H. Rider Haggard
Part 4 out of 7
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
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!
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
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
"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
But still the wretch writhed before the draped form and howled for
"Messenger," said the high-priest, "with thee the power goes. Declare
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
"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."
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
We looked at each other, and I said--
"The tale is long and strange. O--but by what title must we address
"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
"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
"Then thou shouldst love her still. Yet, not so, since love is very
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"I know nothing of what he hides in the satchel," answered the Khania
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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."
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"'I will slay these guilty ones. I will slay them presently, as I am
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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,
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