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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAyesha - Chapter XIII - BENEATH THE SHADOWING WINGS
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Ayesha - Chapter XIII - BENEATH THE SHADOWING WINGS Post by :freddyx Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :May 2011 Read :825

Click below to download : Ayesha - Chapter XIII - BENEATH THE SHADOWING WINGS (Format : PDF)

Ayesha - Chapter XIII - BENEATH THE SHADOWING WINGS

One by one the terrified tribesmen crept away. When the last of them
were gone the priest advanced to Leo and saluted him by placing his
hand upon his forehead.

"Lord," he said, in the same corrupt Grecian dialect which was used by
the courtiers of Kaloon, "I will not ask if you are hurt, since from
the moment that you entered the sacred river and set foot within this
land you and your companion were protected by a power invisible and
could not be harmed by man or spirit, however great may have seemed
your danger. Yet vile hands have been laid upon you, and this is the
command of the Mother whom I serve, that, if you desire it, every one
of those men who touched you shall die before your eyes. Say, is that
your will?"

"Nay," answered Leo; "they were mad and blind, let no blood be shed
for /us/. All we ask of you, friend--but, how are you called?"

"Name me Oros," he answered.

"Friend Oros--a good title for one who dwells upon the Mountain--all
we ask is food and shelter, and to be led swiftly into the presence of
her whom you name Mother, that Oracle whose wisdom we have travelled
far to seek."

He bowed and answered: "The food and shelter are prepared and
to-morrow, when you have rested, I am commanded to conduct you whither
you desire to be. Follow me, I pray you"; and he preceded us past the
fiery pit to a building that stood about fifty yards away against the
rock wall of the amphitheatre.

It would seem that it was a guest-house, or at least had been made
ready to serve that purpose, as in it lamps were lit and a fire
burned, for here the air was cold. The house was divided into two
rooms, the second of them a sleeping place, to which he led us through
the first.

"Enter," he said, "for you will need to cleanse yourselves, and you"--
here he addressed himself to me--"to be treated for that hurt to your
arm which you had from the jaws of the great hound."

"How know you that?" I asked.

"It matters not if I do know and have made ready," Oros answered
gravely.

This second room was lighted and warmed like the first, moreover,
heated water stood in basins of metal and on the beds were laid clean
linen garments and dark-coloured hooded robes, lined with rich fur.
Also upon a little table were ointments, bandages, and splints, a
marvellous thing to see, for it told me that the very nature of my
hurt had been divined. But I asked no more questions; I was too weary;
moreover, I knew that it would be useless.

Now the priest Oros helped me to remove my tattered robe, and, undoing
the rough bandages upon my arm, washed it gently with warm water, in
which he mixed some spirit, and examined it with the skill of a
trained doctor.

"The fangs rent deep," he said, "and the small bone is broken, but you
will take no harm, save for the scars which must remain." Then, having
treated the wounds with ointment, he wrapped the limb with such a
delicate touch that it scarcely pained me, saying that by the morrow
the swelling would have gone down and he would set the bone. This
indeed happened.

After it was done he helped me to wash and to clothe myself in the
clean garments, and put a sling about my neck to serve as a rest for
my arm. Meanwhile Leo had also dressed himself, so that we left the
chamber together very different men to the foul, blood-stained
wanderers who had entered there. In the outer room we found food
prepared for us, of which we ate with a thankful heart and without
speaking. Then, blind with weariness, we returned to the other chamber
and, having removed our outer garments, flung ourselves upon the beds
and were soon plunged in sleep.

At some time in the night I awoke suddenly, at what hour I do not
know, as certain people wake, I among them, when their room is
entered, even without the slightest noise. Before I opened my eyes I
felt that some one was with us in the place. Nor was I mistaken. A
little lamp still burned in the chamber, a mere wick floating in oil,
and by its light I saw a dim, ghost-like form standing near the door.
Indeed I thought almost that it was a ghost, till presently I
remembered, and knew it for our corpse-like guide, who appeared to be
looking intently at the bed on which Leo lay, or so I thought, for the
head was bent in that direction.

At first she was quite still, then she moaned aloud, a low and
terrible moan, which seemed to well from the very heart.

So the thing was not dumb, as I had believed. Evidently it could
suffer, and express its suffering in a human fashion. Look! it was
wringing its padded hands as in an excess of woe. Now it would seem
that Leo began to feel its influence also, for he stirred and spoke in
his sleep, so low at first that I could only distinguish the tongue he
used, which was Arabic. Presently I caught a few words.

"Ayesha," he said, "/Ayesha!/"

The figure glided towards him and stopped. He sat up in the bed still
fast asleep, for his eyes were shut. He stretched out his arms, as
though seeking one whom he would embrace, and spoke again in a low and
passionate voice--

"Ayesha, through life and death I have sought thee long. Come to me,
my goddess, my desired."

The figure glided yet nearer, and I could see that it was trembling,
and now its arms were extended also.

At the bedside she halted, and Leo laid himself down again. Now the
coverings had fallen back, exposing his breast, where lay the leather
satchel he always wore, that which contained the lock of Ayesha's
hair. He was fast asleep, and the figure seemed to fix its eyes upon
this satchel. Presently it did more, for, with surprising deftness
those white-wrapped fingers opened its clasp, yes, and drew out the
long tress of shining hair. Long and earnestly she gazed at it, then
gently replaced the relic, closed the satchel and for a little while
seemed to weep. While she stood thus the dreaming Leo once more
stretched out his arms and spoke, saying, in the same passion-laden
voice--

"Come to me, my darling, my beautiful, my beautiful!"

At those words, with a little muffled scream, like that of a scared
night-bird, the figure turned and flitted through the doorway.

When I was quite certain that she had gone, I gasped aloud.

What might this mean, I wondered, in a very agony of bewilderment.
This could certainly be no dream: it was real, for I was wide awake.
Indeed, what did it all mean? Who was the ghastly, mummy-like thing
which had guided us unharmed through such terrible dangers; the
Messenger that all men feared, who could strike down a brawny savage
with a motion of its hand? Why did it creep into the place thus at
dead of night, like a spirit revisiting one beloved? Why did its
presence cause me to awake and Leo to dream? Why did it draw out the
tress; indeed, how knew it that this tress was hidden there? And why--
oh! why, at those tender and passionate words did it flit away at last
like some scared bat?

The priest Oros had called our guide Minister, and Sword, that is, one
who carries out decrees. But what if they were its own decrees? What
if this thing should be she whom we sought, /Ayesha herself?/ Why
should I tremble at the thought, seeing that if so, our quest was
ended, we had achieved? Oh! it must be because about this being there
was something terrible, something un-human and appalling. If Ayesha
lived within those mummy-cloths, then it was a different Ayesha whom
we had known and worshipped. Well could I remember the white-draped
form of /She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed/, and how, long before she revealed
her glorious face to us, we guessed the beauty and the majesty hidden
beneath that veil by which her radiant life and loveliness incarnate
could not be disguised.

But what of this creature? I would not pursue the thought. I was
mistaken. Doubtless she was what the priest Oros had said--some half-
supernatural being to whom certain powers were given, and, doubtless,
she had come to spy on us in our rest that she might make report to
the giver of those powers.

Comforting myself thus I fell asleep again, for fatigue overcame even
such doubts and fears. In the morning, when they were naturally less
vivid, I made up my mind that, for various reasons, it would be wisest
to say nothing of what I had seen to Leo. Nor, indeed, did I do so
until some days had gone by.

When I awoke the full light was pouring into the chamber, and by it I
saw the priest Oros standing at my bedside. I sat up and asked him
what time it was, to which he answered with a smile, but in a low
voice, that it lacked but two hours of mid-day, adding that he had
come to set my arm. Now I saw why he spoke low, for Leo was still fast
asleep.

"Let him rest on," he said, as he undid the wrappings on my arm, "for
he has suffered much, and," he continued significantly, "may still
have more to suffer."

"What do you mean, friend Oros?" I asked sharply. "I thought you told
us that we were safe upon this Mountain."

"I told you, friend----" and he looked at me.

"Holly is my name----"

"--friend Holly, that your bodies are safe. I said nothing of all the
rest of you. Man is more than flesh and blood. He is mind and spirit
as well, and these can be injured also."

"Who is there that would injure them?" I asked.

"Friend," he answered, gravely, "you and your companion have come to a
haunted land, not as mere wanderers, for then you would be dead ere
now, but of set purpose, seeking to lift the veil from mysteries which
have been hid for ages. Well, your aim is known and it may chance that
it will be achieved. But if this veil is lifted, it may chance also
that you will find what shall send your souls shivering to despair and
madness. Say, are you not afraid?"

"Somewhat," I answered. "Yet my foster-son and I have seen strange
things and lived. We have seen the very Light of Life roll by in
majesty; we have been the guests of an Immortal, and watched Death
seem to conquer her and leave us untouched. Think you then that we
will turn cowards now? Nay, we march on to fulfil our destinies."

At these words Oros showed neither curiosity nor surprise; it was as
though I told him only what he knew.

"Good," he replied, smiling, and with a courteous bow of his shaven
head, "within an hour you shall march on--to fulfil your destinies. If
I have warned you, forgive me, for I was bidden so to do, perhaps to
try your mettle. Is it needful that I should repeat this warning to
the lord----" and again he looked at me.

"Leo Vincey," I said.

"Leo Vincey, yes, Leo Vincey," he repeated, as though the name were
familiar to him but had slipped his mind. "But you have not answered
my question. Is it needful that I should repeat the warning?"

"Not in the least; but you can do so if you wish when he awakes."

"Nay, I think with you, that it would be but waste of words, for--
forgive the comparison;--what the wolf dares"--and he looked at me--
"the tiger does not flee from," and he nodded towards Leo. "There, see
how much better are the wounds upon your arm, which is no longer
swollen. Now I will bandage it, and within some few weeks the bone
will be as sound again as it was before you met the Khan Rassen
hunting in the Plains. By the way, you will see him again soon, and
his fair wife with him."

"See him again? Do the dead, then, come to life upon this Mountain?"

"Nay, but certain of them are brought hither for burial. It is the
privilege of the rulers of Kaloon; also, I think, that the Khania has
questions to ask of its Oracle."

"Who is its Oracle?" I asked with eagerness.

"The Oracle," he replied darkly, "is a Voice. It was ever so, was it
not?"

"Yes; I have heard that from Atene, but a voice implies a speaker. Is
this speaker she whom you name Mother?"

"Perhaps, friend Holly."

"And is this Mother a spirit?"

"It is a point that has been much debated. They told you so in the
Plains, did they not? Also the Tribes think it on the Mountain.
Indeed, the thing seems reasonable, seeing that all of us who live are
flesh and spirit. But you will form your own judgment and then we can
discuss the matter. There, your arm is finished. Be careful now not to
strike it or to fall, and look, your companion awakes."

Something over an hour later we started upon our upward journey. I was
again mounted on the Khan's horse, which having been groomed and fed
was somewhat rested, while to Leo a litter had been offered. This he
declined, however, saying that he had now recovered and would not be
carried like a woman. So he walked by the side of my horse, using his
spear as a staff. We passed the fire-pit--now full of dead, white
ashes, among which were mixed those of the witch-finder and his
horrible cat--preceded by our dumb guide, at the sight of whom, in her
pale wrappings, the people of the tribe who had returned to their
village prostrated themselves, and so remained until she was gone by.

One of them, however, rose again and, breaking through our escort of
priests, ran to Leo, knelt before him and kissed his hand. It was that
young woman whose life he had saved, a noble-looking girl, with masses
of red hair, and by her was her husband, the marks of his bonds still
showing on his arms. Our guide seemed to see this incident, though how
she did so I do not know. At any rate she turned and made some sign
which the priest interpreted.

Calling the woman to him he asked her sternly how she dared to touch
the person of this stranger with her vile lips. She answered that it
was because her heart was grateful. Oros said that for this reason she
was forgiven; moreover, that in reward for what they had suffered he
was commanded to lift up her husband to be the ruler of that tribe
during the pleasure of the Mother. He gave notice, moreover, that all
should obey the new chief in his place, according to their customs,
and if he did any evil, make report that he might suffer punishment.
Then waving the pair aside, without listening to their thanks or the
acclamations of the crowd, he passed on.

As we went down the ravine by which we had approached the village on
the previous night, a sound of chanting struck our ears. Presently the
path turned, and we saw a solemn procession advancing up that dismal,
sunless gorge. At the head of it rode none other than the beautiful
Khania, followed by her great-uncle, the old Shaman, and after these
came a company of shaven priests in their white robes, bearing between
them a bier, upon which, its face uncovered, lay the body of the Khan,
draped in a black garment. Yet he looked better thus than he had ever
done, for now death had touched this insane and dissolute man with
something of the dignity which he lacked in life.

Thus then we met. At the sight of our guide's white form, the horse
which the Khania rode reared up so violently that I thought it would
have thrown her. But she mastered the animal with her whip and voice,
and called out--

"Who is this draped hag of the Mountain that stops the path of the
Khania Atene and her dead lord? My guests, I find you in ill company,
for it seems that you are conducted by an evil spirit to meet an evil
fate. That guide of yours must surely be something hateful and
hideous, for were she a wholesome woman she would not fear to show her
face."

Now the Shaman plucked his mistress by the sleeve, and the priest
Oros, bowing to her, prayed her to be silent and cease to speak such
ill-omened words into the air, which might carry them she knew not
whither. But some instinctive hate seemed to bubble up in Atene, and
she would not be silent, for she addressed our guide using the direct
"thou," a manner of speech that we found was very usual on the
Mountain though rare upon the Plains.

"Let the air carry them whither it will," she cried. "Sorceress, strip
off thy rags, fit only for a corpse too vile to view. Show us what
thou art, thou flitting night-owl, who thinkest to frighten me with
that livery of death, which only serves to hide the death within."

"Cease, I pray lady, cease," said Oros, stirred for once out of his
imperturbable calm. "She is the Minister, none other, and with her
goes the Power."

"Then it goes not against Atene, Khania of Kaloon," she answered, "or
so I think. Power, forsooth! Let her show her power. If she has any it
is not her own, but that of the Witch of the Mountain, who feigns to
be a spirit, and by her sorceries has drawn away my guests"--and she
pointed to us--"thus bringing my husband to his death."

"Niece, be silent!" said the old Shaman, whose wrinkled face was white
with terror, whilst Oros held up his hands as though in supplication
to some unseen Strength, saying--

"O thou that hearest and seest, be merciful, I beseech thee, and
forgive this woman her madness, lest the blood of a guest should stain
the hands of thy servants, and the ancient honour of our worship be
brought low in the eyes of men."

Thus he prayed, but although his hands were uplifted, it seemed to me
that his eyes were fixed upon our guide, as ours were. While he spoke,
I saw her hand raised, as she had raised it when she slew or rather
sentenced the witchdoctor. Then she seemed to reflect, and stayed it
in mid air, so that it pointed at the Khania. She did not move, she
made no sound, only she pointed, and, the angry words died upon
Atene's lips, the fury left her eyes, and the colour her face. Yes,
she grew white and silent as the corpse upon the bier behind her.
Then, cowed by that invisible power, she struck her horse so fiercely
that it bounded by us onward towards the village, at which the funeral
company were to rest awhile.

As the Shaman Simbri followed the Khania, the priest Oros caught his
horse's bridle and said to him--

"Magician, we have met before, for instance, when your lady's father
was brought to his funeral. Warn her, then, you that know something of
the truth and of her power to speak more gently of the ruler of this
land. Say to her, from me, that had she not been the ambassadress of
death, and, therefore, inviolate, surely ere now she would have shared
her husband's bier. Farewell, tomorrow we will speak again," and,
loosing the Shaman's bridle, Oros passed on.

Soon we had left the melancholy procession behind us and, issuing from
the gorge, turned up the Mountain slope towards the edge of the bright
snows that lay not far above. It was as we came out of this darksome
valley, where the overhanging pine trees almost eclipsed the light,
that suddenly we missed our guide.

"Has she gone back to--to reason with the Khania?" I asked of Oros.

"Nay!" he answered, with a slight smile, "I think that she has gone
forward to give warning that the Hesea's guests draw near."

"Indeed," I answered, staring hard at the bare slope of mountain, up
which not a mouse could have passed without being seen. "I
understand--she has gone forward," and the matter dropped. But what I
did /not/ understand was--how she had gone. As the Mountain was
honeycombed with caves and galleries, I suppose, however, that she
entered one of them.

All the rest of that day we marched upwards, gradually drawing nearer
to the snow-line, as we went gathering what information we could from
the priest Oros. This was the sum of it--

From the beginning of the world, as he expressed it, that is, from
thousands and thousands of years ago, this Mountain had been the home
of a peculiar fire-worship, of which the head heirophant was a woman.
About twenty centuries before, however, the invading general named
Rassen, had made himself Khan of Kaloon. Rassen established a new
priestess on the Mountain, a worshipper of the Egyptian goddess, Hes,
or Isis. This priestess had introduced certain modifications in the
ancient doctrines, superseding the cult of fire, pure and simple, by a
new faith, which, while holding to some of the old ceremonies, revered
as its head the Spirit of Life or Nature, of whom they looked upon
their priestess as the earthly representative.

Of this priestess Oros would only tell us that she was "ever present,"
although we gathered that when one priestess died or was "taken to the
fire," as he put it, her child, whether in fact or by adoption,
succeeded her and was known by the same names, those of "Hes" or the
"Hesea" and "Mother." We asked if we should see this Mother, to which
he answered that she manifested herself very rarely. As to her
appearance and attributes he would say nothing, except that the former
changed from time to time and that when she chose to use it she had
"all power."

The priests of her College, he informed us, numbered three hundred,
never more nor less, and there were also three hundred priestesses.
Certain of those who desired it were allowed to marry, and from among
their children were reared up the new generation of priests and
priestesses. Thus they were a people apart from all others, with
distinct racial characteristics. This, indeed, was evident, for our
escort were all exceedingly like to each other, very handsome and
refined in appearance, with dark eyes, clean-cut features and olive-
hued skins; such a people as might well have descended from Easterns
of high blood, with a dash of that of the Egyptians and Greeks thrown
in.

We asked him whether the mighty looped pillar that towered from the
topmost cup of the Mountain was the work of men. He answered, No; the
hand of Nature had fashioned it, and that the light shining through it
came from the fires which burned in the crater of the volcano. The
first priestess, having recognized in this gigantic column the
familiar Symbol of Life of the Egyptian worship, established her
altars beneath its shadow.

For the rest, the Mountain with its mighty slopes and borderlands was
peopled by a multitude of half-savage folk, who accepted the rule of
the Hesea, bringing her tribute of all things necessary, such as food
and metals. Much of the meat and grain however the priests raised
themselves on sheltered farms, and the metals they worked with their
own hands. This rule, however, was of a moral nature, since for
centuries the College had sought no conquests and the Mother contented
herself with punishing crime in some such fashion as we had seen. For
the petty wars between the Tribes and the people of the Plain they
were not responsible, and those chiefs who carried them on were
deposed, unless they had themselves been attacked. All the Tribes,
however, were sworn to the defence of the Hesea and the College, and,
however much they might quarrel amongst themselves, if need arose,
were ready to die for her to the last man. That war must one day break
out again between the priests of the Mountain and the people of Kaloon
was recognized; therefore they endeavoured to be prepared for that
great and final struggle.

Such was the gist of his history, which, as we learned afterwards,
proved to be true in every particular.

Towards sundown we came to a vast cup extending over many thousand
acres, situated beneath the snow-line of the peak and filled with rich
soil washed down, I suppose, from above. So sheltered was the place by
its configuration and the over-hanging mountain that, facing south-
west as it did, notwithstanding its altitude it produced corn and
other temperate crops in abundance. Here the College had its farms,
and very well cultivated these seemed to be. This great cup, which
could not be seen from below, we entered through a kind of natural
gateway, that might be easily defended against a host.

There were other peculiarities, but it is not necessary to describe
them further than to say that I think the soil benefited by the
natural heat of the volcano, and that when this erupted, as happened
occasionally, the lava streams always passed to the north and south of
the cup of land. Indeed, it was these lava streams that had built up
the protecting cliffs.

Crossing the garden-like lands, we came to a small town beautifully
built of lava rock. Here dwelt the priests, except those who were on
duty, no man of the Tribes or other stranger being allowed to set foot
within the place.

Following the main street of this town, we arrived at the face of the
precipice beyond, and found ourselves in front of a vast archway,
closed with massive iron gates fantastically wrought. Here, taking my
horse with them, our escort left us alone with Oros. As we drew near
the great gates swung back upon their hinges. We passed them--with
what sensations I cannot describe--and groped our way down a short
corridor which ended in tall, iron-covered doors. These also rolled
open at our approach, and next instant we staggered back amazed and
half-blinded by the intense blaze of light within.

Imagine, you who read, the nave of the vastest cathedral with which
you are acquainted. Then double or treble its size, and you will have
some conception of that temple in which we found ourselves. Perhaps in
the beginning it had been a cave, who can say? but now its sheer
walls, its multitudinous columns springing to the arched roof far
above us, had all been worked on and fashioned by the labour of men
long dead; doubtless the old fire-worshippers of thousands of years
ago.

You will wonder how so great a place was lighted, but I think that
never would you guess. Thus--by twisted columns of living flame! I
counted eighteen of them, but there may have been others. They sprang
from the floor at regular intervals along the lines of what in a
cathedral would be the aisles. Right to the roof they sprang, of even
height and girth, so fierce was the force of the natural gas that
drove them, and there were lost, I suppose, through chimneys bored in
the thickness of the rock. Nor did they give off smell or smoke, or in
that great, cold place, any heat which could be noticed, only an
intense white light like that of molten iron, and a sharp hissing
noise as of a million angry snakes.

The huge temple was utterly deserted, and, save for this sybilant,
pervading sound, utterly silent; an awesome, an overpowering place.

"Do these candles of yours ever go out?" asked Leo of Oros, placing
his hand before his dazzled eyes.

"How can they," replied the priest, in his smooth, matter-of-fact
voice, "seeing that they rise from the eternal fire which the builders
of this hall worshipped? Thus they have burned from the beginning, and
thus they will burn for ever, though, if we wish it, we can shut off
their light.(*) Be pleased to follow me: you will see greater things."

(*) This, as I ascertained afterwards, was done by thrusting a broad
stone of great thickness over the apertures through which the gas
or fire rushed and thus cutting off the air. These stones were
worked to and fro by means of pulleys connected with iron rods.--
L. H. H.

So in awed silence we followed, and, oh! how small and miserable we
three human beings looked alone in that vast temple illuminated by
this lightning radiance. We reached the end of it at length, only to
find that to right and left ran transepts on a like gigantic scale and
lit in the same amazing fashion. Here Oros bade us halt, and we waited
a little while, till presently, from either transept arose a sound of
chanting, and we perceived two white-robed processions advancing
towards us from their depths.

On they came, very slowly, and we saw that the procession to the right
was a company of priests, and that to the left a company of
priestesses, a hundred or so of them in all.

Now the men ranged themselves in front of us, while the women ranged
themselves behind, and at a signal from Oros, all of them still
chanting some wild and thrilling hymn, once more we started forward,
this time along a narrow gallery closed at the end with double wooden
doors. As our procession reached these they opened, and before us lay
the crowning wonder of this marvellous fane, a vast, ellipse-shaped
apse. Now we understood. The plan of the temple was the plan of the
looped pillar which stood upon the brow of the Peak, and as we rightly
guessed, its dimensions were the same.

At intervals around this ellipse the fiery columns flared, but
otherwise the place was empty.

No, not quite, for at the head of the apse, almost between two of the
flame columns, stood a plain, square altar of the size of a small
room, in front of which, as we saw when we drew nearer, were hung
curtains of woven silver thread. On this altar was placed a large
statue of silver, that, backed as it was by the black rock, seemed to
concentrate and reflect from its burnished surface the intense light
of the two blazing pillars.

It was a lovely thing, but to describe it is hard indeed. The figure,
which was winged, represented a draped woman of mature years, and pure
but gracious form, half hidden by the forward-bending wings. Sheltered
by these, yet shown between them, appeared the image of a male child,
clasped to its bearer's breast with her left arm, while the right was
raised toward the sky. A study of Motherhood, evidently, but how shall
I write of all that was conveyed by those graven faces?

To begin with the child. It was that of a sturdy boy, full of health
and the joy of life. Yet he had been sleeping, and in his sleep some
terror had over-shadowed him with the dark shades of death and evil.
There was fear in the lines of his sweet mouth and on the lips and
cheeks, that seemed to quiver. He had thrown his little arm about his
mother's neck, and, pressing close against her breast, looked up to
her for safety, his right hand and outstretched finger pointing
downwards and behind him, as though to indicate whence the danger
came. Yet it was passing, already half-forgotten, for the upturned
eyes expressed confidence renewed, peace of soul attained.

And the mother. She did not seem to mock or chide his fears, for her
lovely face was anxious and alert. Yet upon it breathed a very
atmosphere of unchanging tenderness and power invincible; care for the
helpless, strength to shelter it from every harm. The great, calm eyes
told their story, the parted lips were whispering some tale of hope,
sure and immortal; the raised hand revealed whence that hope arose.
All love seemed to be concentrated in the brooding figure, so human,
yet so celestial; all heaven seemed to lie an open path before those
quivering wings. And see, the arching instep, the upward-springing
foot, suggested that thither those wings were bound, bearing their
God-given burden far from the horror of the earth, deep into the bosom
of a changeless rest above.

The statue was only that of an affrighted child in its mother's arms;
its interpretation made clear even to the dullest by the simple
symbolism of some genius--Humanity saved by the Divine.

While we gazed at its enchanting beauty, the priests and priestesses,
filing away to right and left, arranged themselves alternately, first
a man and then a woman, within the ring of the columns of fire that
burned around the loop-shaped shrine. So great was its circumference
that the whole hundred of them must stand wide apart one from another,
and, to our sight, resembled little lonely children clad in gleaming
garments, while their chant of worship reached us only like echoes
thrown from a far precipice. In short, the effect of this holy shrine
and its occupants was superb yet overwhelming, at least I know that it
filled me with a feeling akin to fear.

Oros waited till the last priest had reached his appointed place. Then
he turned and said, in his gentle, reverent tones--

"Draw nigh, now, O Wanderers well-beloved, and give greeting to the
Mother," and he pointed towards the statue.

"Where is she?" asked Leo, in a whisper, for here we scarcely dared to
speak aloud. "I see no one."

"The Hesea dwells yonder," he answered, and, taking each of us by the
hand, he led us forward across the great emptiness of the apse to the
altar at its head.

As we drew near the distant chant of the priests gathered in volume,
assuming a glad, triumphant note, and it seemed to me--though this,
perhaps was fancy--that the light from the twisted columns of flame
grew even brighter.

At length we were there, and, Oros, loosing our hands, prostrated
himself thrice before the altar. Then he rose again, and, falling
behind us, stood in silence with bent head and folded fingers. We
stood silent also, our hearts filled with mingled hope and fear like a
cup with wine.

Were our labours ended? Had we found her whom we sought, or were we,
perchance, but enmeshed in the web of some marvellous mummery and
about to make acquaintance with the secret of another new and mystical
worship? For years and years we had searched, enduring every hardness
of flesh and spirit that man can suffer, and now we were to learn
whether we had endured in vain. Yes, and Leo would learn if the
promise was to be fulfilled to him, or whether she whom he adored had
become but a departed dream to be sought for only beyond the gate of
Death. Little wonder that he trembled and turned white in the agony of
that great suspense.

Long, long was the time. Hours, years, ages, aeons, seemed to flow
over us as we stood there before glittering silver curtains that hid
the front of the black altar beneath the mystery of the sphinx-like
face of the glorious image which was its guardian, clothed with that
frozen smile of eternal love and pity. All the past went before us as
we struggled in those dark waters of our doubt. Item by item, event by
event, we rehearsed the story which began in the Caves of Kor, for our
thoughts, so long attuned, were open to each other and flashed from
soul to soul.

Oh! now we knew, they were open also to /another/ soul. We could see
nothing save the Altar and the Effigy, we could only hear the slow
chant of the priests and priestesses and the snake-like hiss of the
rushing fires. Yet we knew that our hearts were as an open book to One
who watched beneath the Mother's shadowing wings.

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Now the curtains were open. Before us appeared a chamber hollowed fromthe thickness of the altar, and in its centre a throne, and on thethrone a figure clad in waves of billowy white flowing from the headover the arms of the throne down to its marble steps. We could see nomore in the comparative darkness of that place, save that beneath thefolds of the drapery the Oracle held in its hand a loop-shaped,jewelled sceptre.Moved by some impulse, we did as Oros had done, prostrating ourselves,and there remained upon our knees. At length we heard a tinkling as oflittle bells, and, looking
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"He is gone," I panted, "and the world hasn't lost much.""Well, it didn't give him much, did it, poor devil, so don't let'sspeak ill of him," answered Leo, who had thrown himself exhausted tothe ground. "Perhaps he was all right before they made him mad. At anyrate he had pluck, for I don't want to tackle such another.""How did you manage it?" I asked."Dodged in beneath his sword, closed with him, threw him and smashedhim up over that lump of stone. Sheer strength, that's all. A cruelbusiness, but it was his life or mine, and there you are. It's lucky Ifinished
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