H. Rider Haggard
Part 6 out of 6
great a height, and thirty wide. It was carpeted with fine white sand,
and its walls had been worn smooth by the action of I know not what.
The cavern was not dark like the others, it was filled with a soft
glow of rose-coloured light, more beautiful to look on than anything
that can be conceived. But at first we saw no flashes, and heard no
more of the thunderous sound. Presently, however, as we stood in
amaze, gazing at the marvellous sight, and wondering whence the rosy
radiance flowed, a dread and beautiful thing happened. Across the far
end of the cavern, with a grinding and crashing noise--a noise so
dreadful and awe-inspiring that we all trembled, and Job actually sank
to his knees--there flamed out an awful cloud or pillar of fire, like
a rainbow many-coloured, and like the lightning bright. For a space,
perhaps forty seconds, it flamed and roared thus, turning slowly round
and round, and then by degrees the terrible noise ceased, and with the
fire it passed away--I know not where--leaving behind it the same rosy
glow that we had first seen.
"Draw near, draw near!" cried Ayesha, with a voice of thrilling
exultation. "Behold the very Fountain and Heart of Life as it beats in
the bosom of the great world. Behold the substance from which all
things draw their energy, the bright Spirit of the Globe, without
which it cannot live, but must grow cold and dead as the dead moon.
Draw near, and wash you in the living flames, and take their virtue
into your poor frames in all its virgin strength--not as it now feebly
glows within your bosoms, filtered thereto through all the fine
strainers of a thousand intermediate lives, but as it is here in the
very fount and seat of earthly Being."
We followed her through the rosy glow up to the head of the cave, till
at last we stood before the spot where the great pulse beat and the
great flame passed. And as we went we became sensible of a wild and
splendid exhilaration, of a glorious sense of such a fierce intensity
of Life that the most buoyant moments of our strength seemed flat and
tame and feeble beside it. It was the mere effluvium of the flame, the
subtle ether that it cast off as it passed, working on us, and making
us feel strong as giants and swift as eagles.
We reached the head of the cave, and gazed at each other in the
glorious glow, and laughed aloud--even Job laughed, and he had not
laughed for a week--in the lightness of our hearts and the divine
intoxication of our brains. I know that I felt as though all the
varied genius of which the human intellect is capable had descended
upon me. I could have spoken in blank verse of Shakesperian beauty,
all sorts of great ideas flashed through my mind; it was as though the
bonds of my flesh had been loosened and left the spirit free to soar
to the empyrean of its native power. The sensations that poured in
upon me are indescribable. I seemed to live more keenly, to reach to a
higher joy, and sip the goblet of a subtler thought than ever it had
been my lot to do before. I was another and most glorified self, and
all the avenues of the Possible were for a space laid open to the
footsteps of the Real.
Then, suddenly, whilst I rejoiced in this splendid vigour of a new-
found self, from far, far away there came a dreadful muttering noise,
that grew and grew to a crash and a roar, which combined in itself all
that is terrible and yet splendid in the possibilities of sound.
Nearer it came, and nearer yet, till it was close upon us, rolling
down like all the thunder-wheels of heaven behind the horses of the
lightning. On it came, and with it came the glorious blinding cloud of
many-coloured light, and stood before us for a space, turning, as it
seemed to us, slowly round and round, and then, accompanied by its
attendant pomp of sound, passed away I know not whither.
So astonishing was the wondrous sight that one and all of us, save
/She/, who stood up and stretched her hands towards the fire, sank
down before it, and hid our faces in the sand.
When it was gone, Ayesha spoke.
"Now, Kallikrates," she said, "the mighty moment is at hand. When the
great flame comes again thou must stand in it. First throw aside thy
garments, for it will burn them, though thee it will not hurt. Thou
must stand in the flame while thy senses will endure, and when it
embraces thee suck the fire down into thy very heart, and let it leap
and play around thy every part, so that thou lose no moiety of its
virtue. Hearest thou me, Kallikrates?"
"I hear thee, Ayesha," answered Leo, "but, of a truth--I am no coward
--but I doubt me of that raging flame. How know I that it will not
utterly destroy me, so that I lose myself and lose thee also?
Nevertheless will I do it," he added.
Ayesha thought for a minute, and then said--
"It is not wonderful that thou shouldst doubt. Tell me, Kallikrates:
if thou seest me stand in the flame and come forth unharmed, wilt thou
"Yes," he answered, "I will enter even if it slay me. I have said that
I will enter now."
"And that will I also," I cried.
"What, my Holly!" she laughed aloud; "methought that thou wouldst
naught of length of days. Why, how is this?"
"Nay, I know not," I answered, "but there is that in my heart that
calleth me to taste of the flame and live."
"It is well," she said. "Thou art not altogether lost in folly. See
now, I will for the second time bathe me in this living bath. Fain
would I add to my beauty and my length of days if that be possible. If
it be not possible, at the least it cannot harm me.
"Also," she continued, after a momentary pause, "is there another and
a deeper cause why I would once again dip me in the flame. When first
I tasted of its virtue full was my heart of passion and of hatred of
that Egyptian Amenartas, and therefore, despite my strivings to be rid
thereof, have passion and hatred been stamped upon my soul from that
sad hour to this. But now it is otherwise. Now is my mood a happy
mood, and filled am I with the purest part of thought, and so would I
ever be. Therefore, Kallikrates, will I once more wash and make me
pure and clean, and yet more fit for thee. Therefore also, when thou
dost in turn stand in the fire, empty all thy heart of evil, and let
soft contentment hold the balance of thy mind. Shake loose thy
spirit's wings, and take thy stand upon the utter verge of holy
contemplation; ay, dream upon thy mother's kiss, and turn thee towards
the vision of the highest good that hath ever swept on silver wings
across the silence of thy dreams. For from the germ of what thou art
in that dread moment shall grow the fruit of what thou shalt be for
all unreckoned time.
"Now prepare thee, prepare! even as though thy last hour were at hand,
and thou wast to cross to the Land of Shadows, and not through the
Gates of Glory into the realms of Life made beautiful. Prepare, I
WHAT WE SAW
Then came a few moments' pause, during which Ayesha seemed to be
gathering up her strength for the fiery trial, while we clung to each
other, and waited in utter silence.
At last, from far far away, came the first murmur of sound, that grew
and grew till it began to crash and bellow in the distance. As she
heard it, Ayesha swiftly threw off her gauzy wrapping, loosened the
golden snake from her kirtle, and then, shaking her lovely hair about
her like a garment, beneath its cover slipped the kirtle off and
replaced the snaky belt around her and outside the masses of her
falling hair. There she stood before us as Eve might have stood before
Adam, clad in nothing but her abundant locks, held round her by the
golden band; and no words of mine can tell how sweet she looked--and
yet how divine. Nearer and nearer came the thunder-wheels of fire, and
as they came she pushed one ivory arm through the dark masses of her
hair and flung it round Leo's neck.
"Oh, my love, my love!" she murmured, "wilt thou ever know how I have
loved thee?" and she kissed him on the forehead, and then went and
stood in the pathway of the flame of Life.
There was, I remember, to my mind something very touching about her
words and that embrace upon the forehead. It was like a mother's kiss,
and seemed to convey a benediction with it.
On came the crashing, rolling noise, and the sound of it was as the
sound of a forest being swept flat by a mighty wind, and then tossed
up like so much grass, and thundered down a mountain-side. Nearer and
nearer it came; now flashes of light, forerunners of the revolving
pillar of flame, were passing like arrows through the rosy air; and
now the edge of the pillar itself appeared. Ayesha turned towards it,
and stretched out her arms to greet it. On it came very slowly, and
lapped her round with flame. I saw the fire run up her form. I saw her
lift it with both hands as though it were water, and pour it over her
head. I even saw her open her mouth and draw it down into her lungs,
and a dread and wonderful sight it was.
Then she paused, and stretched out her arms, and stood there quite
still, with a heavenly smile upon her face, as though she were the
very Spirit of the Flame.
The mysterious fire played up and down her dark and rolling locks,
twining and twisting itself through and around them like threads of
golden lace; it gleamed upon her ivory breast and shoulder, from which
the hair had slipped aside; it slid along her pillared throat and
delicate features, and seemed to find a home in the glorious eyes that
shone and shone, more brightly even than the spiritual essence.
Oh, how beautiful she looked there in the flame! No angel out of
heaven could have worn a greater loveliness. Even now my heart faints
before the recollection of it, as she stood and smiled at our awed
faces, and I would give half my remaining time upon this earth to see
her once like that again.
But suddenly--more suddenly than I can describe--a kind of change came
over her face, a change which I could not define or explain, but none
the less a change. The smile vanished, and in its place there came a
dry, hard look; the rounded face seemed to grow pinched, as though
some great anxiety were leaving its impress upon it. The glorious
eyes, too, lost their light, and, as I thought, the form its perfect
shape and erectness.
I rubbed my eyes, thinking that I was the victim of some
hallucination, or that the refraction from the intense light produced
an optical delusion; and, as I did so, the flaming pillar slowly
twisted and thundered off whithersoever it passes to in the bowels of
the great earth, leaving Ayesha standing where it had been.
As soon as it was gone, she stepped forward to Leo's side--it seemed
to me that there was no spring in her step--and stretched out her hand
to lay it on his shoulder. I gazed at her arm. Where was its wonderful
roundness and beauty? It was getting thin and angular. And her face--
by Heaven!--/her face was growing old before my eyes!/ I suppose that
Leo saw it also; certainly he recoiled a step or two.
"What is it, my Kallikrates?" she said, and her voice--what was the
matter with those deep and thrilling notes? They were quite high and
"Why, what is it--what is it?" she said confusedly. "I feel dazed.
Surely the quality of the fire hath not altered. Can the principle of
Life alter? Tell me, Kallikrates, is there aught wrong with my eyes? I
see not clear," and she put her hand to her head and touched her hair
--and oh, /horror of horrors!/--it all fell upon the floor.
"Oh, /look!--look!--look!/" shrieked Job, in a shrill falsetto of
terror, his eyes nearly dropping out of his head, and foam upon his
lips. "/Look!--look!--look!/ she's shrivelling up! she's turning into
a monkey!" and down he fell upon the ground, foaming and gnashing in a
True enough--I faint even as I write it in the living presence of that
terrible recollection--she /was/ shrivelling up; the golden snake that
had encircled her gracious form slipped over her hips and to the
ground; smaller and smaller she grew; her skin changed colour, and in
place of the perfect whiteness of its lustre it turned dirty brown and
yellow, like an piece of withered parchment. She felt at her head: the
delicate hand was nothing but a claw now, a human talon like that of a
badly-preserved Egyptian mummy, and then she seemed to realise what
kind of change was passing over her, and she shrieked--ah, she
shrieked!--she rolled upon the floor and shrieked!
Smaller she grew, and smaller yet, till she was no larger than a
monkey. Now the skin was puckered into a million wrinkles, and on the
shapeless face was the stamp of unutterable age. I never saw anything
like it; nobody ever saw anything like the frightful age that was
graven on that fearful countenance, no bigger now than that of a two-
months' child, though the skull remained the same size, or nearly so,
and let all men pray they never may, if they wish to keep their
At last she lay still, or only feebly moving. She, who but two minutes
before had gazed upon us the loveliest, noblest, most splendid woman
the world has ever seen, she lay still before us, near the masses of
her own dark hair, no larger than a big monkey, and hideous--ah, too
hideous for words. And yet, think of this--at that very moment I
thought of it--it was the /same/ woman!
She was dying: we saw it, and thanked God--for while she lived she
could feel, and what must she have felt? She raised herself upon her
bony hands, and blindly gazed around her, swaying her head slowly from
side to side as a tortoise does. She could not see, for her whitish
eyes were covered with a horny film. Oh, the horrible pathos of the
sight! But she could still speak.
"Kallikrates," she said in husky, trembling notes. "Forget me not,
Kallikrates. Have pity on my shame; I shall come again, and shall once
more be beautiful, I swear it--it is true! /Oh--h--h--/" and she fell
upon her face, and was still.
On the very spot where more than twenty centuries before she had slain
Kallikrates the priest, she herself fell down and died.
* * * * *
I know not how long we remained thus. Many hours, I suppose. When at
last I opened my eyes, the other two were still outstretched upon the
floor. The rosy light yet beamed like a celestial dawn, and the
thunder-wheels of the Spirit of Life yet rolled upon their accustomed
track, for as I awoke the great pillar was passing away. There, too,
lay the hideous little monkey frame, covered with crinkled yellow
parchment, that once had been the glorious /She/. Alas! it was no
hideous dream--it was an awful and unparalleled fact!
What had happened to bring this shocking change about? Had the nature
of the life-giving Fire changed? Did it, perhaps, from time to time
send forth an essence of Death instead of an essence of Life? Or was
it that the frame once charged with its marvellous virtue could bear
no more, so that were the process repeated--it mattered not at what
lapse of time--the two impregnations neutralised each other, and left
the body on which they acted as it was before it ever came into
contact with the very essence of Life? This, and this alone, would
account for the sudden and terrible ageing of Ayesha, as the whole
length of her two thousand years took effect upon her. I have not the
slightest doubt myself but that the frame now lying before me was just
what the frame of a woman would be if by any extraordinary means life
could be preserved in her till she at length died at the age of two-
But who can tell what had happened? There was the fact. Often since
that awful hour I have reflected that it requires no great imagination
to see the finger of Providence in the matter. Ayesha locked up in her
living tomb waiting from age to age for the coming of her lover worked
but a small change in the order of the World. But Ayesha strong and
happy in her love, clothed in immortal youth and goddess beauty, and
the wisdom of the centuries, would have revolutionised society, and
even perchance have changed the destiny of Mankind. Thus she opposed
herself against the eternal law, and, strong though she was, by it was
swept back to nothingness--swept back with shame and hideous mockery!
For some minutes I lay faintly turning these terrors over in my mind,
while my physical strength came back to me, which it quickly did in
that buoyant atmosphere. Then I bethought me of the others, and
staggered to my feet, to see if I could arouse them. But first I took
up Ayesha's kirtle and the gauzy scarf with which she had been wont to
hide her dazzling loveliness from the eyes of men, and, averting my
head so that I might not look upon it, covered up that dreadful relic
of the glorious dead, that shocking epitome of human beauty and human
life. I did this hurriedly, fearing lest Leo should recover, and see
Then, stepping over the perfumed masses of dark hair that lay upon the
sand, I stooped down by Job, who was lying upon his face, and turned
him over. As I did so his arm fell back in a way that I did not like,
and which sent a chill through me, and I glanced sharply at him. One
look was enough. Our old and faithful servant was dead. His nerves,
already shattered by all he had seen and undergone, had utterly broken
down beneath this last dire sight, and he had died of terror, or in a
fit brought on by terror. I had only to look at his face to see it.
It was another blow; but perhaps it may help people to understand how
overwhelmingly awful was the experience through which we had passed--
we did not feel it much at the time. It seemed quite natural that the
poor fellow should be dead. When Leo came to himself, which he did
with a groan and trembling of the limbs about ten minutes afterwards,
and I told him that Job was dead, he merely said, "/Oh!/" And, mind
you, this was from no heartlessness, for he and Job were much attached
to each other; and he often talks of him now with the deepest regret
and affection. It was only that his nerves would bear no more. A harp
can give out but a certain quantity of sound, however heavily it is
Well, I set myself to recovering Leo, who, to my infinite relief, I
found was not dead, but only fainting, and in the end I succeeded, as
I have said, and he sat up; and then I saw another dreadful thing.
When we entered that awful place his curling hair had been of the
ruddiest gold, now it was turning grey, and by the time we reached the
outer air it was snow white. Besides, he looked twenty years older.
"What is to be done, old fellow?" he said in a hollow, dead sort of
voice, when his mind had cleared a little, and a recollection of what
had happened forced itself upon it.
"Try and get out, I suppose," I answered; "that is, unless you would
like to go in there," and I pointed to the column of fire that was
once more rolling by.
"I would go in if I were sure that it would kill me," he said with a
little laugh. "It was my cursed hesitation that did this. If I had not
been doubtful she might never have tried to show me the road. But I am
not sure. The fire might have the opposite effect upon me. It might
make me immortal; and, old fellow, I have not the patience to wait a
couple of thousand years for her to come back again as she did for me.
I had rather die when my hour comes--and I should fancy that it isn't
far off either--and go my ways to look for her. Do you go in if you
But I merely shook my head, my excitement was as dead as ditch-water,
and my distaste for the prolongation of my mortal span had come back
upon me more strongly than ever. Besides, we neither of us knew what
the effects of the fire might be. The result upon /She/ had not been
of an encouraging nature, and of the exact causes that produced that
result we were, of course, ignorant.
"Well, my boy," I said, "we cannot stop here till we go the way of
those two," and I pointed to the little heap under the white garment
and to the stiffing corpse of poor Job. "If we are going we had better
go. But, by the way, I expect that the lamps have burnt out," and I
took one up and looked at it, and sure enough it had.
"There is some more oil in the vase," said Leo indifferently--"if it
is not broken, at least."
I examined the vessel in question--it was intact. With a trembling
hand I filled the lamps--luckily there was still some of the linen
wick unburnt. Then I lit them with one of our wax matches. While I did
so we heard the pillar of fire approaching once more as it went on its
never-ending journey, if, indeed, it was the same pillar that passed
and repassed in a circle.
"Let's see it come once more," said Leo; "we shall never look upon its
like again in this world."
It seemed a bit of idle curiosity, but somehow I shared it, and so we
waited till, turning slowly round upon its own axis, it had flamed and
thundered by; and I remember wondering for how many thousands of years
this same phenomenon had been taking place in the bowels of the earth,
and for how many more thousands it would continue to take place. I
wondered also if any mortal eyes would ever again mark its passage, or
any mortal ears be thrilled and fascinated by the swelling volume of
its majestic sound. I do not think that they will. I believe that we
are the last human beings who will ever see that unearthly sight.
Presently it had gone, and we too turned to go.
But before we did so we each took Job's cold hand in ours and shook
it. It was a rather ghastly ceremony, but it was the only means in our
power of showing our respect to the faithful dead and of celebrating
his obsequies. The heap beneath the white garment we did not uncover.
We had no wish to look upon that terrible sight again. But we went to
the pile of rippling hair that had fallen from her in the agony of
that hideous change which was worse than a thousand natural deaths,
and each of us drew from it a shining lock, and these locks we still
have, the sole memento that is left to us of Ayesha as we knew her in
the fulness of her grace and glory. Leo pressed the perfumed hair to
"She called to me not to forget her," he said hoarsely; "and swore
that we should meet again. By Heaven! I never will forget her. Here I
swear that if we live to get out of this, I will not for all my days
have anything to say to another living woman, and that wherever I go I
will wait for her as faithfully as she waited for me."
"Yes," I thought to myself, "if she comes back as beautiful as we knew
her. But supposing she came back /like that!/"[*]
[*] What a terrifying reflection it is, by the way, that nearly all
our deep love for women who are not our kindred depends--at any
rate, in the first instance--upon their personal appearance. If we
lost them, and found them again dreadful to look on, though
otherwise they were the very same, should we still love them?
--L. H. H.
Well, and then we went. We went, and left those two in the presence of
the very well and spring of Life, but gathered to the cold company of
Death. How lonely they looked as they lay there, and how ill assorted!
That little heap had been for two thousand years the wisest,
loveliest, proudest creature--I can hardly call her woman--in the
whole universe. She had been wicked, too, in her way; but, alas! such
is the frailty of the human heart, her wickedness had not detracted
from her charm. Indeed, I am by no means certain that it did not add
to it. It was after all of a grand order, there was nothing mean or
small about Ayesha.
And poor Job too! His presentiment had come true, and there was an end
of him. Well, he has a strange burial-place--no Norfolk hind ever had
a stranger, or ever will; and it is something to lie in the same
sepulchre as the poor remains of the imperial /She/.
We looked our last upon them and the indescribable rosy glow in which
they lay, and then with hearts far too heavy for words we left them,
and crept thence broken-down men--so broken down that we even
renounced the chance of practically immortal life, because all that
made life valuable had gone from us, and we knew even then that to
prolong our days indefinitely would only be to prolong our sufferings.
For we felt--yes, both of us--that having once looked Ayesha in the
eyes, we could not forget her for ever and ever while memory and
identity remained. We both loved her now and for all time, she was
stamped and carven on our hearts, and no other woman or interest could
ever raze that splendid die. And I--there lies the sting--I had and
have no right to think thus of her. As she told me, I was naught to
her, and never shall be through the unfathomed depths of Time, unless,
indeed, conditions alter, and a day comes at last when two men may
love one woman, and all three be happy in the fact. It is the only
hope of my broken-heartedness, and a rather faint one. Beyond it I
have nothing. I have paid down this heavy price, all that I am worth
here and hereafter, and that is my sole reward. With Leo it is
different, and often and often I bitterly envy him his happy lot, for
if /She/ was right, and her wisdom and knowledge did not fail her at
the last, which, arguing from the precedent of her own case, I think
most unlikely, he has some future to look forward to. But I have none,
and yet--mark the folly and the weakness of the human heart, and let
him who is wise learn wisdom from it--yet I would not have it
otherwise. I mean that I am content to give what I have given and must
always give, and take in payment those crumbs that fall from my
mistress's table, the memory of a few kind words, the hope one day in
the far undreamed future of a sweet smile or two of recognition, a
little gentle friendship, and a little show of thanks for my devotion
to her--and Leo.
If that does not constitute true love, I do not know what does, and
all I have to say is that it is a very bad state of affairs for a man
on the wrong side of middle age to fall into.
We passed through the caves without trouble, but when we came to the
slope of the inverted cone two difficulties stared us in the face. The
first of these was the laborious nature of the ascent, and the next
the extreme difficulty of finding our way. Indeed, had it not been for
the mental notes that I had fortunately taken of the shape of various
rocks, I am sure that we never should have managed it at all, but have
wandered about in the dreadful womb of the volcano--for I suppose it
must once have been something of the sort--until we died of exhaustion
and despair. As it was we went wrong several times, and once nearly
fell into a huge crack or crevasse. It was terrible work creeping
about in the dense gloom and awful stillness from boulder to boulder,
and examining it by the feeble light of the lamps to see if I could
recognise its shape. We rarely spoke, our hearts were too heavy for
speech, we simply stumbled about, falling sometimes and cutting
ourselves, in a rather dogged sort of way. The fact was that our
spirits were utterly crushed, and we did not greatly care what
happened to us. Only we felt bound to try and save our lives whilst we
could, and indeed a natural instinct prompted us to it. So for some
three or four hours, I should think--I cannot tell exactly how long,
for we had no watch left that would go--we blundered on. During the
last two hours we were completely lost, and I began to fear that we
had got into the funnel of some subsidiary cone, when at last I
suddenly recognised a very large rock which we had passed in
descending but a little way from the top. It is a marvel that I should
have recognised it, and, indeed, we had already passed it going at
right angles to the proper path, when something about it struck me,
and I turned back and examined it in an idle sort of way, and, as it
happened, this proved our salvation.
After this we gained the rocky natural stair without much further
trouble, and in due course found ourselves back in the little chamber
where the benighted Noot had lived and died.
But now a fresh terror stared us in the face. It will be remembered
that owing to Job's fear and awkwardness, the plank upon which we had
crossed from the huge spur to the rocking-stone had been whirled off
into the tremendous gulf below.
How were we to cross without the plank?
There was only one answer--we must try and /jump/ it, or else stop
there till we starved. The distance in itself was not so very great,
between eleven and twelve feet I should think, and I have seen Leo
jump over twenty when he was a young fellow at collage; but then,
think of the conditions. Two weary, worn-out men, one of them on the
wrong side of forty, a rocking-stone to take off from, a trembling
point of rock some few feet across to land upon, and a bottomless gulf
to be cleared in a raging gale! It was bad enough, God knows, but when
I pointed out these things to Leo, he put the whole matter in a
nutshell, by replying that, merciless as the choice was, we must
choose between the certainty of a lingering death in the chamber and
the risk of a swift one in the air. Of course, there was no arguing
against this, but one thing was clear, we could not attempt that leap
in the dark; the only thing to do was to wait for the ray of light
which pierced through the gulf at sunset. How near to or how far from
sunset we might be, neither of us had the faintest notion; all we did
know was, that when at last the light came it would not endure more
than a couple of minutes at the outside, so that we must be prepared
to meet it. Accordingly, we made up our minds to creep on to the top
of the rocking-stone and lie there in readiness. We were the more
easily reconciled to this course by the fact that our lamps were once
more nearly exhausted--indeed, one had gone out bodily, and the other
was jumping up and down as the flame of a lamp does when the oil is
done. So, by the aid of its dying light, we hastened to crawl out of
the little chamber and clamber up the side of the great stone.
As we did so the light went out.
The difference in our position was a sufficiently remarkable one.
Below, in the little chamber, we had only heard the roaring of the
gale overhead--here, lying on our faces on the swinging stone, we were
exposed to its full force and fury, as the great draught drew first
from this direction and then from that, howling against the mighty
precipice and through the rocky cliffs like ten thousand despairing
souls. We lay there hour after hour in terror and misery of mind so
deep that I will not attempt to describe it, and listened to the wild
storm-voices of that Tartarus, as, set to the deep undertone of the
spur opposite against which the wind hummed like some awful harp, they
called to each other from precipice to precipice. No nightmare dreamed
by man, no wild invention of the romancer, can ever equal the living
horror of that place, and the weird crying of those voices of the
night, as we clung like shipwrecked mariners to a raft, and tossed on
the black, unfathomed wilderness of air. Fortunately the temperature
was not a low one; indeed, the wind was warm, or we should have
perished. So we clung and listened, and while we were stretched out
upon the rock a thing happened which was so curious and suggestive in
itself, though doubtless a mere coincidence, that, if anything, it
added to, rather than deducted from, the burden on our nerves.
It will be remembered that when Ayesha was standing on the spur,
before we crossed to the stone, the wind tore her cloak from her, and
whirled it away into the darkness of the gulf, we could not see
whither. Well--I hardly like to tell the story; it is so strange. As
we lay there upon the rocking-stone, this very cloak came floating out
of the black space, like a memory from the dead, and fell on Leo--so
that it covered him nearly from head to foot. We could not at first
make out what it was, but soon discovered by its feel, and then poor
Leo, for the first time, gave way, and I heard him sobbing there upon
the stone. No doubt the cloak had been caught upon some pinnacle of
the cliff, and was thence blown hither by a chance gust; but still, it
was a most curious and touching incident.
Shortly after this, suddenly, without the slightest previous warning,
the great red knife of light came stabbing the darkness through and
through--struck the swaying stone on which we were, and rested its
sharp point upon the spur opposite.
"Now for it," said Leo, "now or never."
We rose and stretched ourselves, and looked at the cloud-wreaths
stained the colour of blood by that red ray as they tore through the
sickening depths beneath, and then at the empty space between the
swaying stone and the quivering rock, and, in our hearts, despaired,
and prepared for death. Surely we could not clear it--desperate though
"Who is to go first?" said I.
"Do you, old fellow," answered Leo. "I will sit upon the other side of
the stone to steady it. You must take as much run as you can, and jump
high; and God have mercy on us, say I."
I acquiesced with a nod, and then I did a thing I had never done since
Leo was a little boy. I turned and put my arm round him, and kissed
him on the forehead. It sounds rather French, but as a fact I was
taking my last farewell of a man whom I could not have loved more if
he had been my own son twice over.
"Good-bye, my boy," I said, "I hope that we shall meet again, wherever
it is that we go to."
The fact was I did not expect to live another two minutes.
Next I retreated to the far side of the rock, and waited till one of
the chopping gusts of wind got behind me, and then I ran the length of
the huge stone, some three or four and thirty feet, and sprang wildly
out into the dizzy air. Oh! the sickening terrors that I felt as I
launched myself at that little point of rock, and the horrible sense
of despair that shot through my brain as I realised that I had /jumped
short!/ but so it was, my feet never touched the point, they went down
into space, only my hands and body came in contact with it. I gripped
at it with a yell, but one hand slipped, and I swung right round,
holding by the other, so that I faced the stone from which I had
sprung. Wildly I stretched up with my left hand, and this time managed
to grasp a knob of rock, and there I hung in the fierce red light,
with thousands of feet of empty air beneath me. My hands were holding
to either side of the under part of the spur, so that its point was
touching my head. Therefore, even if I could have found the strength,
I could not pull myself up. The most that I could do would be to hang
for about a minute, and then drop down, down into the bottomless pit.
If any man can imagine a more hideous position, let him speak! All I
know is that the torture of that half-minute nearly turned my brain.
I heard Leo give a cry, and then suddenly saw him in mid air springing
up and out like a chamois. It was a splendid leap that he took under
the influence of his terror and despair, clearing the horrible gulf as
if it were nothing, and, landing well on to the rocky point, he threw
himself upon his face, to prevent his pitching off into the depths. I
felt the spur above me shake beneath the shock of his impact, and as
it did so I saw the huge rocking-stone, that had been violently
depressed by him as he sprang, fly back when relieved of his weight
till, for the first time during all these centuries, it got beyond its
balance, fell with a most awful crash right into the rocky chamber
which had once served the philosopher Noot for a hermitage, and, I
have no doubt, for ever sealed the passage that leads to the Place of
Life with some hundreds of tons of rock.
All this happened in a second, and curiously enough, notwithstanding
my terrible position, I noted it involuntarily, as it were. I even
remember thinking that no human being would go down that dread path
Next instant I felt Leo seize me by the right wrist with both hands.
By lying flat on the point of rock he could just reach me.
"You must let go and swing yourself clear," he said in a calm and
collected voice, "and then I will try and pull you up, or we will both
go together. Are you ready?"
By way of answer I let go, first with my left hand and then with the
right, and, as a consequence, swayed out clear of the overshadowing
rock, my weight hanging upon Leo's arms. It was a dreadful moment. He
was a very powerful man, I knew, but would his strength be equal to
lifting me up till I could get a hold on the top of the spur, when
owing to his position he had so little purchase?
For a few seconds I swung to and fro, while he gathered himself for
the effort, and then I heard his sinews cracking above me, and felt
myself lifted up as though I were a little child, till I got my left
arm round the rock, and my chest was resting on it. The rest was easy;
in two or three more seconds I was up, and we were lying panting side
by side, trembling like leaves, and with the cold perspiration of
terror pouring from our skins.
And then, as before, the light went out like a lamp.
For some half-hour we lay thus without speaking a word, and then at
length began to creep along the great spur as best we might in the
dense gloom. As we drew towards the face of the cliff, however, from
which the spur sprang out like a spike from a wall, the light
increased, though only a very little, for it was night overhead. After
that the gusts of wind decreased, and we got along rather better, and
at last reached the mouth of the first cave or tunnel. But now a fresh
trouble stared as in the face: our oil was gone, and the lamps were,
no doubt, crushed to powder beneath the fallen rocking-stone. We were
even without a drop of water to stay our thirst, for we had drunk the
last in the chamber of Noot. How were we to see to make our way
through this last boulder-strewn tunnel?
Clearly all that we could do was to trust to our sense of feeling, and
attempt the passage in the dark, so in we crept, fearing that if we
delayed to do so our exhaustion would overcome us, and we should
probably lie down and die where we were.
Oh, the horrors of that last tunnel! The place was strewn with rocks,
and we fell over them, and knocked ourselves up against them till we
were bleeding from a score of wounds. Our only guide was the side of
the cavern, which we kept touching, and so bewildered did we grow in
the darkness that we were several times seized with the terrifying
thought that we had turned, and were travelling the wrong way. On we
went, feebly, and still more feebly, for hour after hour, stopping
every few minutes to rest, for our strength was spent. Once we fell
asleep, and, I think, must have slept for some hours, for, when we
woke, our limbs were quite stiff, and the blood from our blows and
scratches had caked, and was hard and dry upon our skin. Then we
dragged ourselves on again, till at last, when despair was entering
into our hearts, we once more saw the light of day, and found
ourselves outside the tunnel in the rocky fold on the outer surface of
the cliff that, it will be remembered, led into it.
It was early morning--that we could tell by the feel of the sweet air
and the look of the blessed sky, which we had never hoped to see
again. It was, so near as we knew, an hour after sunset when we
entered the tunnel, so it followed that it had taken us the entire
night to crawl through that dreadful place.
"One more effort, Leo," I gasped, "and we shall reach the slope where
Billali is, if he hasn't gone. Come, don't give way," for he had cast
himself upon his face. He rose, and, leaning on each other, we got
down that fifty feet or so of cliff--somehow, I have not the least
notion how. I only remember that we found ourselves lying in a heap at
the bottom, and then once more began to drag ourselves along on our
hands and knees towards the grove where /She/ had told Billali to wait
her re-arrival, for we could not walk another foot. We had not gone
fifty yards in this fashion when suddenly one of the mutes emerged
from the trees on our left, through which, I presume, he had been
taking a morning stroll, and came running up to see what sort of
strange animals we were. He stared, and stared, and then held up his
hands in horror, and nearly fell to the ground. Next, he started off
as hard as he could for the grove some two hundred yards away. No
wonder that he was horrified at our appearance, for we must have been
a shocking sight. To begin, Leo, with his golden curls turned a snowy
white, his clothes nearly rent from his body, his worn face and his
hands a mass of bruises, cuts, and blood-encrusted filth, was a
sufficiently alarming spectacle, as he painfully dragged himself along
the ground, and I have no doubt that I was little better to look on. I
know that two days afterwards when I inspected my face in some water I
scarcely recognised myself. I have never been famous for beauty, but
there was something beside ugliness stamped upon my features that I
have never got rid of until this day, something resembling that wild
look with which a startled person wakes from deep sleep more than
anything else that I can think of. And really it is not to be wondered
at. What I do wonder at is that we escaped at all with our reason.
Presently, to my intense relief, I saw old Billali hurrying towards
us, and even then I could scarcely help smiling at the expression of
consternation on his dignified countenance.
"Oh, my Baboon! my Baboon!" he cried, "my dear son, is it indeed thee
and the Lion? Why, his mane that was ripe as corn is white like the
snow. Whence come ye? and where is the Pig, and where too /She-who-
"Dead, both dead," I answered; "but ask no questions; help us, and
give us food and water, or we too shall die before thine eyes. Seest
thou not that our tongues are black for want of water? How, then, can
"Dead!" he gasped. "Impossible. /She/ who never dies--dead, how can it
be?" and then, perceiving, I think, that his face was being watched by
the mutes who had come running up, he checked himself, and motioned to
them to carry us to the camp, which they did.
Fortunately when we arrived some broth was boiling on the fire, and
with this Billali fed us, for we were too weak to feed ourselves,
thereby I firmly believe saving us from death by exhaustion. Then he
bade the mutes wash the blood and grime from us with wet cloths, and
after that we were laid down upon piles of aromatic grass, and
instantly fell into the dead sleep of absolute exhaustion of mind and
OVER THE MOUNTAIN
The next thing I recollect is a feeling of the most dreadful
stiffness, and a sort of vague idea passing through my half-awakened
brain that I was a carpet that had just been beaten. I opened my eyes,
and the first thing they fell on was the venerable countenance of our
old friend Billali, who was seated by the side of the improvised bed
upon which I was sleeping, and thoughtfully stroking his long beard.
The sight of him at once brought back to my mind a recollection of all
that we had recently passed through, which was accentuated by the
vision of poor Leo lying opposite to me, his face knocked almost to a
jelly, and his beautiful crowd of curls turned from yellow to
white,[*] and I shut my eyes again and groaned.
[*] Curiously enough, Leo's hair has lately been to some extent
regaining its colour--that is to say, it is now a yellowish grey,
and I am not without hopes that it will in time come quite
right.--L. H. H.
"Thou hast slept long, my Baboon," said old Billali.
"How long, my father?" I asked.
"A round of the sun and a round of the moon, a day and a night hast
thou slept, and the Lion also. See, he sleepeth yet."
"Blessed is sleep," I answered, "for it swallows up recollection."
"Tell me," he said, "what hath befallen you, and what is this strange
story of the death of Her who dieth not. Bethink thee, my son: if this
be true, then is thy danger and the danger of the Lion very great--
nay, almost is the pot red wherewith ye shall be potted, and the
stomachs of those who shall eat ye are already hungry for the feast.
Knowest thou not that these Amahagger, my children, these dwellers in
the caves, hate ye? They hate ye as strangers, they hate ye more
because of their brethren whom /She/ put to the torment for your sake.
Assuredly, if once they learn that there is naught to fear from Hiya,
from the terrible One-who-must-be-obeyed, they will slay ye by the
pot. But let me hear thy tale, my poor Baboon."
This adjured, I set to work and told him--not everything, indeed, for
I did not think it desirable to do so, but sufficient for my purpose,
which was to make him understand that /She/ was really no more, having
fallen into some fire, and, as I put it--for the real thing would have
been incomprehensible to him--been burnt up. I also told him some of
the horrors we had undergone in effecting our escape, and these
produced a great impression on him. But I clearly saw that he did not
believe in the report of Ayesha's death. He believed indeed that we
thought that she was dead, but his explanation was that it had suited
her to disappear for a while. Once, he said, in his father's time, she
had done so for twelve years, and there was a tradition in the country
that many centuries back no one had seen her for a whole generation,
when she suddenly reappeared, and destroyed a woman who had assumed
the position of Queen. I said nothing to this, but only shook my head
sadly. Alas! I knew too well that Ayesha would appear no more, or at
any rate that Billali would never see her again.
"And now," concluded Billali, "what wouldst thou do, my Baboon?"
"Nay," I said, "I know not, my father. Can we not escape from this
He shook his head.
"It is very difficult. By Kôr ye cannot pass, for ye would be seen,
and as soon as those fierce ones found that ye were alone, well," and
he smiled significantly, and made a movement as though he were placing
a hat on his head. "But there is a way over the cliff whereof I once
spake to thee, where they drive the cattle out to pasture. Then beyond
the pastures are three days' journey through the marshes, and after
that I know not, but I have heard that seven days' journey from thence
is a mighty river, which floweth to the black water. If ye could come
thither, perchance ye might escape, but how can ye come thither?"
"Billali," I said, "once, thou knowest, I did save thy life. Now pay
back the debt, my father, and save me mine and my friend's, the
Lion's. It shall be a pleasant thing for thee to think of when thine
hour comes, and something to set in the scale against the evil doing
of thy days, if perchance thou hast done any evil. Also, if thou be
right, and if /She/ doth but hide herself, surely when she comes again
she shall reward thee."
"My son the Baboon," answered the old man, "think not that I have an
ungrateful heart. Well do I remember how thou didst rescue me when
those dogs stood by to see me drown. Measure for measure will I give
thee, and if thou canst be saved, surely I will save thee. Listen: by
dawn to-morrow be prepared, for litters shall be here to bear ye away
across the mountains, and through the marshes beyond. This will I do,
saying that it is the word of /She/ that it be done, and he who
obeyeth not the word of /She/ food is he for the hyænas. Then when ye
have crossed the marshes, ye must strike with your own hands, so that
perchance, if good fortune go with you, ye may live to come to that
black water whereof ye told me. And now, see, the Lion wakes, and ye
must eat the food I have made ready for you."
Leo's condition when once he was fairly aroused proved not to be so
bad as might have been expected from his appearance, and we both of us
managed to eat a hearty meal, which indeed we needed sadly enough.
After this we limped down to the spring and bathed, and then came back
and slept again till evening, when we once more ate enough for five.
Billali was away all that day, no doubt making arrangements about
litters and bearers, for we were awakened in the middle of the night
by the arrival of a considerable number of men in the little camp.
At dawn the old man himself appeared, and told us that he had by using
/She's/ dreadful name, though with some difficulty, succeeded in
getting the necessary men and two guides to conduct us across the
swamps, and that he urged us to start at once, at the same time
announcing his intention of accompanying us so as to protect us
against treachery. I was much touched by this act of kindness on the
part of that wily old barbarian towards two utterly defenceless
strangers. A three--or in his case, for he would have to return, six--
days' journey through those deadly swamps was no light undertaking for
a man of his age, but he consented to do it cheerfully in order to
promote our safety. It shows that even among those dreadful Amahagger
--who are certainly with their gloom and their devilish and ferocious
rites by far the most terrible savages that I ever heard of--there are
people with kindly hearts. Of course, self-interest may have had
something to do with it. He may have thought that /She/ would suddenly
reappear and demand an account of us at his hands, but still, allowing
for all deductions, it was a great deal more than we could expect
under the circumstances, and I can only say that I shall for as long
as I live cherish a most affectionate remembrance of my nominal
parent, old Billali.
Accordingly, after swallowing some food, we started in the litters,
feeling, so far as our bodies went, wonderfully like our old selves
after our long rest and sleep. I must leave the condition of our minds
to the imagination.
Then came a terrible pull up the cliff. Sometimes the ascent was more
natural, more often it was a zig-zag roadway cut, no doubt, in the
first instance by the old inhabitants of Kôr. The Amahagger say they
drive their spare cattle over it once a year to pasture outside; all I
know is that those cattle must be uncommonly active on their feet. Of
course the litters were useless here, so we had to walk.
By midday, however, we reached the great flat top of that mighty wall
of rock, and grand enough the view was from it, with the plain of Kôr,
in the centre of which we could clearly make out the pillared ruins of
the Temple of Truth to the one side, and the boundless and melancholy
marsh on the other. This wall of rock, which had no doubt once formed
the lip of the crater, was about a mile and a half thick, and still
covered with clinker. Nothing grew there, and the only thing to
relieve our eyes were occasional pools of rain-water (for rain had
lately fallen) wherever there was a little hollow. Over the flat crest
of this mighty rampart we went, and then came the descent, which, if
not so difficult a matter as the getting up, was still sufficiently
break-neck, and took us till sunset. That night, however, we camped in
safety upon the mighty slopes that rolled away to the marsh beneath.
On the following morning, about eleven o'clock, began our dreary
journey across those awful seas of swamps which I have already
For three whole days, through stench and mire, and the all-prevailing
flavour of fear, did our bearers struggle along, till at length we
came to open rolling ground quite uncultivated, and mostly treeless,
but covered with game of all sorts, which lies beyond that most
desolate, and without guides utterly impracticable, district. And here
on the following morning we bade farewell, not without some regret, to
old Billali, who stroked his white beard and solemnly blessed us.
"Farewell, my son the Baboon," he said, "and farewell to thee too, oh
Lion. I can do no more to help you. But if ever ye come to your
country, be advised, and venture no more into lands that ye know not,
lest ye come back no more, but leave your white bones to mark the
limit of your journeyings. Farewell once more; often shall I think of
you, nor wilt thou forget me, my Baboon, for though thy face is ugly
thy heart is true." And then he turned and went, and with him went the
tall and sullen-looking bearers, and that was the last that we saw of
the Amahagger. We watched them winding away with the empty litters
like a procession bearing dead men from a battle, till the mists from
the marsh gathered round them and hid them, and then, left utterly
desolate in the vast wilderness, we turned and gazed round us and at
Three weeks or so before four men had entered the marshes of Kôr, and
now two of us were dead, and the other two had gone through adventures
and experiences so strange and terrible that death himself hath not a
more fearful countenance. Three weeks--and only three weeks! Truly
time should be measured by events, and not by the lapse of hours. It
seemed like thirty years since we saw the last of our whale-boat.
"We must strike out for the Zambesi, Leo," I said, "but God knows if
we shall ever get there."
Leo nodded. He had become very silent of late, and we started with
nothing but the clothes we stood in, a compass, our revolvers and
express rifles, and about two hundred rounds of ammunition, and so
ended the history of our visit to the ancient ruins of mighty and
As for the adventures that subsequently befell us, strange and varied
as they were, I have, after deliberation, determined not to record
them here. In these pages I have only tried to give a short and clear
account of an occurrence which I believe to be unprecedented, and this
I have done, not with a view to immediate publication, but merely to
put on paper while they are yet fresh in our memories the details of
our journey and its result, which will, I believe, prove interesting
to the world if ever we determine to make them public. This, as at
present advised, we do not intend should be done during our joint
For the rest, it is of no public interest, resembling as it does the
experience of more than one Central African traveller. Suffice it to
say, that we did, after incredible hardships and privations, reach the
Zambesi, which proved to be about a hundred and seventy miles south of
where Billali left us. There we were for six months imprisoned by a
savage tribe, who believed us to be supernatural beings, chiefly on
account of Leo's youthful face and snow-white hair. From these people
we ultimately escaped, and, crossing the Zambesi, wandered off
southwards, where, when on the point of starvation, we were
sufficiently fortunate to fall in with a half-cast Portuguese
elephant-hunter who had followed a troop of elephants farther inland
than he had ever been before. This man treated us most hospitably, and
ultimately through his assistance we, after innumerable sufferings and
adventures, reached Delagoa Bay, more than eighteen months from the
time when we emerged from the marshes of Kôr, and the very next day
managed to catch one of the steamboats that run round the Cape to
England. Our journey home was a prosperous one, and we set our foot on
the quay at Southampton exactly two years from the date of our
departure upon our wild and seemingly ridiculous quest, and I now
write these last words with Leo leaning over my shoulder in my old
room in my college, the very same into which some two-and-twenty years
ago my poor friend Vincey came stumbling on the memorable night of his
death, bearing the iron chest with him.
And that is the end of this history so far as it concerns science and
the outside world. What its end will be as regards Leo and myself is
more than I can guess at. But we feel that is not reached yet. A story
that began more than two thousand years ago may stretch a long way
into the dim and distant future.
Is Leo really a reincarnation of the ancient Kallikrates of whom the
inscription tells? Or was Ayesha deceived by some strange hereditary
resemblance? The reader must form his own opinion on this as on many
other matters. I have mine, which is that she made no such mistake.
Often I sit alone at night, staring with the eyes of the mind into the
blackness of unborn time, and wondering in what shape and form the
great drama will be finally developed, and where the scene of its next
act will be laid. And when that /final/ development ultimately occurs,
as I have no doubt it must and will occur, in obedience to a fate that
never swerves and a purpose that cannot be altered, what will be the
part played therein by that beautiful Egyptian Amenartas, the Princess
of the royal race of the Pharaohs, for the love of whom the Priest
Kallikrates broke his vows to Isis, and, pursued by the inexorable
vengeance of the outraged Goddess, fled down the coast of Libya to
meet his doom at Kôr?
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