H. Rider Haggard
Part 5 out of 7
Papave advanced, and with a look of awe upon her handsome face began
the task. She was not a tall woman, yet as she bent over her I noted
that she seemed to tower above her mistress, the Hesea.
The outer veils fell revealing more within. These fell also, and now
before us stood the mummy-like shape, although it seemed to be of less
stature, of that strange being who had met us in the Place of Bones.
So it would seem that our mysterious guide and the high priestess Hes
were the same.
Look! Length by length the wrappings sank from her. Would they never
end? How small grew the frame within? She was very short now,
unnaturally short for a full-grown woman, and oh! I grew sick at
heart. The last bandages uncoiled themselves like shavings from a
stick; two wrinkled hands appeared, if hands they could be called.
Then the feet--once I had seen such on the mummy of a princess of
Egypt, and even now by some fantastic play of the mind, I remembered
that on her coffin this princess was named "The Beautiful."
Everything was gone now, except a shift and a last inner veil about
the head. Hes waved back the priestess Papave, who fell half fainting
to the ground and lay there covering her eyes with her hand. Then
uttering something like a scream she gripped this veil in her thin
talons, tore it away, and with a gesture of uttermost despair, turned
and faced us.
Oh! she was--nay, I will not describe her. I knew her at once, for
thus had I seen her last before the Fire of Life, and, strangely
enough, through the mask of unutterable age, through that cloak of
humanity's last decay, still shone some resemblance to the glorious
and superhuman Ayesha: the shape of the face, the air of defiant pride
that for an instant bore her up--I know not what.
Yes, there she stood, and the fierce light of the heartless fires beat
upon her, revealing every shame.
There was a dreadful silence. I saw Leo's lips turn white and his
knees begin to give; but by some effort he recovered himself, and
stayed still and upright like a dead man held by a wire. Also I saw
Atene--and this is to her credit--turn her head away. She had desired
to see her rival humiliated, but that horrible sight shocked her; some
sense of their common womanhood for the moment touched her pity. Only
Simbri, who, I think, knew what to expect, and Oros remained quite
unmoved; indeed, in that ghastly silence the latter spoke, and ever
afterwards I loved him for his words.
"What of the vile vessel, rotted in the grave of time? What of the
flesh that perishes?" he said. "Look through the ruined lamp to the
eternal light which burns within. Look through its covering carrion to
the inextinguishable soul."
My heart applauded these noble sentiments. I was of one mind with
Oros, but oh, Heaven! I felt that my brain was going, and I wished
that it would go, so that I might hear and see no more.
That look which gathered on Ayesha's mummy face? At first there had
been a little hope, but the hope died, and anguish, anguish, /anguish/
took its place.
Something must be done, this could not endure. My lips clave together,
no word would come; my feet refused to move.
I began to contemplate the scenery. How wonderful were that sheet of
flame, and the ripples which ran up and down its height. How awesome
its billowy crest. It would be warm lying in yonder red gulf below
with the dead Rassen, but oh! I wished that I shared his bed and had
finished with these agonies.
Thank Heaven, Atene was speaking. She had stepped to the side of the
naked-headed Thing, and stood by it in all the pride of her rich
beauty and perfect womanhood.
"Leo Vincey, or Kallikrates," said Atene, "take which name thou wilt;
thou thinkest ill of me perhaps, but know that at least I scorn to
mock a rival in her mortal shame. She told us a wild tale but now, a
tale true or false, but more false than true, I think, of how I robbed
a goddess of a votary, and of how that goddess--Ayesha's self
perchance--was avenged upon me for the crime of yielding to the man I
loved. Well, let goddesses--if such indeed there be--take their way
and work their will upon the helpless, and I, a mortal, will take mine
until the clutch of doom closes round my throat and chokes out life
and memory, and I too am a goddess--or a clod.
"Meanwhile, thou man, I shame not to say it before all these
witnesses, I love thee, and it seems that this--this woman or goddess
--loves thee also, and she has told us that now, /now/ thou must
choose between us once and for ever. She has told us too that if I
sinned against Isis, whose minister be it remembered she declares
herself, herself she sinned yet more. For she would have taken thee
both from a heavenly mistress and from an earthly bride, and yet
snatch that guerdon of immortality which is hers to-day. Therefore if
I am evil, she is worse, nor does the flame that burns within the
casket whereof Oros spoke shine so very pure and bright.
"Choose thou then Leo Vincey, and let there be an end. I vaunt not
myself; thou knowest what I have been and seest what I am. Yet I can
give thee love and happiness and, mayhap, children to follow after
thee, and with them some place and power. What yonder witch can give
thee thou canst guess. Tales of the past, pictures on the flame, wise
maxims and honeyed words, and after thou art dead once more, promises
perhaps, of joy to come when that terrible goddess whom she serves so
closely shall be appeased. I have spoken. Yet I will add a word:
"O thou for whom, if the Hesea's tale be true, I did once lay down my
royal rank and dare the dangers of an unsailed sea; O thou whom in
ages gone I would have sheltered with my frail body from the sorceries
of this cold, self-seeking witch; O thou whom but a little while ago
at my own life's risk I drew from death in yonder river, choose,
To all this speech, so moderate yet so cruel, so well-reasoned and yet
so false, because of its glosses and omissions, the huddled Ayesha
seemed to listen with a fierce intentness. Yet she made no answer, not
a single word, not a sign even; she who had said her say and scorned
to plead her part.
I looked at Leo's ashen face. He leaned towards Atene, drawn perhaps
by the passion shining in her beauteous eyes, then of a sudden
straightened himself, shook his head and sighed. The colour flamed to
his brow, and his eyes grew almost happy.
"After all," he said, thinking aloud rather than speaking, "I have to
do not with unknowable pasts or with mystic futures, but with the
things of my own life. Ayesha waited for me through two thousand
years; Atene could marry a man she hated for power's sake, and then
could poison him, as perhaps she would poison me when I wearied her. I
know not what oaths I swore to Amenartas, if such a woman lived. I
remember the oaths I swore to Ayesha. If I shrink from her now, why
then my life is a lie and my belief a fraud; then love will not endure
the touch of age and never can survive the grave.
"Nay, remembering what Ayesha was I take her as she is, in faith and
hope of what she shall be. At least love is immortal and if it must,
why let it feed on memory alone till death sets free the soul."
Then stepping to where stood the dreadful, shrivelled form, Leo knelt
down before it and kissed her on the brow.
Yes, he kissed the trembling horror of that wrinkled head, and I think
it was one of the greatest, bravest acts ever done by man.
"Thou hast chosen," said Atene in a cold voice, "and I tell thee, Leo
Vincey, that the manner of thy choice makes me mourn my loss the more.
Take now thy--thy bride and let me hence."
But Ayesha still said no word and made no sign, till presently she
sank upon her bony knees and began to pray aloud. These were the words
of her prayer, as I heard them, though the exact Power to which it was
addressed is not very easy to determine, as I never discovered who or
what it was that she worshipped in her heart--
"O Thou minister of the almighty Will, thou sharp sword in the hand of
Doom, thou inevitable Law that art named Nature; thou who wast crowned
as Isis of the Egyptians, but art the goddess of all climes and ages;
thou that leadest the man to the maid, and layest the infant on his
mother's breast, that bringest our dust to its kindred dust, that
givest life to death, and into the dark of death breathest the light
of life again; thou who causest the abundant earth to bear, whose
smile is Spring, whose laugh is the ripple of the sea, whose noontide
rest is drowsy Summer, and whose sleep is Winter's night, hear thou
the supplication of thy chosen child and minister:
"Of old thou gavest me thine own strength with deathless days, and
beauty above every daughter of this Star. But I sinned against thee
sore, and for my sin I paid in endless centuries of solitude, in the
vileness that makes me loathsome to my lover's eyes, and for its
diadem of perfect power sets upon my brow this crown of naked mockery.
Yet in thy breath, the swift essence that brought me light, that
brought me gloom, thou didst vow to me that I who cannot die should
once more pluck the lost flower of my immortal loveliness from this
foul slime of shame.
"Therefore, merciful Mother that bore me, to thee I make my prayer.
Oh, let his true love atone my sin; or, if it may not be, then give me
death, the last and most blessed of thy boons!"
She ceased, and there was a long, long silence. Leo and I looked at
each other in dismay. We had hoped against hope that this beautiful
and piteous prayer, addressed apparently to the great, dumb spirit of
Nature, would be answered. That meant a miracle, but what of it? The
prolongation of the life of Ayesha was a miracle, though it is true
that some humble reptiles are said to live as long as she had done.
The transference of her spirit from the Caves of Kor to this temple
was a miracle, that is, to our western minds, though the dwellers in
these parts of Central Asia would not hold it so. That she should re-
appear with the same hideous body was a miracle. But was it the same
body? Was it not the body of the last Hesea? One very ancient woman is
much like another, and eighteen years of the working of the soul or
identity within might well wear away their trivial differences and
give to the borrowed form some resemblance to that which it had left.
At least the figures on that mirror of the flame were a miracle. Nay,
why so? A hundred clairvoyants in a hundred cities can produce or see
their like in water and in crystal, the difference being only one of
size. They were but reflections of scenes familiar to the mind of
Ayesha, or perhaps not so much as that. Perhaps they were only
phantasms called up in /our/ minds by her mesmeric force.
Nay, none of these things were true miracles, since all, however
strange, might be capable of explanation. What right then had we to
expect a marvel now?
Such thoughts as these rose in our minds as the endless minutes were
born and died and--nothing happened.
Yes, at last one thing did happen. The light from the sheet of flame
died gradually away as the flame itself sank downwards into the
abysses of the pit. But about this in itself there was nothing
wonderful, for as we had seen with our own eyes from afar this fire
varied much, and indeed it was customary for it to die down at the
approach of dawn, which now drew very near.
Still that onward-creeping darkness added to the terrors of the scene.
By the last rays of the lurid light we saw Ayesha rise and advance
some few paces to that little tongue of rock at the edge of the pit
off which the body of Rassen had been hurled; saw her standing on it,
also, looking like some black, misshapen imp against the smoky glow
which still rose from the depths beneath.
Leo would have gone forward to her, for he believed that she was about
to hurl herself to doom, which indeed I thought was her design. But
the priest Oros, and the priestess Papave, obeying, I suppose, some
secret command that reached them I know not how, sprang to him and
seizing his arms, held him back. Then it became quite dark, and
through the darkness we could hear Ayesha chanting a dirge-like hymn
in some secret, holy tongue which was unknown to us.
A great flake of fire floated through the gloom, rocking to and fro
like some vast bird upon its pinions. We had seen many such that
night, torn by the gale from the crest of the blazing curtain as I
have described. But--but--
"Horace," whispered Leo through his chattering teeth, "that flame is
coming up /against the wind!/"
"Perhaps the wind has changed," I answered, though I knew well that it
had not; that it blew stronger than ever from the south.
Nearer and nearer sailed the rocking flame, two enormous wings was the
shape of it, with something dark between them. It reached the little
promontory. The wings appeared to fold themselves about the dwarfed
figure that stood thereon--illuminating it for a moment. Then the
light went out of them and they vanished--everything vanished.
A while passed, it may have been one minute or ten, when suddenly the
priestess Papave, in obedience to some summons which we could not
hear, crept by me. I knew that it was she because her woman's garments
touched me as she went. Another space of silence and of deep darkness,
during which I heard Papave return, breathing in short, sobbing gasps
like one who is very frightened.
Ah! I thought, Ayesha has cast herself into the pit. The tragedy is
Then it was that the wondrous music came. Of course it /may/ have been
only the sound of priests chanting beyond us, but I do not think so,
since its quality was quite different to any that I heard in the
temple before or afterwards: to any indeed that ever I heard upon the
I cannot describe it, but it was awful to listen to, yet most
entrancing. From the black, smoke-veiled pit where the fire had burned
it welled and echoed--now a single heavenly voice, now a sweet chorus,
and now an air-shaking thunder as of a hundred organs played to time.
That diverse and majestic harmony seemed to include, to express every
human emotion, and I have often thought since then that in its all-
embracing scope and range, this, the song or paean of her re-birth was
symbolical of the infinite variety of Ayesha's spirit. Yet like that
spirit it had its master notes; power, passion, suffering, mystery and
loveliness. Also there could be no doubt as to the general
significance of the chant by whomsoever it was sung. It was the
changeful story of a mighty soul; it was worship, worship, worship of
a queen divine!
Like slow clouds of incense fading to the bannered roof of some high
choir, the bursts of unearthly melodies grew faint; in the far
distance of the hollow pit they wailed themselves away.
Look! from the east a single ray of upward-springing light.
"Behold the dawn," said the quiet voice of Oros.
That ray pierced the heavens above our heads, a very sword of flame.
It sank downwards, swiftly. Suddenly it fell, not upon us, for as yet
the rocky walls of our chamber warded it away, but on to the little
promontory at its edge.
Oh! and there--a Glory covered with a single garment--stood a shape
celestial. It seemed to be asleep, since the eyes were shut. Or was it
dead, for at first that face was a face of death? Look, the sunlight
played upon her, shining through the thin veil, the dark eyes opened
like the eyes of a wondering child; the blood of life flowed up the
ivory bosom into the pallid cheeks; the raiment of black and curling
tresses wavered in the wind; the head of the jewelled snake that held
them sparkled beneath her breast.
Was it an illusion, or was this Ayesha as she had been when she
entered the rolling flame in the caverns of Kor? Our knees gave way
beneath us, and down, our arms about each other's necks, Leo and I
sank till we lay upon the ground. Then a voice sweeter than honey,
softer than the whisper of a twilight breeze among the reeds, spoke
near to us, and these were the words it said--
"/Come hither to me, Kallikrates, who would pay thee back that
redeeming kiss of faith and love thou gavest me but now!/"
Leo struggled to his feet. Like a drunken man he staggered to where
Ayesha stood, then overcome, sank before her on his knees.
"Arise," she said, "it is I who should kneel to thee," and she
stretched out her hand to raise him, whispering in his ear the while.
Still he would not, or could not rise, so very slowly she bent over
him and touched him with her lips upon the brow. Next she beckoned to
me. I came and would have knelt also, but she suffered it not.
"Nay," she said, in her rich, remembered voice, "thou art no suitor;
it shall not be. Of lovers and worshippers henceforth as before, I can
find a plenty if I will, or even if I will it not. But where shall I
find another friend like to thee, O Holly, whom thus I greet?" and
leaning towards me, with her lips she touched me also on the brow--
just touched me, and no more.
Fragrant was Ayesha's breath as roses, the odour of roses clung to her
lovely hair; her sweet body gleamed like some white sea-pearl; a faint
but palpable radiance crowned her head; no sculptor ever fashioned
such a marvel as the arm with which she held her veil about her; no
stars in heaven ever shone more purely bright than did her calm,
Yet it is true, even with her lips upon me, all I felt for her was a
love divine into which no human passion entered. Once, I acknowledge
to my shame, it was otherwise, but I am an old man now and have done
with such frailties. Moreover, had not Ayesha named me Guardian,
Protector, Friend, and sworn to me that with her and Leo I should ever
dwell where all earthly passions fail. I repeat: what more could I
Taking Leo by the hand Ayesha returned with him into the shelter of
the rock-hewn chamber and when she entered its shadows, shivered a
little as though with cold. I rejoiced at this I remember, for it
seemed to show me that she still was human, divine as she might
appear. Here her priest and priestess prostrated themselves before her
new-born splendour, but she motioned to them to rise, laying a hand
upon the head of each as though in blessing. "I am cold," she said,
"give me my mantle," and Papave threw the purple-broidered garment
upon her shoulders, whence now it hung royally, like a coronation
"Nay," she went on, "it is not this long-lost shape of mine, which in
his kiss my lord gave back to me, that shivers in the icy wind, it is
my spirit's self bared to the bitter breath of Destiny. O my love, my
love, offended Powers are not easily appeased, even when they appear
to pardon, and though I shall no more be made a mockery in thy sight,
how long is given us together upon the world I know not; but a little
hour perchance. Well, ere we pass otherwhere, we will make it
glorious, drinking as deeply of the cup of joy as we have drunk of
those of sorrows and of shame. This place is hateful to me, for here I
have suffered more than ever woman did on earth or phantom in the
deepest hell. It is hateful, it is ill-omened. I pray that never again
may I behold it.
"Say, what is it passes in thy mind, magician?" and of a sudden she
turned fiercely upon the Shaman Simbri who stood near, his arms
crossed upon his breast.
"Only, thou Beautiful," he answered, "a dim shadow of things to come.
I have what thou dost lack with all thy wisdom, the gift of foresight,
and here I see a dead man lying----"
"Another word," she broke in with fury born of some dark fear, "and
thou shalt be that man. Fool, put me not in mind that now I have
strength again to rid me of the ancient foes I hate, lest I should use
a sword thou thrustest to my hand," and her eyes that had been so calm
and happy, blazed upon him like fire.
The old wizard felt their fearsome might and shrank from it till the
wall stayed him.
"Great One! now as ever I salute thee. Yes, now as at the first
beginning whereof we know alone," he stammered. "I had no more to say;
the face of that dead man was not revealed to me. I saw only that some
crowned Khan of Kaloon to be shall lie here, as he whom the flame has
taken lay an hour ago."
"Doubtless many a Khan of Kaloon will lie here," she answered coldly.
"Fear not, Shaman, my wrath is past, yet be wise, mine enemy, and
prophesy no more evil to the great. Come, let us hence."
So, still led by Leo, she passed from that chamber and stood presently
upon the apex of the soaring pillar. The sun was up now, flooding the
Mountain flanks, the plains of Kaloon far beneath and the distant,
misty peaks with a sheen of gold. Ayesha stood considering the mighty
prospect, then addressing Leo, she said--
"The world is very fair; I give it all to thee."
Now Atene spoke for the first time.
"Dost thou mean Hes--if thou art still the Hesea and not a demon
arisen from the Pit--that thou offerest my territories to this man as
a love-gift? If so, I tell thee that first thou must conquer them."
"Ungentle are thy words and mien," answered Ayesha, "yet I forgive
them both, for I also can scorn to mock a rival in my hour of victory.
When thou wast the fairer, thou didst proffer him these very lands,
but say, who is the fairer now? Look at us, all of you, and judge,"
and she stood by Atene and smiled.
The Khania was a lovely woman. Never to my knowledge have I seen one
lovelier, but oh! how coarse and poor she showed beside the wild,
ethereal beauty of Ayesha born again. For that beauty was not
altogether human, far less so indeed than it had been in the Caves of
Kor; now it was the beauty of a spirit.
The little light that always shone upon Ayesha's brow; the wide-set,
maddening eyes which were filled sometimes with the fire of the stars
and sometimes with the blue darkness of the heavens wherein they
float; the curved lips, so wistful yet so proud; the tresses fine as
glossy silk that still spread and rippled as though with a separate
life; the general air, not so much of majesty as of some secret power
hard to be restrained, which strove in that delicate body and
proclaimed its presence to the most careless; that flame of the soul
within whereof Oros had spoken, shining now through no "vile vessel,"
but in a vase of alabaster and of pearl--none of these things and
qualities were altogether human. I felt it and was afraid, and Atene
felt it also, for she answered--
"I am but a woman. What thou art, thou knowest best. Still a taper
cannot shine midst yonder fires or a glow-worm against a fallen star;
nor can my mortal flesh compare with the glory thou hast earned from
hell in payment for thy gifts and homage to the lord of ill. Yet as
woman I am thy equal, and as spirit I shall be thy mistress, when
robbed of these borrowed beauties thou, Ayesha, standest naked and
ashamed before the Judge of all whom thou hast deserted and defied;
yes, as thou stoodest but now upon yonder brink above the burning pit
where thou yet shalt wander wailing thy lost love. For this I know,
mine enemy, that /man and spirit cannot mate/," and Atene ceased,
choking in her bitter rage and jealousy.
Now watching Ayesha, I saw her wince a little beneath these evil-
omened words, saw also a tinge of grey touch the carmine of her lips
and her deep eyes grow dark and troubled. But in a moment her fears
had gone and she was asking in a voice that rang clear as silver
"Why ravest thou, Atene, like some short-lived summer torrent against
the barrier of a seamless cliff? Dost think, poor creature of an hour,
to sweep away the rock of my eternal strength with foam and bursting
bubbles? Have done and listen. I do not seek thy petty rule, who, if I
will it, can take the empire of the world. Yet learn, thou holdest it
of my hand. More--I purpose soon to visit thee in thy city--choose
thou if it shall be in peace or war! Therefore, Khania, purge thy
court and amend thy laws, that when I come I may find contentment in
the land which now it lacks, and confirm thee in thy government. My
counsel to thee also is that thou choose some worthy man to husband,
let him be whom thou wilt, if only he is just and upright and one upon
whom thou mayest rest, needing wise guidance as thou dost, Atene.
Come, now, my guests, let us hence," and she walked past the Khania,
stepping fearlessly upon the very edge of the wind-swept, rounded
In a second the attempt had been made and failed, so quickly indeed
that it was not until Leo and I compared our impressions afterwards
that we could be sure of what had happened. As Ayesha passed her, the
maddened Khania drew a hidden dagger and struck with all her force at
her rival's back. I saw the knife vanish to the hilt in her body, as I
thought, but this cannot have been so since it fell to the ground, and
she who should have been dead, took no hurt at all.
Feeling that she had failed, with a movement like the sudden lurch of
a ship, Atene thrust at Ayesha, proposing to hurl her to destruction
in the depths beneath. Lo! her outstretched arms went past her
although Ayesha never seemed to stir. Yes it was Atene who would have
fallen, Atene who already fell, had not Ayesha put out her hand and
caught her by the wrist, bearing all her backward-swaying weight as
easily as though she were but an infant, and without effort drawing
her to safety.
"Foolish woman!" she said in pitying tones. "Wast thou so vexed that
thou wouldst strip thyself of the pleasant shape which heaven has
given thee? Surely this is madness, Atene, for how knowest thou in
what likeness thou mightest be sent to tread the earth again? As no
queen perhaps, but as a peasant's child, deformed, unsightly; for such
reward, it is said, is given to those that achieve self-murder. Or
even, as many think, shaped like a beast--a snake, a cat, a tigress!
Why, see," and she picked the dagger from the ground and cast it into
the air, "that point was poisoned. Had it but pricked thee now!" and
she smiled at her and shook her head.
But Atene could bear no more of this mockery, more venomed than her
"Thou art not mortal," she wailed. "How can I prevail against thee? To
Heaven I leave thy punishment," and there upon the rocky peak Atene
sank down and wept.
Leo stood nearest to her, and the sight of this royal woman in her
misery proved too much for him to bear. Stepping to her side he
stooped and lifted her to her feet, muttering some kind words. For a
moment she rested on his arm, then shook herself free of him and took
the proffered hand of her old uncle Simbri.
"I see," said Ayesha, "that as ever, thou art courteous, my lord Leo,
but it is best that her own servant should take charge of her, for--
she may hide more daggers. Come, the day grows, and surely we need
Together we descended the multitudinous steps and passed the endless,
rock-hewn passages till we came to the door of the dwelling of the
high-priestess and were led through it into a hall beyond. Here Ayesha
parted from us saying that she was outworn, as indeed she seemed to be
with an utter weariness, not of the body, but of the spirit. For her
delicate form drooped like a rain-laden lily, her eyes grew dim as
those of a person in a trance, and her voice came in a soft, sweet
whisper, the voice of one speaking in her sleep.
"Good-bye," she said to us. "Oros will guard you both, and lead you to
me at the appointed time. Rest you well."
So she went and the priest led us into a beautiful apartment that
opened on to a sheltered garden. So overcome were we also by all that
we had endured and seen, that we could scarcely speak, much less
discuss these marvellous events.
"My brain swims," said Leo to Oros, "I desire to sleep."
He bowed and conducted us to a chamber where were beds, and on these
we flung ourselves down and slept, dreamlessly, like little children.
When we awoke it was afternoon. We rose and bathed, then saying that
we wished to be alone, went together into the garden where even at
this altitude, now, at the end of August, the air was still mild and
pleasant. Behind a rock by a bed of campanulas and other mountain
flowers and ferns, was a bench near to the banks of a little stream,
on which we seated ourselves.
"What have you to say, Horace?" asked Leo laying his hand upon my arm.
"Say?" I answered. "That things have come about most marvellously;
that we have dreamed aright and laboured not in vain; that you are the
most fortunate of men and should be the most happy."
He looked at me somewhat strangely, and answered--
"Yes, of course; she is lovely, is she not--but," and his voice
dropped to its lowest whisper, "I wish, Horace, that Ayesha were a
little more human, even as human as she was in the Caves of Kor. I
don't think she is quite flesh and blood, I felt it when she kissed me
--if you can call it a kiss--for she barely touched my hair. Indeed
how can she be who changed thus in an hour? Flesh and blood are not
born of flame, Horace."
"Are you sure that she was so born?" I asked. "Like the visions on the
fire, may not that hideous shape have been but an illusion of our
minds? May she not be still the same Ayesha whom we knew in Kor, not
re-born, but wafted hither by some mysterious agency?"
"Perhaps. Horace, we do not know--I think that we shall never know.
But I admit that to me the thing is terrifying. I am drawn to her by
an infinite attraction, her eyes set my blood on fire, the touch of
her hand is as that of a wand of madness laid upon my brain. And yet
between us there is some wall, invisible, still present. Or perhaps it
is only fancy. But, Horace, I think that she is afraid of Atene. Why,
in the old days the Khania would have been dead and forgotten in an
hour--you remember Ustane?"
"Perhaps she may have grown more gentle, Leo, who, like ourselves, has
learned hard lessons."
"Yes," he answered, "I hope that is so. At any rate she has grown more
divine--only, Horace, what kind of a husband shall I be for that
bright being, if ever I get so far?"
"Why should you not get so far?" I asked angrily, for his words jarred
upon my tense nerves.
"I don't know," he answered, "but on general principles do you think
that such fortune will be allowed to a man? Also, what did Atene mean
when she said that man and spirit cannot mate--and--other things?"
"She meant that she /hoped/ they could not, I imagine, and, Leo, it is
useless to trouble yourself with forebodings that are more fitted to
my years than yours, and probably are based on nothing. Be a
philosopher, Leo. You have striven by wonderful ways such as are
unknown in the history of the world; you have attained. Take the goods
the gods provide you--the glory, the love and the power--and let the
future look to itself."
Before he could answer Oros appeared from round the rock, and, bowing
with more than his usual humility to Leo, said that the Hesea desired
our presence at a service in the Sanctuary. Rejoiced at the prospect
of seeing her again before he had hoped to do so, Leo sprang up and we
accompanied him back to our apartment.
Here priests were waiting, who, somewhat against his will, trimmed his
hair and beard, and would have done the same for me had I not refused
their offices. Then they placed gold-embroidered sandals on our feet
and wrapped Leo in a magnificent, white robe, also richly worked with
gold and purple; a somewhat similar robe but of less ornate design
being given to me. Lastly, a silver sceptre was thrust into his hand
and into mine a plain wand. This sceptre was shaped like a crook, and
the sight of it gave me some clue to the nature of the forthcoming
"The crook of Osiris!" I whispered to Leo.
"Look here," he answered, "I don't want to impersonate any Egyptian
god, or to be mixed up in their heathen idolatries; in fact, I won't."
"Better go through with it," I suggested, "probably it is only
But Leo, who, notwithstanding the strange circumstances connected with
his life, retained the religious principles in which I had educated
him, very strongly indeed, refused to move an inch until the nature of
this service was made clear to him. Indeed he expressed himself upon
the subject with vigour to Oros. At first the priest seemed puzzled
what to do, then explained that the forthcoming ceremony was one of
On learning this Leo raised no further objections, asking only with
some nervousness whether the Khania would be present. Oros answered
"No," as she had already departed to Kaloon, vowing war and vengeance.
Then we were led through long passages, till finally we emerged into
the gallery immediately in front of the great wooden doors of the
apse. At our approach these swung open and we entered it, Oros going
first, then Leo, then myself, and following us, the procession of
As soon as our eyes became accustomed to the dazzling glare of the
flaming pillars, we saw that some great rite was in progress in the
temple, for in front of the divine statue of Motherhood, white-robed
and arranged in serried ranks, stood the company of the priests to the
number of over two hundred, and behind these the company of the
priestesses. Facing this congregation and a little in advance of the
two pillars of fire that flared on either side of the shrine, Ayesha
herself was seated in a raised chair so that she could be seen of all,
while to her right stood a similar chair of which I could guess the
She was unveiled and gorgeously apparelled, though save for the white
beneath, her robes were those of a queen rather than of a priestess.
About her radiant brow ran a narrow band of gold, whence rose the head
of a hooded asp cut out of a single, crimson jewel, beneath which in
endless profusion the glorious waving hair flowed down and around,
hiding even the folds of her purple cloak.
This cloak, opening in front, revealed an undertunic of white silk cut
low upon her bosom and kept in place by a golden girdle, a double-
headed snake, so like to that which She had worn in Kor that it might
have been the same. Her naked arms were bare of ornament, and in her
right hand she held the jewelled sistrum set with its gems and bells.
No empress could have looked more royal and no woman was ever half so
lovely, for to Ayesha's human beauty was added a spiritual glory, her
heritage alone. Seeing her we could see naught else. The rhythmic
movement of the bodies of the worshippers, the rolling grandeur of
their chant of welcome echoed from the mighty roof, the fearful
torches of living flame; all these things were lost on us. For there
re-born, enthroned, her arms stretched out in gracious welcome, sat
that perfect and immortal woman, the appointed bride of one of us, the
friend and lady of the other, her divine presence breathing power,
mystery and love.
On we marched between the ranks of hierophants, till Oros and the
priests left us and we stood alone face to face with Ayesha. Now she
lifted her sceptre and the chant ceased. In the midst of the following
silence, she rose from her seat and gliding down its steps, came to
where Leo stood and touched him on the forehead with her sistrum,
crying in a loud, sweet voice--
"Behold the Chosen of the Hesea!" whereon all that audience echoed in
a shout of thunder--
"Welcome to the Chosen of the Hesea!"
Then while the echoes of that glad cry yet rang round the rocky walls,
Ayesha motioned to me to stand at her side, and taking Leo by the hand
drew him towards her, so that now he faced the white-robed company.
Holding him thus she began to speak in clear and silvery tones.
"Priests and priestesses of Hes, servants with her of the Mother of
the world, hear me. Now for the first time I appear among you as /I/
am, you who heretofore have looked but on a hooded shape, not knowing
its form or fashion. Learn now the reason that I draw my veil. Ye see
this man, whom ye believed a stranger that with his companion had
wandered to our shrine. I tell you that he is no stranger; that of
old, in lives forgotten, he was my lord who now comes to seek his love
again. Say, is it not so, Kallikrates?"
"It is so," answered Leo.
"Priests and priestesses of Hes, as ye know, from the beginning it has
been the right and custom of her who holds my place to choose one to
be her lord. Is it not so?"
"It is so, O Hes," they answered.
She paused a while, then with a gesture of infinite sweetness turned
to Leo, bent towards him thrice and slowly sank upon her knee.
"Say thou," Ayesha said, looking up at him with her wondrous eyes,
"say before these here gathered, and all those witnesses whom thou
canst not see, dost thou again accept me as thy affianced bride?"
"Aye, Lady," he answered, in a deep but shaken voice, "now and for
Then while all watched, in the midst of a great silence, Ayesha rose,
cast down her sistrum sceptre that rang upon the rocky floor, and
stretched out her arms towards him.
Leo also bent towards her, and would have kissed her upon the lips.
But I who watched, saw his face grow white as it drew near to hers.
While the radiance crept from her brow to his, turning his bright hair
to gold, I saw also that this strong man trembled like a reed and
seemed as though he were about to fall.
I think that Ayesha noted it too, for ere ever their lips met, she
thrust him from her and again that grey mist of fear gathered on her
In an instant it passed. She had slipped from him and with her hand
held his hand as though to support him. Thus they stood till his feet
grew firm and his strength returned.
Oros restored the sceptre to her, and lifting it she said--
"O love and lord, take thou the place prepared for thee, where thou
shalt sit for ever at my side, for with myself I give thee more than
thou canst know or than I will tell thee now. Mount thy throne, O
Affianced of Hes, and receive the worship of thy priests."
"Nay," he answered with a start as that word fell upon his ears. "Here
and now I say it once and for all. I am but a man who know nothing of
strange gods, their attributes and ceremonials. None shall bow the
knee to me and on earth, Ayesha, I bow mine to thee alone."
Now at this bold speech some of those who heard it looked astonished
and whispered to each other, while a voice called--
"Beware, thou Chosen, of the anger of the Mother!"
Again for a moment Ayesha looked afraid, then with a little laugh,
swept the thing aside, saying--
"Surely with that I should be content. For me, O Love, thy adoration
for thee the betrothal song, no more."
So having no choice Leo mounted the throne, where notwithstanding his
splendid presence, enhanced as it was by those glittering robes, he
looked ill enough at ease, as indeed must any man of his faith and
race. Happily however, if some act of semi-idolatrous homage had been
proposed, Ayesha found a means to prevent its celebration, and soon
all such matters were forgotten both by the singers who sang, and us
who listened to the majestic chant that followed.
Of its words unfortunately we were able to understand but little, both
because of the volume of sound and of the secret, priestly language in
which it was given, though its general purport could not be mistaken.
The female voices began it, singing very low, and conveying a strange
impression of time and distance. Now followed bursts of gladness
alternating with melancholy chords suggesting sighs and tears and
sorrows long endured, and at the end a joyous, triumphant paean thrown
to and fro between the men and women singers, terminating in one
united chorus repeated again and again, louder and yet louder, till it
culminated in a veritable crash of melody, then of a sudden ceased.
Ayesha rose and waved her sceptre, whereon all the company bowed
thrice, then turned and breaking into some sweet, low chant that
sounded like a lullaby, marched, rank after rank, across the width of
the Sanctuary and through the carven doors which closed behind the
last of them.
When all had gone, leaving us alone, save for the priest Oros and the
priestess Papave, who remained in attendance on their mistress,
Ayesha, who sat gazing before her with dreaming, empty eyes, seemed to
awake, for she rose and said--
"A noble chant, is it not, and an ancient? It was the wedding song of
the feast of Isis and Osiris at Behbit in Egypt, and there I heard it
before ever I saw the darksome Caves of Kor. Often have I observed, my
Holly, that music lingers longer than aught else in this changeful
world, though it is rare that the very words should remain unvaried.
Come, beloved--tell me, by what name shall I call thee? Thou art
Kallikrates and yet----"
"Call me Leo, Ayesha," he answered, "as I was christened in the only
life of which I have any knowledge. This Kallikrates seems to have
been an unlucky man, and the deeds he did, if in truth he was aught
other than a tool in the hand of destiny, have bred no good to the
inheritors of his body--or his spirit, whichever it may be--or to
those women with whom his life was intertwined. Call me Leo, then, for
of Kallikrates I have had enough since that night when I looked upon
the last of him in Kor."
"Ah! I remember," she answered, "when thou sawest thyself lying in
that narrow bed, and I sang thee a song, did I not, of the past and of
the future? I can recall two lines of it; the rest I have forgotten--
"'Onward, never weary, clad with splendour for a robe!
Till accomplished be our fate, and the night is rushing down.'
"Yes, my Leo, now indeed we are 'clad with splendour for a robe,' and
now our fate draws near to its accomplishment. Then perchance will
come the down-rushing of the night;" and she sighed, looked up
tenderly and said, "See, I am talking to thee in Arabic. Hast thou
"Then let it be our tongue, for I love it best of all, who lisped it
at my mother's knee. Now leave me here alone awhile; I would think.
Also," she added thoughtfully, and speaking with a strange and
impressive inflexion of the voice, "there are some to whom I must give
So we went, all of us, supposing that Ayesha was about to receive a
deputation of the Chiefs of the Mountain Tribes who came to felicitate
her upon her betrothal.
THE THIRD ORDEAL
An hour, two hours passed, while we strove to rest in our sleeping
place, but could not, for some influence disturbed us.
"Why does not Ayesha come?" asked Leo at length, pausing in his walk
up and down the room. "I want to see her again; I cannot bear to be
apart from her. I feel as though she were drawing me to her."
"How can I tell you? Ask Oros; he is outside the door."
So he went and asked him, but Oros only smiled, and answered that the
Hesea had not entered her chamber, so doubtless she must still remain
in the Sanctuary.
"Then I am going to look for her. Come, Oros, and you too, Horace."
Oros bowed, but declined, saying that he was bidden to bide at our
door, adding that we, "to whom all the paths were open," could return
to the Sanctuary if we thought well.
"I do think well," replied Leo sharply. "Will you come, Horace, or
shall I go without you?"
I hesitated. The Sanctuary was a public place, it is true, but Ayesha
had said that she desired to be alone there for awhile. Without more
words, however, Leo shrugged his shoulders and started.
"You will never find your way," I said, and followed him.
We went down the long passages that were dimly lighted with lamps and
came to the gallery. Here we found no lamps; still we groped our way
to the great wooden doors. They were shut, but Leo pushed upon them
impatiently, and one of them swung open a little, so that we could
squeeze ourselves between them. As we passed it closed noiselessly
Now we should have been in the Sanctuary, and in the full blaze of
those awful columns of living fire. But they were out, or we had
strayed elsewhere; at least the darkness was intense. We tried to work
our way back to the doors again, but could not. We were lost.
More, something oppressed us; we did not dare to speak. We went on a
few paces and stopped, for we became aware that we were not alone.
Indeed, it seemed to me that we stood in the midst of a thronging
multitude, but not of men and women. Beings pressed about us; we could
feel their robes, yet could not touch them; we could feel their
breath, but it was /cold/. The air stirred all round us as they passed
to and fro, passed in endless numbers. It was as though we had entered
a cathedral filled with the vast congregation of all the dead who once
had worshipped there. We grew afraid--my face was damp with fear, the
hair stood up upon my head. We seemed to have wandered into a hall of
At length light appeared far away, and we saw that it emanated from
the two pillars of fire which had burned on either side of the Shrine,
that of a sudden became luminous. So we were in the Sanctuary, and
still near to the doors. Now those pillars were not bright; they were
low and lurid; the rays from them scarcely reached us standing in the
But if we could not be seen in them we still could see. Look! Yonder
sat Ayesha on a throne, and oh! she was awful in her death-like
majesty. The blue light of the sunken columns played upon her, and in
it she sat erect, with such a face and mien of pride as no human
creature ever wore. Power seemed to flow from her; yes, it flowed from
those wide-set, glittering eyes like light from jewels.
She seemed a Queen of Death receiving homage from the dead. More, she
/was/ receiving homage from dead or living--I know not which--for, as
I thought it, a shadowy Shape arose before the throne and bent the
knee to her, then another, and another, and another.
As each vague Being appeared and bowed its starry head she raised her
sceptre in answering salutation. We could hear the distant tinkle of
the sistrum bells, the only sound in all that place, yes, and see her
lips move, though no whisper reached us from them. Surely spirits were
We gripped each other. We shrank back and found the door. It gave to
our push. Now we were in the passages again, and now we had reached
At its entrance Oros was standing as we had left him. He greeted us
with his fixed smile, taking no note of the terror written on our
faces. We passed him, and entering the room stared at each other.
"What is she?" gasped Leo. "An angel?"
"Yes," I answered, "something of that sort." But to myself I thought
that there are doubtless many kinds of angels.
"And what were those--those /shadows/--doing?" he asked again.
"Welcoming her after her transformation, I suppose. But perhaps they
were not shadows--only priests disguised and conducting some secret
Leo shrugged his shoulders but made no other answer.
At length the door opened, and Oros, entering, said that the Hesea
commanded our presence in her chamber.
So, still oppressed with fear and wonder--for what we had seen was
perhaps more dreadful than anything that had gone before--we went, to
find Ayesha seated and looking somewhat weary, but otherwise
unchanged. With her was the priestess Papave, who had just unrobed her
of the royal mantle which she wore in the Sanctuary.
Ayesha beckoned Leo to her, taking his hand and searching his face
with her eyes, not without anxiety as I thought.
Now I turned, purposing to leave them alone, but she saw, and said to
"Why wouldst thou forsake us, Holly? To go back to the Sanctuary once
more?" and she looked at me with meaning in her glance. "Hast thou
questions to ask of the statue of the Mother yonder that thou lovest
the place so much? They say it speaks, telling of the future to those
who dare to kneel beside it uncompanioned from night till dawn. Yet I
have often done so, but to me it has never spoken, though none long to
learn the future more."
I made no answer, nor did she seem to expect any, for she went on at
"Nay, bide here and let us have done with all sad and solemn thoughts.
We three will sup together as of old, and for awhile forget our fears
and cares, and be happy as children who know not sin and death, or
that change which is death indeed. Oros, await my lord without.
Papave, I will call thee later to disrobe me. Till then let none
The room that Ayesha inhabited was not very large, as we saw by the
hanging lamps with which it was lighted. It was plainly though richly
furnished, the rock walls being covered with tapestries, and the
tables and chairs inlaid with silver, but the only token that here a
woman had her home was that about it stood several bowls of flowers.
One of these, I remember, was filled with the delicate harebells I had
admired, dug up roots and all, and set in moss.
"A poor place," said Ayesha, "yet better than that in which I dwelt
those two thousand years awaiting thy coming, Leo, for, see, beyond it
is a garden, wherein I sit," and she sank down upon a couch by the
table, motioning to us to take our places opposite to her.
The meal was simple; for us, eggs boiled hard and cold venison; for
her, milk, some little cakes of flour, and mountain berries.
Presently Leo rose and threw off his gorgeous, purple-broidered robe,
which he still wore, and cast upon a chair the crook-headed sceptre
that Oros had again thrust into his hand. Ayesha smiled as he did so,
"It would seem that thou holdest these sacred emblems in but small
"Very small," he answered. "Thou heardest my words in the Sanctuary,
Ayesha, so let us make a pact. Thy religion I do not understand, but I
understand my own, and not even for thy sake will I take part in what
I hold to be idolatry."
Now I thought that she would be angered by this plain speaking, but
she only bowed her head and answered meekly--
"Thy will is mine, Leo, though it will not be easy always to explain
thy absence from the ceremonies in the temple. Yet thou hast a right
to thine own faith, which doubtless is mine also."
"How can that be?" he asked, looking up.
"Because all great Faiths are the same, changed a little to suit the
needs of passing times and peoples. What taught that of Egypt, which,
in a fashion, we still follow here? That hidden in a multitude of
manifestations, one Power great and good, rules all the universes:
that the holy shall inherit a life eternal and the vile, eternal
death: that men shall be shaped and judged by their own hearts and
deeds, and here and hereafter drink of the cup which they have brewed:
that their real home is not on earth, but beyond the earth, where all
riddles shall be answered and all sorrows cease. Say, dost thou
believe these things, as I do?"
"Aye, Ayesha, but Hes or Isis is thy goddess, for hast thou not told
us tales of thy dealings with her in the past, and did we not hear
thee make thy prayer to her? Who, then, is this goddess Hes?"
"Know, Leo, that she is what I named her--Nature's soul, no divinity,
but the secret spirit of the world; that universal Motherhood, whose
symbol thou hast seen yonder, and in whose mysteries lie hid all
earthly life and knowledge."
"Does, then, this merciful Motherhood follow her votaries with death
and evil, as thou sayest she has followed thee for thy disobedience,
and me--and another--because of some unnatural vows broken long ago?"
Leo asked quietly.
Resting her arm upon the table, Ayesha looked at him with sombre eyes
"In that Faith of thine of which thou speakest are there perchance two
gods, each having many ministers: a god of good and a god of evil, an
Osiris and a Set?"
"I thought it. And the god of ill is strong, is he not, and can put on
the shape of good? Tell me, then, Leo, in the world that is to-day,
whereof I know so little, hast thou ever heard of frail souls who for
some earthly bribe have sold themselves to that evil one, or to his
minister, and been paid their price in bitterness and anguish?"
"All wicked folk do as much in this form or in that," he answered.
"And if once there lived a woman who was mad with the thirst for
beauty, for life, for wisdom, and for love, might she not--oh! might
she not perchance----"
"Sell herself to the god called Set, or one of his angels? Ayesha,
dost thou mean"--and Leo rose, speaking in a voice that was full of
fear--"that thou art such a woman?"
"And if so?" she asked, also rising and drawing slowly near to him.
"If so," he answered hoarsely, "if so, I think that perhaps we had
best fulfil our fates apart----"
"Ah!" she said, with a little scream of pain as though a knife had
stabbed her, "wouldst thou away to Atene? I tell thee that thou canst
not leave me. I have power--above all men thou shouldst know it, whom
once I slew. Nay, thou hast no memory, poor creature of a breath, and
I--I remember too well. I will not hold thee dead again--I'll hold
thee living. Look now on my beauty, Leo"--and she bent her swaying
form towards him, compelling him with her glorious, alluring eyes--
"and begone if thou canst. Why, thou drawest nearer to me. Man, that
is not the path of flight.
"Nay, I will not tempt thee with these common lures. Go, Leo, if thou
wilt. Go, my love, and leave me to my loneliness and my sin. Now--at
once. Atene will shelter thee till spring, when thou canst cross the
mountains and return to thine own world again, and to those things of
common life which are thy joy. See, Leo, I veil myself that thou
mayest not be tempted," and she flung the corner of her cloak about
her head, then asked a sudden question through it--
"Didst thou not but now return to the Sanctuary with Holly after I
bade thee leave me there alone? Methought I saw the two of you
standing by its doors."
"Yes, we came to seek thee," he answered.
"And found more than ye sought, as often chances to the bold--is it
not so? Well, I willed that ye should come and see, and protected you
where others might have died."
"What didst thou there upon the throne, and whose were those forms
which we saw bending before thee?" he asked coldly.
"I have ruled in many shapes and lands, Leo. Perchance they were
ancient companions and servitors of mine come to greet me once again
and to hear my tidings. Or perchance they were but shadows of thy
brain, pictures like those upon the fire, that it pleased me to summon
to thy sight, to try thy strength and constancy.
"Leo Vincey, know now the truth; that all things are illusions, even
that there exists no future and no past, that what has been and what
shall be already /is/ eternally. Know that I, Ayesha, am but a magic
wraith, foul when thou seest me foul, fair when thou seest me fair; a
spirit-bubble reflecting a thousand lights in the sunshine of thy
smile, grey as dust and gone in the shadow of thy frown. Think of the
throned Queen before whom the shadowy Powers bowed and worship, for
that is I. Think of the hideous, withered Thing thou sawest naked on
the rock, and flee away, for that is I. Or keep me lovely, and adore,
knowing all evil centred in my spirit, for that is I. Now, Leo, thou
hast the truth. Put me from thee for ever and for ever if thou wilt,
and be safe; or clasp me, clasp me to thy heart, and in payment for my
lips and love take my sin upon thy head! Nay, Holly, be thou silent,
for now he must judge alone."
Leo turned, as I thought, at first, to find the door. But it was not
so, for he did but walk up and down the room awhile. Then he came back
to where Ayesha stood, and spoke quite simply and in a very quiet
voice, such as men of his nature often assume in moments of great
"Ayesha," he said, "when I saw thee as thou wast, aged and--thou
knowest how--I clung to thee. Now, when thou hast told me the secret
of this unholy pact of thine, when with my eyes, at least, I have seen
thee reigning a mistress of spirits good or ill, yet I cling to thee.
Let thy sin, great or little--whate'er it is--be my sin also. In
truth, I feel its weight sink to my soul and become a part of me, and
although I have no vision or power of prophecy, I am sure that I shall
not escape its punishment. Well, though I be innocent, let me bear it
for thy sake. I am content."
Ayesha heard, the cloak slipped from her head, and for a moment she
stood silent like one amazed, then burst into a passion of sudden
tears. Down she went before him, and clinging to his garments, she
bowed her stately shape until her forehead touched the ground. Yes,
that proud being, who was more than mortal, whose nostrils but now had
drunk the incense of the homage of ghosts or spirits, humbled herself
at this man's feet.
With an exclamation of horror, half-maddened at the piteous sight, Leo
sprang to one side, then stooping, lifted and led her still weeping to
"Thou knowest not what thou hast done," Ayesha said at last. "Let all
thou sawest on the Mountain's crest or in the Sanctuary be but visions
of the night; let that tale of an offended goddess be a parable, a
fable, if thou wilt. This at least is true, that ages since I sinned
for thee and against thee and another; that ages since I bought beauty
and life indefinite wherewith I might win thee and endow thee at a
cost which few would dare; that I have paid interest on the debt, in
mockery, utter loneliness, and daily pain which scarce could be
endured, until the bond fell due at last and must be satisfied.
"Yes, how I may not tell thee, thou and thou alone stoodst between me
and the full discharge of this most dreadful debt--for know that in
mercy it is given to us to redeem one another."
Now he would have spoken, but with a motion of her hand she bade him
be silent, and continued--
"See now, Leo, three great dangers has thy body passed of late upon
its journey to my side; the Death-hounds, the Mountains, and the
Precipice. Know that these were but types and ordained foreshadowings
of the last threefold trial of thy soul. From the pursuing passions of
Atene which must have undone us both, thou hast escaped victorious.
Thou hast endured the desert loneliness of the sands and snows
starving for a comfort that never came. Even when the avalanche
thundered round thee thy faith stood fast as it stood above the Pit of
flame, while after bitter years of doubt a rushing flood of horror
swallowed up thy hopes. As thou didst descend the glacier's steep, not
knowing what lay beneath that fearful path, so but now and of thine
own choice, for very love of me, thou hast plunged headlong into an
abyss that is deeper far, to share its terrors with my spirit. Dost
thou understand at last?"
"Something, not all, I think," he answered slowly.
"Surely thou art wrapped in a double veil of blindness," she cried
impatiently. "Listen again:
"Hadst thou yielded to Nature's crying and rejected me but yesterday,
in that foul shape I must perchance have lingered for uncounted time,
playing the poor part of priestess of a forgotten faith. This was the
first temptation, the ordeal of thy flesh--nay, not the first--the
second, for Atene and her lurings were the first. But thou wast loyal,
and in the magic of thy conquering love my beauty and my womanhood
"Hadst thou rejected me to-night, when, as I was bidden to do, I
showed thee that vision in the Sanctuary and confessed to thee my
soul's black crime, then hopeless and helpless, unshielded by my
earthly power, I must have wandered on into the deep and endless night
of solitude. This was the third appointed test, the trial of thy
spirit, and by thy steadfastness, Leo, thou hast loosed the hand of
Destiny from about my throat. Now I am regenerate in thee--through
thee may hope again for some true life beyond, which thou shalt share.
And yet, and yet, if thou shouldst suffer, as well may chance----"
"Then I suffer, and there's an end," broke in Leo serenely. "Save for
a few things my mind is clear, and there must be justice for us all at
last. If I have broken the bond that bound thee, if I have freed thee
from some threatening, spiritual ill by taking a risk upon my head,
well, I have not lived, and if need be, shall not die in vain. So let
us have done with all these problems, or rather first answer thou me
one. Ayesha, how wast thou changed upon that peak?"
"In flame I left thee, Leo, and in flame I did return, as in flame,
mayhap, we shall both depart. Or perhaps the change was in the eyes of
all of you who watched, and not in this shape of mine. I have
answered. Seek to learn no more."
"One thing I do still seek to learn. Ayesha, we were betrothed
to-night. When wilt thou marry me?"
"Not yet, not yet," she answered hurriedly, her voice quivering as she
spoke. "Leo, thou must put that hope from thy thoughts awhile, and for
some few months, a year perchance, be content to play the part of
friend and lover."
"Why so?" he asked, with bitter disappointment. "Ayesha, those parts
have been mine for many a day; more, I grow no younger, and, unlike
thee, shall soon be old. Also, life is fleeting, and sometimes I think
that I near its end."
"Speak no such evil-omened words," she said, springing from the couch
and stamping her sandalled foot upon the ground in anger born of fear.
"Yet thou sayest truth; thou art unfortified against the accidents of
time and chance. Oh! horrible, horrible; thou mightest die again, and
leave me living."
"Then give me of thy life, Ayesha."
"That would I gladly, all of it, couldst thou but repay me with the
boon of death to come.
"Oh! ye poor mortals," she went on, with a sudden burst of passion;
"ye beseech your gods for the gift of many years, being ignorant that
ye would sow a seed within your breasts whence ye must garner ten
thousand miseries. Know ye not that this world is indeed the wide
house of hell, in whose chambers from time to time the spirit tarries
a little while, then, weary and aghast, speeds wailing to the peace
that it has won.
"Think then what it is to live on here eternally and yet be human; to
age in soul and see our beloved die and pass to lands whither we may
not hope to follow; to wait while drop by drop the curse of the long
centuries falls upon our imperishable being, like water slow dripping
on a diamond that it cannot wear, till they be born anew forgetful of
us, and again sink from our helpless arms into the void unknowable.
"Think what it is to see the sins we sin, the tempting look, the word
idle or unkind--aye, even the selfish thought or struggle, multiplied
ten thousandfold and more eternal than ourselves, spring up upon the
universal bosom of the earth to be the bane of a million destinies,
whilst the everlasting Finger writes its endless count, and a cold
voice of Justice cries in our conscience-haunted solitude, 'Oh! soul
unshriven, behold the ripening harvest thy wanton hand did scatter,
and long in vain for the waters of forgetfulness.'
"Think what it is to have every earthly wisdom, yet to burn
unsatisfied for the deeper and forbidden draught; to gather up all
wealth and power and let them slip again, like children weary of a
painted toy; to sweep the harp of fame, and, maddened by its jangling
music, to stamp it small beneath our feet; to snatch at pleasure's
goblet and find its wine is sand, and at length, outworn, to cast us
down and pray the pitiless gods with whose stolen garment we have
wrapped ourselves, to take it back again, and suffer us to slink naked
to the grave.
"Such is the life thou askest, Leo. Say, wilt thou have it now?"
"If it may be shared with thee," he answered. "These woes are born of
loneliness, but then our perfect fellowship would turn them into joy."
"Aye," she said, "while it was permitted to endure. So be it, Leo. In
the spring, when the snows melt, we will journey together to Libya,
and there thou shalt be bathed in the Fount of Life, that forbidden
Essence of which once thou didst fear to drink. Afterwards I will wed
"That place is closed for ever, Ayesha."
"Not to my feet and thine," she answered. "Fear not, my love, were
this mountain heaped thereon, I would blast a path through it with
mine eyes and lay its secret bare. Oh! would that thou wast as I am,
for then before tomorrow's sun we'd watch the rolling pillar thunder
by, and thou shouldst taste its glory.
"But it may not be. Hunger or cold can starve thee, and waters drown;
swords can slay thee, or sickness sap away thy strength. Had it not
been for the false Atene, who disobeyed my words, as it was foredoomed
that she should do, by this day we were across the mountains, or had
travelled northward through the frozen desert and the rivers. Now we
must await the melting of the snows, for winter is at hand, and in it,
as thou knowest, no man can live upon their heights."
"Eight months till April before we can start, and how long to cross
the mountains and all the vast distances beyond, and the seas, and the
swamps of Kor? Why, at the best, Ayesha, two years must go by before
we can even find the place;" and he fell to entreating her to let them
be wed at once and journey afterwards.
But she said, Nay, and nay, and nay, it should not be, till at length,
as though fearing his pleading, or that of her own heart, she rose and
"Ah! my Holly," she said to me as we three parted, "I promised thee
and myself some few hours of rest and of the happiness of quiet, and
thou seest how my desire has been fulfilled. Those old Egyptians were
wont to share their feasts with one grizzly skeleton, but here I
counted four to-night that you both could see, and they are named
Fear, Suspense, Foreboding, and Love-denied. Doubtless also, when
these are buried others will come to haunt us, and snatch the poor
morsel from our lips.
"So hath it ever been with me, whose feet misfortune dogs. Yet I hope
on, and now many a barrier lies behind us; and Leo, thou hast been
tried in the appointed, triple fires and yet proved true. Sweet be thy
slumbers, O my love, and sweeter still thy dreams, for know, my soul
shall share them. I vow to thee that to-morrow we'll be happy, aye,
to-morrow without fail."
"Why will she not marry me at once?" asked Leo, when we were alone in
our chamber. "Because she is afraid," I answered.
LEO AND THE LEOPARD
During the weeks that followed these momentous days often and often I
wondered to myself whether a more truly wretched being had ever lived
than the woman, or the spirit, whom we knew as She, Hes, and Ayesha.
Whether in fact also, or in our imagination only, she had arisen from
the ashes of her hideous age into the full bloom of perpetual life and
These things at least were certain: Ayesha had achieved the secret of
an existence so enduring that for all human purposes it might be
called unending. Within certain limitations--such as her utter
inability to foresee the future--undoubtedly also, she was endued with
powers that can only be described as supernatural.
Her rule over the strange community amongst whom she lived was
absolute; indeed, its members regarded her as a goddess, and as such
she was worshipped. After marvellous adventures, the man who was her
very life, I might almost say her soul, whose being was so
mysteriously intertwined with hers, whom she loved also with the
intensest human passion of which woman can be capable, had sought her
out in this hidden corner of the world.
More, thrice he had proved his unalterable fidelity to her. First, by
his rejection of the royal and beautiful, if undisciplined, Atene.
Secondly, by clinging to Ayesha when she seemed to be repulsive to
every natural sense. Thirdly, after that homage scene in the Sanctuary
--though with her unutterable perfections before his eyes this did not
appear to be so wonderful--by steadfastness in the face of her
terrible avowal, true or false, that she had won her gifts and him
through some dim, unholy pact with the powers of evil, in the unknown
fruits and consequences of which he must be involved as the price of
Yet Ayesha was miserable. Even in her lightest moods it was clear to
me that those skeletons at the feast of which she had spoken were her
continual companions. Indeed, when we were alone she would acknowledge
it in dark hints and veiled allegories or allusions. Crushed though
her rival the Khania Atene might be, also she was still jealous of
Perhaps "afraid" would be a better word, for some instinct seemed to
warn Ayesha that soon or late her hour would come to Atene again, and
that then it would be her own turn to drink of the bitter waters of
What troubled her more a thousandfold, however, were her fears for
Leo. As may well be understood, to stand in his intimate relationship
to this half divine and marvellous being, and yet not to be allowed so
much as to touch her lips, did not conduce to his physical or mental
well-being, especially as he knew that the wall of separation must not
be climbed for at least two years. Little wonder that Leo lost
appetite, grew thin and pale, and could not sleep, or that he implored
her continually to rescind her decree and marry him.
But on this point Ayesha was immovable. Instigated thereto by Leo, and
I may add my own curiosity, when we were alone I questioned her again
as to the reasons of this self-denying ordinance. All she would tell
me, however, was that between them rose the barrier of Leo's
mortality, and that until his physical being had been impregnated with
the mysterious virtue of the Vapour of Life, it was not wise that she
should take him as a husband.
I asked her why, seeing that though a long-lived one, she was still a
woman, whereon her face assumed a calm but terrifying smile, and she
"Art so sure, my Holly? Tell me, do your women wear such jewels as
that set upon my brow?" and she pointed to the faint but lambent light
which glowed about her forehead.
More, she began slowly to stroke her abundant hair, then her breast
and body. Wherever her fingers passed the mystic light was born, until
in that darkened room--for the dusk was gathering--she shimmered from
head to foot like the water of a phosphorescent sea, a being glorious
yet fearful to behold. Then she waved her hand, and, save for the
gentle radiance on her brow, became as she had been.
"Art so sure, my Holly?" Ayesha repeated. "Nay, shrink not; that flame
will not burn thee. Mayhap thou didst but imagine it, as I have noted
thou dost imagine many things; for surely no woman could clothe
herself in light and live, nor has so much as the smell of fire passed
upon my garments."
Then at length my patience was outworn, and I grew angry.
"I am sure of nothing, Ayesha," I answered, "except that thou wilt
make us mad with all these tricks and changes. Say, art thou a spirit
"We are all spirits," she said reflectively, "and I, perhaps, more
than some. Who can be certain?"
"Not I," I answered. "Yet I implore, woman or spirit, tell me one
thing. Tell me the truth. In the beginning what wast thou to Leo, and
what was he to thee?"
She looked at me very solemnly and answered--
"Does my memory deceive me, Holly, or is it written in the first book
of the Law of the Hebrews, which once I used to study, that the sons
of Heaven came down to the daughters of men, and found that they were
"It is so written," I answered.
"Then, Holly, might it not have chanced that once a daughter of Heaven
came down to a man of Earth and loved him well? Might it not chance
that for her great sin, she, this high, fallen star, who had befouled
her immortal state for him, was doomed to suffer till at length his
love, made divine by pain and faithful even to a memory, was permitted
to redeem her?"
Now at length I saw light and sprang up eagerly, but in a cold voice
"Nay, Holly, cease to question me, for there are things of which I can
but speak to thee in figures and in parables, not to mock and bewilder
thee, but because I must. Interpret them as thou wilt. Still, Atene
thought me no mortal, since she told us that man and spirit may not
mate; and there are matters in which I let her judgment weigh with me,
as without doubt now, as in other lives, she and that old Shaman, her
uncle, have wisdom, aye, and foresight. So bid my lord press me no
more to wed him, for it gives me pain to say him nay--ah! thou knowest
not how much.
"Moreover, I will declare myself to thee, old friend; whatever else I
be, at least I am too womanly to listen to the pleadings of my best
beloved and not myself be moved. See, I have set a curb upon desire
and drawn it until my heart bleeds; but if he pursues me with
continual words and looks of burning love, who knoweth but that I
shall kindle in his flame and throw the reins of reason to the winds?
"Oh, then together we might race adown our passions' steep; together
dare the torrent that rages at its foot, and there perchance be
whelmed or torn asunder. Nay, nay, another space of journeying, but a
little space, and we reach the bridge my wisdom found, and cross it
safely, and beyond for ever ride on at ease through the happy meadows
of our love."
Then she was silent, nor would she speak more upon the matter. Also--
and this was the worst of it--even now I was not sure that she told me
the truth, or, at any rate, all of it, for to Ayesha's mind truth
seemed many coloured as are the rays of light thrown from the
different faces of a cut jewel. We never could be certain which shade
of it she was pleased to present, who, whether by preference or of
necessity, as she herself had said, spoke of such secrets in figures
of speech and parables.
It is a fact that to this hour I do not know whether Ayesha is spirit
or woman, or, as I suspect, a blend of both. I do not know the limits
of her powers, or if that elaborate story of the beginning of her love
for Leo was true--which personally I doubt--or but a fable, invented
by her mind, and through it, as she had hinted, pictured on the flame
for her own hidden purposes.
I do not know whether when first we saw her on the Mountain she was
really old and hideous, or did but put on that shape in our eyes in
order to test her lover. I do not know whether, as the priest Oros
bore witness--which he may well have been bidden to do--her spirit
passed into the body of the dead priestess of Hes, or whether when she
seemed to perish there so miserably, her body and her soul were wafted
straightway from the Caves of Kor to this Central Asian peak.
I do not know why, as she was so powerful, she did not come to seek
us, instead of leaving us to seek her through so many weary years,
though I suggest that some superior force forbade her to do more than
companion us unseen, watching our every act, reading our every
thought, until at length we reached the predestined place and hour.
Also, as will appear, there were other things of which this is not the
time to speak, whereby I am still more tortured and perplexed.
In short, I know nothing, except that my existence has been
intertangled with one of the great mysteries of the world; that the
glorious being called Ayesha won the secret of life from whatever
power holds it in its keeping; that she alleged--although of this,
remember, we have no actual proof--such life was to be attained by
bathing in a certain emanation, vapour or essence; that she was
possessed by a passion not easy to understand, but terrific in its
force and immortal in its nature, concentrated upon one other being
and one alone. That through this passion also some angry fate smote
her again, again, and yet again, making of her countless days a
burden, and leading the power and the wisdom which knew all but could
foreknow nothing, into abysses of anguish, suspense, and
disappointment such as--Heaven be thanked!--we common men and women
are not called upon to plumb.
For the rest, should human eyes ever fall upon it, each reader must
form his own opinion of this history, its true interpretation and
significance. These and the exact parts played by Atene and myself in
its development I hope to solve shortly, though not here.
Well, as I have said, the upshot of it all was that Ayesha was
devoured with anxiety about Leo. Except in this matter of marriage,
his every wish was satisfied, and indeed forestalled. Thus he was
never again asked to share in any of the ceremonies of the Sanctuary,
though, indeed, stripped of its rites and spiritual symbols, the
religion of the College of Hes proved pure and harmless enough. It was
but a diluted version of the Osiris and Isis worship of old Egypt,
from which it had been inherited, mixed with the Central Asian belief
in the transmigration or reincarnation of souls and the possibility of
drawing near to the ultimate Godhead by holiness of thought and life.
In fact, the head priestess and Oracle was only worshipped as a
representative of the Divinity, while the temporal aims of the College
in practice were confined to good works, although it is true that they
still sighed for their lost authority over the country of Kaloon. Thus
they had hospitals, and during the long and severe winters, when the
Tribes of the Mountain slopes were often driven to the verge of
starvation, gave liberally to the destitute from their stores of food.
Leo liked to be with Ayesha continually, so we spent each evening in
her company, and much of the day also, until she found that this
inactivity told upon him who for years had been accustomed to endure
every rigour of climate in the open air. After this came home to her--
although she was always haunted by terror lest any accident should
befall him--Ayesha insisted upon his going out to kill the wild sheep
and the ibex, which lived in numbers on the mountain ridges, placing
him in the charge of the chiefs and huntsmen of the Tribes, with whom
thus he became well acquainted. In this exercise, however, I
accompanied him but rarely, as, if used too much, my arm still gave me
Once indeed such an accident did happen. I was seated in the garden
with Ayesha and watching her. Her head rested on her hand, and she was
looking with her wide eyes, across which the swift thoughts passed
like clouds over a windy sky, or dreams through the mind of a sleeper
--looking out vacantly towards the mountain snows. Seen thus her
loveliness was inexpressible, amazing; merely to gaze upon it was an
intoxication. Contemplating it, I understood indeed that, like to that
of the fabled Helen, this gift of hers alone--and it was but one of
many--must have caused infinite sorrows, had she ever been permitted
to display it to the world. It would have driven humanity to madness:
the men with longings and the women with jealousy and hate.
And yet in what did her surpassing beauty lie? Ayesha's face and form
were perfect, it is true; but so are those of some other women. Not in
these then did it live alone, but rather, I think, especially while
what I may call her human moods were on her, in the soft mystery that
dwelt upon her features and gathered and changed in her splendid eyes.
Some such mystery may be seen, however faintly, on the faces of
certain of the masterpieces of the Greek sculptors, but Ayesha it
clothed like an ever-present atmosphere, suggesting a glory that was
not of earth, making her divine.
As I gazed at her and wondered thus, of a sudden she became terribly
agitated, and, pointing to a shoulder of the Mountain miles and miles
I looked, but saw nothing except a sheet of distant snow.
"Blind fool, canst thou not see that my lord is in danger of his
life?" she cried. "Nay, I forgot, thou hast no vision. Take it now
from me and look again;" and laying her hand, from which a strange,
numbing current seemed to flow, upon my head, she muttered some swift
Instantly my eyes were opened, and, not upon the distant Mountain, but
in the air before me as it were, I saw Leo rolling over and over at
grips with a great snow-leopard, whilst the chief and huntsmen with
him ran round and round, seeking an opportunity to pierce the savage
brute with their spears and yet leave him unharmed.
Ayesha, rigid with terror, swayed to and fro at my side, till
presently the end came, for I could see Leo drive his long knife into
the bowels of the leopard, which at once grew limp, separated from
him, and after a struggle or two in the bloodstained snow, lay still.
Then he rose, laughing and pointing to his rent garments, whilst one
of the huntsmen came forward and began to bandage some wounds in his
hands and thigh with strips of linen torn from his under-robe.
The vision vanished suddenly as it had come, and I felt Ayesha leaning
heavily upon my shoulder like any other frightened woman, and heard
"That danger also has passed by, but how many are there to follow? Oh!
tormented heart, how long canst thou endure!"
Then her wrath flamed up against the chief and his huntsmen, and she
summoned messengers and sent them out at speed with a litter and
ointments, bidding them to bear back the lord Leo and to bring his
companions to her very presence.
"Thou seest what days are mine, my Holly, aye, and have been these
many years," she said; "but those hounds shall pay me for this agony."
Nor would she suffer me to reason with her.
Four hours later Leo returned, limping after the litter in which,
instead of himself, for whom it was sent, lay a mountain sheep and the
skin of the snow-leopard that he had placed there to save the huntsmen
the labour of carrying them. Ayesha was waiting for him in the hall of
her dwelling, and gliding to him--I cannot say she walked--overwhelmed
him with mingled solicitude and reproaches. He listened awhile, then
"How dost thou know anything of this matter? The leopard skin has not
yet been brought to thee."
"I know because I saw," she answered. "The worst hurt was above thy
knee; hast thou dressed it with the salve I sent?"
"Not I," he said. "But thou hast not left this Sanctuary; how didst
thou see? By thy magic?"
"If thou wilt, at least I saw, and Holly also saw thee rolling in the
snow with that fierce brute, while those curs ran round like scared
"I am weary of this magic," interrupted Leo crossly. "Cannot a man be
left alone for an hour even with a leopard of the mountain? As for
those brave men----"
At this moment Oros entered and whispered something, bowing low.
"As for those 'brave men,' I will deal with them," said Ayesha with
bitter emphasis, and covering herself--for she never appeared unveiled
to the people of the Mountain--she swept from the place.
"Where has she gone, Horace?" asked Leo. "To one of her services in
"I don't know," I answered; "but if so, I think it will be that
chief's burial service."
"Will it?" he exclaimed, and instantly limped after her.
A minute or two later I thought it wise to follow. In the Sanctuary a
curious scene was in progress. Ayesha was seated in front of the
statue. Before her, very much frightened, knelt a brawny, red-haired
chieftain and five of his followers, who still carried their hunting
spears, while with folded arms and an exceedingly grim look upon his
face, Leo, who, as I learned afterwards, had already interfered and
been silenced, stood upon one side listening to what passed. At a
little distance behind were a dozen or more of the temple guards, men
armed with swords and picked for their strength and stature.
Ayesha, in her sweetest voice, was questioning the men as to how the
leopard, of which the skin lay before her, had come to attack Leo. The
chief answered that they had tracked the brute to its lair between two
rocks; that one of them had gone in and wounded it, whereon it sprang
upon him and struck him down; that then the lord Leo had engaged it
while the man escaped, and was also struck down, after which, rolling
with it on the ground, he stabbed and slew the animal. That was all.
"No, not all," said Ayesha; "for you forget, cowards that you are,
that, keeping yourselves in safety, you left my lord to the fury of
this beast. Good. Drive them out on to the Mountain, there to perish
also at the fangs of beasts, and make it known that he who gives them
food or shelter dies."
Offering no prayer for pity or excuse, the chief and his followers
rose, bowed, and turned to go.
"Stay a moment, comrades," said Leo, "and, chief, give me your arm; my
scratch grows stiff; I cannot walk fast. We will finish this hunt
"What doest thou? Art mad?" asked Ayesha.
"I know not whether I am mad," he answered, "but I know that thou art
wicked and unjust. Look now, than these hunters none braver ever
breathed. That man"--and he pointed to the one whom the leopard had
struck down--"took my place and went in before me because I ordered
that we should attack the creature, and thus was felled. As thou seest
all, thou mightest have seen this also. Then it sprang on me, and the
rest of these, my friends, ran round waiting a chance to strike, which
at first they could not do unless they would have killed me with it,
since I and the brute rolled over and over in the snow. As it was, one
of them seized it with his bare hands: look at the teeth marks on his
arm. So if they are to perish on the Mountain, I, who am the man to
blame, perish with them."
Now, while the hunters looked at him with fervent gratitude in their
eyes, Ayesha thought a little, then said cleverly enough--
"In truth, my lord Leo, had I known all the tale, well mightest thou
have named me wicked and unjust; but I knew only what I saw, and out
of their own mouths did I condemn them. My servants, my lord here has
pleaded for you, and you are forgiven; more, he who rushed in upon the
leopard and he who seized it with his hands shall be rewarded and
advanced. Go; but I warn you if you suffer my lord to come into more
danger, you shall not escape so easily again."
So they bowed and went, still blessing Leo with their eyes, since
death by exposure on the Mountain snows was the most terrible form of
punishment known to these people, and one only inflicted by the direct
order of Hes upon murderers or other great criminals.
When we had left the Sanctuary and were alone again in the hall, the
storm that I had seen gathering upon Leo's face broke in earnest.
Ayesha renewed her inquiries about his wounds, and wished to call
Oros, the physician, to dress them, and as he refused this, offered to
do so herself. He begged that she would leave his wounds alone, and
then, his great beard bristling with wrath, asked her solmenly if he
was a child in arms, a query so absurd that I could not help laughing.
Then he scolded her--yes, he scolded Ayesha! Wishing to know what she
meant (1) by spying upon him with her magic, an evil gift that he had
always disliked and mistrusted; (2) by condemning brave and excellent
men, his good friends, to a death of fiendish cruelty upon such
evidence, or rather out of temper, on no evidence at all; and (3) by
giving him into charge of them, as though he were a little boy, and
telling them that they would have to answer for it if he were hurt: he
who, in his time, had killed every sort of big game known and passed
through some perils and encounters?
Thus he beat her with his words, and, wonderful to say, Ayesha, this
being more than woman, submitted to the chastisement meekly. Yet had
any other man dared to address her with roughness even, I doubt not
that his speech and his life would have come to a swift and
simultaneous end, for I knew that now, as of old, she could slay by
the mere effort of her will. But she did not slay; she did not even
threaten, only, as any other loving woman might have done, she began
to cry. Yes, great tears gathered in those lovely eyes of hers and,
rolling one by one down her face, fell--for her head was bent humbly
forward--like heavy raindrops on the marble floor.
At the sight of this touching evidence of her human, loving heart all
Leo's anger melted. Now it was he who grew penitent and prayed her
pardon humbly. She gave him her hand in token of forgiveness, saying--
"Let others speak to me as they will" (sorry should I have been to try
it!) "but from thee, Leo, I cannot bear harsh words. Oh, thou art
cruel, cruel. In what have I offended? Can I help it if my spirit
keeps its watch upon thee, as indeed, though thou knewest it not, it
has done ever since we parted yonder in the Place of Life? Can I help
it if, like some mother who sees her little child at play upon a
mountain's edge, my soul is torn with agony when I know thee in
dangers that I am powerless to prevent or share? What are the lives of
a few half-wild huntsmen that I should let them weigh for a single
breath against thy safety, seeing that if I slew these, others would
be more careful of thee? Whereas if I slay them not, they or their
fellows may even lead thee into perils that would bring about--thy
/death/," and she gasped with horror at the word.
"Listen, beloved," said Leo. "The life of the humblest of those men is
of as much value to him as mine is to me, and thou hast no more right
to kill him than thou hast to kill me. It is evil that because thou
carest for me thou shouldst suffer thy love to draw thee into cruelty
and crime. If thou art afraid for me, then clothe me with that
immortality of thine, which, although I dread it somewhat, holding it
a thing unholy, and, on this earth, not permitted by my Faith, I
should still rejoice to inherit for thy dear sake, knowing that then
we could never more be parted. Or, if as thou sayest, this as yet thou
canst not do, then let us be wed and take what fortune gives us. All
men must die; but at least before I die I shall have been happy with
thee for a while--yes, if only for a single hour."
"Would that I dared," Ayesha answered with a little piteous motion of
her hand. "Oh! urge me no more, Leo, lest that at last I should take
the risk and lead thee down a dreadful road. Leo, hast thou never
heard of the love which slays, or of the poison that may lurk in a cup
of joy too perfect?"
Then, as though she feared herself, Ayesha turned from him and fled.
Thus this matter ended. In itself it was not a great one, for Leo's
hurts were mere scratches, and the hunters, instead of being killed,
were promoted to be members of his body-guard. Yet it told us many
things. For instance, that whenever she chose to do so, Ayesha had the
power of perceiving all Leo's movements from afar, and even of
communicating her strength of mental vision to others, although to
help him in any predicament she appeared to have no power, which, of
course, accounted for the hideous and ever-present might of her
Think what it would be to any one of us were we mysteriously
acquainted with every open danger, every risk of sickness, every
secret peril through which our best-beloved must pass. To see the rock
trembling to its fall and they loitering beneath it; to see them drink
of water and know it full of foulest poison; to see them embark upon a
ship and be aware that it was doomed to sink, but not to be able to
warn them or to prevent them. Surely no mortal brain could endure such
constant terrors, since hour by hour the arrows of death flit unseen
and unheard past the breasts of each of us, till at length one finds
its home there.
What then must Ayesha have suffered, watching with her spirit's eyes
all the hair-breadth escapes of our journeyings? When, for instance,
in the beginning she saw Leo at my house in Cumberland about to kill
himself in his madness and despair, and by some mighty effort of her
superhuman will, wrung from whatever Power it was that held her in its
fearful thraldom, the strength to hurl her soul across the world and
thereby in his sleep reveal to him the secret of the hiding-place
where he would find her.
Or to take one more example out of many--when she saw him hanging by
that slender thread of yak's hide from the face of the waterfall of
ice and herself remained unable to save him, or even to look forward
for a single moment and learn whether or no he was about to meet a
hideous death, in which event she must live on alone until in some dim
age he was born again.
Nor can her sorrows have ended with these more material fears, since
others as piercing must have haunted her. Imagine, for instance, the
agonies of her jealous heart when she knew her lover to be exposed to
the temptations incident to his solitary existence, and more
especially to those of her ancient rival Atene, who, by Ayesha's own
account, had once been his wife. Imagine also her fears lest time and
human change should do their natural work on him, so that by degrees
the memory of her wisdom and her strength, and the image of her
loveliness faded from his thought, and with them his desire for her
company; thus leaving her who had endured so long, forgotten and alone
Truly, the Power that limited our perceptions did so in purest mercy,
for were it otherwise with us, our race would go mad and perish raving
in its terrors.
Thus it would seem that Ayesha, great tormented soul, thinking to win
life and love eternal and most glorious, was in truth but another
blind Pandora. From her stolen casket of beauty and super-human power
had leapt into her bosom, there to dwell unceasingly, a hundred
torturing demons, of whose wings mere mortal kind do but feel the far-
off, icy shadowing.
Yes; and that the parallel might be complete, Hope alone still
lingered in that rifled chest.
It was shortly after this incident of the snow-leopard that one of
these demon familiars of Ayesha's, her infinite ambition, made its
formidable appearance. When we had dined with her in the evening,
Ayesha's habit was to discuss plans for our mighty and unending
future, that awful inheritance which she had promised to us.
Here I must explain, if I have not done so already, that she had
graciously informed me that notwithstanding my refusal in past years
of such a priceless opportunity, I also was to be allowed to bathe my
superannuated self in the vital fires, though in what guise I should
emerge from them, like Herodotus when he treats of the mysteries of
old Egypt, if she knew, she did not think it lawful to reveal.
Secretly I hoped that my outward man might change for the better, as
the prospect of being fixed for ever in the shape of my present and
somewhat unpleasing personality, did not appeal to me as attractive.
In truth, so far as I was concerned, the matter had an academic rather
than an actual interest, such as we take in a fairy tale, since I did
not believe that I should ever put on this kind of immortality. Nor, I
may add, now as before, was I at all certain that I wished to do so.
These plans of Ayesha's were far reaching and indeed terrific. Her
acquaintance with the modern world, its political and social
developments, was still strictly limited; for if she had the power to
follow its growth and activities, certainly it was one of which she
made no use.
In practice her knowledge seemed to be confined to what she had
gathered during the few brief talks which took place between us upon
this subject in past time at Kor. Now her thirst for information
proved insatiable, although it is true that ours was scarcely up to
date, seeing that ever since we lost touch with the civilized peoples,
namely, for the last fifteen years or so, we had been as much buried
as she was herself.
Still we were able to describe to her the condition of the nations and
their affairs as they were at the period when we bade them farewell,
and, more or less incorrectly, to draw maps of the various countries
and their boundaries, over which she pondered long.
The Chinese were the people in whom she proved to be most interested,
perhaps because she was acquainted with the Mongolian type, and like
ourselves, understood a good many of their dialects. Also she had a
motive for her studies, which one night she revealed to us in the most
Those who have read the first part of her history, which I left in
England to be published, may remember that when we found her at Kor,
/She/ horrified us by expressing a determination to possess herself of
Great Britain, for the simple reason that we belonged to that country.
Now, however, like her powers, her ideas had grown, for she purposed
to make Leo the absolute monarch of the world. In vain did he assure
her most earnestly that he desired no such empire. She merely laughed
at him and said--
"If I arise amidst the Peoples, I must rule the Peoples, for how can
Ayesha take a second place among mortal men? And thou, my Leo, rulest
me, yes, mark the truth, thou art my master! Therefore it is plain
that thou wilt be the master of this earth, aye, and perchance of
others which do not yet appear, for of these also I know something,
and, I think, can reach them if I will, though hitherto I have had no
mind that way. My true life has not yet begun. Its little space within
this world has been filled with thought and care for thee; in waiting
till thou wast born again, and during these last years of separation,
until thou didst return.
"But now a few more months, and the days of preparation past, endowed
with energy eternal, with all the wisdom of the ages, and with a
strength that can bend the mountains or turn the ocean from its bed,
and we begin to be. Oh! how I sicken for that hour when first, like
twin stars new to the firmament of heaven, we break in our immortal
splendour upon the astonished sight of men. It will please me, I tell
thee, Leo, it will please me, to see Powers, Principalities and
Dominions, marshalled by their kings and governors, bow themselves
before our thrones and humbly crave the liberty to do our will. At
least," she added, "it will please me for a little time, until we seek
So she spoke, while the radiance upon her brow increased and spread
itself, gleaming above her like a golden fan, and her slumbrous eyes
took fire from it till, to my thought, they became glowing mirrors in
which I saw pomp enthroned and suppliant peoples pass.
"And how," asked Leo, with something like a groan--for this vision of
universal rule viewed from afar did not seem to charm him--"how,
Ayesha, wilt thou bring these things about?"
"How, my Leo? Why, easily enough. For many nights I have listened to
the wise discourses of our Holly here, at least he thinks them wise
who still has so much to learn, and pored over his crooked maps,
comparing them with those that are written in my memory, who of late
have had no time for the study of such little matters. Also I have
weighed and pondered your reports of the races of this world; their
various follies, their futile struggling for wealth and small
supremacies, and I have determined that it would be wise and kind to
weld them to one whole, setting ourselves at the head of them to
direct their destinies, and cause wars, sickness, and poverty to
cease, so that these creatures of a little day (ephemeridae was the
word she used) may live happy from the cradle to the grave.
"Now, were it not because of thy strange shrinking from bloodshed,
however politic and needful--for my Leo, as yet thou art no true
philosopher--this were quickly done, since I can command a weapon
which would crush their armouries and whelm their navies in the deep;
yes, I, whom even the lightnings and Nature's elemental powers must
obey. But thou shrinkest from the sight of death, and thou believest
that Heaven would be displeased because I make myself--or am chosen--
the instrument of Heaven. Well, so let it be, for thy will is mine,
and therefore we will tread a gentler path."
"And how wilt thou persuade the kings of the earth to place their
crowns upon thy head?" I asked, astonished.
"By causing their peoples to offer them to us," she answered suavely.
"Oh! Holly, Holly, how narrow is thy mind, how strained the quality of
thine imagination! Set its poor gates ajar, I pray, and bethink thee.
When we appear among men, scattering gold to satisfy their want, clad
in terrifying power, in dazzling beauty and in immortality of days,
will they not cry, 'Be ye our monarchs and rule over us!'"
"Perhaps," I answered dubiously, "but where wilt thou appear?"
She took a map of the eastern hemisphere which I had drawn and,
placing her finger upon Pekin, said--
"There is the place that shall be our home for some few centuries, say
three, or five, or seven, should it take so long to shape this people
to my liking and our purposes. I have chosen these Chinese because
thou tellest me that their numbers are uncountable, that they are
brave, subtle, and patient, and though now powerless because ill-ruled
and untaught, able with their multitudes to flood the little western
nations. Therefore among them we will begin our reign and for some few
ages be at rest while they learn wisdom from us, and thou, my Holly,
makest their armies unconquerable and givest their land good
government, wealth, peace, and a new religion."
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