Dare with determined will to burst the portals|
Past which in terror others fain would steal.
IT was for the Water of Life that Luath the great magician was ceaselessly searching.
His heart and soul were bent upon this all-absorbing desire. All else seemed worthless in his eyes, although many a strange discovery had he made during his patient seeking for that marvellous liquid which none had yet been able to find.
For several years now, Luath Malvorno had secluded himself behind the fortress-like walls of an old forsaken monastery, perched like a feudal castle on the summit of a cypress-guarded hill. All the way up, the tall trees stood dark and gaunt, a whole sombre army of motionless giants for ever wakefully watchful – rooted to the same spot in tranquil vigil of the grey old walls.
Luath's enormous wealth had driven the quiet monks from their peaceful home. He had bought the grim old building, and within the walls that once had heard but the sounds of holy chants and the oft-repeated murmur of pious prayers, this great master of the black art had fixed his abode, giving up the joy of the outer world to follow up without interruption his secret researches.
No one could tell whence he had come. The silent town that nestled at the foot of his hill could not claim him as a child of its own.
One day he had appeared in its midst, dark, tall, and mysterious, and soon his personality had become a shining light amongst its quiet inhabitants. He was feared, admired, and envied by all.
The women turned their eyes towards him, filled with the light of Love; but the little children ran away in distress when they saw him approach, and the dogs trembled and slunk aside when his shadow fell across their road.
Handsome he was; slender and upright, like a forest-grown pine, almost giant in stature, but slim, sinuous, with the gliding movements of a snake. The clothing he wore was of Eastern cut: a strange long robe of dull red tint, the colour of freshly dried blood; Eastern was also the black and gold scarf that turban-wise was wound around his head.
His great black eyes shone like two polished gems, lying hidden away behind the feathery thickness of his wonderful lashes. Dark was his face, tanned and bronzed as by desert winds; but his hands were pale, long, and gentle, with the soft movements of a soaring bird. Chin and cheeks were covered with a short pointed black beard, and when he smiled his teeth flashed from between his crimson lips, white as snow that has fallen in the night.
It was declared by old and young, by the wise and the ignorant, that Luath Malvorno was the greatest alchemist of his time.
Dark doings, it was whispered, took place behind the grim granite walls whence the white monks had fled, carrying with them their atmosphere of peace and quietude, leaving but their haunted stone chambers, to be filled with the spirits this unknown man called forth out of the shadows of the night. There was even a rumour that the mysterious magician used human blood for his blackest researches; and since he had shut himself up away there upon the crest of the hill, far out of the reach of the crowd, sinister stories were wafted from house to house, till the man's name had become one of dread.
Low-toned, creeping envy made tongues all the more malignant: why did the handsome stranger avoid their open doors, and no more move in their midst? The gossiping old witches of the town had taken to crossing themselves devoutly when the man's name was mentioned, as though verily he were the Father of all Evil in person. But the young maidens gazed up to the high pinnacles of his towers with sighs of regret.
Indifferent to the varying opinions of those who lived in the valley beneath, Luath was for ever restlessly pursuing the shadow of his great desire. All his efforts and energy, all the strained tension of his will, were concentrated in ceaseless endeavour towards the discovery he hoped to make his own.
The Water of Life!
That elusive, marvellous liquid, that would make youth eternal and death but a shadowy spectre, casting no more its terrors over his victorious way!
Neither the raptures of Spring, nor the tears of the sky, nor the furies of the storm, nor the grey silences of his abode could tear him from his work.
Without the bastioned enclosure, the bloom-laden fruit trees were thrusting their flowering branches, like long splashes of white, against the gloomy background of the cypresses that thronged the steep inclines. Amongst the loose stones at their roots, pale mauve anemones clustered in wild profusion; the swinging boughs were filled with gay-chanting birds, singing their songs of welcome to the rising raptures of Spring.
The whole world lay in spreading beauty, saturated with waves of golden light. Against the grey impenetrable walls of Luath's silent building a frail young almond tree stood out, a marvel of pink: a fairy lacework of incomparable loveliness, but so diaphanous that each gentlest breeze fanning through its branches made the tiny petals float away like soft down into the azure sky. The sweeping joy of Nature passed over the awakening earth, drawing forth colour and beauty from every crevice and corner. The ground was teeming with new, restless life – all was joy and hope and promise. A nightingale raised its marvellous voice, and sang a hymn of praise to the glory of the newborn day; the balmy air was fragrant with flowers; all was full of the promise of coming enchantment – full of the passing, fleeting beauty of the season of youth. . . .
But within his ancient time-kissed dwelling Luath sat in his gloomy vaulted chamber, poring over his wise, much-fingered books, his head leaning on the palm of his hand, a frown on his brow, deaf to the voices of Nature, blind to the charms of the bloom-decked world beyond, following with tireless persistence the thread of his thoughts.
|Beneath the shadows are depths sinking into depths, sinking, and then the unfathomable unknown.|
A LONG shaft of light lay over the flagged floor of the room where the dark man was sitting deeply engrossed in his studies. The chamber was huge in size, and looked as though it might once have been some holy chapel, so monumentally solemn were its proportions, so sober and mellowed its grey stone walls. Most of it was enveloped in profoundest shadow, but the inquisitive sun-rays were penetrating always farther through the tall arched window, gradually revealing a strange miscellaneous agglomeration of objects of all sorts.
Instruments of different sizes and kinds lay scattered about on tables and benches – some even were on the floor; there were flasks and strangely shaped glass vessels; stone pots and jars of quaint and grotesque forms; withered plants, and blocks of rare, dull, shimmering metals. Most of the objects were curiously colourless: all their tints were toned off, dull, dead or faded, giving them a weird, gloomy appearance, as though a breath of corruption had passed over them, blighting them, paling them, filling them with a ghastly secretive light, that held unexplained mysteries, dreadful undiscovered possibilities, awaiting to be called forth to real life. . . .
It was indeed a becoming setting for Malvorno's dark researches, well in keeping with his world-famed reputation of wizard, astrologer, magician, as a man who works with dark powers, and uses things that hide in the shadows and hate the light of day.
This livid colouring of all that surrounded him seemed the result of his unconfessed experiments; of half-born thoughts that hover, without being able to rise to clearer altitudes; of things that are best kept hidden away because they are not avowable, not made for the glare of noon, but rather for the dense shades of night. Now, with the sun shining in upon them, they were revealed in their weird gruesomeness, as a sort of living nightmare.
Faded pieces of stuffs lay over shapeless objects that seemed full of unpleasant meanings; dully glazed gems were stored away in leaden cups, beside grinning skulls and tiny bleached skeletons of rare reptiles, alongside of small heaps of unknown sticky material, damp and unprepossessing – in truth a dread collection of unknown objects, thrown about without any perceptible order.
The dancing sun-rays played over all this incongruous array, turning some of the objects into gold; revealing others, on the contrary, in all their morbid ugliness. The flooding light was out of place in this abode of dark mysteries.
But Luath paid no heed to the sunshine that even began to spangle the page of the book he was reading, and to cast coppery reflections amongst the folds of his robe.
He only looked up when the door opposite him opened very softly and a radiant apparition stood facing him, her arms full of long branches of foamy blossoms.
All the sunlight seemed suddenly to concentrate about this beautiful woman, to wrap her round with a cloak of flames – flowing down her superb figure, bathing her in wonderful radiance, and turning her pale face into a translucent dream of loveliness.
She wore a long pleated robe of that rich though sober tint of blue so loved by the women of the East. Her veil, supple and white, was held on her head by a narrow wreath of blanched violets, framing in her perfect face with snowy softness.
Her hair was divided into two thick plaits that were closely looped up over her ears, surrounding the paleness of her features with dark shadows; it was deep and rich in hue, with warm ruddy tints, as if the glow of the sun had been made prisoner amongst its glistening waves.
And what beautiful eyes she had! Strangely large and wide apart, clear and grey, with a curiously intent look, almost hard in its piercing directness; haunting eyes, over which the brows stretched in an uncurving line that met together over her small aquiline nose. There was something tender yet proud about the full curves of her living lips – a half smile played over them, but there was an enquiring anxiety in her gaze.
For a moment Luath did not speak, but stared at her with half-closed lids, as one who appraises the value of a precious object. . . .
"Aha! it is thou, Ilona," he exclaimed at length; "it is thou at last! and long hast thou been on the way!"
"Hast thou needed me, Luath?" hastily enquired the fair woman, with a catch in her breath.
"Hath not the corn need of the sun," smiled the man, "and the drooping flower need of the rain? It is several days since thou hast been within these walls."
"Hast thou needed me?" repeated the woman, laying the bundle of blossoms down before her on the table – "that was the question I put thee; forsooth I believe thou needest naught else but thy cruel self!"
"Why 'cruel,' Ilona?" laughed Luath, placing his elbow upon his open volume and gazing teasingly up into her lovely face. "If thus thou deemest me, why dost thou so often climb the weary hill that leads to my grey old nest?"
Ilona drew herself up with a haughty movement, her eyes dark with a shadow of pain. "Why do I come, Luath! hast thou a right to ask? Wouldst thou that I should remain away?"
Again the handsome man looked smilingly at her and cried in a bantering tone: "No fear of thy remaining away for long, Ilona, thou fairest amongst women; is not thy heart bound up in my researches, or is it perhaps for some other reason that thou comest to me?"
Ilona's eyes flashed, and an angry retort seemed hovering upon her lips; but she controlled herself and came round the table to where he sat, and almost timidly laying her hand upon his shoulder she looked down into his wonderful eyes; her own were filled with a strange humid light.
"Luath," she said very softly, and there was a ring of anguish in her voice, – "Luath, what need have I to tell thee why I come! Would not thy dwelling be full of all the fair maids of the town if thou didst but open thy door to them?
"Luath, Luath! thy pride is great and thy heart is of stone, but thou knowest too well that within thy old grey walls alone I find the Heaven I am seeking – wouldst thou I should seek it elsewhere?"
Luath laid his long white hand over hers, stroking it very softly with the tips of his fingers, but did not reply – there was something feline and captivating in his gentle gestures. Ilona stood rigid, upright, her eyes closed, breathing deeply, her teeth fixed in the red beauty of her lip; then, as if yielding to an irresistible impulse, she bent down and pressed her eager mouth upon the irresponsive silk of his turban.
Luath continued to stroke her small clenched fingers; his eyes, without raising themselves, seemed to guess all her emotions, and a cruel secretive little smile played over his features.
"Proud bird of Paradise," he whispered, "I feel within my veins each one of thy conflicting emotions, and sweet to me are thy unconfessed desires. I would that thy many adorers, slaves, and humble admirers could see thee with the glow of shame upon thy cheeks!"
Ilona tore her hand from beneath his caressing touch, and, turning rapidly, strode towards the open window and stood leaning upon the wide stone sill, looking down upon the marvellous world without, over which Spring had laid its garment of splendour. Beyond these walls, out there in God's great world, all was beauty, peace, and innocence – oh! why could she not tear herself away from this fatal, cruel magic, against which her soul protested, but which the hot blood in her veins adored each day more passionatelyP The burning tears of humiliation welled up into her clear grey eyes, whilst the sun kissed her flushed cheeks and lingered lovingly over the rich folds of her flowing robe.
Luath raised his head and looked after her, the cruel tantalising little smile still hovering on his half-open lips, which were red as some velvety crimson fruit.
Then he rose and went towards her where she stood.
So noiseless had been his approach, that Ilona gave a frightened start when she perceived him standing close beside her. He quietly took her hand in his, and, softening the gleam of his glittering eyes between his long dark lashes, he drew her towards him.
Unresisting, Ilona allowed him to lay an arm around her shoulder; from his great height he looked down upon her with a mocking, irritating, subtly fascinating smile. He lowered his face, till his forehead nearly touched hers, then making his voice very soft and persuasive he whispered into her ear:
"Ilona, come with me – our great work awaits us; I have new discoveries to show thee. All these days carelessly have I laboured, whilst thou, no doubt, hast been hurrying from one fine feast to another, the proud centre of an admiring crowd. Ilona, Ilona! how many are there sighing for thy smiles, feverishly awaiting a word from thy lips, a look from thy eyes? How many hearts art thou breaking, thou wild enchantress whom none can claim; tell me, Ilona, will thy proud heart ever open to let Love slip in?"
Ilona made no reply, but her soul was in her eyes as she answered his look, and once more her face darkened with that fleeting shadow of pain that passed over it, like a curtain being drawn across the light of the sun; then, rousing herself, she tore her hand from his grasp, and said in a low tone:
"Love! what understandest thou of Love!
"It may not yet have come my way – perhaps it never will! The heart can only echo to one tune, which is its own; if that tune never reaches down to its roots, it remains tuneless for ever; but that thou wilt never understand, Luath! for thou, thou hast no heart; thou art but a great, cruel brain, for ever searching thy own joy and pleasure, little heeding what suffering thou causest, for such is thy way; and verily, I believe, thy only delight is to feel thy victims writhing under thy merciless hand!
"But, come, this talk is fruitless; it were waste of breath to try and make thee understand what the sun knows so well, and the delicate seed that springs from the bosom of the earth, and the soft wind that rustles amongst the branches of the trees, – useless to try and make a cold snake feel what . . ." She broke off in the middle of her sentence, and Luath rejoined, whilst for a moment he laid his cool long fingers against her glowing cheek:
"But the snake has wonderful colours amongst the spangled scales of his shimmering skin, is it not so, Ilona? and his cold eyes have a glitter and his silken coils a luring fascination that attract ever anew!
"But, come, we lose our precious minutes, and I am eager to get to my work."
They both moved back to the great table, and Ilona, taking up her fragrant bunch of blossoms, carried them over to the other end of the room, where she plunged them into an old carved stone font, in which some ghostly-coloured tulips were already opening their pale faces, their stalks deep in cool, clear water.
"My fairy flowers are out of place here in thy morbid surroundings," she called to her companion across the room, and then coming back to the table she asked in a lower tone: "Tell me, Luath, why has all round thee this livid tone? All seems to have been blighted in some strange way, as though the whole air were full of vapours that make things sicken and die, changing their colours into tones that fill the soul with a sensation of apprehension; for, surely, my snowy blossoms will soon lose their fresh charm of spring breezes within the old grey walls!"
Luath answered with a shrug of his shoulders:
"Foolish one! I care not for what is crude and clashing; I love half tones and shadowy spectral tints; all that flares and glitters is antagonistic to my obscure researches. Only one thing must I find, and that one thing eternally eludes me: a heat that is greater than any yet known.
"Without that superior power my discoveries are all in vain.
"It must either be a flame, of which the heat has never been equalled, or a light of a strength as yet unknown; and this I cannot find; it robs me of my peace of mind and destroys my sleep at night.
"Ilona, thou wise one, thou faithful aid, canst thou not help me?" and Luath, with the insinuating gesture of a tempter, stretched out both hands towards the fair creature who stood facing him on the opposite side of the huge old table.
She raised her head and looked long and steadily into his eyes – such a direct and honest gaze, so full of questioning pain, of sad yearning inquiry, that the man dropped his hands and began playing with the different objects that lay about before him.
Then Ilona said slowly:
"Thou well knowest that I would do anything for thee – even against the will of all those that love me; is it not without their consent that I come up to thy dread abode?
"My mother cries tears of shame over me; my father is nigh upon cursing me for what he terms casting a shadow upon his honoured name, and my younger sisters avoid my company, as though I were not fit to live in their midst.
"And thou, Luath, in the cold selfishness of thy heart, thou dost taunt me whenever thou canst; yet always again I come to thee; alas, of that thou art but all too sure. . . .
"But tell me, in what way can I be of use to thee?"
She came to where he sat, and knelt down upon the floor at his feet, leaning her head against the massive side of the table.
"Luath, I wish I could help thee with thy heart's desire, help thee to find the magic water thou seekest, the water that is to give thee everlasting youth! I know that for thee that discovery would mean more than all else, more than the finding of gold, for which thou art also ceaselessly searching."
"What were gold to me, Ilona, if I lose my youth! I might be the richest man on earth, but if my hair were grey, my strength all spent, my face without beauty, my heart without desire, my wealth were then but ashes in my hands.
"I need the world as my playground, and gold to spend, and power; but youth do I need above all else, for only thus is the rest to be enjoyed!"
"And when thou hast found this miraculous water, Luath, wilt thou share it with others? Wilt thou share it with the woman thou lovest? Speak, Luath! how many wilt thou render happy with thy discovery?"
"Art thou turned moraliser, sweet Ilona! were it not better to leave that to those who have nought else?
"Why should I have thought for others! Each man for himself is the motto I most believe in. If I have brains beyond the usual average, are they not my own? Forsooth, I shall share my discovery with whomsoever I need for my happiness. The woman I love does not yet exist; one day, no doubt, she will cross my road, and then it will be time to see if I wish to keep her for ever at my side; but usually it is change a man's heart most desires, not the things that last for ever!"
Ilona heaved a deep sigh, and rose from the floor. Was the man in earnest? He was for ever a mystery to her, a dark and inscrutable problem; and each time anew she found it difficult to grasp the cruel depths of his abnormal selfishness. Yet she loved him with all the strength of her woman's heart. He had cast a terrible spell over all her being. She loved his beauty, his soft voice, his wonderful eyes, his tall grand figure, the gentle movements of his long pale hands.
She loved his intellect, his learning, she had even come to love his sinister researches and surroundings; yet he made her suffer always anew. Hardly a word did he say that did not cut her like a whip, and she knew that he was aware of the cruel charm with which he held her – that he accepted her burning adoration as a homage due to his extraordinary superiority, without ever deigning to consider the deeper wants of her soul.
And nearly every day she came again to this dark unknown man with a feeling that she was losing her soul, but drawn irresistibly towards his mysterious inexplicable personality, – she, the proud Ilona Farmendola, whose hand was sought for in marriage by the highest in the land. . . .
Humbly she came, like a poor little bird snared by the spell of a shining snake. . . .
|And he who hath to be a creator in good and evil – verily he hath first to be a destroyer and break values in pieces.|
MONTHS had gone by; summer lay warm over the fertile land; the hillside was a blazing mass of roses that tumbled in luxuriant profusion over rock and wall, sending out their tender shoots to climb up the dignified cypresses, which lent themselves with quiet indifference to the fragrant invasion so smilingly overspreading their sombre severity.
And still with daily persistence Ilona mounted the steep incline, winding her way amongst the many-coloured roses, to the forbidden walls behind which the man she loved was for ever searching for the power that eluded him.
The man had his arm lightly laid across the tall girl's shoulders; they might have been lovers, so tender was his touch.
It was the hour of sunset, and Luath was leading his fair companion from room to room in his mysterious abode, showing her nooks and corners, within which he had never yet allowed her to penetrate.
A soft mood was over the man; he had worked hard all day; he was tired and restless, so, when Ilona had arrived with the lengthening shades, he had greeted her with unusual warmth.
They were traversing the outward court that led to the hidden sanctuaries. It was a wonderful cloister of old grey stone, softened by centuries, with a hazy remoteness about its aspect that was full of slumbering repose. Here, no doubt, the peaceful monks had paced the old stone flags two and two, their white robes flashing in and out of the richly carved columns, their heads bent, their fingers twining their wooden rosaries. . . .
This evening it was a couple of surprising beauty that moved slowly over the moss-covered stones. The man had his arm lightly laid across the tall girl's shoulders; they might have been lovers, so tender was his touch; but Ilona, although her poor heart wildly beat beneath her dark blue draperies, well knew that the man's gentleness would last but a fleeting instant, that it was but a passing whim, which had no deeper meaning. Yet she rejoiced over this moment of sweetness as though a great treasure had been cast at her feet.
All along the square enclosure long beds of flowers had been planted; but everywhere the same lurid withered tones were predominant. A wild medley of poppies of strangest hues, faded pinks and mauves and greys; upright behind them, like motionless sentries on guard, stood long stiff rows of gladioli and hollyhocks. These also were weird in colour, with a metallic sheen, as though some fœtid air had passed over them, blighting their brightness.
In the middle stood an old well over the side of which a large clematis was climbing, trailing its long creepers over the steps and over the moss-softened pavement.
"This place of solitude thou knowest well, Ilona; each time thou comest, it echoes thy light tread; but to-day I have a longing to show thee other dark corners thou hast never seen. These flowers, of which the colours are distasteful to thee, are nothing in comparison to those in my secret magic garden, to which I shall take thee when the light of day has bidden us farewell.
"But first come to my chamber of silence; there I hold captive a dancing flame, which I hope may help me towards my ends. Kuskan, my faithful negro, guards it night and day."
Leading the way Luath paused before a low bronze door, wrought with some strange design almost effaced by the hands of time.
Ilona drew herself away from his touch and asked, looking anxiously up into his face:
"Luath, whence hast thou that evil-looking negro? Each time I come, he frightens me anew. Thou art almost small beside him; never before have I seen human creature so abnormally huge. I shudder when I must face his great black mask; why must thou have such a frightening servant?"
"Nothing within my walls is quite normal or usual; hast thou not yet learnt that, little one?"
"What I have learnt," sadly replied Ilona, "is that thou never givest a direct or downright answer. I know nothing of thee!
"I know not whence thou comest nor what is thy home, nor do I know thy race, nor what thy past has been; it all is dark as night to me."
Looking down upon her, Luath smiled his strange, cruel smile.
"All that stirs the imagination must be surrounded by shadows, Ilona; the bright light of day has not the charm of the evening hours, nor that of the mysterious awakening dawn.
"Certainly there are beings whose natures are as clear running water, whose souls can be read at the very first glance. But I belong not to those, Ilona, neither am I eager to be numbered in their ranks.
"What matter whence I come?
"A dark wind that blows over the earth and is gone! A heavy cloud, full of promise or fear, – perhaps a dread spirit surrounded by shifting shadows, or a grey mystery wafted through space coming out of muffled tides from the shadow of unknown shores. One day I may be gone, a passing vapour that melts into space. I cannot say for how long I am here. . . ."
"Stop, Luath," pleaded the girl, "do not make my heart ache with useless fears; stop speaking, for thy talk is always cruel. Thy words fill me with dread, as though thy house were thronged with creeping sorrows ready to spring upon me and tear me asunder."
"Come along, thou foolish one, thou art too earnest; heed not my lightly spoken words, but enter here and it will change thy anxious thoughts."
Luath pressed some invisible spring, so that the bronze door silently gave way, revealing to their sight a large low hall full of shadow and mystic depth.
A curious place, as silent as a tomb. The stone out of which it was built was as unusual and strange in colour as the flowers in the court without.
At first it appeared to be universally grey, but the longer the eye rested on its unpolished surface the more mysterious became its hue; it seemed fantastically to change into shades of blue and green and violet, like the sheen on a butterfly's wing or the shimmer of a rich-toned feather from off the breast of an unknown bird.
The great chamber was so vast that its farther end seemed dim and distant; a misty half light filled the whole place. The floor was paved with dull red stone, that gave the impression of walking over a spot where the blood of many sacrifices might have been shed.
The whole place was uncanny, brooding, full of gloom and secrecy. The centre was taken up by a deep dark tank of water, the edge of which was on a level with the red pavement. The water was perfectly still, and shimmered with a vague phosphorescent light, and right out of the middle there leapt a quivering blue flame that hovered over the surface like a lost spirit.
The two companions advanced together, their steps awakening curious echoes that ran like little mocking sounds around the walls.
When the gruesome pool was reached, they halted, and both gazed down into the dark depth which reflected their blue and red apparel in broken lines of colour. The strange flame leapt up and down, casting fitful reflections over them, lighting up their faces with an intermittent glow.
Rigid and enormous, like unto a giant of bronze, stood Kuskan the negro.
His weird coloured robe fell in straight lines along his immense and powerful body; about his waist was a heavy chain, at the end of which some unknown object was dangling, more like an instrument of torture than an ornament. Round his shaven head was wound a turban of faded orange silk that completely covered the left eye, whilst the right one was terribly watchful, its white being startlingly apparent.
So still stood this formidable figure that it might have been some startling vision risen out of a bad dream.
With arms crossed over his breast, he remained motionless, keenly attentive, his uncovered eye fixed upon his master, his two bare feet almost touching the edge of the water.
The blue flame quivered about like an anxious soul convulsed with pain.
Ilona had instinctively drawn close to Luath. This apparition of Hell was dreadful to her; he was quite like the dark spirit of evil she always felt was lurking somewhere within the house of the man she loved.
But now Luath was speaking, his fingers clasping her trembling hand.
"This flame I have guarded with utmost care. I found it one day as the sun was setting on a lonely bog that stretched for miles around, – a dreary distant place, where haunted souls met at night to cry over their pain and sorrow.
"I pursued this phantom flame as one pursues a golden dream. I caught it between the palms of my hands, and they were scorched and burnt for months afterwards, so that, my arms being swathed in healing linen, I had to relinquish all work during many dreadful days, although consumed by a thirsting desire to continue my researches. . . .
"Kuskan now watches this prisoner light, and each day it grows and becomes stronger. I have discovered that it progresses most when hovering over the face of the water, and when the water is sprinkled with . . . , but never matter with what we sprinkle the water! thy pure ears maybe would hardly care to hear. . . . But soon now my flame will be ripe for my great experiment, and that day I shall have thee at my side, dear fair woman, and it may yet be a day of triumph!
"There are different conceptions of life and happiness.
"Some care for peace, others for love, and still others for a name, and sometimes for wisdom they crave.
"For me happiness means work, power, domination, and the continual effort towards things that I must go far down to search; I love the heights of the brain, but I want to descend to seek them from out of the shadows. I want to see with my own eyes, hear with my own ears, touch with my own hands, feel with every quivering sense.
"I believe not in the light of God; I believe in the things which the brain can hold and see; and when I am tired and lonely I call up the spirits of the underworld to be my companions.
"To work for others may give joy to some; but my longing is to ride on the world, as I would ride a turbulent horse, breaking its will beneath the strength of my grip, till I feel it overcome, vanquished, at my feet!
"I want to dig where it is deepest, no matter whether the earth be clean or soiled or even foul. I want to sit where I shall be most exalted. I want to be throned alone in unreachable solitudes where only my foot can keep its balance; and when I have reached the regions I desire, then I shall look down upon those beneath me, and perchance lift one or the other to the heights I have climbed; but even then I want to remain alone in my tremendous knowledge. . . ."
The man had forgotten the woman beside him, who watched him with a dawning fear in her eyes.
There he stood, magnificent in his manly beauty, his tall body draped in dull red folds which were repeated in the quiet sheet of water beneath him like a long streak of blood; his glorious eyes full of that pride that brought Lucifer to his fall, the pride of one who worships but his own human form, believing in nought but in the power of his own great brain, defying God as once the fallen angels had done, convinced that he was an exception, above the laws that rule the universe. . . .
"I shall find the Water of Life," he continued, speaking like one in a trance who follows a wonderful vision that fills his soul with boundless exultation.
"I shall drink of it deeply, and eternal youth shall be mine!
"All those that speak evil of my name shall come crawling to my door; they will go on their knees before me and cry with the great desire to be given a single drop of my marvellous beverage, but I shall laugh them to scorn!
"I shall see their faces grow old and weary, I shall see lines of care mark their youth that once was fair, I shall watch the corroding years spread over them with their sign of decay; and I with my eternal youth, I shall stand far above, triumphant in my unpassing beauty; I shall deride their helplessness and scoff at their feeble fury, and I shall give them nothing . . . nothing . . . nothing . . . not even an instant of hope!
"Above them all in solitary grandeur, I shall pass on, walking over their heads to always greater heights; alone I shall stand exalted in my unreachable magnificence. I shall go down into the underworld to learn its most hidden secrets; I shall make friends with the creatures of shadow, and steal from them their hidden mysteries. I shall mount up into Heaven and tear from God a ray from His own eternal sun. I shall follow. . . ."
"Stop, Luath," cried Ilona, "I can bear no more; thou blasphemest; have a care; such sinful pride can but call forth the wrath of God! Defy not the powers that exist; one day they may fall upon thee and crush thy terrible assurance. Thou hast not yet found what thou seekest, thou art not yet the God thou deemest thyself. I shudder! . . . I tremble for thee, afraid to discover that what others think of thee may be true. . . ."
The man turned slowly toward her as one gradually awakening from some marvellous dream, and with one of his transient impulses that made him so dangerously captivating, he seized both her hands and gazed enraptured into her honest grey eyes.
"Beautiful woman!" he cried, "I wish I could find my happiness within these two dear, clear pools that gaze affrighted into my wicked face; but, alas, Luath Malvorno is not of those who can rest beside cool waters, he must for ever be climbing on the edge of dangerous volcanoes. In passing, maybe he will pause to bend down and touch the crystal source with his thirsting lips, but then again he must move on, – not because he has not felt the charm of the pure drink he has taken, but because his soul is restless and his brain too large, too abnormally inquiring to pause longer beside that which others call peace!"
Bending down for a fleeting instant, the beautiful red-robed figure covered the girl's eyes with his burning lips, crushing her fair face against his with a wild movement of longing; then, with a weary gesture, he passed his hand over his forehead, as though to wipe out some fevered thought.
"Come," he cried, "I dare not tarry here any longer; this place of shadows fills me with strange emotions, and a wind of folly sweeps over the coolness of my brain; I must pass on, or I shall weaken my great strength; I have too marvellous an end in view, too great a work to accomplish, to dare to squander my precious powers. Come! tempt me not, thou flower from the garden of Eden!" and seizing the trembling girl's hand, he drew her after him over the polished floor, always farther into the shadows of the hall, till he threw open a dark ebony door leading into his laboratory.
Kuskan the negro stood looking after their retreating figures, his one eye full of the light of inscrutable secrets; but upon his large lips there was a mocking smile that was strangely sinister and held a warning of sombre possibilities, . . . then he turned again towards the water, his toes just touching the cool surface, the chain round his waist swinging slightly to and fro, whilst curious, moving reflections played about amongst the heavy links. The dancing flame leapt hither and thither, like the anxious thoughts of a captive that can find no rest. . . .
|Thy foot itself has effaced the path behind thee, and over it standeth written: Impossibility!|
SEVERAL hours had passed, and Luath drew away from the fire over which he had been bending.
He straightened his tall figure, stretching his arms over his head as one who is weary. There was a hard light in his eyes, and his lips were tightly shut.
Ilona moved farther from the scorching heat, shading her face with her hand; her cheeks were flushed, and tiny drops of perspiration hung like dew on her brow. Anxiously her eyes followed the movements of the man she loved, who was now pacing the great gloomy room with the impatient, equal stride of a caged beast of prey.
She dared not approach him nor say a word; she knew how cruel and dangerous he was at moments when his hopes had been freshly baffled.
She watched his excitement with growing uneasiness, longing to go up to him and say words of encouragement; but she, the proud Ilona, was afraid, afraid of this lithe, panther-like stranger, of whom she knew so little, but from whom she could not tear her heart away. . . .
Her soul overflowed with unutterable tenderness, knowing so well how the unbendable pride of the man was smarting under his newest failure – he had been so sure of success! so sure!
Up and down the room he strode, backwards and forwards from wall to wall, muttering words of rage between his clenched teeth, entirely oblivious of her presence, possessed by the one and only persistent thought.
Noiselessly Ilona drew near the fire again, a thin plate of yellow glass held before her eyes as protection, and looked down into the pot that hung over the flame by a chain, now red-hot. The pot was of transparent stone, very like crystal, and was filled with a dense red liquid resembling blood, except that it was thicker.
Ilona knew, from what Luath had often told her, that if he could have command over a heat that was sufficiently strong, or a light sufficiently intense for his purpose, this thick fluid ought to turn into clear water.
All his hopes had been centred on that leaping flame in the hall beyond. With incredible precautions, aided by Kuskan, this mysterious light had been carried to the fire, and there Luath had added to it various ingredients of which she understood nought. The flame had leapt about, changed colour, had even uttered groaning sounds like a creature in pain; then it had crouched low like a beaten dog, and had laid itself all violet and green beneath the crystal pot. Weird smoke had escaped all around it, taking on horrible forms, so that Ilona's soul had been overcome by trembling fear. Gruesome sounds had filled the room, and sickening odours that had stifled her, catching her breath and filling her lungs with a sensation of oppression till she felt as if she must suffocate.
All the time she had watched the dark man's face. His eyes had been full of a wild glitter; there had been something almost diabolical in his expression, as one who is very near the powers of Hell and who secretly calls up their help. His whole body was tense with tremendous anxiety, his long pale hands clenched together as though throttling some enemy.
Once he had roughly seized her and had drawn her so near the fire that her robe had been singed by the flame, which seemed less intense than the white heat of excitement that had possessed the man. . . .
Suddenly something very strange had occurred – Ilona never quite realised what it had been.
The liquid in the translucent pot had begun to bubble, and a cry of exultation had escaped Luath's lips. . . . The red colour had gradually changed into every conceivable variation of tone; then a quite thin column of smoke had risen from the centre, and this smoke had seemed alive; sounds like moaning voices had mounted into the air, and long shadowy hands had formed themselves out of the vapours; these hands had all expressed an agony of despair, and had stretched out as though imploring for help; then they had clenched their fingers with gestures of threatening, yet impotent, misery. Always more hands had grown out of the bluish smoke, and then . . . ! Oh! Ilona never forgot the terror of it . . . a horrible face had appeared, floating amidst the hazy mist, a face too fearful to describe, with an expression of leering fury mixed with pain and inconceivable torture, such as Ilona never imagined could exist. And whilst the head had thus hovered above the fire, great drops of blood had run down its grimacing mask of misery, and had fallen one by one into the crystal pot, making its contents hiss like an angry snake; and at that moment, the fluid that had gradually been becoming clearer and clearer all at once turned again into thick dark-red gore. . . !
It was then that Luath had sprung back with an angry curse that had wounded Ilona's loving ear, and she had seen no more, having covered her face with her hands, overcome by the many uncanny sights.
When she looked up, Luath was again bending over the fire with an expression of baffled fury; Ilona saw that the flame beneath the pot had gone out and that only the smouldering ashes remained, from which little wisps of smoke rose curving into the air, like phantom adders with many heads; but some still kept the form of long thin arms, that lengthened and lengthened, turning at their extremities into the long clutching fingers that seemed endeavouring to take hold of the vaulted ceiling.
What had it all meant? Ilona's brain was floundering in a mist of uncertainty; she longed to escape, to be out under the starry sky – to tear off her white veil, to loosen her hair to the fresh breaths of the wind, to feel God's vault over her head, to be away, far away from these dread revelations that were like spectres from Hell.
But she could not leave the dark man in his misery. She knew that it was his pride that was suffering, that his dream of power was slipping from him, and that he writhed beneath his impotence – he who was so wise and deemed himself lord over endless powers of magic. . . .
Up and down he paced, as one driven by some mad spirit of unrest. The dark folds of his red robe floated round him like blood-drenched banners of war. His hands were clasped behind his back, his eyes were fixed upon nothing, but had a wild look, half misery, half rage; a deep line barred his forehead between his brows.
Ilona, her hand pressed on her beating heart, watched him with the same and yet ever-new fascination, asking herself why she so passionately loved him. Were it not as profitable to love a jungle-tiger as this selfish dreamer of deep, dark depths?
Why must the heart for ever turn to that which it cannot obtain? What was this terrible law of nature that made all human beings cry out for the things beyond their reach, and stretch out their hands to what eternally retreats into the shadowy distance, leaving them with a cruel feeling of emptiness and unquenchable longing, whilst the treasures near by beneath their grip seem worthless and without savour to their restless craving for what lies beyond? . . .
Down there in the prosperous little town at the base of the hill there were faithful hearts awaiting her, and heaped-up riches ready to be cast before her feet – there were promises of wealth and peaceful homes, of joy and plenty. Yet all her soul yearned only for a smile from the careless lips of the man her heart adored, but whom her mind recognised as unworthy of such humble devotion – and that man was greedily pursuing the retreating form of an impossible hope, closing his eyes to the tangible fact that a warm live happiness pulsed at his side, casting with wasteful prodigality all its unfathomed possibilities over his road.
Must it ever be thus, that human hearts pursue each other in an endless chase, never reaching the paradise of their desires – that the tantalising mirage they are following retreats as they advance, always farther and farther into shadowy space?
Before Ilona's mind there suddenly arises the vision of a sumptuous palace, surrounded by terrace upon terrace, and out of an open window a man is staring . . . a man who is young and fair of face, and whose whole soul is calling to her with consummate longing . . . the man she was to have wedded, whose wife she was to have been. . . .
And here she stands with throbbing heart, full of cruel misery, maddened by her longing for this uncanny magician, this alien from another clime for whom she is nothing but a passing whim . . . but a breath of spring that floats over the day and is gone. . . .
Oh! oh! the pain of it all! the bitter, deep, shadowy shame!
Ilona, Ilona Farmendola, why dost thou not flee away – flee from these halls where gloom and mystery lurk amongst shifting shapes and the grey troubles of false hopes? Let not thy love become to thee as a haunted home of wasted hours . . . never more to be lived anew, dwindling away into the past that nothing can call back again. . . .
Trembling with anxiety and apprehension Ilona came out of the corner where she had been hiding, and very softly with quivering voice she called:
"Luath, Luath, can I do nought for thee?"
For a moment the man paused in his walk, but the look with which he swept her face was as one who hardly recognises a stranger. He crossed his arms over his breast and gazed at her. His eyes were as dark as death, and their burning sullenness pierced her through and through.
There was a strained silence, and then, as though awakening from some deep slumber, he sprang towards her, and seizing her roughly by both hands:
"Go!" he cried, "go! before I lose my head! I cannot bear the sight of thee just now – go! or I could do thee some harm. It is fearful to me that any living creature should have seen me in a moment of failure.
"Right I was to wish to work in lonely seclusion; it was damnable weakness that made me keep thee at my side, therefore no doubt did the spirits join forces against me – a man with my aspirations must not have a woman prowling around him. . . ."
"Luath," protested the girl with blanched lips, "how canst thou speak to me thus? – thou knowest how I thirst to help thee and to be thy comfort. Luath, I pray thee, let me remain, let me . . ."
"I need none of thy comfort and none of thy weakening pity – go, I tell thee! leave me! I cannot bear the sight of thy snow-white face . . . what seekest thou here? dost remain to mock me in my hour of humiliation? Or art thou perchance dreaming of sweetening the night for me with the honey of thy kisses?"
It was like a cry of pain, the wail of a tortured soul, and the poor girl with a sob of misery covered her face with both hands; then gathering her white veil around her, she hid her burning shame within its silken folds, blindly she sought for the door, stumbling as she went, so eager was she to escape . . . at last she found the handle, turned it, and swaying like a storm-beaten reed she found herself once more in the great gloomy hall of strangely gleaming stone.
Here she paused for a moment taking breath, leaning against the ebony door she had closed behind her.
As she stood there, vainly trying to master her surging emotion, something shadowy and enormous rose suddenly out of the dark and towered above her like an evil spirit.
Kuskan! – oh, the horror of it! – she had forgotten that he guarded with sinister watchfulness his master's door! Luath generally let her out himself by another way, and now in her haste to flee from the magician's cruel words, she had almost run into the arms of this giant savage whom all her sharpened instincts keenly distrusted.
Suppressing with a great effort the cry that mounted to her lips, she drew herself up as bravely as she could and faced this spectre with the leering face.
Something told her with irresistible certitude that this dusky, slinking slave hated her with the stealthy jealous hatred of a watchful dog, a hatred which he repressed when his master was present. But he resented her visits to the solitary castle, of that she was convinced, afraid that one day she might steal his place.
The orange turban on the man's head had slipped slightly from his forehead and revealed what Ilona had never yet seen – an empty and blood-red socket out of which the light of life no longer shone; it appeared to the girl's overwrought nerves as a horrible wound, clamouring with silent lips for some deadly revenge. . . .
The man came quite near and, crossing his arms over his broad breast, stared at her with his one over-bright eye; he seemed also to be staring with that gaping red hole, and the vision of that marred, sullen black mask was so terrible that for a short unreasoning instant she covered her face with her hands.
"Aha! the innocence of thy candid eyes cannot bear the sight of my mutilated face," sneered the dark fiend in Ilona's own tongue, but with such a strange accent that it made his words all the more ugly to hear. "No doubt the beautiful, soulful countenance of my handsome master pleases thee more than my brute-like blackness! I would thou couldst hear what all thy townsmen say of thee, what names they give to thy unavowable passion for Luath Malvorno! Methinks thou wouldst hardly care any more to lift thy proud head amongst them, thou whom all treated as their uncrowned queen. Good for thee it were to listen to the honeyed words, to know their gentle prattle!
"But come with me; what I can show thee will perchance open thy eyes to things thy fascinating magician has not yet revealed to thy delicate senses, which forsooth will be none too pleased. . . ."
Ilona, shuddering, felt how a heavy clawing hand clutched her wrist, and as one in the throes of some ghastly dream she let herself be drawn always farther over the blood-coloured floor, always deeper into the gloom of the vast low hall.
The light no longer leapt hither and thither on the face of the silent water, only a faint gleam still spread over its sleeping surface, giving it the appearance of some crouching secret which lies awaiting the magic hand that will call forth its hidden life from the unfathomed depths. . . .
Ilona could not rid herself of the iron grip that bruised her soft little wrist; she was compelled to follow her savage aggressor, who dragged her rapidly past the dark tank, till a small door was reached on the farther side. This her assailant pushed open with a rough movement of his shoulder, and she found herself in a small dark space where, as she entered, a sickly smell filled her nostrils, and so pervaded the air with nauseous vapours that she all but swooned.
Kuskan took a lantern that lay on the ground, and swung it about so that the wavering light lit up all the corners in turns.
One look was enough for Ilona – it was as though she had peeped into Hell . . . a small cellar-like room with walls of stone, and on the damp floor, only partially hidden by blood-stained covers, were scattered heaps of nameless horrors and dark shapeless masses – if human or not, Ilona did not pause to investigate. . . .
With a mad cry of distress she wrenched her hand away from her terrible companion, who was bending down to lift one of the cloths from the indescribable something that lay stretched close at their feet, and swift as a chased deer she fled, driven by her wild terror and frantic desire to escape, never pausing till she had slammed the great outer door of the castle behind her.
How she got out, how she eluded the ghastly black fiend, she never knew. It was her uncontrollable, overwhelming terror that lent her strength and agility never before put to the test. . . .
Panting, overcome with dread, her knees giving way beneath her, she rushed in a headlong race down the stony path, winding her way, fleet as a hunted hind, in and out of the dark cypresses, scratching her hands and tearing her flowing robe against the creeping growth of roses.
She never paused to look back, but all the time the hideous vision of what she had just perceived, that ghastly revelation of undreamed-of depths of horror, haunted her fleeing steps.
How could such a thing be possible – there amongst so much beauty, amongst those hidden sanctuaries that had once been hallowed by heavenly chants and the fervent service of God – how could the man she loved work quietly beside such a chamber of darkness?
One moment she stopped, having reached the bottom of the hill and hidden herself beneath the dense shadow of a huge tree; she looked up to the grey building and towers of the gruesome dwelling from which she had fled and saw how a solitary light burned in one of the windows.
It was now nearly night, and the small red glow that shone so strangely from the dark masses of the fortress-like walls reminded her of Kuskan's horrible malignant stare, and yet she knew that that single lamp marked the room where the proud searcher of dark mysteries was working all alone.
Her heart drew itself together in pain as she watched that faint, far-away gleam; at times it seemed beckoning to her with kindly invitation, and then again it became Kuskan's awful hollow socket, threatening her with unspeakable horror.
How would she ever have courage to go up there again? and yet love was stronger than even fear or humiliation, and she felt a bitter yearning for the hard selfish man, who had turned upon her with such cruel words. Woman-like, she believed that somewhere beneath his outward hardness there must be a vulnerable spot, if she could but reach it; horrified as she had been, she well knew that she would not have the strength to resist his call if he needed her. She despised herself for her weakness, hated herself for her want of pride, but it was useless to struggle against this mighty flood which always swept her anew towards the being from whom she longed to flee. She felt like a defenceless prisoner who cannot break his chains!
With a hard sob she turned her face to the rough bark of the grand old tree, and hiding her burning cheeks in her hands she burst into tears. . . .
|Your path lies open before you, but you have cut off my return and left me stripped naked before the world with its lidless eyes staring night and day.|
The girl looked up with a start from the embroidery over which she was leaning, and rose respectfully from the seat near the window, to greet the tall lady who was coming towards her.
The two women faced each other without a word. Ilona's head was held high and an expression of defiance was in her fine grey eyes, although a pathetic, questioning smile hovered round her lips as though she were longing to give way to a softer emotion.
Her mother sat down upon a high stiff-backed chair, drew her rich velvet draperies around her, and passed her hand over her snow-white coif, which lay in immaculate folds around her handsome face, as one who wants to gain time and hardly knows with what words to begin a painful subject, that can no more be avoided.
The elder woman was as beautiful as her daughter, except that the bloom of youth no longer lay over the saddened features, which life had chiselled into the relentless lines of those who have seen too much.
Silently she gazed at her daughter, who stood before her, leaning against the oak panelling of the handsome old room.
To-day Ilona was clothed all in white, and a spotless head-dress, resembling her mother's, framed her lovely face. Somehow she looked younger in this maidenly attire, less of a grown woman, softer, more gentle.
Leaning over the table towards her daughter, the woman touched her hand. "Ilona," she began in a low voice, "sit thee down, I must talk to thee; my heart is heavily burdened because of thy behaviour, and it leaves me no rest."
"Mother," said the girl, sinking into the seat opposite her, "yes, I suppose we must talk – but, mother, I tell thee, I am afraid that all thou hast to say to me is in vain!"
"Ilona! how canst thou speak such words? Thou knowest well how thy behaviour grieves us, how thy name is becoming a byword through all the town! – how those that love thee best are beginning to shun thee, to look askance upon thee. Ilona, thou wert once the idol of the town, the pride of thy parents, the sunny joy of thy sisters and friends, and now, Ilona, since . . . "
"Stop, mother! I know, oh! I know but too well, I know it all, I feel it deeply in my own aching soul – thinkest thou, mother, that it is easy to slink through the streets with bowed head, I, who once used to sweep along as a queen, the little children flocking from far and near to kiss my hands, and now even the beggars grin when I pass. . . . Mother! mother! believe me, it is not easily that I have slipped from the pedestal upon which I used to be throned!"
"But, child," cried the mother, "if it is thus, why dost thou not tear thyself away! It is not too late; if thou dost cease thy solitary wanderings to that awful castle, soon the evil talk will die down; thou art young, thou art beautiful, the name of Farmendola is loved and respected, and, child . . . " softly the mother caressed the beautiful girl's hand, and almost in a whisper she added: "child, dear, thou knowest how there is one waiting for thee with faithful, unshakable trust, but whose heart thou art slowly breaking. Child, dear, dost thou never think of him? . . ."
With dry eyes Ilona stared across the room without answering. There was a painful silence, during which the elder woman watched the younger one with mortal anxiety; then wearily Ilona passed her hand over her brow and spoke in a toneless voice:
"Once upon a time there was a woman; there is none who knows not her name. The woman lived in a beautiful garden, where all was hers except one tree . . . one single tree; round that tree a circle of light had been placed, above which these words stood in flaming letters: 'Of this fruit thou shalt not eat.' That woman had all her heart could desire, everything she had . . . peace and beauty were hers, the blue of the sky, the flowers of the fields, all the other fruits of the earth – a man she had at her side whom she loved, and God was near . . . God was her friend, and yet, . . . well, it was that one fruit, off that one tree, that she craved to taste, and all the glory around her, all the boundless riches, the sunshine, and the whispering winds amongst the branches, the fresh dew of the dawn, the cool water of the rivers, the myriad stars of the night, the thousand voices of the birds, the glory of the awakening morn, the flaming colours of the setting sun, none of these could suffice her – she had to taste of that one fruit, just of that one forbidden fruit . . . !"
Stretching out her arms over the table and hiding her burning face upon them, Ilona continued: "Mother, it is all no good, this madness is upon me, this deadly poison has penetrated within my blood, it flows like fire in my veins, so that all else has lost its meaning for me. Dost realise, mother, that if the bleeding hearts of those that love me were lying there before me, barring my way, mother! I would walk across them; tread upon them with my feet, if he were to call me to him! Mother, I know he is dark and evil, that he is an enemy of God. I know that he is selfish, cruel, he even treats me as if I were but the dust beneath his feet, and yet, mother, if he calls . . . well, if he calls, mother, I shall go to him . . . yes, I shall go!"
"Child, my poor child!" cried the horrified mother, springing from her seat; and going to her daughter she gently raised her bowed head with both her hands: "I cannot bear to hear thy awful confessions – I knew not that thou feltest thus! But I must save thee, I must; I cannot stand by and see thee going thus to certain perdition. For two weeks thou hast not been up there on that awful mountain; child, I have watched thee with ceaseless, silent anxiety, and new hope has begun to rise in my nearly despairing heart. Listen to me and I will save thee! Come away with me, child! Thy father shall purchase a strong new vessel, and together we will sail over the wide blue sea to some distant land . . . and when the ocean lies between thee and thy folly . . . then, Ilona, my dear one, thou wilt see how much easier it will be! Child, wilt thou come?"
Ilona had risen and stood erect, as motionless as a pillar of salt; then slowly she turned to the window and threw it wide open and stared out upon the peaceful town, over the silent, grey, rose-covered houses, over the high church steeples, up towards the bright blue sky, and there with its towers touching the filmy, floating clouds stood the grey ill-famed monastery, rising above its surroundings like a grim fortress, its sombre secrets hidden behind its bastioned walls. Long did Ilona gaze upon this familiar picture, as one who cannot tear herself away, and then with a groan of anguish she fell with her head on the hard cold sill, and sobbed as if her heart would break.
"Yes, mother!" came her muffled voice, "I will come, but take me quickly, oh! quickly away!"
Several days later all was ready for Ilona's departure; a breath of relief had passed over the Farmendola palace, and hurriedly all was being prepared for a long absence.
Ilona's father had been begged by his wife not to say anything to his daughter, never to mention any single painful subject; nevertheless he found small loving ways of showing his daughter his approval – but Ilona passed amidst all the fuss and excitement with haunted eyes and the pale face of a ghost.
The last evening had come; the sun was sinking after a hot late summer's day, and welcome indeed were the restful shadows that slowly, like a cool veil, laid themselves over the tired earth.
Ilona sat motionless with dry eyes and idle hands at her own small window, her arm leaning on its sill, her chin in her hand, gazing, gazing towards the drear grey walls. . . .
Suddenly the little red light glowed at the window she knew so well. From far it appeared to be but a small gleaming fire-fly, and yet her heart too well knew whose lamp it was.
At the sight of that small beckoning spark, a slow tear detached itself from her long dark lashes and fell like a trembling diamond into her lap. She did not raise her hand to wipe away the warm drops that now chased each other down her pale cheeks, she did not even know that she was crying, but her eyes were unwaveringly fixed on that one tiny steady light.
Some one softly opened the door and a small folded piece of paper was silently laid on the sill at her side; she did not raise her head to see who it was, nor did she at once stretch out her hand for the paper.
Then with an indifferent movement she drew it towards her, cast a look upon it, and sprang to her feet with a smothered cry. . . .
And that night Ilona Farmendola stole away out of the house of her parents and, like a thief, threaded her way back through the tall cypresses, always higher and higher, till she reached the dark tempter's dwelling . . . cutting off behind her all hope of return.
Loving and perishing; these have rhymed from Eternity.|
Will to love: that is to be ready also for death.
THE moon was shining down in floods of silver upon Luath's magic garden.
High unscalable walls shut it in on all sides. It was small and square, and the ghostly light gave an added mystery to its already uncanny appearance.
The whole enclosure was paved with the same dull red stone as the gloomy hall within. In parts these slabs had been replaced by broad beds, where extraordinary flowers grew in rich profusion – flowers more like weird deep-sea growths than garden blooms. All were pale and enormous, with morbid livid colouring, and a perfume of overpowering sweetness which rose out of their wide-open calyxes.
Up against the high wall, standing in regular rows, were tall stiff plants resembling sunflowers in size, but they had strange blossoms, like pale tormented faces of a dead mauve shade, and all their heads were turned in the same direction, as though listening and waiting for some dreaded master.
In the centre of this garden was an ancient stone altar thickly overgrown by a creeping plant, the flowers of which were like copper-coloured spiders, and clung to the grey stone with long feelers resembling those of some gruesome insect.
On the altar, whence the figure of some venerable saint or the mild smiling countenance of the Mother of God should have looked down with placid serenity, sat a squatting idol with hideous face – an idol that grinned in silent impassible mockery upon its surroundings. Upon its forehead a precious stone shone with changing lights like a wicked eye. Out of the crevices between the slabs of granite blue flames rose in thin wisps, which curled round the metal monster, hiding its uncouth form with a veiling mist.
A small door in one of the walls was now gently pushed open and two figures entered, the one with eager buoyant tread, the other hesitatingly, with the shrinking movements of one who draws back in fear.
It was Luath, and clinging to his hand, Ilona followed him, her face pale and drawn, her eyes wide open, full of anxious questioning. But the man's face was alive with keen delight – his whole being seemed full of ill-concealed pleasurable excitement, which he strove to soften into tenderness.
Never had his tall red-draped figure been more magnificent, his tread more elastic, his dark countenance more fascinatingly handsome. Glowing exultation was written on every feature, and some uncontrollable emotion made his hands tremble, as he led his fair companion to a marble seat in the most secluded part of the garden.
The whole atmosphere was dense with unrevealed mysteries, palpitating with unknown secrets; the whole air was full of breathless expectation. A grisly silence lay over the place.
Ilona sat down and looked about her, turning her head very slowly from one object to another, whilst her eyes still retained the same painful, strained look. Her throat was dry with suppressed sobs; unshed tears burned beneath her lids; upon the dark blue of her robe her two pale hands were painfully clenched. With the movement of one who shivers, she drew her cloak around her, a cloak that was, curiously enough, of the same tint as the raiment Luath wore.
"Art cold, Ilona?" softly enquired the man, as he seated himself beside her; "rest awhile and thou wilt soon feel better – thy heart beats, I see how it lifts the folds on thy breast. But how pale thou art! what ails thee?" He took one of her hands in his with a gentle gesture, and began stroking it softly with loving solicitude.
Ilona did not draw it away, but remained silent, turning her great eyes up to his face with an expression of dumb pain.
Slipping to his knees at her feet, he drew her towards him and whispered, "Ilona, dearest, I have never seen thee thus!"
Still she was silent, but as she earnestly looked at him with her beautiful haunted grey eyes, her trembling lips painfully tried to smile, and she stretched out one of her hands and timidly laid it on his head.
Eagerly the man questioned her, drawing her always more closely towards him, till he almost heard the fast beating of her heart against her dress. But still Ilona said never a word; each time her lips moved, it was to her as if something choked her voice within her; she was quite powerless to utter a sound.
"Ilona, dearest! thou hast been suffering – I see it well. Tell me, Ilona, what it is; perhaps I can ease the burden of thy heart."
"Ah! surely it were in thy power," whispered the girl at last, "for only those that we love can help us, those that love us have no force to deaden our suffering! but to be with those we love is a help in itself!"
"Lovest thou me, then, Ilona?"
"Is it to add to my sufferings that thou askest?" was the girl's rejoinder – then, as speaking to some unseen being, she continued:
"There once was a time, when Ilona Farmendola was white as snow, and when the folds of her robe showed never a stain. Now the dress she wears is soiled, and its hem is covered with mire. Once the sun shone down upon a girl that was loved and respected, and now that same girl avoids the light of day and seeks the darkness of the night to hide her shame. Once there was a soul within her that was free, now her soul is bound with a thousand chains of pain and humiliation.
"Once she had a mother . . . now she has nothing more! . . . nothing! not even the path upon which she came. Her feet can no more carry her back, never more can she retrace her footsteps; it is only always farther that she can go. And like a beaten dog she returns to the master that ill-treated her. . . ."
"I? strike thee, Ilona! how come such words into thy mouth? I never touched thee! not a single hair of thy beautiful head did I touch!"
"It is not always with the hand that one strikes, nor is it physical cruelty that most hurts – the last time I was here . . . " and Ilona paused whilst her eyes were full of the anguish of her dark experiences, "the last time, oh! Luath . . . it was awful – awful! and Kuskan, thy terrible murderous Kuskan, thou dost not know to what he dragged me, what he forced me to look upon! Neither dost thou know how thy words tortured me and drove me from thee . . . and now, now I am nowhere at home. Nowhere!
"I was to have left, I wanted to go from thee, to be saved from my own sinful weakness . . . my mother promised to free me from the fetters of my shameful folly . . . but then came thy call . . . and I thought . . . I thought that perhaps thou wert in need of me . . . and like one mad I fled. . . . I fled from those who could save me, back . . . back to perdition!" And the poor girl covered her face with her hands, shielding her painful blushes from his searching gaze.
Luath rose from his knees and seating himself on the bench beside her, drew her towards him till her head rested with a weary sigh on his shoulder; then, leaning his dark cheek on hers, he whispered in a voice as soft as the gentlest forest murmur:
"Not to perdition, Ilona – ah! no, speak not thus bitterly to me! Yes, I need thee, thou beautiful woman, therefore did I call thee to me. Forget the visions that last time darkened thy soul. I was crushed by a cruel blow, writhing under the effects of a humiliating failure – therefore were my words hasty and cruel! Forgive me, I pray thee. Canst thou forgive?"
Ilona raised her head and looked sadly at him with her habitual steady gaze.
"Forgive thee? alas, thou art always forgiven, even whilst thou strikest, and therefore no doubt wilt thou strike again! for is not my cowardly surrender an inducement for thee to use me ill once more?"
"But, Ilona, for what cruel monster dost thou take me, that thus thou judgest me?"
"It is said that love is blind," slowly answered Ilona, "that love is blind . . . maybe that it is true, when said of a love that is happy, but I tell thee that love which is one with sorrow hath a thousand eyes.
"Thinkest thou that I do not know that I am less to thee than the ground over which thou treadest!
"But the love of woman is deep and lasting, and knows neither why nor wherefore. When it gives, it will always give again; neither does it enquire what it will receive in return; it gives because it lives from its giving, and the more it draws from its hidden treasures the more treasures it has. I want nothing of thee, only the permission to be at thy side and to help thee in thy work!"
"Indeed, is that thy wish?" queried Luath, and a strange gleam came into his eyes and a curious ring sounded in his voice – "is it verily thy dearest desire?"
Gravely Ilona bent her head in sign of assent; her gaze resting in mute enquiry upon his face awaiting what was to come. For a moment Luath hesitated; then, drawing her head once more upon his shoulder, he began in a voice that quivered from an overpowering emotion he could barely control:
"Yes, thou canst help me, Ilona, thou alone; and now in this hour of sweetness, when the moon with her pale face looks down upon thee and me, here in my magic garden, where no mortal eye can pry on us and no unbidden ear listen to our voices, I shall speak to thee of something that is very wonderful.
"Ilona, I have called thee unto me to let thee prove to me that thy love is not an idle word! Lie still, dear one, thou art well there with thy dear face so close to mine – it is like a breath out of the unknown to feel the softness of thy skin against my cheek . . . but listen, Ilona, and when thou hast heard, then canst prove to me how great is thy love. . . ."
The tempter paused for an instant, searching for his words, afraid of alarming the girl, and thus losing what he so ardently desired to gain.
"Ilona," he began at last, "it is full of wonder what I have to reveal to thee, and at first it may make thy heart afraid; but if in truth thou art strong in thy love, then the desire will awake within thee to help me in this my highest aim. . . . " Once more he paused, and a slight trembling passed through his body, so that Ilona laid a gentle hand on his, with a gesture of encouragement – then again he spoke:
"I have heard of a light such as no one has yet seen on this earth, a light of such marvellous intensity, that none can be compared unto it . . . but, Ilona, this light lies in the human heart of a man . . . !"
Ilona started and sat up, gazing with an expression of fear into his face. "What sayest thou! in the heart of a man? have I rightly heard, or are perchance my wits quite clouded – how dost thou wish me to believe such a tale!"
"Patience, Ilona, and let me speak, for, indeed, it is hard to believe this which I am relating with simple words!
"Thou knowest how I failed in my last trial; how the spirits were against me; thou didst see the horrible face that leered at us through fumes of smoke, how the great drops of blood fell one by one into my Water of Life, clouding its clearness? Since that day of bitter failure I have been restless, searching and seeking night and day. . . .
"And one night there came a spirit unto me, revealing to my eager brain a wonderful mystery. . . .
"In a far-off desert, of which I know not the name, but which I shall nevertheless be able to trace, there lives a man bearing the strange and unknown name of Alawyiola; a man who carries a light in his heart. Once, it seems, he lived amongst men – but now he has gone into solitude to ponder upon the things he has seen.
"The world and those that live therein give him different appellations: some call him a saint, others an anchorite or a prophet, but most call him a fool! – but listen! that man went into the desert to pray and to prepare for what he deems his work, and it is said that the light he bears in his heart is of a force beyond all that has ever been known, a force that nothing can equal. . . ."
"But," cried Ilona, "what good can that light be to thee? for I hardly believe that thou tellest me this without some dark end in view."
"Wait, Ilona, and thou shalt know! This light can only be stolen by a woman's hands. . . ."
"What!" interrupted the girl, "a woman's hands can steal that light! and thou . . . oh! Luath," and she sprang from her seat and stood tall and trembling before him, a dawning fear in her eyes, "and then . . . thou hast thought of me! I . . . with my two hands am to tear that heavenly radiance right out of a human heart! Oh! Luath, dark and fearful are thy thoughts!"
"Hush, Ilona, and listen! What tells thee that that light is his life? and that he cannot exist without it? Would it not have a thousand times more value within my hands! I tell thee, that light alone would be strong enough to help me solve my great secret! More than one spirit did I call up to ask their advice; one and all confirmed what their shadowy brother had told me! and so it is that light I must have, that one and none other! Ilona, dearest, be not afraid. Is then thy love so weak?"
"My love?" her voice came in a whisper; "my love, oh! is that the meaning of thy calling? and my foolish heart that thought, that perchance . . . oh! Luath, Luath! always anew dost thou stab me with a thousand daggers, always again dost thou trade with that soft and vulnerable object – a woman's passionate heart! Therefore didst thou call me, only therefore . . . to persuade me to risk my own soul, to persuade me to become a Stealer of Light?"
"A Stealer of Light! Ilona, does it not sound grandly sweet; how many would give years of their life to be thus called! yes, Ilona, let us become Stealers of Light! Thou and I! and when the light is in my hands, then thou wilt see what power will be mine! And then I shall crown thee with my success, lift thee up to my side, make thee my loved and honoured companion for ever – I shall offer my marvellous beverage to thy lips, and thy wonderful youth shall be thine for ever – were it not worth the sacrifice?"
The girl stood rigid, immovable, staring into space, her two hands clenched before her, all her face expressing an agony of indecision. As white as marble she was, her very lips were blanched, and the line of her eyebrows barred her forehead with a deep black mark. The man watched her as a great wild cat would watch its prey, yet there was also admiration in his eyes; there might even have been a deeper feeling, except that for Malvorno no other being could exist but his own selfish self. His whole heart was set upon this one thing that he wished above everything to obtain; he knew well that all his magic and learning could not be compared to her woman's power in this one case. Only as a murderer could he become possessor of this prodigious Light, and till now he had kept his own hands clean of stain, others had always done his ugly work for him – and perchance this beautiful woman might obtain what he wanted, with a kiss . . . ! but suddenly at that thought something stirred within him, something that might be a sensation of . . . what might it be . . . jealousy? Jealousy! what folly! – he was far above such weakness.
Now he went up to her as she stood mute and motionless amidst the wealth of curious sweet-smelling flowers, and drew her once more into his arms. He must persuade her, he must! all his future, all his success depended upon the will and the love of this tall, beautiful, tragic woman. Sweet indeed it would be to keep her at his side – but she was the only one whom he could use; the great Luath Malvorno must have no weakness, must give in to none of those temptations that would lure common mortals from the goal they were pursuing; only he must find the words that would move her, that would urge her on to do the deed for him. . . .
No feeling of remorse kept him back; he was accustomed to walk straight towards that which he needed, regardless of those that fell on the way. The weak must fall to make the strong ones live; those born to be exceptions must pass over the lives of those created to disappear – and when she came back with the magic Light, then he would be master of the world, and he would keep this beautiful creature at his side out of gratitude – and in this case gratitude would be made easy by the marvellous beauty of her face. . . .
"Ilona," he said, "thou hast told me thyself that thou hast cut off the way behind thee, that neither father nor mother, neither home nor friends remain to thee more. I offer thee a great and wonderful mission, worthy of thy beauty and thy brains. Thou hast come into my life, thou hast put thyself body and soul in my power; now thou must learn to live as I desire – it is thy Fate, Ilona! Break quite with thy old life, thy former conceptions of morality, ideals, and aims; become mine, as the fallen angels were strong enough to cling to their banished master. We shall be pariahs amongst this world of men, but we shall rise above them with a mighty force; we shall become Stealers of Light, and when the Light will be ours, we shall dazzle their eyes with our combined glory! I hate this man in the wilderness who goes there to pray and to ponder! we shall steal his force from him and become the rulers of the world!
"An outcast am I, a stranger in a strange land; wilt thou not hold to me, Ilona! thou who art so strong, so proud! Go no more down to those who shun thee for acting according to the dictates of thy noble heart. . . .
"Be a free woman, Ilona! rise above the ways of the world; cling to me, have the courage of thy own superiority; be not timorous, be not a blushing maiden full of fears and hesitation; be strong in thy own force, strong and sublime in the strength of thy love, finding therein thy aim and thy consolation! Is it not sweet, Ilona, to give thyself over with all thou art to the man who needs thee – Ilona? I believe in thee as I believe in no living creature; disappoint me not, Ilona, and one day . . ."
"One day?" and Ilona turned and faced him, all her soul in her tortured eyes, "and one day, when I have brought thee all, thou wilt turn upon me and bid me go – because man needeth change, and it is not the things that last for ever that he most needs: are these not thy own words, Luath? When I have stolen the Light out of the human heart of a man, who has done us no harm, then must I come quietly back to put it into thy hands, that thou shouldest be mighty above all others. Oh! Luath, why must I love a man such as thee?"
"Why? Oh, Ilona, because there is something within thy blood that responds to the life within me; because thou art strong enough to rise with me above the smallness of the world; because it was not thy place amongst the slow creeping of other mortals; thy aims, thy thoughts, thy dreams were not theirs; thou wert amongst them but not of them . . . then I came, I, Luath Malvorno, and from the first hour when Ilona Farmendola's eyes met his, she belonged to him, heart and soul and body! . . . Am I right, Ilona?"
Ilona bent her head, as though crushed beneath a truth too strong to deny; she felt as though all were slipping from her – all the old landmarks moving, the earth quaking beneath her feet, the sky heaving amongst its thousand stars. Her heart longed to cry out in glad release, but beneath the tempter's words, beneath her overpowering longing to be his, the honesty of her own straightforward nature felt his cold relentless selfishness – she knew with deadly certainty, that the man had only his own interest at heart. Yet she realised that she had no power against him, her own heart was the man's surest ally, was her own greatest enemy.
Then the man did something that was very subtle: he took her sad face between both his hands, looked long at her, deep into her tormented eyes; then, very gently, almost as a mother could have done, he kissed them many times, and putting her gently from him he said:
"I see, Ilona, that I ask too much of thee; thy love is not strong enough, I will press thee no more, Ilona – go thy way – I alone shall remain an outcast, I shall lose my only friend. Lonely shall I be, and lonely I shall wander through life, guarding the remembrance within my soul of what might have been, till one day perchance another may come my way, stronger, more noble than thou – a woman who will be able to rise above the everyday necessities of life, who will do my bidding to the very end, who will risk her life in the thought of standing to the last side by side with me, my crowned companion. But that day will know us no more; Ilona, thou wilt have gone out of my life – the dear dream of once will be but a vapour against the setting sun. Go, Ilona – but when thou goest, never tum thy head, so as not to look upon the grief of one who seemed to thee strong and relentless in his pride. . . .
"Go, Ilona – here is my hand for the last time; good-bye!"
And thus the dark man won the day.
Ilona was on the ground at his feet, sobbing her heart out, declaring that she was ready blindly to do his will, no matter at what cost, even if she were to die on the way; that life was worthless to her unless she could remain in contact with him and his work – that she was ready to start whenever he wished, ready to lend her hand to his bidding, to steal the Light he desired, if it were within her power to do so.
Gently Luath bent down towards her, raised her up, and putting his arms round her, led her slowly out of the magic garden, out of the pale moonshine, back into the haunted shadows of his dwelling.
|What awful incantation have you read among the stars in the sky, that with a sealed secret message the night entered your heart, silent and strange?|
THE ship that was bearing Ilona Farmendola across the distant seas was advancing slowly with full-rigged sails. From afar it appeared like a huge white swan floating in grand solitude upon the deep dark waves of blue.
The sky above was also as blue as the deepest sapphire ever possessed by an Eastern Shah. The sun beat down upon the gleaming water, till the whole horizon became a glittering field of light.
Alone at the helm of the advancing craft stood Ilona, her grey eyes fixed upon the dazzling distance. The folds of her dark red cloak floated around her like the petals of some gigantic flower caught by the wind; the white veil from her head waved to and fro, forming filmy clouds that passed backwards and forwards over her face. Her beautiful figure swayed slightly with the motion of the boat.
Paler than ever was her face, and almost startling the black line of her brows across it. An expression of stoic calm lay over her features, as one who is bent upon not turning back, and who is ready for whatever she may be called upon to endure.
As she stood there amongst the red billows of her cloak, the sun pouring down in a stream of fire upon her head, she was thinking of what she had left behind her on the other shores, more than of what she had gone forth to seek. Within her breast her heart lay heavy, heavy as a cold dead weight. . . .
Four short days of almost terrible happiness she had passed in Luath's castle, before she started upon her wanderings; four days in which the dark magician played his part of lover with cruel perfection, so that with each breath she drew the poor girl became more completely a defenceless tool in his hands.
Out of the shadows into which his master had banished him, Kuskan watched the two beautiful beings with a creeping hatred filling his soul; hatred for the girl he had tried to frighten away for ever, and who had come back to steal away his place. . . . He had a dog-like devotion for his master, and savage sufferings filled his black heart because of his disgrace.
As though with a magic wand, Luath had arranged everything for Ilona's voyage, making all seem easy and smooth as an everyday walk.
As companions he had attached to her two devoted slaves, a man and a woman of Indian race – both were young and agile, and full of silent gentle affections; moving around their newly-found mistress with noiseless assiduity.
Each instruction or advice Luath had given had been clear and precise. He seemed to think of everything, but beneath each of his words his tense anxiety lay hidden like a line of flame.
Four days he had kept her beside him, four days and four nights. On the fifth morning Ilona had started off, seated upon a smoke-coloured stallion, followed by her two newly-found attendants, on mules.
So as to avoid the town, Ilona was to thread her way through stony mountain passes, down towards the valley on the other side, and thence to the sea.
On the morning of her departure Luath had led her through the grey moss-coated cloister, where other pale-coloured flowers had replaced the poppies and gladioli, and before she had mounted her horse, he had kissed her on her lips, a slow ardent kiss, full of promise; and then he had hung about her neck a long and marvellous row of cool grey pearls, round, equal, and polished like berries of some sweet autumn fruit, telling her that the jewel was full of magic, and would surely bring her luck.
But one of the pearls he slipped off the string to keep for himself; it would, he assured her, change its colour if she were in need of help.
Ilona passed through these scenes as one in a dream; the four days of impossible happiness seemed as unreal as the agony of her last farewell.
The mules, mounted by the attendants, were heavily laden with all their mistress might need on her way. There was nothing that Luath had not thought of, and each traveller was given a purse full of gold.
Ilona had ridden slowly away, and only once had she turned round; then she had seen Luath standing tall and wonderful, draped in the folds of his dull red robe, like a slim straight flame slightly veiled by smoke. For a moment she had reined in her steed, filling her eyes for the last time with the sight of her love – then resolutely she set her horse's head towards the path she was to follow.
But at the turn of the road her horse suddenly shied. . . . Rising out of the ground, threatening and huge, like the spirit of revenge, stood Kuskan, her dusky aggressor. With arms crossed he awaited her, and when they were face to face, he stared at her with his one cruel eye, and said with his horrible grating voice:
"Ilona Farmendola, I tell thee, thou shalt never return, and a fool thou art if thou believest that my master has either love or respect for thee. I have seen how . . ."
A lash of Ilona's whip across his ugly face was all the answer he got; she set her horse at a gallop till she had left him far behind, like some horrible nightmare dreamed on a night of storm and fear . . . but her ears could never forget the soft dull sound her whip had made when it had struck that hideous mask of sin.
Three days had she ridden over hill and dale – at night stopping wherever she could; and at each step she took, her two companions had surrounded her with mute and constant care.
Thus on the fourth day had she reached the sea, and there she had found a boat all ready to take her to the distant shore she was to reach.
No queen could have been treated with more deference, attention, and alacrity; her every wish was an order, and all those about her bowed down before her as though she were their sovereign.
Nothing could have better suited her mood than this wide, never-ending, restless, surging expanse, upon which she was slowly sailing.
During the day the sun beat down upon the vessel with scorching rays, for it was still in the last summer month; but the nights were a never-ending marvel of magic enchantment: the sky seemed alive with a myriad flaming eyes, one and all distant, aloof, watchful, yet friendly and full of messages of encouragement for the lonely silent traveller.
Ilona had ordered that her bed should be arranged beneath a tent on the deck, and there she lay through the long hours of darkness, looking out upon the wonders of the spangled firmament, her thoughts wandering back to the man she loved – searching for him within his gaunt grey walls, imagining that in each separate star she espied his solitary lamp burning at his window.
But each time her thoughts turned to the face of her mother, she would groan aloud, and would cover her eyes with her hands as though trying to blot out from her brain a burning, consuming remorse, from which she could not shake herself free.
At the hour of dawn the seamen, both young and old, would come on tiptoe to steal a glance at the perfection of her sleeping face. Awed, they would stare at her pale, sad features, and each in his heart would wonder what her secret might be.
Ilona kept no account of time; this quiet sailing upon unknown seas, that were bearing her upon their ever-moving waves to alien, distant shores, seemed to her like a long soothing trance. It was as though her soul alone were wandering, as though her body and senses had been left behind; she was as a stranger even to herself – it was Luath's will that was moving in her; she was detached from things earthly, passive, quiescent, a gentle lamb being led to the altar of sacrifice, were it thus decreed.
She let the days slip by, and never with a word did she enquire when the ship would arrive or how far they had still to sail. Speaking but little to those who were travelling with her, she seemed completely absorbed in her own sad thoughts. She never complained of the heat, and her two faithful attendants were aghast to see how little food she would taste.
One evening, as the sun was setting, a quiet old seaman approached her with uncovered snow-white head, and kneeling on one knee before her he humbly offered her a wonderful many-coloured shell.
Ilona held the tinted marvel in both her hands, and looked down entranced upon its changing hues. Then she raised her head, and with one of her rare, sweet smiles thanked him for his gift.
"From whence does it come, from what far-off unknown shore?" she queried, more out of kindness than because she wanted to know.
"My wanderings have been many," answered the old man, "and so many lands have I seen, that within my tired brain their different aspects blend and become one. But wherever I strayed, tears did I find more abundant than smiles; more angry words than gentle replies; more strife than peace, more blows than kisses!"
"And why should it be thus?" asked Ilona, with a wistful smile.
"Why?" the old man rubbed his hoary head. "Why? often have I wondered why thus it should be. I am old and often weary; things pass by me now without stirring the blood that flows within my veins like a sluggish stream. See, thou fair lady – life is so made that each man deems himself its only centre, and that all others are there to pander to his wishes and hopes and dreams, and then too, there are – women."
"Women?" enquired Ilona, with raised brow.
"Yes, women! there be so many! too many, methinks, for the peace of the world; and in spite of their number, men can never agree about their possession – things be badly divided, so many there are that get without asking, whilst others ask and don't get! . . . I have seen it all the world over. Men running after a fair silly face – too many for one; and then others crying their hearts away for the fools that won't look at them. Ah me! it is a sorry game, and pleased I am that my day is no more!"
"I suppose thou didst not always think thus?" smiled Ilona, looking up at his wrinkled face.
"Ay! ay! there was a time when I had my place in the dance – but being a seaman I always moved on! small scraps of my heart I left wherever I went, that I will not deny, nor will I say that aught I regret. Life is life, and has to be lived whatever it brings, good or bad; but a weary pity it is that we shed so many tears over what cannot be mended. Youth is a sorry failure, with its foolish hopes and impossible dreams – for sure it is better to look back and to smile, than to be right in the middle and to cry and run one's too hard head against stone walls. . . . Now see ye – I look at your pale fair face, and says I to myself: sure it is because of a pair of eyes that the heart within her is sore and heavy as a winter's night, and methinks that not all my meagre old knowledge would help ye not to be a poor, sad little fool!"
For a moment Ilona did not reply, but she felt the warm tears well up into her eyes, as she looked out over the horizon, at the reddening sky.
"Tell me," she said at last, "and what protection wouldst thou recommend against this folly that breaks hearts and leads them astray?"
"Ah me!" answered the old man, wagging his head, "for sure it were better to ask a wiser than me! Methinks the only way would be for God to send them to their mothers with hairs that be already white and hearts that be already burnt out – but no doubt God knows what He does, and thinks the game would end too soon, if the greatest folly was taken away from the world. But, my dear young birdie, sure it's a dreary sadness to me to see ye pine and pine, and no doubt the one ye are crying for not worth a hair upon your head. So I brought ye this shell that has many colours, for often when my soul has been dark and troubled, beauty it was that helped me best. And verily the song of a bird or the light upon a butterfly's wing, the red glow of the tired sun, or the first green in vast spring woods was like a healing hand upon my aching pain, and taught me that God was not quite the sore blunderer we sometimes believe Him to be. It is only the sight of a mother crying over a wee shut coffin that still makes me lift my hand and shake my fist in the face of His fair smiling sky. Well, well, I will be wearying ye with my stupid talk – but I watched ye whilst ye slept and guessed how sore troubled ye were, and ye so young and fair and good to look upon.
"Deary, deary me! if at least all our poor grey hairs could protect the young hearts from gloomy failure! let me kiss your dear white hand and I shall leave ye."
"Bless thee for thy beautiful gift," said Ilona, passing her fingers over the polished rainbow-tinted shell; "indeed beauty is a treasure always there for those who have eyes. My heart is heavy, and the weight I bear in my thoughts is nigh upon crushing me, but no doubt one day like thee I shall understand that it all has to be. . . ."
The old man moved away with heavy tread, his rounded shoulders and quivering hands telling of the many years that had passed over his head, bleaching his still thick hair.
But Ilona sat motionless, the great shell clasped between her hands, gazing into the sinking sun, whilst the heavy tears rolled one by one over her face, down upon the old man's humble offering.
And night still found her there, she had not moved from her place.
|"We walk by faith, not by sight."|
|II. CORINTHIANS, v. 7.|
THE morning dawned when Ilona reached the shore where she was to land; and as she approached the small forsaken Eastern-looking harbour, she seemed suddenly to wake out of some very long dream, or out of some deep unconsciousness which held her captive. Her sleeping brain began to work once more, not only to remember and look back, but to grasp with appalling lucidity all the weight of what had been laid upon her woman's shoulders.
In flaming letters the strange name of Alawyiola leapt within her mind, and her heart was stirred with a wave of terror at the thought of all that was to come.
Till this day her whole being had been filled with Luath's overmastering personality; she bent beneath the weight of her love, accepting the sacrifice it demanded of her, taking no count of the morrow. The first part of her journey had dulled her brain; the silent vessel had borne her always farther across the sea, and she had let herself go to the torpor of the hot sultry days and to the beauty of the nights, as one under the effects of a strong narcotic, without realising that the day must come when she would have to move forward of her own free will – when the great distance from her lover must release her from his influence, and force her to act for herself.
She stood leaning against the side of the ship, watching the approaching shore as they drew always nearer.
She had never thought of asking Luath to what land she was to be taken; all lands where her lover was not were equally desert to her, nor did she know amongst what people she was to move.
With vague wonder she watched the hustle and bustle of the strangely-draped figures in the small harbour. They were dark of skin and wore turbans on their heads; their clothing was of every colour of the rainbow; their movements were quick and nimble, nor did they talk much as they hurried hither and thither carrying heavy weights on their shoulders, transporting overfilled sacks to and fro from the clumsy crafts that were moored along the quay. The houses in the background were all white, with flat roofs, green shutters, and many-grated windows; some were overgrown with a wonderful plant that climbed along the dilapidated walls, covering them with a thick curtain of royal purple.
The many boats and ships that were anchored in the small harbour had huge sails of orange, brick, brown, and rust-colour, and they looked like fantastic birds with tired folded wings awaiting a fresh breeze to take flight anew.
Some veiled women, most of them draped in the mysterious blue which Ilona preferred to wear, stood or sat about in isolated groups. Like rows of waiting crows they remained huddled together, only their eyes visible, following all that was going on with watchful interest, whilst they jabbered away in a strange melodious tongue.
At last the boat was moored, and Ilona, with a short leave-taking from the crew, and a special smile for the old white-haired sailor, who kissed the hem of her robe as she passed, stepped ashore, her red cloak closely folded around her, her white veil drawn down over the too startling beauty of her face.
But even here Luath's magic hand had prepared her way for her. Ilona was conducted by her two companions along a narrow ill-paved street, where the houses were so high and near together that their roofs all but touched, thus shielding the road from the torrid rays of the sun. Hurrying draped figures filled the narrow way, and often Ilona and her two companions had to flatten themselves against the wall to avoid the tripping donkeys carrying closely-veiled women on their lean backs. Small gaily-clad children played about amongst this motley crowd, laughing and screaming, their hands full of weird cactus flowers of violent tints, with bunches of sweet-smelling jasmine that they pressed upon the passers-by, running after them clamouring for coins, their small bare feet pattering with extraordinary agility over the uneven pavement, the many-coloured glass beads round their necks tingling and flashing as they scrambled through the throng.
The predominant colours in all this gay medley were that dull beautiful blue and gorgeous saffron-yellow, so that many of the tall, slim, dark-skinned figures were like detached petals of gigantic sunflowers.
It was a wonderfully picturesque scene, and Ilona gazed upon it all, bewildered and fascinated.
Through several crooked, shadowy, ill-smelling streets did Ilona and her companions wind their way, past many silent shuttered houses, where loose-leaved, heavy-headed flowers swayed down upon them from crumbling, insecure-looking balconies. Into more than one dream-like inner court, full of coolness, did Ilona cast a wondering glance. Round the small splashing fountains large earthenware jars stood in circles, strange of shape, with bulging sides over which thick bunches of daisies hung in snowy profusion. It was all full of startling contrast, of light and shade; full of muffled silences and hidden possibilities, so that the traveller felt her heart beat with disquietude as she stole past those unknown dwellings, in which alien lives were lived amongst habits and customs of which she knew nothing.
At last the outskirts of the town were reached, and there awaiting her, tall and fantastic like a figure from out of some forgotten old legend, stood a white-draped man holding by its bridle a wonderful horse.
The noble creature's head was raised, its delicate nostrils wide open, and its silken coat shone like burnished copper. Full of fire was its large dark eye, whilst it pounded the ground with impatient hoof, dancing about, snorting and raising clouds of dust, eager to be off.
As Ilona approached, the man threw himself on the ground and kissed her feet. He was tall, young, and handsome; the white burnous which covered his head falling in folds to the ground.
Ilona stood a moment, abashed, undecided, hesitating; then her two companions bade her mount, saying that it was by Luath's orders that this horse awaited her – that their final wandering was about to begin, that they were faithfully to keep at her side . . . only quite at the end had their master ordered that she should go alone – for no other could be with her when she approached the strange and awful thing she had gone forth to seek.
Ilona complied with their wishes, marvelling at the strange power Luath possessed and which met her even here in this distant unknown land; but it was a comforting feeling to realise that all had been thought out and prepared. Had he then been so sure that she would come? so sure that because of her love she would respond to his every bidding?
Both humiliating and sweet it seemed to her, this assurance of the strong dark man, in whose hands she had trusted her life and her love. And much more precious was her love to her than her life.
She sighed, but a sad whimsical smile played around her lips as she mounted her horse . . . she had given up analysing, pondering, thinking for herself – she felt but a willing tool in the hands of some superior force she no more even tried to resist. All passed before her like a never-ending dream; she moved through strange scenes, amongst unknown people like a sleep-walker.
Horses for her two companions had also mysteriously appeared, risen as out of the ground; and after the two large bags had been fixed upon their saddles, the three travellers started off at a gallop, closely following their silent white-robed leader, who flew along before them on a fleet-footed shining bay.
All day long did they ride through scorching sun, over rocky uneven ground, where thistles and enormous prickly cactus plants grew in abundance.
Towards evening they at last arrived at the border of something vast and dim that stretched endless before them, on and on as far as the eye could reach, a sort of dazzling yellow sea, covered with immovable never-ending billows, spreading always farther and farther, as though trying to reach the glowing face of the sinking sun.
Ilona drew up her horse, and stared in wonder at the strangely fascinating ocean of sand, where nothing moved, where nothing grew, and where nothing disturbed the monotonous surface, except occasional narrow little paths that had been marked by the passing feet of some wandering tribe or of some silent, slinking desert inhabitant in search of food: otherwise nothing but billow upon billow of gleaming, glittering, scorching sand.
Indeed it was an unique and marvellous picture, comparable to nought she had ever seen.
The sky above spread like a vast mantle of blue, uniform, relentless, pouring down its burning rays upon that limitless waste, till the whole horizon was one glimmering haze of light, so bright that the human eye was unable to gaze long over its blinding surface.
And as she watched, that vault of blue began gradually to tint itself with fantastic streaks of glowing gold, which imperceptibly deepened and deepened till liquid fire seemed to flow in streams through that orgy of yellow, lighting it with a blaze of flame, so that before long the whole sky was one astounding furnace of incomparable glory. The sand was also dyed by its indescribable radiance. Ilona let her reins drop and hid her face in her hands, overcome by the fantastic miracle of colour, the like of which she had never before seen.
Her companions had drawn up behind her, and they too were gazing in silence at all the beauty.
Silhouetted against the gleaming sky, a shadowy figure of quiet dignity, was their mounted leader. Like a statue of bronze he sat his horse, his long gun slung over his back, his eagle eyes staring far away over the desert.
Then he turned his head and looked at the red-cloaked woman on the horse; and perchance she seemed to him no less marvellous than that great spreading wonder of Nature that was unfurling itself in front of their astonished gaze.
That night the four wanderers slept beneath the light of the stars, wrapped in their mantles, bedded in the deep sand without any protecting cover of canvas over their heads, and curiously cold were the hours of obscurity after the intense heat of the day.
An immensity of silence lay like a cloak over the desert, and Ilona felt a curious inexplicable peace come over her soul as she closed her tired eyes.
Even Luath's figure appeared before her mind's eye gentler and less dominant, as though softened by the great impenetrable distance that separated them; a milder vision of her lover arose from the shadows to bid her rest. Was it the influence of those vast stretches that no human foot dared to disturb? Was God perhaps nearer in this limitless waste, where all passions seemed lulled, all vain desires hushed, where the time-forgetting stars looked down from unreachable heights, filling the calmed heart with a new hope of peace and ultimate attainment, penetrating the tired body with soothing repose?
The great calm of that first night in the desert was of such ineffable beauty that the wandering home-sick woman felt suddenly at one with Nature, at one with her Maker's great plan of things eternal, which she was as yet too ignorant to fathom.
Ilona Farmendola slept amongst the desert sands as she had not slept for many a night.
And the pink dawn, like a fine veil of blossom-woven gauze stretched over the awakening sky, found her still fast asleep, her face hidden amongst the dull red folds of her cloak.
Thus did the solitary woman and her companions wander many a day through the strange matchless wonders of the desert. And each night they made their small forlorn camp beneath the great sky's thousand eyes of light – till one early morning her three companions drew rein, and told her that henceforth she must go alone, that their part as her protectors and guides had come to an end, and that her will alone could now lead her where she had promised to go.
Ilona sat very still upon her beautiful mount, looking over the wide distance before her.
Then her white-robed scout, raising his hand and pointing to some shadowy rocks that rose blue-grey against the horizon far away, pronounced in ringing melodious tones, deep and sonorous like a bell of bronze:
"There dwells the great and honoured prophet Alawyiola; none dare disturb his rest, but thou must go to him, if thy fate demands it of thee. We, thy companions, shall cast our tents in an oasis near by, and await, either thy return or the passing of thy soul where none can follow thee more. . . ."
Strange words for the ear of the traveller! but was not all fantastically abnormal in this life which now was hers? She bowed her head in quiet acquiescence, and . . . slowly, submissively she detached herself from the friendly little group that had been her sole protection in this vast unknown waste of desolation – and as one who dreams, she rode away all alone into the unfathomable mysteries of the secret golden dawn. . . .
Her companions stood on the small raised mound of sand, and watched her moving figure as it became ever smaller, till it seemed to be one with the hazy boundless immensity of this strange phantom land. . . .
Then they turned, and they also went their way. . . .
He stood before me|
The embodied vision of the brightest dream
Which like dawn heralds the day of life.
MANY long lonely hours did Ilona ride under the blazing sun. She had not turned round to look back upon her companions, being afraid of realising her solitude more completely if she perceived the always greater distance that was growing between them as she moved away.
Her horse made no sound as it cantered over the deep glittering sand; longer and longer became the small path that its hoofs marked as it skimmed over the undulating surface.
The silence was intense, crushing, tremendous; a golden calm lay over all, and the only shadow far and wide was that of the advancing horse and rider. Once the form of an eagle with outspread wings threw its shade, dark as ink, upon the unlimited yellow of the sand. Ilona stopped her horse to watch the bird as it soared farther away, its pinions often motionless, following the currents of the air that carried it through the skies. Grand and powerful, full of repose and tireless ease was that dark flight over the lonely plain; and the forlorn woman felt a deep longing to have those great strong wings which could lift the body so far over the burning earth.
Now the eagle was but a dusky spot against the turquoise vault. Ilona raised her hand to shield her eyes from the glare, and as the bird disappeared into space she felt doubly forsaken, as though a last friend had fled, leaving her utterly desolate in this unexplored, far-reaching solitude, where the relentless light beat down upon her like a fiery stream.
She patted the silky neck of her tireless steed, and for a moment she laid her head upon its mane, closing her eyes as one who is unutterably weary, feeling how the unshed tears burned beneath her heavy lids. For a moment she remained thus, giving way to hopeless, irresistible depression and fatigue, with an overpowering desire to lie down there in that deep hot sand, to give up thinking, longing, loving, and enduring. All the aching exhaustion of her many days' wandering came suddenly over her, like a wave of distress. . . .
. . . What was the meaning of this mission she had undertaken, how had she ever had the courage to accept such a mad adventure, and this Alawyiola, this mysterious wonderful man, what would he be like? Was he young or was he old? How would he receive her when she broke in upon that solitude into which he had retreated? And the light that he carried in his heart, how, oh! how was she ever to make it her own! . . .
Suddenly she realised the immense folly of such an unheard-of undertaking. How could the man she loved have sent her out upon such a quest!
Better it were to die here of exhaustion from hunger and thirst and heat than to venture farther into unknown, undiscovered regions, where scorn, no doubt, and withering words of anger would meet her because of her shameless intrusion upon a sanctuary within which she had no right to penetrate.
Oh! only now did all these thoughts stand out clearly before the mind that had been clouded by the strength of love!
A short while ago she had said that her love was not blind! Ah! but she had been deluded by her pain, believing that it could open her eyes; but love was far stronger even than pain; so strong it was that it had cast her bound and captive into the hands of the one who could use her as he would! She had believed that her eyes were open, but they had been closed by the kiss of his lips, and with their burning touch on her lids he had effaced all reasoning and doubting from her brain.
And there, in the far distance, rose the dark rocks that marked the strange man's solitary retreat; there lay the unknown, the mystery, the secret she was to penetrate. . . . Over there upon the line of the horizon rose the spot towards which she was steadily advancing; but would she find the courage to go till the end of her way?
"Luath! Luath!" she cried, "how hadst thou the heart thus cruelly to forsake me here in this vast and scorching wilderness, where nought can help me as I go! I feel so helpless, so forsaken, so small and useless; the great wastes around me seem to mock my woman's weakness, to scoff at my utter and hopeless desolation. Luath, Luath, why art thou so far!"
She slid from her horse to the ground, burying her head in the steaming sand, as one who longs to pray and can find no words with which to utter the soul's great call of distress.
With raised head and dilated nostrils, her beautiful mount stood at her side, the perspiration running in streams from its shining flanks; it seemed to be watching over her as though aware of the bravely-borne trouble she was fighting all alone.
For a short space Ilona remained thus, her head hidden on the ground; the desert around her breathed forth a palpitating heat that rose from the very heart of the earth. She might have been some silent worshipper praising Allah and the glory of the rising day, whilst the sun mounted ever higher into the cloudless sky.
Then she remounted her horse and slowly advanced across the wilderness, on, on; but the shadowy rocks in the distance seemed to keep eternally out of her reach, or to be even retreating instead of allowing her to draw any nearer.
Evening came down and found her still picking her way in and out amongst the yellow billows of sand. . . .
That night she rested beside a solitary mound; she had nought to which she could bind her steed, but the faithful creature did not forsake her; it stood through the long lonely night under the light of the stars, as its mistress slept the sleep of utter exhaustion almost beneath its feet.
On awakening next day, Ilona sat up and looked about her. Her horse had disappeared! where had it gone? – now indeed she was alone, alone, in complete and desolate solitude.
A small bag of food lay beside her as she had left it the night before; she partook of a scanty meal, afraid to remain without provisions in this dreary waste; she drank out of a small flask that hung at her side – and then heroically rose to her feet and began her weary wandering, forsaken of all, even of the noble beast that had borne her securely so far – where had it gone? she had never heard it move! At what moment had it abandoned its vigil and left her a poor wandering waif in this alien land!
But the mysterious rocks seemed suddenly to have advanced towards her – they were much nearer than the evening before, and as she stumbled along through the heavy sand that encumbered her steps, her heart began to beat wildly because of that which was awaiting her not far off.
Suddenly the colour of the ground changed before her eyes – a wide stretch of red met her gaze, so intense in hue that it might have been an immense pool of blood. On she hurried, ignoring the heat and exhausting fatigue – her cloak floating out behind her like a dusty banner, her cheeks flushed, her eyes glistering and keen . . . and before long she found herself wandering through a fantastic field of scarlet-red poppies that waved about her like a moving tide of surprising colour. A small pathway wound itself through this fairy spot, the sand gradually hardened beneath her feet, and soon it was over a stone-covered ground that she was walking. All around her was curiously changed, and always nearer came the rocks that had seemed so completely unapproachable.
Verily she was but a sleep-walker! a solitary somnambulist that must awake at any moment to discover that all was but the mirage of a fevered brain.
But ever onward she went – and as far as her eye could reach, the field of red spread about her on all sides.
This wide stretch of bloom seemed endless. More and more poppies clustered round her feet, unfurling their glowing beauty before her; she waded through them as though they were a flood of colour. What did they mean, how did they come here, where nothing else grew – no plant, no tree, no blade of grass?
For several hours did Ilona walk amongst this scorching scarlet. The sun beat relentlessly down upon her head. She yearned for her horse, for her companions – for an instant's shade, for a drop of cooling water! She felt as though she would go mad here, amongst all this glowing red that burnt into her brain as with flaming fire. Often she had to close her lids to protect her sight from the too great intensity of the fiercely gorgeous colour that surrounded her like a waving sea of blood.
For more than a mile she had been trudging along with bent head and stumbling bruised feet, hardly aware of how she was moving; and so great was her fatigue that at each minute she expected to drop and rise no more. All her sensations were dulled, all had become indifferent to her, her brain refused to think, she was but a moving body that kept ever advancing by some curious force that was nought but unreasoned instinct.
Suddenly she looked up, uttering a cry of surprise . . . she had reached the rocks! She found herself walking, as in a dream, between two rows of tall white lilies that had miraculously sprung up amongst the loose grey stones and led in a straight line, as though a fairy avenue, to a great dark opening in one of the giant boulders.
Ilona paused, overwhelmed by a feeling of insurmountable emotion that made new life rush through her body in a bounding stream. There she stood, spellbound, unable to move, her knees quaking beneath her, fighting down the fearful excitement that had taken possession of her every sense.
Oh! what was her fate to be? What was she to meet there within that cave where the mysterious hermit had his lonely dwelling? Why had she come? How had she ever had the courage?
She stood motionless, her hands pressed across her lids, and then very slowly with trembling steps she approached the dark entry and cautiously peeped within. . . .
At first her tired, sun-scorched eyes could distinguish nothing but a strange and wonderful light that was shining somewhere out of a sombre obscurity, a light as never seen before. . . . There was something marvellous about that radiance, it filled the soul with a feeling of unearthly all-pervading peace that fell upon Ilona's tired being as a soft, a healing blessing. Gradually, as she continued to gaze at that miraculous light, a human form began to define itself, and Ilona perceived a man kneeling in the middle of the cave, his forehead pressed against the edge of a plain stone altar, his hands folded before him. . . .
Motionless he knelt, all unconscious that he was no more alone. Ilona felt that she was prying in upon something she had no right to see; that she had broken in upon some holy sanctuary; and quite unconscious of what she was doing she sank upon her knees in that dark corner where she had been standing. She could not take her eyes from that praying figure, her gaze was riveted upon the bent head and the clasped hands, but the face was hidden from her sight. . . .
The longer she stared, the more distinctly did the picture burn itself into her brain, and she realised that it was from the man himself that the light was radiating. Alawyiola! . . .
The man who carried a light in his heart! yes! It was from his breast that the light shone – strange, awful, and yet peace-bringing as nothing she had ever felt before.
This vision of prayer never moved from its posture of humble adoration before some unknown mystery. The longer Ilona looked, the more distinctly did she realise every detail.
The man seemed tall, powerfully built, and young. His glistening hair waved close to his head like a covering of bronze, or a tight-fitting helmet of metal, but it was closely cut at the nape of his strong white neck; a short light tunic reached to his knees, on his feet were sandals, and round his bare legs were wound long leathern thongs.
The light that streamed from his breast mounted upwards, throwing a mystical glow over his forehead and hands. . . .
Ilona was filled with an extraordinary desire to see the man's face. It seemed to her as though she were gazing upon some strange and miraculous picture before which Christians would flock together to bend their knees.
Ilona had been brought up as a fervent believer, but her love for the dark magician had loosened her faith; she had become a doubter, a renegade, she had lost her anchors in a sea of trouble and perplexity, where one feeling alone had drowned all others – the love for the man whom her soul felt to be unworthy of such passion.
She knew not how long she remained thus on her knees, staring in ever-growing fascination upon that motionless man of prayer – and then, when least of all she expected it, he rose, tall and slim, to his feet. As he moved, the light moved with him and fell on the top of the grey stone altar, lighting up some flowers that had been strewn thereon.
Then he turned. . . .
Ilona caught her breath, and for a moment her heart seemed to stand still in awe. . . .
What was there about this man that made him so different from any one she had ever before seen? – was it due to the light in his heart, or was it because of his face?
Now he was coming towards her, but as yet he had not perceived her crouching there, a trembling waif, in the dark hidden corner of his cave. But suddenly the light which he bore within his breast fell upon her cowering form, and with a slight exclamation of surprise he sprang towards her, and, taking her by the hand, helped her to her feet, gazing full of astonishment into her frightened face. . . .
Ilona stood speechless, her eyes riveted upon that wonderful visage that was now revealed to her in its entire beauty.
For beautiful indeed was that luminous countenance into which she was looking.
It was younger than she had expected, much younger, in fact it was almost the face of a boy. . . . The features were noble and regular, and strangely grave; but it was the eyes that held Ilona with a sensation of awe – eyes the colour of distance; eyes at once piercing and gentle; eyes that were filled with a heavenly radiance, and contained at once so human and tender an expression that it made them the eyes of a friend or a brother. . . .
"What can I do for thee, O tired traveller?" he asked, and his voice sounded like the cool sweet waters of a summer stream; "what visions have led thee hither into my solitude? I thought no one could follow me here. Was it by chance or by design that thou camest to me?"
Ilona could not reply, no words came to her lips. Before the beauty of his eyes her tongue refused to frame the smallest untruth – something welled up from the depths of her heart like a warm wave of shame. She let both her hands drop to her sides with a gesture of helplessness, looking at the marvel of his face, overcome with a feeling of crushing sadness as she realised all the straightforward purity of the being who stood before her. Verily the man was not as other men; there was something holy about him, something to which she could not find the key; she felt humbled, overcome, as though she were standing in the presence of an angel.
"Come," said the man, "give me thy hand, I will lead thee to where thou canst rest; thou art overwrought; and I see by thy raiment that thy wanderings have been long and arduous. I will ask thee no questions, but I consider thee my guest till thou tellest me thyself that thou must go."
The light of his heart fell upon her dusty clothing, lighting it up as with rays of the moon. Was the man aware of the strange miracle he bore within him? was the thought that shot through Ilona's brain. He seemed so completely unconscious that there was anything remarkable about him, that his appearance was such as to thrill the heart with fear and wonder.
Ilona hardly dared to look at that spot on his breast from whence the radiance shone, it was all so fantastically unreal! She could hardly believe that she was alive; her brain could not conceive so unheard-of a mystery as this burning flame in the bosom of a human body; and then, suddenly, like a blow, the thought struck her of what was expected of her, of what was the real reason why she had come all this way. With a faint cry of distress she fell forward at the feet of this strange man, this Alawyiola, whom she had come to destroy; and for a while she knew no more.
The shadow of his presence made my world a Paradise.|
All familiar things he treated,
All common words he spoke became to me
Like forms and sounds of a diviner world.
ILONA was seated at the feet of Alawyiola, the holy man of the desert.
Her eyes were fixed upon his wonderful face, her heart eagerly absorbing the wise words that fell from his lips; she knew no more if she were in heaven or on earth, so strange and marvellous were her days.
This man was like a saint come down upon earth, and all his sayings were full of such ineffable beauty that Ilona felt as though her soul were drinking from the pure sources of Paradise. All else had gone from her mind, as she let the days slip by, one by one, her whole heart filled with the irresistible desire to hear this man talk . . . to watch his inspired, ascetic face and those indescribable eyes that carried within them all the unexplored beauties of unknown worlds and dreams.
Alawyiola had given her a dwelling within one of his caves, where she lay each night on a bed of dried moss; a curious refuge indeed of monastic simplicity, yet never before had Ilona felt such deep peace and repose.
The rocks which formed the anchorite's lonely abode were cast, as by giant hands, upon the shore of an unknown sea that stretched before them in floods of changing colours. Behind lay the endless, arid expanse of desert through which Ilona had threaded her solitary sun-scorched way. Flowers bloomed all about these mysterious caves, as though God had stretched out His hand, blessing the stony and unfruitful ground. But it was not long before Ilona realised the strange miracle, that it was the passing of Alawyiola's feet over the desert that made the flowers spring up in endless profusion. Wherever he moved over untrodden ways, blooms of every sort and colour sprang forth miraculously, marking the road he had taken.
Never with a question had Alawyiola broken in upon Ilona's silence and reserve; he treated her as some honoured guest that had come to him upon his own bidding.
Each day on awakening she found that a great jar of clear water had been placed by her, so that she could bathe; alongside were dishes containing sweet-tasting food and cool fresh drinks of delicious flavour. But never did she see who placed these offerings beside her couch; never had her waking eyes discovered whose kind hand had ministered to her daily wants.
With each hour that she spent beside Alawyiola, her wonder and admiration grew; she felt as though it were on her knees that she ought to listen to the words that fell from his lips. The man was as a spirit, with no earthly wants and wishes, with nothing to remind one that he was made of human clay.
During the day the flame in his heart shone less clearly, but in the dark it streamed forth with a light that could be equalled to none. Ilona was still in doubt if the mysterious man were aware that he was not as other mortals; there was a straightforward simplicity about him, that gave him the charm of a spring day when the first green spreads over the earth carrying tidings of hope and delight; but his speech was that of a man who has learned all the wisdom our sad old earth contains.
To Ilona it was as though her soul were each day being born anew to perfect beauty through which she floated, her body having been stripped off, as an old outworn garment that is of no more use.
The reason why she had come, the dark and dangerous mission with which she had been charged, had fallen from her mind; this luminous presence was so strong that it completely absorbed her every thought.
And, curious as it may sound, even the vision of Luath had retreated with all the rest, and scarcely ever did her mind turn back to what she had left behind. After all her trouble and anguish, she had awaked in a world of such ideal purity that for the present it alone filled her, soul and body, with its unearthly radiance. The finding of Alawyiola had been so wonderful, after her fears and doubts and miseries, that they had for a while been completely wiped from the surface of her calmed brain.
No doubt her stormy pain slumbered beneath this divine peace that had descended upon her as healing dews, blotting out all remembrance; the hour of awakening would surely come, but as yet it had not struck, and she lived on in beauty, taking no care of the morrow.
A rainbow rapture penetrated her tortured heart which had been heavy with a love that was not requited; now in spellbound silence she sat at the feet of this youthful prophet, his clear voice thrilling her every sense with a wondrous joy she could not understand.
It was evening; the man and the woman were seated on a high rock overlooking the sleeping sea. The shadows were already creeping over the earth, enveloping the heat of the day with a sigh of repose.
With rapt ecstasy Ilona was watching her companion's face. He was looking over the quiet surface of the waters, his hands folded on his knees, his wonderful eyes gazing into space with that inspired expression which made his face unlike any other human visage. The light from his heart shone faintly from beneath the white folds on his breast; and as the darkness thickened, the more intensely did the radiance pour forth.
Ilona felt a sudden irresistible longing to lay her hands within his, to feel his human touch, yet she dared not; this man was as unapproachable as a figure on an altar. But her voice came in a whisper, bidding him speak:
"Tell me why thou livest here all alone; why thou didst quit the world of men to come into this wilderness, and if thou never meanest to return to it?"
"Yes, I mean to return to the world," answered Alawyiola.
"It is because of my intention to go back to live amongst mankind that I have come into the desert to pray and to ponder. I believe in the power of prayer, and to pray with all one's soul one must be alone – alone with God and Nature."
"I want to hear more about thee!" murmured Ilona, looking up into his face, "more about thy life and what thou hast seen?"
"What I have seen?" Alawyiola turned his wonderful unfathomable eyes to the woman at his feet. "Alas, sadness have I seen, sadness everywhere! weird mists and shifting shapes of grey sorrows, gloomy shadows of unavowed thoughts, that lead the hand of passion to dark crimes, and that fill the hearts of men with hatred deep and sore. . . . That creeping monster of hatred it was, which prowled in hidden places ready to spring up and consume all the sunshine from on high. And because of that giant hatred which I found at the bottom of all things, did my heart grow in love and pity for others.
"I saw that they knew not their own trouble; that if they could be taught to love instead of to hate, to forgive instead of to punish, their own lives would be clear and sunny, even the lives of the most abandoned and the most miserable.
"Once I saw a starving child give its only morsel of food to a dying dog, and the light in that child's haggard eyes was as though an angel had kissed them. . . .
"I saw a woman who had all she needed, leave her ease and riches to go amongst those who were dying of a cruel and awful pestilence, to bring them help and comfort; and when she herself succumbed at last to the same deadly ill, the peace upon her waxen face told some marvellous revelation beyond the ken of men.
"A man have I known who laid his head on the block to save the brother he loved, and the face of that man was good to look upon! . . . Many such a tale could I tell thee, and each one of those who gave of his heart to others reaped a golden and blessed harvest. . . .
"But the man who had killed, I saw crouching with fear in the darkest corners, slinking like a ghost in the light of day, hiding his head wherever he could, for fear of the eyes that might recognise him. And the man who had stolen came to hate that which he took, and like Judas he soon longed to cast it back into the face of the one he had harmed!
"He who had slandered heard the false words he had spoken in each step he took, in each voice that struck his ear; the very wind wafted his lies back to his brain. Hate and malice are as a two-edged sword striking back at him who strikes.
"But they know it not! they know it not!
"Some have solved the mystery of love and hate, some have learned before they die the secret I have already learnt; but few are courageous enough to stand up in the halls of men and to cry out the blessed truth. . . . I myself! . . . well, I also am not yet strong enough, for not yet do I clearly see my way – therefore did I come here to pray for God's light, to pray that some small shining from His greatness should be confided into my human hands, so that I should be able to return amongst them and teach them to love instead of hate. Love is a force so great that it could light up the darkest abyss, if men but knew how to use it, if men could but open their hearts to that glorious shining to which none other can be compared! The Son of Man came once amongst them, laying down His life that they should live and be saved; but it is so long ago that they have almost forgotten it, and the rites they go through are performed with dry hearts; they bend their knees and sing holy chants, but how many, thinkest thou, have the love of God in their hearts whilst thus they kneel before His blessed altar? They have forgotten the love He taught, and they know not the darkness of their own poor souls! But one day I hope to teach them the way they have forgotten!"
"But tell me," cried Ilona, "who art thou, oh! thou wonderful preacher in the desert? Tell me what blessed woman was mother to thee?"
"Verily dost thou crave to know who I am? To me it seems but of small importance, for man is only the tool of God and his thoughts make him what he is; if his thoughts lead him to sunny heights then God is glad, and it is God's smile he carries in his heart. But often the tool lies in the mud, hiding away from the face of its Maker, and then God is sad. But His patience is eternal, and He is for ever awaiting the hour when that tool also will come to its use.
"Seldom do I talk about myself, but if it is thy wish I will tell thee about my life that thou shouldst better understand the spirit that moves me:
"Alawyiola is my name, and from very far have I come. I lived in a city alone with my mother. The city was full of riches and poverty, of beauty and sordid vice, full of light and shadow, and many of its streets could have been compared unto the Valley of Tears. Wealthy we were, and my life was full of all that was pure and perfect.
"My mother was as beautiful as a summer's evening; a haze of reposeful sadness lay over her features; she seemed for ever looking back upon a dawn of sweetness which she had left far behind her. But some blight had fallen about her youth, as a flower over which an early frost has passed, before it was in full bloom. She never spoke of what had gone before. I never knew my father, nor did she ever mention his name.
"Maybe I was not as other children are, and a sore anxiety I must have been to her tender heart; for although I dearly loved her, the spirit within me for ever drove me to do things that troubled her most. . . .
"She tried to guard me behind ancient walls, but I always found means of stealing away; and whenever I returned it was to bring some miserable waif with me, with whom I shared my toys, and food, and even my bed.
"One early morning she actually found me with a small emaciated corpse in my arms; the evening before I had carried home a child dying of some horrible sickness whom I had found in one of the wretched streets through which I was for ever roaming. All through the hours of darkness I had held the expiring little vagabond against my beating heart, believing in my childish ignorance that thus I could save it. . . . But it died! – a bitter grief it was! – my mother chid me and I . . . I could not understand her chiding, and looked up at her with astonished enquiring eyes that she bent down to kiss, the while tears stood in her own.
"I had planted myself a wonderful garden full of flowers of every tint; I cannot explain why, but flowers ever seemed to blossom miraculously beneath the touch of my fingers, and all these many-coloured, sweet-smelling flowers I carried amongst the poor and miserable. Very early did my eyes look upon sorrow and vice, sickness and death, anger and strife. But all these frightened me not, I only felt in my heart a curious warmth that I longed to pour over all that sordid sadness.
"As I grew older my mother no longer tried to quench my ardour; each night at my return she would meet me on our threshold and make the sign of the cross on my brow, whilst I bent my head to kiss her cold pale hands . . . But one evening . . ."
Alawyiola paused and crossed his hands over his breast. Night had come, and the light in his heart shone out between his fingers in long shining shafts that fell upon the listening woman's head, illuminating the white veil she wore as with the rays of the moon; then, descending the crevices of the rock in silver rivers of brightness, they spread far over the face of the water, where they glimmered like dancing stars.
Ilona watched him, her soul in her eyes, her breath coming short, her lips half open, a great emotion filling her being.
"But one evening," she repeated softly, with a question in her quivering voice.
"But one evening," continued Alawyiola, whilst his eyes followed the light on the water without turning to the beautiful face that was gazing up into his, "one evening, when it was already dark, I entered a wretched and forsaken dwelling; there was no light in the miserable hovel within which I penetrated, but a curious and mysterious thing came to pass: wherever I moved a wonderful and beautiful light was with me, illuminating the sordid abode with a heavenly radiance I could not understand, for nowhere in the room was there either lamp or candle. Yet each step I took was preceded by a halo, transparent and white, that fell before me, spreading ever farther till all the poor place was filled with its beauty.
"And there on the bed of rags lay a dying girl with closed eyes. Her face was haggard, gaunt, emaciated; the bones could be seen beneath the tightly-drawn skin, her nose was pinched, her lips livid and cracked. As I approached, the light fell upon her, and there was such an intensity in its rays that the dying face was transformed into a vision of beauty. The girl sat up as though drawn from her couch by some irresistible power; then she rose to her feet with a cry of joy, stretching out her two fleshless arms towards me. A wonderful expression of bliss spread suddenly over all her face; she murmured some confused words; I could not catch their meaning, but they were like a sigh of release and blessed gratitude; then she fell with a slight gasp into my arms . . . dead. . . .
"The light that came from my own human heart shone over her dead face with an unearthly radiance. All traces of illness had been quite suddenly wiped from her features, and a strange loveliness was stamped upon it, a peace and serenity that I cannot describe. . . .
"Long I stood there alone, in that abandoned hovel, the dead girl resting in my arms, the unknown light flooding all around.
"A door was gently opened and the girl's ragged old mother came in from the night outside. When she saw me standing thus transfigured with the smiling corpse clasped against me, she fell on her knees, crossing herself many times, the great hot tears falling down her wrinkled cheeks on to the ground.
"That night I hurried home as one afraid, my two hands pressed on my heart to hide its rays – but fine lines of light streamed from between my fingers, falling on all I passed, casting a fantastic radiance before me; everywhere my road seemed strewn with gold and silver in changing magnificence. . . .
"But I was filled with fear . . . a great awe had fallen upon me. . . . I had become a stranger unto myself, and this miracle within my own body seemed something too terrible for human strength to bear.
"When at last I stood before my mother's door, I remained there trembling like a guilty sinner, hardly daring to knock, my hands still striving to cover my breast so as to hide that which had happened to me.
"When my mother came out and we stood on the threshold facing each other in the dark, the light streaming over her dear sad features – the same strange scene repeated itself as in the lowly hovel: my mother fell on her knees, crossing herself, whilst my light poured down upon her bended head like a luminous blessing sent from on high.
"In an agony of distress I drew her up towards me, and held her long against my breast, whilst stifled sobs came from my throat like the beat of distant waves upon a lonely shore. . . ."
Alawyiola paused, overcome by this awesome remembrance, and Ilona watched his beautiful face, which the ascending light covered with a glorious radiance, till the man seemed but a holy burning flame. The longer she looked the more did she feel as though her heart were melting within her in a great and boundless longing towards something she could not understand: something pure and wonderful and far, far distant, yet throbbingly real and living. Again the irresistible desire came over her to touch Alawyiola's hand, to lay her head on his knees, to feel his human nearness, to be in sweet and pulsing communion with his incomparable being. . . . She knew not if it was her body or her soul that thirsted most sorely. . . . She longed to rise to her knees, to stretch out both arms and clasp to her bosom this astounding might of perfection, all this strangely alluring world of unknown possibilities; she longed to cry out her need of love, and help, and comprehension! But when her eyes rested upon the saintly visage above her, she understood that his thoughts were not for the living woman at his feet – but for the great dream of love, which was much higher than any her tortured, groping, searching nature had ever been able to conceive. Yet she could not tear herself away from the contemplation of those absolutely faultless features; she clenched her hands till her nails cut into the delicate palms, and a burning sensation seized her throat. All the tears she dare not shed rose from her heart in suffocating waves of inexplicable distress. Why did not his unearthly beauty and goodness call her and fill her with the rest she so ardently desired and which she thought she had found? of what miserable clay was she made, that even here at his side, under the glory of his light, listening to the charm of his words, she could not forget her own miserable feelings, her own unimportant, worthless existence? She ardently desired to be able to follow him up to his immaculate heights; but deep within her, she knew that far greater was her unsatisfied longing for love and happiness, and for human earthly bliss.
But now his voice rose again, clear and sweet, with that something within its tones which each time reminded Ilona of deep cool waters that have depths within depths. . . .
"From that day," continued Alawyiola, "my life became both a marvel and a torture. . . . I knew not whence nor why this mysterious gift had been thrust upon me – but I could no more move without bringing wherever I trod either fear or overpowering, uncalled-for adoration. I had become a thing apart; many a night did I spend upon my knees before God, imploring a sign of how I was to use this wonderful power He had lit within my human heart. Nowhere more had I the peace that once I had. From far and wide the poor and miserable flocked to where I lived, believing that I could heal their every ill, alleviate their every suffering. And even with my mother could I no longer lay hold of the days that had been – she for ever came into my presence with folded hands and downcast eyes, as one enters a holy temple. This humbled me more than I can ever explain, and there were moments when I madly longed for her gentle chidings of yore. I wished not to live thus alone, and divided from all human sympathy; I suffered deeply from my enforced isolation. I clung to the shreds of what had been, crying out for the days that had passed, when this enforced superiority had not obliged me to stand alone, a creature apart.
"It was long, very long, before I understood God's desire; but one night as I prayed all alone in my own small room, a revelation came to me out of the mighty unknown, telling me that I must not strive against the blessed mercy God had poured into my heart. I understood at last that I must stand alone, that I must lean on none, but give all my strength in never-ending effort towards that dream of Love which the Son of Man had spread over the earth. . . . But the burden of this blessing seemed beyond my power to sustain – the love in my heart was so strong that it could hardly bear the weight of all the human suffering about me. Each tear that fell seemed to swell the stream of light I carried within me; each breaking heart seemed to add its agony to the overflowing pity I felt, till I knew I should be crushed beneath its immensity unless God would show me a way. I was too young, I knew too little, I had only felt, I never had really lived, I had not worked; all had been instinct and unreasoned desire to love and help. But now that all earthly suffering rushed in upon me like a never-ending flood which no ebb ever called back, I knew that my human frailty was not yet strong enough to sustain the trial. The revelation of my own power, of my own isolated lonely grandeur, had come too quickly over me – I ought to have been a god or a saint to stand the immensity of it, but I was only a boy in years, ignorant, overwrought, doubting, still a slave to human longings and desires. All this was more than my body could bear, and I fell sick of some deadly inexplicable malady, and lay many months hovering upon the edge of the grave, whilst the flame in my heart always grew, till scarce aught was left of me but a shell full of light. . . .
"Often I lay for hours quite still, and my mother, always in my room, was mostly on her knees praying . . . praying. . . .
"One day, when all hope seemed at an end, an old man unexpectedly entered. He was draped in the flowing garb of a monk; his head was bare and his feet covered with dust. He came close up to my bed so that his humble vestment shone like gold. Bending over me, he laid his hand on my forehead, looking into my face with eyes overflowing with love and tenderness. 'My son,' spoke the stranger, 'thou must not die – if God has placed His sign within thy heart, thou must be strong enough to bear it, because the blessing is such and the honour so great, that verily it were cowardly not to have the courage to use it. Thou must not allow the great love thou feelest to be thy destruction; thy soul must be strong enough to overcome the weakness of thy body, and not allow the sorrow of the universe to crush thee. Go into the desert, my boy, as the Son of God did before thee. Tear thyself away for a while from all that rends thee in twain, flee from those that later thou wilt come back to save with the love of Christ that thou bearest within thee. Great is the work that lies before thee; from the first days of thy life hast thou drawn too intensely upon the cords of thy heart, and it is rest that it needs – rest, prayer, and meditation!' Then the venerable pilgrim knelt down beside me, hiding his head on my feet. So long and so motionless did he remain that I supposed he had swooned. I watched him, as I thought, for many hours, then I fell asleep. When I awoke the old man had gone, but I felt so curiously vivified that I sat up and looked about me – then I rose to my feet and went to the window. The early dawn was rising in great waves of rose-tinted light.
"Thousands of white doves flew up into the air from all the roofs of the houses beneath me, always more and more till the whole sky seemed one fluttering cloud of snowy feathers; all these winged creatures sailed away into the direction of the rising light – and their luminous sun-kissed flight seemed as a sign sent unto me, indicating the road I was to follow. . . .
"From that day my strength came back very rapidly. One early morning, like the white birds that had gone before me, I took my way towards the East over desert and sea till I reached this solitary spot, where all the snowy doves had collected on these rocks; from afar they appeared like a garden of magic flowers formed by the foam of the sea . . . and there they had patiently awaited my coming.
"Then they all rose high into the air and flew away in the direction whence I had come. Only one of them returned several times, descending out of the eternal blue like a streak of light, and, fluttering round and round my head, uttered little cooing sounds full of calling melancholy as though asking, ever asking for something I could not understand . . . but then suddenly I knew what it desired, and fastened round its willing neck a message of love for my weeping, lonely mother. . . ."
Again Alawyiola paused; then at last he turned and looked full into his companion's eager beseeching face – for a moment he caught his breath; that face with all his magic light streaming down upon its fascinating loveliness was indeed a very beautiful thing to gaze down upon. . . . And for a long moment the two pairs of eyes rested upon each other as two travellers that have found an oasis full of the promise of delicious undreamed-of rest. . . .
Slowly Alawyiola closed his wonderful orbs, and then very softly, with a voice that trembled ever so slightly, he continued:
"And now here in this solitude I have been very near to God in ardent continual prayer. By slow degrees He is teaching me what He desires my mission to be. . . . Before long I shall return to my suffering brethren to carry His blessed message amongst them . . . to take this light, with which He has entrusted me, into their deadly darkness and into their groping dreary blindness. . . .
"And now, beautiful stranger, canst thou not tell me the meaning of thy coming?"
But Ilona answered never a word, and continued to stare into the man's marvellous luminous face. . . .
|Thus must thou mount even above thyself – up, upwards until thou hast even thy stars under thee.|
ALAWYIOLA rose from his knees in front of the grey stone altar, and stood a moment quite still with his head raised.
The light from his heart shone through the darkness, shedding a strangely beautiful glow over the sombre sides of the cave. Then he lifted his hands and covered his face as one who grievously suffers.
Motionless he stood for a time breathing painfully, and a long ardent trembling prayer seemed to be rising like an agonised sigh from the depths of his soul.
After a while he let his hands fall, and turning slowly round looked out through the narrow entry down the long straight lines of lilies.
At the end of that double row of immaculate flowers stood Ilona – dressed in a long flowing robe of white that draped her as with the garment of an angel. The veil that floated round her was like two white wings which the tropical sun was gilding with its torrid rays. All that white flickered and glimmered in the waves of heat which the earth exhaled like the breath of a panting monster that is athirst for unreachable waters.
She too was standing quite still, her two arms crossed over her breast in the attitude of a supplicant. But Alawyiola turned back into the cave, and threw himself once more upon his knees in front of the austere altar, leaving all that glow of light outside; and with such force did he lean his brow against the cold stone that it marked a red scar upon his forehead. His two hands clenched the hard edge with the gesture of one drowning, who feels that he is sinking into deep waters, and desperately clings to the reef which is his last safety.
The silence around was so great that the very rocks themselves were like petrified watchers holding their breath.
Sweat stood in large drops on the brow of the kneeling youth, and the burnished waves of his hair clung to his pale temples like damp moss on a marble monument.
Outside in the glaring sun Ilona still stood . . . her eyes fixed upon the dark entry and upon the faintly discernible figure that knelt in prayer, enveloped by the radiance that spread around him out of the depths of his own human breast. . . . Then with reluctant steps she threaded her way through the magic flowers, always farther from that holy place, till she reached a spot of secluded solitude. There beneath the shade of a jutting rock she threw herself down, hiding her face against the earth whilst great sobs shook her whole being, and her heart within her was as a burning stone.
Long she cried; her scorching tears trickling through the heated sand that sucked them in with a thousand eager lips.
Then she sat up and looked about her as one coming back to the reality of things, as one who wakes after a long dream of beauty to face a bleak and stormy dawn. Several times she passed her white fingers over her forehead and pressed them to her smarting, tired lids; then with glazed eyes she stared before her, whilst remembrance streamed in upon her brain in leaping torrents of agonised thought.
"Luath! Luath! Luath!"
Her lips had unconsciously formed the name and called it out like a cry of distress across the dreadful silent desert. And Luath! Luath! came the echo, tossed back from the boulders to where she sat.
Suddenly she felt the touch of something smooth and cool, and her fingers twined themselves in and out of a long necklace of grey pearls that her dark lover had given her on the morn when he had kissed her lips in farewell. . . .
Luath's pearls! – and all along she had quite unconsciously worn them, worn them even upon this snowy robe which once on awakening she had found beside her couch in the cave where she dwelt; she had worn them upon the spotless folds over which Alawyiola's mystical light had shone with holy radiance. . . .
Ilona's heart began to beat with intolerable quickness; the blood sang in her ears and rushed against her temples in waves of surging pain – her eyes burnt as though fire had been lit within their aching sockets – her throat was dry, and it seemed to her that she must get up and scream aloud, such was the distress of her soul!
She rose to her feet; a wild look spread over her face, and she pressed her hands over her ears as though with that gesture she hoped to shut out the voices of the past.
All around she thought she could see great black waves rushing in upon her, till she stood in a black sea that dashed from all sides, threatening to drown her in its inky bitterness. . . . And through these turbulent floods Luath was wading towards her, arms outstretched, a secretive smile playing about his lips, his dull-red garments dividing the waters as with a bleeding wound. . . . And all she felt in her throbbing heart was an irresistible unreasoning desire to escape from his fascinating, fatal beauty.
She fell on her knees, covering her face with her raised arms as if warding off a blow – but when she looked up the vision had passed. Pale and dishevelled, she again stumbled to her feet, and there were dark stains upon the immaculate draperies of her saint-like garment. . . .
And now another mirage floated before her over-heated, fevered brain, coming towards her over the distance. She saw, as it were, a great fire – and rushing in a clear line through the centre of that fire was a silvery stream which she realised was the Water of Life. Phantom hands were stretching out towards it, shadowy lips bent forward to drink, but the little stream rushed on with a tinkling, mocking sound; a throng of agonised, wrinkled, straining faces were gathered on its banks – but the stream always escaped them, a cruel sound of laughter seeming to rise out of its waters leaving those miserable wraiths perishing with unquenched thirsting desire.
Standing in the heart of the flames was Luath, with his eternal smile on his lips and a cold light in his eyes. His arms were crossed, and he seemed to defy all that crowd of clamouring beggars and to rejoice over their despair.
Then everything faded away except the red-draped figure, who remained standing alone in all his handsome uncrushable pride. The look in his eyes changed into the expression of captivating tenderness which had once made Ilona his slave; but strangely enough no answering throb responded to it now, and the longer the dark tempter gazed, the colder did she feel her heart. . . . And then, quite unawares, a marvellous light fell before Luath's feet, a light quite unlike any before seen. . . . He started back as though unaccountably afraid, but the light moved always nearer, slowly climbing upwards over the red flowing robe till it reached the breast of the man, and there, on the spot where his heart beat beneath his blood-coloured draperies, it paused for a moment and then was suddenly gone, as though blown out by the cold that surrounded that heart. . . .
Ilona stood trembling; the visions had been so real that when they had faded away she kept peering into the distance to see where they had gone. . . .
But what had happened to her heart? What strange and terrifying change had come over her? Where had Luath's power gone? Why could she no more feel the smallest response when she called upon her soul to give answer?
"Luath! Luath! Luath! why have I lost thee?" She called it out over the endless plain, she cried it again into the cloudless skies. "Luath! Luath! Luath! where is thy power gone? where is the love in my heart? the centre of my life, the meaning of my road, the star by which I walked, the faith by which I found strength? Luath! Luath! I am now but a beggar, but a waif without reason or belief, but a stained and weary sinner who bartered her soul for the empty shadow of a bodiless dream!"
She pressed her hands upon her bosom with the hope of finding that her heart responded to her touch and that the old love that had meant life to her would burst forth anew, justifying her presence there, justifying the reason of her wanderings, the crime she had come so far to commit. . . . But all was cold and still within her aching breast; like a burnt-out fire, her body refused to give forth the smallest spark!
Horrible was this numbness of sensation, and beneath it all there slumbered an aching, unreasoning longing for something that lay hidden away in the most unavowed depths of her consciousness, something that seemed to have kept a yearning remembrance of holy ground over which she had passed. . . .
Never had Alawyiola prayed so long and so fervently. Hour after hour did he spend on his knees pouring out his whole soul to God – striving to lay hold of the heavenly peace that once he had found in this solitude. Then he rose and went to sit on the rock by the sea. The birds of the air fluttered around his head, and the blue waves ran one after another in never-ending succession to try and kiss the sandals on his feet. . . .
But in spite of the hours spent in prayer, in spite of Nature's smiling perfection, a thirsting desire for things without name had crept into his heart clutching round it with fiery fingers of pain.
The shadows of the cliff were growing long and lay like dark torn wings of fallen birds across the sand, when a figure came creeping noiselessly out of the distance, nearer and nearer to where the holy man sat, and suddenly two hot lips were pressed upon the palm of one of his listless hands. . . .
Alawyiola gave no start, nor did he turn his face her way, but slowly, as one who blesses, he raised his other hand and laid it very gently upon the bowed head of the weeping woman.
ALAWYIOLA knew that the time had come when he must go back to the dwellings of men to carry the Love of God to those who were in need and in sorrow.
But each day that dawned found him still unable to tear himself away from his desert-dwelling.
The man and the woman kept apart, each roaming about in solitary sadness. A great anxiety had laid itself within their hearts, which they dared not open out to each other. Yet both knew that the hour would come when some word must be spoken before they could part.
The deeper she sank into the sea of distress, the more passionately did Ilona call up her old love to give her strength to do the deed for which she had come. . . .
How could it be possible that a flame which had burnt with such irresistible intensity should die down so completely, leaving but cold and crumbling ashes? Was it possible that a human heart should change in such a way, after giving with unrestrained passion all its life and its blood?
Yes, she had given all, her name and her honour, her heart, her soul, and her body, given it as the earth gives its harvest, with bounteous prodigality, asking not wherefore, nor keeping aught in reserve; and she had given it to one she felt she could love no more, and whose power over her had vanished completely, consumed by a sudden and miraculous light that had fallen over her way.
This cruel revelation which flooded her being seemed to her the most terrible experience of all, this cold and frightening discovery – that love could die! Her love was dead – blown out as though it had never existed!
Shudderingly she lived over in her mind each hour, each passionately throbbing instant she had spent with Luath, and shame rose in burning waves to her cheeks, dyeing them with a glow of agonised protest against that thing which had been. . . . And above all when she remembered the four days and the four nights she had spent beneath his roof, a slave to his every whim, adoring the ground over which he trod, feeling herself blessed because he had taken her in his arms – then her agony mounted to her throat with a flow of such inexpressible anguish that a thousand daggers seemed piercing her panting heart with a thousand poisoned blades. . . .
And it was she who had offered the gift of her youth, of her beauty, and of her innocence; it was she who had held it up to the man's despising indifference; like a beggar she had thrown herself across his road demanding the charity of his kiss . . . yes, a beggar indeed! and yet had she not been also a giver of unasked-for gifts? – which now of the two was the more crushingly humiliating?
Ah! to be able to go back for a single hour into the garden of Paradise – a single morn to awake with life and body and soul still unstained – God! oh God! for a single hour of unsullied innocence to be able to cast it before the feet of this other man, who with the sunny glory of a god had entered her ruined life!
This new love that had burst in upon her heart, as spring irresistibly spreads over the enraptured earth, was a thousand times farther removed from her grasp than Luath's had ever been.
Alawyiola! was he not the chosen of God – a saint and a prophet for all his humble confessions? What right had she to stretch out her hands for his shining perfection, she, the woman who had lived as an outcast under the roof of Luath the ill-famed magician?
Oh no! for her there was no help and no saving! She had come out to destroy, she had come as a Stealer of Light! Were it not better to go to the end of her misery, and take back, to the dark man she had loved, the light he desired? . . . Could she not even be faithful in evil if she were not strong enough to be good?
She almost hated this creature of light, whose perfection had from the very first stolen into her being with a radiance so sure and so gentle that she had felt no shock – only a heavenly and inexplicable well-being, as one who after a long and tortuous wandering comes back to his home. . . .
Noiselessly, like a thief that steals into a church, Ilona crept within the cave which was Alawyiola's temple of prayer – and there, on the cold stone steps where the anchorite's feet had so often reposed, the heart-broken woman threw herself down, her flaming cheeks pressed against the irresponsive hardness of the rock. No tears came to her closed eyes, and no hope shone through the darkness of her aching brain; she longed to die there upon that rough and unyielding granite where the loved one's knees had so often bent before his God.
Who can tell how long she lay? time meant nothing to her; suffering is not counted by minutes – it lies over the numbed brain like the denseness of a fog through which no ray can fall.
And yet it was the exquisite ray of a heavenly light falling upon her outstretched body that made Ilona lift her head . . . and there stood Alawyiola, Alawyiola, the holy man of the desert. . . .
Very gently he bent down towards her, and raised her to her feet, as he had done on the first hour of her coming.
Pure and marvellous, the glow of his heart fell over her storm-swept face, but the light in his eyes was no more so steadfastly untroubled as it had been on that day; there was a sadness and a yearning question within them, as though he too had come upon some dark mystery he could not explain.
Dangerously long did their gaze rest upon each other, and the dawning wonder expressed in the eyes of the youth was as great as the weary knowledge hidden behind the haunted look of the beautiful woman.
"Give me thy hand," spoke Alawyiola at last, "for the moment has come when I can be silent no longer; it is not right that I should tremble before the sight of thy face – I who have been amongst all those that suffer. . . . But something there is unlike aught I have ever before felt, something that fills me with a strange and terrible emotion when thy fingers are laid in mine. . . . The words I always found to dry the tears of the miserable, fail me now when I long to bring thee comfort. Come! I will lead thee to a spot full of beauty, and there at last perchance thou wilt open out unto me thy overburdened heart."
Gently Alawyiola led the sorrowful woman out of the cave back into the dazzling sunlight, and walking before her down the tall rows of lilies he guided her steps to a quiet spot. Humbly Ilona followed him, fitting her feet into the marks his sandals left behind him in the sand.
After a time they came to a small rounded bay. The sea lay sparkling before them, quiet and slumbering, like a giant lake into which the azure sky had dipped its sapphire-tinted mantle. A flock of black swans came flying over the distance, and after having circled about in long moving lines, they settled like a dark cloud not far off upon the smooth breast of the sea, where they floated about like enormous water-lilies upon which some strange shadow had fallen.
Alawyiola sat down upon a broken cliff quite near the edge, and drawing Ilona to his side took her hand in his.
"Now tell me thy name?" he gently demanded.
"Ilona I am called," answered the girl; "Ilona Farmendola."
"And why didst thou come to me? Who told thee about me? Wert thou in need of help? Can I do nothing for thee? Speak!"
Ilona made no reply, but gazed up at him with her tortured eyes; deep seas of promise they appeared to the youth, bottomless wells of light that lured him onwards to search within them the hidden mystery he could not fathom.
"Ilona, dost thou know," and he bent down to her, "dost thou know that soon I must leave thee? hast thou not a word to say to me before we part? or, Ilona, wilt thou come with me amongst the lost and the suffering, and help me in my work? Speak, Ilona! for verily in helping others does one most surely help oneself."
"I cannot," whispered Ilona, "I cannot; I am but a weary sinner, unworthy of breathing at thy side. Wantonly I cast away all that might have made my life pure and sweet. I left those who had a right to my affections, to follow my own desires . . . !" and clasping her hands together with a look of intensest suffering Ilona continued: "Thou who art pure and perfect, thou wilt never be able to understand the dark passions of the heart, the wild blood that streams through the body, clamouring for that which seems at the moment the only thing worth possessing, the slumbering desires that awake, till both heart and senses are drunk and blinded. Oh! thou dost not know the dear and terrible longing for the touch of a hand that one loves, for the kiss of two lips that mean the whole world to one's benighted being; thou dost not know the marvellous, incomparable joy of giving all one has, giving and giving till nought remains – neither name nor honour, nor reason nor hope nor belief, but one's own irresistible impulse towards . . ." Ilona stopped suddenly, horrified at having given way to this outburst of passionate remembrance; and rising to her knees she gazed with distress into the noble face above her. . . .
Alawyiola sat motionless; but there was a look of agony in his far-seeing eyes; his two beautiful hands were firmly clasped together, and a curious pallor spread over his countenance; then very slowly he bent down to his companion, and smoothing the hair back from her forehead, peering anxiously into her upturned face, he asked in a voice that trembled:
"So thou hast loved, Ilona? Thou hast loved with human, passionate love! And where did thy love lead thee, Ilona Farmendola – did it lead thee up into heaven or down into hell – tell me, Ilona?"
With a great sob of tortured misery, Ilona fell with her face upon the knees of the youth, and lay there as a tree broken by the storm. A shudder passed through the solitary man's body, and for a moment it was as though he had not the courage to lay his hands upon her bended head. Some conflict was raging within his lucid soul. His hands were pressed palm downwards on each side of him on the hard bare rock, and his lips moved in silent twofold prayer – prayer for strength and prayer for wisdom. This supremest trial had been sent him at the moment when he thought he had fought his way back to peace and abnegation. Now, here alone in this wilderness, a temptation, never before dreamed of, had come to him in the form of a weeping woman.
Oh! the wild craving to lift her to his arms and press all her sorrowing beauty to his flaming heart – that heart which was destined to spend its treasures in helping and blessing, and the self-less love of others. Was it not also to be his mission to save this tortured, repentant woman? But why did he hesitate? Did his soul perchance realise that in this case the help he would give would be too sweet to the giver – ah! far, far too sweet! . . . At last he stretched his arms up to the sky from whence his help had always come, longing for a sign, for a ray of answering comprehension; but there was no response, no miracle came to pass.
The light began to fade, and the heavens, after having glowed in every colour of the rainbow, were allowing the night to steal gradually over their beauty, wiping out the day's brightness with its fingers of dusk . . . and still Ilona lay as one dead, with her head resting on her companion's knees. . . . And then quite suddenly she rose, and with a groan, as though sending forth her last breath, she pressed her burning lips upon the innocent mouth of Alawyiola . . . Alawyiola, the holy man of the desert.
For a moment the youth did not tear himself away from this caress of overpowering, heart-rending sweetness; he felt how his own lips answered to the living, pulsing touch of the desperate woman; for a short instant it seemed to him as though verily for the first time he were tasting of the real and only source of life. He pressed the yielding body close against him, and a dazed delight spread through all his being as he felt the warmth of that other life flow with leaping joy through his veins.
Then, suddenly, as the daylight quite disappeared, leaving the earth as a prey to the sombre shadows of night, the flame in his heart burst forth with terrifying intensity, and fell upon the face of the woman he still held clasped to his breast. With a shudder Alawyiola realised that something unexpected and inexplicable had torn him away from his usual self, had thrown him unawares into a sea of unknown and dangerously delicious perils of which he had never even dreamed.
Very gently he loosened his clasp upon the clinging woman and looked once more tenderly into her face; then firmly he put her from him and rose to his feet. No; thus it was not that he should ever save her, bring her back to herself! This way might indeed be overpoweringly sweet, but it would be dragging her down ever farther, and this leaping cry of his blood at her touch was a warning that he was treading on dangerous ground.
The light in his heart had burst between them as a sign that he was taking the wrong way; that if he yielded now to the tears of this beautiful creature, he would no more have the strength to face the mission with which God had entrusted him. Indeed there might be a happiness of which he had never tasted; that burning kiss had revealed to him a world of hidden treasures, but they were not for him – he felt that with unshakeable certainty. It was not in vain that he had lived in constant communion with the infinite, lived in silent and perfect understanding with his God. And now as he stood there, with his heart all ablaze with heavenly light, he was again the prophet, the saint, the man of God, separated from the lusts of the earth by that holy power which singled him out from the rest of humanity. He turned to the trembling, humbled woman, and she knew when she looked at him that she had lost in the game of life; that, whatever storm had for a moment swept over his soul as she lay in his arms, now he was hers no longer; the sign of God was upon him, and her hands that had known sin were not pure enough to hold this perfect being in their grasp. . . .
She cowered on the ground, her loosened hair sweeping over Alawyiola's feet. He gazed down upon her with a marvellous pity in his eyes, a pity that filled him with a new and softer understanding because of the temptation he had just overcome; and an unspeakable longing came over him to lift her up out of her abasement and teach her the way of peace.
Yet he stood helpless before this woman all burning with love. She had not told him about her life, but he guessed that her road had been thorny and that it was over withered flowers that she was treading.
Like a wounded deer she stared up into his face with the light of folly in her eyes, and his very innocence it was that rendered all his knowledge useless at this poignant moment of his life. For he was no god, neither was he quite a man; he was but a youth filled with a wider love that removed him too far from this human need – and this pulsing heart that was bleeding at his feet claimed the one thing he knew not how to give.
And thus it was that Alawyiola, the saint of the desert, stood helpless under the light of the stars, and that all the radiance that streamed from his heart was too great and, at the same time, too small, to lead the weeping woman out of the darkness to the dawn of day. For the gods are jealous, and will not shower all their gifts upon one human head.
Trembling, Ilona rose to her feet. The cold hand of reality had now laid itself over her wild desire, and in the darkest recesses of her hungry heart she knew that she longed to tear from this man that which made him so far above her.
Slowly she turned from him after one more long look into his beautiful face, and then like a lonely shadow she slunk away into the night.
Alawyiola stood rooted to the spot where she had left him; then, lifting his face to the watchful skies, his hands held out with a gesture of enquiring bewilderment, he cried to God to forgive him for having failed where he had so passionately hoped to help. Did it mean that he was unworthy of his mission?
"Ah! my God!"
The prayer came as a wail from his lips: "My God, Thou humblest Thy servant! At the hour when he thought himself strong enough to begin Thy work, Thou turnest Thy face away from him, Thou leavest him sorely perplexed to grope alone in the dark. Is it a sign, Lord, that the time has not yet come, that I am still unworthy of Thy trust? that the praying and fasting have not yet done their work? If it be Thy will, Lord, I will still remain in this solitude till Thou deemest it expedient to give me a sign of Thy favour! Perchance I was too confident in my strength, too proud in my hope, too sure of Thy blessing. Speak, Lord, Thy servant listeneth, is ready to do Thy bidding! "
But like a pall the silence of night lay over all, and no answer came from the thousand eyes that looked down upon him from their eternal heights. Only a warm gust of wind swept like a tired sigh over the face of the desert, and passed as with fevered fingers over the pale brow of the youth who was neither god nor man. . . .
For some love is an unfathomed mystery.|
That which can lead to the stars can also lead to the Abyss.
ILONA sat on her bed of moss looking out upon the night. . . .
The stars shone down upon the face of the sea, where they were reflected in small long lines of gold. The sky was of a deep and transparent blue – even the air seemed blue, like a very fine gauze within which Nature had wrapped her slumbers.
But no blessed wing of sleep had touched Ilona's wide-open eyes; their steadfast beauty was wiped out by a haunted look, and bitterness mounted within her like a dark wave, obscuring her thoughts, turning her into a lost spirit full of pain and resentment.
From the dark corner where she had hidden herself she had watched Alawyiola come back to his dwelling; she had seen how he had walked slowly home, his hands folded, his inspired eyes turned heavenwards, and the light from his breast streaming forth over his way as he came. Beneath his feet tiny snow-white flowers had risen from the ground, as though invisible hands had sown fairy seeds wherever he passed.
One moment he had stood still, had lifted his arms to the unreachable skies, and the light shining upon them had turned them into two silver arrows that pointed upwards as though indicating the road his thoughts were following.
A stormy indignation filled Ilona's soul against this creature of light, who could thus absorb himself in holy prayer whilst she was close by in the dark, eating out her heart in helpless misery. . . . Never had Luath in all his selfish pride humiliated her as grievously as this holy man upon whom God had laid His sign.
Little did the wrathful woman realise how humble were the prayers of Alawyiola, how his young and innocent heart was bleeding because of the pain of that stranger woman with the beautiful tortured face – the woman he had been unable to console. . . .
On reaching the water's edge, the shining youth had knelt down and, flinging out his arms on both sides with a wide gesture of supplication, had lifted up his voice and sung a curious chant full of wondrous harmony. And out from the skies a strange wind had swept around him, which had come suddenly out of the stillness of the night, a wind that seemed full of distant answering voices, as though thousands of æolian harps were vibrating in a hushed far-away chorus, somewhere in the remote regions of the dead.
Three times the man of the desert had lifted his voice, and three times had the phantom wind answered his crying, till the whole air became vibrant with unknown and moaning melodies, weird and dismal like the passing of calling souls over the earth.
Arms crossed, his eyes, which were the colour of distance, following some heavenly vision he alone could see, Alawyiola had remained motionless. And almost, it seemed to the watching woman, as though the air around him had been full of the fluttering of angels' wings; and once again the stainless beauty of this incomparable mortal had uplifted her soul in a great longing for a purer life. . . . But then the praying figure had risen to his feet and slowly gone back to his cave, taking with him his radiance, his beauty, and the mysterious charm of his being.
The haunted stillness of the night had once more fallen upon the darkened soul of the girl; with the retreating light of that flaming heart all the warmth, all the hope, all the joy of the tired world seemed to have faded away, and cold despair seized hold of Ilona.
Turning back into the cave, she tore from her body the pure white folds that had made her the guest of the prophet, and in her eagerness she caught her fingers in the long string that held Luath's grey pearls together. With a snapping sound the string burst in twain, scattering the shining little balls like seeds all over the ground! For a moment she stared after them with a dazed expression; it seemed to her as if her happiness too were breaking up in little pieces, rolling away, always farther, over the mute and indifferent earth. . . .
Then with fevered haste her trembling hands fastened the way-stained robe in which she had come, slung over her shoulders the dusty red cloak that was the colour of Luath's garments, and hiding her tresses beneath her soiled veil she stole out into the night.
She wanted to get back to Luath, to that dark and weird companion who had sent her forth upon this cursed wandering; but before she fled back into the desert she wanted to take something away with her . . . something that was to crown the researches of the man whom once she had loved, and to whom her heart had become unfaithful!
Ah! but she would buy back that betrayal! She would tread upon her own imploring soul – she would no longer listen to those voices of the desert which had crept around her heart, stealing her strength and her will, leaving her but a torn and broken reed, unable to stand and unable to fall. . . .
"Luath!" she cried, "thou shalt have thy desire; at whatever cost I will bring thee back that holy flame which is to make thee master of the world; I will become a Stealer of Light, as I cannot be washed pure by its radiance! Luath, thou dark and cruel spirit of evil, Ilona Farmendola will come back to thee with the flame in her hands. . . ."
And out into the night she ran, her red cloak flapping behind her like the wings of some sinister bird that awaits the shadows of the dark to swoop down upon its defenceless prey. On she hurried, breaking down the snowy lines of the lilies in her eagerness, trampling their sweet-smelling heads beneath her impatient feet; the long folds of her robe passing over them like storm-driven clouds that can find no rest.
Panting and breathless Ilona reached the cave where Alawyiola slept. For a moment she paused, pressing the flattened palms of her hands over her eyes – those eyes that once had held such a trustworthy and faithful look – and suddenly there, standing before that low entry, she remembered the old seaman's many-coloured shell – remembered it, as the drowning man remembers small unimportant incidents out of his life at the very moment when the floods are closing over his head. She remembered his quaint sayings, and how he had warned her against the power of love. . . . Beneath her fingers she seemed to feel the polished surface of the humble man's gift, and she almost laughed aloud that it should be that thought which came to her now – now at this place, before this door. . . .
Then she bent down and peeped in.
The place was dark; only at the farther end a marvellous light rose from the ground, silvering the low-domed roof of stone.
And there amidst that radiance lay Alawyiola fast asleep. To Ilona it seemed as though an angel were slumbering, surrounded by a thousand celestial moon-rays that God had sent down from His throne to guard his innocence.
Trembling she entered, drawn as by a magnet nearer to that mystic flame – now she was quite close, and leaned over him to look her last into that face of incomparable, unsoiled beauty. It was the first time she had seen it with closed eyes; the wonderful luminous pupils were covered by the smooth white lids; the dark lashes lay like feathery shadows over his cheeks.
Her heart beat in heavy thuds; so loud they seemed that she was afraid they might awaken the unconscious sleeper. Like a great moth that comes too near a burning candle, she hovered beside his couch, with a strange longing to be caught up into that unearthly glow, and burnt as an insect that cannot tear itself away from the fatal attraction that it knows means death.
Oh! the beauty of that sleeping face! Never before had she been able to gaze so undisturbed upon its absolutely faultless features. . . . Then slowly her eyes descended from his face to his heart . . . and there they rested, the rays that mounted from within it blinding her sight. . . .
The spotless shirt was open at the throat and the marble-white breast was bare . . . so that no covering now protected the mysterious flame from the treacherous fingers that had come so far to steal its glory away.
Ilona sank upon her knees, and bent her face quite close to that of the sleeper. For a moment a beautiful expression of love filled her wistful grey eyes, transforming her again into the Ilona Farmendola of the days of innocence, the Ilona whose eyes it had been so good to look upon! Then . . . calling upon all her courage, Ilona laid her two hands against that heart of flames . . . and with her lips pressed in a passionate kiss upon the upturned defenceless mouth of the man who had done her no harm, she stole with trembling fingers that which made Alawyiola a blessing to mankind.
A gasping sound, that was half a groan, half a sigh of rapture, escaped from the lips of the youth; one moment he raised his strong and lithesome body like a bow that has been too tightly strung, opened his marvellous eyes for a last look of agonised wonder, then a long quiver passing through his perfect limbs as a spring breeze sweeps over sleeping waters, he fell back dead, his two hands clutching at his empty heart, his eyes, his wonderful eyes, closed for ever. . . .
Ilona had risen to her feet, holding in her hand the God-given light. It quivered and leapt upon her palm as though moved by some terrible dread.
Then she looked down upon the face of Alawyiola. . . .
He lay with his head fallen back, the waves of his hair mingled with the sand on the ground, his two hands still pressed upon the breast whence the treasure had been robbed; but the pure immaculate beauty of his features was such that Ilona stared down upon them as though she had never seen them before.
A frightful and nameless horror came over her when she realised what she had done! that never again would those eyes open to look upon the beauty of the earth! never again would they lighten human misery with their indescribable sweetness – never again would the sound of his voice enrapture his listeners – never more would his heavenly goodness fall over this world that she had robbed – never again, never, never. . . .
With a cry that rang round the sides of the cave like awakened ghosts, Ilona fell upon the stiffened body that was already becoming cold, and placing the stolen light on the ground beside her she raised the rigid corpse in her arms, covering the marble face with burning, passionate, frantic kisses.
Then laying her head upon the heart from which the light was gone for ever, her two arms clasped round the neck of Alawyiola, she wept floods of scalding tears, whilst wild foolish words of useless endearment came trembling over her lips, filling the cave with sounds of distress.
Passively indifferent to her raging despair the saint-like face lay with closed eyes and solemn lips – irresponsive, austere, grandly distant, cruelly, crushingly, terribly silent.
When the storm of her misery had run its course, she stood looking about her like a wild and haggard spectre – and raising the stolen flame in her hand, she turned to look a last time upon that creature of light whom she had destroyed with her wanton hands, and, oh! wonder! . . . around his outstretched body flowers had sprung up out of the barren earth, flowers as luminous as though each petal were a shining star of frost, white and transparent, full of mystic radiance; and there above his ivory brow was a strange and phosphorescent light in the form of a tiny cross that floated just above the serene perfection of his motionless visage.
From all sides of the cave the air began now to move about in soft moaning currents, and hushed distant voices seemed whispering tidings of joy and hope to that youthful form on the ground. The air was suddenly filled with the flapping of shadowy phantom wings, till all the darkness was slashed through and through, as with far-off flashes of silvery lightning.
It was all so fantastic, dream-like, unreal, that the frightened woman stood trembling, the stolen light clasped within the palm of her hand. Though like unto a flame this strange light did not burn her fingers, neither did the waves of air passing around her make it tremble, but all its rays converged as though with yearning longing towards that marble face that lay with closed eyes amongst the shining flowers.
Then out of the silence of the night a great noise was heard, like thunder that rolled always nearer to the spot where she stood; the ground began to quake beneath her feet, the whispering voices grew louder, from all sides invisible beings seemed pressing in upon her, robbing her of her breath, laying as it were cold and furtive hands upon her straining heart. . . .
Almost blind with unreasoning terror Ilona turned and fled. . . . Out of the narrow door she rushed, down the double row of lilies, many of which she had already crushed when she came – on, on, past the rocks, along the quiet strand, always farther, till her flying feet reached the desert sand.
And wherever she went, the marvellous flame she carried shed a golden brilliance over all, lighting her way with fantastic splendour, as though everywhere Heaven were opening wide its precious portals. . . .
Now she stood still, her breath coming in cruel groans of exhaustion, her sight blinded by the beating of her tearing pulses, her knees giving way beneath her overwrought body, a poor wretch of humanity bearing the Light of Life within her joined hands. . . .
All around her was one magic enchantment. . . . The desert had been turned into a rippling field of gold, out of which innumerable flowers sprang, tall and wonderful, flowers unlike any she had ever seen, and wherever she moved the light, flowers grew up towards it in many-coloured beauty, beneath the blessing of its rays. . . .
It was a marvellous sight, this golden garden of Paradise risen out of the waste under the dark mantle of night! But it brought no peace to the tortured heart of the woman who had killed the thing she loved . . . killed it to tear out the beauty by which it lived! And she had stolen away that beauty to carry it back to those other hands that were greedily clamouring for its perfection, only to turn it into a slave, destined to feed insatiable ambition! She perceived none of the glory around her – within her panic-stricken visions she ever saw the one and only picture: the saintly face with closed eyes and sad lips of the man she had killed. . . .
Alawyiola, Alawyiola, the holy man of the desert!
Ah! no! never, never should the dark man with the cruel smile be possessor of this heavenly light! Here in the untrodden wastes of the desert would she blow out that flame which Alawyiola had meant to carry down as an immortal promise amongst the poor and the suffering. She was too feeble, too stained and soiled and sinful to take up this work, the blessed work of his ever large heart, of which she had despoiled humanity – but at least it should die with her here in the wilderness, here where she would fall to rise no more, here not far from that being of light which she had destroyed. But farther she must go, farther, farther into the voiceless, echoless solitude, as far as her failing strength would allow her. . . .
Gathering her all but spent forces for a last supreme effort, Ilona rushed blindly forward, stumbling, falling, rising again to continue her wild unreasoned flight before her own haunting, pursuing conscience!
Feeling that her life was ebbing from her she at length stood still for a final agonising instant, then she blew with all her might upon the magic flame, giving thus her last breath in a sobbing cry which carried her tired soul out into the vast limitless wastes of the unknown . . . and like a stricken creature of the wild she fell in a heap upon the barren ground. . . .
But the light she had thought to extinguish had escaped from her dying hands and floated always farther across the desert, shedding its marvellous radiance over rock and stone, over sand and solitude, turning the naked desolation into a garden of beauty wherever it passed, on, on like a golden blessing, till it should reach the humble dwellings of men.
For the Light of God cannot be destroyed, and even the hands of a sinner can bear it towards its ultimate destination.
The light she had thought to extinguish had escaped from her dying hands and floated always farther across the desert, shedding its marvellous radiance over rock and stone.
KUSKAN was listening at his master's door.
His uncovered eye shone brightly with an anxious troubled light, and always again did he come back to press his ear to that closed door. . . .
Luath was walking up and down, up and down. Kuskan knew now by heart the sound of those restless feet that were for ever pacing the stone floor.
He also knew that for many a day the proud, invincible man of the black arts had not put a hand to his work, but that instead he was ceaselessly pacing his room, or gazing with knitted brow over the distance that led to his lonely dwelling, shading his eyes with his hand to look down the road that wound its way through the cypresses, as though expecting a guest who had tarried too long – then the regular tread of his feet would begin again, to and fro from wall to wall over the old grey pavement, with a sound of dull hopelessness that wearied the soul of the listener. The savagely faithful Kuskan felt as if those feet were treading on his heart, and yet he knew that he could do nought for the man who was suffering.
Yes, Luath the proud, Luath, who had deemed himself the great world's master, was paying the price of his ruthless tyranny, paying, as all tyrants must pay sooner or later, when their dark hour has struck. . . . Luath was waiting for that which never came – waiting with throbbing pulse and restless body for the sound of two small feet that had left him long ago. . . .
The trees had decked themselves with the glorious tints of autumn; rust-coloured chrysanthemums had replaced the other flowers, and the bushes were breaking beneath the weight of their shining berries. Damp sighing winds swept like mournful complaints around the lonely towers of his convent; the hooting owls and velvet-winged bats flitted past his windows, beating their wings against the panes that were dulled like eyes that have cried too much; then Luath would start, as if they had been human fingers softly craving admittance within his secluded walls. . . .
Cursing himself for a deluded fool, he would sit down again, burying his face in his hands, pressing his fingers over his ears so as to hear no more sounds from outside.
Oh! would she ever come back, that pale-faced, dark-browed woman, bearing within her hands that which was to make him master of the world? would she bring back that holy light for which he so ceaselessly craved, and without which all his efforts were as nought?
In vain had he tried to absorb himself in the studies which once had been his joy, in vain had he called up the dark wise spirits of the underworld; none could give him tidings of the woman he had sent away into that unknown land.
From day to day his tortured impatience grew stronger, till the once so cruel and merciless man became but a throbbing listening heart – always hoping to see a marvellous light being borne towards him, a light such as had never yet been known. . . .
He still imagined that it was for the light alone that he was waiting; nor did he realise how hour after hour his restless brain conjured up before him the picture of the girl that he had so lightly treated and so pitilessly sent away upon an uncertain and dangerous quest. Yet always more vividly did he see her every expression, always more haunting became the remembrance of her voice, of her step, of the soft movements with which she had wandered about amongst the weird objects in his room.
The beautiful line of her lips would all of a sudden come to his mind, and he would find himself leaning forward as though to touch them with his own; his fingers longed to caress gently all her yielding sweetness, and to pass with expectant tenderness over the soft-falling folds of her dress.
And the day came when he longed more madly for the white hands themselves than for the treasure they were to bring him back. . . .
All this Kuskan had felt and understood, and his blind, helpless jealousy against the absent woman grew to a sort of frenzy; over and over again in his thoughts had he let her die a thousand deaths.
Thus did the days pass slowly one by one, whilst Luath Malvorno sat in his corner, eating out his dark heart in a useless and futile craving for the thing he had cast away.
Dreary storms began to howl round the old grey walls of the castle, and gloomy mists to rise out of the sodden earth. Legions of dismal, calling, mocking, moaning voices came to disturb the magician's solitude, borne upon the restless wings of the bleak north wind, and Luath shivered in his gloomy, ghostly nest of stone. . . .
But Ilona Farmendola did not return. . . .
One day the lonely wizard sat huddled in his chair, his idle hands restlessly roaming amongst the divers objects on his table, when quite unconsciously his long pale fingers closed over a small round object that had lain in an agate cup at his side. Absent-mindedly Luath rolled it in the palm of his chilly hand, then with a start he perceived that the object with which he was playing was a pearl . . . a pearl that had once been grey and shining, but which now had the livid colour of the dead. . . .
Outside the wind beat with howling, tortured cries against the fast-closed windows; but before the table sat the would-be Stealer of Light, gazing with the eyes of a madman upon a small round pearl that he held in the cold fingers of his hand. . . .
Crouching on the other side of the door lay Kuskan, his orange turban pressed upon the blood-red stones of the floor – he too had suddenly understood that Ilona Farmendola's footstep would disturb him never more. . . .
Printed in Great Britain by R. & R. CLARK, LIMITED, Edinburgh.