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She ceased, and there was a long, long silence. Leo and I looked at
each other in dismay. We had hoped against hope that this beautiful
and piteous prayer, addressed apparently to the great, dumb spirit of
Nature, would be answered. That meant a miracle, but what of it? The
prolongation of the life of Ayesha was a miracle, though it is true that
some humble reptiles are said to live as long as she had done.
The transference of her spirit from the Caves of Kor to this temple was
a miracle, that is, to our western minds, though the dwellers in these
parts of Central Asia would not hold it so. That she should re-appear
with the same hideous body was a miracle. But was it the same body? Was
it not the body of the last Hesea? One very ancient woman is much like
another, and eighteen years of the working of the soul or identity
within might well wear away their trivial differences and give to the
borrowed form some resemblance to that which it had left.
At least the figures on that mirror of the flame were a miracle. Nay,
why so? A hundred clairvoyants in a hundred cities can produce or see
their like in water and in crystal, the difference being only one
of size. They were but reflections of scenes familiar to the mind of
Ayesha, or perhaps not so much as that. Perhaps they were only phantasms
called up in _our_ minds by her mesmeric force.
Nay, none of these things were true miracles, since all, however
strange, might be capable of explanation. What right then had we to
expect a marvel now?
Such thoughts as these rose in our minds as the endless minutes were
born and died and--nothing happened.
Yes, at last one thing did happen. The light from the sheet of flame
died gradually away as the flame itself sank downwards into the abysses
of the pit. But about this in itself there was nothing wonderful, for
as we had seen with our own eyes from afar this fire varied much, and
indeed it was customary for it to die down at the approach of dawn,
which now drew very near.
Still that onward-creeping darkness added to the terrors of the scene.
By the last rays of the lurid light we saw Ayesha rise and advance some
few paces to that little tongue of rock at the edge of the pit off
which the body of Rassen had been hurled; saw her standing on it, also,
looking like some black, misshapen imp against the smoky glow which
still rose from the depths beneath.
Leo would have gone forward to her, for he believed that she was about
to hurl herself to doom, which indeed I thought was her design. But the
priest Oros, and the priestess Papave, obeying, I suppose, some secret
command that reached them I know not how, sprang to him and seizing his
arms, held him back. Then it became quite dark, and through the darkness
we could hear Ayesha chanting a dirge-like hymn in some secret, holy
tongue which was unknown to us.
A great flake of fire floated through the gloom, rocking to and fro like
some vast bird upon its pinions. We had seen many such that night, torn
by the gale from the crest of the blazing curtain as I have described.
But--but--"Horace," whispered Leo through his chattering teeth, "that
flame is coming up _against the wind!_"
"Perhaps the wind has changed," I answered, though I knew well that it
had not; that it blew stronger than ever from the south.
Nearer and nearer sailed the rocking flame, two enormous wings was the
shape of it, with something dark between them. It reached the little
promontory. The wings appeared to fold themselves about the dwarfed
figure that stood thereon--illuminating it for a moment. Then the light
went out of them and they vanished--everything vanished.
A while passed, it may have been one minute or ten, when suddenly the
priestess Papave, in obedience to some summons which we could not hear,
crept by me. I knew that it was she because her woman's garments touched
me as she went. Another space of silence and of deep darkness, during
which I heard Papave return, breathing in short, sobbing gasps like one
who is very frightened.
Ah! I thought, Ayesha has cast herself into the pit. The tragedy is
Then it was that the wondrous music came. Of course it _may_ have been
only the sound of priests chanting beyond us, but I do not think so,
since its quality was quite different to any that I heard in the temple
before or afterwards: to any indeed that ever I heard upon the earth.
I cannot describe it, but it was awful to listen to, yet most
entrancing. From the black, smoke-veiled pit where the fire had burned
it welled and echoed--now a single heavenly voice, now a sweet chorus,
and now an air-shaking thunder as of a hundred organs played to time.
That diverse and majestic harmony seemed to include, to express
every human emotion, and I have often thought since then that in its
all-embracing scope and range, this, the song or paean of her re-birth
was symbolical of the infinite variety of Ayesha's spirit. Yet like that
spirit it had its master notes; power, passion, suffering, mystery and
loveliness. Also there could be no doubt as to the general significance
of the chant by whomsoever it was sung. It was the changeful story of a
mighty soul; it was worship, worship, worship of a queen divine!
Like slow clouds of incense fading to the bannered roof of some high
choir, the bursts of unearthly melodies grew faint; in the far distance
of the hollow pit they wailed themselves away.
Look! from the east a single ray of upward-springing light.
"Behold the dawn," said the quiet voice of Oros.
That ray pierced the heavens above our heads, a very sword of flame. It
sank downwards, swiftly. Suddenly it fell, not upon us, for as yet
the rocky walls of our chamber warded it away, but on to the little
promontory at its edge.
Oh! and there--a Glory covered with a single garment--stood a shape
celestial. It seemed to be asleep, since the eyes were shut. Or was it
dead, for at first that face was a face of death? Look, the sunlight
played upon her, shining through the thin veil, the dark eyes opened
like the eyes of a wondering child; the blood of life flowed up the
ivory bosom into the pallid cheeks; the raiment of black and curling
tresses wavered in the wind; the head of the jewelled snake that held
them sparkled beneath her breast.
Was it an illusion, or was this Ayesha as she had been when she entered
the rolling flame in the caverns of Kor? Our knees gave way beneath us,
and down, our arms about each other's necks, Leo and I sank till we
lay upon the ground. Then a voice sweeter than honey, softer than the
whisper of a twilight breeze among the reeds, spoke near to us, and
these were the words it said--"_Come hither to me, Kallikrates, who
would pay thee back that redeeming kiss of faith and love thou gavest me
Leo struggled to his feet. Like a drunken man he staggered to where
Ayesha stood, then overcome, sank before her on his knees.
"Arise," she said, "it is I who should kneel to thee," and she stretched
out her hand to raise him, whispering in his ear the while.
Still he would not, or could not rise, so very slowly she bent over him
and touched him with her lips upon the brow. Next she beckoned to me. I
came and would have knelt also, but she suffered it not.
"Nay," she said, in her rich, remembered voice, "thou art no suitor; it
shall not be. Of lovers and worshippers henceforth as before, I can find
a plenty if I will, or even if I will it not. But where shall I find
another friend like to thee, O Holly, whom thus I greet?" and leaning
towards me, with her lips she touched me also on the brow--just touched
me, and no more.
Fragrant was Ayesha's breath as roses, the odour of roses clung to her
lovely hair; her sweet body gleamed like some white sea-pearl; a faint
but palpable radiance crowned her head; no sculptor ever fashioned such
a marvel as the arm with which she held her veil about her; no stars in
heaven ever shone more purely bright than did her calm, entranced eyes.
Yet it is true, even with her lips upon me, all I felt for her was a
love divine into which no human passion entered. Once, I acknowledge to
my shame, it was otherwise, but I am an old man now and have done with
such frailties. Moreover, had not Ayesha named me Guardian, Protector,
Friend, and sworn to me that with her and Leo I should ever dwell where
all earthly passions fail. I repeat: what more could I desire?
Taking Leo by the hand Ayesha returned with him into the shelter of the
rock-hewn chamber and when she entered its shadows, shivered a little as
though with cold. I rejoiced at this I remember, for it seemed to show
me that she still was human, divine as she might appear. Here her priest
and priestess prostrated themselves before her new-born splendour, but
she motioned to them to rise, laying a hand upon the head of each as
though in blessing. "I am cold," she said, "give me my mantle," and
Papave threw the purple-broidered garment upon her shoulders, whence now
it hung royally, like a coronation robe.
"Nay," she went on, "it is not this long-lost shape of mine, which in
his kiss my lord gave back to me, that shivers in the icy wind, it is my
spirit's self bared to the bitter breath of Destiny. O my love, my
love, offended Powers are not easily appeased, even when they appear to
pardon, and though I shall no more be made a mockery in thy sight, how
long is given us together upon the world I know not; but a little hour
perchance. Well, ere we pass otherwhere, we will make it glorious,
drinking as deeply of the cup of joy as we have drunk of those of
sorrows and of shame. This place is hateful to me, for here I have
suffered more than ever woman did on earth or phantom in the deepest
hell. It is hateful, it is ill-omened. I pray that never again may I
"Say, what is it passes in thy mind, magician?" and of a sudden she
turned fiercely upon the Shaman Simbri who stood near, his arms crossed
upon his breast.
"Only, thou Beautiful," he answered, "a dim shadow of things to come. I
have what thou dost lack with all thy wisdom, the gift of foresight, and
here I see a dead man lying----"
"Another word," she broke in with fury born of some dark fear, "and thou
shalt be that man. Fool, put me not in mind that now I have strength
again to rid me of the ancient foes I hate, lest I should use a sword
thou thrustest to my hand," and her eyes that had been so calm and
happy, blazed upon him like fire.
The old wizard felt their fearsome might and shrank from it till the
wall stayed him.
"Great One! now as ever I salute thee. Yes, now as at the first
beginning whereof we know alone," he stammered. "I had no more to say;
the face of that dead man was not revealed to me. I saw only that some
crowned Khan of Kaloon to be shall lie here, as he whom the flame has
taken lay an hour ago."
"Doubtless many a Khan of Kaloon will lie here," she answered coldly.
"Fear not, Shaman, my wrath is past, yet be wise, mine enemy, and
prophesy no more evil to the great. Come, let us hence."
So, still led by Leo, she passed from that chamber and stood presently
upon the apex of the soaring pillar. The sun was up now, flooding the
Mountain flanks, the plains of Kaloon far beneath and the distant,
misty peaks with a sheen of gold. Ayesha stood considering the mighty
prospect, then addressing Leo, she said--"The world is very fair; I give
it all to thee."
Now Atene spoke for the first time.
"Dost thou mean Hes--if thou art still the Hesea and not a demon
arisen from the Pit--that thou offerest my territories to this man as a
love-gift? If so, I tell thee that first thou must conquer them."
"Ungentle are thy words and mien," answered Ayesha, "yet I forgive them
both, for I also can scorn to mock a rival in my hour of victory. When
thou wast the fairer, thou didst proffer him these very lands, but say,
who is the fairer now? Look at us, all of you, and judge," and she stood
by Atene and smiled.
The Khania was a lovely woman. Never to my knowledge have I seen one
lovelier, but oh! how coarse and poor she showed beside the wild,
ethereal beauty of Ayesha born again. For that beauty was not altogether
human, far less so indeed than it had been in the Caves of Kor; now it
was the beauty of a spirit.
The little light that always shone upon Ayesha's brow; the wide-set,
maddening eyes which were filled sometimes with the fire of the stars
and sometimes with the blue darkness of the heavens wherein they float;
the curved lips, so wistful yet so proud; the tresses fine as glossy
silk that still spread and rippled as though with a separate life; the
general air, not so much of majesty as of some secret power hard to
be restrained, which strove in that delicate body and proclaimed its
presence to the most careless; that flame of the soul within whereof
Oros had spoken, shining now through no "vile vessel," but in a vase
of alabaster and of pearl--none of these things and qualities were
altogether human. I felt it and was afraid, and Atene felt it also, for
she answered--"I am but a woman. What thou art, thou knowest best. Still
a taper cannot shine midst yonder fires or a glow-worm against a fallen
star; nor can my mortal flesh compare with the glory thou hast earned
from hell in payment for thy gifts and homage to the lord of ill. Yet as
woman I am thy equal, and as spirit I shall be thy mistress, when robbed
of these borrowed beauties thou, Ayesha, standest naked and ashamed
before the Judge of all whom thou hast deserted and defied; yes, as thou
stoodest but now upon yonder brink above the burning pit where thou yet
shalt wander wailing thy lost love. For this I know, mine enemy, that
_man and spirit cannot mate_," and Atene ceased, choking in her bitter
rage and jealousy.
Now watching Ayesha, I saw her wince a little beneath these evil-omened
words, saw also a tinge of grey touch the carmine of her lips and her
deep eyes grow dark and troubled. But in a moment her fears had gone and
she was asking in a voice that rang clear as silver bells--"Why ravest
thou, Atene, like some short-lived summer torrent against the barrier
of a seamless cliff? Dost think, poor creature of an hour, to sweep away
the rock of my eternal strength with foam and bursting bubbles? Have
done and listen. I do not seek thy petty rule, who, if I will it, can
take the empire of the world. Yet learn, thou holdest it of my hand.
More--I purpose soon to visit thee in thy city--choose thou if it shall
be in peace or war! Therefore, Khania, purge thy court and amend thy
laws, that when I come I may find contentment in the land which now it
lacks, and confirm thee in thy government. My counsel to thee also is
that thou choose some worthy man to husband, let him be whom thou wilt,
if only he is just and upright and one upon whom thou mayest rest,
needing wise guidance as thou dost, Atene. Come, now, my guests, let
us hence," and she walked past the Khania, stepping fearlessly upon the
very edge of the wind-swept, rounded peak.
In a second the attempt had been made and failed, so quickly indeed that
it was not until Leo and I compared our impressions afterwards that we
could be sure of what had happened. As Ayesha passed her, the maddened
Khania drew a hidden dagger and struck with all her force at her rival's
back. I saw the knife vanish to the hilt in her body, as I thought, but
this cannot have been so since it fell to the ground, and she who should
have been dead, took no hurt at all.
Feeling that she had failed, with a movement like the sudden lurch of
a ship, Atene thrust at Ayesha, proposing to hurl her to destruction
in the depths beneath. Lo! her outstretched arms went past her although
Ayesha never seemed to stir. Yes it was Atene who would have fallen,
Atene who already fell, had not Ayesha put out her hand and caught
her by the wrist, bearing all her backward-swaying weight as easily as
though she were but an infant, and without effort drawing her to safety.
"Foolish woman!" she said in pitying tones. "Wast thou so vexed that
thou wouldst strip thyself of the pleasant shape which heaven has
given thee? Surely this is madness, Atene, for how knowest thou in what
likeness thou mightest be sent to tread the earth again? As no queen
perhaps, but as a peasant's child, deformed, unsightly; for such reward,
it is said, is given to those that achieve self-murder. Or even, as many
think, shaped like a beast--a snake, a cat, a tigress! Why, see," and
she picked the dagger from the ground and cast it into the air, "that
point was poisoned. Had it but pricked thee now!" and she smiled at her
and shook her head.
But Atene could bear no more of this mockery, more venomed than her own
"Thou art not mortal," she wailed. "How can I prevail against thee? To
Heaven I leave thy punishment," and there upon the rocky peak Atene sank
down and wept.
Leo stood nearest to her, and the sight of this royal woman in her
misery proved too much for him to bear. Stepping to her side he stooped
and lifted her to her feet, muttering some kind words. For a moment she
rested on his arm, then shook herself free of him and took the proffered
hand of her old uncle Simbri.
"I see," said Ayesha, "that as ever, thou art courteous, my lord Leo,
but it is best that her own servant should take charge of her, for--she
may hide more daggers. Come, the day grows, and surely we need rest."
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