by Mabel Collins
Author of “The Prettiest Woman in Warsaw” etc., etc..
And Scribe of “The Idyll of the White Lotus” and “Through the Gates of Gold”
One facet of the stone,
One ray of the star,
One petal of the flower of life,
But the one that stands outermost and faces us, who are men and women.
THIS strange story has come to me from a far country and was brought to me in a mysterious manner; I claim only to be the scribe and the editor. In this capacity, however, it is I who am answerable to the public and the critics. I therefore ask in advance one favour only of the reader; that he will accept (while reading this story) the theory of the reincarnation of souls as a living fact. .
Containing two sad lives on earth,
And two sweet times of sleep in Heaven.
OVERHEAD the boughs of the trees intermingle, hiding the deep, blue sky and mellowing the fierce heat of the sun. The boughs are so covered with white blossoms that it is like a canopy of clustered snow-flakes, tinged here and there with a soft pink. It is a natural orchard, a spot favoured by the wild apricot. And among the trees, wandering from shine to shade, flitting to and fro, is a solitary figure. It is that of a young woman, a savage, one of a wild and fierce tribe dwelling in the fastnesses of an inaccessible virgin forest. She is dark but beautiful. Her blue-black hair hangs far down over her naked body; its masses shield the warm, quivering, nervous brown skin from the direct rays of the sun. She wears neither clothing nor any ornament. Her eyes are dark, fierce and tender: her mouth soft and natural as the lips of an opening flower. She is absolutely perfect in her simple savage beauty and in the natural majesty of her womanhood, virgin in herself and virgin in the quality of her race, which is untaught, undegraded. But in her sublimely natural face is the dawn of a great tragedy. Her [Page 24] soul, her thought, is struggling to awake. She has done a deed that seemed to her quite simple, quite natural; yet now it is done a dim perplexity is rising within her obscure mind. Wandering to and fro beneath the rich masses of blossom-laden boughs, she for the first time endeavours to question herself. Finding no answer within she goes again to look on that which she has done.
A form lies motionless upon the ground within the thickest shade of the rich fruit trees. A young man, one of her own tribe, beautiful like herself, and with strength and vigour written in every line of his form. But he is dead. He was her lover, and she found his love sweet, yet with one wild treacherous movement of her strong supple arm she had killed him. The blood flowed from his forehead where the sharp stone had made the death wound. The life blood ebbed away from his strong young form; a moment since his lips still trembled, now they were still. Why had she in this moment of fierce passion taken that beautiful life ? She loved him as well as her untaught heart knew how to love; but he, exulting in his greater strength, tried to snatch her love, before it was ripe. It was but a blossom, like the white flowers overhead: he would have taken it with strong hands as though it were a fruit ripe and ready. And then in a sudden flame of wondrous new emotion the woman became aware that the man was her enemy, that he desired to be her tyrant Until now she had thought him as herself, a thing to love as she loved herself, with a blind unthinking trust. And she acted passionately upon the guidance of this thing — feeling — which until now she had never known. He, unaccustomed to any treachery or anger, suspected no strange act from her, and thus, unsuspicious, unwarned, he was at her mercy. And now he lay dead at her feet. And still the fierce sun shone through the green leaves and silvern blossoms and gleamed upon her black hair and tender brown skin. She was beautiful as the morning when it rose over the tree tops of that world-old forest. But there is a new wonder in her dark eyes; a question that was not there until this strange and potent hour came to her. What ages must pass over her dull spirit ere it can utter the question; ere it can listen and hear the answer ?
The savage woman, nameless, unknown save of her tribe, who regard her as indifferently as any creature of the woods, has none to help her or stay in its commencement the great roll of the wave of energy she has started. Blindly she lives out her own emotions. She is dissatisfied, uneasy, conscious of some error. When she leaves the orchard of wild fruit trees and wanders back to the clearer part of the forest beneath the great trees, where her tribe dwells, when she returns among them her lips are dumb, her voice is silent. None ever heard that he, the one she loved, had died by her hand, for she knew not how to frame or tell this story. It was a mystery to her, this thing which had happened. Yet it made her sad, and her great eyes wore a dumb look of longing. But [Page 25] she was very beautiful and soon another young and sturdy lover was always at her side. He did not please her; there was not the glow in his eyes that had gladdened her in those of the dead one whom she had loved. And yet she shrunk not from him nor did she raise her arm in anger, but held it fast at her side lest her passion should break loose unawares. For she felt that she had brought a want, a despair upon herself by her former deed; and now she determined that she would act differently. Blindly she tried to learn the lesson that had come upon her. Blindly she let herself be the agent of her own will. For now she became the willing slave and serf of one whom she did not love, and whose passion for her was full of tyranny. Yet she did not, she dared not, resist this tyranny; not because, she feared him, but because she feared herself. She, had the feeling that one might have who had come in contact with a new and hitherto unknown natural force. She feared lest resistance or independence should bring upon her a greater wonder, a greater sadness and loss than that which she had already brought upon herself.
And so she submitted to that which in her first youth would no more have been endured by her than the bit by the wild horse.
The apricot blossom has fallen and fruit has followed it; the leaves have fallen and the trees are bare. The sky is grey and wild above, the ground dank and soft with fallen leaves below. The aspect of the place is changed, but it is the same; the face and form of the woman have changed; but she is the same. She is alone again in the wild orchard, finding her way by instinct to the spot where her first lover died. She has found it. What is there ? Some white bones that lie together; a skeleton. The woman’s eyes fasten and feed on the sight and grow large and terrible. Horror at last is struck into her soul. This is all that is left of her young love, who died by her hand — white bones that lie in ghastly order ! And the long hot days and sultry nights of her life have been given to a tyrant who has reaped no gladness and no satisfaction from her submission; for he has not learned yet even the difference between woman and woman. All alike are mere creatures like the wild things; creatures to hunt and to conquer. Dumbly in her dark heart strange questionings arise. She turns from this graveyard of her unquestioning time and goes back to her slavery. Through the years of her life she waits and wonders, looking blankly at the life around her. Will no answer come to her soul ?
AFTER SLEEP, AWAKENING
SPLENDID was the veil that shielded her from that other soul, the soul she knew and of which she showed her recognition by swift and sudden love. But the veil separated them; a veil heavy with gold and shining with stars of silver. And as she gazed upon these stars, with [Page 26] delighted admiration of their brilliance, they grew larger and larger, till at length they blended together, and the veil became one shining sheen gorgeous with golden broideries. Then it became easier to see through the veil, or rather it seemed easier to these lovers. For before the veil had made the shape appear dim; now it appeared glorious and ideally beautiful and strong. Then the woman put out her hand, hoping to obtain the pressure of another hand through the shining gossamer. And at the same instant he too put out his hand, for in this moment their souls communicated, and they understood each other. Their hands touched; the veil was broken; the moment of joy was ended and again the struggle began.
SITTING, singing, on the steps of an old palace, her feet paddling in the water of a broad canal, was a child who was becoming more than a child; a creature on the threshold of life of , awakening sensation. A girl, with ruddy gold hair, and innocent blue eyes, that had in their vivid depths the strange startled look of a wild creature. She was as simple and isolated in her happiness as any animal of the woods or hills — the sunshine, the sweet air with the faint savour of salt in it, her own pure clear girlish voice, and the gay songs of the people that she sang — these were pleasure enough and to spare for her.
But the space of unconscious happiness or unhappiness which heralds the real events of a life was already at an end. The great wave which she had set in motion was increasing in volume ceaselessly; how long before it shall reach the shore and break upon that far off coast ? None can know, save those whose eyesight is more than man’s. None can tell; and she is ignorant, unknowing. But though she knows nothing of it, she is within the sweep of the wave, and is powerless to arrest it until her soul shall awake.
“My blossom, my beautiful wild flower”, said a voice close beside her. A young boatman had brought his small vessel so gently to the steps she had not noticed his approach. He leaned over his boat towards her, and touched her bare white feet with his hand.
“Come away with me, Wild Blossom”, he said. ” Leave that wretched home you cling to. What is there to keep you there now your mother is dead ? Your father is like a savage, and makes you live like a savage too. Come away with me, and we will live among people who will love you and find you beautiful as I do. Will you come? How often have I asked you, Wild Blossom, and you have never answered. Will you answer now ? ”
” Yes”, said the girl, looking up with grave, serious eyes, that had beneath their beauty a melancholy meaning, a sad question. [Page 27]
The man saw this strange look and interpreted it as clearly as he could.
“Trust me”, he said, ” I am not a savage like your father. When you are my little wife I will care for you far more dearly than myself. You will be my soul, my guide, my star. And I will shield you as my soul is shielded within my body, follow you as my guide, look up to you as to a star in the blue heavens. Surely you can trust my love, Wild Blossom.”
He had not answered the doubt in her heart, for he had not guessed what it was, nor could she have told him. For she had not yet learned to know what it was, nor to know of it more than that it troubled her. But she put it aside and silenced it now, for the moment had come to do so. Not till she had learned her lesson much more fully could the question ever be expressed even to her own soul, and before this could be, the question must be silenced many times.
“Yes”, she said, ” I will come”.
She held out her hand to him as if to seal the compact. He interpreted the gesture by his own desire, and taking her hand in his drew her towards him. She yielded and stepped into the boat. And then he quickly pushed away from the steps, and, dipping his oars in the water, soon had gone far away down the canal. Blossom looking earnestly back, watched the old palace disappear. In some of its old rooms and on its sunny steps her child-life had been spent. Now she knew that was at an end. She understood that all was changed henceforth, though she could not guess into what she was going, and she waited for her future with a strange confidence in the companion she had accepted. This puzzled her dimly. Yet how should she lack confidence, having known him long ago and thrown away his love and his life beneath the wild apricot trees, having seen afterwards the steadfastness of his love when her soul stood beside his in soul life ? ‘
A long way they went in the little boat. They left the canals and went out upon the open sea, and still the boatman rowed unwearyingly, his eyes all the while upon the beautiful wild blossom he had plucked and carried away with him to be his own, his dear and adored possession. Far away along the coast lay a small village of fishermen’s cots. It was to this that the young man guided his boat, for it was here he dwelled.
At the door of his cot stood his old mother, a quaint old woman with wrinkled, rosy face, wearing a rough fishwife’s dress and coarse shawl; her brown hand shaded her eyes as she watched her son’s boat approaching. Presently a smile came on her mouth. ” He’s gotten the blossom he’s talked of so often in his sleep. Will he be happy now, the good lad ? ”
He was truly a good lad; for his mother knew him well, and the more she knew him the deeper grew her love. She would do anything for [Page 28] his happiness. And now she took to her arms the child, the Blossom, and cherished her for his sake. Before many days had passed the fishing village made a fête day for the wedding of its strongest boatman. And the women’s eyes filled with tears when they looked at the sad, tender, questioning face of the beautiful Wild Blossom.
She had given her love without hesitation, in complete confidence. She had given more; herself, her life, her very soul. The surrender was now complete.
And now, when all seemed done and all accomplished, her question began to be answered. Dimly she knew that, spite of the husband at whose feet she bowed, spite of the babes she carried in her arms till their tiny feet were strong enough to carry them down over the shore to the marge of the blue waters, spite of the cottage home she garnished and cleansed and loved so dearly, spite of all, her heart was hungry and empty. What could it mean, that though she had all she had none ? Blossom was grown a woman now, and there were some lines of care and of pain on her forehead. Yet, still, she was beautiful and still she bore her child-name of Blossom; but the beauty of her face grew sadder and more strange as the years went by, the years that bring ease and satisfaction to the stagnant soul. Wild Blossom’s soul was eager and anxious; she could not still the mysterious voices of her heart, and these told her (though perhaps she did not always understand their speech) that her husband was not in reality her king; that he heard no sound from that inner region in which she chiefly existed. For him contentment existed in the outward life that he lived, in sheer physical pleasure, in the excitement of hard work, and the dangers of the sea, in the beauty of his wife, the mirth of his happy children. He asked no more. But Wild Blossom’s eyes had the prophetic light in them. She saw that all this peace must pass, this pleasure end; she recognised that these things did not, could not, absolutely satisfy the spirit; her soul seemed to tremble within her as she began to feel the first dawn of the terrible answer to her sad questioning.
A deeper dream of rest;
A stronger waking.
MANY a long year later, a solitary woman dwelled in that fisherman’s cottage on the shore of the blue sea. She was old and bowed with age and trouble. But still her eyes were brighter than any girl’s in the village, and held in them the mysterious beauty of the soul; still her hair, once golden, now grey, waved about her forehead. The people loved her and were kind to her, for she was always gentle and full of generous thought. But they never understood her, for they were long ages behind her in her growth. She was ready now for the great central of personal existence; the experience of life in civilization. When the old fishwife lay dead within her cottage, and the people came to [Page 29] grieve beside her body, they little guessed that she was going on to a great and glorious future; a future full of daring and of danger. When her eyes closed in death, her inner eyes opened on a sight that filled her with absolute joy. She was in a garden of fruit trees, and the blossom of the trees was at its full. When her eyes fell on this white maze of flowers and drank in its beauty, she remembered the name she had borne on earth and dimly understood its meaning. The blossoms hid from her the sky and all else until a soft pressure on her hand drew her eyes downwards; and then she saw beside her that one whom she had loved through the ages, and who, side by side with her, was experiencing the profound mystery, and learning the strange lesson of incarnation in the world where sex is the first great teacher. And with each phase of existence that they passed through, these two forged stronger and stronger links that held them together and compelled them again and again to meet, so that together they were destined to pass through the vital hour; the hour when the life is shaped for greater ends or for vain deeds.
Here within this sheltered place, where blossoms filled the air with sweetness and beauty, it seemed to them, that they had attained to the full of pleasure. They rested in perfect satisfaction, drinking deep draughts of the joy of living. To them existence seemed a final and splendid fact in itself; existence as they then had it. The moment in which they lived was sufficient, they desired none other, nor any other place, nor any other beauty, than those they had. None knows and none can tell what time or age was passed in this deep contentment and fulfilment of pleasure. At last Wild Blossom’s soul woke from its sleep, satiated; the hunger returned to gnaw at her heart; the longing to know reasserted itself. Holding tight the hand she held in hers, she sprang from the soft couch on which she lay. Then, for the first time, she noticed that the ground was so soft and pleasant, because there, where she had lain, had drifted great heaps of the fallen fruit blossoms. The ground was all white with them, though some had begun to lose their delicate beauty, to curl and wrinkle and turn dark. Then she looked overhead and saw that the trees had, with the loss of the delicate petals, lost their first fairness, the splendour of the spring. Now they were covered with small, hard, green fruit, scarce formed, unbeautiful to the eye, hard to the touch, acid to the taste. With a shudder of regret for the sweet spring time that was gone, Wild Blossom hurried away from the trees, still holding fast that other hand in hers. She was going to face new, strange experiences, perhaps terrible dangers: her task was the easier for that tried companionship, for the nearness of that other who was climbing the same steep ladder of life. [Page 30]
END OF INTRODUCTION
CHAPTER – I –
IN a masked ball there is an element of adventure that appeals to the daring of both sexes, to the bright and witty spirits. Hilary Estanol was just such an one as the hero of a bright revel should be. A beautiful boy, with a lovely face, and eyes that had in them a deep sadness. In repose his face was almost womanish in its softness; but a chill brilliance was in his smile, a certain slight cynicism coloured all his speech. Yet Hilary had no reason to be a cynic, and he was not one who adopted anything from fashion or affectation. The spring of this uncalled-for coldness and indifference lay in himself.
Tonight he was the centre of attraction in Madame Estanol’s drawing-rooms. This bal masqué was to celebrate his coming of age, and Hilary had never looked so womanish as when he stood among his friends’ receiving their congratulations and admiring their gifts. He wore the dress of a troubadour, and it was one which became him well, not only in its picturesqueness as a costume, but in the requirements of the character. He had the faculty of the improvisatore, his voice was rich and soft, his musical and poetic gifts swift and versatile. Hilary was adored by his friends, but disliked, indeed almost hated, by his one near relation, his mother. She was standing near him now, talking to a group who had gathered round her. She was one of the cleverest women of the day, and, still beautiful and full of a charming pride, held a court of her own. Her dislike for Hilary was founded on her estimate of his character. To one of her intimate friends she had said, not long before this night, “Hilary will disgrace his name and family before there is one grey thread in his dark hair. He has the qualities that bring despair and ensure remorse. God will surely forgive me that I say this of my son; but I see it before me, an abyss into which he will drag me with him; and I wait for it every day.”
A guest, just arrived, approached Madame Estanol with a smile, and after greeting her affectionately, said, in a whisper, ” I have brought a friend with me. Welcome her in her character as a fortune-teller. She is very witty, and will amuse us presently, if you like”.
She moved aside a little, and Madame Estanol saw standing behind her a stooping figure, an old haggard crone, with palsied head, and hand that trembled as it grasped her stick.
” Ah, Countess ! it is impossible to recognise your friend under this disguise”, said Madame Estanol. ” Will you not tell me who she is ? ”
” I am pledged to say nothing but that she is a fortune-teller”, said the Countess Bairoun. ” Her name she herself will reveal only to one person; and that person must be born under the star that favoured her own birth.”
The fortune-teller turned her bent head towards Madame Estanol, and fixed a pair of brilliant and fascinating eyes on hers. Immediately Madame Estanol became aware of a strong charm that drew her towards [Page 31] this mysterious person. She advanced and held out her hand to assist the old woman in moving across the room.
” Come with me”, she said, ” I should like to introduce you to my son. He is the hero of this scene tonight, for the ball is held in honour of his coming of age”.
They went together through the maskers that were now beginning to throng the large drawing-rooms, and everyone turned to look at the strange figure of the tottering old crone. Hilary Estanol was leaning against the high carved oak mantel frame of the inner drawing-room, surrounded by a laughing group of his intimate friends. He held his mask in his hand, and as he stood there smiling, his dark curls falling on his forehead, his mother thought, as she approached him, ” My boy grows handsomer every hour of his gay young life”. When Hilary saw his mother’s strange companion he advanced a step, as if to welcome her, But Madame Estanol checked him with a smile. ” I cannot introduce our visitor to you”, she said, ” for I do not know her name. She will tell it to but one person, who must have been born under the same star as herself. Meantime, we are to greet her in her character as the fortune-teller.”
This announcement was welcomed by a murmur of amusement and interest.
“Then will our kind visitor perhaps exercise her craft for us ? ” asked Hilary, gazing with curiosity at the trembling head and grey locks before him. The old woman turned her head sideways, and gave him a look from those strange brilliant eyes. He, too, like his mother, felt the charm from them. But he felt more. Something suddenly wakened within him; a rush of inexplicable emotions roused him into amazement; he put his hand to his forehead; he was bewildered, almost faint.
There was a small drawing-room which opened out of the room they were in. It was so tiny that it held but a table covered with flowers, a low couch and an easy-chair. The laughing group that surrounded Hilary went eagerly to convert this room into the sanctum of the prophetess. They lowered and softened the shaded light; drew close the blinds and shut the doors, locking all but one. Here was placed a guardian who was to admit grudgingly and one by one those who were fortunate enough to speak alone with the sybil, for she would only see certain of the guests whom she selected herself from the throng, describing their appearance and dress to the guardian of her improvised temple. These were all ladies of great position. They entered laughing and half defiant. They came out, some pale, some red, some trembling, some in tears. ” Who can she be ? ” they whispered in terrified tones to one another, and in that terror showed how she had penetrated their hearts and touched on their secret thoughts.
At last the guardian of the door said that Hilary himself was to enter.
When Hilary went in, the young man, as he closed the door on the [Page 32] fortune teller and her new guest, turned with a laugh to the group behind him.
“Already she has startled him”, he said, ” I heard him utter almost a cry as he entered”.
” Could you see in ? ” asked one, “perhaps she has taken off her disguise for her host! ”
” No, I saw nothing”, he answered. “Can none of you who have been in guess who she is ? ”
” No”, answered a girl who had come out from the ordeal with white and trembling lips. ” It is impossible to guess. She knows everything”.
It was as they had supposed. She had taken off her disguise for her host. The staff, the large cloak, the wig and cap lay on the ground. With the swift use of a cosmetiqued kerchief she had removed from her fair skin the dark complexion of the ancient sybil. When Hilary entered she had completed this rapid toilette and sat leaning back in a low chair. She was dressed in a rich evening costume; she held a mask in her hand ready for use. But now her face was uncovered; her strange and brilliant eyes were fixed on Hilary; her beautiful mouth wore a half smile of amusement at his surprise. It was more than surprise that he experienced. Again that rush of inexplicable emotion overpowered him. He felt like one intoxicated. He regarded her very earnestly for a few moments.
“Surely”, he said, “we have met before ! ”
” We were born under the same star”, she answered in a voice that thrilled him. Until now he had not heard her speak. The sense of some strong link or association that united them, was made doubly strong by the sound of that voice, rich, strong and soft. Suddenly he recognised the meaning of his emotion. He no longer struggled against it, he no longer was bewildered by it.
He approached her and sat down upon the couch at her side. He regarded her with wonder and adoration, but no longer with awe or surprise. For he understood that the event which he had imagined would never come was already here — he was in love.
“You said you would disclose your name to the one who was born under the same star as yourself”.
” Do you not know me ? ” she said with a slight look of surprise. She fancied everyone knew her at least by sight.
“I do not”, he answered, “though indeed I am perplexed to think I can ever have lived without knowing you”.
Flattery produced no effect upon her, she lived in an atmosphere of it.
” I am the Princess Fleta”, she answered. Hilary started and coloured a little at the words, and could ill control his emotion. The Princess Fleta held a position in the society of the country, which can only belong to one who stands next to a throne that rules an important [Page 33] nation. She was a personage among crowned heads, one to whom an emperor might, without stooping, offer his love; and Hilary, the child of an officer of the Austrian army, and of a poor daughter of a decayed aristocratic family, Hilary had in the swift stirring of love at first sight, told his own heart that he loved her! It could never be unsaid, and he knew it. He had whispered the words within himself, the whisper would find a hundred echoes. He must always love her.
The Princess turned her wonderful eyes on him and smiled.
” I have done my work for tonight,” she said. ” I have amused some of the people, now I should like to dance”.
Hilary was sufficient of a courtier not to be deaf to this command, though his whole soul was in his eyes and all his thoughts fixed on her beauty. He rose and offered her his arm, she put on her mask and they left the room. When Hilary appeared among the crowd that hung round the door of the fortune teller’s sanctum, accompanied by a slender, graceful woman, whose face was hidden save for the great dark eyes, there was an irrepressible murmur of excitement and wonder. ” Who can she be ? ” was repeated again a hundred times. But no one guessed. None dreamed this could be the Princess Fleta herself; for there were but few houses she would visit at, and no one imagined that there could be any inducement to bring her to Madame Estanol’s. The mystery of her presence she explained to Hilary while they danced together.
” I am a student of magic”, she said, ” and I have already learned some useful secrets. I can read the hearts of the courtiers who surround me, and I know where to look for true friends. Last night I dreamed of the friend I should find here. Do you care for these mystic occupations ?” ‘
” I know nothing of them”, said Hilary.
” Let me teach you then”, said the Princess, with a light laugh. “You will be a good pupil, that I know. Perhaps I may make a disciple of you ! and there are not many with whom that is possible”.
” And why ? ” asked Hilary. ” Surely it is a fascinating study to those who can believe in the secrets.”
” Scepticism is not the great difficulty”, answered the Princess, ” but fear. Terror turns the crowd back from the threshold. Only a few dare cross it.”
” And you are one of the few”, said Hilary, gazing on her with eyes of burning admiration.
” I have never felt fear”, she answered.
” And would it be impossible to make you feel it, I wonder”, said Hilary.
“Do you desire to try?” she answered, with a smile at his daring speech. It did not sound so full of impertinence as it looks, for Hilary’s eyes and face were all alight with love and admiration, and his voice trembled with passion. [Page 34]
” You can make the attempt if you choose”, she said, glancing at him with those strange eyes of hers. ” Terrify me if you can.”
” Not here, in my own house, it would not be hospitable.”
” Come and see me, then, some day when you think it will amuse you. Try and frighten me. I will show you my laboratory, where I produce essences and incenses to please the gnomes and ghouls.”
Hilary accepted this invitation with a flush of pleasure.
“Take me to the Countess”, she said at last. ” I am going home. But I want her first to introduce me to your mother.”
The Countess was delighted that the Princess had made up her mind to this. She hardly thought Madame Estanol would be pleased to discover that the great lady had been masquerading in her drawing-room, and had not cared to throw off her disguise even for her hostess. And the Countess valued the friendship of Madame Estanol; so she was glad the wilful Princess had decided to treat her with politeness.
Madame Estanol could scarcely conceal her surprise at learning what the dignity was which had been hidden under the disguise of the old fortune-teller. The Princess did not remove her mask, and, with a laugh, she warned Madame Estanol that some of her guests would not be pleased to discover who the sybil was who had read their hearts so shrewdly.
When she had gone, Hilary’s heart and spirits had gone with her. It seemed as if he hardly cared to speak; his laughter had died away altogether. His thoughts, his very self, followed the fascinating personality that had bewitched him.
Madame Estanol saw his abstraction, his flushed eager look, and the new softness of his eyes. But she said no word. She feared the Princess, who was well known to be full of caprice and wilfulness. She feared lest Hilary should be mad enough to yield to the charm of the girl’s beauty and confident manner; the charm of power, peculiar, or rather, possible only to one in a royal place. But she would say no word; knowing Hilary well, she knew that any attempt to influence him against it would only intensify his new passion.
CHAPTER – II-
Two days later Hilary nerved himself to pay the visit to the Princess. He thought she could not consider it to be too soon, for it seemed to him two months since he had seen her.
She lived in a garden-house some two or three miles away in the country, Her father’s palace in the city never pleased her; she only came there when festivities or ceremonials made her presence necessary. In the country, with her chaperone and her maids, she was free to do as she chose. For they were one and all afraid of her, and held her “laboratory” in the profoundest respect. None of them would have entered that room except to avoid some dreadful doom.
Hilary was taken to the Princess in the garden, where she was [Page 35] walking to and fro in an avenue of trees which were covered with sweet scented blossoms. She welcomed Hilary with a charming manner, and the hour he spent with her here in the sunshine was one of the wildest intoxication. They began openly to play the pretty game of love. Now that no eyes were on them the Princess let him forget that she belonged to a different rank from his own. When she was tired of walking, ” Come”, she said, ” and I will show you my laboratory. No one in this house ever enters it. If you should say in the city that you have been in that room you will be besieged with questions. Be careful to say nothing.”
” I would die sooner”, exclaimed Hilary, to whom the idea of talking about the Princess and her secrets seemed like sacrilege.
The room was without windows, perfectly dark but for a softened light shed by a lamp in the centre of the high ceiling. The walls were painted black and on them were drawn strange figures and shapes in red. These had evidently not been painted by any artisan hand; though bold in touch, they were irregular in workmanship. Beside a great vessel which stood upon the ground, was a chair, and in this chair a figure upon which Hilary’s attention immediately became fastened.
He saw at once that it was not human, that it was not a lay figure, that it was not a statue. It resembled most a lay figure, but there was something strange about it which does not exist in the mere form on which draperies are hung. And its detail was elaborated; the skin was tinted, the eyes darkened correctly, the hair appeared to be human. Hilary remained at the doorway unable to advance because of the fascination this form exercised upon him.
The Princess looked back from where she stood in the centre of the room beneath the light; she saw the direction of his gaze and laughed.
“You need not fear it”, she said.
“Is it a lay figure?” asked Hilary, trying to speak easily, for he remembered that she despised those who knew fear.
” Yes”, she answered, ” it is my lay figure”.
There was something that puzzled Hilary in her tone.
“Are you an artist ? ” he asked.
” Yes”, she answered, “in life — in human nature. I do not work with a pencil or a brush; I use an agent that cannot be seen yet can be felt”.
” What do you mean ? ” asked Hilary.
She turned on him a strange look, that was at first distrustful, and then grew soft and tender.
“I will not tell you yet”, she said.
Hilary roused himself to answer her lightly.
” Have I to pass through some ordeal before you tell me ? ” he asked.
” Yes”, she answered gaily, “and already an ordeal faces you. Dare you advance into the room or no ? ”
Hilary made a great effort to break the spell that was on him. He went hastily across the room to where she stood. Then he realized [Page 36] that he had actually passed through an ordeal. He had resisted some force, the nature of which he knew not, and he had come out the victor Realising this brought to him another conviction.
” Princess”, he said, “there is some one else in this room besides you and me. We are not alone”.
He spoke so suddenly, and from so great a sense of startled surprise, that he did not pause to think whether his question were a wise one or not. The Princess laughed as she looked at him.
“You are very sensitive”, she said. “Certainly we were born under the same star, for we are susceptible to the same influences. No, we are not alone. I have servants here whom no eyes have seen but mine. Would you like to see them ? Do not say yes hastily. It means a long and tedious apprenticeship, obtaining mastery over these servants. But unless you conquer them you cannot often see me; for if you are much near to me they will hate you, and their hate is greater than your power to resist it”.
She spoke seriously now, and Hilary felt a strange sensation as he looked at this beautiful girl standing beneath the lamp light. He experienced a sudden dread of her as of someone stronger than himself; and also an impassioned desire to serve her, to be her slave, to give his life to her utterly. Perhaps she read the love in his eyes, for she turned away and moved towards the figure in the chair.
” I know this distresses you”, she said. ” You shall see it no longer”. She opened a large screen which was formed of some gold coloured material covered with shapes outlined in black. She arranged this so that the figure was altogether hidden from view and also the great vessel which stood beside it.
” Now”, she said, “you will breathe more freely. And I am going to show you something. We did not come out of the sunshine for no purpose. And we must be quick, for my good aunt will be terrified when she finds I have brought you in here. I believe she will hardly expect to see you alive again”.
She opened a gold vessel, which stood upon a cabinet, while she spoke, and the air immediately became full of a strong sweet perfume. Hilary put his hand to his forehead. Was it possible that he could be so immediately affected, or was it his imagination that the red shapes and figures which were on the black wall moved and ordered and arranged themselves ? Yet, so it was; to his eyes the forms mingled and again broke up and re-mingled. A word was formed and then another. It was unconsciously imprinted on Hilary’s memory before it changed and vanished; he noticed only the mysterious occurrence which was happening before his eyes. Suddenly he became aware that a sentence had been completed; that words had been written there which he would never have dared to utter; that on the wall before him had appeared in letters as of fire the secret of his heart. He staggered back and drew his eyes with difficulty from the wall to fix them in amazement and fear [Page 37] upon the Princess. Her face was flushed, her eyes were bright and tender.
“Did you see it ? ” he asked in a trembling voice.
For a moment she hesitated then she answered, ” Yes, I saw it”.
There was a brief silence. Hilary looked again at the wall, expecting to see the thought in his mind written there. But the shapes were returning to their original appearance, and the perfume was dying out of the air.
“Come”, said the Princess suddenly, ” we have been here long enough. My aunt will be distressed. Let us go to her”.
She led the way from the room, and Hilary followed her. In another moment they were in a large drawing-room, flooded with sunshine and fragrant with flowers; the Princess’ aunt was busied with silks which she had entangled while at her embroidery; the Princess was on her knees beside her, holding a skein of yellow silk upon her hands. Hilary stood a moment utterly bewildered. Had he been dreaming ? Was that black room and its terrible atmosphere a phantasy ?
He had stayed long enough, and he now took his leave reluctantly. The Princess, who would have no ceremony at the Garden House, rose from her knees and said she would open the gate for him. Hilary flushed with pleasure at this mark of kindness.
The gate she took him to was a narrow one that stood in a thick-set hedge of flowering shrubs. When he had passed through he looked back, and saw the Princess leaning on the gate, framed in gorgeous blossoms. She smiled and held out her hand to him. The richness of her presence intoxicated him and he lost all sense of the apparently impassable gulf between them.
” You read the words”, he said, ” and you give me “your hand in mine ? ”
” I read the words”, she answered, in a soft voice that thrilled him, ” and I give you my hand in yours. Good-bye ! ”
She had touched his hand for an instant, and now she was gone. Hilary turned to walk through the flowering hedges to the city. But his heart, his thought, his soul remained behind. She had read the words, and she was not angry. She knew of his love for her and she was not angry. She had read his heart and had not taken offence. What might he not hope for ?
Then came another thought. She had read the words. Then that black room was no phantasy, but a fact as actual as the sunshine. What were the powers of this strange creature that he loved ? He knew not; but he knew that he loved her.
An overpowering desire carried him daily on that road between the flowery hedges to the Garden House. Only sometimes had he the courage to enter. Most often he lingered at that narrow gate, embosomed in flowers and looked longingly over it. The first time that [Page 38] he entered after this visit, in which his secret was written before his eyes, he found the Princess standing within the gate. She held out her hand to him saying simply, ” I knew you were coming. I have prepared something, and I have presuaded my aunt that no terrible thing will happen if you are in my laboratory for a little while. So come with me.”
It was brilliantly lit, this black walled room she called her laboratory. The great vessel stood in the midst of the floor beneath the lamp, and from it rose flame and smoke. A strong and vivid perfume filled the air, and the upper part of the high room was clouded with grey blue smoke, that shone in the light like silver.
In the chair beside it sat a figure: it was that of a beautiful woman. A strange mixture of emotions overpowered Hilary. At the first glance he felt that this figure was the same he had seen the other day; at the second he recognised his mother. He rushed forward to her and became aware that she was lifeless; then he turned passionately upon the Princess with anger and horror in his face.
” What have you done ? What have you done ? ” he “cried. “Nothing”, she said, with a smile. ” I have done no harm. Do you not see that is only an image ? My lay figure, as I told you”.
He gave a long look at the inanimate shape that was so perfect a representation of his mother, and then he turned upon the Princess a look of more intense horror than before.
” What are you doing ? ” he asked, in a low voice.
“No harm !” she answered lightly. “Your mother hates and fear me. I cannot endure that. I am making her love me. I am making her desire your presence here with me”.
For a while they stood in silence by the side of the vessel and its flaming contents; then suddenly Hilary cried out: ” I cannot bear it! Put an end to this terrible spell ! ”
“Yes”, said the Princess, ” I will, but not to its results”.
She drew the screen before the seated figure, and threw something into the vessel that instantly quenched the flame.
Then she led Hilary from the room, and they walked up and down beneath the trees, talking of things as lovers talk — things that interested themselves but none other.
When Hilary returned home his mother rose from her couch and held out her hand to him. She drew him to sit beside her.
” Hilary”, she said, “something tells me you have been with the Princess Fleta. It is well, and I am glad. She is a good friend for you; ask her if I shall come to see her”.
Hilary rose without replying. The dew stood on his brow. For the first time he was conscious of actual fear, and the fear he felt was of the woman he loved.
(To be continued) [Page 39]