Part 6 out of 7
What the new religion was to be I did not ask. It seemed unnecessary,
since I was convinced that in practice it would prove a form of
Ayesha-worship, Indeed, my mind was so occupied with conjectures, some
of them quaint and absurd enough, as to what would happen at the first
appearance of Ayesha in China that I forgot this subsidiary
development of our future rule.
"And if the 'little western nations' will not wait to be flooded?"
suggested Leo with irritation, for her contemptuous tone angered him,
one of a prominent western nation. "If they combine, for instance, and
attack thee first?"
"Ah!" she said, with a flash of her eyes. "I have thought of it, and
for my part hope that it will chance, since then thou canst not blame
me if I put out my strength. Oh! then the East, that has slept so
long, shall awake--shall awake, and upon battlefield after battlefield
such as history cannot tell of, thou shalt see my flaming standards
sweep on to victory. One by one thou shalt watch the nations fall and
perish, until at length I build thy throne upon the hecatombs of their
countless dead and crown thee emperor of a world regenerate in blood
Leo, whom this new gospel of regeneration seemed to appall, who was,
in fact, a hater of absolute monarchies and somewhat republican in his
views and sympathies, continued the argument, but I took no further
heed. The thing was grotesque in its tremendous and fantastic
absurdity; Ayesha's ambitions were such as no imperial-minded madman
Yet--here came the rub--I had not the slightest doubt but that she was
well able to put them into practice and carry them to some marvellous
and awful conclusion. Why not? Death could not touch her; she had
triumphed over death. Her beauty--that "cup of madness" in her eyes,
as she named it once to me--and her reckless will would compel the
hosts of men to follow her. Her piercing intelligence would enable her
to invent new weapons with which the most highly-trained army could
not possibly compete. Indeed, it might be as she said, and as I for
one believed, with good reason, it proved, that she held at her
command the elemental forces of Nature, such as those that lie hid in
electricity, which would give all living beings to her for a prey.
Ayesha was still woman enough to have worldly ambitions, and the most
dread circumstance about her superhuman powers was that they appeared
to be unrestrained by any responsibility to God or man. She was as we
might well imagine a fallen angel to be, if indeed, as she herself
once hinted and as Atene and the old Shaman believed, this were not
her true place in creation. By only two things that I was able to
discover could she be moved--her love for Leo and, in a very small
degree, her friendship for myself.
Yet her devouring passion for this one man, inexplicable in its
endurance and intensity, would, I felt sure even then, in the future
as in the past, prove to be her heel of Achilles. When Ayesha was
dipped in the waters of Dominion and Deathlessness, this human love
left her heart mortal, that through it she might be rendered harmless
as a child, who otherwise would have devastated the universe.
I was right.
Whilst I was still indulging myself in these reflections and hoping
that Ayesha would not take the trouble to read them in my mind, I
became aware that Oros was bowing to the earth before her.
"Thy business, priest?" she asked sharply; for when she was with Leo
Ayesha did not like to be disturbed.
"Hes, the spies are returned."
"Why didst thou send them out?" she asked indifferently. "What need
have I of thy spies?"
"Hes, thou didst command me."
"Well, their report?"
"Hes, it is most grave. The people of Kaloon are desperate because of
the drought which has caused their crops to fail, so that starvation
stares them in the eyes, and this they lay to the charge of the
strangers who came into their land and fled to thee. The Khania Atene
also is mad with rage against thee and our holy College. Labouring
night and day, she has gathered two great armies, one of forty, and
one of twenty thousand men, and the latter of these she sends against
the Mountain under the command of her uncle, Simbri the Shaman. In
case it should be defeated she purposes to remain with the second and
greater army on the plains about Kaloon."
"Tidings indeed," said Ayesha with a scornful laugh. "Has her hate
made this woman mad that she dares thus to match herself against me?
My Holly, it crossed thy mind but now that it was I who am mad,
boasting of what I have no power to perform. Well, within six days
thou shalt learn--oh! verily thou shalt learn, and, though the issue
be so very small, in such a fashion that thou wilt doubt no more for
ever. Stay, I will look, though the effort of it wearies me, for those
spies may be but victims to their own fears, or to the falsehoods of
Then suddenly, as was common with her when thus Ayesha threw her sight
afar, which either from indolence, or because, as she said, it
exhausted her, she did but rarely, her lovely face grew rigid like
that of a person in a trance; the light faded from her brow, and the
great pupils of her eyes contracted themselves and lost their colour.
In a little while, five minutes perhaps, she sighed like one awakening
from a deep sleep, passed her hand across her forehead and was as she
had been, though somewhat languid, as though strength had left her.
"It is true enough," she said, "and soon I must be stirring lest many
of my people should be killed. My lord, wouldst thou see war? Nay,
thou shalt bide here in safety whilst I go forward--to visit Atene as
"Where thou goest, I go," said Leo angrily, his face flushing to the
roots of his hair with shame.
"I pray thee not, I pray thee not," she answered, yet without
venturing to forbid him. "We will talk of it hereafter. Oros, away!
Send round the Fire of Hes to every chief. Three nights hence at the
moonrise bid the Tribes gather--nay, not all, twenty thousand of their
best will be enough, the rest shall stay to guard the Mountain and
this Sanctuary. Let them bring food with them for fifteen days. I join
them at the following dawn. Go."
He bowed and went, whereon, dismissing the matter from her mind,
Ayesha began to question me again about the Chinese and their customs.
It was in course of a somewhat similar conversation on the following
night, of which, however, I forget the exact details, that a remark of
Leo's led to another exhibition of Ayesha's marvellous powers.
Leo--who had been considering her plans for conquest, and again
combating them as best he could, for they were entirely repugnant to
his religious, social and political views--said suddenly that after
all they must break down, since they would involve the expenditure of
sums of money so vast that even Ayesha herself would be unable to
provide them by any known methods of taxation. She looked at him and
laughed a little.
"Verily, Leo," she said, "to thee, yes; and to Holly here I must seem
as some madcap girl blown to and fro by every wind of fancy, and
building me a palace wherein to dwell out of dew and vapours, or from
the substance of the sunset fires. Thinkest thou then that I would
enter on this war--one woman against all the world"--and as she spoke
her shape grew royal and in her awful eyes there came a look that
chilled my blood--"and make no preparation for its necessities? Why,
since last we spoke upon this matter, foreseeing all, I have
considered in my mind, and now thou shalt learn how, without cost to
those we rule--and for that reason alone shall they love us dearly--I
will glut the treasuries of the Empress of the Earth.
"Dost remember, Leo, how in Kor I found but a single pleasure during
all those weary ages--that of forcing my mother Nature one by one to
yield me up her choicest secrets; I, who am a student of all things
which are and of the forces that cause them to be born. Now follow me,
both of you, and ye shall look on what mortal eyes have not yet
"What are we to see?" I asked doubtfully, having a lively recollection
of Ayesha's powers as a chemist.
"That thou shalt learn, or shalt not learn if it pleases thee to stay
behind. Come, Leo, my love, my love, and leave this wise philosopher
first to find his riddle and next to guess it."
Then turning her back to me she smiled on him so sweetly that although
really he was more loth to go than I, Leo would have followed her
through a furnace door, as indeed, had he but known it, he was about
So they started, and I accompanied them since with Ayesha it was
useless to indulge in any foolish pride, or to make oneself a victim
to consistency. Also I was anxious to see her new marvel, and did not
care to rely for an account of it upon Leo's descriptive skill, which
at its best was never more than moderate.
She took us down passages that we had not passed before, to a door
which she signed to Leo to open. He obeyed, and from the cave within
issued a flood of light. As we guessed at once, the place was her
laboratory, for about it stood metal flasks and various strange-shaped
instruments. Moreover, there was a furnace in it, one of the best
conceivable, for it needed neither fuel nor stoking, whose gaseous
fires, like those of the twisted columns in the Sanctuary, sprang from
the womb of the volcano beneath our feet.
When we entered two priests were at work there: one of them stirring a
cauldron with an iron rod and the other receiving its molten contents
into a mould of clay. They stopped to salute Ayesha, but she bade them
to continue their task, asking them if all went well.
"Very well, O Hes," they answered; and we passed through that cave and
sundry doors and passages to a little chamber cut in the rock. There
was no lamp or flame of fire in it, and yet the place was filled with
a gentle light which seemed to flow from the opposing wall.
"What were those priests doing?" I said, more to break the silence
than for any other reason.
"Why waste breath upon foolish questions?" she replied. "Are no metals
smelted in thy country, O Holly? Now hadst thou sought to know what I
am doing--But that, without seeing, thou wouldst not believe, so,
Doubter, thou shalt see."
Then she pointed to and bade us don, two strange garments that hung
upon the wall, made of a material which seemed to be half cloth and
half wood and having headpieces not unlike a diver's helmet.
So under her directions Leo helped me into mine, lacing it up behind,
after which, or so I gathered from the sounds--for no light came
through the helmet--she did the same service for him,
"I seem very much in the dark," I said presently; for now there was
silence again, and beneath this extinguisher I felt alarmed and wished
to be sure that I was not left alone.
"Aye Holly," I heard Ayesha's mocking voice make answer, "in the dark,
as thou wast ever, the thick dark of ignorance and unbelief. Well,
now, as ever also, I will give thee light." As she spoke I heard
something roll back; I suppose that it must have been a stone door.
Then, indeed, there was light, yes, even through the thicknesses of
that prepared garment, such light as seemed to blind me. By it I saw
that the wall opposite to us had opened and that we were all three of
us, on the threshold of another chamber. At the end of it stood
something like a little altar of hard, black stone, and on this altar
lay a mass of substance of the size of a child's head, but fashioned,
I suppose from fantasy, to the oblong shape of a human eye.
Out of this eye there poured that blistering and intolerable light. It
was shut round by thick, funnel-shaped screens of a material that
looked like fire-brick, yet it pierced them as though they were but
muslin. More, the rays thus directed upwards struck full upon a lump
of metal held in place above them by a massive frame-work.
And what rays they were! If all the cut diamonds of the world were
brought together and set beneath a mighty burning-glass, the light
flashed from them would not have been a thousandth part so brilliant.
They scorched my eyes and caused the skin of my face and limbs to
smart, yet Ayesha stood there unshielded from them. Aye, she even went
down the length of the room and, throwing back her veil, bent over
them, as it seemed a woman of molten steel in whose body the bones
were visible, and examined the mass that was supported by the hanging
"It is ready and somewhat sooner than I thought," she said. Then as
though it were but a feather weight, she lifted the lump in her bare
hands and glided back with it to where we stood, laughing and saying--
"Tell me now, O thou well-read Holly, if thou hast ever heard of a
better alchemist than this poor priestess of a forgotten faith?" And
she thrust the glowing substance up almost to the mask that hid my
Then I turned and ran, or rather waddled, for in that gear I could not
run, out of the chamber until the rock wall beyond stayed me, and
there, with my back towards her, thrust my helmeted head against it,
for I felt as though red-hot bradawls had been plunged into my eyes.
So I stood while she laughed and mocked behind me until at length I
heard the door close and the blessed darkness came like a gift from
Then Ayesha began to loose Leo from his ray-proof armour, if so it can
be called, and he in turn loosed me; and there in that gentle radiance
we stood blinking at each other like owls in the sunlight, while the
tears streamed down our faces.
"Well, art satisfied, my Holly?" she asked.
"Satisfied with what?" I answered angrily, for the smarting of my eyes
was unbearable. "Yes, with burnings and bedevilments I am well
"And I also," grumbled Leo, who was swearing softly but continuously
to himself in the other corner of the place.
But Ayesha only laughed, oh! she laughed until she seemed the goddess
of all merriment come to earth, laughed till she also wept, then
"Why, what ingratitude is this? Thou, my Leo, didst wish to see the
wonders that I work, and thou, O Holly, didst come unbidden after I
bade thee stay behind, and now both of you are rude and angry, aye,
and weeping like a child with a burnt finger. Here take this," and she
gave us some salve that stood upon a shelf, "and rub it on your eyes
and the smart will pass away."
So we did, and the pain went from them, though, for hours afterwards,
mine remained red as blood.
"And what are these wonders?" I asked her presently. "If thou meanest
that unbearable flame----"
"Nay, I mean what is born of the flame, as, in thine ignorance thou
dost call that mighty agent. Look now;" and she pointed to the
metallic lump she had brought with her, which, still gleaming faintly,
lay upon the floor. "Nay, it has no heat. Thinkest thou that I would
wish to burn my tender hands and so make them unsightly? Touch it,
But I would not, who thought to myself that Ayesha might be well
accustomed to the hottest fires, and feared her impish mischief. I
looked, however, long and earnestly.
"Well, what is it, Holly?"
"Gold," I said, then corrected myself and added, "Copper," for the
dull, red glow might have been that of either metal.
"Nay, nay," she answered, "it is gold, pure gold."
"The ore in this place must be rich," said Leo, incredulously, for I
would not speak any more.
"Yes, my Leo, the iron ore is rich."
"Iron ore?" and he looked at her.
"Surely," she answered, "for from what mine do men dig out gold in
such great masses? Iron ore, beloved, that by my alchemy I change to
gold, which soon shall serve us in our need."
Now Leo stared and I groaned, for I did not believe that it was gold,
and still less that she could make that metal. Then, reading my
thought, with one of those sudden changes of mood that were common to
her, Ayesha grew very angry.
"By Nature's self!" she cried; "wert thou not my friend, Holly, the
fool whom it pleases me to cherish, I would bind that right hand of
thine in those secret rays till the very bones within it were turned
to gold. Nay, why should I be vexed with thee, who art both blind and
deaf? Yet thou /shalt/ be persuaded," and leaving us, she passed down
the passages, called something to the priests who were labouring in
the workshop, then returned to us.
Presently they followed her, carrying on a kind of stretcher between
them an ingot of iron ore that seemed to be as much as they could
"Now," she said, "how wilt thou that I mark this mass which as thou
must admit is only iron? With the sign of Life? Good," and at her
bidding the priests took cold-chisels and hammers and roughly cut upon
its surface the symbol of the looped cross--the /crux ansata/.
"It is not enough," she said when they had finished. "Holly, lend me
that knife of thine, to-morrow I will return it to thee, and of more
So I drew my hunting knife, an Indian-made thing, that had a handle of
plated iron, and gave it her.
"Thou knowest the marks on it," and she pointed to various dents and
to the maker's name upon the blade; for though the hilt was Indian
work the steel was of Sheffield manufacture.
I nodded. Then she bade the priests put on the ray-proof armour that
we had discarded, and told us to go without the chamber and lie in the
darkness of the passage with our faces against the floor.
This we did, and remained so until, a few minutes later, she called us
again. We rose and returned into the chamber to find the priests, who
had removed the protecting garments, gasping and rubbing the salve
upon their eyes; to find also that the lump of iron ore and my knife
were gone. Next she commanded them to place the block of gold-coloured
metal upon their stretcher and to bring it with them. They obeyed, and
we noted that, although those priests were both of them strong men
they groaned beneath its weight.
"How came it," said Leo, "that thou, a woman, couldst carry what these
men find so heavy?"
"It is one of the properties of that force which thou callest fire,"
she answered sweetly, "to make what has been exposed to it, if for a
little while only, as light as thistle-down. Else, how could I, who am
so frail, have borne yonder block of gold?"
"Quite so! I understand now," answered Leo.
Well, that was the end of it. The lump of metal was hid away in a kind
of rock pit, with an iron cover, and we returned to Ayesha's
"So all wealth is thine, as well as all power," said Leo, presently,
for remembering Ayesha's awful threat I scarcely dared to open my
"It seems so," she answered wearily, "since centuries ago I discovered
that great secret, though until ye came I had put it to no use. Holly
here, after his common fashion, believes that this is magic, but I
tell thee again that there is no magic, only knowledge which I have
chanced to win."
"Of course," said Leo, "looked at in the right way, that is in thy
way, the thing is simple." I think he would have liked to add, "as
lying," but as the phrase would have involved explanations, did not.
"Yet, Ayesha," he went on, "hast thou thought that this discovery of
thine will wreck the world?"
"Leo," she answered, "is there then nothing that I can do which will
not wreck this world, for which thou hast such tender care, who
shouldst keep all thy care--for me?"
I smiled, but remembering in time, turned the smile into a frown at
Leo, then fearing lest that also might anger her, made my countenance
as blank as possible.
"If so," she continued, "well, let the world be wrecked. But what
meanest thou? Oh! my lord, Leo, forgive me if I am so dull that I
cannot always follow thy quick thought--I who have lived these many
years alone, without converse with nobler minds, or even those to
which mine own is equal."
"It pleases thee to mock me," said Leo, in a vexed voice, "and that is
not too brave."
Now Ayesha turned on him fiercely, and I looked towards the door. But
he did not shrink, only folded his arms and stared her straight in the
face. She contemplated him a little, then said--
"After that great ordained reason which thou dost not know, I think,
Leo, that why I love thee so madly is that thou alone art not afraid
of me. Not like Holly there, who, ever since I threatened to turn his
bones to gold--which, indeed, I was minded to do," and she laughed--
"trembles at my footsteps and cowers beneath my softest glance.
"Oh! my lord, how good thou art to me, how patient with my moods and
woman's weaknesses," and she made as though she were about to embrace
him. Then suddenly remembering herself, with a little start that
somehow conveyed more than the most tragic gesture, she pointed to the
couch in token that he should seat himself. When he had done so she
drew a footstool to his feet and sank upon it, looking up into his
face with attentive eyes, like a child who listens for a story.
"Thy reasons, Leo, give me thy reasons. Doubtless they are good, and,
oh! be sure I'll weigh them well."
"Here they are in brief," he answered. "The world, as thou knewest in
thy--" and he stopped.
"Thy earlier wanderings there," she suggested.
"Yes--thy earlier wanderings there, has set up gold as the standard of
its wealth. On it all civilizations are founded. Make it as common as
it seems thou canst, and these must fall to pieces. Credit will fail
and, like their savage forefathers, men must once more take to barter
to supply their needs as they do in Kaloon to-day."
"Why not?" she asked. "It would be more simple and bring them closer
to the time when they were good and knew not luxury and greed."
"And smashed in each other's heads with stone axes," added Leo.
"Who now pierce each other's hearts with steel, or those leaden
missiles of which thou hast told me. Oh! Leo, when the nations are
beggared and their golden god is down; when the usurer and the fat
merchant tremble and turn white as chalk because their hoards are but
useless dross; when I have made the bankrupt Exchanges of the world my
mock, and laugh across the ruin of its richest markets, why, then,
will not true worth come to its heritage again?
"What of it if I do discomfort those who think more of pelf than of
courage and of virtue; those who, as that Hebrew prophet wrote, lay
field to field and house to house, until the wretched whom they have
robbed find no place left whereon to dwell? What if I proved your
sagest chapmen fools, and gorge your greedy moneychangers with the
gold that they desire until they loathe its very sight and touch? What
if I uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed against the
ravening lusts of Mammon? Why, will not this world of yours be happier
"I do not know," answered Leo. "All that I know is that it would be a
different world, one shaped upon a new plan, governed by untried laws
and seeking other ends. In so strange a place who can say what might
or might not chance?"
"That we shall learn in its season, Leo. Or, rather, if it be against
thy wish, we will not turn this hidden page. Since thou dost desire
it, that old evil, the love of lucre, shall still hold its mastery
upon the earth. Let the peoples keep their yellow king, I'll not crown
another in his place, as I was minded--such as that living Strength
thou sawest burning eternally but now; that Power whereof I am the
mistress, which can give health to men, or even change the character
of metals, and in truth, if I so desire, obedient to my word, destroy
a city or rend this Mountain from its roots.
"But see, Holly is wearied with much wondering and needs his rest. Oh,
Holly! thou wast born a critic of things done, not a doer of them. I
know thy tribe for even in my day the colleges of Alexandria echoed
with their wranglings and already the winds blew thick with the dust
of their forgotten bones. Holly, I tell thee that at times those who
create and act are impatient of such petty doubts and cavillings. Yet
fear not, old friend, nor take my anger ill. Already thy heart is gold
without alloy, so what need have I to gild thy bones?"
I thanked Ayesha for her compliment, and went to my bed wondering
which was real, her kindness or her wrath, or if both were but
assumed. Also I wondered in what way she had fallen foul of the
critics of Alexandria. Perhaps once she had published a poem or a
system of philosophy and been roughly handled by them! It is quite
possible, only if Ayesha had ever written poetry I think that it would
have endured, like Sappho's.
In the morning I discovered that whatever else about her might be
false, Ayesha was a true chemist, the very greatest, I suppose, who
ever lived. For as I dressed myself, those priests whom we had seen in
the laboratory, staggered into the room carrying between them a heavy
burden, that was covered with a cloth, and, directed by Oros, placed
it upon the floor.
"What is that?" I asked of Oros.
"A peace-offering sent by the Hesea," he said, "with whom, as I am
told, you dared to quarrel yesterday."
Then he withdrew the cloth, and there beneath it shone that great lump
of metal which, in the presence of myself and Leo, had been marked
with the Symbol of Life, that still appeared upon its surface. Only
now it was gold, not iron, gold so good and soft that I could write my
name upon it with a nail. My knife lay with it also, and of that too
the handle, though not the blade, had been changed from iron into
Ayesha asked to see this afterwards and was but ill-pleased with the
result of her experiment. She pointed out to me that lines and blotches
of gold ran for an inch or more down the substance of the steel, which
she feared that they might weaken or distemper, whereas it had been her
purpose that the hilt only should be altered.[*]
[*] I proved in after days how real were Ayesha's alchemy, and the
knowledge which enabled her to solve the secret that chemists have
hunted for in vain, and, like Nature's self, to transmute the
commonest into the most precious of the metals. At the first town
that I reached on the frontiers of India, I took this knife to a
jeweller, a native, who was as clever as he proved dishonest, and
asked him to test the handle. He did so with acids and by other
means, and told me that it was of very pure gold, twenty-four
carats, I think he said. Also he pointed out that this gold became
gradually merged into the steel of the blade in a way which was
quite inexplicable to him, and asked me to clear up the matter. Of
course I could not, but at his request I left the knife in his
shop to give him an opportunity of examining it further. The next
day I was taken ill with one of the heart-attacks to which I have
been liable of late, and when I became able to move about again a
while afterwards, I found that this jeweller had gone, none knew
whither. So had my knife.--L. H. H.
Often since that time I have marvelled how Ayesha performed this
miracle, and from what substances she gathered or compounded the
lightning-like material, which was her servant in the work; also,
whether or no it had been impregnated with the immortalizing fire of
Life that burned in the caves of Kor.[*] Yet to this hour I have found
no answer to the problem, for it is beyond my guessing.
[*] Recent discoveries would appear to suggest that this mysterious
"Fire of Life," which, whatever else it may have been, was
evidently a force and no true fire, since it did not burn, owed
its origin to the emanations from radium, or some kindred
substance. Although in the year 1885, Mr. Holly would have known
nothing of the properties of these marvellous rays or emanations,
doubtless Ayesha was familiar with them and their enormous
possibilities, of which our chemists and scientific men have, at
present, but explored the fringe.--Editor.
I suppose that, in preparation for her conquest of the inhabitants of
this globe--to which, indeed, it would have sufficed unaided by any
other power--the manufacture of gold from iron went on in the cave
However this may be, during the few days that we remained together
Ayesha never so much as spoke of it again. It seemed to have served
her purpose for the while, or in the press of other and more urgent
matters to have been forgotten or thrust from her mind. Still, amongst
others, of which I have said nothing, since it is necessary to select,
I record this strange incident, and our conversations concerning it at
length, for the reason that it made a great impression upon me and
furnishes a striking example of Ayesha's dominion over the hidden
forces of Nature whereof we were soon to experience a more fearful
THE PROPHECY OF ATENE
On the day following this strange experience of the iron that was
turned to gold some great service was held in the Sanctuary, as we
understood, "to consecrate the war." We did not attend it, but that
night we ate together as usual. Ayesha was moody at the meal, that is,
she varied from sullenness to laughter.
"Know you," she said, "that to-day I was an Oracle, and those fools of
the Mountain sent their medicine-men to ask of the Hesea how the
battle would go and which of them would be slain, and which gain
honour. And I--I could not tell them, but juggled with my words, so
that they might take them as they would. How the battle will go I know
well, for I shall direct it, but the future--ah! that I cannot read
better than thou canst, my Holly, and that is ill indeed. For me the
past and all the present lie bathed in light reflected from that black
Then she fell to brooding, and looking up at length with an air of
entreaty, said to Leo--
"Wilt thou not hear my prayer and bide where thou art for some few
days, or even go a-hunting? Do so, and I will stay with thee, and send
Holly and Oros to command the Tribes in this petty fray."
"I will not," answered Leo, trembling with indignation, for this plan
of hers that I should be sent out to war, while he bided in safety in
a temple, moved him, a man brave to rashness, who, although he
disapproved of it in theory, loved fighting for its own sake also, to
"I say, Ayesha, that I will not," he repeated; "moreover, that if thou
leavest me here I will find my way down the mountain alone, and join
"Then come," she answered, "and on thine own head be it. Nay, not on
thine beloved, on mine, on mine."
After this, by some strange reaction, she became like a merry girl,
laughing more than I have ever seen her do, and telling us many tales
of the far, far past, but none that were sad or tragic. It was very
strange to sit and listen to her while she spoke of people, one or two
of them known as names in history and many others who never have been
heard of, that had trod this earth and with whom she was familiar over
two thousand years ago. Yet she told us anecdotes of their loves and
hates, their strength or weaknesses, all of them touched with some
tinge of humorous satire, or illustrating the comic vanity of human
aims and aspirations.
At length her talk took a deeper and more personal note. She spoke of
her searchings after truth; of how, aching for wisdom, she had
explored the religions of her day and refused them one by one; of how
she had preached in Jerusalem and been stoned by the Doctors of the
Law. Of how also she had wandered back to Arabia and, being rejected
by her own people as a reformer, had travelled on to Egypt, and at the
court of the Pharaoh of that time met a famous magician, half
charlatan and half seer who, because she was far-seeing,
'clairvoyante' we should call it, instructed her in his art so well
that soon she became his master and forced him to obey her.
Then, as though she were unwilling to reveal too much, suddenly
Ayesha's history passed from Egypt to Kor. She spoke to Leo of his
arrival there, a wanderer who was named Kallikrates, hunted by savages
and accompanied by the Egyptian Amenartas, whom she appeared to have
known and hated in her own country, and of how she entertained them.
Yes, she even told of a supper that the three of them had eaten
together on the evening before they started to discover the Place of
Life, and of an evil prophecy that this royal Amenartas had made as to
the issue of their journey.
"Aye," Ayesha said, "it was such a silent night as this and such a
meal as this we ate, and Leo, not so greatly changed, save that he was
beardless then and younger, was at my side. Where thou sittest, Holly,
sat the royal Amenartas, a very fair woman; yes, even more beautiful
than I before I dipped me in the Essence, fore-sighted also, though
not so learned as I had grown. From the first we hated each other, and
more than ever now, when she guessed how I had learned to look upon
thee, her lover, Leo; for her husband thou never wast, who didst flee
too fast for marriage. She knew also that the struggle between us
which had begun of old and afar was for centuries and generations, and
that until the end should declare itself neither of us could harm the
other, who both had sinned to win thee, that wast appointed by fate to
be the lodestone of our souls. Then Amenartas spoke and said--
"'Lo! to my sight, Kallikrates, the wine in thy cup is turned to
blood, and that knife in thy hand, O daughter of Yarab'--for so she
named me--'drips red blood. Aye, and this place is a sepulchre, and
thou, O Kallikrates, sleepest here, nor can she, thy murderess, kiss
back the breath of life into those cold lips of thine.'
"So indeed it came about as was ordained," added Ayesha reflectively,
"for I slew thee in yonder Place of Life, yes, in my madness I slew
thee because thou wouldst not or couldst not understand the change
that had come over me, and shrankest from my loveliness like a blind
bat from the splendour of flame, hiding thy face in the tresses of her
dusky hair--Why, what is it now, thou Oros? Can I never be rid of thee
for an hour?"
"O Hes, a writing from the Khania Atene," the priest said with his
"Break the seal and read," she answered carelessly. "Perchance she has
repented of her folly and makes submission."
So he read--
"To the Hesea of the College on the Mountain, known as Ayesha upon
earth, and in the household of the Over-world whence she has been
permitted to wander, as 'Star-that-hath-fallen--'"
"A pretty sounding name, forsooth," broke in Ayesha; "ah! but, Atene,
set stars rise again--even from the Under-world. Read on, thou Oros."
"Greetings, O Ayesha. Thou who art very old, hast gathered much
wisdom in the passing of the centuries, and with other powers,
that of making thyself seem fair in the eyes of men blinded by
thine arts. Yet one thing thou lackest that I have--vision of
those happenings which are not yet. Know, O Ayesha, that I and my
uncle, the great seer, have searched the heavenly books to learn
what is written there of the issue of this war.
"This is written:--For me, death, whereat I rejoice. For thee a
spear cast by thine own hand. For the land of Kaloon blood and
ruin bred of thee!
"Khania of Kaloon."
Ayesha listened in silence, but her lips did not tremble, nor her
cheek pale. To Oros she said proudly--
"Say to the messenger of Atene that I have received her message, and
ere long will answer it, face to face with her in her palace of
Kaloon. Go, priest, and disturb me no more."
When Oros had departed she turned to us and said--
"That tale of mine of long ago was well fitted to this hour, for as
Amenartas prophesied of ill, so does Atene prophesy of ill, and
Amenartas and Atene are one. Well, let the spear fall, if fall it
must, and I will not flinch from it who know that I shall surely
triumph at the last. Perhaps the Khania does but think to frighten me
with a cunning lie, but if she has read aright, then be sure, beloved,
that it is still well with us, since none can escape their destiny,
nor can our bond of union which was fashioned with the universe that
bears us, ever be undone."
She paused awhile then went on with a sudden outburst of poetic
thought and imagery.
"I tell thee, Leo, that out of the confusions of our lives and deaths
order shall yet be born. Behind the mask of cruelty shine Mercy's
tender eyes; and the wrongs of this rough and twisted world are but
hot, blinding sparks which stream from the all-righting sword of pure,
eternal Justice. The heavy lives we see and know are only links in a
golden chain that shall draw us safe to the haven of our rest; steep
and painful steps are they whereby we climb to the alloted palace of
our joy. Henceforth I fear no more, and fight no more against that
which must befall. For I say we are but winged seeds blown down the
gales of fate and change to the appointed garden where we shall grow,
filling its blest air with the immortal fragrance of our bloom.
"Leave me now, Leo, and sleep awhile, for we ride at dawn."
It was midday on the morrow when we moved down the mountain-side with
the army of the Tribes, fierce and savage-looking men. The scouts were
out before us, then came the great body of their cavalry mounted on
wiry horses, while to right and left and behind, the foot soldiers
marched in regiments, each under the command of its own chief.
Ayesha, veiled now--for she would not show her beauty to these wild
folk--rode in the midst of the horse-men on a white mare of matchless
speed and shape. With her went Leo and myself, Leo on the Khan's black
horse, and I on another not unlike it, though thicker built. About us
were a bodyguard of armed priests and a regiment of chosen soldiers,
among them those hunters that Leo had saved from Ayesha's wrath, and
who were now attached to his person.
We were merry, all of us, for in the crisp air of late autumn flooded
with sunlight, the fears and forebodings that had haunted us in those
gloomy, firelit caves were forgotten. Moreover, the tramp of thousands
of armed men and the excitement of coming battle thrilled our nerves.
Not for many a day had I seen Leo look so vigorous and happy. Of late
he had grown somewhat thin and pale, probably from causes that I have
suggested, but now his cheeks were red and his eyes shone bright
again. Ayesha also seemed joyous, for the moods of this strange woman
were as fickle as those of Nature's self, and varied as a landscape
varies under the sunshine or the shadow. Now she was noon and now dark
night; now dawn, now evening, and now thoughts came and went in the
blue depths of her eyes like vapours wafted across the summer sky, and
in the press of them her sweet face changed and shimmered as broken
water shimmers beneath the beaming stars.
"Too long," she said, with a little thrilling laugh, "have I been shut
in the bowels of sombre mountains, accompanied only by mutes and
savages or by melancholy, chanting priests, and now I am glad to look
upon the world again. How beautiful are the snows above, and the brown
slopes below, and the broad plains beyond that roll away to those
bordering hills! How glorious is the sun, eternal as myself; how sweet
the keen air of heaven.
"Believe me, Leo, more than twenty centuries have gone by since I was
seated on a steed, and yet thou seest I have not forgot my
horsemanship, though this beast cannot match those Arabs that I rode
in the wide deserts of Arabia. Oh! I remember how at my father's side
I galloped down to war against the marauding Bedouins, and how with my
own hand I speared their chieftain and made him cry for mercy. One day
I will tell thee of that father of mine, for I was his darling, and
though we have been long apart, I hold his memory dear and look
forward to our meeting.
"See, yonder is the mouth of that gorge where lived the cat-
worshipping sorcerer, who would have murdered both of you because
thou, Leo, didst throw his familiar to the fire. It is strange, but
several of the tribes of this Mountain and of the lands behind it make
cats their gods or divine by means of them. I think that the first
Rassen, the general of Alexander, must have brought the practice here
from Egypt. Of this Macedonian Alexander I could tell thee much, for
he was almost a contemporary of mine, and when I last was born the
world still rang with the fame of his great deeds.
"It was Rassen who on the Mountain supplanted the primeval fire-
worship whereof the flaming pillars which light its Sanctuary remain
as monuments, by that of Hes, or Isis, or rather blended the two in
one. Doubtless among the priests in his army were some of Pasht or
Sekket the Cat-headed, and these brought with them their secret cult,
that to-day has dwindled down to the vulgar divinations of savage
sorcerers. Indeed I remember dimly that it was so, for I was the first
Hesea of this Temple, and journeyed hither with that same general
Rassen, a relative of mine."
Now both Leo and I looked at her wonderingly, and I could see that she
was watching us through her veil. As usual, however, it was I whom she
reproved, since Leo might think and do what he willed and still escape
"Thou, Holly," she said quickly, "who art ever of a cavilling and
suspicious mind, remembering what I said but now, believest that I lie
I protested that I was only reflecting upon an apparent variation
between two statements.
"Play not with words," she answered; "in thy heart thou didst write me
down a liar, and I take that ill. Know, foolish man, that when I said
that the Macedonian Alexander lived before me, I meant before this
present life of mine. In the existence that preceded it, though I
outlasted him by thirty years, we were born in the same summer, and I
knew him well, for I was the Oracle whom he consulted most upon his
wars, and to my wisdom he owed his victories. Afterwards we
quarrelled, and I left him and pushed forward with Rassen. From that
day the bright star of Alexander began to wane." At this Leo made a
sound that resembled a whistle. In a very agony of apprehension,
beating back the criticisms and certain recollections of the strange
tale of the old abbot, Kou-en, which would rise within me, I asked
"And dost thou, Ayesha, remember well all that befell thee in this
"Nay, not well," she answered, meditatively, "only the greater facts,
and those I have for the most part recovered by that study of secret
things which thou callest vision or magic. For instance, my Holly, I
recall that thou wast living in that life. Indeed I seem to see an
ugly philosopher clad in a dirty robe and filled both with wine and
the learning of others, who disputed with Alexander till he grew wroth
with him and caused him to be banished, or drowned: I forget which."
"I suppose that I was not called Diogenes?" I asked tartly,
suspecting, perhaps not without cause, that Ayesha was amusing herself
by fooling me.
"No," she replied gravely, "I do not think that was thy name. The
Diogenes thou speakest of was a much more famous man, one of real if
crabbed wisdom; moreover, he did not indulge in wine. I am mindful of
very little of that life, however, not of more indeed than are many of
the followers of the prophet Buddha, whose doctrines I have studied
and of whom thou, Holly, hast spoken to me so much. Maybe we did not
meet while it endured. Still I recollect that the Valley of Bones,
where I found thee, my Leo, was the place where a great battle was
fought between the Fire-priests with their vassals, the Tribes of the
Mountain and the army of Rassen aided by the people of Kaloon. For
between these and the Mountain, in old days as now, there was enmity,
since in this present war history does but rewrite itself."
"So thou thyself wast our guide," said Leo, looking at her sharply.
"Aye, Leo, who else? though it is not wonderful that thou didst not
know me beneath those deathly wrappings. I was minded to wait and
receive thee in the Sanctuary, yet when I learned that at length both
of you had escaped Atene and drew near, I could restrain myself no
more, but came forth thus hideously disguised. Yes, I was with you
even at the river's bank, and though you saw me not, there sheltered
you from harm.
"Leo, I yearned to look upon thee and to be certain that thy heart had
not changed, although until the alloted time thou mightest not hear my
voice or see my face who wert doomed to undergo that sore trial of thy
faith. Of Holly also I desired to learn whether his wisdom could
pierce through my disguise, and how near he stood to truth. It was for
this reason that I suffered him to see me draw the lock from the
satchel on thy breast and to hear me wail over thee yonder in the
Rest-house. Well he did not guess so ill, but thou, thou knewest me--
in thy sleep--knewest me as I am, and not as I seemed to be, yes," she
added softly, "and didst say certain sweet words which I remember
"Then beneath that shroud was thine own face," asked Leo again, for he
was very curious on this point, "the same lovely face I see to-day?"
"Mayhap--as thou wilt," she answered coldly; "also it is the spirit
that matters, not the outward seeming, though men in their blindness
think otherwise. Perchance my face is but as thy heart fashions it, or
as my will presents it to the sight and fancy of its beholders. But
hark! The scouts have touched."
As Ayesha spoke a sound of distant shouting was borne upon the wind,
and presently we saw a fringe of horsemen falling back slowly upon our
foremost line. It was only to report, however, that the skirmishers of
Atene were in full retreat. Indeed, a prisoner whom they brought with
them, on being questioned by the priests, confessed at once that the
Khania had no mind to meet us upon the holy Mountain. She proposed to
give battle on the river's farther bank, having for a defence its
waters which we must ford, a decision that showed good military
So it happened that on this day there was no fighting.
All that afternoon we descended the slopes of the Mountain, more
swiftly by far than we had climbed them after our long flight from the
city of Kaloon. Before sunset we came to our prepared camping ground,
a wide and sloping plain that ended at the crest of the Valley of Dead
Bones, where in past days we had met our mysterious guide. This,
however, we did not reach through the secret mountain tunnel along
which she had led us, the shortest way by miles, as Ayesha told us
now, since it was unsuited to the passage of an army.
Bending to the left, we circled round a number of unclimbable koppies,
beneath which that tunnel passed, and so at length arrived upon the
brow of the dark ravine where we could sleep safe from attack by
Here a tent was pitched for Ayesha, but as it was the only one, Leo
and I with our guard bivouacked among some rocks at a distance of a
few hundred yards. When she found that this must be so, Ayesha was
very angry and spoke bitter words to the chief who had charge of the
food and baggage, although, he, poor man, knew nothing of tents.
Also she blamed Oros, who replied meekly that he had thought us
captains accustomed to war and its hardships. But most of all she was
angry with herself, who had forgotten this detail, and until Leo
stopped her with a laugh of vexation, went on to suggest that we
should sleep in the tent, since she had no fear of the rigours of the
The end of it was that we supped together outside, or rather Leo and I
supped, for as there were guards around us Ayesha did not even lift
That evening Ayesha was disturbed and ill at ease, as though new fears
which she could not overcome assailed her. At length she seemed to
conquer them by some effort of her will and announced that she was
minded to sleep and thus refresh her soul; the only part of her, I
think, which ever needed rest. Her last words to us were--
"Sleep you also, sleep sound, but be not astonished, my Leo, if I send
to summon both of you during the night, since in my slumbers I may
find new counsels and need to speak of them to thee ere we break camp
Thus we parted, but ah! little did we guess how and where the three of
us would meet again.
We were weary and soon fell fast asleep beside our camp-fire, for,
knowing that the whole army guarded us, we had no fear. I remember
watching the bright stars which shone in the immense vault above me
until they paled in the pure light of the risen moon, now somewhat
past her full, and hearing Leo mutter drowsily from beneath his fur
rug that Ayesha was quite right, and that it was pleasant to be in the
open air again, as he was tired of caves.
After that I knew no more until I was awakened by the challenge of a
sentry in the distance; then after a pause, a second challenge from
the officer of our own guard. Another pause, and a priest stood bowing
before us, the flickering light from the fire playing upon his shaven
head and face, which I seemed to recognize.
"I"--and he gave a name that was familiar to me, but which I forget--
"am sent, my lords, by Oros, who commands me to say that the Hesea
would speak with you both and at once."
Now Leo sat up yawning and asked what was the matter. I told him,
whereon he said he wished that Ayesha could have waited till daylight,
"Well, there is no help for it. Come on, Horace," and he rose to
follow the messenger.
The priest bowed again and said--
"The commands of the Hesea are that my lords should bring their
weapons and their guard."
"What," grumbled Leo, "to protect us for a walk of a hundred yards
through the heart of an army?"
"The Hesea," explained the man, "has left her tent; she is in the
gorge yonder, studying the line of advance."
"How do you know that?" I asked.
"I do not know it," he replied. "Oros told me so, that is all, and
therefore the Hesea bade my lords bring their guard, for she is
"Is she mad," ejaculated Leo, "to wander about in such a place at
midnight? Well, it is like her."
I too thought it was like her, who did nothing that others would have
done, and yet I hesitated. Then I remembered that Ayesha had said she
might send for us; also I was sure that if any trick had been intended
we should not have been warned to bring an escort. So we called the
guard--there were twelve of them--took our spears and swords and
We were challenged by both the first and second lines of sentries, and
I noticed that as we gave them the password the last picket, who of
course recognized us, looked astonished. Still, if they had doubts
they did not dare to express them. So we went on.
Now we began to descend the sides of the ravine by a very steep path,
with which the priest, our guide, seemed to be curiously familiar, for
he went down it as though it were the stairway of his own house.
"A strange place to take us to at night," said Leo doubtfully, when we
were near the bottom and the chief of the bodyguard, that great red-
bearded hunter who had been mixed up in the matter of the snow-leopard
also muttered some words of remonstrance. Whilst I was trying to catch
what he said, of a sudden something white walked into the patch of
moonlight at the foot of the ravine, and we saw that it was the veiled
figure of Ayesha herself. The chief saw her also and said
"Look at her," grumbled Leo, "strolling about in that haunted hole as
though it were Hyde Park;" and on he went at a run.
The figure turned and beckoned to us to follow her as she glided
forward, picking her way through the skeletons which were scattered
about upon the lava bed of the cleft. Thus she went on into the shadow
of the opposing cliff that the moonlight did not reach. Here in the
wet season a stream trickled down a path which it had cut through the
rock in the course of centuries, and the grit that it had brought with
it was spread about the lava floor of the ravine, so that many of the
bones were almost completely buried in the sand.
These, I noticed, as we stepped into the shadow, were more numerous
than usual just here, for on all sides I saw the white crowns of
skulls, or the projecting ends of ribs and thigh bones. Doubtless, I
thought to myself, that streamway made a road to the plain above, and
in some past battle, the fighting around it was very fierce and the
Here Ayesha had halted and was engaged in the contemplation of this
boulder-strewn path, as though she meditated making use of it that
day. Now we drew near to her, and the priest who guided us fell back
with our guard, leaving us to go forward alone, since they dared not
approach the Hesea unbidden. Leo was somewhat in advance of me, seven
or eight yards perhaps, and I heard him say--
"Why dost thou venture into such places at night, Ayesha, unless
indeed it is not possible for any harm to come to thee?"
She made no answer, only turned and opened her arms wide, then let
them fall to her side again. Whilst I wondered what this signal of
hers might mean, from the shadows about us came a strange, rustling
I looked, and lo! everywhere the skeletons were rising from their
sandy beds. I saw their white skulls, their gleaming arm and leg
bones, their hollow ribs. The long-slain army had come to life again,
and look! in their hands were the ghosts of spears.
Of course I knew at once that this was but another manifestation of
Ayesha's magic powers, which some whim of hers had drawn us from our
beds to witness. Yet I confess that I felt frightened. Even the
boldest of men, however free from superstition, might be excused
should their nerve fail them if, when standing in a churchyard at
midnight, suddenly on every side they saw the dead arising from their
graves. Also our surroundings were wilder and more eerie than those of
any civilized burying-place.
"What new devilment of thine is this?" cried Leo in a scared and angry
voice. But Ayesha made no answer. I heard a noise behind me and looked
round. The skeletons were springing upon our body-guard, who for their
part, poor men, paralysed with terror, had thrown down their weapons
and fallen, some of them, to their knees. Now the ghosts began to stab
at them with their phantom spears, and I saw that beneath the blows
they rolled over. The veiled figure above me pointed with her hand at
Leo and said--
"Seize him, but I charge you, harm him not."
I knew the voice; /it was that of Atene!/
Then too late I understood the trap into which we had fallen.
"Treachery!" I began to cry, and before the word was out of my lips, a
particularly able-bodied skeleton silenced me with a violent blow upon
the head. But though I could not speak, my senses still stayed with me
for a little. I saw Leo fighting furiously with a number of men who
strove to pull him down, so furiously, indeed that his frightful
efforts caused the blood to gush out of his mouth from some burst
vessel in the lungs.
Then sight and hearing failed me, and thinking that this was death, I
fell and remembered no more.
Why I was not killed outright I do not know, unless in their hurry the
disguised soldiers thought me already dead, or perhaps that my life
was to be spared also. At least, beyond the knock upon the head I
received no injury.
THE LOOSING OF THE POWERS
When I came to myself again, it was daylight. I saw the calm, gentle
face of Qros bending over me as he poured some strong fluid down my
throat that seemed to shoot through all my body, and melt a curtain in
my mind. I saw also that beside him stood Ayesha.
"Speak, man, speak," she said in a terrible voice. "What hast chanced
here? Thou livest, then where is my lord? Where hast thou hid my lord?
Tell me--or die."
It was the vision that I saw when my senses left me in the snow of the
avalanche, fulfilled to the last detail!
"Atene has taken him," I answered.
"Atene has taken him and thou art left alive?"
"Do not be wrath with me," I answered, "it is no fault of mine. Little
wonder we were deceived after thou hadst said that thou mightest
summon us ere dawn."
Then as briefly as I could I told the story.
She listened, went to where our murdered guards lay with unstained
spears, and looked at them.
"Well for these that they are dead," she exclaimed. "Now, Holly, thou
seest what is the fruit of mercy. The men whose lives I gave my lord
have failed him at his need."
Then she passed forward to the spot where Leo was captured. Here lay a
broken sword--Leo's--that had been the Khan Rassen's, and two dead
men. Both of these were clothed in some tight-fitting black garments,
having their heads and faces whitened with chalk and upon their vests
a rude imitation of a human skeleton, also daubed in chalk.
"A trick fit to frighten fools with," she said contemptuously. "But
oh! that Atene should have dared to play the part of Ayesha, that she
should have dared!" and she clenched her little hand. "See, surprised
and overwhelmed, yet he fought well. Say! was he hurt, Holly? It comes
upon me--no, tell me that I see amiss."
"Not much, I think," I answered doubtfully, "a little blood was
running from his mouth, no more. Look, there go the stains of it upon
"For every drop I'll take a hundred lives. By myself I swear it,"
Ayesha muttered with a groan. Then she cried in a ringing voice,
"Back and to horse, for I have deeds to do this day. Nay, bide thou
here, Holly; we go a shorter path while the army skirts the gorge.
Oros, give him food and drink and bathe that hurt upon his head. It is
but a bruise, for his hood and hair are thick."
So while Oros rubbed some stinging lotion on my scalp, I ate and drank
as best I could till my brain ceased to swim, for the blow, though
heavy, had not fractured the bone. When I was ready they brought the
horses to us, and mounting them, slowly we scrambled up the steep bed
of the water-course.
"See," Ayesha said, pointing to tracks and hoof-prints on the plain at
its head, "there was a chariot awaiting him, and harnessed to it were
four swift horses. Atene's scheme was clever and well laid, and I,
grown oversure and careless, slept through it all!"
On this plain the army of the Tribes that had broken camp before the
dawn was already gathering fast; indeed, the cavalry, if I may call
them so, were assembled there to the number of about five thousand
men, each of whom had a led horse. Ayesha summoned the chiefs and
captains, and addressed them. "Servants of Hes," she said, "the
stranger lord, my betrothed and guest, has been tricked by a false
priest and, falling into a cunning snare, captured as a hostage. It is
necessary that I follow him fast, before harm comes--to him. We move
down to attack the army of the Khania beyond the river. When its
passage is forced I pass on with the horsemen, for I must sleep in the
city of Kaloon to-night. What sayest thou, Oros? That a second and
greater army defends its walls? Man, I know it, and if there is need,
that army I will destroy. Nay, stare not at me. Already they are as
dead. Horsemen, you accompany me.
"Captains of the Tribes, you follow, and woe be to that man who hangs
back in the hour of battle, for death and eternal shame shall be his
portion, but wealth and honour to those who bear them bravely. Yes, I
tell you, theirs shall be the fair land of Kaloon. You have your
orders for the passing of yonder river. I, with the horsemen, take the
central ford. Let the wings advance."
The chiefs answered with a cheer, for they were fierce men whose
ancestors had loved war for generations. Moreover, mad as seemed the
enterprise, they trusted in their Oracle, the Hesea, and, like all
hill peoples, were easily fired by the promise of rich plunder.
An hour's steady march down the slopes brought the army to the edge of
the marsh lands. These, as it chanced, proved no obstacle to our
progress, for in that season of great drought they were quite dry, and
for the same reason the shrunken river was not so impassable a defence
as I feared that it would be. Still, because of its rocky bottom and
steep, opposing banks, it looked formidable enough, while on the
crests of those banks, in squadrons and companies of horse and foot,
were gathered the regiments of Atene.
While the wings of footmen deployed to right and left, the cavalry
halted in the marshes and let their horses fill themselves with the
long grass, now a little browned by frost, that grew on this boggy
soil, and afterwards drink some water.
All this time Ayesha stood silent, for she also had dismounted, that
the mare she rode and her two led horses might graze with the others.
Indeed, she spoke but once, saying--
"Thou thinkest this adventure mad, my Holly? Say, art afraid?"
"Not with thee for captain," I answered. "Still, that second army----"
"Shall melt before me like mist before the gale," she replied in a low
and thrilling voice. "Holly, I tell thee thou shalt see things such as
no man upon the earth has ever seen. Remember my words when I /loose
the Powers/ and thou followest the rent veil of Ayesha through the
smitten squadrons of Kaloon. Only--what if Atene should dare to murder
him? Oh, if she should dare!"
"Be comforted," I replied, wondering what she might mean by this
loosing of the Powers. "I think that she loves him too well."
"I bless thee for the words, Holly, yet--I know he will refuse her,
and then her hate for me and her jealous rage may overcome her love
for him. Should this be so, what will avail my vengeance? Eat and
drink again, Holly--nay, I touch no food until I sit in the palace of
Kaloon--and look well to girth and bridle, for thou ridest far and on
a wild errand. Mount thee on Leo's horse, which is swift and sure; if
it dies the guards will bring thee others."
I obeyed her as best I could, and once more bathed my head in a pool,
and with the help of Oros tied a rag soaked in the liniment on the
bruise, after which I felt sound enough. Indeed, the mad excitement of
those minutes of waiting, and some foreshadowing of the terrible
wonders that were about to befall, made me forget my hurts.
Now, Ayesha was standing staring upwards, so that although I could not
see her veiled face, I guessed that her eyes must be fixed on the sky
above the mountain top. I was certain, also, that she was
concentrating her fearful will upon an unknown object, for her whole
frame quivered like a reed shaken in the wind.
It was a very strange morning--cold and clear, yet curiously still,
and with a heaviness in the air such as precedes a great fall of snow,
although for much snow the season was yet too early. Once or twice,
too, in that utter calm, I thought that I felt everything shudder; not
the ordinary trembling of earthquake, however, for the shuddering
seemed to be of the atmosphere quite as much as of the land. It was as
though all Nature around us were a living creature which is very much
Following Ayesha's earnest gaze, I perceived that thick, smoky clouds
were gathering one by one in the clear sky above the peak, and that
they were edged, each of them, with a fiery rim. Watching these
fantastic and ominous clouds, I ventured to say to her that it looked
as though the weather would change--not a very original remark, but
one which the circumstances suggested.
"Aye," she answered, "ere night the weather will be wilder even than
my heart. No longer shall they cry for water in Kaloon! Mount, Holly,
mount! The advance begins!" and unaided she sprang to the saddle of
the mare that Oros brought her.
Then, in the midst of the five thousand horsemen, we moved down upon
the ford. As we reached its brink I noted that the two divisions of
tribesmen were already entering the stream half a mile to the right
and left of us. Of what befell them I can tell nothing from
observation, although I learned later that they forced it after great
slaughter on both sides.
In front of us was gathered the main body of the Khania's army, massed
by regiments upon the further bank, while hundreds of picked men stood
up to their middles in the water, waiting to spear or hamstring our
horses as we advanced.
Now, uttering their wild, whistling cry, our leading companies dashed
into the river, leaving us upon the bank, and soon were engaged hotly
with the footmen in midstream. While this fray went on, Oros came to
Ayesha, told her a spy had reported that Leo, bound in a two-wheeled
carriage and accompanied by Atene, Simbri and a guard, had passed
through the enemy's camp at night, galloping furiously towards Kaloon.
"Spare thy words, I know it," she answered, and he fell back behind
Our squadrons gained the bank, having destroyed most of the men in the
water, but as they set foot upon it the enemy charged them and drove
them back with loss. Thrice they returned to the attack, and thrice
were repulsed in this fashion. At length Ayesha grew impatient.
"They need a leader, and I will give them one," she said. "Come with
me, my Holly," and, followed by the main body of the horsemen, she
rode a little way into the river, and there waited until the shattered
troops had fallen back upon us. Oros whispered to me--
"It is madness, the Hesea will be slain."
"Thinkest thou so?" I answered. "More like that we shall be slain," a
saying at which he smiled a little more than usual and shrugged his
shoulders, since for all his soft ways, Oros was a brave man. Also I
believe that he spoke to try me, knowing that his mistress would take
Ayesha held up her hand, in which there was no weapon, and waved it
forwards. A great cheer answered that signal to advance, and in the
midst of it this frail, white-robed woman spoke to her horse, so that
it plunged deep into the water.
Two minutes later, and spears and arrows were flying about us so
thickly that they seemed to darken the sky. I saw men and horses fall
to right and left, but nothing touched me or the white robes that
floated a yard or two ahead. Five minutes and we were gaining the
further bank, and there the worst fight began.
It was fierce indeed, yet never an inch did the white robes give back,
and where they went men would follow them or fall. We were up the bank
and the enemy was packed about us, but through them we passed slowly,
like a boat through an adverse sea that buffets but cannot stay it.
Yes, further and further, till at last the lines ahead grew thin as
the living wedge of horsemen forced its path between them--grew thin,
broke and vanished.
We had passed through the heart of the host, and leaving the tribesmen
who followed to deal with its flying fragments, rode on half a mile or
so and mustered. Many were dead and more were hurt, but the command
was issued that all sore-wounded men should fall out and give their
horses to replace those that had been killed.
This was done, and presently we moved on, three thousand of us now,
not more, heading for Kaloon. The trot grew to a canter, and the
canter to a gallop, as we rushed forward across that endless plain,
till at midday, or a little after--for this route was far shorter than
that taken by Leo and myself in our devious flight from Rassen and his
death-hounds--we dimly saw the city of Kaloon set upon its hill.
Now a halt was ordered, for here was a reservoir in which was still
some water, whereof the horses drank, while the men ate of the food
they carried with them; dried meat and barley meal. Here, too, more
spies met us, who said that the great army of Atene was posted
guarding the city bridges, and that to attack it with our little force
would mean destruction. But Ayesha took no heed of their words;
indeed, she scarcely seemed to hear them. Only she ordered that all
wearied horses should be abandoned and fresh ones mounted.
Forward again for hour after hour, in perfect silence save for the
thunder of our horses' hoofs. No word spoke Ayesha, nor did her wild
escort speak, only from time to time they looked over their shoulders
and pointed with their red spears at the red sky behind.
I looked also, nor shall I forget its aspect. The dreadful, fire-edged
clouds had grown and gathered so that beneath their shadows the plain
lay almost black. They marched above us like an army in the heavens,
while from time to time vaporous points shot forward, thin like
swords, or massed like charging horse.
Under them a vast stillness reigned. It was as though the earth lay
dead beneath their pall.
Kaloon, lit in a lurid light, grew nearer. The pickets of the foe flew
homeward before us, shaking their javelins, and their mocking laughter
reached us in hollow echoes. Now we saw the vast array, posted rank on
rank with silken banners drooping in that stirless air, flanked and
screened by glittering regiments of horse.
An embassy approached us, and at the signal of Ayesha's uplifted arm
we halted. It was headed by a lord of the court whose face I knew. He
pulled rein and spoke boldly.
"Listen, Hes, to the words of Atene. Ere now the stranger lord, thy
darling, is prisoner in her palace. Advance, and we destroy thee and
thy little band; but if by any miracle thou shouldst conquer, then he
dies. Get thee gone to thy Mountain fastness and the Khania gives thee
peace, and thy people their lives. What answer to the words of the
Ayesha whispered to Oros, who called aloud--
"There is no answer. Go, if ye love life, for death draws near to
So they went fast as their swift steeds would carry them, but for a
little while Ayesha still sat lost in thought.
Presently she turned and through her thin veil I saw that her face was
white and terrible and that the eyes in it glowed like those of a
lioness at night. She said to, me--hissing the words between her
"Holly, prepare thyself to look into the mouth of hell. I desired to
spare them if I could, I swear it, but my heart bids me be bold, to
put off human pity, and use all my secret might if I would see Leo
living. Holly, I tell thee they are about /to murder him!/"
Then she cried aloud, "Fear nothing, Captains. Ye are but few, yet
with you goes the strength of ten thousand thousand. Now follow the
Hesea, and whate'er ye meet, be not dismayed. Repeat it to the
soldiers, that fearing nothing they follow the Hesea through yonder
host and across the bridge and into the city of Kaloon."
So the chiefs rode hither and thither, crying out her words, and the
savage tribesmen answered--
"Aye, we who followed through the water, will follow across the plain.
Onward, Hes, for darkness swallows us."
Now some orders were given, and the companies fell into a formation
that resembled a great wedge, Ayesha herself being its very point and
apex, for though Oros and I rode on either side of her, spur as we
would, our horses' heads never passed her saddle bow. In front of that
dark mass she shone a single spot of white--one snowy feather on a
black torrent's breast.
A screaming bugle note--and, like giant arms, from the shelter of some
groves of poplar trees, curved horns of cavalry shot out to surround
us, while the broad bosom of the opposing army, shimmering with
spears, rolled forward as a wave rolls crowned with sunlit foam, and
behind it, line upon line, uncountable, lay a surging sea of men.
Our end was near. We were lost, or so it seemed.
Ayesha tore off her veil and held it on high, flowing from her like a
pennon, and lo! upon her brow blazed that wide and mystic diadem of
light which once only I had seen before.
Denser and denser grew the rushing clouds above; brighter and brighter
gleamed the unearthly star of light beneath. Louder and louder beat
the sound of the falling hoofs of ten thousand horses. From the
Mountain peak behind us went up sudden sheets of flame; it spouted
fire as a whale spouts foam.
The scene was dreadful. In front, the towers of Kaloon lurid in a
monstrous sunset. Above, a gloom as of an eclipse. Around the
darkling, sunburnt plain. On it Atene's advancing army, and our
rushing wedge of horsemen destined, it would appear, to inevitable
Ayesha let fall her rein. She tossed her arms, waving the torn, white
veil as though it were a signal cast to heaven.
Instantly from the churning jaws of the unholy night above belched a
blaze of answering flame, that also wavered like a rent and shaken
veil in the grasp of a black hand of cloud.
Then did Ayesha roll the thunder of her might upon the Children of
Kaloon. Then she called, and the Terror came, such as men had never
seen and perchance never more will see. Awful bursts of wind tore past
us, lifting the very stones and soil before them, and with the wind
went hail and level, hissing rain, made visible by the arrows of
perpetual lightnings that leapt downwards from the sky and upwards
from the earth.
It was as she had warned me. It was as though hell had broken loose
upon the world, yet through that hell we rushed on unharmed. For
always these furies passed before us. No arrow flew, no javelin was
stained. The jagged hail was a herald of our coming; the levens that
smote and stabbed were our sword and spear, while ever the hurricane
roared and screamed with a million separate voices which blended to
one yell of sound, hideous and indescribable.
As for the hosts about us they melted and were gone.
Now the darkness was dense, like to that of thickest night; yet in the
fierce flares of the lightnings I saw them run this way and that, and
amidst the volleying, elemental voices I heard their shouts of horror
and of agony. I saw horses and riders roll confused upon the ground;
like storm-drifted leaves I saw their footmen piled in high and
whirling heaps, while the brands of heaven struck and struck them till
they sank together and grew still.
I saw the groves of trees bend, shrivel up and vanish. I saw the high
walls of Kaloon blown in and flee away, while the houses within the
walls took fire, to go out beneath the torrents of the driving rain,
and again take fire. I saw blackness sweep over us with great wings,
and when I looked, lo! those wide wings were flame, floods of pulsing
flame that flew upon the tormented air.
Blackness, utter blackness; turmoil, doom, dismay! Beneath me the
labouring horse; at my side the steady crest of light which sat on
Ayesha's brow, and through the tumult a clear, exultant voice that
"I promised thee wild weather! Now, Holly, dost thou believe that I
can loose the prisoned Powers of the world?"
Lo! all was past and gone, and above us shone the quiet evening sky,
and before us lay the empty bridge, and beyond it the flaming city of
Kaloon. But the armies of Atene, where were they? Go, ask of those
great cairns that hide their bones. Go, ask it of her widowed land.
Yet of our wild company of horsemen not one was lost. After us they
galloped trembling, white-lipped, like men who face to face had fought
and conquered Death, but triumphant--ah, triumphant!
On the high head of the bridge Ayesha wheeled her horse, and so for
one proud moment stood to welcome them. At the sight of her glorious,
star-crowned countenance, which now her Tribes beheld for the first
time and the last, there went up such a shout as men have seldom
"/The Goddess!/" that shout thundered. "Worship the Goddess!"
Then she turned her horse's head again, and they followed on through
the long straight street of the burning city, up to the palace on its
As the sun set we sped beneath its gateway. Silence in the courtyard,
silence everywhere, save for the distant roar of fire and the scared
howlings of the death-hounds in their kennel.
Ayesha sprang from her horse, and waving back all save Oros and
myself, swept through the open doors into the halls beyond.
They were empty, every one--all were fled or dead. Yet she never
paused or doubted, but so swiftly that we scarce could follow her,
flitted up the wide stone stair that led to the topmost tower. Up,
still up, until we reached the chamber where had dwelt Simbri the
Shaman, that same chamber whence he was wont to watch his stars, in
which Atene had threatened us with death.
Its door was shut and barred; still, at Ayesha's coming, yes, before
the mere breath of her presence, the iron bolts snapped like twigs,
the locks flew back, and inward burst that massive portal.
Now we were within the lamp-lit chamber, and this is what we saw.
Seated in a chair, pale-faced, bound, yet proud and defiant-looking,
was Leo. Over him, a dagger in his withered hand--yes, about to
strike, in the very act--stood the old Shaman, and on the floor hard
by, gazing upward with wide-set eyes, dead and still majestic in her
death, lay Atene, Khania of Kaloon.
Ayesha waved her arm and the knife fell from Simbri's hand, clattering
on the marble, while in an instant he who had held it was smitten to
stillness and became like a man turned to stone.
She stooped, lifted the dagger, and with a swift stroke severed Leo's
bonds; then, as though overcome at last, sank on to a bench in
silence. Leo rose, looking about him bewildered, and said in the
strained voice of one who is weak with much suffering--
"But just in time, Ayesha. Another second, and that murderous dog"--
and he pointed to the Shaman--"well, it was in time. But how went the
battle, and how earnest thou here through that awful hurricane? And,
oh, Horace, thank heaven they did not kill you after all!"
"The battle went ill for some," Ayesha answered, "and I came not
through the hurricane, but on its wings. Tell me now, what has
befallen thee since we parted?"
"Trapped, overpowered, bound, brought here, told that I must write to
thee and stop thy advance, or die--refused, of course, and then----"
and he glanced at the dead body on the floor.
"And then?" repeated Ayesha.
"Then that fearful tempest, which seemed to drive me mad. Oh! if thou
couldst have heard the wind howling round these battlements, tearing
off their stones as though they were dry leaves; if thou hadst seen
the lightnings falling thick and fast as rain----"
"They were my messengers. I sent them to save thee," said Ayesha
Leo stared at her, making no comment, but after a pause, as though he
were thinking the matter over, he went on--
"Atene said as much, but I did not believe her. I thought the end of
the world had come, that was all. Well, she returned just now more mad
even than I was, and told me that her people were destroyed and that
she could not fight against the strength of hell, but that she could
send me thither, and took a knife to kill me.
"I said, 'Kill on,' for I knew that wherever I went thou wouldst
follow, and I was sick with the loss of blood from some hurt I had in
that struggle, and weary of it all. So I shut my eyes waiting for the
stroke, but instead I felt her lips pressed upon my forehead, and
heard her say--
"'Nay, I will not do it. Fare thee well; fulfil thou thine own
destiny, as I fulfil mine. For this cast the dice have fallen against
me; elsewhere it may be otherwise. I go to load them if I may.'
"I opened my eyes and looked. There Atene stood, a glass in her hand--
see, it lies beside her.
"'Defeated, yet I win,' she cried, 'for I do but pass before thee to
prepare the path that thou shalt tread, and to make ready thy place in
the Under-world. Till we meet again I pledge thee, for I am destroyed.
Ayesha's horsemen are in my streets, and, clothed in lightnings at
their head, rides Ayesha's avenging self.'
"So she drank, and fell dead--but now. Look, her breast still quivers.
Afterwards, that old man would have murdered me, for, being roped, I
could not resist him, but the door burst in and thou camest. Spare
him, he is of her blood, and he loved her."
Then Leo sank back into the chair where we had discovered him bound,
and seemed to fall into a kind of torpor, for of a sudden he grew to
look like an old man.
"Thou art sick," said Ayesha anxiously. "Oros, thy medicine, the
draught I bade thee bring! Be swift, I say."
The priest bowed, and from some pocket in his ample robe produced a
phial which he opened and gave to Leo, saying--
"Drink, my lord; this stuff will give thee back thy health, for it is
"The stronger the better," answered Leo, rousing himself, and with
something like his old, cheerful laugh. "I am thirsty who have touched
nothing since last night, and have fought hard and been carried far,
yes--and lived through that hellish storm."
Then he took the draught and emptied it. There must have been virtue
in that potion; at least, the change which it produced in him was
wonderful. Within a minute his eyes grew bright again, and the colour
returned into his cheeks.
"Thy medicines are very good, as I have learned of old," he said to
Ayesha; "but the best of all of them is to see thee safe and
victorious before me, and to know that I, who looked for death, yet
live to greet thee, my beloved. There is food," and he pointed to a
board upon which were meats, "say, may I eat of them, for I starve?"
"Aye," she answered softly, "eat, and, my Holly, eat thou also."
So we fell to, yes, we fell to and ate even in the presence of that
dead woman who looked so royal in her death; of the old magician who
stood there powerless, like a man petrified, and of Ayesha, the
wondrous being that could destroy an army with the fearful weapons
which were servant to her will.
Only Oros ate nothing, but remained where he was, smiling at us
benignantly, nor did Ayesha touch any food.
THE YIELDING OF AYESHA
When I had satisfied myself, Leo was still at his meal, for loss of
blood or the effects of the tremendous nerve tonic which Ayesha
ordered to be administered to him, had made him ravenous.
I watched his face and became aware of a curious change in it, no
immediate change indeed, but one, I think, that had come upon him
gradually, although I only fully appreciated it now, after our short
separation. In addition to the thinness of which I have spoken, his
handsome countenance had grown more ethereal; his eyes were full of
the shadows of things that were to come.
His aspect pained me, I knew not why. It was no longer that of the Leo
with whom I was familiar, the deep-chested, mighty-limbed, jovial,
upright traveller, hunter and fighting-man who had chanced to love and
be loved of a spiritual power incarnated in a mould of perfect
womanhood and armed with all the might of Nature's self. These things
were still present indeed, but the man was changed, and I felt sure
that this change came from Ayesha, since the look upon his face had
become exceeding like to that which often hovered upon hers at rest.
She also was watching him, with speculative, dreamy eyes, till
presently, as some thought swept through her, I saw those eyes blaze
up, and the red blood pour to cheek and brow. Yes, the mighty Ayesha
whose dead, slain for him, lay strewn by the thousand on yonder plain,
blushed and trembled like a maiden at her first lover's kiss.
Leo rose from the table. "I would that I had been with thee in the
fray," he said.
"At the drift there was fighting," she answered, "afterwards none. My
ministers of Fire, Earth and Air smote, no more; I waked them from
their sleep and at my command they smote for thee and saved thee."
"Many lives to take for one man's safety," Leo said solemnly, as
though the thought pained him.
"Had they been millions and not thousands, I would have spent them
every one. On my head be their deaths, not on thine. Or rather on
hers," and she pointed to the dead Atene. "Yes, on hers who made this
war. At least she should thank me who have sent so royal a host to
guard her through the darkness."
"Yet it is terrible," said Leo, "to think of thee, beloved, red to the
hair with slaughter."
"What reck I?" she answered with a splendid pride. "Let their blood
suffice to wash the stain of thy blood from off these cruel hands that
once did murder thee."
"Who am I that I should blame thee?" Leo went on as though arguing
with himself, "I who but yesterday killed two men--to save myself from
"Speak not of it," she exclaimed in cold rage. "I saw the place and,
Holly, thou knowest how I swore that a hundred lives should pay for
every drop of that dear blood of thine, and I, who lie not, have kept
the oath. Look now on that man who stands yonder struck by my will to
stone, dead yet living, and say again what was he about to do to thee
when I entered here?"
"To take vengeance on me for the doom of his queen and of her armies,"
answered Leo, "and Ayesha, how knowest thou that a Power higher than
thine own will not demand it yet?"
As he spoke a pale shadow flickered on Leo's face, such a shadow as
might fall from Death's advancing wing, and in the fixed eyes of the
Shaman there shone a stony smile.
For a moment terror seemed to take Ayesha, then it was gone as quickly
as it came.
"Nay," she said. "I ordain that it shall not be, and save One who
listeth not, what power reigns in this wide earth that dare defy my
So she spoke, and as her words of awful pride--for they were very
awful--rang round that stone-built chamber, a vision came to me--
I saw illimitable space peopled with shining suns, and sunk in the
infinite void above them one vast Countenance clad in a calm so
terrific that at its aspect my spirit sank to nothingness. Yes, and I
knew that this was Destiny enthroned above the spheres. Those lips
moved and obedient worlds rushed upon their course. They moved again
and these rolling chariots of the heavens were turned or stayed,
appeared or disappeared. I knew also that against this calm Majesty
the being, woman or spirit, at my side had dared to hurl her passion
and her strength. My soul reeled. I was afraid.
The dread phantasm passed, and when my mind cleared again Ayesha was
speaking in new, triumphant tones.
"Nay, nay," she cried. "Past is the night of dread; dawns the day of
victory! Look!" and she pointed through the window-places shattered by
the hurricane, to the flaming town beneath, whence rose one continual
wail of misery, the wail of women mourning their countless slain while
the fire roared through their homes like some unchained and rejoicing
demon. "Look Leo on the smoke of the first sacrifice that I offer to
thy royal state and listen to its music. Perchance thou deemst it
naught. Why then I'll give thee others. Thou lovest war. Good! we will
go down to war and the rebellious cities of the earth shall be the
torches of our march."
She paused a moment, her delicate nostrils quivering, and her face
alight with the prescience of ungarnered splendours; then like a
swooping swallow flitted to where, by dead Atene, the gold circlet
fallen from the Khania's hair lay upon the floor.
She stooped, lifted it, and coming to Leo held it high above his head.
Slowly she let her hand fall until the glittering coronet rested for
an instant on his brow. Then she spoke, in her glorious voice that
rolled out rich and low, a very paean of triumph and of power.
"By this poor, earthly symbol I create thee King of Earth; yea in its
round for thee is gathered all her rule. Be thou its king, and mine!"
Again the coronet was held aloft, again it sank, and again she said or
"With this unbroken ring, token of eternity, I swear to thee the boon
of endless days. Endure thou while the world endures, and be its lord,
A third time the coronet touched his brow.
"By this golden round I do endow thee with Wisdom's perfect gold
uncountable, that is the talisman whereat all nature's secret paths
shall open to thy feet. Victorious, victorious, tread thou her
wondrous ways with me, till from her topmost peak at last she wafts us
to our immortal throne whereof the columns twain are Life and Death."
Then Ayesha cast away the crown and lo! it fell upon the breast of the
lost Atene and rested there.
"Art content with these gifts of mine, my lord?" she cried.
Leo looked at her sadly and shook his head.
"What more wilt thou then? Ask and I swear it shall be thine."
"Thou swearest; but wilt thou keep the oath?"
"Aye, by myself I swear; by myself and by the Strength that bred me.
If it be ought that I can grant--then if I refuse it to thee, may such
destruction fall upon me as will satisfy even Atene's watching soul."
I heard and I think that another heard also, at least once more the
stony smile shone in the eyes of the Shaman.
"I ask of thee nothing that thou canst not give. Ayesha, I ask of thee
thyself--not at some distant time when I have been bathed in a
mysterious fire, but now, now this night."
She shrank back from him a little, as though dismayed.
"Surely," she said slowly, "I am like that foolish philosopher who,
walking abroad to read the destinies of nations in the stars, fell
down a pitfall dug by idle children and broke his bones and perished
there. Never did I guess that with all these glories stretched before
thee like mountain top on glittering mountain top, making a stairway
for thy mortal feet to the very dome of heaven, thou wouldst still
clutch at thy native earth and seek of it--but the common boon of
"Oh! Leo, I thought that thy soul was set upon nobler aims, that thou
wouldst pray me for wider powers, for a more vast dominion; that as
though they were but yonder fallen door of wood and iron, I should
break for thee the bars of Hades, and like the Eurydice of old fable
draw thee living down the steeps of Death, or throne thee midst the
fires of the furthest sun to watch its subject worlds at play.
"Or I thought that thou wouldst bid me reveal what no woman ever told,
the bitter, naked truth--all my sins and sorrows, all the wandering
fancies of my fickle thought; even what thou knowest not and perchance
ne'er shalt know, /who I am and whence I came/, and how to thy charmed
eyes I seemed to change from foul to fair, and what is the purpose of
my love for thee, and what the meaning of that tale of an angry
goddess--who never was except in dreams.
"I thought--nay, no matter what I thought, save that thou wert far
other than thou art, my Leo, and in so high a moment that thou wouldst
seek to pass the mystic gates my glory can throw wide and with me
tread an air supernal to the hidden heart of things. Yet thy prayer is
but the same that the whole world whispers beneath the silent moon, in
the palace and the cottage, among the snows and on the burning
desert's waste. 'Oh! my love, thy lips, thy lips. Oh! my love, be
mine, now, now, beneath the moon, beneath the moon!'
"Leo, I thought better, higher, of thee."
"Mayhap, Ayesha, thou wouldest have thought worse of me had I been
content with thy suns and constellations and spiritual gifts and
dominations that I neither desire nor understand.
"If I had said to thee: Be thou my angel, not my wife; divide the
ocean that I may walk its bed; pierce the firmament and show me how
grow the stars; tell me the origins of being and of death and instruct
me in their issues; give up the races of mankind to my sword, and the
wealth of all the earth to fill my treasuries. Teach me also how to
drive the hurricane as thou canst do, and to bend the laws of nature
to my purpose: on earth make me half a god--as thou art.
"But Ayesha, I am no god; I am a man, and as a man I seek the woman
whom I love. Oh! divest thyself of all these wrappings of thy power--
that power which strews thy path with dead and keeps me apart from
thee. If only for one short night forget the ambition that gnaws
unceasingly at thy soul; I say forget thy greatness and be a woman and
She made no answer, only looked at him and shook her head, causing her
glorious hair to ripple like water beneath a gentle breeze.
"Thou deniest me," he went on with gathering strength, "and that thou
canst not do, that thou mayest not do, for Ayesha, thou hast sworn,
and I demand the fulfilment of thine oath.
"Hark thou. I refuse thy gifts; I will have none of thy rule who ask
no Pharaoh's throne and wish to do good to men and not to kill them--
that the world may profit. I will not go with thee to Kor, nor be
bathed in the breath of Life. I will leave thee and cross the
mountains, or perish on them, nor with all thy strength canst thou
hold me to thy side, who indeed needest me not. No longer will I
endure this daily torment, the torment of thy presence and thy sweet
words; thy loving looks, thy promises for next year, next year--next
year. So keep thine oath or let me begone."
Still Ayesha stood silent, only now her head drooped and her breast
began to heave. Then Leo stepped forward; he seized her in his arms
and kissed her. She broke from his embrace, I know not how, for though
she returned it was close enough, and again stood before him but at a
"Did I not warn Holly," she whispered with a sigh, "to bid thee beware
lest I should catch thy human fire? Man, I say to thee, it begins to
smoulder in my heart, and should it grow to flame----"
"Why then," he answered laughing, "we will be happy for a little
"Aye, Leo, but how long? Why wert thou sole lord of this loveliness of
mine and not set above their harming, night and day a hundred jealous
daggers would seek thy heart and--find it."
"How long, Ayesha? A lifetime, a year, a month, a minute--I neither
know nor care, and while thou art true to me I fear no stabs of envy."
"Is it so? Wilt take the risk? I can promise thee nothing. Thou
mightest--yes, in this way or in that, thou mightest--die."
"And if I die, what then? Shall we be separated?"
"Nay, nay, Leo, that is not possible. We never can be severed, of this
I am sure; it is sworn to me. But then through other lives and other
spheres, higher lives and higher spheres mayhap, our fates must force
a painful path to their last goal of union."
"Why then I take the hazard, Ayesha. Shall the life that I can risk to
slay a leopard or a lion in the sport of an idle hour, be too great a
price to offer for the splendours of thy breast? Thine oath! Ayesha, I
claim thine oath."
Then it was that in Ayesha there began the most mysterious and
thrilling of her many changes. Yet how to describe it I know not
unless it be by simile.
Once in Thibet we were imprisoned for months by snows that stretched
down from the mountain slopes into the valleys and oh! how weary did
we grow of those arid, aching fields of purest white. At length rain
set in, and blinding mists in which it was not safe to wander, that
made the dark nights darker yet.
So it was, until there came a morning when seeing the sun shine, we
went to our door and looked out. Behold a miracle! Gone were the snows
that choked the valley and in the place of them appeared vivid
springing grass, starred everywhere with flowers, and murmuring brooks
and birds that sang and nested in the willows. Gone was the frowning
sky and all the blue firmament seemed one tender smile. Gone were the
austerities of winter with his harsh winds, and in their place spring,
companioned by her zephyrs, glided down the vale singing her song of
love and life.
There in this high chamber, in the presence of the living and the
dead, while the last act of the great tragedy unrolled itself before
me, looking on Ayesha that forgotten scene sprang into my mind. For on
her face just such a change had come. Hitherto, with all her
loveliness, the heart of Ayesha had seemed like that winter mountain
wrapped in its unapproachable snow and before her pure brow and icy
self-command, aspirations sank abashed and desires died.
She swore she loved and her love fulfilled itself in death and many a
mysterious way. Yet it was hard to believe that this passion of hers
was more than a spoken part, for how can the star seek the moth
although the moth may seek the star? Though the man may worship the
goddess, for all her smiles divine, how can the goddess love the man?
But now everything was altered! Look! Ayesha grew human; I could see
her heart beat beneath her robes and hear her breath come in soft,
sweet sobs, while o'er her upturned face and in her alluring eyes
there spread itself that look which is born of love alone. Radiant and
more radiant did she seem to grow, sweeter and more sweet, no longer
the veiled Hermit of the Caves, no longer the Oracle of the Sanctuary,
no longer the Valkyrie of the battle-plain, but only the loveliest and
most happy bride that ever gladdened a husband's eyes.
She spoke, and it was of little things, for thus Ayesha proclaimed the
conquest of herself.
"Fie!" she said, showing her white robes torn with spears and stained
by the dust and dew of war; "Fie, my lord, what marriage garments are
these in which at last I come to thee, who would have been adorned in
regal gems and raiment befitting to my state and thine?"
"I seek the woman not her garment," said Leo, his burning eyes fixed
upon her face.
"Thou seekest the woman. Ah! there it lies. Tell me, Leo, am I woman
or spirit? Say that I am woman, for now the prophecy of this dead
Atene lies heavy on my soul, Atene who said that mortal and immortal
may not mate."
"Thou must be woman, or thou wouldst not have tormented me as thou
hast done these many weeks."
"I thank thee for the comfort of thy words. Yet, was it /woman/ whose
breath wrought destruction upon yonder plain? Was it to a /woman/ that
Blast and Lightning bowed and said, 'We are here: Command us, we
obey'? Did that dead thing (and she pointed to the shattered door)
break inward at a /woman's/ will? Or could a /woman/ charm this man to
"Oh! Leo, would that I were woman! I tell thee that I'd lay all my
grandeur down, a wedding offering at thy feet, could I be sure that
for one short year I should be naught but /woman/ and--thy happy wife.
"Thou sayest that I did torment thee, but it is I who have known
torment, I who desired to yield and dared not. Aye, I tell thee, Leo,
were I not sure that thy little stream of life is draining dry into
the great ocean of my life, drawn thither as the sea draws its rivers,
or as the sun draws mists, e'en now I would not yield. But I know, for
my wisdom tells it me, ere ever we could reach the shores of Libya,
the ill work would be done, and thou dead of thine own longing, thou
dead and I widowed who never was a wife.