When I had satisfied myself, Leo was still at his meal, for loss of blood or the effects of the tremendous nerve tonic which Ayesha ordered to be administered to him, had made him ravenous.
I watched his face and became aware of a curious change in it, no immediate change indeed, but one, I think, that had come upon him gradually, although I only fully appreciated it now, after our short separation. In addition to the thinness of which I have spoken, his handsome countenance had grown more ethereal; his eyes were full of the shadows of things that were to come.
His aspect pained me, I knew not why. It was no longer that of the Leo with whom I was familiar, the deep-chested, mighty-limbed, jovial, upright traveller, hunter and fighting-man who had chanced to love and be loved of a spiritual power incarnated in a mould of perfect womanhood and armed with all the might of Nature’s self. These things were still present indeed, but the man was changed, and I felt sure that this change came from Ayesha, since the look upon his face had become exceeding like to that which often hovered upon hers at rest.
She also was watching him, with speculative, dreamy eyes, till presently, as some thought swept through her, I saw those eyes blaze up, and the red blood pour to cheek and brow. Yes, the mighty Ayesha whose dead, slain for him, lay strewn by the thousand on yonder plain, blushed and trembled like a maiden at her first lover’s kiss.
Leo rose from the table. “I would that I had been with thee in the fray,” he said.
“At the drift there was fighting,” she answered, “afterwards none. My ministers of Fire, Earth and Air smote, no more; I waked them from their sleep and at my command they smote for thee and saved thee.”
“Many lives to take for one man’s safety,” Leo said solemnly, as though the thought pained him.
“Had they been millions and not thousands, I would have spent them every one. On my head be their deaths, not on thine. Or rather on hers,” and she pointed to the dead Atene. “Yes, on hers who made this war. At least she should thank me who have sent so royal a host to guard her through the darkness.”
“Yet it is terrible,” said Leo, “to think of thee, beloved, red to the hair with slaughter.”
“What reck I?” she answered with a splendid pride. “Let their blood suffice to wash the stain of thy blood from off these cruel hands that once did murder thee.”
“Who am I that I should blame thee?” Leo went on as though arguing with himself, “I who but yesterday killed two men — to save myself from treachery.”
“Speak not of it,” she exclaimed in cold rage. “I saw the place and, Holly, thou knowest how I swore that a hundred lives should pay for every drop of that dear blood of thine, and I, who lie not, have kept the oath. Look now on that man who stands yonder struck by my will to stone, dead yet living, and say again what was he about to do to thee when I entered here?”
“To take vengeance on me for the doom of his queen and of her armies,” answered Leo, “and Ayesha, how knowest thou that a Power higher than thine own will not demand it yet?”
As he spoke a pale shadow flickered on Leo’s face, such a shadow as might fall from Death’s advancing wing, and in the fixed eyes of the Shaman there shone a stony smile.
For a moment terror seemed to take Ayesha, then it was gone as quickly as it came.
“Nay,” she said. “I ordain that it shall not be, and save One who listeth not, what power reigns in this wide earth that dare defy my will?”
So she spoke, and as her words of awful pride — for they were very awful — rang round that stone-built chamber, a vision came to me — Holly.
I saw illimitable space peopled with shining suns, and sunk in the infinite void above them one vast Countenance clad in a calm so terrific that at its aspect my spirit sank to nothingness. Yes, and I knew that this was Destiny enthroned above the spheres. Those lips moved and obedient worlds rushed upon their course. They moved again and these rolling chariots of the heavens were turned or stayed, appeared or disappeared. I knew also that against this calm Majesty the being, woman or spirit, at my side had dared to hurl her passion and her strength. My soul reeled. I was afraid.
The dread phantasm passed, and when my mind cleared again Ayesha was speaking in new, triumphant tones.
“Nay, nay,” she cried. “Past is the night of dread; dawns the day of victory! Look!” and she pointed through the window-places shattered by the hurricane, to the flaming town beneath, whence rose one continual wail of misery, the wail of women mourning their countless slain while the fire roared through their homes like some unchained and rejoicing demon. “Look Leo on the smoke of the first sacrifice that I offer to thy royal state and listen to its music. Perchance thou deemst it naught. Why then I’ll give thee others. Thou lovest war. Good! we will go down to war and the rebellious cities of the earth shall be the torches of our march.”
She paused a moment, her delicate nostrils quivering, and her face alight with the prescience of ungarnered splendours; then like a swooping swallow flitted to where, by dead Atene, the gold circlet fallen from the Khania’s hair lay upon the floor.
She stooped, lifted it, and coming to Leo held it high above his head. Slowly she let her hand fall until the glittering coronet rested for an instant on his brow. Then she spoke, in her glorious voice that rolled out rich and low, a very paean of triumph and of power.
“By this poor, earthly symbol I create thee King of Earth; yea in its round for thee is gathered all her rule. Be thou its king, and mine!”
Again the coronet was held aloft, again it sank, and again she said or rather chanted —“With this unbroken ring, token of eternity, I swear to thee the boon of endless days. Endure thou while the world endures, and be its lord, and mine.”
A third time the coronet touched his brow.
“By this golden round I do endow thee with Wisdom’s perfect gold uncountable, that is the talisman whereat all nature’s secret paths shall open to thy feet. Victorious, victorious, tread thou her wondrous ways with me, till from her topmost peak at last she wafts us to our immortal throne whereof the columns twain are Life and Death.”
Then Ayesha cast away the crown and lo! it fell upon the breast of the lost Atene and rested there.
“Art content with these gifts of mine, my lord?” she cried.
Leo looked at her sadly and shook his head.
“What more wilt thou then? Ask and I swear it shall be thine.”
“Thou swearest; but wilt thou keep the oath?”
“Aye, by myself I swear; by myself and by the Strength that bred me. If it be ought that I can grant — then if I refuse it to thee, may such destruction fall upon me as will satisfy even Atene’s watching soul.”
I heard and I think that another heard also, at least once more the stony smile shone in the eyes of the Shaman.
“I ask of thee nothing that thou canst not give. Ayesha, I ask of thee thyself — not at some distant time when I have been bathed in a mysterious fire, but now, now this night.”
She shrank back from him a little, as though dismayed.
“Surely,” she said slowly, “I am like that foolish philosopher who, walking abroad to read the destinies of nations in the stars, fell down a pitfall dug by idle children and broke his bones and perished there. Never did I guess that with all these glories stretched before thee like mountain top on glittering mountain top, making a stairway for thy mortal feet to the very dome of heaven, thou wouldst still clutch at thy native earth and seek of it — but the common boon of woman’s love.
“Oh! Leo, I thought that thy soul was set upon nobler aims, that thou wouldst pray me for wider powers, for a more vast dominion; that as though they were but yonder fallen door of wood and iron, I should break for thee the bars of Hades, and like the Eurydice of old fable draw thee living down the steeps of Death, or throne thee midst the fires of the furthest sun to watch its subject worlds at play.
“Or I thought that thou wouldst bid me reveal what no woman ever told, the bitter, naked truth — all my sins and sorrows, all the wandering fancies of my fickle thought; even what thou knowest not and perchance ne’er shalt know, who I am and whence I came, and how to thy charmed eyes I seemed to change from foul to fair, and what is the purpose of my love for thee, and what the meaning of that tale of an angry goddess — who never was except in dreams.
“I thought — nay, no matter what I thought, save that thou wert far other than thou art, my Leo, and in so high a moment that thou wouldst seek to pass the mystic gates my glory can throw wide and with me tread an air supernal to the hidden heart of things. Yet thy prayer is but the same that the whole world whispers beneath the silent moon, in the palace and the cottage, among the snows and on the burning desert’s waste. ‘Oh! my love, thy lips, thy lips. Oh! my love, be mine, now, now, beneath the moon, beneath the moon!’
“Leo, I thought better, higher, of thee.”
“Mayhap, Ayesha, thou wouldest have thought worse of me had I been content with thy suns and constellations and spiritual gifts and dominations that I neither desire nor understand.
“If I had said to thee: Be thou my angel, not my wife; divide the ocean that I may walk its bed; pierce the firmament and show me how grow the stars; tell me the origins of being and of death and instruct me in their issues; give up the races of mankind to my sword, and the wealth of all the earth to fill my treasuries. Teach me also how to drive the hurricane as thou canst do, and to bend the laws of nature to my purpose: on earth make me half a god — as thou art.
“But Ayesha, I am no god; I am a man, and as a man I seek the woman whom I love. Oh! divest thyself of all these wrappings of thy power — that power which strews thy path with dead and keeps me apart from thee. If only for one short night forget the ambition that gnaws unceasingly at thy soul; I say forget thy greatness and be a woman and — my wife.”
She made no answer, only looked at him and shook her head, causing her glorious hair to ripple like water beneath a gentle breeze.
“Thou deniest me,” he went on with gathering strength, “and that thou canst not do, that thou mayest not do, for Ayesha, thou hast sworn, and I demand the fulfilment of thine oath.
“Hark thou. I refuse thy gifts; I will have none of thy rule who ask no Pharaoh’s throne and wish to do good to men and not to kill them — that the world may profit. I will not go with thee to Kor, nor be bathed in the breath of Life. I will leave thee and cross the mountains, or perish on them, nor with all thy strength canst thou hold me to thy side, who indeed needest me not. No longer will I endure this daily torment, the torment of thy presence and thy sweet words; thy loving looks, thy promises for next year, next year — next year. So keep thine oath or let me begone.”
Still Ayesha stood silent, only now her head drooped and her breast began to heave. Then Leo stepped forward; he seized her in his arms and kissed her. She broke from his embrace, I know not how, for though she returned it was close enough, and again stood before him but at a little distance.
“Did I not warn Holly,” she whispered with a sigh, “to bid thee beware lest I should catch thy human fire? Man, I say to thee, it begins to smoulder in my heart, and should it grow to flame ——”
“Why then,” he answered laughing, “we will be happy for a little while.”
“Aye, Leo, but how long? Why wert thou sole lord of this loveliness of mine and not set above their harming, night and day a hundred jealous daggers would seek thy heart and — find it.”
“How long, Ayesha? A lifetime, a year, a month, a minute — I neither know nor care, and while thou art true to me I fear no stabs of envy.”
“Is it so? Wilt take the risk? I can promise thee nothing. Thou mightest — yes, in this way or in that, thou mightest — die.”
“And if I die, what then? Shall we be separated?”
“Nay, nay, Leo, that is not possible. We never can be severed, of this I am sure; it is sworn to me. But then through other lives and other spheres, higher lives and higher spheres mayhap, our fates must force a painful path to their last goal of union.”
“Why then I take the hazard, Ayesha. Shall the life that I can risk to slay a leopard or a lion in the sport of an idle hour, be too great a price to offer for the splendours of thy breast? Thine oath! Ayesha, I claim thine oath.”
Then it was that in Ayesha there began the most mysterious and thrilling of her many changes. Yet how to describe it I know not unless it be by simile.
Once in Thibet we were imprisoned for months by snows that stretched down from the mountain slopes into the valleys and oh! how weary did we grow of those arid, aching fields of purest white. At length rain set in, and blinding mists in which it was not safe to wander, that made the dark nights darker yet.
So it was, until there came a morning when seeing the sun shine, we went to our door and looked out. Behold a miracle! Gone were the snows that choked the valley and in the place of them appeared vivid springing grass, starred everywhere with flowers, and murmuring brooks and birds that sang and nested in the willows. Gone was the frowning sky and all the blue firmament seemed one tender smile. Gone were the austerities of winter with his harsh winds, and in their place spring, companioned by her zephyrs, glided down the vale singing her song of love and life.
There in this high chamber, in the presence of the living and the dead, while the last act of the great tragedy unrolled itself before me, looking on Ayesha that forgotten scene sprang into my mind. For on her face just such a change had come. Hitherto, with all her loveliness, the heart of Ayesha had seemed like that winter mountain wrapped in its unapproachable snow and before her pure brow and icy self-command, aspirations sank abashed and desires died.
She swore she loved and her love fulfilled itself in death and many a mysterious way. Yet it was hard to believe that this passion of hers was more than a spoken part, for how can the star seek the moth although the moth may seek the star? Though the man may worship the goddess, for all her smiles divine, how can the goddess love the man?
But now everything was altered! Look! Ayesha grew human; I could see her heart beat beneath her robes and hear her breath come in soft, sweet sobs, while o’er her upturned face and in her alluring eyes there spread itself that look which is born of love alone. Radiant and more radiant did she seem to grow, sweeter and more sweet, no longer the veiled Hermit of the Caves, no longer the Oracle of the Sanctuary, no longer the Valkyrie of the battle-plain, but only the loveliest and most happy bride that ever gladdened a husband’s eyes.
She spoke, and it was of little things, for thus Ayesha proclaimed the conquest of herself.
“Fie!” she said, showing her white robes torn with spears and stained by the dust and dew of war; “Fie, my lord, what marriage garments are these in which at last I come to thee, who would have been adorned in regal gems and raiment befitting to my state and thine?”
“I seek the woman not her garment,” said Leo, his burning eyes fixed upon her face.
“Thou seekest the woman. Ah! there it lies. Tell me, Leo, am I woman or spirit? Say that I am woman, for now the prophecy of this dead Atene lies heavy on my soul, Atene who said that mortal and immortal may not mate.”
“Thou must be woman, or thou wouldst not have tormented me as thou hast done these many weeks.”
“I thank thee for the comfort of thy words. Yet, was it woman whose breath wrought destruction upon yonder plain? Was it to a woman that Blast and Lightning bowed and said, ‘We are here: Command us, we obey’? Did that dead thing (and she pointed to the shattered door) break inward at a woman’s will? Or could a woman charm this man to stone?
“Oh! Leo, would that I were woman! I tell thee that I’d lay all my grandeur down, a wedding offering at thy feet, could I be sure that for one short year I should be naught but woman and — thy happy wife.
“Thou sayest that I did torment thee, but it is I who have known torment, I who desired to yield and dared not. Aye, I tell thee, Leo, were I not sure that thy little stream of life is draining dry into the great ocean of my life, drawn thither as the sea draws its rivers, or as the sun draws mists, e’en now I would not yield. But I know, for my wisdom tells it me, ere ever we could reach the shores of Libya, the ill work would be done, and thou dead of thine own longing, thou dead and I widowed who never was a wife.
“Therefore see! like lost Atene I take the dice and cast them, not knowing how they shall fall. Not knowing how they shall fall, for good or ill I cast,” and she made a wild motion as of some desperate gamester throwing his last throw.
“So,” Ayesha went on, “the thing is done and the number summed for aye, though it be hidden from my sight. I have made an end of doubts and fears, and come death, come life, I’ll meet it bravely.
“Say, how shall we be wed? I have it. Holly here must join our hands; who else? He that ever was our guide shall give me unto thee, and thee to me. This burning city is our altar, the dead and living are our witnesses on earth and heaven. In place of rites and ceremonials for this first time I lay my lips on thine, and when ’tis done, for music I’ll sing thee a nuptial chant of love such as mortal poet has not written nor have mortal lovers heard.
“Come, Holly, do now thy part and give this maiden to this man.”
Like one in a dream I obeyed her and took Ayesha’s outstretched hand and Leo’s. As I held them thus, I tell the truth:— it was as though some fire rushed through my veins from her to him, shaking and shattering me with swift waves of burning and unearthly Bliss. With the fire too came glorious visions and sounds of mighty music, and a sense as though my brain, filled with over-flowing life, must burst asunder beneath its weight.
I joined their hands; I know not how; I blessed them, I know not in what words. Then I reeled back against the wall and watched.
This is what I saw.
With an abandonment and a passion so splendid and intense that it seemed more than human, with a murmured cry of “Husband!” Ayesha cast her arms about her lover’s neck and drawing down his head to hers so that the gold hair was mingled with her raven locks, she kissed him on the lips.
Thus they clung a little while, and as they clung the gentle diadem of light from her brow spread to his brow also, and through the white wrappings of her robe became visible her perfect shape shining with faint fire. With a little happy laugh she left him, saying,
“Thus, Leo Vincey, oh! thus for the second time do I give myself to thee, and with this flesh and spirit all I swore to thee, there in the dim Caves of Kor and here in the palace of Kaloon. Know thou this, come what may, never, never more shall we be separate who are ordained one. Whilst thou livest I live at thy side, and when thou diest, if die thy must, I’ll follow thee through worlds and firmaments, nor shall all the doors of heaven or hell avail against my love. Where thou goest, thither I will go. When thou sleepest, with thee will I sleep and it is my voice that thou shalt hear murmuring through the dreams of life and death; my voice that shall summon thee to awaken in the last hour of everlasting dawn, when all this night of misery hath furled her wings for aye.
“Listen now while I sing to thee and hear that song aright, for in its melody at length thou shalt learn the truth, which unwed I might not tell to thee. Thou shalt learn who and what I am, and who and what thou art, and of the high purposes of our love, and this dead woman’s hate, and of all that I have hid from thee in veiled, bewildering words and visions.
“Listen then, my love and lord, to the burden of the Song of Fate.”
She ceased speaking and gazed heavenwards with a rapt look as though she waited for some inspiration to fall upon her, and never, never — not even in the fires of Kor had Ayesha seemed so divine as she did now in this moment of the ripe harvest of her love.
My eyes wandered from her to Leo, who stood before her pale and still, still as the death-like figure of the Shaman, still as the Khania’s icy shape which stared upwards from the ground. What was passing in his mind, I wondered, that he could remain thus insensible while in all her might and awful beauty this proud being worshipped him.
Hark! she began to sing in a voice so rich and perfect that its honied notes seemed to cloy my blood and stop my breath.
“The world was not, was not, and in the womb of Silence
Slept the souls of men. Yet I was and thou ——”
Suddenly Ayesha stopped, and I felt rather than saw the horror on her face.
Look! Leo swayed to and fro as though the stones beneath him were but a rocking boat. To and fro he swayed, stretched out his blind arms to clasp her — then suddenly fell backwards, and lay still.
Oh! what a shriek was that she gave! Surely it must have wakened the very corpses upon the plain. Surely it must have echoed in the stars. One shriek only — then throbbing silence.
I sprang to him, and there, withered in Ayesha’s kiss, slain by the fire of her love, Leo lay dead — lay dead upon the breast of dead Atene!
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09