[ The sub-title, “a tale of love and magic,” having been simultaneously
used by myself, Mr. Joseph Hutton, and another author,
I think it best to change mine for one certainly less pretty, but equally descriptive.
Is not this simultaneous use also a “sign of the times”?]
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”.
IN a chapel of the great Cathedral in the city there was at certain hours always a priest who held there his confessional.
To him went Hilary some days later. In the interim he had not seen the Princess. His soul had been torn hither and thither, to and fro. His passion for the beautiful girl held him fast, while his horror of the magician repelled him from her. He went to the Cathedral in the afternoon determined that he would reveal all his distress to the priest. Father Amyot was in his confessional, but some one was with him, for the curtain was drawn. Hilary knelt down at the small altar of the chapel there to wait. Presently there was a slight sound; he turned his head to see if the confessional was now free. The Princess Fleta stood beside him, her eyes fixed on him; it was she who at this instant only had risen from her knees in the confessional. Hilary, amazed and dumb with wonder, could only gaze upon her. She kept her strange and fascinating eyes fixed on his for a moment and then turned and with swift, soft steps left the chapel. Hilary remained kneeling motionless before the altar, his mind absorbed in what was hardly so much thought as amazement. Fleta was not then what he thought her. If she were sensitive to religious impressions she could not be the cold magician which she had appeared to him to be when he recollected the last scene in the laboratory. Perhaps after all she used her power generously and for good. He began to see her in another light. He began to worship her for her goodness as well as for her strong attractions. His heart leaped with joy at the thought that her soul was as beautiful as her body. He rose from his knees and turned instinctively and without thought to follow her. As he did so he passed Father Amyot, who seeing that no one else came immediately to the confessional, had left it and flung himself at full [Page 124] length upon the ground before the altar. He wore a long robe of coarse white cloth, tied at the waist with a black cord; a hood of the same cloth covered his shaven head. He was like a skeleton, perfectly fleshless and emaciated. His face lay sideways on the stone; he seemed unconscious so profound was his abstraction. The eyes were open but had no sight in them. They were large grey blue eyes, full of a profound melancholy which gave them an appearance as if tears stood in them. This melancholy affected Hilary strangely; it touched his heart, made thrill and vibrate some deeply sensitive cord in his nature. He stood gazing a moment at the prostrate figure, and then with a profound obeisance left the chapel.
The Princess Fleta had her horse waiting for her. She was a constant and daring rider, and seldom entered the city except on horseback, to the amazement of the court ladies, who in the city rode in carriages that they might dress beautifully. But Fleta had no vanity of this kind. Probably no other girl of her age would have willingly adopted the hideous dress of the witch and worn it before so many curious eyes. Her own beauty and her own appearance was a subject of but the slightest thought to her. She would walk down the fashionable promenade in her riding habit among the magnificent toilettes of the Court ladies. This she was doing now while a servant led her horse up and down. Hilary watched her from a distance, unable to summon courage to approach her in the midst of such a throng of personages. But presently Fleta saw him and came with her swift light step towards him. “ Will you walk with me ? ” she asked. “There is no one here to be my companion but you”.
“And why is that? ” asked Hilary, as with flushed face and eager steps he accompanied her.
“Because there are none that sympathise with me. You alone have entered my laboratory”.
“But would not any of these be glad to come if you would admit them ? ”
“Not one would have the courage, except perhaps some few wild spirits who would dare anything for mere excitement. And they would not please me”.
Hilary was silent. Her words showed him very plainly that he pleased her. But there was a chill in his nature which now asserted itself. Here in the midst of so many people her hold on him was lessened, and he doubted her more than ever. Was she merely playing with him for her own amusement? Her high position gave her this power and he could not resent it, for even to be her favourite for a day would be accounted by any man an honour and a thing to boast of. And Hilary was being signalled, out for public honour. He felt the envious glances of the men whom he met, and immediately a cold veil fell on his heart. He desired no such envy. To his mind love was a sacred. His scorn of life and doubt of human nature awakened [Page 125] at this moment of triumph. He did not speak, but the Princess answered his thought.
“We will go away from here”, she said. “In the country you are a creature of passion. Here you become a cynic”.
“How do you know my heart ? ” he asked.
“We were born under the same star”, she answered quietly.
“That is no sufficient answer”, he replied. “It conveys no meaning to me, for I know nothing of the mysterious sciences you study”.
“Come then with me”, she answered, “and I will teach you”.
She signed to her servant, who brought her horse; she mounted and rode away with merely a smile to Hilary. She knew that in spite of the chill that was on him he would hunger for her in her absence and soon follow. And so he did. The pavements appeared empty though crowds moved over them; the city seemed lifeless and dull, though it was one of the gayest in the world. He turned from the streets, and walking into the country, found himself very soon at the narrow wicket gate of the Princess Fleta’s Garden House.
She was wandering up and down the avenue between the trees. Her dress was white now, and very long and soft, falling in great folds from her shoulders. As she moved slowly to and fro, the dancing sunlight playing on her splendid form, it seemed to Hilary that he saw before him not a mere woman, but a priestess. Her late visit to the Cathedral recurred to him; if the religious soul was in her, might she not, indeed, spite of her strange acts, be no magician, but a priestess ? He returned to his former humour and was ready to worship at her feet. She greeted him with a smile that thrilled him; her eyes read his very soul, and her smile brought to it an unutterable joy. She turned and led the way to the house and Hilary followed her.
She opened her laboratory door, and immediately Hilary became aware of the strong odour of some powerful incense. The dim smoke was still in the room but the flame had all died away in the vessel. By the side of the vessel lay a prostrate figure. Hilary uttered a cry of amazement and of horror as he recognised Father Amyot He turned such a look of dismay upon the Princess that she answered his thought in a haughty tone which she had never before used in addressing him.
“It is not time yet to ask me the meaning of what you may see here. Some day, perhaps, when you know more, you may have the right to question me: but not now. See, I can change this appearance that distresses you, in a moment”.
She raised the prostrate figure, and flung off from it the white robe that resembled Father Amyot’s. Beneath, it was clothed in a dull red garment such as Hilary had first seen it in. With a few swift touches of her hand the Princess changed the expression of the face. Father Amyot was gone, and Hilary saw sitting in the chair before him that unindividualised form and face which at his visit to the laboratory had [Page 126] affected him with so much horror. The Princess saw the repugnance still in his face, and with a laugh opened the screen with which she had hidden the figure before.
“Now”, she said, “come and sit beside me on this couch”.
But before she left the great vessel she threw in more incense and lit it. Already Hilary was aware that the fumes of that which had been already burned had affected his brain. The red figures moved upon the black wall, and he watched them with fascinated eyes.
They shaped themselves together not, this time, into words, but into forms. And the wall instead of black became bright and luminous. It was as though Hilary and Fleta sat alone before an immense stage. They heard the spoken words and saw the gestures and the movements of these phantasmal actors as clearly and with as much reality as though they were creatures of flesh and blood before them. It was a drama of the passions; the chief actors were Hilary and Fleta themselves. Hilary almost forgot that the real Fleta was at his side, so absorbed was he in the action of the phantasmal Fleta.
He was bewildered, and he could not understand the meaning of what he saw, clearly though the drama was enacted in front of him. He saw the orchard full of blossoming trees; he saw the splendid savage woman. He knew that he himself and this Fleta at his side, were in some strange way playing a part under this savage guise; but how or what it was he could not tell. Fleta laughed as she watched his face. “You do not know who you are”, .she cried. “That is a great loss and makes life much more difficult. But you will know by and bye if you are willing to learn. Come, let us look at another and a very different page of life”.
The stage grew dark and moving shadows passed to and fro upon it, great shadows that filled Hilary’s soul with dread. At last they drew back and left a luminous space where Fleta herself was visible. Fleta, in this same human shape that she wore now, yet strangely changed. She was much older and yet more beautiful; there was a wonderful fire in her brilliant eyes. On her head was a crown, and Hilary saw that she had great powers to use or abuse — it was written on her face. Then something drew his eyes down and he saw a figure lying helpless at her feet — why was it so still ? — it was alive ! — yes, but it was bound and fettered, bound hand and foot.
“Are you afraid ? ” broke out Fleta’s voice with a ring of mocking laughter in it. “Surely you are not afraid — why should I not reign ? why should you not suffer ? You are a cynic; is there anything good to be expected ? ”
“Perhaps not”, said Hilary. “It may be that you are heartless and false. And yet, as I stand here now, I feel that though you may betray me by and bye, and take my life and liberty from me, yet I love your very treachery”. [Page 127]
Fleta laughed aloud, and Hilary stood silent, confused by the words he had spoken hastily without pausing to think whether they were fit to speak or not. Well, it was done now. He had spoken of his love. She could refuse ever to see him again and he would go into the outer darkness.
“No”, she said, “ I shall not send you away. Do you not know, Hilary Estanol, that you are my chosen companion ? Otherwise would you be here with me now ? The word love does not alarm me; I have heard it too often. Only I think it very meaningless. Let us put it aside for the present If you let yourself love me you must suffer; and I do not want you to suffer yet. When pain comes to you the youth will go from your face; you do not know how to preserve it, and I like your youth”.
Hilary made no answer. It was not easy to answer such a speech, and Hilary was not in the humour for accomplishing anything difficult. His brain was confused by the fumes of the incense and by the strange scenes so mysteriously enacted before his eyes. He scarcely knew what Fleta this was that stood beside him. And yet he knew he loved her though he distrusted her ! With each moment that he passed by her side he worshipped her more completely, and the disbelief interfered less and less with his proud joy in being admitted to her intimacy.
“Now”, said Fleta, “I want you to do a new thing. I want you to exercise your will and compel my servants who have been pleasing us with phantasies, to show us a phantasy of your own creation. You can do this very well, if you will. It only needs that you shall not doubt you can do it. Ah! how quickly does the act follow the thought! ” She uttered the last words with a little cry of amused pleasure. For the dim shadows had rapidly masked the stage and then again withdrawn, leaving the figure of Fleta very clearly visible, beautiful and passionate, her face alight with love, held clasped in Hilary’s arms, her lips pressed close to his.
The real Fleta who sat beside him rose now with a shake of her head, and a laugh which was not all gay. The shadows closed instantly over the stage, and a moment later the illusion was all destroyed and the solid wall was there before Hilary’s eyes. He had become so accustomed to witness the marvellous inside this room that he did not pause to wonder; he followed Fleta as she crossed to the door, and tried to attract her attention.
“Forgive me, my Princess”, he murmured over and over again.
“Oh, you are forgiven”, she said at last lightly. “You have not offended, so it is easy for me to forgive. I do not think a man can help what is in his heart; at all events, no ordinary man can. And you, Hilary, have consented to be like the rest. Are you content ? ”
“No !” he answered, instantly. And as he spoke he understood for the first time the fever that had stirred him all through his short bright [Page 128] life. “ Content! How should I be ? Moreover, is not our star the star of restlessness and action ? ”
For the first time, Fleta turned on him a glance of real tenderness and emotion. When he said the words “our star”, it seemed as if he had touched her heart.
“Ah ! ” she said, “How sorely I long for a companion ! ”
Then she turned from him very abruptly, and almost before he knew she had moved she had opened the door, and was standing outside waiting for him. “Come !” she said impatiently. He followed her immediately, for he had no choice but to do so; yet he was disappointed. He was more deeply disappointed when he found that she led the way with swift steps into the room where her aunt sat. Arrived there, Fleta threw herself into a chair, took up a great golden fan and began to fan herself, while she talked about the gossip of the Court. The change was so sudden that for some moments Hilary could not follow her. He stood bewildered, till the aunt pushed a low chair towards him; and he felt then that the old lady was not surprised at his manner, but only sorry for him. And then suddenly the cynic re-asserted itself in his heart. A thought that bit like flame suddenly started into life. Had the bewildered emotion that had been, as he knew, visible on his face, been seen on others before; was Fleta not only playing with him, but playing with him as she had played with many another lover ? The thought was more hateful than any he had ever suffered from; it wounded his vanity, which was more tender and delicate than his heart.
Fleta gave him no opportunity of anything but talk such as seemed in her stately presence too trivial to be endured, and so at last he rose and went his way. Fleta did not accompany him to the gate this time. She left him to go alone, and he felt as if she had withdrawn her favour in some degree; and yet perhaps that was foolish, he told himself, for after all, both he and she had said too much today.
Fleta was betrothed. She had been betrothed at her christening. Before long her marriage would take place; and then that crown seen in the vision would be placed on her head. Had it needed the vision to bring that fact to his mind, asked Hilary of himself? If so, ’twas time, he bitterly added, for Fleta was not a woman who was likely to give up a crown for the sake of love ! His heart rose fiercely within him as he thought of all this. Why had she tempted him to speak of love ? For surely he never would have dared to so address her had she not tempted him; so he thought.
If he could have seen Fleta now! As soon as he left the room she had risen and slowly moved back to her laboratory. Entered there, she drew away a curtain which concealed a large mirror let deep into the wall. She did this resolutely, yet as if reluctantly. Immediately her gaze became fixed on the glass. She saw Hilary’s figure within it moving on his way towards the city. She read his thoughts and his heart. At [Page 129] last she dropped the curtain with a heavy sigh, and let her arms fall at her side with a gesture that seemed to mean despair; certainly it meant deep dejection. And presently some great tears dropped upon the floor at her feet.
None, since Fleta was born, had seen her shed tears.
FATHER AMYOT on the next morning sent a message to Hilary praying him to come and see him. This Hilary did at once, and in much perplexity as to what the reason of such a summons could be. He went straight to the Cathedral, for there he knew the ascetic priest passed all his time. He found him, as he expected, prostrate before the altar, and almost in the same attitude he had seen him in yesterday. Horribly too it reminded him of the attitude of that figure lying on the floor of Fleta’s laboratory when he had entered it. He had to touch Father Amyot to attract his attention; then at once the priest rose and led the way out of the Cathedral into the cloisters, which joined it to the monastery close at hand. He went on, without speaking, his head drooped. Hilary could but follow. At last they reached a bare cell in which was no furniture but a crucifix and a perpetual lamp burning before it, and against the wall a bench.
Here Father Amyot sat down, and he motioned with his hand to Hilary to sit beside him.
Then he fell into a profound reverie; and Hilary watching him, wondered much what was in his mind. Was Fleta even now working her spells upon him and moulding his thoughts according to her will ?
It almost seemed like it for her name was the first word he uttered “The Princess Fleta”, he commenced, “is about to go upon a long and dangerous journey”.
Hilary started and turned his face away, for he knew that he had turned pale. Was she really going to leave the city! How unexpected ! how terrible!
“In a very short time”, went on Father Amyot, “the Princess will be married and she has a mission which she desires to accomplish before her wedding, and she says that you can assist her in this. It is for the fulfilment of this mission that she is undertaking the journey I speak of; supposing you should agree to help her you would have to accompany her”.
Hilary made no answer. He had no answer ready. His breath was taken away and he could not recover it all in an instant. The whole thing seemed incredible; he felt it to be impossible; and yet a conviction was already falling on him that it would take place.
“Of course”, resumed Father Amyot, seeing that Hilary was not disposed to speak, “you will want to know your errand, you will want to [Page 130] know why you are going on this journey. This it will be impossible for you to know. The Princess, does not choose to inform any one of what her errand is”.
“Not even the person whom she says can help her ?” exclaimed Hilary in amazement.
“Not even you”.
“Well”, said Hilary rising with a gesture of indignation, “let her find some one else to go blindly in her wake. I am not the man”.
So saying he walked across the cell to the doorway, forgetting even to say good-bye to Father Amyot.
But the priest’s voice arrested him
“You would travel alone, save for one attendant”.
Hilary turned and faced the priest in amazement.
“Oh, impossible ! ” he exclaimed, “ — yet it is true”.
To Hilary the cynic, the thing suddenly assumed an intelligible form. Fleta wanted to take a journey in which she would prefer a companion because of its danger; yet she could not give her confidence to any one. She proposed to herself to use his love for her; she offered him her society as a bribe to take care of her, to ask no questions and tell no tales. The idea did not please him.
“I have heard of princesses risking anything, relying on the power of their position; I have heard that the royal caprice is not to be measured by the reason of other men and women. Perhaps it is so. But Fleta ! I thought her different even from her own family”.
These were the first thoughts that came into his mind. His ready conclusion was that Fleta was willing that he should be her lover if he would be her servant also. But immediately afterwards came the fair vision of Fleta herself in her white robes, and with the face of a priestess. Her purpose was inscrutable, like herself. He confessed this as he stood there, surging doubts in his mind. And then suddenly a fragrance came across his sense — a-strong perfume, that he associated with Fleta’s dress — and next a breath of incense. His brain grew dizzy; he staggered back and leaned against the wall. He no longer appeared to himself to be in Father Amyot’s cell — he was in Fleta’s laboratory, and her hand touched his face, her breath was on his brow. Ah, what madness of joy to be with her ! To travel with her, to be her associate and companion to pass all the hours of the day by her side. Suddenly he roused himself, and, starting forward, approached Father Amyot.
“ I will go”, he said.
“It will cost you dear”, said the priest. “Think again before you decide”.
“It is useless to think”, cried Hilary. “Why should I think ? I feel — and to feel is to live”.
Father Amyot seemed not to hear his words. He was apparently already buried in prayer. Evidently he had said all that he intended to [Page 131] say; and Hilary, after a glance at him, turned and left the cell. He knew the priest’s moods too well to speak again, when once that deep cloud of profound abstraction had descended on his face.
He went away, passing back as he had come, through the Cathedral. At the high altar he paused an instant, and then knelt and murmured a prayer. It was one he had learned, and he scarce attached any meaning to the familiar words. But it comforted him to feel that he had prayed, be it never so meaningless a prayer. For Hilary had been reared in all the habits of the devout Catholic.
Then he went out and took his way towards the Garden House, walking with long strides. He was determined to know the truth, and that at once. Amid all the brilliant men who crowded her father’s Court was he indeed the only one who could touch her heart ? An hour ago he would have laughed at any one who had told him he had touched it; yet now he believed he had. And what intoxication that belief was ! For the first time he began to feel the absolute infatuation of love. And looking back it seemed to him that an hour ago he had not loved Fleta — that he had never loved her till this minute.
He found her standing at the gate, among the flowers. She was dressed in white, and some crimson roses were fastened at her neck. Her face was like a child’s, full of gaiety and gladness. Hilary’s heart bounded with the delight it gave him to see her like this. She opened the gate for him and together they walked towards the house.
“I have been to see Father Amyot”, said Hilary. “He sent for me this morning”.
“Yes”, answered Fleta, quietly. “He had a message to you from me. Are you willing to undertake a tiresome task for one you know so little ? ”
“My Princess”, murmured Hilary, bending his head as he spoke.
“But not your Queen”, said Fleta, with a laugh full of the glorious insolence only possible to one who had the royal blood in her veins, and knew that a crown was waiting for her.
“Yes, my Queen”, said Hilary.
“If you call me that”, said Fleta, quickly, and in a different tone, “you recognise a royalty not recognised by courtiers”.
“Yes”, replied Hilary simply.
“The royalty of power”, added Fleta, significantly, and with a penetrating look into his eyes.
“Call it what you will”, answered Hilary, “you are my Queen. From this hour I give allegiance”.
“Be it so”, said Fleta, with a light girlish laugh, “Be ready then, tomorrow at noon. I will tell you where to meet me. I will send a message in the morning”.
Suddenly a recollection crossed Hilary’s mind which had hitherto been blotted out from it. “My mother”, he said. [Page 132]
“Oh”, said Fleta, “ I have been to see Madame Estanol. My father goes into the country today and she believes you go with him. She is glad you should join the Court”.
“Strange”, said Hilary, unthinkingly, “for she has always set her face against it”. Then the smile on Fleta’s face made him think his words foolish.
“It is as my Queen orders. Seemingly, men and women obey her even in their inmost hearts”.
“No”, said Fleta, with a sigh, “that is just what they do not! It is that power which I have yet to obtain. They obey me, yes, but against the dictates of their inmost hearts. If you really loved me, we could obtain that power; but you are like the others. You do not love me with your inmost heart! ”
“ I do not! ” exclaimed Hilary, in amazement, stunned by her words.
“No”, she answered, mournfully, “you do not. If you really loved me you would not calculate chances and risks, you would not consider whether I am profligate or virtuous, whether I am my father’s daughter or a child of the stars ! I tell you, Hilary Estanol, if you were capable of loving me truly, you might find your way to the gods with me and even sit among them. But it is not so with you. You vacillate even in your love. You cannot give yourself utterly. That means grief to you, for you cannot find perfect pleasure in a thing which you take doubtingly and give but by halves. Still you shall travel with me; and you shall be my companion and friend. There is none other to whom I would give this chance. How do you think you will reward me? Oh, I know too well. Go now, but be ready when I send for you”.
So saying she turned and went into the house, leaving him in the garden. For a few moments he stood there embarrassed, not knowing which way to turn or what to do. But he was not annoyed or disturbed, as his vanity might have led him to be at another time, by such cavalier treatment He was aghast, horrified. Was this the girl he loved ! this tyrant, this proud spirit, this strange woman, who before he had wooed her reproached him with not loving her enough! Within him lurked a conventional spirit, strong under all circumstances, even those of the most profound emotion, and Fleta’s whole conduct shocked and distressed that spirit so that it groaned, and more, upbraided him with his mad love. But the fierce growth of that love could not be checked. He might suffer because it lived, but he was not strong enough to kill it.
He turned and walked away from the house and slowly returned to the city. He was ashamed and disheartened. His love seemed to disgrace him. He had entertained lofty ideas which now were discarded for ever. For he knew that tomorrow he would start upon a long journey, the end of which was to him unknown, by the side of a girl whom [Page 133] he could never marry, yet of whom he was the avowed lover. Well, be it so. Hilary began to look at these things from a fatalistic point of view; his weakness led him to shrug his shoulders and say that his fate was stronger than himself. So he went home gloomily yet with a burning and feverish heart. He immediately set to work making ready for his departure for an indefinite period. His mother he found was prepared for this, as Fleta had told him; and more — seemed to regard Fleta as a kind of gentle goddess who had brought good fortune into his path.
“I have always resisted the idea of your hanging about the Court”, she said, “but it is different if indeed the King wishes to have you with him. That must lead to your obtaining some honourable post. What I dreaded was your becoming a mere useless idler. And I am glad you are going into the country, dear,.for you are looking very pale and quite ill”.
Hilary assented tacitly and without comment to the deceit with which Fleta had paved the way for him.
(To be continued.)