A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 86.

One hour passed away; the fagots under the caldron burned clear in the sullen sultry air. The materials within began to seethe, and their colour, at first dull and turbid, changed into a pale-rose hue; from time to time the Veiled Woman replenished the fire, after she had done so reseating herself close by the pyre, with her head bowed over her knees, and her face hid under her veil.

The lights in the lamps and along the ring and the triangles now began to pale. I resupplied their nutriment from the crystal vessel. As yet nothing strange startled my eye or my ear beyond the rim of the circle — nothing audible, save, at a distance, the musical wheel-like click of the locusts, and, farther still, in the forest, the howl of the wild dogs, that never bark; nothing visible, but the trees and the mountain-range girding the plains silvered by the moon, and the arch of the cavern, the flush of wild blooms on its sides, and the gleam of dry bones on its floor, where the moonlight shot into the gloom.

The second hour passed like the first. I had taken my stand by the side of Margrave, watching with him the process at work in the caldron, when I felt the ground slightly vibrate beneath my feet, and, looking up, it seemed as if all the plains beyond the circle were heaving like the swell of the sea, and as if in the air itself there was a perceptible tremor.

I placed my hand on Margrave’s shoulder and whispered, “To me earth and air seem to vibrate. Do they seem to vibrate to you?”

“I know not, I care not,” he answered impetuously. “The essence is bursting the shell that confined it. Here are my air and my earth! Trouble me not. Look to the circle! feed the lamps if they fail.”

I passed by the Veiled Woman as I walked towards a place in the ring in which the flame was waning dim; and I whispered to her the same question which I had whispered to Margrave. She looked slowly around, and answered, “So is it before the Invisible make themselves visible! Did I not bid him forbear?” Her head again drooped on her breast, and her watch was again fixed on the fire.

I advanced to the circle and stooped to replenish the light where it waned. As I did so, on my arm, which stretched somewhat beyond the line of the ring, I felt a shock like that of electricity. The arm fell to my side numbed and nerveless, and from my hand dropped, but within the ring, the vessel that contained the fluid. Recovering my surprise or my stun, hastily with the other hand I caught up the vessel, but some of the scanty liquid was already spilled on the sward; and I saw with a thrill of dismay, that contrasted indeed the tranquil indifference with which I had first undertaken my charge, how small a supply was now left.

I went back to Margrave, and told him of the shock, and of its consequence in the waste of the liquid.

“Beware,” said he, “that not a motion of the arm, not an inch of the foot, pass the verge of the ring; and if the fluid be thus unhappily stinted, reserve all that is left for the protecting circle and the twelve outer lamps! See how the Grand Work advances! how the hues in the caldron are glowing blood-red through the film on the surface!”

And now four hours of the six were gone; my arm had gradually recovered its strength. Neither the ring nor the lamps had again required replenishing; perhaps their light was exhausted less quickly, as it was no longer to be exposed to the rays of the intense Australian moon. Clouds had gathered over the sky, and though the moon gleamed at times in the gaps that they left in blue air, her beam was more hazy and dulled. The locusts no longer were heard in the grass, nor the howl of the dogs in the forest. Out of the circle, the stillness was profound.

And about this time I saw distinctly in the distance a vast Eye! It drew nearer and nearer, seeming to move from the ground at the height of some lofty giant. Its gaze riveted mine; my blood curdled in the blaze from its angry ball; and now as it advanced larger and larger, other Eyes, as if of giants in its train, grew out from the space in its rear; numbers on numbers, like the spearheads of some Eastern army, seen afar by pale warders of battlements doomed to the dust. My voice long refused an utterance to my awe; at length it burst forth shrill and loud —

“Look! look! Those terrible Eyes! Legions on legions! And hark! that tramp of numberless feet; they are not seen, but the hollows of earth echo the sound of their march!”

Margrave, more than ever intent on the caldron, in which, from time to time, he kept dropping powders or essences drawn forth from his coffer, looked up, defyingly, fiercely.

“Ye come,” he said, in a low mutter, his once mighty voice sounding hollow and labouring, but fearless and firm — “ye come — not to conquer, vain rebels! — ye whose dark chief I struck down at my feet in the tomb where my spell had raised up the ghost of your first human master, the Chaldee! Earth and air have their armies still faithful to me, and still I remember the war-song that summons them up to confront you! Ayesha! Ayesha! recall the wild troth that we pledged amongst roses; recall the dread bond by which we united our sway over hosts that yet own thee as queen, though my sceptre is broken, my diadem reft from my brows!”

The Veiled Woman rose at this adjuration. Her veil now was withdrawn, and the blaze of the fire between Margrave and herself flushed, as with the rosy bloom of youth, the grand beauty of her softened face. It was seen, detached as it were, from her dark-mantled form; seen through the mist of the vapours which rose from the caldron, framing it round like the clouds. that are yieldingly pierced by the light of the evening star.

Through the haze of the vapour came her voice, more musical, more plaintive than I had heard it before, but far softer, more tender; still in her foreign tongue; the words unknown to me, and yet their sense, perhaps, made intelligible by the love, which has one common language and one common look to all who have loved — the love unmistakably heard in the loving tone, unmistakably seen in the loving face.

A moment or so more, and she had come round from the opposite side of the fire-pile, and bending over Margrave’s upturned brow, kissed it quietly, solemnly; and then her countenance grew fierce, her crest rose erect; it was the lioness protecting her young. She stretched forth her arm from the black mantle, athwart the pale front that now again bent over the caldron — stretched it towards the haunted and hollow-sounding space beyond, in the gesture of one whose right hand has the sway of the sceptre. And then her voice stole on the air in the music of a chant, not loud, yet far-reaching; so thrilling, so sweet, and yet so solemn, that I could at once comprehend how legend united of old the spell of enchantment with the power of song. All that I recalled of the effects which, in the former time, Margrave’s strange chants had produced on the ear that they ravished and the thoughts they confused, was but as the wild bird’s imitative carol, compared to the depth and the art and the soul of the singer, whose voice seemed endowed with a charm to enthrall all the tribes of creation, though the language it used for that charm might to them, as to me, be unknown. As the song ceased, I heard, from behind, sounds like those I had heard in the spaces before me — the tramp of invisible feet, the whir of invisible wings, as if armies were marching to aid against armies in march to destroy.

“Look not in front nor around,” said Ayesha. “Look, like him, on the caldron below. The circle and the lamps are yet bright; I will tell you when the light again fails.”

I dropped my eyes on the caldron.

“See,” whispered Margrave, “the sparkles at last begin to arise, and the rose-hues to deepen — signs that we near the last process.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31