

"Aye," she answered, "ere night the weather will be wilder even than
my heart. No longer shall they cry for water in Kaloon! Mount, Holly,
mount! The advance begins!" and unaided she sprang to the saddle of the
mare that Oros brought her.

Then, in the midst of the five thousand horsemen, we moved down upon
the ford. As we reached its brink I noted that the two divisions of
tribesmen were already entering the stream half a mile to the right and
left of us. Of what befell them I can tell nothing from observation,
although I learned later that they forced it after great slaughter on
both sides.

In front of us was gathered the main body of the Khania's army, massed
by regiments upon the further bank, while hundreds of picked men stood
up to their middles in the water, waiting to spear or hamstring our
horses as we advanced.

Now, uttering their wild, whistling cry, our leading companies dashed
into the river, leaving us upon the bank, and soon were engaged hotly
with the footmen in midstream. While this fray went on, Oros came to
Ayesha, told her a spy had reported that Leo, bound in a two-wheeled
carriage and accompanied by Atene, Simbri and a guard, had passed
through the enemy's camp at night, galloping furiously towards Kaloon.

"Spare thy words, I know it," she answered, and he fell back behind her.

Our squadrons gained the bank, having destroyed most of the men in the
water, but as they set foot upon it the enemy charged them and drove
them back with loss. Thrice they returned to the attack, and thrice were
repulsed in this fashion. At length Ayesha grew impatient.

"They need a leader, and I will give them one," she said. "Come with me,
my Holly," and, followed by the main body of the horsemen, she rode a
little way into the river, and there waited until the shattered troops
had fallen back upon us. Oros whispered to me--"It is madness, the Hesea
will be slain."

"Thinkest thou so?" I answered. "More like that we shall be slain,"
a saying at which he smiled a little more than usual and shrugged his
shoulders, since for all his soft ways, Oros was a brave man. Also I
believe that he spoke to try me, knowing that his mistress would take no
harm.

Ayesha held up her hand, in which there was no weapon, and waved it
forwards. A great cheer answered that signal to advance, and in the
midst of it this frail, white-robed woman spoke to her horse, so that it
plunged deep into the water.

Two minutes later, and spears and arrows were flying about us so thickly
that they seemed to darken the sky. I saw men and horses fall to right
and left, but nothing touched me or the white robes that floated a yard
or two ahead. Five minutes and we were gaining the further bank, and
there the worst fight began.

It was fierce indeed, yet never an inch did the white robes give back,
and where they went men would follow them or fall. We were up the bank
and the enemy was packed about us, but through them we passed slowly,
like a boat through an adverse sea that buffets but cannot stay it.
Yes, further and further, till at last the lines ahead grew thin as the
living wedge of horsemen forced its path between them--grew thin, broke
and vanished.

We had passed through the heart of the host, and leaving the tribesmen
who followed to deal with its flying fragments, rode on half a mile or
so and mustered. Many were dead and more were hurt, but the command was
issued that all sore-wounded men should fall out and give their horses
to replace those that had been killed.

This was done, and presently we moved on, three thousand of us now, not
more, heading for Kaloon. The trot grew to a canter, and the canter to a
gallop, as we rushed forward across that endless plain, till at midday,
or a little after--for this route was far shorter than that taken by Leo
and myself in our devious flight from Rassen and his death-hounds--we
dimly saw the city of Kaloon set upon its hill.

Now a halt was ordered, for here was a reservoir in which was still
some water, whereof the horses drank, while the men ate of the food they
carried with them; dried meat and barley meal. Here, too, more spies met
us, who said that the great army of Atene was posted guarding the
city bridges, and that to attack it with our little force would mean
destruction. But Ayesha took no heed of their words; indeed, she
scarcely seemed to hear them. Only she ordered that all wearied horses
should be abandoned and fresh ones mounted.

Forward again for hour after hour, in perfect silence save for the
thunder of our horses' hoofs. No word spoke Ayesha, nor did her wild
escort speak, only from time to time they looked over their shoulders
and pointed with their red spears at the red sky behind.

I looked also, nor shall I forget its aspect. The dreadful, fire-edged
clouds had grown and gathered so that beneath their shadows the plain
lay almost black. They marched above us like an army in the heavens,
while from time to time vaporous points shot forward, thin like swords,
or massed like charging horse.

Under them a vast stillness reigned. It was as though the earth lay dead
beneath their pall.

Kaloon, lit in a lurid light, grew nearer. The pickets of the foe flew
homeward before us, shaking their javelins, and their mocking laughter
reached us in hollow echoes. Now we saw the vast array, posted rank
on rank with silken banners drooping in that stirless air, flanked and
screened by glittering regiments of horse.

An embassy approached us, and at the signal of Ayesha's uplifted arm
we halted. It was headed by a lord of the court whose face I knew. He
pulled rein and spoke boldly.

"Listen, Hes, to the words of Atene. Ere now the stranger lord, thy
darling, is prisoner in her palace. Advance, and we destroy thee and thy
little band; but if by any miracle thou shouldst conquer, then he dies.
Get thee gone to thy Mountain fastness and the Khania gives thee peace,
and thy people their lives. What answer to the words of the Khania?"

Ayesha whispered to Oros, who called aloud--"There is no answer. Go, if
ye love life, for death draws near to you."

So they went fast as their swift steeds would carry them, but for a
little while Ayesha still sat lost in thought.

Presently she turned and through her thin veil I saw that her face
was white and terrible and that the eyes in it glowed like those of
a lioness at night. She said to, me--hissing the words between her
clenched teeth--"Holly, prepare thyself to look into the mouth of hell.
I desired to spare them if I could, I swear it, but my heart bids me be
bold, to put off human pity, and use all my secret might if I would see
Leo living. Holly, I tell thee they are about _to murder him!_"

Then she cried aloud, "Fear nothing, Captains. Ye are but few, yet with
you goes the strength of ten thousand thousand. Now follow the Hesea,
and whate'er ye meet, be not dismayed. Repeat it to the soldiers, that
fearing nothing they follow the Hesea through yonder host and across the
bridge and into the city of Kaloon."

So the chiefs rode hither and thither, crying out her words, and the
savage tribesmen answered--"Aye, we who followed through the water, will
follow across the plain. Onward, Hes, for darkness swallows us."

Now some orders were given, and the companies fell into a formation that
resembled a great wedge, Ayesha herself being its very point and apex,
for though Oros and I rode on either side of her, spur as we would, our
horses' heads never passed her saddle bow. In front of that dark mass
she shone a single spot of white--one snowy feather on a black torrent's
breast.

A screaming bugle note--and, like giant arms, from the shelter of some
groves of poplar trees, curved horns of cavalry shot out to surround
us, while the broad bosom of the opposing army, shimmering with spears,
rolled forward as a wave rolls crowned with sunlit foam, and behind it,
line upon line, uncountable, lay a surging sea of men.

Our end was near. We were lost, or so it seemed.

Ayesha tore off her veil and held it on high, flowing from her like
a pennon, and lo! upon her brow blazed that wide and mystic diadem of
light which once only I had seen before.

Denser and denser grew the rushing clouds above; brighter and brighter
gleamed the unearthly star of light beneath. Louder and louder beat the
sound of the falling hoofs of ten thousand horses. From the Mountain
peak behind us went up sudden sheets of flame; it spouted fire as a
whale spouts foam.

The scene was dreadful. In front, the towers of Kaloon lurid in a
monstrous sunset. Above, a gloom as of an eclipse. Around the darkling,
sunburnt plain. On it Atene's advancing army, and our rushing wedge of
horsemen destined, it would appear, to inevitable doom.

Ayesha let fall her rein. She tossed her arms, waving the torn, white
veil as though it were a signal cast to heaven.

Instantly from the churning jaws of the unholy night above belched a
blaze of answering flame, that also wavered like a rent and shaken veil
in the grasp of a black hand of cloud.

Then did Ayesha roll the thunder of her might upon the Children of
Kaloon. Then she called, and the Terror came, such as men had never seen
and perchance never more will see. Awful bursts of wind tore past us,
lifting the very stones and soil before them, and with the wind went
hail and level, hissing rain, made visible by the arrows of perpetual
lightnings that leapt downwards from the sky and upwards from the earth.

It was as she had warned me. It was as though hell had broken loose upon
the world, yet through that hell we rushed on unharmed. For always these
furies passed before us. No arrow flew, no javelin was stained. The
jagged hail was a herald of our coming; the levens that smote and
stabbed were our sword and spear, while ever the hurricane roared and
screamed with a million separate voices which blended to one yell of
sound, hideous and indescribable.

As for the hosts about us they melted and were gone.

Now the darkness was dense, like to that of thickest night; yet in the
fierce flares of the lightnings I saw them run this way and that, and
amidst the volleying, elemental voices I heard their shouts of horror
and of agony. I saw horses and riders roll confused upon the ground;
like storm-drifted leaves I saw their footmen piled in high and whirling
heaps, while the brands of heaven struck and struck them till they sank
together and grew still.

I saw the groves of trees bend, shrivel up and vanish. I saw the high
walls of Kaloon blown in and flee away, while the houses within the
walls took fire, to go out beneath the torrents of the driving rain,
and again take fire. I saw blackness sweep over us with great wings, and
when I looked, lo! those wide wings were flame, floods of pulsing flame
that flew upon the tormented air.

Blackness, utter blackness; turmoil, doom, dismay! Beneath me the
labouring horse; at my side the steady crest of light which sat on
Ayesha's brow, and through the tumult a clear, exultant voice that
sang--"I promised thee wild weather! Now, Holly, dost thou believe that
I can loose the prisoned Powers of the world?"

Lo! all was past and gone, and above us shone the quiet evening sky,
and before us lay the empty bridge, and beyond it the flaming city of
Kaloon. But the armies of Atene, where were they? Go, ask of those great
cairns that hide their bones. Go, ask it of her widowed land.

Yet of our wild company of horsemen not one was lost. After us they
galloped trembling, white-lipped, like men who face to face had fought
and conquered Death, but triumphant--ah, triumphant!

On the high head of the bridge Ayesha wheeled her horse, and so for
one proud moment stood to welcome them. At the sight of her glorious,
star-crowned countenance, which now her Tribes beheld for the first time
and the last, there went up such a shout as men have seldom heard.

"_The Goddess!_" that shout thundered. "Worship the Goddess!"

Then she turned her horse's head again, and they followed on through the
long straight street of the burning city, up to the palace on its crest.

As the sun set we sped beneath its gateway. Silence in the courtyard,
silence everywhere, save for the distant roar of fire and the scared
howlings of the death-hounds in their kennel.

Ayesha sprang from her horse, and waving back all save Oros and myself,
swept through the open doors into the halls beyond.

They were empty, every one--all were fled or dead. Yet she never paused
or doubted, but so swiftly that we scarce could follow her, flitted up
the wide stone stair that led to the topmost tower. Up, still up, until
we reached the chamber where had dwelt Simbri the Shaman, that same
chamber whence he was wont to watch his stars, in which Atene had
threatened us with death.

Its door was shut and barred; still, at Ayesha's coming, yes, before
the mere breath of her presence, the iron bolts snapped like twigs, the
locks flew back, and inward burst that massive portal.

Now we were within the lamp-lit chamber, and this is what we saw. Seated
in a chair, pale-faced, bound, yet proud and defiant-looking, was Leo.
Over him, a dagger in his withered hand--yes, about to strike, in the
very act--stood the old Shaman, and on the floor hard by, gazing upward
with wide-set eyes, dead and still majestic in her death, lay Atene,
Khania of Kaloon.

Ayesha waved her arm and the knife fell from Simbri's hand, clattering
on the marble, while in an instant he who had held it was smitten to
stillness and became like a man turned to stone.

She stooped, lifted the dagger, and with a swift stroke severed Leo's
bonds; then, as though overcome at last, sank on to a bench in silence.
Leo rose, looking about him bewildered, and said in the strained voice
of one who is weak with much suffering--"But just in time, Ayesha.
Another second, and that murderous dog"--and he pointed to the
Shaman--"well, it was in time. But how went the battle, and how earnest
thou here through that awful hurricane? And, oh, Horace, thank heaven
they did not kill you after all!"

"The battle went ill for some," Ayesha answered, "and I came not through
the hurricane, but on its wings. Tell me now, what has befallen thee
since we parted?"

"Trapped, overpowered, bound, brought here, told that I must write to
thee and stop thy advance, or die--refused, of course, and then----" and
he glanced at the dead body on the floor.

"And then?" repeated Ayesha.

"Then that fearful tempest, which seemed to drive me mad. Oh! if thou
couldst have heard the wind howling round these battlements, tearing
off their stones as though they were dry leaves; if thou hadst seen the
lightnings falling thick and fast as rain----"

"They were my messengers. I sent them to save thee," said Ayesha simply.

Leo stared at her, making no comment, but after a pause, as though he
were thinking the matter over, he went on--"Atene said as much, but I
did not believe her. I thought the end of the world had come, that was
all. Well, she returned just now more mad even than I was, and told me
that her people were destroyed and that she could not fight against the
strength of hell, but that she could send me thither, and took a knife
to kill me.

"I said, 'Kill on,' for I knew that wherever I went thou wouldst follow,
and I was sick with the loss of blood from some hurt I had in that
struggle, and weary of it all. So I shut my eyes waiting for the stroke,
but instead I felt her lips pressed upon my forehead, and heard her
say--"'Nay, I will not do it. Fare thee well; fulfil thou thine own
destiny, as I fulfil mine. For this cast the dice have fallen against
me; elsewhere it may be otherwise. I go to load them if I may.'

"I opened my eyes and looked. There Atene stood, a glass in her
hand--see, it lies beside her.

"'Defeated, yet I win,' she cried, 'for I do but pass before thee to
prepare the path that thou shalt tread, and to make ready thy place in
the Under-world. Till we meet again I pledge thee, for I am destroyed.
Ayesha's horsemen are in my streets, and, clothed in lightnings at their
head, rides Ayesha's avenging self.'

"So she drank, and fell dead--but now. Look, her breast still quivers.
Afterwards, that old man would have murdered me, for, being roped, I
could not resist him, but the door burst in and thou camest. Spare him,
he is of her blood, and he loved her."

Then Leo sank back into the chair where we had discovered him bound, and
seemed to fall into a kind of torpor, for of a sudden he grew to look
like an old man.

"Thou art sick," said Ayesha anxiously. "Oros, thy medicine, the draught
I bade thee bring! Be swift, I say."

The priest bowed, and from some pocket in his ample robe produced a
phial which he opened and gave to Leo, saying--"Drink, my lord; this
stuff will give thee back thy health, for it is strong."

"The stronger the better," answered Leo, rousing himself, and with
something like his old, cheerful laugh. "I am thirsty who have touched
nothing since last night, and have fought hard and been carried far,
yes--and lived through that hellish storm."

Then he took the draught and emptied it. There must have been virtue
in that potion; at least, the change which it produced in him was
wonderful. Within a minute his eyes grew bright again, and the colour
returned into his cheeks.

"Thy medicines are very good, as I have learned of old," he said to
Ayesha; "but the best of all of them is to see thee safe and victorious
before me, and to know that I, who looked for death, yet live to greet
thee, my beloved. There is food," and he pointed to a board upon which
were meats, "say, may I eat of them, for I starve?"

"Aye," she answered softly, "eat, and, my Holly, eat thou also."

So we fell to, yes, we fell to and ate even in the presence of that dead
woman who looked so royal in her death; of the old magician who stood
there powerless, like a man petrified, and of Ayesha, the wondrous being
that could destroy an army with the fearful weapons which were servant
to her will.

Only Oros ate nothing, but remained where he was, smiling at us
benignantly, nor did Ayesha touch any food.



CHAPTER XXIII

THE YIELDING OF AYESHA

When I had satisfied myself, Leo was still at his meal, for loss of
blood or the effects of the tremendous nerve tonic which Ayesha ordered
to be administered to him, had made him ravenous.

I watched his face and became aware of a curious change in it, no
immediate change indeed, but one, I think, that had come upon him
gradually, although I only fully appreciated it now, after our short
separation. In addition to the thinness of which I have spoken, his
handsome countenance had grown more ethereal; his eyes were full of the
shadows of things that were to come.

His aspect pained me, I knew not why. It was no longer that of the
Leo with whom I was familiar, the deep-chested, mighty-limbed, jovial,
upright traveller, hunter and fighting-man who had chanced to love and
be loved of a spiritual power incarnated in a mould of perfect womanhood
and armed with all the might of Nature's self. These things were still
present indeed, but the man was changed, and I felt sure that this
change came from Ayesha, since the look upon his face had become
exceeding like to that which often hovered upon hers at rest.

She also was watching him, with speculative, dreamy eyes, till
presently, as some thought swept through her, I saw those eyes blaze up,
and the red blood pour to cheek and brow. Yes, the mighty Ayesha whose
dead, slain for him, lay strewn by the thousand on yonder plain, blushed
and trembled like a maiden at her first lover's kiss.

Leo rose from the table. "I would that I had been with thee in the
fray," he said.

"At the drift there was fighting," she answered, "afterwards none. My
ministers of Fire, Earth and Air smote, no more; I waked them from their
sleep and at my command they smote for thee and saved thee."

"Many lives to take for one man's safety," Leo said solemnly, as though
the thought pained him.

"Had they been millions and not thousands, I would have spent them every
one. On my head be their deaths, not on thine. Or rather on hers," and
she pointed to the dead Atene. "Yes, on hers who made this war. At least
she should thank me who have sent so royal a host to guard her through
the darkness."

"Yet it is terrible," said Leo, "to think of thee, beloved, red to the
hair with slaughter."

"What reck I?" she answered with a splendid pride. "Let their blood
suffice to wash the stain of thy blood from off these cruel hands that
once did murder thee."

"Who am I that I should blame thee?" Leo went on as though arguing
with himself, "I who but yesterday killed two men--to save myself from
treachery."

"Speak not of it," she exclaimed in cold rage. "I saw the place and,
Holly, thou knowest how I swore that a hundred lives should pay for
every drop of that dear blood of thine, and I, who lie not, have kept
the oath. Look now on that man who stands yonder struck by my will to
stone, dead yet living, and say again what was he about to do to thee
when I entered here?"

"To take vengeance on me for the doom of his queen and of her armies,"
answered Leo, "and Ayesha, how knowest thou that a Power higher than
thine own will not demand it yet?"

As he spoke a pale shadow flickered on Leo's face, such a shadow as
might fall from Death's advancing wing, and in the fixed eyes of the
Shaman there shone a stony smile.

For a moment terror seemed to take Ayesha, then it was gone as quickly
as it came.

"Nay," she said. "I ordain that it shall not be, and save One who
listeth not, what power reigns in this wide earth that dare defy my
will?"

So she spoke, and as her words of awful pride--for they were very
awful--rang round that stone-built chamber, a vision came to me--Holly.

I saw illimitable space peopled with shining suns, and sunk in the
infinite void above them one vast Countenance clad in a calm so terrific
that at its aspect my spirit sank to nothingness. Yes, and I knew that
this was Destiny enthroned above the spheres. Those lips moved and
obedient worlds rushed upon their course. They moved again and these
rolling chariots of the heavens were turned or stayed, appeared or
disappeared. I knew also that against this calm Majesty the being, woman
or spirit, at my side had dared to hurl her passion and her strength. My
soul reeled. I was afraid.

The dread phantasm passed, and when my mind cleared again Ayesha was
speaking in new, triumphant tones.

"Nay, nay," she cried. "Past is the night of dread; dawns the day of
victory! Look!" and she pointed through the window-places shattered by
the hurricane, to the flaming town beneath, whence rose one continual
wail of misery, the wail of women mourning their countless slain while
the fire roared through their homes like some unchained and rejoicing
demon. "Look Leo on the smoke of the first sacrifice that I offer to thy
royal state and listen to its music. Perchance thou deemst it naught.
Why then I'll give thee others. Thou lovest war. Good! we will go down
to war and the rebellious cities of the earth shall be the torches of
our march."

She paused a moment, her delicate nostrils quivering, and her face
alight with the prescience of ungarnered splendours; then like a
swooping swallow flitted to where, by dead Atene, the gold circlet
fallen from the Khania's hair lay upon the floor.

She stooped, lifted it, and coming to Leo held it high above his head.
Slowly she let her hand fall until the glittering coronet rested for an
instant on his brow. Then she spoke, in her glorious voice that rolled
out rich and low, a very paean of triumph and of power.

"By this poor, earthly symbol I create thee King of Earth; yea in its
round for thee is gathered all her rule. Be thou its king, and mine!"

Again the coronet was held aloft, again it sank, and again she said or
rather chanted--"With this unbroken ring, token of eternity, I swear to
thee the boon of endless days. Endure thou while the world endures, and
be its lord, and mine."

A third time the coronet touched his brow.

"By this golden round I do endow thee with Wisdom's perfect gold
uncountable, that is the talisman whereat all nature's secret paths
shall open to thy feet. Victorious, victorious, tread thou her wondrous
ways with me, till from her topmost peak at last she wafts us to our
immortal throne whereof the columns twain are Life and Death."

Then Ayesha cast away the crown and lo! it fell upon the breast of the
lost Atene and rested there.

"Art content with these gifts of mine, my lord?" she cried.

Leo looked at her sadly and shook his head.

"What more wilt thou then? Ask and I swear it shall be thine."

"Thou swearest; but wilt thou keep the oath?"

"Aye, by myself I swear; by myself and by the Strength that bred me.
If it be ought that I can grant--then if I refuse it to thee, may such
destruction fall upon me as will satisfy even Atene's watching soul."

I heard and I think that another heard also, at least once more the
stony smile shone in the eyes of the Shaman.

"I ask of thee nothing that thou canst not give. Ayesha, I ask of
thee thyself--not at some distant time when I have been bathed in a
mysterious fire, but now, now this night."

She shrank back from him a little, as though dismayed.

"Surely," she said slowly, "I am like that foolish philosopher who,
walking abroad to read the destinies of nations in the stars, fell down
a pitfall dug by idle children and broke his bones and perished there.
Never did I guess that with all these glories stretched before thee
like mountain top on glittering mountain top, making a stairway for thy
mortal feet to the very dome of heaven, thou wouldst still clutch at thy
native earth and seek of it--but the common boon of woman's love.

"Oh! Leo, I thought that thy soul was set upon nobler aims, that thou
wouldst pray me for wider powers, for a more vast dominion; that as
though they were but yonder fallen door of wood and iron, I should break
for thee the bars of Hades, and like the Eurydice of old fable draw thee
living down the steeps of Death, or throne thee midst the fires of the
furthest sun to watch its subject worlds at play.

"Or I thought that thou wouldst bid me reveal what no woman ever told,
the bitter, naked truth--all my sins and sorrows, all the wandering
fancies of my fickle thought; even what thou knowest not and perchance
ne'er shalt know, _who I am and whence I came_, and how to thy charmed
eyes I seemed to change from foul to fair, and what is the purpose of
my love for thee, and what the meaning of that tale of an angry
goddess--who never was except in dreams.

"I thought--nay, no matter what I thought, save that thou wert far other
than thou art, my Leo, and in so high a moment that thou wouldst seek to
pass the mystic gates my glory can throw wide and with me tread an air
supernal to the hidden heart of things. Yet thy prayer is but the same
that the whole world whispers beneath the silent moon, in the palace and
the cottage, among the snows and on the burning desert's waste. 'Oh! my
love, thy lips, thy lips. Oh! my love, be mine, now, now, beneath the
moon, beneath the moon!'

"Leo, I thought better, higher, of thee."

"Mayhap, Ayesha, thou wouldest have thought worse of me had I been
content with thy suns and constellations and spiritual gifts and
dominations that I neither desire nor understand.

"If I had said to thee: Be thou my angel, not my wife; divide the ocean
that I may walk its bed; pierce the firmament and show me how grow the
stars; tell me the origins of being and of death and instruct me in
their issues; give up the races of mankind to my sword, and the wealth
of all the earth to fill my treasuries. Teach me also how to drive
the hurricane as thou canst do, and to bend the laws of nature to my
purpose: on earth make me half a god--as thou art.

"But Ayesha, I am no god; I am a man, and as a man I seek the woman whom
I love. Oh! divest thyself of all these wrappings of thy power--that
power which strews thy path with dead and keeps me apart from thee. If
only for one short night forget the ambition that gnaws unceasingly at
thy soul; I say forget thy greatness and be a woman and--my wife."

She made no answer, only looked at him and shook her head, causing her
glorious hair to ripple like water beneath a gentle breeze.

"Thou deniest me," he went on with gathering strength, "and that thou
canst not do, that thou mayest not do, for Ayesha, thou hast sworn, and
I demand the fulfilment of thine oath.

"Hark thou. I refuse thy gifts; I will have none of thy rule who ask no
Pharaoh's throne and wish to do good to men and not to kill them--that
the world may profit. I will not go with thee to Kor, nor be bathed in
the breath of Life. I will leave thee and cross the mountains, or perish
on them, nor with all thy strength canst thou hold me to thy side, who
indeed needest me not. No longer will I endure this daily torment,
the torment of thy presence and thy sweet words; thy loving looks, thy
promises for next year, next year--next year. So keep thine oath or let
me begone."

Still Ayesha stood silent, only now her head drooped and her breast
began to heave. Then Leo stepped forward; he seized her in his arms and
kissed her. She broke from his embrace, I know not how, for though she
returned it was close enough, and again stood before him but at a little
distance.

"Did I not warn Holly," she whispered with a sigh, "to bid thee beware
lest I should catch thy human fire? Man, I say to thee, it begins to
smoulder in my heart, and should it grow to flame----"

"Why then," he answered laughing, "we will be happy for a little while."

"Aye, Leo, but how long? Why wert thou sole lord of this loveliness of
mine and not set above their harming, night and day a hundred jealous
daggers would seek thy heart and--find it."

"How long, Ayesha? A lifetime, a year, a month, a minute--I neither know
nor care, and while thou art true to me I fear no stabs of envy."

"Is it so? Wilt take the risk? I can promise thee nothing. Thou
mightest--yes, in this way or in that, thou mightest--die."

"And if I die, what then? Shall we be separated?"

"Nay, nay, Leo, that is not possible. We never can be severed, of this
I am sure; it is sworn to me. But then through other lives and other
spheres, higher lives and higher spheres mayhap, our fates must force a
painful path to their last goal of union."

"Why then I take the hazard, Ayesha. Shall the life that I can risk to
slay a leopard or a lion in the sport of an idle hour, be too great a
price to offer for the splendours of thy breast? Thine oath! Ayesha, I
claim thine oath."

Then it was that in Ayesha there began the most mysterious and thrilling
of her many changes. Yet how to describe it I know not unless it be by
simile.

Once in Thibet we were imprisoned for months by snows that stretched
down from the mountain slopes into the valleys and oh! how weary did we
grow of those arid, aching fields of purest white. At length rain set
in, and blinding mists in which it was not safe to wander, that made the
dark nights darker yet.

So it was, until there came a morning when seeing the sun shine, we went
to our door and looked out. Behold a miracle! Gone were the snows that
choked the valley and in the place of them appeared vivid springing
grass, starred everywhere with flowers, and murmuring brooks and birds
that sang and nested in the willows. Gone was the frowning sky and all
the blue firmament seemed one tender smile. Gone were the austerities of
winter with his harsh winds, and in their place spring, companioned by
her zephyrs, glided down the vale singing her song of love and life.

There in this high chamber, in the presence of the living and the dead,
while the last act of the great tragedy unrolled itself before me,
looking on Ayesha that forgotten scene sprang into my mind. For on her
face just such a change had come. Hitherto, with all her loveliness,
the heart of Ayesha had seemed like that winter mountain wrapped in
its unapproachable snow and before her pure brow and icy self-command,
aspirations sank abashed and desires died.

She swore she loved and her love fulfilled itself in death and many a
mysterious way. Yet it was hard to believe that this passion of hers was
more than a spoken part, for how can the star seek the moth although the
moth may seek the star? Though the man may worship the goddess, for all
her smiles divine, how can the goddess love the man?

But now everything was altered! Look! Ayesha grew human; I could see
her heart beat beneath her robes and hear her breath come in soft, sweet
sobs, while o'er her upturned face and in her alluring eyes there spread
itself that look which is born of love alone. Radiant and more radiant
did she seem to grow, sweeter and more sweet, no longer the veiled
Hermit of the Caves, no longer the Oracle of the Sanctuary, no longer
the Valkyrie of the battle-plain, but only the loveliest and most happy
bride that ever gladdened a husband's eyes.

She spoke, and it was of little things, for thus Ayesha proclaimed the
conquest of herself.

"Fie!" she said, showing her white robes torn with spears and stained by
the dust and dew of war; "Fie, my lord, what marriage garments are these
in which at last I come to thee, who would have been adorned in regal
gems and raiment befitting to my state and thine?"

"I seek the woman not her garment," said Leo, his burning eyes fixed
upon her face.

"Thou seekest the woman. Ah! there it lies. Tell me, Leo, am I woman
or spirit? Say that I am woman, for now the prophecy of this dead Atene
lies heavy on my soul, Atene who said that mortal and immortal may not
mate."

"Thou must be woman, or thou wouldst not have tormented me as thou hast
done these many weeks."

"I thank thee for the comfort of thy words. Yet, was it _woman_ whose
breath wrought destruction upon yonder plain? Was it to a _woman_ that
Blast and Lightning bowed and said, 'We are here: Command us, we obey'?
Did that dead thing (and she pointed to the shattered door) break inward
at a _woman's_ will? Or could a _woman_ charm this man to stone?

"Oh! Leo, would that I were woman! I tell thee that I'd lay all my
grandeur down, a wedding offering at thy feet, could I be sure that for
one short year I should be naught but _woman_ and--thy happy wife.

"Thou sayest that I did torment thee, but it is I who have known
torment, I who desired to yield and dared not. Aye, I tell thee, Leo,
were I not sure that thy little stream of life is draining dry into the
great ocean of my life, drawn thither as the sea draws its rivers, or
as the sun draws mists, e'en now I would not yield. But I know, for my
wisdom tells it me, ere ever we could reach the shores of Libya, the ill
work would be done, and thou dead of thine own longing, thou dead and I
widowed who never was a wife.

"Therefore see! like lost Atene I take the dice and cast them, not
knowing how they shall fall. Not knowing how they shall fall, for good
or ill I cast," and she made a wild motion as of some desperate gamester
throwing his last throw.

"So," Ayesha went on, "the thing is done and the number summed for aye,
though it be hidden from my sight. I have made an end of doubts and
fears, and come death, come life, I'll meet it bravely.

"Say, how shall we be wed? I have it. Holly here must join our hands;
who else? He that ever was our guide shall give me unto thee, and thee
to me. This burning city is our altar, the dead and living are our
witnesses on earth and heaven. In place of rites and ceremonials for
this first time I lay my lips on thine, and when 'tis done, for music
I'll sing thee a nuptial chant of love such as mortal poet has not
written nor have mortal lovers heard.

"Come, Holly, do now thy part and give this maiden to this man."

Like one in a dream I obeyed her and took Ayesha's outstretched hand
and Leo's. As I held them thus, I tell the truth:--it was as though some
fire rushed through my veins from her to him, shaking and shattering me
with swift waves of burning and unearthly Bliss. With the fire too came
glorious visions and sounds of mighty music, and a sense as though my
brain, filled with over-flowing life, must burst asunder beneath its
weight.

I joined their hands; I know not how; I blessed them, I know not in what
words. Then I reeled back against the wall and watched.

This is what I saw.

With an abandonment and a passion so splendid and intense that it seemed
more than human, with a murmured cry of "Husband!" Ayesha cast her arms
about her lover's neck and drawing down his head to hers so that the
gold hair was mingled with her raven locks, she kissed him on the lips.

Thus they clung a little while, and as they clung the gentle diadem
of light from her brow spread to his brow also, and through the white
wrappings of her robe became visible her perfect shape shining with
faint fire. With a little happy laugh she left him, saying,

"Thus, Leo Vincey, oh! thus for the second time do I give myself to
thee, and with this flesh and spirit all I swore to thee, there in the
dim Caves of Kor and here in the palace of Kaloon. Know thou this, come
what may, never, never more shall we be separate who are ordained one.
Whilst thou livest I live at thy side, and when thou diest, if die thy
must, I'll follow thee through worlds and firmaments, nor shall all the
doors of heaven or hell avail against my love. Where thou goest, thither
I will go. When thou sleepest, with thee will I sleep and it is my voice
that thou shalt hear murmuring through the dreams of life and death; my
voice that shall summon thee to awaken in the last hour of everlasting
dawn, when all this night of misery hath furled her wings for aye.

"Listen now while I sing to thee and hear that song aright, for in its
melody at length thou shalt learn the truth, which unwed I might not
tell to thee. Thou shalt learn who and what _I_ am, and who and what
_thou_ art, and of the high purposes of our love, and this dead woman's
hate, and of all that I have hid from thee in veiled, bewildering words
and visions.

"Listen then, my love and lord, to the burden of the Song of Fate."

She ceased speaking and gazed heavenwards with a rapt look as though she
waited for some inspiration to fall upon her, and never, never--not even
in the fires of Kor had Ayesha seemed so divine as she did now in this
moment of the ripe harvest of her love.

My eyes wandered from her to Leo, who stood before her pale and still,
still as the death-like figure of the Shaman, still as the Khania's
icy shape which stared upwards from the ground. What was passing in his
mind, I wondered, that he could remain thus insensible while in all her
might and awful beauty this proud being worshipped him.

Hark! she began to sing in a voice so rich and perfect that its honied
notes seemed to cloy my blood and stop my breath.

     "The world was not, was not, and in the womb of Silence
     Slept the souls of men. Yet I was and thou----"

Suddenly Ayesha stopped, and I felt rather than saw the horror on her
face.

Look! Leo swayed to and fro as though the stones beneath him were but
a rocking boat. To and fro he swayed, stretched out his blind arms to
clasp her--then suddenly fell backwards, and lay still.

Oh! what a shriek was that she gave! Surely it must have wakened the
very corpses upon the plain. Surely it must have echoed in the stars.
One shriek only--then throbbing silence.

I sprang to him, and there, withered in Ayesha's kiss, slain by the fire
of her love, Leo lay dead--lay dead upon the breast of dead Atene!



CHAPTER XXIV

THE PASSING OF AYESHA

I heard Ayesha say presently, and the words struck me as dreadful
in their hopeless acceptance of a doom against which even she had no
strength to struggle.

"It seems that my lord has left me for awhile; I must hasten to my lord
afar."

After that I do not quite know what happened. I had lost the man who was
all in all to me, friend and child in one, and I was crushed as I had
never been before. It seemed so sad that I, old and outworn, should
still live on whilst he in the flower of his age, snatched from joy and
greatness such as no man hath known, lay thus asleep.

I think that by an afterthought, Ayesha and Oros tried to restore him,
tried without result, for here her powers were of no avail. Indeed my
conviction is that although some lingering life still kept him on his
feet, Leo had really died at the moment of her embrace, since when I
looked at him before he fell, his face was that of a dead man.

Yes, I believe that last speech of hers, although she knew it not, was
addressed to his spirit, for in her burning kiss his flesh had perished.

When at length I recovered myself a little, it was to hear Ayesha in
a cold, calm voice--her face I could not see for she had veiled
herself--commanding certain priests who had been summoned to "bear away
the body of that accursed woman and bury her as befits her rank." Even
then I bethought me, I remember, of the tale of Jehu and Jezebel.

Leo, looking strangely calm and happy, lay now upon a couch, the arms
folded on his breast. When the priests had tramped away carrying their
royal burden, Ayesha, who sat by his body brooding, seemed to awake, for
she rose and said--"I need a messenger, and for no common journey,
since he must search out the habitations of the Shades," and she turned
herself towards Oros and appeared to look at him.

Now for the first time I saw that priest change countenance a little,
for the eternal smile, of which even this scene had not quite rid it,
left his face and he grew pale and trembled.

"Thou art afraid," she said contemptuously. "Be at rest, Oros, I will
not send one who is afraid. Holly, wilt thou go for me--and him?"

"Aye," I answered. "I am weary of life and desire no other end. Only let
it be swift and painless."

She mused a while, then said--"Nay, thy time is not yet, thou still hast
work to do. Endure, my Holly, 'tis only for a breath."

Then she looked at the Shaman, the man turned to stone who all this
while had stood there as a statue stands, and cried--"Awake!"

Instantly he seemed to thaw into life, his limbs relaxed, his breast
heaved, he was as he had always been: ancient, gnarled, malevolent.

"I hear thee, mistress," he said, bowing as a man bows to the power that
he hates.

"Thou seest, Simbri," and she waved her hand.

"I see. Things have befallen as Atene and I foretold, have they not?
'Ere long the corpse of a new-crowned Khan of Kaloon,'" and he pointed
to the gold circlet that Ayesha had set on Leo's brow, "'will lie upon
the brink of the Pit of Flame'--as I foretold." An evil smile crept into
his eyes and he went on--"Hadst thou not smote me dumb, I who watched
could have warned thee that they would so befall; but, great mistress,
it pleased thee to smite me dumb. And so it seems, O Hes, that thou hast
overshot thyself and liest broken at the foot of that pinnacle which
step by step thou hast climbed for more than two thousand weary years.
See what thou hast bought at the price of countless lives that now
before the throne of Judgment bring accusations against thy powers
misused, and cry out for justice on thy head," and he looked at the dead
form of Leo.

"I sorrow for them, yet, Simbri, they were well spent," Ayesha answered
reflectively, "who by their forewritten doom, as it was decreed,
held thy knife from falling and thus won me my husband. Aye and I am
happy--happier than such blind bats as thou can see or guess. For know
that now with him I have re-wed my wandering soul divorced by sin from
me, and that of our marriage kiss which burned his life away there shall
still be born to us children of Forgiveness and eternal Grace and all
things that are pure and fair.

"Look thou, Simbri, I will honour thee. Thou shalt be my messenger, and
beware! beware I say how thou dost fulfil thine office, since of every
syllable thou must render an account.

"Go thou down the dark paths of Death, and, since even my thought may
not reach to where he sleeps tonight, search out my lord and say to him
that the feet of his spouse Ayesha are following fast. Bid him have no
fear for me who by this last sorrow have atoned my crimes and am in his
embrace regenerate. Tell him that thus it was appointed, and thus is
best, since now he is dipped indeed in the eternal Flame of Life; now
for him the mortal night is done and the everlasting day arises. Command
him that he await me in the Gate of Death where it is granted that I
greet him presently. Thou hearest?"

"I hear, O Queen, Mighty-from-of-Old."

"One message more. Say to Atene that I forgive her. Her heart was high
and greatly did she play her part. There in the Gates we will balance
our account. Thou hearest?"

"I hear, O Eternal Star that hath conquered Night."

"Then, man, _begone!_"

As the word left Ayesha's lips Simbri leapt from the floor, grasping at
the air as though he would clutch his own departing soul, staggered back
against the board where Leo and I had eaten, overthrowing it, and amid a
ruin of gold and silver vessels, fell down and died.

She looked at him, then said to me--"See, though he ever hated me, this
magician who has known Ayesha from the first, did homage to my ancient
majesty at last, when lies and defiance would serve his end no more.
No longer now do I hear the name that his dead mistress gave to me.
The 'Star-that-hath-fallen' in his lips and in very truth is become the
'Star-which-hath-burst-the-bonds-of-Night,' and, re-arisen, shines for
ever--shines with its twin immortal to set no more--my Holly. Well,
he is gone, and ere now, those that serve me in the Under-world--dost
remember?--thou sawest their captains in the Sanctuary--bend the head at
great Ayesha's word and make her place ready near her spouse.

"But oh, what folly has been mine. When even here my wrath can show such
power, how could I hope that my lord would outlive the fires of my love?
Still it was better so, for he sought not the pomp I would have given
him, nor desired the death of men. Yet such pomp must have been his
portion in this poor shadow of a world, and the steps that encircle an
usurper's throne are ever slippery with blood.

"Thou art weary, my Holly, go rest thee. To-morrow night we journey to
the Mountain, there to celebrate these obsequies."

I crept into the room adjoining--it had been Simbri's--and laid me down
upon his bed, but to sleep I was not able. Its door was open, and in the
light of the burning city that shone through the casements I could
see Ayesha watching by her dead. Hour after hour she watched, her head
resting on her hand, silent, stirless. She wept not, no sigh escaped
her; only watched as a tender woman watches a slumbering babe that she
knows will awake at dawn.

Her face was unveiled and I perceived that it had greatly changed. All
pride and anger were departed from it; it was grown soft, wistful, yet
full of confidence and quietness. For a while I could not think of what
it reminded me, till suddenly I remembered. Now it was like, indeed the
counterpart almost, of the holy and majestic semblance of the statue
of the Mother in the Sanctuary. Yes, with just such a look of love and
power as that mother cast upon her frightened child new-risen from its
dream of death, did Ayesha gaze upon her dead, while her parted lips
also seemed to whisper "some tale of hope, sure and immortal."

At length she rose and came into my chamber.

"Thou thinkest me fallen and dost grieve for me, my Holly," she said in
a gentle voice, "knowing my fears lest some such fate should overtake my
lord."

"Ay, Ayesha, I grieve for thee as for myself."

"Spare then thy pity, Holly, since although the human part of me would
have kept him on the earth, now my spirit doth rejoice that for a while
he has burst his mortal bonds. For many an age, although I knew it not,
in my proud defiance of the Universal Law, I have fought against his
true weal and mine. Thrice have I and the angel wrestled, matching
strength with strength, and thrice has he conquered me. Yet as he bore
away his prize this night he whispered wisdom in my ear. This was his
message: That in death is love's home, in death its strength; that from
the charnel-house of life this love springs again glorified and pure, to
reign a conqueror forever. Therefore I wipe away my tears and, crowned
once more a queen of peace, I go to join him whom we have lost, there
where he awaits us, as it is granted to me that I shall do.

"But I am selfish, and forgot. Thou needest rest. Sleep, friend, I bid
thee sleep."

And I slept wondering as my eyes closed whence Ayesha drew this strange
confidence and comfort. I know not but it was there, real and not
assumed. I can only suppose therefore that some illumination had fallen
on her soul, and that, as she stated, the love and end of Leo in a way
unknown, did suffice to satisfy her court of sins.

At the least those sins and all the load of death that lay at her door
never seemed to trouble her at all. She appeared to look upon them
merely as events which were destined to occur, as inevitable fruits of
a seed sowed long ago by the hand of Fate for whose workings she was not
responsible. The fears and considerations which weigh with mortals did
not affect or oppress her. In this as in other matters, Ayesha was a law
unto herself.

When I awoke it was day, and through the window-place I saw the rain
that the people of Kaloon had so long desired falling in one straight
sheet. I saw also that Ayesha, seated by the shrouded form of Leo, was
giving orders to her priests and captains and to some nobles, who had
survived the slaughter of Kaloon, as to the new government of the land.
Then I slept again.

It was evening, and Ayesha stood at my bedside.

"All is prepared," she said. "Awake and ride with me."

So we went, escorted by a thousand cavalry, for the rest stayed to
occupy, or perchance to plunder, the land of Kaloon. In front the body
of Leo was borne by relays of priests, and behind it rode the veiled
Ayesha, I at her side.

Strange was the contrast between this departure, and our arrival.

Then the rushing squadrons, the elements that raved, the perpetual sheen
of lightnings seen through the swinging curtains of the hail; the voices
of despair from an army rolled in blood beneath the chariot wheels of
thunder.

Now the white-draped corpse, the slow-pacing horses, the riders with
their spears reversed, and on either side, seen in that melancholy
moonlight, the women of Kaloon burying their innumerable dead.

And Ayesha herself, yesterday a Valkyrie crested with the star of flame,
to-day but a bereaved woman humbly following her husband to the tomb.

Yet how they feared her! Some widow standing on the grave mould she
had dug, pointed as we passed to the body of Leo, uttering bitter words
which I could not catch. Thereon her companions flung themselves upon
her and felling her with fist and spade, prostrated themselves upon the
ground, throwing dust on their hair in token of their submission to the
priestess of Death.

Ayesha saw them, and said to me with something of her ancient fire and
pride--"I tread the plain of Kaloon no more, yet as a parting gift have
I read this high-stomached people a lesson that they needed long. Not
for many a generation, O Holly, will they dare to lift spear against the
College of Hes and its subject Tribes."

Again it was night, and where once lay that of the Khan, the man whom he
had killed, flanked by the burning pillars, the bier of Leo stood in
the inmost Sanctuary before the statue of the Mother whose gentle,
unchanging eyes seemed to search his quiet face.

On her throne sat the veiled Hesea, giving commands to her priests and
priestesses.

"I am weary," she said, "and it may be that I leave you for a while to
rest--beyond the mountains. A year, or a thousand years--I cannot say.
If so, let Papave, with Oros as her counsellor and husband and their
seed, hold my place till I return again.

"Priests and priestesses of the College of Hes, over new territories
have I held my hand; take them as an heritage from me, and rule them
well and gently. Henceforth let the Hesea of the Mountain be also the
Khania of Kaloon.

"Priests and priestesses of our ancient faith, learn to look through its
rites and tokens, outward and visible, to the in-forming Spirit. If Hes
the goddess never ruled on earth, still pitying Nature rules. If the
name of Isis never rang through the courts of heaven, still in heaven,
with all love fulfilled, nursing her human children on her breast,
dwells the mighty Motherhood where of this statue is the symbol, that
Motherhood which bore us, and, unforgetting, faithful, will receive us
at the end.

"For of the bread of bitterness we shall not always eat, of the water
of tears we shall not always drink. Beyond the night the royal suns ride
on; ever the rainbow shines around the rain. Though they slip from our
clutching hands like melted snow, the lives we lose shall yet be found
immortal, and from the burnt-out fires of our human hopes will spring a
heavenly star."

She paused and waved her hand as though to dismiss them, then added by
an after-thought, pointing to myself--"This man is my beloved friend and
guest. Let him be yours also. It is my will that you tend and guard him
here, and when the snows have melted and summer is at hand, that
you fashion a way for him through the gulf and bring him across the
mountains by which he came, till you leave him in safety. Hear and
forget not, for be sure that to me you shall give account of him."

The night drew towards the dawn, and we stood upon the peak above the
gulf of fire, four of us only--Ayesha and I, and Oros and Papave. For
the bearers had laid down the body of Leo upon its edge and gone their
way. The curtain of flame flared in front of us, its crest bent over
like a billow in the gale, and to leeward, one by one, floated the
torn-off clouds and pinnacles of fire. By the dead Leo knelt Ayesha,
gazing at that icy, smiling face, but speaking no single word. At length
she rose, and said,--"Darkness draws near, my Holly, that deep darkness
which foreruns the glory of the dawn. Now fare thee well for one little
hour. When thou art about to die, but not before, call me, and I will
come to thee. Stir not and speak not till all be done, lest when I am no
longer here to be thy guard some Presence should pass on and slay thee.

"Think not that I am conquered, for now my name is Victory! Think not
that Ayesha's strength is spent or her tale is done, for of it thou
readest but a single page. Think not even that I am today that thing of
sin and pride, the Ayesha thou didst adore and fear, I who in my lord's
love and sacrifice have again conceived my soul. For know that now once
more as at the beginning, his soul and mine are _one_."

She thought awhile and added,

"Friend take this sceptre in memory of me, but beware how thou usest it
save at the last to summon me, for it has virtues," and she gave me the
jewelled Sistrum that she bore--then said,

"So kiss his brow, stand back, and be still."

Now as once before the darkness gathered on the pit, and presently,
although I heard no prayer, though now no mighty music broke upon the
silence, through that darkness, beating up the gale, came the two-winged
flame and hovered where Ayesha stood.

It appeared, it vanished, and one by one the long minutes crept away
until the first spear of dawn lit upon the point of rock.

Lo! it was empty, utterly empty and lonesome. Gone was the corpse of
Leo, and gone too was Ayesha the imperial, the divine.

Whither had she gone? I know not. But this I know, that as the light
returned and the broad sheet of flame flared out to meet it, I seemed to
see two glorious shapes sweeping upward on its bosom, and the faces that
they wore were those of Leo and of Ayesha.

Often and often during the weary months that followed, whilst I wandered
through the temple or amid the winter snows upon the Mountain side, did
I seek to solve this question--Whither had She gone? I asked it of my
heart; I asked it of the skies; I asked it of the spirit of Leo which
often was so near to me.

But no sure answer ever came, nor will I hazard one. As mystery wrapped
Ayesha's origin and lives--for the truth of these things I never
learned--so did mystery wrap her deaths, or rather her departings, for
I cannot think her dead. Surely she still is, if not on earth, then in
some other sphere?

So I believe; and when my own hour comes, and it draws near swiftly, I
shall know whether I believe in vain, or whether she will appear to be
my guide as, with her last words, she swore that she would do. Then,
too, I shall learn what she was about to reveal to Leo when he died, the
purposes of their being and of their love.

So I can wait in patience who must not wait for long, though my heart is
broken and I am desolate.

Oros and all the priests were very good to me. Indeed, even had it been
their wish, they would have feared to be otherwise, who remembered and
were sure that in some time to come they must render an account of this
matter to their dread queen. By way of return, I helped them as I
was best able to draw up a scheme for the government of the conquered
country of Kaloon, and with my advice upon many other questions.

And so at length the long months wore away, till at the approach of
summer the snows melted. Then I said that I must be gone. They gave me
of their treasures in precious stones, lest I should need money for my
faring, since the gold of which I had such plenty was too heavy to be
carried by one man alone. They led me across the plains of Kaloon, where
now the husbandmen, those that were left of them, ploughed the land and
scattered seed, and so on to its city. But amidst those blackened ruins
over which Atene's palace still frowned unharmed, I would not enter,
for to me it was, and always must remain, a home of death. So I camped
outside the walls by the river just where Leo and I had landed after
that poor mad Khan set us free, or rather loosed us to be hunted by his
death-hounds.

Next day we took boat and rowed up the river, past the place where we
had seen Atene's cousin murdered, till we came to the Gate-house. Here
once again I slept, or rather did not sleep.

On the following morning I went down into the ravine and found to my
surprise that the rapid torrent--shallow enough now--had been roughly
bridged, and that in preparation for my coming rude but sufficient
ladders were built on the face of the opposing precipice. At the foot of
these I bade farewell to Oros, who at our parting smiled benignantly as
on the day we met.

"We have seen strange things together," I said to him, not knowing what
else to say.

"Very strange," he answered.

"At least, friend Oros," I went on awkwardly enough, "events have shaped
themselves to your advantage, for you inherit a royal mantle."

"I wrap myself in a mantle of borrowed royalty," he answered with
precision, "of which doubtless one day I shall be stripped."

"You mean that the great Ayesha is not dead?"

"I mean that She never dies. She changes, that is all. As the wind blows
now hence, now hither, so she comes and goes, and who can tell at what
spot upon the earth, or beyond it, for a while that wind lies sleeping?
But at sunset or at dawn, at noon or at midnight, it will begin to blow
again, and then woe to those who stand across its path.

"Remember the dead heaped upon the plains of Kaloon. Remember the
departing of the Shaman Simbri with his message and the words that she
spoke then. Remember the passing of the Hesea from the Mountain point.
Stranger from the West, surely as to-morrow's sun must rise, as she
went, so she will return again, and in my borrowed garment I await her
advent."

"I also await her advent," I answered, and thus we parted.

Accompanied by twenty picked men bearing provisions and arms, I climbed
the ladders easily enough, and now that I had food and shelter, crossed
the mountains without mishap. They even escorted me through the desert
beyond, till one night we camped within sight of the gigantic Buddha
that sits before the monastery, gazing eternally across the sands and
snows.

When I awoke next morning the priests were gone. So I took up my pack
and pursued my journey alone, and walking slowly came at sunset to the
distant lamasery. At its door an ancient figure, wrapped in a tattered
cloak, was sitting, engaged apparently in contemplation of the skies. It
was our old friend Kou-en. Adjusting his horn spectacles on his nose he
looked at me.

"I was awaiting you, brother of the Monastery called 'the World,'" he
said in a voice, measured, very ineffectually, to conceal his evident
delight. "Have you grown hungry there that you return to this poor
place?"

"Aye, most excellent Kou-en," I answered, "hungry for rest."

"It shall be yours for all the days of this incarnation. But say, where
is the other brother?"

"Dead," I answered.

"And therefore re-born elsewhere or perhaps, dreaming in Devachan for
a while. Well, doubtless we shall meet him later on. Come, eat, and
afterwards tell me your story."

So I ate, and that night I told him all. Kou-en listened with respectful
attention, but the tale, strange as it might seem to most people,
excited no particular wonder in his mind. Indeed, he explained it to me
at such length by aid of some marvellous theory of re-incarnations, that
at last I began to doze.

"At least," I said sleepily, "it would seem that we are all winning
merit on the Everlasting Plane," for I thought that favourite catchword
would please him.

"Yes, brother of the Monastery called the World," Kou-en answered in
a severe voice, "doubtless you are all winning merit, but, if I may
venture to say so, you are winning it very slowly, especially the
woman--or the sorceress--or the mighty evil spirit--whose names I
understand you to tell me are She, Hes, and Ayesha upon earth and in
_Avitchi_, Star-that-hath-Fallen----"

_(Here Mr. Holly's manuscript ends, its outer sheets having been burnt
when he threw it on to the fire at his house in Cumberland.)_





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