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BENEATH THE SHADOWING WINGS
One by one the terrified tribesmen crept away. When the last of them
were gone the priest advanced to Leo and saluted him by placing his hand
upon his forehead.
"Lord," he said, in the same corrupt Grecian dialect which was used by
the courtiers of Kaloon, "I will not ask if you are hurt, since from the
moment that you entered the sacred river and set foot within this land
you and your companion were protected by a power invisible and could not
be harmed by man or spirit, however great may have seemed your danger.
Yet vile hands have been laid upon you, and this is the command of the
Mother whom I serve, that, if you desire it, every one of those men who
touched you shall die before your eyes. Say, is that your will?"
"Nay," answered Leo; "they were mad and blind, let no blood be shed for
_us_. All we ask of you, friend--but, how are you called?"
"Name me Oros," he answered.
"Friend Oros--a good title for one who dwells upon the Mountain--all we
ask is food and shelter, and to be led swiftly into the presence of her
whom you name Mother, that Oracle whose wisdom we have travelled far to
He bowed and answered: "The food and shelter are prepared and to-morrow,
when you have rested, I am commanded to conduct you whither you desire
to be. Follow me, I pray you"; and he preceded us past the fiery pit to
a building that stood about fifty yards away against the rock wall of
It would seem that it was a guest-house, or at least had been made ready
to serve that purpose, as in it lamps were lit and a fire burned, for
here the air was cold. The house was divided into two rooms, the second
of them a sleeping place, to which he led us through the first.
"Enter," he said, "for you will need to cleanse yourselves, and
you"--here he addressed himself to me--"to be treated for that hurt to
your arm which you had from the jaws of the great hound."
"How know you that?" I asked.
"It matters not if I do know and have made ready," Oros answered
This second room was lighted and warmed like the first, moreover, heated
water stood in basins of metal and on the beds were laid clean linen
garments and dark-coloured hooded robes, lined with rich fur. Also upon
a little table were ointments, bandages, and splints, a marvellous thing
to see, for it told me that the very nature of my hurt had been divined.
But I asked no more questions; I was too weary; moreover, I knew that it
would be useless.
Now the priest Oros helped me to remove my tattered robe, and, undoing
the rough bandages upon my arm, washed it gently with warm water, in
which he mixed some spirit, and examined it with the skill of a trained
"The fangs rent deep," he said, "and the small bone is broken, but you
will take no harm, save for the scars which must remain." Then, having
treated the wounds with ointment, he wrapped the limb with such a
delicate touch that it scarcely pained me, saying that by the morrow
the swelling would have gone down and he would set the bone. This indeed
After it was done he helped me to wash and to clothe myself in the clean
garments, and put a sling about my neck to serve as a rest for my arm.
Meanwhile Leo had also dressed himself, so that we left the chamber
together very different men to the foul, blood-stained wanderers who had
entered there. In the outer room we found food prepared for us, of which
we ate with a thankful heart and without speaking. Then, blind with
weariness, we returned to the other chamber and, having removed our
outer garments, flung ourselves upon the beds and were soon plunged in
At some time in the night I awoke suddenly, at what hour I do not know,
as certain people wake, I among them, when their room is entered, even
without the slightest noise. Before I opened my eyes I felt that some
one was with us in the place. Nor was I mistaken. A little lamp still
burned in the chamber, a mere wick floating in oil, and by its light
I saw a dim, ghost-like form standing near the door. Indeed I thought
almost that it was a ghost, till presently I remembered, and knew it for
our corpse-like guide, who appeared to be looking intently at the bed on
which Leo lay, or so I thought, for the head was bent in that direction.
At first she was quite still, then she moaned aloud, a low and terrible
moan, which seemed to well from the very heart.
So the thing was not dumb, as I had believed. Evidently it could suffer,
and express its suffering in a human fashion. Look! it was wringing its
padded hands as in an excess of woe. Now it would seem that Leo began to
feel its influence also, for he stirred and spoke in his sleep, so low
at first that I could only distinguish the tongue he used, which was
Arabic. Presently I caught a few words.
"Ayesha," he said, "_Ayesha!_"
The figure glided towards him and stopped. He sat up in the bed still
fast asleep, for his eyes were shut. He stretched out his arms, as
though seeking one whom he would embrace, and spoke again in a low and
passionate voice--"Ayesha, through life and death I have sought thee
long. Come to me, my goddess, my desired."
The figure glided yet nearer, and I could see that it was trembling, and
now its arms were extended also.
At the bedside she halted, and Leo laid himself down again. Now the
coverings had fallen back, exposing his breast, where lay the leather
satchel he always wore, that which contained the lock of Ayesha's hair.
He was fast asleep, and the figure seemed to fix its eyes upon this
satchel. Presently it did more, for, with surprising deftness those
white-wrapped fingers opened its clasp, yes, and drew out the long
tress of shining hair. Long and earnestly she gazed at it, then gently
replaced the relic, closed the satchel and for a little while seemed to
weep. While she stood thus the dreaming Leo once more stretched out his
arms and spoke, saying, in the same passion-laden voice--"Come to me, my
darling, my beautiful, my beautiful!"
At those words, with a little muffled scream, like that of a scared
night-bird, the figure turned and flitted through the doorway.
When I was quite certain that she had gone, I gasped aloud.
What might this mean, I wondered, in a very agony of bewilderment. This
could certainly be no dream: it was real, for I was wide awake. Indeed,
what did it all mean? Who was the ghastly, mummy-like thing which had
guided us unharmed through such terrible dangers; the Messenger that all
men feared, who could strike down a brawny savage with a motion of its
hand? Why did it creep into the place thus at dead of night, like a
spirit revisiting one beloved? Why did its presence cause me to awake
and Leo to dream? Why did it draw out the tress; indeed, how knew it
that this tress was hidden there? And why--oh! why, at those tender and
passionate words did it flit away at last like some scared bat?
The priest Oros had called our guide Minister, and Sword, that is, one
who carries out decrees. But what if they were its own decrees? What if
this thing should be she whom we sought, _Ayesha herself?_ Why should I
tremble at the thought, seeing that if so, our quest was ended, we had
achieved? Oh! it must be because about this being there was something
terrible, something un-human and appalling. If Ayesha lived within
those mummy-cloths, then it was a different Ayesha whom we had known
and worshipped. Well could I remember the white-draped form of
_She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed_, and how, long before she revealed her glorious
face to us, we guessed the beauty and the majesty hidden beneath that
veil by which her radiant life and loveliness incarnate could not be
But what of this creature? I would not pursue the thought. I was
mistaken. Doubtless she was what the priest Oros had said--some
half-supernatural being to whom certain powers were given, and,
doubtless, she had come to spy on us in our rest that she might make
report to the giver of those powers.
Comforting myself thus I fell asleep again, for fatigue overcame even
such doubts and fears. In the morning, when they were naturally less
vivid, I made up my mind that, for various reasons, it would be wisest
to say nothing of what I had seen to Leo. Nor, indeed, did I do so until
some days had gone by.
When I awoke the full light was pouring into the chamber, and by it I
saw the priest Oros standing at my bedside. I sat up and asked him what
time it was, to which he answered with a smile, but in a low voice, that
it lacked but two hours of mid-day, adding that he had come to set my
arm. Now I saw why he spoke low, for Leo was still fast asleep.
"Let him rest on," he said, as he undid the wrappings on my arm, "for
he has suffered much, and," he continued significantly, "may still have
more to suffer."
"What do you mean, friend Oros?" I asked sharply. "I thought you told us
that we were safe upon this Mountain."
"I told you, friend----" and he looked at me.
"Holly is my name----"
"--friend Holly, that your bodies are safe. I said nothing of all the
rest of you. Man is more than flesh and blood. He is mind and spirit as
well, and these can be injured also."
"Who is there that would injure them?" I asked.
"Friend," he answered, gravely, "you and your companion have come to a
haunted land, not as mere wanderers, for then you would be dead ere now,
but of set purpose, seeking to lift the veil from mysteries which have
been hid for ages. Well, your aim is known and it may chance that it
will be achieved. But if this veil is lifted, it may chance also that
you will find what shall send your souls shivering to despair and
madness. Say, are you not afraid?"
"Somewhat," I answered. "Yet my foster-son and I have seen strange
things and lived. We have seen the very Light of Life roll by in
majesty; we have been the guests of an Immortal, and watched Death seem
to conquer her and leave us untouched. Think you then that we will turn
cowards now? Nay, we march on to fulfil our destinies."
At these words Oros showed neither curiosity nor surprise; it was as
though I told him only what he knew.
"Good," he replied, smiling, and with a courteous bow of his shaven
head, "within an hour you shall march on--to fulfil your destinies. If
I have warned you, forgive me, for I was bidden so to do, perhaps to
try your mettle. Is it needful that I should repeat this warning to the
lord----" and again he looked at me.
"Leo Vincey," I said.
"Leo Vincey, yes, Leo Vincey," he repeated, as though the name were
familiar to him but had slipped his mind. "But you have not answered my
question. Is it needful that I should repeat the warning?"
"Not in the least; but you can do so if you wish when he awakes."
"Nay, I think with you, that it would be but waste of words,
for--forgive the comparison;--what the wolf dares"--and he looked at
me--"the tiger does not flee from," and he nodded towards Leo. "There,
see how much better are the wounds upon your arm, which is no longer
swollen. Now I will bandage it, and within some few weeks the bone will
be as sound again as it was before you met the Khan Rassen hunting in
the Plains. By the way, you will see him again soon, and his fair wife
"See him again? Do the dead, then, come to life upon this Mountain?"
"Nay, but certain of them are brought hither for burial. It is the
privilege of the rulers of Kaloon; also, I think, that the Khania has
questions to ask of its Oracle."
"Who is its Oracle?" I asked with eagerness.
"The Oracle," he replied darkly, "is a Voice. It was ever so, was it
"Yes; I have heard that from Atene, but a voice implies a speaker. Is
this speaker she whom you name Mother?"
"Perhaps, friend Holly."
"And is this Mother a spirit?"
"It is a point that has been much debated. They told you so in the
Plains, did they not? Also the Tribes think it on the Mountain. Indeed,
the thing seems reasonable, seeing that all of us who live are flesh and
spirit. But you will form your own judgment and then we can discuss the
matter. There, your arm is finished. Be careful now not to strike it or
to fall, and look, your companion awakes."
Something over an hour later we started upon our upward journey. I was
again mounted on the Khan's horse, which having been groomed and fed
was somewhat rested, while to Leo a litter had been offered. This he
declined, however, saying that he had now recovered and would not be
carried like a woman. So he walked by the side of my horse, using his
spear as a staff. We passed the fire-pit--now full of dead, white
ashes, among which were mixed those of the witch-finder and his horrible
cat--preceded by our dumb guide, at the sight of whom, in her pale
wrappings, the people of the tribe who had returned to their village
prostrated themselves, and so remained until she was gone by.
One of them, however, rose again and, breaking through our escort of
priests, ran to Leo, knelt before him and kissed his hand. It was that
young woman whose life he had saved, a noble-looking girl, with masses
of red hair, and by her was her husband, the marks of his bonds still
showing on his arms. Our guide seemed to see this incident, though how
she did so I do not know. At any rate she turned and made some sign
which the priest interpreted.
Calling the woman to him he asked her sternly how she dared to touch
the person of this stranger with her vile lips. She answered that it was
because her heart was grateful. Oros said that for this reason she was
forgiven; moreover, that in reward for what they had suffered he was
commanded to lift up her husband to be the ruler of that tribe during
the pleasure of the Mother. He gave notice, moreover, that all should
obey the new chief in his place, according to their customs, and if he
did any evil, make report that he might suffer punishment. Then waving
the pair aside, without listening to their thanks or the acclamations of
the crowd, he passed on.
As we went down the ravine by which we had approached the village on the
previous night, a sound of chanting struck our ears. Presently the path
turned, and we saw a solemn procession advancing up that dismal, sunless
gorge. At the head of it rode none other than the beautiful Khania,
followed by her great-uncle, the old Shaman, and after these came a
company of shaven priests in their white robes, bearing between them a
bier, upon which, its face uncovered, lay the body of the Khan, draped
in a black garment. Yet he looked better thus than he had ever done, for
now death had touched this insane and dissolute man with something of
the dignity which he lacked in life.
Thus then we met. At the sight of our guide's white form, the horse
which the Khania rode reared up so violently that I thought it would
have thrown her. But she mastered the animal with her whip and voice,
and called out--"Who is this draped hag of the Mountain that stops the
path of the Khania Atene and her dead lord? My guests, I find you in ill
company, for it seems that you are conducted by an evil spirit to meet
an evil fate. That guide of yours must surely be something hateful and
hideous, for were she a wholesome woman she would not fear to show her
Now the Shaman plucked his mistress by the sleeve, and the priest
Oros, bowing to her, prayed her to be silent and cease to speak such
ill-omened words into the air, which might carry them she knew not
whither. But some instinctive hate seemed to bubble up in Atene, and
she would not be silent, for she addressed our guide using the direct
"thou," a manner of speech that we found was very usual on the Mountain
though rare upon the Plains.
"Let the air carry them whither it will," she cried. "Sorceress, strip
off thy rags, fit only for a corpse too vile to view. Show us what thou
art, thou flitting night-owl, who thinkest to frighten me with that
livery of death, which only serves to hide the death within."
"Cease, I pray lady, cease," said Oros, stirred for once out of his
imperturbable calm. "She is the Minister, none other, and with her goes
"Then it goes not against Atene, Khania of Kaloon," she answered, "or so
I think. Power, forsooth! Let her show her power. If she has any it is
not her own, but that of the Witch of the Mountain, who feigns to be a
spirit, and by her sorceries has drawn away my guests"--and she pointed
to us--"thus bringing my husband to his death."
"Niece, be silent!" said the old Shaman, whose wrinkled face was white
with terror, whilst Oros held up his hands as though in supplication
to some unseen Strength, saying--"O thou that hearest and seest, be
merciful, I beseech thee, and forgive this woman her madness, lest the
blood of a guest should stain the hands of thy servants, and the ancient
honour of our worship be brought low in the eyes of men."
Thus he prayed, but although his hands were uplifted, it seemed to me
that his eyes were fixed upon our guide, as ours were. While he spoke,
I saw her hand raised, as she had raised it when she slew or rather
sentenced the witchdoctor. Then she seemed to reflect, and stayed it in
mid air, so that it pointed at the Khania. She did not move, she made
no sound, only she pointed, and, the angry words died upon Atene's lips,
the fury left her eyes, and the colour her face. Yes, she grew white
and silent as the corpse upon the bier behind her. Then, cowed by that
invisible power, she struck her horse so fiercely that it bounded by us
onward towards the village, at which the funeral company were to rest
As the Shaman Simbri followed the Khania, the priest Oros caught his
horse's bridle and said to him--"Magician, we have met before, for
instance, when your lady's father was brought to his funeral. Warn her,
then, you that know something of the truth and of her power to speak
more gently of the ruler of this land. Say to her, from me, that had she
not been the ambassadress of death, and, therefore, inviolate, surely
ere now she would have shared her husband's bier. Farewell, tomorrow we
will speak again," and, loosing the Shaman's bridle, Oros passed on.
Soon we had left the melancholy procession behind us and, issuing from
the gorge, turned up the Mountain slope towards the edge of the bright
snows that lay not far above. It was as we came out of this darksome
valley, where the overhanging pine trees almost eclipsed the light, that
suddenly we missed our guide.
"Has she gone back to--to reason with the Khania?" I asked of Oros.
"Nay!" he answered, with a slight smile, "I think that she has gone
forward to give warning that the Hesea's guests draw near."
"Indeed," I answered, staring hard at the bare slope of mountain,
up which not a mouse could have passed without being seen. "I
understand--she has gone forward," and the matter dropped. But what
I did _not_ understand was--how she had gone. As the Mountain was
honeycombed with caves and galleries, I suppose, however, that she
entered one of them.
All the rest of that day we marched upwards, gradually drawing nearer to
the snow-line, as we went gathering what information we could from the
priest Oros. This was the sum of it--From the beginning of the world,
as he expressed it, that is, from thousands and thousands of years ago,
this Mountain had been the home of a peculiar fire-worship, of which the
head heirophant was a woman. About twenty centuries before, however, the
invading general named Rassen, had made himself Khan of Kaloon. Rassen
established a new priestess on the Mountain, a worshipper of the
Egyptian goddess, Hes, or Isis. This priestess had introduced certain
modifications in the ancient doctrines, superseding the cult of fire,
pure and simple, by a new faith, which, while holding to some of the old
ceremonies, revered as its head the Spirit of Life or Nature, of whom
they looked upon their priestess as the earthly representative.
Of this priestess Oros would only tell us that she was "ever present,"
although we gathered that when one priestess died or was "taken to
the fire," as he put it, her child, whether in fact or by adoption,
succeeded her and was known by the same names, those of "Hes" or the
"Hesea" and "Mother." We asked if we should see this Mother, to which he
answered that she manifested herself very rarely. As to her appearance
and attributes he would say nothing, except that the former changed from
time to time and that when she chose to use it she had "all power."
The priests of her College, he informed us, numbered three hundred,
never more nor less, and there were also three hundred priestesses.
Certain of those who desired it were allowed to marry, and from
among their children were reared up the new generation of priests
and priestesses. Thus they were a people apart from all others, with
distinct racial characteristics. This, indeed, was evident, for our
escort were all exceedingly like to each other, very handsome and
refined in appearance, with dark eyes, clean-cut features and olive-hued
skins; such a people as might well have descended from Easterns of high
blood, with a dash of that of the Egyptians and Greeks thrown in.
We asked him whether the mighty looped pillar that towered from the
topmost cup of the Mountain was the work of men. He answered, No; the
hand of Nature had fashioned it, and that the light shining through it
came from the fires which burned in the crater of the volcano. The first
priestess, having recognized in this gigantic column the familiar Symbol
of Life of the Egyptian worship, established her altars beneath its
For the rest, the Mountain with its mighty slopes and borderlands was
peopled by a multitude of half-savage folk, who accepted the rule of the
Hesea, bringing her tribute of all things necessary, such as food and
metals. Much of the meat and grain however the priests raised themselves
on sheltered farms, and the metals they worked with their own hands.
This rule, however, was of a moral nature, since for centuries the
College had sought no conquests and the Mother contented herself with
punishing crime in some such fashion as we had seen. For the petty
wars between the Tribes and the people of the Plain they were not
responsible, and those chiefs who carried them on were deposed, unless
they had themselves been attacked. All the Tribes, however, were sworn
to the defence of the Hesea and the College, and, however much they
might quarrel amongst themselves, if need arose, were ready to die for
her to the last man. That war must one day break out again between
the priests of the Mountain and the people of Kaloon was recognized;
therefore they endeavoured to be prepared for that great and final
Such was the gist of his history, which, as we learned afterwards,
proved to be true in every particular.
Towards sundown we came to a vast cup extending over many thousand
acres, situated beneath the snow-line of the peak and filled with rich
soil washed down, I suppose, from above. So sheltered was the place by
its configuration and the over-hanging mountain that, facing south-west
as it did, notwithstanding its altitude it produced corn and other
temperate crops in abundance. Here the College had its farms, and very
well cultivated these seemed to be. This great cup, which could not
be seen from below, we entered through a kind of natural gateway, that
might be easily defended against a host.
There were other peculiarities, but it is not necessary to describe them
further than to say that I think the soil benefited by the natural heat
of the volcano, and that when this erupted, as happened occasionally,
the lava streams always passed to the north and south of the cup of
land. Indeed, it was these lava streams that had built up the protecting
Crossing the garden-like lands, we came to a small town beautifully
built of lava rock. Here dwelt the priests, except those who were on
duty, no man of the Tribes or other stranger being allowed to set foot
within the place.
Following the main street of this town, we arrived at the face of the
precipice beyond, and found ourselves in front of a vast archway, closed
with massive iron gates fantastically wrought. Here, taking my horse
with them, our escort left us alone with Oros. As we drew near the great
gates swung back upon their hinges. We passed them--with what sensations
I cannot describe--and groped our way down a short corridor which ended
in tall, iron-covered doors. These also rolled open at our approach, and
next instant we staggered back amazed and half-blinded by the intense
blaze of light within.
Imagine, you who read, the nave of the vastest cathedral with which you
are acquainted. Then double or treble its size, and you will have some
conception of that temple in which we found ourselves. Perhaps in the
beginning it had been a cave, who can say? but now its sheer walls, its
multitudinous columns springing to the arched roof far above us, had all
been worked on and fashioned by the labour of men long dead; doubtless
the old fire-worshippers of thousands of years ago.
You will wonder how so great a place was lighted, but I think that never
would you guess. Thus--by twisted columns of living flame! I counted
eighteen of them, but there may have been others. They sprang from the
floor at regular intervals along the lines of what in a cathedral would
be the aisles. Right to the roof they sprang, of even height and girth,
so fierce was the force of the natural gas that drove them, and there
were lost, I suppose, through chimneys bored in the thickness of the
rock. Nor did they give off smell or smoke, or in that great, cold
place, any heat which could be noticed, only an intense white light like
that of molten iron, and a sharp hissing noise as of a million angry
The huge temple was utterly deserted, and, save for this sybilant,
pervading sound, utterly silent; an awesome, an overpowering place.
"Do these candles of yours ever go out?" asked Leo of Oros, placing his
hand before his dazzled eyes.
"How can they," replied the priest, in his smooth, matter-of-fact voice,
"seeing that they rise from the eternal fire which the builders of this
hall worshipped? Thus they have burned from the beginning, and thus
they will burn for ever, though, if we wish it, we can shut off their
light.[*] Be pleased to follow me: you will see greater things."
[*] This, as I ascertained afterwards, was done by thrusting
a broad stone of great thickness over the apertures through
which the gas or fire rushed and thus cutting off the air.
These stones were worked to and fro by means of pulleys
connected with iron rods.--L. H. H.
So in awed silence we followed, and, oh! how small and miserable we
three human beings looked alone in that vast temple illuminated by this
lightning radiance. We reached the end of it at length, only to find
that to right and left ran transepts on a like gigantic scale and lit in
the same amazing fashion. Here Oros bade us halt, and we waited a little
while, till presently, from either transept arose a sound of chanting,
and we perceived two white-robed processions advancing towards us from
On they came, very slowly, and we saw that the procession to the right
was a company of priests, and that to the left a company of priestesses,
a hundred or so of them in all.
Now the men ranged themselves in front of us, while the women ranged
themselves behind, and at a signal from Oros, all of them still chanting
some wild and thrilling hymn, once more we started forward, this time
along a narrow gallery closed at the end with double wooden doors. As
our procession reached these they opened, and before us lay the crowning
wonder of this marvellous fane, a vast, ellipse-shaped apse. Now we
understood. The plan of the temple was the plan of the looped pillar
which stood upon the brow of the Peak, and as we rightly guessed, its
dimensions were the same.
At intervals around this ellipse the fiery columns flared, but otherwise
the place was empty.
No, not quite, for at the head of the apse, almost between two of the
flame columns, stood a plain, square altar of the size of a small room,
in front of which, as we saw when we drew nearer, were hung curtains of
woven silver thread. On this altar was placed a large statue of silver,
that, backed as it was by the black rock, seemed to concentrate and
reflect from its burnished surface the intense light of the two blazing
It was a lovely thing, but to describe it is hard indeed. The figure,
which was winged, represented a draped woman of mature years, and pure
but gracious form, half hidden by the forward-bending wings. Sheltered
by these, yet shown between them, appeared the image of a male child,
clasped to its bearer's breast with her left arm, while the right was
raised toward the sky. A study of Motherhood, evidently, but how shall I
write of all that was conveyed by those graven faces?
To begin with the child. It was that of a sturdy boy, full of health and
the joy of life. Yet he had been sleeping, and in his sleep some terror
had over-shadowed him with the dark shades of death and evil. There was
fear in the lines of his sweet mouth and on the lips and cheeks, that
seemed to quiver. He had thrown his little arm about his mother's neck,
and, pressing close against her breast, looked up to her for safety, his
right hand and outstretched finger pointing downwards and behind him, as
though to indicate whence the danger came. Yet it was passing, already
half-forgotten, for the upturned eyes expressed confidence renewed,
peace of soul attained.
And the mother. She did not seem to mock or chide his fears, for
her lovely face was anxious and alert. Yet upon it breathed a very
atmosphere of unchanging tenderness and power invincible; care for the
helpless, strength to shelter it from every harm. The great, calm eyes
told their story, the parted lips were whispering some tale of hope,
sure and immortal; the raised hand revealed whence that hope arose. All
love seemed to be concentrated in the brooding figure, so human, yet so
celestial; all heaven seemed to lie an open path before those quivering
wings. And see, the arching instep, the upward-springing foot, suggested
that thither those wings were bound, bearing their God-given burden far
from the horror of the earth, deep into the bosom of a changeless rest
The statue was only that of an affrighted child in its mother's
arms; its interpretation made clear even to the dullest by the simple
symbolism of some genius--Humanity saved by the Divine.
While we gazed at its enchanting beauty, the priests and priestesses,
filing away to right and left, arranged themselves alternately, first a
man and then a woman, within the ring of the columns of fire that burned
around the loop-shaped shrine. So great was its circumference that the
whole hundred of them must stand wide apart one from another, and, to
our sight, resembled little lonely children clad in gleaming garments,
while their chant of worship reached us only like echoes thrown from
a far precipice. In short, the effect of this holy shrine and its
occupants was superb yet overwhelming, at least I know that it filled me
with a feeling akin to fear.
Oros waited till the last priest had reached his appointed place. Then
he turned and said, in his gentle, reverent tones--"Draw nigh, now, O
Wanderers well-beloved, and give greeting to the Mother," and he pointed
towards the statue.
"Where is she?" asked Leo, in a whisper, for here we scarcely dared to
speak aloud. "I see no one."
"The Hesea dwells yonder," he answered, and, taking each of us by the
hand, he led us forward across the great emptiness of the apse to the
altar at its head.
As we drew near the distant chant of the priests gathered in volume,
assuming a glad, triumphant note, and it seemed to me--though this,
perhaps was fancy--that the light from the twisted columns of flame grew
At length we were there, and, Oros, loosing our hands, prostrated
himself thrice before the altar. Then he rose again, and, falling behind
us, stood in silence with bent head and folded fingers. We stood silent
also, our hearts filled with mingled hope and fear like a cup with wine.
Were our labours ended? Had we found her whom we sought, or were we,
perchance, but enmeshed in the web of some marvellous mummery and
about to make acquaintance with the secret of another new and mystical
worship? For years and years we had searched, enduring every hardness of
flesh and spirit that man can suffer, and now we were to learn whether
we had endured in vain. Yes, and Leo would learn if the promise was
to be fulfilled to him, or whether she whom he adored had become but a
departed dream to be sought for only beyond the gate of Death. Little
wonder that he trembled and turned white in the agony of that great
Long, long was the time. Hours, years, ages, aeons, seemed to flow over
us as we stood there before glittering silver curtains that hid the
front of the black altar beneath the mystery of the sphinx-like face
of the glorious image which was its guardian, clothed with that frozen
smile of eternal love and pity. All the past went before us as we
struggled in those dark waters of our doubt. Item by item, event by
event, we rehearsed the story which began in the Caves of Kor, for our
thoughts, so long attuned, were open to each other and flashed from soul
Oh! now we knew, they were open also to _another_ soul. We could see
nothing save the Altar and the Effigy, we could only hear the slow chant
of the priests and priestesses and the snake-like hiss of the rushing
fires. Yet we knew that our hearts were as an open book to One who
watched beneath the Mother's shadowing wings.
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