Part 1 out of 7
Etext prepared by David Moynihan,
and John Bickers, firstname.lastname@example.org
AYESHA: THE RETURN OF SHE
By H. Rider Haggard
First Published 1905.
THE RETURN OF SHE
H. RIDER HAGGARD
"Here ends this history so far as it concerns science and the
outside world. What its end will be as regards Leo and myself is
more than I can guess. But we feel that it is not reached. . . .
Often I sit alone at night, staring with the eyes of my mind into
the blackness of unborn time, and wondering in what shape and form
the great drama will be finally developed, and where the scene of
its next act will be laid. And when, ultimately, that /final/
development occurs, as I have no doubt it must and will occur, in
obedience to a fate that never swerves and a purpose which cannot
be altered, what will be the part played therein by that beautiful
Egyptian Amenar-tas, the Princess of the royal house of the
Pharaohs, for the love of whom the priest Kallikrates broke his
vows to Isis, and, pursued by the vengeance of the outraged
goddess, fled down the coast of Lybia to meet his doom at Kor?"--
/She/, Silver Library Edition, p. 277.
My dear Lang,
The appointed years--alas! how many of them--are gone by, leaving
Ayesha lovely and loving and ourselves alive. As it was promised
in the Caves of Kor /She/ has returned again.
To you therefore who accepted the first, I offer this further
history of one of the various incarnations of that Immortal.
My hope is that after you have read her record, notwithstanding
her subtleties and sins and the shortcomings of her chronicler (no
easy office!) you may continue to wear your chain of "loyalty to
our lady Ayesha." Such, I confess, is still the fate of your old
H. RIDER HAGGARD.
Not with a view of conciliating those readers who on principle
object to sequels, but as a matter of fact, the Author wishes to
say that he does not so regard this book.
Rather does he venture to ask that it should be considered as the
conclusion of an imaginative tragedy (if he may so call it)
whereof one half has been already published.
This conclusion it was always his desire to write should he be
destined to live through those many years which, in obedience to
his original design, must be allowed to lapse between the events
of the first and second parts of the romance.
In response to many enquiries he may add that the name Ayesha,
which since the days of the prophet Mahomet, who had a wife so
called, and perhaps before them, has been common in the East,
should be pronounced /Assha/.
Verily and indeed it is the unexpected that happens! Probably if there
was one person upon the earth from whom the Editor of this, and of a
certain previous history, did not expect to hear again, that person
was Ludwig Horace Holly. This, too, for a good reason; he believed him
to have taken his departure from the earth.
When Mr. Holly last wrote, many, many years ago, it was to transmit
the manuscript of /She/, and to announce that he and his ward, Leo
Vincey, the beloved of the divine Ayesha, were about to travel to
Central Asia in the hope, I suppose, that there she would fulfil her
promise and appear to them again.
Often I have wondered, idly enough, what happened to them there;
whether they were dead, or perhaps droning their lives away as monks
in some Thibetan Lamasery, or studying magic and practising asceticism
under the tuition of the Eastern Masters trusting that thus they would
build a bridge by which they might pass to the side of their adored
Now at length, when I had not thought of them for months, without a
single warning sign, out of the blue as it were, comes the answer to
To think--only to think--that I, the Editor aforesaid, from its
appearance suspecting something quite familiar and without interest,
pushed aside that dingy, unregistered, brown-paper parcel directed in
an unknown hand, and for two whole days let it lie forgotten. Indeed
there it might be lying now, had not another person been moved to
curiosity, and opening it, found within a bundle of manuscript badly
burned upon the back, and with this two letters addressed to myself.
Although so great a time had passed since I saw it, and it was shaky
now because of the author's age or sickness, I knew the writing at
once--nobody ever made an "H" with that peculiar twirl under it except
Mr. Holly. I tore open the sealed envelope, and sure enough the first
thing my eye fell upon was the signature, /L. H. Holly/. It is long
since I read anything so eagerly as I did that letter. Here it is:--
"My dear sir,--I have ascertained that you still live, and strange
to say I still live also--for a little while.
"As soon as I came into touch with civilization again I found a
copy of your book /She/, or rather of my book, and read it--first
of all in a Hindostani translation. My host--he was a minister of
some religious body, a man of worthy but prosaic mind--expressed
surprise that a 'wild romance' should absorb me so much. I
answered that those who have wide experience of the hard facts of
life often find interest in romance. Had he known what were the
hard facts to which I alluded, I wonder what that excellent person
would have said?
"I see that you carried out your part of the business well and
faithfully. Every instruction has been obeyed, nothing has been
added or taken away. Therefore, to you, to whom some twenty years
ago I entrusted the beginning of the history, I wish to entrust
its end also. You were the first to learn of /She-Who-Must-Be-
Obeyed/, who from century to century sat alone, clothed with
unchanging loveliness in the sepulchres of Kor, waiting till her
lost love was born again, and Destiny brought him back to her.
"It is right, therefore, that you should be the first to learn also
of Ayesha, Hesea and Spirit of the Mountain, the priestess of that
Oracle which since the time of Alexander the Great has reigned
between the flaming pillars in the Sanctuary, the last holder of
the sceptre of Hes or Isis upon the earth. It is right also that
to you first among men I should reveal the mystic consummation of
the wondrous tragedy which began at Kor, or perchance far earlier
in Egypt and elsewhere.
"I am very ill; I have struggled back to this old house of mine to
die, and my end is at hand. I have asked the doctor here, after
all is over, to send you the Record, that is unless I change my
mind and burn it first. You will also receive, if you receive
anything at all, a case containing several rough sketches which
may be of use to you, and a /sistrum/, the instrument that has
been always used in the worship of the Nature goddesses of the old
Egyptians, Isis and Hathor, which you will see is as beautiful as
it is ancient. I give it to you for two reasons; as a token of my
gratitude and regard, and as the only piece of evidence that is
left to me of the literal truth of what I have written in the
accompanying manuscript, where you will find it often mentioned.
Perhaps also you will value it as a souvenir of, I suppose, the
strangest and loveliest being who ever was, or rather, is. It was
her sceptre, the rod of her power, with which I saw her salute the
Shadows in the Sanctuary, and her gift to me.
"It has virtues also; some part of Ayesha's might yet haunts the
symbol to which even spirits bowed, but if you should discover
them, beware how they are used.
"I have neither the strength nor the will to write more. The Record
must speak for itself. Do with it what you like, and believe it or
not as you like. I care nothing who know that it is true.
"Who and what was Ayesha, nay, what /is/ Ayesha? An incarnate
essence, a materialised spirit of Nature the unforeseeing, the
lovely, the cruel and the immortal; ensouled alone, redeemable
only by Humanity and its piteous sacrifice? Say you! I have done
with speculations who depart to solve these mysteries.
"/I/ wish you happiness and good fortune. Farewell to you and to
"L. Horace Holly."
I laid the letter down, and, filled with sensations that it is useless
to attempt to analyse or describe, opened the second envelope, of
which I also print the contents, omitting only certain irrelevant
portions, and the name of the writer as, it will be noted, he requests
me to do.
This epistle, that was dated from a remote place upon the shores of
Cumberland, ran as follows:--
"Dear sir,--As the doctor who attended Mr. Holly in his last
illness I am obliged, in obedience to a promise that I made to
him, to become an intermediary in a some what strange business,
although in truth it is one of which I know very little, however
much it may have interested me. Still I do so only on the strict
understanding that no mention is to be made of my name in
connexion with the matter, or of the locality in which I practise.
"About ten days ago I was called in to see Mr. Holly at an old
house upon the Cliff that for many years remained untenanted
except by the caretakers, which house was his property, and had
been in his family for generations. The housekeeper who summoned
me told me that her master had but just returned from abroad,
somewhere in Asia, she said, and that he was very ill with his
heart--dying, she believed; both of which suppositions proved to
"I found the patient sitting up in bed (to ease his heart), and a
strange-looking old man he was. He had dark eyes, small but full
of fire and intelligence, a magnificent and snowy-white beard that
covered a chest of extraordinary breadth, and hair also white,
which encroached upon his forehead and face so much that it met
the whiskers upon his cheeks. His arms were remarkable for their
length and strength, though one of them seemed to have been much
torn by some animal. He told me that a dog had done this, but if
so it must have been a dog of unusual power. He was a very ugly
man, and yet, forgive the bull, beautiful. I cannot describe what
I mean better than by saying that his face was not like the face
of any ordinary mortal whom I have met in my limited experience.
Were I an artist who wished to portray a wise and benevolent, but
rather grotesque spirit, I should take that countenance as a
"Mr. Holly was somewhat vexed at my being called in, which had been
done without his knowledge. Soon we became friendly enough,
however, and he expressed gratitude for the relief that I was able
to give him, though I could not hope to do more. At different
times he talked a good deal of the various countries in which he
had travelled, apparently for very many years, upon some strange
quest that he never clearly denned to me. Twice also he became
light-headed, and spoke, for the most part in languages that I
identified as Greek and Arabic; occasionally in English also, when
he appeared to be addressing himself to a being who was the object
of his veneration, I might almost say of his worship. What he said
then, however, I prefer not to repeat, for I heard it in my
"One day he pointed to a rough box made of some foreign wood (the
same that I have now duly despatched to you by train), and, giving
me your name and address, said that without fail it was to be
forwarded to you after his death. Also he asked me to do up a
manuscript, which, like the box, was to be sent to you.
"He saw me looking at the last sheets, which had been burned away,
and said (I repeat his exact words)--
"'Yes, yes, that can't be helped now, it must go as it is. You see
I made up my mind to destroy it after all, and it was already on
the fire when the command came--the clear, unmistakable command--
and I snatched it off again.'
"What Mr. Holly meant by this 'command' I do not know, for he would
speak no more of the matter.
"I pass on to the last scene. One night about eleven o'clock,
knowing that my patient's end was near, I went up to see him,
proposing to inject some strychnine to keep the heart going a
little longer. Before I reached the house I met the caretaker
coming to seek me in a great fright, and asked her if her master
was dead. She answered No; but he was /gone/--had got out of bed
and, just as he was, barefooted, left the house, and was last seen
by her grandson among the very Scotch firs where we were talking.
The lad, who was terrified out of his wits, for he thought that he
beheld a ghost, had told her so.
"The moonlight was very brilliant that night, especially as fresh
snow had fallen, which reflected its rays. I was on foot, and
began to search among the firs, till presently just outside of
them I found the track of naked feet in the snow. Of course I
followed, calling to the housekeeper to go and wake her husband,
for no one else lives near by. The spoor proved very easy to trace
across the clean sheet of snow. It ran up the slope of a hill
behind the house.
"Now, on the crest of this hill is an ancient monument of upright
monoliths set there by some primeval people, known locally as the
Devil's Ring--a sort of miniature Stonehenge in fact. I had seen
it several times, and happened to have been present not long ago
at a meeting of an archaeological society when its origin and
purpose were discussed. I remember that one learned but somewhat
eccentric gentleman read a short paper upon a rude, hooded bust
and head that are cut within the chamber of a tall, flat-topped
cromlech, or dolmen, which stands alone in the centre of the ring.
"He said that it was a representation of the Egyptian goddess,
Isis, and that this place had once been sacred to some form of her
worship, or at any rate to that of a Nature goddess with like
attributes, a suggestion which the other learned gentlemen treated
as absurd. They declared that Isis had never travelled into
Britain, though for my part I do not see why the Phoenicians, or
even the Romans, who adopted her cult, more or less, should not
have brought it here. But I know nothing of such matters and will
not discuss them.
"I remembered also that Mr. Holly was acquainted with this place,
for he had mentioned it to me on the previous day, asking if the
stones were still uninjured as they used to be when he was young.
He added also, and the remark struck me, that yonder was where he
would wish to die. When I answered that I feared he would never
take so long a walk again, I noted that he smiled a little.
"Well, this conversation gave me a clue, and without troubling more
about the footprints I went on as fast as I could to the Ring,
half a mile or so away. Presently I reached it, and there--yes,
there--standing by the cromlech, bareheaded, and clothed in his
night-things only, stood Mr. Holly in the snow, the strangest
figure, I think, that ever I beheld.
"Indeed never shall I forget that wild scene. The circle of rough,
single stones pointing upwards to the star-strewn sky, intensely
lonely and intensely solemn: the tall trilithon towering above
them in the centre, its shadow, thrown by the bright moon behind
it, lying long and black upon the dazzling sheet of snow, and,
standing clear of this shadow so that I could distinguish his
every motion, and even the rapt look upon his dying face, the
white-draped figure of Mr. Holly. He appeared to be uttering some
invocation--in Arabic, I think--for long before I reached him I
could catch the tones of his full, sonorous voice, and see his
waving, outstretched arms. In his right hand he held the looped
sceptre which, by his express wish I send to you with the
drawings. I could see the flash of the jewels strung upon the
wires, and in the great stillness, hear the tinkling of its golden
"Presently, too, I seemed to become aware of another presence, and
now you will understand why I desire and must ask that my identity
should be suppressed. Naturally enough I do not wish to be mixed
up with a superstitious tale which is, on the face of it,
impossible and absurd. Yet under all the circumstances I think it
right to tell you that I saw, or thought I saw, something gather
in the shadow of the central dolmen, or emerge from its rude
chamber--I know not which for certain--something bright and
glorious which gradually took the form of a woman upon whose
forehead burned a star-like fire.
"At any rate the vision or reflection, or whatever it was, startled
me so much that I came to a halt under the lee of one of the
monoliths, and found myself unable even to call to the distraught
man whom I pursued.
"Whilst I stood thus it became clear to me that Mr. Holly also saw
something. At least he turned towards the Radiance in the shadow,
uttered one cry; a wild, glad cry, and stepped forward; then
seemed to fall /through it/ on to his face.
"When I reached the spot the light had vanished, and all I found
was Mr. Holly, his arms still outstretched, and the sceptre
gripped tightly in his hand, lying quite dead in the shadow of the
The rest of the doctor's letter need not be quoted as it deals only
with certain very improbable explanations of the origin of this figure
of light, the details of the removal of Holly's body, and of how he
managed to satisfy the coroner that no inquest was necessary.
The box of which he speaks arrived safely. Of the drawings in it I
need say nothing, and of the /sistrum/ or sceptre only a few words. It
was fashioned of crystal to the well-known shape of the /Crux-ansata/,
or the emblem of life of the Egyptians; the rod, the cross and the
loop combined in one. From side to side of this loop ran golden wires,
and on these were strung gems of three colours, glittering diamonds,
sea-blue sapphires, and blood-red rubies, while to the fourth wire,
that at the top, hung four little golden bells.
When I took hold of it first my arm shook slightly with excitement,
and those bells began to sound; a sweet, faint music like to that of
chimes heard far away at night in the silence of the sea. I thought
too, but perhaps this was fancy, that a thrill passed from the
hallowed and beautiful thing into my body.
On the mystery itself, as it is recorded in the manuscript, I make no
comment. Of it and its inner significations every reader must form his
or her own judgment. One thing alone is clear to me--on the hypothesis
that Mr. Holly tells the truth as to what he and Leo Vincey saw and
experienced, which I at least believe--that though sundry
interpretations of this mystery were advanced by Ayesha and others,
none of them are quite satisfactory.
Indeed, like Mr. Holly, I incline to the theory that She, if I may
still call her by that name although it is seldom given to her in
these pages, put forward some of them, such as the vague Isis-myth,
and the wondrous picture-story of the Mountain-fire, as mere veils to
hide the truth which it was her purpose to reveal at last in that song
she never sang.
The Further History of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed
THE DOUBLE SIGN
Hard on twenty years have gone by since that night of Leo's vision--
the most awful years, perhaps, which were ever endured by men--twenty
years of search and hardship ending in soul-shaking wonder and
My death is very near to me, and of this I am glad, for I desire to
pursue the quest in other realms, as it has been promised to me that I
shall do. I desire to learn the beginning and the end of the spiritual
drama of which it has been my strange lot to read some pages upon
I, Ludwig Horace Holly, have been very ill; they carried me, more dead
than alive, down those mountains whose lowest slopes I can see from my
window, for I write this on the northern frontiers of India. Indeed
any other man had long since perished, but Destiny kept my breath in
me, perhaps that a record might remain. I, must bide here a month or
two till I am strong enough to travel homewards, for I have a fancy to
die in the place where I was born. So while I have strength I will put
the story down, or at least those parts of it that are most essential,
for much can, or at any rate must, be omitted. I shrink from
attempting too long a book, though my notes and memory would furnish
me with sufficient material for volumes.
I will begin with the Vision.
After Leo Vincey and I came back from Africa in 1885, desiring
solitude, which indeed we needed sorely to recover from the fearful
shock we had experienced, and to give us time and opportunity to
think, we went to an old house upon the shores of Cumberland that has
belonged to my family for many generations. This house, unless
somebody has taken it believing me to be dead, is still my property
and thither I travel to die.
Those whose eyes read the words I write, if any should ever read them,
may ask--What shock?
Well, I am Horace Holly, and my companion, my beloved friend, my son
in the spirit whom I reared from infancy was--nay, is--Leo Vincey.
We are those men who, following an ancient clue, travelled to the
Caves of Kor in Central Africa, and there discovered her whom we
sought, the immortal /She-who-must-be-obeyed/. In Leo she found her
love, that re-born Kallikrates, the Grecian priest of Isis whom some
two thousand years before she had slain in her jealous rage, thus
executing on him the judgment of the angry goddess. In her also I
found the divinity whom I was doomed to worship from afar, not with
the flesh, for that is all lost and gone from me, but, what is sorer
still, because its burden is undying, with the will and soul which
animate a man throughout the countless eons of his being. The flesh
dies, or at least it changes, and its passions pass, but that other
passion of the spirit--that longing for oneness--is undying as itself.
What crime have I committed that this sore punishment should be laid
upon me? Yet, in truth, is it a punishment? May it not prove to be but
that black and terrible Gate which leads to the joyous palace of
Rewards? She swore that I should ever be her friend and his and dwell
with them eternally, and I believe her.
For how many winters did we wander among the icy hills and deserts!
Still, at length, the Messenger came and led us to the Mountain, and
on the Mountain we found the Shrine, and in the Shrine the Spirit. May
not these things be an allegory prepared for our instruction? I will
take comfort. I will hope that it is so. Nay, I am sure that it is so.
It will be remembered that in Kor we found the immortal woman. There
before the flashing rays and vapours of the Pillar of Life she
declared her mystic love, and then in our very sight was swept to a
doom so horrible that even now, after all which has been and gone, I
shiver at its recollection. Yet what were Ayesha's last words?
"/Forget me not . . . have pity on my shame. I die not. I shall come
again and shall once more be beautiful. I swear it--it is true./"
Well, I cannot set out that history afresh. Moreover it is written;
the man whom I trusted in the matter did not fail me, and the book he
made of it seems to be known throughout the world, for I have found it
here in English, yes, and read it first translated into Hindostani. To
it then I refer the curious.
In that house upon the desolate sea-shore of Cumberland, we dwelt a
year, mourning the lost, seeking an avenue by which it might be found
again and discovering none. Here our strength came back to us, and
Leo's hair, that had been whitened in the horror of the Caves, grew
again from grey to golden. His beauty returned to him also, so that
his face was as it had been, only purified and saddened.
Well I remember that night--and the hour of illumination. We were
heart-broken, we were in despair. We sought signs and could find none.
The dead remained dead to us and no answer came to all our crying.
It was a sullen August evening, and after we had dined we walked upon
the shore, listening to the slow surge of the waves and watching the
lightning flicker from the bosom of a distant cloud. In silence we
walked, till at last Leo groaned--it was more of a sob than a groan--
and clasped my arm.
"I can bear it no longer, Horace," he said--for so he called me
now--"I am in torment. The desire to see Ayesha once more saps my
brain. Without hope I shall go quite mad. And I am strong, I may live
another fifty years."
"What then can you do?" I asked.
"I can take a short road to knowledge--or to peace," he answered
solemnly, "I can die, and die I will--yes, tonight."
I turned upon him angrily, for his words filled me with fear.
"Leo, you are a coward!" I said. "Cannot you bear your part of pain as
"You mean as you do, Horace," he answered with a dreary laugh, "for on
you also the curse lies--with less cause. Well, you are stronger than
I am, and more tough; perhaps because you have lived longer. No, I
cannot bear it. I will die."
"It is a crime," I said, "the greatest insult you can offer to the
Power that made you, to cast back its gift of life as a thing outworn,
contemptible and despised. A crime, I say, which will bring with it
worse punishment than any you can dream; perhaps even the punishment
of everlasting separation."
"Does a man stretched in some torture-den commit a crime if he
snatches a knife and kills himself, Horace? Perhaps; but surely that
sin should find forgiveness--if torn flesh and quivering nerves may
plead for mercy. I am such a man, and I will use that knife and take
my chance. She is dead, and in death at least I shall be nearer her."
"Why so, Leo? For aught you know Ayesha may be living."
"No; for then she would have given me some sign. My mind is made up,
so talk no more, or, if talk we must, let it be of other things."
Then I pleaded with him, though with little hope, for I saw that what
I had feared for long was come to pass. Leo was mad: shock and sorrow
had destroyed his reason. Were it not so, he, in his own way a very
religious man, one who held, as I knew, strict opinions on such
matters, would never have purposed to commit the wickedness of
"Leo," I said, "are you so heartless that you would leave me here
alone? Do you pay me thus for all my love and care, and wish to drive
me to my death? Do so if you will, and my blood be on your head."
"Your blood! Why your blood, Horace?"
"Because that road is broad and two can travel it. We have lived long
years together and together endured much; I am sure that we shall not
be long parted."
Then the tables were turned and he grew afraid for me. But I only
answered, "If you die I tell you that I shall die also. It will
certainly kill me."
So Leo gave way. "Well," he exclaimed suddenly, "I promise you it
shall not be to-night. Let us give life another chance."
"Good," I answered; but I went to my bed full of fear. For I was
certain that this desire of death, having once taken hold of him,
would grow and grow, until at length it became too strong, and then--
then I should wither and die who could not live on alone. In my
despair I threw out my soul towards that of her who was departed.
"Ayesha!" I cried, "if you have any power, if in any way it is
permitted, show that you still live, and save your lover from this sin
and me from a broken heart. Have pity on his sorrow and breathe hope
into his spirit, for without hope Leo cannot live, and without him I
shall not live."
Then, worn out, I slept.
I was aroused by the voice of Leo speaking to me in low, excited tones
through the darkness.
"Horace," he said, "Horace, my friend, my father, listen!"
In an instant I was wide awake, every nerve and fibre of me, for the
tones of his voice told me that something had happened which bore upon
"Let me light a candle first," I said.
"Never mind the candle, Horace; I would rather speak in the dark. I
went to sleep, and I dreamed the most vivid dream that ever came to
me. I seemed to stand under the vault of heaven, it was black, black,
not a star shone in it, and a great loneliness possessed me. Then
suddenly high up in the vault, miles and miles away, I saw a little
light and thought that a planet had appeared to keep me company. The
light began to descend slowly, like a floating flake of fire. Down it
sank, and down and down, till it was but just above me, and I
perceived that it was shaped like a tongue or fan of flame. At the
height of my head from the ground it stopped and stood steady, and by
its ghostly radiance I saw that beneath was the shape of a woman and
that the flame burned upon her forehead. The radiance gathered
strength and now I saw the woman.
"Horace, it was Ayesha herself, her eyes, her lovely face, her cloudy
hair, and she looked at me sadly, reproachfully, I thought, as one
might who says, 'Why did you doubt?'
"I tried to speak to her but my lips were dumb. I tried to advance and
to embrace her, my arms would not move. There was a barrier between
us. She lifted her hand and beckoned as though bidding me to follow
"Then she glided away, and, Horace, my spirit seemed to loose itself
from the body and to be given the power to follow. We passed swiftly
eastward, over lands and seas, and--I knew the road. At one point she
paused and I looked downwards. Beneath, shining in the moonlight,
appeared the ruined palaces of Kor, and there not far away was the
gulf we trod together.
"Onward above the marshes, and now we stood upon the Ethiopian's Head,
and gathered round, watching us earnestly, were the faces of the
Arabs, our companions who drowned in the sea beneath. Job was among
them also, and he smiled at me sadly and shook his head, as though he
wished to accompany us and could not.
"Across the sea again, across the sandy deserts, across more sea, and
the shores of India lay beneath us. Then northward, ever northward,
above the plains, till we reached a place of mountains capped with
eternal snow. We passed them and stayed for an instant above a
building set upon the brow of a plateau. It was a monastery, for old
monks droned prayers upon its terrace. I shall know it again, for it
is built in the shape of a half-moon and in front of it sits the
gigantic, ruined statue of a god who gazes everlastingly across the
desert. I knew, how I cannot say, that now we were far past the
furthest borders of Thibet and that in front of us lay untrodden
lands. More mountains stretched beyond that desert, a sea of snowy
peaks, hundreds and hundreds of them.
"Near to the monastery, jutting out into the plain like some rocky
headland, rose a solitary hill, higher than all behind. We stood upon
its snowy crest and waited, till presently, above the mountains and
the desert at our feet shot a sudden beam of light that beat upon us
like some signal flashed across the sea. On we went, floating down the
beam--on over the desert and the mountains, across a great flat land
beyond, in which were many villages and a city on a mound, till we lit
upon a towering peak. Then I saw that this peak was loop-shaped like
the symbol of Life of the Egyptians--the /crux-ansata/--and supported
by a lava stem hundreds of feet in height. Also I saw that the fire
which shone through it rose from the crater of a volcano beyond. Upon
the very crest of this loop we rested a while, till the Shadow of
Ayesha pointed downward with its hand, smiled and vanished. Then I
"Horace, I tell you that the sign has come to us."
His voice died away in the darkness, but I sat still, brooding over
what I had heard. Leo groped his way to me and, seizing my arm, shook
"Are you asleep?" he asked angrily. "Speak, man, speak!"
"No," I answered, "never was I more awake. Give me time."
Then I rose, and going to the open window, drew up the blind and stood
there staring at the sky, which grew pearl-hued with the first faint
tinge of dawn. Leo came also and leant upon the window-sill, and I
could feel that his body was trembling as though with cold. Clearly he
was much moved.
"You talk of a sign," I said to him, "but in your sign I see nothing
but a wild dream."
"It was no dream," he broke in fiercely; "it was a vision."
"A vision then if you will, but there are visions true and false, and
how can we know that this is true? Listen, Leo. What is there in all
that wonderful tale which could not have been fashioned in your own
brain, distraught as it is almost to madness with your sorrow and your
longings? You dreamed that you were alone in the vast universe. Well,
is not every living creature thus alone? You dreamed that the shadowy
shape of Ayesha came to you. Has it ever left your side? You dreamed
that she led you over sea and land, past places haunted by your
memory, above the mysterious mountains of the Unknown to an
undiscovered peak. Does she not thus lead you through life to that
peak which lies beyond the Gates of Death? You dreamed----"
"Oh! no more of it," he exclaimed. "What I saw, I saw, and that I
shall follow. Think as you will, Horace, and do what you will.
To-morrow I start for India, with you if you choose to come; if not,
"You speak roughly, Leo," I said. "You forget that /I/ have had no
sign, and that the nightmare of a man so near to insanity that but a
few hours ago he was determined upon suicide, will be a poor staff to
lean on when we are perishing in the snows of Central Asia. A mixed
vision, this of yours, Leo, with its mountain peak shaped like a
/crux-ansata/ and the rest. Do you suggest that Ayesha is re-
incarnated in Central Asia--as a female Grand Lama or something of
"I never thought of it, but why not?" asked Leo quietly. "Do you
remember a certain scene in the Caves of Kor yonder, when the living
looked upon the dead, and dead and living were the same? And do you
remember what Ayesha swore, that she would come again--yes, to this
world; and how could that be except by re-birth, or, what is the same
thing, by the transmigration of the spirit?"
I did not answer this argument. I was struggling with myself.
"No sign has come to me," I said, "and yet I have had a part in the
play, humble enough, I admit, and I believe that I have still a part."
"No," he said, "no sign has come to you. I wish that it had. Oh! how I
wish you could be convinced as I am, Horace!"
Then we were silent for a long while, silent, with our eyes fixed upon
It was a stormy dawn. Clouds in fantastic masses hung upon the ocean.
One of them was like a great mountain, and we watched it idly. It
changed its shape, the crest of it grew hollow like a crater. From
this crater sprang a projecting cloud, a rough pillar with a knob or
lump resting on its top. Suddenly the rays of the risen sun struck
upon this mountain and the column and they turned white like snow.
Then as though melted by those fiery arrows, the centre of the
excrescence above the pillar thinned out and vanished, leaving an
enormous loop of inky cloud.
"Look," said Leo in a low, frightened voice, "that is the shape of the
mountain which I saw in my vision. There upon it is the black loop,
and there through it shines the fire. /It would seem that the sign is
for both of us, Horace./"
I looked and looked again till presently the vast loop vanished into
the blue of heaven. Then I turned and said--"I will come with you to
Central Asia, Leo."
Sixteen years had passed since that night vigil in the old Cumberland
house, and, behold! we two, Leo and I, were still travelling, still
searching for that mountain peak shaped like the Symbol of Life which
never, never could be found.
Our adventures would fill volumes, but of what use is it to record
them. Many of a similar nature are already written of in books; those
that we endured were more prolonged, that is all. Five years we spent
in Thibet, for the most part as guests of various monasteries, where
we studied the law and traditions of the Lamas. Here we were once
sentenced to death in punishment for having visited a forbidden city,
but escaped through the kindness of a Chinese official.
Leaving Thibet, we wandered east and west and north, thousands and
thousands of miles, sojourning amongst many tribes in Chinese
territory and elsewhere, learning many tongues, enduring much
hardship. Thus we would hear a legend of a place, say nine hundred
miles away, and spend two years in reaching it, to find when we came
And so the time went on. Yet never once did we think of giving up the
quest and returning, since, before we started, we had sworn an oath
that we would achieve or die. Indeed we ought to have died a score of
times, yet always were preserved, most mysteriously preserved.
Now we were in country where, so far as I could learn, no European had
ever set a foot. In a part of the vast land called Turkestan there is
a great lake named Balhkash, of which we visited the shores. Two
hundred miles or so to the westward is a range of mighty mountains
marked on the maps as Arkarty-Tau, on which we spent a year, and five
hundred or so to the eastward are other mountains called Cherga,
whither we journeyed at last, having explored the triple ranges of the
Here it was that at last our true adventures began. On one of the
spurs of these awful Cherga mountains--it is unmarked on any map--we
well-nigh perished of starvation. The winter was coming on and we
could find no game. The last traveller we had met, hundreds of miles
south, told us that on that range was a monastery inhabited by Lamas
of surpassing holiness. He said that they dwelt in this wild land,
over which no power claimed dominion and where no tribes lived, to
acquire "merit," with no other company than that of their own pious
contemplations. We did not believe in its existence, still we were
searching for that monastery, driven onward by the blind fatalism
which was our only guide through all these endless wanderings. As we
were starving and could find no "argals," that is fuel with which to
make a fire, we walked all night by the light of the moon, driving
between us a single yak--for now we had no attendant, the last having
died a year before.
He was a noble beast, that yak, and had the best constitution of any
animal I ever knew, though now, like his masters, he was near his end.
Not that he was over-laden, for a few rifle cartridges, about a
hundred and fifty, the remnant of a store which we had fortunately
been able to buy from a caravan two years before, some money in gold
and silver, a little tea and a bundle of skin rugs and sheepskin
garments were his burden. On, on we trudged across a plateau of snow,
having the great mountains on our right, till at length the yak gave a
sigh and stopped. So we stopped also, because we must, and wrapping
ourselves in the skin rugs, sat down in the snow to wait for daylight.
"We shall have to kill him and eat his flesh raw," I said, patting the
poor yak that lay patiently at our side.
"Perhaps we may find game in the morning," answered Leo, still
"And perhaps we may not, in which case we must die."
"Very good," he replied, "then let us die. It is the last resource of
failure. We shall have done our best."
"Certainly, Leo, we shall have done our best, if sixteen years of
tramping over mountains and through eternal snows in pursuit of a
dream of the night can be called best."
"You know what I believe," he answered stubbornly, and there was
silence between us, for here arguments did not avail. Also even then I
could not think that all our toils and sufferings would be in vain.
The dawn came, and by its light we looked at one another anxiously,
each of us desiring to see what strength was left to his companion.
Wild creatures we should have seemed to the eyes of any civilized
person. Leo was now over forty years of age, and certainly his
maturity had fulfilled the promise of his youth, for a more
magnificent man I never knew. Very tall, although he seemed spare to
the eye, his girth matched his height, and those many years of desert
life had turned his muscles to steel. His hair had grown long, like my
own, for it was a protection from sun and cold, and hung upon his
neck, a curling, golden mane, as his great beard hung upon his breast,
spreading outwards almost to the massive shoulders. The face, too--
what could be seen of it--was beautiful though burnt brown with
weather; refined and full of thought, sombre almost, and in it, clear
as crystal, steady as stars, shone his large grey eyes.
And I--I was what I have always been--ugly and hirsute, iron-grey now
also, but in spite of my sixty odd years, still wonderfully strong,
for my strength seemed to increase with time, and my health was
perfect. In fact, during all this period of rough travels, although
now and again we had met with accidents which laid us up for awhile,
neither of us had known a day of sickness. Hardship seemed to have
turned our constitutions to iron and made them impervious to every
human ailment. Or was this because we alone amongst living men had
once inhaled the breath of the Essence of Life?
Our fears relieved--for notwithstanding our foodless night, as yet
neither of us showed any signs of exhaustion--we turned to contemplate
the landscape. At our feet beyond a little belt of fertile soil, began
a great desert of the sort with which we were familiar--sandy, salt-
encrusted, treeless, waterless, and here and there streaked with the
first snows of winter. Beyond it, eighty or a hundred miles away--in
that lucent atmosphere it was impossible to say how far exactly--rose
more mountains, a veritable sea of them, of which the white peaks
soared upwards by scores.
As the golden rays of the rising sun touched their snows to splendour,
I saw Leo's eyes become troubled. Swiftly he turned and looked along
the edge of the desert.
"See there!" he said, pointing to something dim and enormous.
Presently the light reached it also. It was a mighty mountain not more
than ten miles away, that stood out by itself among the sands. Then he
turned once more, and with his back to the desert stared at the slope
of the hills, along the base of which we had been travelling. As yet
they were in gloom, for the sun was behind them, but presently light
began to flow over their crests like a flood. Down it crept, lower,
and yet lower, till it reached a little plateau not three hundred
yards above us. There, on the edge of the plateau, looking out
solemnly across the waste, sat a great ruined idol, a colossal Buddha,
while to the rear of the idol, built of yellow stone, appeared the low
crescent-shaped mass of a monastery.
"At last!" cried Leo, "oh, Heaven! at last!" and, flinging himself
down, he buried his face in the snow as though to hide it there, lest
I should read something written on it which he did not desire that
even I should see.
I let him lie a space, understanding what was passing in his heart,
and indeed in mine also. Then going to the yak that, poor brute, had
no share in these joyous emotions but only lowed and looked round with
hungry eyes, I piled the sheepskin rugs on to its back. This done, I
laid my hand on Leo's shoulder, saying, in the most matter-of-fact
voice I could command--
"Come. If that place is not deserted, we may find food and shelter
there, and it is beginning to storm again."
He rose without a word, brushed the snow from his beard and garments
and came to help me to lift the yak to its feet, for the worn-out
beast was too stiff and weak to rise of itself. Glancing at him
covertly, I saw on Leo's face a very strange and happy look; a great
peace appeared to possess him.
We plunged upwards through the snow slope, dragging the yak with us,
to the terrace whereon the monastery was built. Nobody seemed to be
about there, nor could I discern any footprints. Was the place but a
ruin? We had found many such; indeed this ancient land is full of
buildings that had once served as the homes of men, learned and pious
enough after their own fashion, who lived and died hundreds, or even
thousands, of years ago, long before our Western civilization came
My heart, also my stomach, which was starving, sank at the thought,
but while I gazed doubtfully, a little coil of blue smoke sprang from
a chimney, and never, I think, did I see a more joyful sight. In the
centre of the edifice was a large building, evidently the temple, but
nearer to us I saw a small door, almost above which the smoke
appeared. To this door I went and knocked, calling aloud--
"Open! open, holy Lamas. Strangers seek your charity." After awhile
there was a sound of shuffling feet and the door creaked upon its
hinges, revealing an old, old man, clad in tattered, yellow garments.
"Who is it? Who is it?" he exclaimed, blinking at me through a pair of
horn spectacles. "Who comes to disturb our solitude, the solitude of
the holy Lamas of the Mountains?"
"Travellers, Sacred One, who have had enough of solitude," I answered
in his own dialect, with which I was well acquainted. "Travellers who
are starving and who ask your charity, which," I added, "by the Rule
you cannot refuse."
He stared at us through his horn spectacles, and, able to make nothing
of our faces, let his glance fall to our garments which were as ragged
as his own, and of much the same pattern. Indeed, they were those of
Thibetan monks, including a kind of quilted petticoat and an outer
vestment not unlike an Eastern burnous. We had adopted them because we
had no others. Also they protected us from the rigours of the climate
and from remark, had there been any to remark upon them.
"Are you Lamas?" he asked doubtfully, "and if so, of what monastery?"
"Lamas sure enough," I answered, "who belong to a monastery called the
World, where, alas! one grows hungry."
The reply seemed to please him, for he chuckled a little, then shook
his head, saying--
"It is against our custom to admit strangers unless they be of our own
faith, which I am sure you are not."
"And much more is it against your Rule, holy Khubilghan," for so these
abbots are entitled, "to suffer strangers to starve"; and I quoted a
well-known passage from the sayings of Buddha which fitted the point
"I perceive that you are instructed in the Books," he exclaimed with
wonder on his yellow, wrinkled face, "and to such we cannot refuse
shelter. Come in, brethren of the monastery called the World. But
stay, there is the yak, who also has claims upon our charity," and,
turning, he struck upon a gong or bell which hung within the door.
At the sound another man appeared, more wrinkled and to all appearance
older than the first, who stared at us open-mouthed.
"Brother," said the abbot, "shut that great mouth of yours lest an
evil spirit should fly down it; take this poor yak and give it fodder
with the other cattle."
So we unstrapped our belongings from the back of the beast, and the
old fellow whose grandiloquent title was "Master of the Herds," led it
When it had gone, not too willingly--for our faithful friend disliked
parting from us and distrusted this new guide--the abbot, who was
named Kou-en, led us into the living room or rather the kitchen of the
monastery, for it served both purposes. Here we found the rest of the
monks, about twelve in all, gathered round the fire of which we had
seen the smoke, and engaged, one of them in preparing the morning
meal, and the rest in warming themselves.
They were all old men; the youngest could not have been less than
sixty-five. To these we were solemnly introduced as "Brethren of the
Monastery called the World, where folk grow hungry," for the abbot
Kou-en could not make up his mind to part from this little joke.
They stared at us, they rubbed their thin hands, they bowed and wished
us well and evidently were delighted at our arrival. This was not
strange, however, seeing that ours were the first new faces which they
had seen for four long years.
Nor did they stop at words, for while they made water hot for us to
wash in, two of them went to prepare a room--and others drew off our
rough hide boots and thick outer garments and brought us slippers for
our feet. Then they led us to the guest chamber, which they informed
us was a "propitious place," for once it had been slept in by a noted
saint. Here a fire was lit, and, wonder of wonders! clean garments,
including linen, all of them ancient and faded, but of good quality,
were brought for us to put on.
So we washed--yes, actually washed all over--and having arrayed
ourselves in the robes, which were somewhat small for Leo, struck the
bell that hung in the room and were conducted by a monk who answered
it, back to the kitchen, where the meal was now served. It consisted
of a kind of porridge, to which was added new milk brought in by the
"Master of the Herds," dried fish from a lake, and buttered tea, the
last two luxuries produced in our special honour. Never had food
tasted more delicious to us, and, I may add, never did we eat more.
Indeed, at last I was obliged to request Leo to stop, for I saw the
monks staring at him and heard the old abbot chuckling to himself.
"Oho! The Monastery of the World, where folk grow /hungry/," to which
another monk, who was called the "Master of the Provisions," replied
uneasily, that if we went on like this, their store of food would
scarcely last the winter. So we finished at length, feeling, as some
book of maxims which I can remember in my youth said all polite people
should do--that we could eat more, and much impressed our hosts by
chanting a long Buddhist grace.
"Their feet are in the Path! Their feet are in the Path!" they said,
"Yes," replied Leo, "they have been in it for sixteen years of our
present incarnation. But we are only beginners, for you, holy Ones,
know how star-high, how ocean-wide and how desert-long is that path.
Indeed it is to be instructed as to the right way of walking therein
that we have been miraculously directed by a dream to seek you out, as
the most pious, the most saintly and the most learned of all the Lamas
in these parts."
"Yes, certainly we are that," answered the abbot Kou-en, "seeing that
there is no other monastery within five months' journey," and again he
chuckled, "though, alas!" he added with a pathetic little sigh, "our
numbers grow few."
After this we asked leave to retire to our chamber in order to rest,
and there, upon very good imitations of beds, we slept solidly for
four and twenty hours, rising at last perfectly refreshed and well.
Such was our introduction to the Monastery of the Mountains--for it
had no other name--where we were destined to spend the next six months
of our lives. Within a few days--for they were not long in giving us
their complete confidence--those good-hearted and simple old monks
told us all their history.
It seemed that of old time there was a Lamasery here, in which dwelt
several hundred brethren. This, indeed, was obviously true, for the
place was enormous, although for the most part ruined, and, as the
weather-worn statue of Buddha showed, very ancient. The story ran,
according to the old abbot, that two centuries or so before, the monks
had been killed out by some fierce tribe who lived beyond the desert
and across the distant mountains, which tribe were heretics and
worshippers of fire. Only a few of them escaped to bring the sad news
to other communities, and for five generations no attempt was made to
re-occupy the place.
At length it was revealed to him, our friend Kou-en, when a young man,
that he was a re-incarnation of one of the old monks of this
monastery, who also was named Kou-en, and that it was his duty during
his present life to return thither, as by so doing he would win much
merit and receive many wonderful revelations. So he gathered a band of
zealots and, with the blessing and consent of his superiors, they
started out, and after many hardships and losses found and took
possession of the place, repairing it sufficiently for their needs.
This happened about fifty years before, and here they had dwelt ever
since, only communicating occasionally with the outside world. At
first their numbers were recruited from time to time by new brethren,
but at length these ceased to come, with the result that the community
was dying out.
"And what then?" I asked.
"And then," the abbot answered, "nothing. /We/ have acquired much
merit; we have been blest with many revelations, and, after the repose
we have earned in Devachan, our lots in future existences will be
easier. What more can we ask or desire, removed as we are from all the
temptations of the world?"
For the rest, in the intervals of their endless prayers, and still
more endless contemplations, they were husbandmen, cultivating the
soil, which was fertile at the foot of the mountain, and tending their
herd of yaks. Thus they wore away their blameless lives until at last
they died of old age, and, as they believed--and who shall say that
they were wrong--the eternal round repeated itself elsewhere.
Immediately after, indeed on the very day of our arrival at the
monastery the winter began in earnest with bitter cold and snowstorms
so heavy and frequent that all the desert was covered deep. Very soon
it became obvious to us that here we must stay until the spring, since
to attempt to move in any direction would be to perish. With some
misgivings we explained this to the abbot Kou-en, offering to remove
to one of the empty rooms in the ruined part of the building,
supporting ourselves with fish that we could catch by cutting a hole
in the ice of the lake above the monastery, and if we were able to
find any, on game, which we might trap or shoot in the scrub-like
forest of stunted pines and junipers that grew around its border. But
he would listen to no such thing. We had been sent to be their guests,
he said, and their guests we should remain for so long as might be
convenient to us. Would we lay upon them the burden of the sin of
inhospitality? Besides, he remarked with his chuckle--
"We who dwell alone like to hear about that other great monastery
called the World, where the monks are not so favoured as we who are
set in this blessed situation, and where folk even go hungry in body,
and," he added, "in soul."
Indeed, as we soon found out, the dear old man's object was to keep
our feet in the Path until we reached the goal of Truth, or, in other
words, became excellent Lamas like himself and his flock.
So we walked in the Path, as we had done in many another Lamasery, and
assisted at the long prayers in the ruined temple and studied the
/Kandjur/, or "Translation of the Words" of Buddha, which is their
bible and a very long one, and generally showed that our "minds were
open." Also we expounded to them the doctrines of our own faith, and
greatly delighted were they to find so many points of similarity
between it and theirs. Indeed, I am not certain but that if we could
have stopped there long enough, say ten years, we might have persuaded
some of them to accept a new revelation of which we were the prophets.
Further, in spare hours we told them many tales of "the Monastery
called the World," and it was really delightful, and in a sense
piteous, to see the joy with which they listened to these stories of
wondrous countries and new races of men; they who knew only of Russia
and China and some semi-savage tribes, inhabitants of the mountains
and the deserts.
"It is right for us to learn all this," they declared, "for, who
knows, perhaps in future incarnations we may become inhabitants of
But though the time passed thus in comfort and indeed, compared to
many of our experiences, in luxury, oh! our hearts were hungry, for in
them burned the consuming fire of our quest. We felt that we were on
the threshold--yes, we knew it, we knew it, and yet our wretched
physical limitations made it impossible for us to advance by a single
step. On the desert beneath fell the snow, moreover great winds arose
suddenly that drove those snows like dust, piling them in heaps as
high as trees, beneath which any unfortunate traveller would be
buried. Here we must wait, there was nothing else to be done.
One alleviation we found, and only one. In a ruined room of the
monastery was a library of many volumes, placed there, doubtless, by
the monks who were massacred in times bygone. These had been more or
less cared for and re-arranged by their successors, who gave us
liberty to examine them as often as we pleased. Truly it was a strange
collection, and I should imagine of priceless value, for among them
were to be found Buddhistic, Sivaistic and Shamanistic writings that
we had never before seen or heard of, together with the lives of a
multitude of Bodhisatvas, or distinguished saints, written in various
tongues, some of which we did not understand.
What proved more interesting to us, however, was a diary in many tomes
that for generations had been kept by the Khubilghans or abbots of the
old Lamasery, in which every event of importance was recorded in great
detail. Turning over the pages of one of the last volumes of this
diary, written apparently about two hundred and fifty years earlier,
and shortly before the destruction of the monastery, we came upon an
entry of which the following--for I can only quote from memory--is the
"In the summer of this year, after a very great sandstorm, a
brother (the name was given, but I forget it) found in the desert
a man of the people who dwell beyond the Far Mountains, of whom
rumours have reached this Lamasery from time to time. He was
living, but beside him were the bodies of two of his companions
who had been overwhelmed by sand and thirst. He was very fierce
looking. He refused to say how he came into the desert, telling us
only that he had followed the road known to the ancients before
communication between his people and the outer world ceased. We
gathered, however, that his brethren with whom he fled had
committed some crime for which they had been condemned to die, and
that he had accompanied them in their flight. He told us that
there was a fine country beyond the mountains, fertile, but
plagued with droughts and earthquakes, which latter, indeed, we
often feel here.
"The people of that country were, he said, warlike and very
numerous but followed agriculture. They had always lived there,
though ruled by Khans who were descendants of the Greek king
called Alexander, who conquered much country to the south-west of
us. This may be true, as our records tell us that about two
thousand years ago an army sent by that invader penetrated to
these parts, though of his being with them nothing is said.
"The stranger-man told us also that his people worship a priestess
called Hes or the Hesea, who is said to reign from generation to
generation. She lives in a great mountain, apart, and is feared
and adored by all, but is not the queen of the country, in the
government of which she seldom interferes. To her, however,
sacrifices are offered, and he who incurs her vengeance dies, so
that even the chiefs of that land are afraid of her. Still their
subjects often fight, for they hate each other.
"We answered that he lied when he said that this woman was immortal
--for that was what we supposed he meant--since nothing is
immortal; also we laughed at his tale of her power. This made the
man very angry. Indeed he declared that our Buddha was not so
strong as this priestess, and that she would show it by being
avenged upon us.
"After this we gave him food and turned him out of the Lamasery,
and he went, saying that when he returned we should learn who
spoke the truth. We do not know what became of him, and he refused
to reveal to us the road to his country, which lies beyond the
desert and the Far Mountains. We think that perhaps he was an evil
spirit sent to frighten us, in which he did not succeed."
Such is a /precis/ of this strange entry, the discovery of which,
vague as it was, thrilled us with hope and excitement. Nothing more
appeared about the man or his country, but within a little over a year
from that date the diary of the abbot came to a sudden end without any
indication that unusual events had occured or were expected.
Indeed, the last item written in the parchment book mentioned the
preparation of certain new lands to be used for the sowing of grain in
future seasons, which suggested that the brethren neither feared nor
expected disturbance. We wondered whether the man from beyond the
mountains was as good as his word and had brought down the vengeance
of that priestess called the Hesea upon the community which sheltered
him. Also we wondered--ah! how we wondered--who and what this Hesea
On the day following this discovery we prayed the abbot, Kou-en, to
accompany us to the library, and having read him the passage, asked if
he knew anything of the matter. He swayed his wise old head, which
always reminded me of that of a tortoise, and answered--
"A little. Very little, and that mostly about the army of the Greek
king who is mentioned in the writing."
We inquired what he could possibly know of this matter, whereon Kou-en
"In those days when the faith of the Holy One was still young, I dwelt
as a humble brother in this very monastery, which was one of the first
built, and I saw the army pass, that is all. That," he added
meditatively, "was in my fiftieth incarnation of this present Round--
no, I am thinking of another army--in my seventy-third."[*]
[*] As students of their lives and literature will be aware, it is
common for Buddhist priests to state positively that they remember
events which occurred during their previous incarnations.--ed.
Here Leo began a great laugh, but I managed to kick him beneath the
table and he turned it into a sneeze. This was fortunate, as such
ribald merriment would have hurt the old man's feelings terribly.
After all, also, as Leo himself had once said, surely we were not the
people to mock at the theory of re-incarnation, which, by the way, is
the first article of faith among nearly one quarter of the human race,
and this not the most foolish quarter.
"How can that be--I ask for instruction, learned One--seeing that
memory perishes with death?"
"Ah!" he answered, "Brother Holly, it may seem to do so, but
oftentimes it comes back again, especially to those who are far
advanced upon the Path. For instance, until you read this passage I
had forgotten all about that army, but now I see it passing, passing,
and myself with other monks standing by the statue of the big Buddha
in front yonder, and watching it go by. It was not a very large army,
for most of the soldiers had died, or been killed, and it was being
pursued by the wild people who lived south of us in those days, so
that it was in a great hurry to put the desert between it and them.
The general of the army was a swarthy man--I wish that I could
remember his name, but I cannot.
"Well," he went on, "that general came up to the Lamasery and demanded
a sleeping place for his wife and children, also provisions and
medicines, and guides across the desert. The abbot of that day told
him it was against our law to admit a woman under our roof, to which
he answered that if we did not, we should have no roof left, for he
would burn the place and kill every one of us with the sword. Now, as
you know, to be killed by violence means that we must pass sundry
incarnations in the forms of animals, a horrible thing, so we chose
the lesser evil and gave way, and afterwards obtained absolution for
our sins from the Great Lama. Myself I did not see this queen, but I
saw the priestess of their worship--alas! alas!" and Kou-en beat his
"Why alas?" I asked, as unconcernedly as I could, for this story
interested me strangely.
"Why? Oh! because I may have forgotten the army, but I have never
forgotten that priestess, and she has been a great hindrance to me
through many ages, delaying me upon my journey to the Other Side, to
the Shore of Salvation. I, as a humble Lama, was engaged in preparing
her apartment when she entered and threw aside her veil; yes, and
perceiving a young man, spoke to me, asking many questions, and even
if I was not glad to look again upon a woman."
"What--what was she like?" said Leo, anxiously.
"What was she like? Oh! She was all loveliness in one shape; she was
like the dawn upon the snows; she was like the evening star above the
mountains; she was like the first flower of the spring. Brother, ask
me not what she was like, nay, I will say no more. Oh! my sin, my sin.
I am slipping backward and you draw my black shame out into the light
of day. Nay, I will confess it that you may know how vile a thing I am
--I whom perhaps you have thought holy--like yourselves. That woman,
if woman she were, lit a fire in my heart which will not burn out, oh!
and more, more," and Kou-en rocked himself to and fro upon his stool
while tears of contrition trickled from beneath his horn spectacles,
"/she made me worship her!/ For first she asked me of my faith and
listened eagerly as I expounded it, hoping that the light would come
into her heart; then, after I had finished she said--
"'So your Path is Renunciation and your Nirvana a most excellent
Nothingness which some would think it scarce worth while to strive so
hard to reach. Now /I/ will show you a more joyous way and a goddess
more worthy of your worship.'
"'What way, and what goddess?' I asked of her.
"'The way of Love and Life!" she answered, 'that makes all the world
to be, that made /you/, O seeker of Nirvana, and the goddess called
"Again I asked where is that goddess, and behold! she drew herself up,
looking most royal, and touching her ivory breast, she said, 'I am
She. Now kneel you down and do me homage!'
"My brethren, I knelt, yes, I kissed her foot, and then I fled away
shamed and broken-hearted, and as I went she laughed, and cried:
'Remember me when you reach Devachan, O servant of the Budda-saint,
for though I change, I do not die, and even there I shall be with you
who once gave me worship!'
"And it is so, my brethren, it is so; for though I obtained absolution
for my sin and have suffered much for it through this, my next
incarnation, yet I cannot be rid of her, and for me the Utter Peace is
far, far away," and Kou-en placed his withered hands before his face
and sobbed outright.
A ridiculous sight, truly, to see a holy Khublighan well on the wrong
side of eighty, weeping like a child over a dream of a beautiful woman
which he imagined he had once dreamt in his last life more than two
thousand years ago. So the reader will say. But I, Holly, for reasons
of my own, felt deep sympathy with that poor old man, and Leo was also
sympathetic. We patted him on the back; we assured him that he was the
victim of some evil hallucination which could never be brought up
against him in this or any future existence, since, if sin there were,
it must have been forgiven long ago, and so forth. When his calm was
somewhat restored we tried also to extract further information from
him, but with poor results, so far as the priestess was concerned.
He said that he did not know to what religion she belonged, and did
not care, but thought that it must be an evil one. She went away the
next morning with the army, and he never saw or heard of her any more,
though it came into his mind that he was obliged to be locked in his
cell for eight days to prevent himself from following her. Yes, he had
heard one thing, for the abbot of that day had told the brethren. This
priestess was the real general of the army, not the king or the queen,
the latter of whom hated her. It was by her will that they pushed on
northwards across the desert to some country beyond the mountains,
where she desired to establish herself and her worship.
We asked if there really was any country beyond the mountains, and
Kou-en answered wearily that he believed so. Either in this or in a
previous life he had heard that people lived there who worshipped
fire. Certainly also it was true that about thirty years ago a brother
who had climbed the great peak yonder to spend some days in solitary
meditation, returned and reported that he had seen a marvellous thing,
namely, a shaft of fire burning in the heavens beyond those same
mountains, though whether this were a vision, or what, he could not
say. He recalled, however, that about that time they had felt a great
Then the memory of that fancied transgression again began to afflict
Kou-en's innocent old heart, and he crept away lamenting and was seen
no more for a week. Nor would he ever speak again to us of this
But we spoke of it much with hope and wonder, and made up our minds
that we would at once ascend this mountain.
THE BEACON LIGHT
A week later came our opportunity of making this ascent of the
mountain, for now in mid-winter it ceased storming, and hard frost set
in, which made it possible to walk upon the surface of the snow.
Learning from the monks that at this season /ovis poli/ and other
kinds of big-horned sheep and game descended from the hills to take
refuge in certain valleys, where they scraped away the snow to find
food, we announced that we were going out to hunt. The excuse we gave
was that we were suffering from confinement and needed exercise,
having by the teaching of our religion no scruples about killing game.
Our hosts replied that the adventure was dangerous, as the weather
might change at any moment. They told us, however, that on the slopes
of this very mountain which we desired to climb, there was a large
natural cave where, if need be, we could take shelter, and to this
cave one of them, somewhat younger and more active than the rest,
offered to guide us. So, having manufactured a rougri tent from skins,
and laden our old yak, now in the best of condition, with food and
garments, on one still morning we started as soon as it was light.
Under the guidance of the monk, who, notwithstanding his years, walked
very well, we reached the northern slope of the peak before mid-day.
Here, as he had said, we found a great cave of which the opening was
protected by an over-hanging ledge of rock. Evidently this cave was
the favourite place of shelter for game at certain seasons of the
year, since in it were heaped vast accumulations of their droppings,
which removed any fear of a lack of fuel.
The rest of that short day we spent in setting up our tent in the
cave, in front of which we lit a large fire, and in a survey of the
slopes of the mountain, for we told the monk that we were searching
for the tracks of wild sheep. Indeed, as it happened, on our way back
to the cave we came across a small herd of ewes feeding upon the
mosses in a sheltered spot where in summer a streamlet ran. Of these
we were so fortunate as to kill two, for no sportsman had ever come
here, and they were tame enough, poor things. As meat would keep for
ever in that temperature, we had now sufficient food to last us for a
fortnight, and dragging the animals down the snow slopes to the cave,
we skinned them by the dying light.
That evening we supped upon fresh mutton, a great luxury, which the
monk enjoyed as much as we did, since, whatever might be his views as
to taking life, he liked mutton. Then we turned into the tent and
huddled ourselves together for warmth, as the temperature must have
been some degrees below zero. The old monk rested well enough, but
neither Leo nor I slept over much, for wonder as to what we might see
from the top of that mountain banished sleep.
Next morning at the dawn, the weather being still favourable, our
companion returned to the monastery, whither we said we would follow
him in a day or two.
Now at last we were alone, and without wasting an instant began our
ascent of the peak. It was many thousand feet high and in certain
places steep enough, but the deep, frozen snow made climbing easy, so
that by midday we reached the top. Hence the view was magnificent.
Beneath us stretched the desert, and beyond it a broad belt of
fantastically shaped, snow-clad mountains, hundreds and hundreds of
them; in front, to the right, to the left, as far as the eye could
"They are just as I saw them in my dream so many years ago," muttered
Leo; "the same, the very same."
"And where was the fiery light?" I asked.
"Yonder, I think;" and he pointed north by east.
"Well, it is not there now," I answered, "and this place is cold."
So, since it was dangerous to linger, lest the darkness should
overtake us on our return journey, we descended the peak again,
reaching the cave about sunset. The next four days we spent in the
same way. Every morning we crawled up those wearisome banks of snow,
and every afternoon we slid and tobogganed down them again, till I
grew heartily tired of the exercise.
On the fourth night, instead of coming to sleep in the tent Leo sat
himself down at the entrance to the cave. I asked him why he did this,
but he answered impatiently, because he wished it, so I left him
alone. I could see, indeed, that he was in a strange and irritable
mood, for the failure of our search oppressed him. Moreover, we knew,
both of us, that it could not be much prolonged, since the weather
might break at any moment, when ascents of the mountain would become
In the middle of the night I was awakened by Leo shaking me and
"Come here, Horace, I have something to show you."
Reluctantly enough I crept from between the rugs and out of the tent.
To dress there was no need, for we slept in all our garments. He led
me to the mouth of the cave and pointed northward. I looked. The night
was very dark; but far, far away appeared a faint patch of light upon
the sky, such as might be caused by the reflection of a distant fire.
"What do you make of it?" he asked anxiously.
"Nothing in particular," I answered, "it may be anything. The moon--
no, there is none, dawn--no, it is too northerly, and it does not
break for three hours. Something burning, a house, or a funeral pyre,
but how can there be such things here? I give it up."
"I think it is a reflection, and that if we were on the peak we should
see the light which throws it," said Leo slowly.
"Yes, but we are not, and cannot get there in the dark."
"Then, Horace, we must spend a night there."
"It will be our last in this incarnation," I answered with a laugh,
"that is if it comes on to snow."
"We must risk it, or I will risk it. Look, the light has faded;" and
there at least he was right, for undoubtedly it had. The night was as
black as pitch.
"Let's talk it over to-morrow," I said, and went back to the tent, for
I was sleepy and incredulous, but Leo sat on by the mouth of the cave.
At dawn I awoke and found breakfast already cooked.
"I must start early," Leo explained.
"Are you mad?" I asked. "How can we camp on that place?"
"I don't know, but I am going. I must go, Horace."
"Which means that we both must go. But how about the yak?"
"Where we can climb, it can follow," he answered.
So we strapped the tent and other baggage, including a good supply of
cooked meat, upon the beast's back, and started. The tramp was long
since we were obliged to make some detours to avoid slopes of frozen
snow in which, on our previous ascents, we had cut footholds with an
axe, for up these the laden animal could not clamber. Reaching the
summit at length, we dug a hole, and there pitched the tent, piling
the excavated snow about its sides. By this time it began to grow
dark, and having descended into the tent, yak and all, we ate our food
Oh! what cold was that. The frost was fearful, and at this height a
wind blew whose icy breath passed through all our wrappings, and
seemed to burn our flesh beneath as though with hot irons. It was
fortunate that we had brought the yak, for without the warmth from its
shaggy body I believe that we should have perished, even in our tent.
For some hours we watched, as indeed we must, since to sleep might
mean to die, yet saw nothing save the lonely stars, and heard nothing
in that awful silence, for here even the wind made no noise as it slid
across the snows. Accustomed as I was to such exposure, my faculties
began to grow numb and my eyes to shut, when suddenly Leo said--
"Look, below the red star!"
I looked, and there high in the sky was the same curious glow which we
had seen upon the previous night. There was more than this indeed, for
beneath it, almost on a line with us and just above the crests of the
intervening peaks, appeared a faint sheet of fire and revealed against
it, something black. Whilst we watched, the fire widened, spread
upwards and grew in power and intensity. Now against its flaming
background the black object became clearly visible, and lo! it was the
top of a soaring pillar surmounted by a loop. Yes, we could see its
every outline. It was the /crux ansata/, the Symbol of Life itself.
The symbol vanished, the fire sank. Again it blazed up more fiercely
than before and the loop appeared afresh, then once more disappeared.
A third time the fire shone, and with such intensity, that no
lightning could surpass its brilliance. All around the heavens were
lit up, and, through the black needle-shaped eye of the symbol, as
from the flare of a beacon, or the search-light of a ship, one fierce
ray shot across the sea of mountain tops and the spaces of the desert,
straight as an arrow to the lofty peak on which we lay. Yes, it lit
upon the snow, staining it red, and upon the wild, white faces of us
who watched, though to the right and left of us spread thick darkness.
My compass lay before me on the snow, and I could even see its needle;
and beyond us the shape of a white fox that had crept near, scenting
food. Then it was gone as swiftly as it came. Gone too were the symbol
and the veil of flame behind it, only the glow lingered a little on
the distant sky.
For awhile there was silence between us, then Leo said--
"Do you remember, Horace, when we lay upon the Rocking Stone where
/her/ cloak fell upon me--" as he said the words the breath caught in
his throat--"how the ray of light was sent to us in farewell, and to
show us a path of escape from the Place of Death? Now I think that it
has been sent again in greeting to point out the path to the Place of
Life where Ayesha dwells, whom we have lost awhile."
"It may be so," I answered shortly, for the matter was beyond speech
or argument, beyond wonder even. But I knew then, as I know now that
we were players in some mighty, predestined drama; that our parts were
written and we must speak them, as our path was prepared and we must
tread it to the end unknown. Fear and doubt were left behind, hope was
sunk in certainty; the fore-shadowing visions of the night had found
an actual fulfilment and the pitiful seed of the promise of her who
died, growing unseen through all the cruel, empty years, had come to
No, we feared no more, not even when with the dawn rose the roaring
wind, through which we struggled down the mountain slopes, as it would
seem in peril of our lives at every step; not even as hour by hour we
fought our way onwards through the whirling snow-storm, that made us
deaf and blind. For we knew that those lives were charmed. We could
not see or hear, yet we were led. Clinging to the yak, we struggled
downward and homewards, till at length out of the turmoil and the
gloom its instinct brought us unharmed to the door of the monastery,
where the old abbot embraced us in his joy, and the monks put up
prayers of thanks. For they were sure that we must be dead. Through
such a storm, they said, no man had ever lived before.
It was still mid-winter, and oh! the awful weariness of those months
of waiting. In our hands was the key, yonder amongst those mountains
lay the door, but not yet might we set that key within its lock. For
between us and these stretched the great desert, where the snow rolled
like billows, and until that snow melted we dared not attempt its
passage. So we sat in the monastery, and schooled our hearts to
Still even to these frozen wilds of Central Asia spring comes at last.
One evening the air felt warm, and that night there were only a few
degrees of frost. The next the clouds banked up, and in the morning
not snow was falling from them, but rain, and we found the old monks
preparing their instruments of husbandry, as they said that the season
of sowing was at hand. For three days it rained, while the snows
melted before our eyes. On the fourth torrents of water were rushing
down the mountain and the desert was once more brown and bare, though
not for long, for within another week it was carpeted with flowers.
Then we knew that the time had come to start.
"But whither go you? Whither go you?" asked the old abbot in dismay.
"Are you not happy here? Do you not make great strides along the Path,
as may be known by your pious conversation? Is not everything that we
have your own? Oh! why would you leave us?"
"We are wanderers," we answered, "and when we see mountains in front
of us we must cross them."
Kou-en looked at us shrewdly, then asked--
"What do you seek beyond the mountains? And, my brethren, what merit
is gathered by hiding the truth from an old man, for such concealments
are separated from falsehoods but by the length of a single
barleycorn. Tell me, that at least my prayers may accompany you."
"Holy abbot," I said, "awhile ago yonder in the library you made a
certain confession to us."
"Oh! remind me not of it," he said, holding up his hands. "Why do you
wish to torment me?"
"Far be the thought from us, most kind friend and virtuous man," I
answered. "But, as it chances, your story is very much our own, and we
think that we have experience of this same priestess."
"Speak on," he said, much interested.
So I told him the outlines of our tale; for an hour or more I told it
while he sat opposite to us swaying his head like a tortoise and
saying nothing. At length it was done.
"Now," I added, "let the lamp of your wisdom shine upon our darkness.
Do you not find this story wondrous, or do you perchance think that we
"Brethren of the great monastery called the World," Kou-en answered
with his customary chuckle, "why should I think you liars who, from
the moment my eyes fell upon you, knew you to be true men? Moreover,
why should I hold this tale so very wondrous? You have but stumbled
upon the fringe of a truth with which we have been acquainted for
many, many ages.
"Because in a vision she showed you this monastery, and led you to a
spot beyond the mountains where she vanished, you hope that this woman
whom you saw die is re-incarnated yonder. Why not? In this there is
nothing impossible to those who are instructed in the truth, though
the lengthening of her last life was strange and contrary to
experience. Doubtless you will find her there as you expect, and
doubtless her /khama/, or identity, is the same as that which in some
earlier life of hers once brought me to sin.
"Only be not mistaken, she is no immortal; nothing is immortal. She is
but a being held back by her own pride, her own greatness if you will,
upon the path towards Nirvana. That pride will be humbled, as already
it has been humbled; that brow of majesty shall be sprinkled with the
dust of change and death, that sinful spirit must be purified by
sorrows and by separations. Brother Leo, if you win her, it will be
but to lose, and then the ladder must be reclimbed. Brother Holly, for
you as for me loss is our only gain, since thereby we are spared much
woe. Oh! bide here and pray with me. Why dash yourselves against a
rock? Why labour to pour water into a broken jar whence it must sink
into the sands of profitless experience, and there be wasted, whilst
you remain athirst?"
"Water makes the sand fertile," I answered. "Where water falls, life
comes, and sorrow is the seed of joy."
"Love is the law of life," broke in Leo; "without love there is no
life. I seek love that I may live. I believe that all these things are
ordained to an end which we do not know. Fate draws me on--I fulfil my
"And do but delay your freedom. Yet I will not argue with you,
brother, who must follow your own road. See now, what has this woman,
this priestess of a false faith if she be so still, brought you in the
past? Once in another life, or so I understand your story, you were
sworn to a certain nature-goddess, who was named Isis, were you not,
and to her alone? Then a woman tempted you, and you fled with her
afar. And there what found you? The betrayed and avenging goddess who
slew you, or if not the goddess, one who had drunk of her wisdom and
was the minister of her vengeance. Having that wisdom this minister--
woman or evil spirit--refused to die because she had learned to love
you, but waited knowing that in your next life she would find you
again, as indeed she would have done more swiftly in Devachan had she
died without living on alone in so much misery. And she found you, and
she died, or seemed to die, and now she is re-born, as she must be,
and doubtless you will meet once more, and again there must come
misery. Oh! my friends, go not across the mountains; bide here with me
and lament your sins."
"Nay," answered Leo, "we are sworn to a tryst, and we do not break our
"Then, brethren, go keep your tryst, and when you have reaped its
harvest think upon my sayings, for I am sure that the wine you crush
from the vintage of your desire will run red like blood, and that in
its drinking you shall find neither forgetfulness nor peace. Made
blind by a passion of which well I know the sting and power, you seek
to add a fair-faced evil to your lives, thinking that from this unity
there shall be born all knowledge and great joy.
"Rather should you desire to live alone in holiness until at length
your separate lives are merged and lost in the Good Unspeakable, the
eternal bliss that lies in the last Nothingness. Ah! you do not
believe me now; you shake your heads and smile; yet a day will dawn,
it may be after many incarnations, when you shall bow them in the dust
and weep, saying to me, 'Brother Kou-en, yours were the words of
wisdom, ours the deeds of foolishness;'" and with a deep sigh the old
man turned and left us.
"A cheerful faith, truly," said Leo, looking after him, "to dwell
through aeons in monotonous misery in order that consciousness may be
swallowed up at last in some void and formless abstraction called the
'Utter Peace.' I would rather take my share of a bad world and keep my
hope of a better. Also I do not think that he knows anything of Ayesha
and her destiny."
"So would I," I answered, "though perhaps he is right after all. Who
can tell? Moreover, what is the use of reasoning? Leo, we have no
choice; we follow our fate. To what that fate may lead us we shall
learn in due season."
Then we went to rest, for it was late, though I found little sleep
that night. The warnings of the ancient abbot, good and learned man as
he was, full also of ripe experience and of the foresighted wisdom
that is given to such as he, oppressed me deeply. He promised us
sorrow and bloodshed beyond the mountains, ending in death and
rebirths full of misery. Well, it might be so, but no approaching
sufferings could stay our feet. And even if they could, they should
not, since to see her face again I was ready to brave them all. And if
this was my case what must be that of Leo!
A strange theory that of Kou-en's, that Ayesha was the goddess in old
Egypt to whom Kallikrates was priest, or at the least her
representative. That the royal Amenartas, with whom he fled, seduced
him from the goddess to whom he was sworn. That this goddess incarnate
in Ayesha--or using the woman Ayesha and her passions as her
instruments--was avenged upon them both at Kor, and that there in an
after age the bolt she shot fell back upon her own head.
Well, I had often thought as much myself. Only I was sure that /She/
herself could be no actual divinity, though she might be a
manifestation of one, a priestess, a messenger, charged to work its
will, to avenge or to reward, and yet herself a human soul, with hopes
and passions to be satisfied, and a destiny to fulfil. In truth,
writing now, when all is past and done with, I find much to confirm me
in, and little to turn me from that theory, since life and powers of a
quality which are more than human do not alone suffice to make a soul
divine. On the other hand, however, it must be borne in mind that on
one occasion at any rate, Ayesha did undoubtedly suggest that in the
beginning she was "a daughter of Heaven," and that there were others,
notably the old Shaman Simbri, who seemed to take it for granted that
her origin was supernatural. But of all these things I hope to speak
in their season.
Meanwhile what lay beyond the mountains? Should we find her there who
held the sceptre and upon earth wielded the power of the outraged
Isis, and with her, that other woman who wrought the wrong? And if so,
would the dread, inhuman struggle reach its climax around the person
of the sinful priest? In a few months, a few days even, we might begin
Thrilled by this thought at length I fell asleep.
On the morning of the second day from that night the sunrise found us
already on our path across the desert. There, nearly a mile behind us,
we could see the ruined statue of Buddha seated in front of the
ancient monastery, and in that clear atmosphere could even distinguish
the bent form of our friend, the old abbot, Kou-en, leaning against it
until we were quite lost to sight. All the monks had wept when we
parted from them, and Kou-en even more bitterly than the rest, for he
had learned to love us.
"I am grieved," he said, "much grieved, which indeed I should not be,
for such emotion partakes of sin. Yet I find comfort, for I know well
that although I must soon leave this present life, yet we shall meet
again in many future incarnations, and after you have put away these
follies, together tread the path to perfect peace. Now take with you
my blessings and my prayers and begone, forgetting not that should you
live to return"--and he shook his head, doubtfully--"here you will be
So we embraced him and went sorrowfully.
It will be remembered that when the mysterious light fell upon us on
the peak I had my compass with me and was able roughly to take its
bearings. For lack of any better guide we now followed these bearings,
travelling almost due north-east, for in that direction had shone the
fire. All day in the most beautiful weather we marched across the
flower-strewn desert, seeing nothing except bunches of game and one or
two herds of wild asses which had come down from the mountains to feed
upon the new grass. As evening approached we shot an antelope and made
our camp--for we had brought the yak and a tent with us--among some
tamarisk scrub, of which the dry stems furnished us with fuel. Nor did
we lack for water, since by scraping in the sand soaked with melted
snow, we found plenty of fair quality. So that night we supped in
luxury upon tea and antelope meat, which indeed we were glad to have,
as it spared our little store of dried provisions.
The next morning we ascertained our position as well as we could, and
estimated that we had crossed about a quarter of the desert, a guess
which proved very accurate, for on the evening of the fourth day of
our journey we reached the bottom slopes of the opposing mountains,
without having experienced either accident or fatigue. As Leo said,
things were "going like clockwork," but I reminded him that a good
start often meant a bad finish. Nor was I wrong, for now came our
hardships. To begin with, the mountains proved to be exceeding high;
it took us two days to climb their lower slopes. Also the heat of the
sun had softened the snow, which made walking through it laborious,
whilst, accustomed though we were to such conditions through long
years of travelling, its continual glitter affected our eyes.
The morning of the seventh day found us in the mouth of a defile which
wound away into the heart of the mountains. As it seemed the only
possible path, we followed it, and were much cheered to discover that
here must once have run a road. Not that we could see any road,
indeed, for everything was buried in snow. But that one lay beneath
our feet we were certain, since, although we marched along the edge of
precipices, our path, however steep, was always flat; moreover, the
rock upon one side of it had often been scarped by the hand of man. Of
this there could be no doubt, for as the snow did not cling here, we
saw the tool marks upon its bare surface.
Also we came to several places where galleries had been built out from
the mountain side, by means of beams let into it, as is still a common
practice in Thibet. These beams of course had long since rotted away,
leaving a gulf between us and the continuation of the path. When we
met with such gaps we were forced to go back and make a detour round
or over some mountain; but although much delayed thereby, as it
happened, we always managed to regain the road, if not without
difficulty and danger.
What tried us more--for here our skill and experience as mountaineers
could not help us--was the cold at night, obliged as we were to camp
in the severe frost at a great altitude, and to endure through the
long hours of darkness penetrating and icy winds, which soughed
ceaselessly down the pass.
At length on the tenth day we reached the end of the defile, and as
night was falling, camped there in the most bitter cold. Those were
miserable hours, for now we had no fuel with which to boil water, and
must satisfy our thirst by eating frozen snow, while our eyes smarted
so sorely that we could not sleep, and notwithstanding all our wraps
and the warmth that we gathered from the yak in the little tent, the
cold caused our teeth to chatter like castanets.
The dawn came, and, after it, the sunrise. We crept from the tent, and
leaving it standing awhile, dragged our stiffened limbs a hundred
yards or so to a spot where the defile took a turn, in order that we
might thaw in the rays of the sun, which at that hour could not reach
us where we had camped.
Leo was round it first, and I heard him utter an exclamation. In a few
seconds I reached his side, and lo! before us lay our Promised Land.
Far beneath us, ten thousand feet at least--for it must be remembered
that we viewed it from the top of a mountain--it stretched away and
away till its distances met the horizon. In character it was quite
flat, an alluvial plain that probably, in some primeval age, had been
the bottom of one of the vast lakes of which a number exist in Central
Asia, most of them now in process of desiccation. One object only
relieved this dreary flatness, a single, snow-clad, and gigantic
mountain, of which even at that distance--for it was very far from us
--we could clearly see the outline. Indeed we could see more, for from
its rounded crest rose a great plume of smoke, showing that it was an
active volcano, and on the hither lip of the crater an enormous pillar
of rock, whereof the top was formed to the shape of a loop.
Yes, there it stood before us, that symbol of our vision which we had
sought these many years, and at the sight of it our hearts beat fast
and our breath came quickly. We noted at once that although we had not
seen it during our passage of the mountains, since the peaks ahead and
the rocky sides of the defile hid it from view, so great was its
height that it overtopped the tallest of them. This made it clear to
us how it came to be possible that the ray of light passing through
the loop could fall upon the highest snows of that towering pinnacle
which we had climbed upon the further side of the desert.
Also now we were certain of the cause of that ray, for the smoke
behind the loop explained this mystery. Doubtless, at times when the
volcano was awake, that smoke must be replaced by flame, emitting
light of fearful intensity, and this light it was that reached us,
concentrated and directed by the loop.
For the rest we thought that about thirty miles away we could make out
a white-roofed town set upon a mound, situated among trees upon the
banks of a wide river, which flowed across the plain. Also it was
evident that this country had a large population who cultivated the
soil, for by the aid of a pair of field glasses, one of our few
remaining and most cherished possessions, we could see the green of
springing crops pierced by irrigation canals and the lines of trees
that marked the limits of the fields.
Yes, there before us stretched the Promised Land, and there rose the
mystic Mount, so that all we had to do was to march down the snow
slopes and enter it where we would.
Thus we thought in our folly, little guessing what lay before us, what
terrors and weary suffering we must endure before we stood at length
beneath the shadow of the Symbol of Life.
Our fatigues forgotten, we returned to the tent, hastily swallowed
some of our dried food, which we washed down with lumps of snow that
gave us toothache and chilled us inside, but which thirst compelled us
to eat, dragged the poor yak to its feet, loaded it up, and started.
All this while, so great was our haste and so occupied were each of us
with our own thoughts that, if my memory serves me, we scarcely
interchanged a word. Down the snow slopes we marched swiftly and
without hesitation, for here the road was marked for us by means of
pillars of rock set opposite to one another at intervals. These
pillars we observed with satisfaction, for they told us that we were
still upon a highway which led to the Promised Land.
Yet, as we could not help noting, it was one which seemed to have gone
out of use, since with the exception of a few wild-sheep tracks and
the spoor of some bears and mountain foxes, not a single sign of beast
or man could we discover. This, however, was to be explained, we
reflected, by the fact that doubtless the road was only used in the
summer season. Or perhaps the inhabitants of the country were now
stay-at-home people who never travelled it at all.
Those slopes were longer than we thought; indeed, when darkness closed
in we had not reached the foot of them. So we were obliged to spend
another night in the snow, pitching our tent in the shelter of an
over-hanging rock. As we had descended many thousand feet, the
temperature proved, fortunately, a little milder; indeed, I do not
think that there were more than eighteen or twenty degrees of frost
that night. Also here and there the heat of the sun had melted the
snow in secluded places, so that we were able to find water to drink,
while the yak could fill its poor old stomach with dead-looking
mountain mosses, which it seemed to think better than nothing.
Again, the still dawn came, throwing its red garment over the
lonesome, endless mountains, and we dragged ourselves to our numbed
feet, ate some of our remaining food, and started onwards. Now we
could no longer see the country beneath, for it and even the towering
volcano were hidden from us by an intervening ridge that seemed to be
pierced by a single narrow gulley, towards which we headed. Indeed, as
the pillars showed us, thither ran the buried road. By mid-day it
appeared quite close to us, and we tramped on in feverish haste. As it
chanced, however, there was no need to hurry, for an hour later we
learned the truth.
Between us and the mouth of the gulley rose, or rather sank, a sheer
precipice that was apparently three or four hundred feet in depth, and
at its foot we could hear the sound of water.
Right to the edge of this precipice ran the path, for one of the stone
pillars stood upon its extreme brink, and yet how could a road descend
such a place as that? We stared aghast; then a possible solution
occurred to us.
"Don't you see," said Leo, with a hollow laugh, "the gulf has opened
since this track was used: volcanic action probably."
"Perhaps, or perhaps there was a wooden bridge or stairway which has
rotted. It does not matter. We must find another path, that is all," I
answered as cheerfully as I could.
"Yes, and soon," he said, "if we do not wish to stop here for ever."
So we turned to the right and marched along the edge of the precipice
till, a mile or so away, we came to a small glacier, of which the
surface was sprinkled with large stones frozen into its substance.
This glacier hung down the face of the cliff like a petrified
waterfall, but whether or no it reached the foot we could not
discover. At any rate, to think of attempting its descent seemed out
of the question. From this point onwards we could see that the
precipice increased in depth and far as the eye could reach was
So we went back again and searched to the left of our road. Here the