WHY are the clouds so low, so heavy? Why do the leaves whisper on the branches as though they were afraid? Why does such a hush lie over the great forest as though some wild wailing woe were to rise from out its shadows and spread over the earth?
Why are the walls of the old castle so grey and forbidding, and the lake that imprisons it so bleak and dark, seeming to hide mysteries that no voice dare relate? And why, Oh! why, does the sunlight creep across the old, old stones as though afraid of lingering there? The lines of gold that it throws slanting over the water, that timidly it paints round the close-shuttered windows seem intruders out of a gladder world, that dare not linger in this place of gloom.
Out of the depths of the lake bubbles rise in places and hover over the surface like huge staring eyes that are seeking some long lost happiness which one day must return to this haunt of desolation.
A moan rises from the bottom and the moss-coated walls reflect their ancient thickness within its mirror that stares up at them, an eternal question hovering over its face.
And why is the step of the wanderer that crosses the drawbridge so anxious, so slow, so tired, why is his cloak torn and soiled, why are his eyes hollow and haunted as though they were two dark gates to some hidden terror they can never forget . . . why does he press his hand to his heart like as if a pain were piercing it, and oh! can ye tell me, is it the face of a youth or is it the face of one who has seen all too much and whose spring-time lies far behind him? Tell me, is it a stranger coming to an unknown place, or is it a traveller returning after some dreadful journey of which he will never dare speak to anyone?
Why does he stare up at all the windows with a look of longing? Let his gaze run along the silent row till at last one he descries, of which the shutters are open, and that like a black hole gapes out of the mouldy wall into the bleak daylight?
The still waters enclose the old building with a mighty embrace, with a strange sucking sound they kiss its foundation, and seem to hold it fast with a love that has turned to cruelty, longing to destroy what it cannot overcome.
But the wanderer is still standing on the draw-bridge, his eyes are fixed upon the open window, his haggard face is full of longing; yet he seems so tired, as though his steps could carry him no further.
He bares his head and sinks upon his knees—is it a prayer that he is murmuring? Or has some deep woe overcome him there upon the bridge, above the gurgling uncanny water which stares up at him without sympathy, without sending him any sound of greeting or encouragement?
But why does a small sun-ray pierce the clouds and stray lovingly over the stranger's head, why does it linger as though searching amidst his curls the golden colour that used once to vie with its light? Is it because clouds of dust have deadened its shine, have tarnished its glow, have mixed amongst its thickness, that the little sun-ray seeks in vain, and that sadly it withdraws its kindly gleam, leaving the praying man alone with the emotion that overwhelms him?
Why does no face look from the one open window? Why does no voice break the great silence with a cry of welcome? Why is it thus that the man returns to this door? Oh! Why?
Why is the house so still, so ghostly? Why do the stranger's steps echo through the void as though long-stilled voices were calling him back, protesting against his advance, asking him to go no further, not to disturb the heavy peace that lies over everything, not to call forth sleeping spirits that might awake to suffering.
Why is it that both fear and joy light the man's eyes as he presses forward, mounts one step after another, his fatigue overcome, his tread light and hurried?
All around him the walls are of stone, they seem damp, a dense growth lies over them like soft grey moss, velvety, the colour of mildew; the light is so faint that the granite stairs can hardly be discerned, but the man walks without hesitation. Does he perchance know his way?
A curious mist lies in the air, hovering through space like a fog rising from off the sea . . . . . and can it be possible! . . . . . When the man pauses, can it really be the sound of many waters that rises up from where he stands listening?
A soft whispering gurgle, a rippling as of a tide licking faintly but continually against some obstacle, like the far-off murmurs of a crowd kept at bay by some invincible barrier.
Why is it all so strange, so haunted, so full of mystery? But why, is there no fear in the face of the wanderer? Why does he stand listening as to voices he remembers, and that are pleasant to his ears, instead of filling him with dread? He leans over the parapet and somewhere very far beneath, as though he were gazing down a deep well, he discovers an almost imperceptible gleam that indicates the surface of something very -dark and very still, but that nevertheless moves, that seems either mounting or flowing slowly, slowly, with sluggish hesitation into some unknown channel.
The man straightens himself and looks about him, his eyes have got accustomed to the dark, and certainly this is the strangest abode ever built. Above him great arches rise and seem to end in mist, and the weird grey vapour floats over everything, softening all angles, toning down each edge, each corner, filling the place with a dream-like appearance, rendering it unreal, spectral, uncanny, as though at any moment it could dissolve into nothing! And the great stairs before him seem to mount into the clouds. . . . .
Surely such a dismal haunted dwelling cannot be inhabited! No one would dare to live above that dark shaft, where eternal waters lie crouching like dusky foes awaiting some victim that surely one day will be their prey . . . . .
Is it the floods beneath that seem to be calling, to be relating a weird tale of ancient woes that were best forgotten, or is this the lone haunt of spirits returning from other worlds, disturbed by this human step that has cone amongst them, or is the man himself a ghost amongst ghosts?
Oh! why does he pause there? How can he bear such surroundings? Why does he not run down again, happy to escape, happy to shake off this atmosphere of ghastly mystery? Why does such a strange smile hover over his lips?
The man has his ear pressed against a close-shut door. He has closed his eyes, for intently he is listening; the wild beat of his heart makes the folds of his tunic shake, his face is pale, ghastly, his brows are knit, his lips are dry.
Why does he stand there? Why does he not enter? For what is he waiting? Is he afraid? . . . .
No sound reaches him, no voice is talking on the other side, yet he does not move but stands rooted to the spot, whilst some overpowering emotion sweeps through him and makes him tremble. The hand that is laid on the latch grips it with the gesture of one who has reached his goal at last, but who dares not take possession of what he has come so far to claim. Under his cloak his other hand presses something to his heart, something precious no doubt, for carefully does he conceal it.
At his feet the stairs run downwards like a dim path leading into the underworld. Above, the mists have gathered and hide the high vault, and also from beneath him they mount like steam out of sonic giant cauldron. The stranger stands between the vapours that are drawn like a veil over the way he has come, and mask the way that he still might take.
At last he presses down the handle, and slowly pushes the door. Now he is on the threshold, but again he pauses, his breath comes fast, as though he had run too quickly, he leans against the wall and passes his hand over his eyes, presses his fingers to his temples; his forehead is damp, all strength seems to have gone from his limbs.
But now he makes a step forward, he has crossed the threshold, he is in the room, he lets the door fall to behind him—it shuts with a dull sound of finality.
Silence . . . . .
The stranger's heart-beats alone fill his ears; for a moment he stands with lowered head, then he stares about him.
Why is the look he casts so full of expectation, why does he draw himself up to his full height, straightening his shoulders, smoothing down his dusty apparel, and passing his hands over his locks? Is it into some royal presence that he is going, is he a messenger returning from far to his sovereign? Is he the bearer of unknown tidings?
Here too, strange bluish fumes lie over the place, but they are less thick, they resemble delicate filmy veils, they circle around as though some mighty draught were drawing them all the same way. A sweet perfume is wafted into the man's face, the smell of incense mixed with the delicate odour of flowers.
The man breathes deeply, and once more closes his eyes; he inhales the scented air whilst remembrance seems to pour in upon him in a great wave of delight. He stretches out both hands and, with a low cry, springs forward . . . . . This is, without doubt, known ground to him, he needs no clear light to see his way. Through the gloom he advances; it is a low vaulted gallery into which he has penetrated, he runs along, his steps echo behind him like mocking voices.
Now he has reached a strange low chamber, all in stone, grey and mysterious, the colour of smoke, the colour of distance, the colour of insects' wings in the gloaming, the colour of steam, impalpable, illusive, indefinable . . . . .
The place is dim, full of shadow, and yet a faint gleam shines from somewhere.
The room is empty . . . . . surely the room is empty? But then what is that strange figure that sits quite still? Is it a wraith? A spirit formed out of mists? Is it a statue? An idol, a goddess? Why does it not move, why does it not speak? Is it but a dream, an illusion? A Fata Morgana?
But now the stranger is on his knees at the feet of that silent apparition, and a faint moan rises to the ceiling, the oft-repeated strange-sounding name “Vaiavala! Vaiavala! Vaiavala!” and again, “Vaiavala!”
But the figure never moves; with hands upon her knees the silent woman seems not to perceive the wanderer that cries out her name with the sound of such longing that the walls themselves vibrate in response.
But why is the enthroned one so silent? Is her heart of stone? Is she blind? Is she deaf? Has she no soul? And why does the man sob so wildly? Is it relief, or is it sorrow that shakes his tired body?
Why does he lie there without finding a word? Why has he returned from so far, storm-tossed and weary, dusty and way-stained, to find no alleviation at the end of his road?
The window of this room is open; it is the only window in all this ghostly abode that is open . . . . .
Was it the window the stranger stared up at as he passed the bridge?
But why does no light come from without? Why does dusk reign through the chamber? Is the sunshine afraid of sending its shafts to light up the mystery concealed within?
Only a faint breeze floats in, so faint that it passes through the room like a sigh, but although so imperceptible it scatters the bluish fumes like a shepherd-dog its flock. They hurriedly float away, drawing themselves into long thin wisps, grazing the walls, becoming long streaks clinging to the window-sides like spirits wishing to linger, but that some force is driving thence.
The wanderer looks up; the air has become clearer, he can distinctly perceive the figure which sits there so indifferent, so still. And this is what he sees . . . . .
A woman, tall, wonderful, draped in long veils that are dense and clinging, but through which the absolute perfection of her limbs can be seen, the marble-white body, the long slim legs, the beautiful breasts that slowly rise and fall, a rounded neck, that like a thin column of ivory supports a head of which the visage is mysterious, indescribable, eternally searched for . . . . . the face of Beauty? . . . . .
Her shapely arms lie along the sides of the stone chair upon which she is throned, her hands are quite still, the polished nails shine like precious pink pearls.
The robe she wears has no colour that can he described; it looks grey, but in reality it is the blending of many tones, it flows down her magnificent body like water seen on a moonlight night, it shimmers like the wings of rare butterflies, like the unexpected sheen on a bird's wing when dawn suddenly falls over it. It seems to carry a light within its folds, a light that may belong to the beautiful body itself.
All round the woman's head clings a weird shine, a phosphorescent gleam that is neither green, nor blue, nor golden. Does it lie on her hair? Or does it only float quite close above her? Verily it were hard to tell.
And now the man is staring into the woman's eyes . . . . .
What eyes! Large, inscrutable, two sanctuary doors promising marvellous mysteries, but inducing the pilgrim to remain without, to tremble before them with an eternal unanswered question hovering on his lips . . . . . the eyes of . . . . . Life . . . . . the eyes of Fate . . . . . the eyes of Beauty . . . . . the eyes of Love that might be . . . . .
And like one dying of thirst the man looks up towards them, an agonised longing in his own, his face one long-drawn desire, one mortal effort towards unreachable sources, for the great need of which he is wasting away. The glory from around the woman falls on the stranger's face and lights it up with a faint and ghostly glimmer.
How shall that face be described? A face that might be young, that is young . . . . . oh! surely it is the face of a youth, and yet . . . . .
Why are the eyes so sad? Why are the lines about the mouth so strained, why does a pleat of suffering draw the brows together, why is his hair turning grey, as though frost had fallen over its ripeness, why do his lips tremble with suffering, why do tears that seem too hot to fall make his pupils glisten with a glaze that is almost madness?
But now the stranger is talking, he has seized the woman's hands, and the words pour from his lips like a deep stream that has burst its bounds, like warm blood flowing from a mortal wound!
“Vaiavala! Vaiavala! I have come back! Oh, Vaiavala! look not thus past me into the distance, turn thine eyes to my face, see I am weary, I am tired, I come from so far—so far! Oh see! Vaiavala, I have here in my hand that for which thou didst send me into distant lands, I have confronted mortal dangers, have climbed mountains, have crossed flooded rivers, have traversed wild forests to bring thee thy desire; wilt thou not stretch out thy hand to take it, Oh Vaiavala!”
The man's voice rings round the room, and faint whispers seem to answer him from the stones of the walls, but the inscrutable woman remains silent, although she slowly leans forward; her eyes no longer look past him, but are staring into his, and so wonderful is her gaze, so overwhelming the sensation with which it fills him, that he clasps his hands over his heart as though in mortal pain, he stretches up his lips towards one of her hands and lays them all burning hot upon the freshness of her skin.
“Speak, Vaiavala!” he murmurs, “if only thou couldst conceive what my longing has been thou wouldst not thus withhold from me the sound of thy voice, of thy wonderful voice! Vaiavala! will the hour never come when thou wilt lean towards me and give me thy lips, thy red lips, Vaiavala? Have I not yet satisfied thy desires? See, I have brought thee the great stone thou didst demand! Shall I tell thee where I found it, or is all my pain naught to thee? Vaiavala, is it nothing to thee all I have felt, all I have seen, all 1 have heard, all I have suffered? Shall I go from thee, Vaiavala, never more to return?”
But hark! an answering voice rings through the chamber, so strange, so resonant, that words cannot describe it; it has within it the sound of many waters, of things that rise from the deep, it bears a likeness to the voices that moan through the storms, of harp-strings when the hand of passion passes over its lowest chords.
“Dornadhu! I have desired thy return and thou hast come, and wilt come again if I call thee! Dornadhu, it is not for thee to decide if thou comest or goest, thou canst not remain away when Vaiavala calls, for is not thy heart in my hands? Hold I not thy life-thread within my fingers? Have I not that after which thou thirstest, like a dying deer for water? Wist ye not, Dornadhu, that it is the things we cannot reach that we desire most, the glitter that lies before us is more beautiful than the treasure we can clasp? The touch of my lips seems to thee the greatest happiness the world can offer, because not yet have they been thine. But wait awhile, Dornadhu—show me what thou hast brought me, and then it will be time to give thee thy reward, if I judge that the hour has come.”
And the man rises to his feet, stands before her, is quite near to her beauty, almost touches her knees; he stands like a subject before his sovereign, like a slave before his master, like a sinner before his judge, and from beneath the folds of his tunic he takes a marvellous stone. A stone so red that his hand seems full of blood, of glistening blood that might have dropped from some great Saint's wound . . . . .
Although the room is full of shade the mysterious gem sparkles, seems to concentrate light about it, to be alive with wondrous life.
So prodigious is its radiance that it throws a shine over the woman's face as she bends towards it, stretching out two white hands to seize the treasure she had demanded.
Dornadhu lays it between the white palms that he longs to take in his own . . . . .
Dornadhu looks into her face, looks into her eyes, looks at her fingers, at the great stone that lies between them . . . . .
Why does it look like a heart that she holds? Why does it seem to the wanderer that it is beating against her grasp? Why does it seem to him as though it were his own heart which he has laid between those two white hands? Why does he watch to see if drops are not flowing from the shimmering gem, falling slowly like blood to the ground?
The strange woman now lays her finger against the home-comer's forehead; it is only a passing touch, but to the man it is a heavenly caress; he closes his eyes to absorb deeply the wonder of it . . . . . Then she bids him relate his wanderings, tell her where he found the stone —speak of what he has seen and done.
Dornadhu throws himself with his face on her feet and begins his tale. The woman leans back in her chair of stone, the precious gem lies on her lap, glowing like the wrathful eye of some god; her hands are quite still, they hang down along the arms of her seat; wide open are her eyes, enigmatical is their expression, they seem unseeingly to stare into distance, to be quite indifferent to her surroundings.
Is she really listening to the wanderer's words?
“I left thee—thou knowest how, thou knowest when, thou knowest why! Upon the folds of thy lap didst thou keep the stain of my tears, and I—I had the sound of thy voice in my ears. But only one word remained imprinted like fire on my brain—“Go!”—my very steps echoed the same word “Go! Go!”, and always “Go!” And thus has it been since I have known thee; ever has thy last word been “Go!” Three times already have I returned, bringing back the treasures thou hast bidden me carry home to thine hands! Lie they not there upon the altar beside thee, the fiery circlet from the sad Saint's brow, the snow-white pearl from the ocean's depth, the marvellous goblet from a great king's palace? And tell me, Vaiavala, were not golden my curls when first I started upon my wanderings, was my face not fair, were not my eyes full of dreams, was not my forehead as smooth as an untrodden path? And now—and now—now, Vaiavala, how is my countenance, where are my hopes, where is the song that I carried then in my heart?”
And from her throne the woman answers his call of suffering:
“Thy face bears now the kiss of life, upon thy brow the trace of a great longing is imprinted, thine eyes have widened and their colour is deeper, because of all thou hast seen. Better dost thou please me thus, Dornadhu! And one day I will put a new song in thy heart to replace the one thou hast lost, a song so sweet that it will carry thee beyond every pain or dread beyond all hope or suffering, and that day I shall lay my red, red lips on thine—if still it be thy desire, O Dornadhu! . . . . .”
No movement does she make, her voice is as the passing of a wind over deep waters, her eyes have not turned towards him, they continue to gaze as though far away, but a groan comes from the man who crouches before her, and nearer does he press his lips to her feet.
“I feed thee on hopes, Dornadhu, for thus doth man walk through life; from hope to hope, from longing to longing, from dream to dream, as the storm-driven, wave-beaten vessel that sails from beacon to beacon, searching its port, seldom at anchor, except when its day is o'er. Some alluring force there must be by which man is led forwards, some dream must he bear in his heart, some hope must he cherish, some goal must he strive for! I hold that for which thy soul is thirsting. By leaning forward, by bending down, could I give it to thee, but I know the worth of the things of to-morrow; I must teach thee to climb, to search, to wander, to pursue. Is not the draught sweetest to the wanderer when he is perishing of thirst? Is not the bed softest when he is dying of fatigue? Is not a voice most welcome when heard in the desert silence? Is not shade most blessed to him who is overcome by the heat of the day? I sit here and fill thee with dreams, give thee hopes, fire thee with ambition. I spin the thread of fantasy by which I bid thee walk. I open thine eyes to visions above those of other mortals, I sow the seed of eternal longing in thy heart, so that thy soul should carry thee ever nearer the heights which few men dare climb. I take thy gifts and scarcely do I thank thee. Nay, I demand ever more of thee, for I love the lines that mark thy forehead, I love the suffering I read in thy pupils, I listen to the song of thy weary heart, for even if thou deemest thou hast lost it, I hear it, and its sound is as the eternal voices of Love and Pain, sweetly sad as the falling of human tears. Dearly do I long to clasp thee to my bosom, to rest thy fatigue against my heart, but I cannot do so until thou hast returned from thy ultimate journey, until thou hast brought me all the treasures I need. But now, tell me of thy wanderings, tell me where thou didst ravish the magic stone . . . . .”
And the vibrating voice dies down, fades away, as a song in the distance, and once more Dornadhu begins to relate:
“So I left thee, I fled, I dared not remain. At first I thought of casting my life away, for it seemed to me my thirst had been so great that well might the goblet have been held to my lips. But hope is stronger than all else, it lives like a flame that naught can extinguish; from beneath cinders it ever breaks forth anew, it gives a force that naught can destroy, it overcomes tears, and disappointment, and despair, like a star that has been blotted out by clouds and nights of storm, and reappears when the sky has cleared. So I went forward, I passed from land to land, resting my weariness only when I could walk no more. Where'er I passed I asked for the temple where the great ruby was adored—the ruby thou didst wish to possess. Some laughed at my tale, some where afraid of my eyes, some scoffed at my illusions, some asked me to tarry beneath their roofs.
And one evening I came to a great city, it lay amongst vineyards, and its sloping terraces reached down to the sea . . . . . I saw it at sunset, and it seemed of gold; I saw it at dawn, and it seemed of flame; I saw it by moonlight, and it was as a garden of silver; I saw it amongst mists, and it was a hazy dream floating on the verge of Eternity.
In this city I heard voices that were clear as silver bells; I heard songs that were as sweet as the nightingale's warble, and faces did I see fair as the flowers of Paradise.
And as I wandered through the shades of the evening a maiden there came who crossed my road, and she looked into my eyes and bade me follow her. Her dress was blue as the mountain distance, and from beneath her veil her hair shimmered like burnished copper; but the expression of her face was as a flaming desire that drew me along, and ripe were her lips as autumn berries begging to be plucked.
I followed her shadow which fell long and slim before me, which climbed the white sides of the houses, which moved dark and mysterious in her wake. Down many a narrow street did she lead me, past strange houses, and silent doors. The air was full of the perfume of flowers, and a light haze of dust hovered over everything, transparent as a golden gauze.
Before a small door the maiden stopped and, taking a key from her bosom, she silently opened the portal and led me into a wondrous garden, where roses of every shade made the place a paradise. Small stone paths ran hither and thither through this maze of sweetness, and the petals lay upon them like soft odorous snow.
I followed the blue veil where'er it led me; I walked as in a dream. Like a large butterfly the maiden flitted before me, moving in and out amongst the wealth of pink and white roses, and as her dress brushed against the overhanging branches, the petals fell down over her, covering her head and shoulders with a shower of colour.
I cared little whither she was leading me; without thought I followed her dancing shadow; my eye rejoiced over all the colour and beauty, but I was indifferent to the charms of the maiden, yet I followed her—why, I cannot say . . . . .
The sun was slanting over the world, lightly touching the top of the bushes, painting them with gold, surrounding each leaf with a circle of flame, whilst out of the ground the shades of evening were creeping up to extinguish all that radiance. One side of the girl's azure veil seemed to have caught fire.
Up on to the flat roof of a house did the maiden lead me, whence I could look far over the sea. Blue as the Siberian lapis it lay before me, a vast immensity of colour kissed by the son's last rays.
I turned round to my companion and found her eyes looking into mine, and a great desire lay in their depths and a great longing for the things I could not give her . . . . .
Long I stared into her pupils, I saw not what shade they were, but I wished I could answer the call they sent me. She stood up all blue against the sapphire sea, and she too was circled by a line of light. In her hand she held a creamy rose; the petals were so loose that they slowly fell one by one over her small bare feet.
I bent down and picked up one of the snowy petals, and then I turned and fled—yes, I fled! . . . . .
And, Vaiavala, canst thou tell me why?
Outside the town the beggars had gathered; they sat in the sunshine, they were covered with dust, their hair was matted, their faces had taken earth's grey colour, their moans and their cries insulted the blue of the sky. Many were the sores that covered their bodies, but the sun was not ashamed to look down upon their misery and when again it was the hour after sunset I saw also these human outcasts lined with a circle of light, and when I half closed my eyes they might as well have been large golden idols set against a luminous back-ground for men to adore instead of what they really were—the scum of the earth, with voices like starving crows when the snow lies on the ground . . . . .
Canst thou tell me why, O Vaiavala, why these also wore around their bodies a circle of gold?
Oh! Canst thou tell me why?
In the same town I saw a troop of little children—they were all running in one direction, pursuing a small urchin who carried a golden orange in his hand. The children were laughing and shouting, their faces were as fair as the angels from heaven, and their voices sounded gay like chirping swallows, but all were bent upon tearing the golden orange from their comrade's hand . . . . .
Suddenly the child that held the orange fell in the dust, and the precious fruit tumbled from its grasp and rolled away like idle happiness, always further and further. The others, with cries of delight, ran after the golden treasure, and when they had grasped it they fell upon it, tearing it to pieces, greedily sucking its juice. But the child that had fallen lay with its face hidden on the ground and cried as if its heart would break.
Vaiavala, canst thou tell me why?
And as I was leaving this beautiful city I saw two lovers walking together. Her hand was on his shoulder, they were wandering along a path that led to the sea. Slowly I followed them and my heart felt heavy within my breast. I was sure that the girl's eyes were the colour of the sky overhead; I longed to look into them, but I knew it would only be that other man who would see of what shade they were . . . . . yet I followed them . . . . . The sea lay before them still and shimmering, they seemed to be drawn towards it by some irresistible magic. Overhead the sky was radiant and a troop of birds flew with them—small white birds with shrill voices. I know not of what kind they were, hut, like me, they followed the happy couple, with the difference that their wings bore them lightly through the air, whilst my feet dragged in the dust; their songs were glad, whilst I was afraid of the sound of my voice . . . . . yet still I followed the lovers.
Her dress was as deeply yellow as the orange the child had held in its hand, and round her head she wore a filmy grey veil which was bound about her forehead. The ends floated out behind her like the smoke of some fire that had been lit in the wind, and almost I felt as though the fumes would fill my eyes and make them smart.
But when the lovers stopped and their lips joined—there beneath the smiling sky, with the small white birds fluttering around their heads, and the blue sea staring up at them—methinks the gauze she wore verily turned to smoke, for my eyes were full of tears and a great cry of longing rose from my heart . . . . . and once more I turned and fled . . . . .
Vaiavala, canst thou tell me why?
The city had been left far behind me, and since several days I had been wandering through a rocky wilderness, living on the berries I found growing amongst the stones; and dost thou know, Vaiavala, sometimes I hoped that there would be poisonous ones amongst them, little did I heed of which I tasted.
Amongst the loose boulders unearthly-looking cactus plants grew plentifully, their prickles stood out all over them; gaunt rind forbidding they were, like immovable guardians of jade placed in this waste to defend its silence. But when the sun shone, these prickles also turned to gold; even the stones beneath my feet became gold at the hour of sunset. Canst thou tell me why, Vaiavala, why all things grow precious when the sun shines thereon, why out of a desert he can make a garden of beauty, why, when he reflects his face in a filthy pool, he can draw from its surface all the rainbow's most precious colours, why, when he suddenly slants over the bed of the dying, he can fill the room with a message of hope?
Why is he not afraid of dancing over the gaping precipice, not disgusted when he falls over the corpse of a mangy dog that crows are tearing to pieces, why can he even turn the refuse-heap into precious metal? What is this golden wand he possesses? And why each night when he goes to rest, and each morning when he rises anew, does he adorn himself with a beauty that vastly outdoes the proud growing forests in the autumn glory?
But why, O Vaiavala, does he so often avoid the hearts of men, leaving them dark and lonely, dark and lonely and cold? Canst thou tell me why, O Vaiavala?
In one place the bristling cactus plants had suddenly bloomed into a garden of colour. I stood amazed, and looked at their impudent beauty. From each fleshy leaf a trumpet of colour stared down at me: crimson they were, and scarlet, and saffron yellow, and some of them as white and as pure as the great pearl I fetched thee from the deep green ocean. I gazed down into their wide open cups and they showed me undreamed-of treasures of golden stamens; they were almost shameless in their gaudy profusion, but no sweet perfume did they spread around them, and somehow I almost hated their splendour.
But being weary I rested that night beneath the shade which the huge growths threw over the desert, and the last things I saw before closing my eyes. were the pale waxen faces of the white blooms staring out into the night, as though calling down to me some message I failed to grasp.
But when next morning I awoke everyone of the brilliant flowers had faded—they were but a handful of colourless rags—their beauty had gone, their day was over, they hung limp on their stalks, and no passer-by would have tarried to look upon them.
I will hot weary thine ears with the many sufferings I met on my way, nor will I tell of how many thorns wounded my feet, nor relate all the adventures I had—I will only lay before thee the questions I could not solve . . . . . Thou sittest in grand indifference: I believe thou hast always been, and that time will never draw any lines on the beauty of thy face, but listen thou must to the problems I lay before thee. Some, no doubt, my own aching misery has answered well enough, but others float through my mind as mists that darken my thoughts. Harken to this, Vaiavala!
I stood on a great rock and looked down upon a land of forests and lakes—as far as my eye could reach water and trees covered the earth. I was so weary, and my desire of thee so great, that I longed to die. I threw myself down upon the rock, hiding my face against its hardness, wishing that thorns would rise from its surface and pierce my eyes and my heart, so that eternal rest should envelop me for ever.
A great stillness lay over the world; no breeze fanned the air, no calling bird relieved the silence. I had no conscious thoughts: desire alone stormed through my blood, the eternal desire of thee and thy lips, the desire that seldom spares me—for distance does not make it less.
I know not. how long I lay there, nor where I was, nor to what land I had come.
At last I looked up and, sitting there beside me, was a very old woman, so old that her face was as dry and wrinkled as a fossilized stone. She had wrapped around her a shawl of many hues, and her eyes lay so deep in their sockets that they looked like old dreams vaguely remembered. In her hands she held a string of beads; their colours were as bright and varied as the illusions children carry in t heir hearts.
Her fingers were playing with the shining baubles, letting them run down the worn dirty string; they hit against each other with a small tinkling sound like tiny waves kissing the shells that lie along the strand . . . . .
She was looking intently at me, but no astonishment showed in her sunken eyes.
How she had come there I cannot tell, nor why. I had heard no sound of her approach, but she stretched out her hand towards me and from her emaciated fingers the gaudy beads hung like a shimmering snake.
I know not what language she spoke, but somehow I understood her words, and this is what she said:
“These gems that glisten on this old silken cord have been the joy of my life. It was my lover who gave them to me one by one. There are rubies and diamonds, sapphires and pearls; there are opals and emeralds, sardonyx and chrysoprase; there are blood-stones and chrystals, sunstones and moonstones, turquoise and aquamarine, topaz and beryls and labradorite, and each year he gave me one more.
I wore them on my rounded throat, they hung down between my breasts so that my life-blood kept them warm; when I breathed they followed the rise and fall of my bosom—and I loved them as a king loves the power he sways.
But my lover died, and no more precious stones were added since that day to the chain I wore.
I wandered through many lands, and wherever I passed the chain was envied of all . . . . .
But there came a time when I bade no more bread to eat, as I wandered from town to town, seeking a fortune that I never found.
Hunger had pinched my cheeks, the dust of the roads had hardened my skin, had tarnished my hair, had rendered dull the shine of my eyes, and the sun had helped it in its Work of destruction. The men no more turned to stare after me as I passed, but often did their eyes covet the necklace of many colours that hung from my throat . . . . .
One evening, weary and discouraged, I was resting on the threshold of a shabby inn. The lamps were lit and loud laughing voices reached me where I sat. I held my head in both my hands and covered my ears; since my lover's death, although I had danced at many a feast, I could hardly bear the sound of mirth—it was to me as though idle feet were trampling on my brain. A square patch of light fell over my head out into the night, and the perfume of some succulent dish was wafted out to me through the open window . . . . .
Since my beauty had gone I no more had the same courage to stretch out my hand and ask. In former days often had I won much more than a dish of food merely by lifting my long lashes to look into a stranger's face, by turning my head, by half-opening my ripe red lips . . . . . but now I was afraid and remained outside in the dark, crouching on the door-step like a homeless dog.
Once I rose and went to the window, looking in upon those who feasted. Being in the dark maybe they did not see me, but I thought that fingers pointed my way, so I turned and fled. But I was so weak for want of food that I could go but a few paces, and again I sank to the ground. As I tumbled into the dust my precious stones jingled one against the other; and the noise they made reminded me of how great was their value . . . . .
Then I had the courage to rise to my feet, and, because of the pain that was gnawing at my vitals, I slunk along the walls of the houses, dragging my way-wounded feet till I reached the door of a sordid shop, where an ignoble old Jew sat counting his money by the wavering light of a single burnt-down candle. The wax had dripped all over the table, as though the candle had cried tears of despair because its life was being sacrificed for so loathsome a master.
Indeed the man was as ugly as sin, and leered at me with eyes circled with scarlet. His nose was hooked like the beak of a vulture, and two greasy curls hung over his ears from beneath a black-cloth cap. I unfastened the chain from round my throat and laid it before him—the chain my lover had given me stone by stone, year by year—I laid it down upon the old Jew's counter because my stomach was empty . . . . .
And the filthy old man took it between his claw-like fingers and held it up quite close to his face; he weighed it and let each beautiful stone slide over his palm—the stones my lover had given me! Then, tossing it with an ugly sneer, he threw it over the counter into the dust of the street—into the dust of the street—whilst he dared to declare that my gems were of glass . . . . . that each single one of them was but a coloured bead!”
The old woman had clasped her arms round her knees and sat hunched up like a bundle of rags, whilst her sunken eyes glowed from their hollow sockets with a startling look of hatred. She had quite forgotten my presence and was talking to herself, mumbling her words: her fingers were clenched together over the necklace as though strangling some cruel remembrance.
“From shop to shop did I go” continued the old hag,” and everywhere was I met with the same sinful lie—one and all declared that my gems were of glass, the gems my lover had given me! I laughed into their face, I answered their sneers with scalding contempt, I knew them for deluded fools, but I began to hate even the shadow that human feet cast over the ground. So I fled into the wilderness and, like a desert prowler, I lived upon the food that nourishes the beasts of the field; further and further did I wander from the haunts of men—only my hunger brought me sometimes within the sight of their dwellings.
But my precious chain hung round my neck . . . . . it always hung there. The sun shone down on its beauty, the rain washed off its stains, but sometimes it was my tears that cleansed it from the desert dust.
Only once as I sat quite alone when the day was sinking, looking out over a land of waste I took it from my throat and held it in my hand. I crumpled it in the hollow of my palm, I let it slip through my fingers, I held it up to the last rays of the sun, and suddenly, like a shadow, the doubt crossed my mind—could I perchance be wrong, and all those wealthy merchants have spoken the truth . . . . . the truth about my necklace of gems? . . . . .
O Wanderer, whose name I do not know, may never such a moment darken thy soul—for I tell thee it was Hell into which I was suddenly facing.
I touched one stone after another, I stared at my rubies and sapphires, I fondled my sky-blue turquoises, I laid the mysterious moonstone against my faded lips, I let the light shine through my emeralds that resemble deep lakes on a summer's morning. Like a miser I counted .my treasures one by one, and then let the shimmering fetish fall into the rags of my lap; they made a faint jingling sound like a groan of protest against one who had been their friend . . . . .
I sat gazing into the darkening sky, a faint streak of colour still shone over the horizon, and I felt that before that shine had died away I must solve the question—know if I was right or wrong!
For dost thou comprehend, oh! Stranger . . . . . If the stones were false . . . . . then false had also been my lover, false his kisses, false his words, false his passion, false the dream I had lived by . . . . . My life a lie, Love but a lie, and God—yes, then also God a lie for having allowed it! And I was an outcast, living like the beasts of the wilds, for a love that had never been; for a string of beads at which others had laughed . . . . . precious gems that were naught but tinkling glass! . . . . .
Then suddenly I remembered two warm lips on mine, two strong arms about my body, two dear brown eyes into which I had looked. I saw a flower-filled garden, and beneath a tree full of blossoms I lay with my cheek against a heart that was beating with love!
I raised my fist and shook it at the dwindling light. No! I cried, Love is not a lie! And truer far is the remembrance I live by than all the words of all the wise men in all the towns I have passed through.
Ah No! My gems were not of glass, were not a lure to keep small children happy, were not a lie by which to cheat a woman's heart; my gems were true, true as his lips had been, as his eyes, as his hands, as his words of passion, and the taste of his kisses that had remained with me; was it not a promise of ultimate meetings beyond the gates of this world?”
And the wrinkled old beggar, the out-cast, the wandering madwoman laid the beads, the string of common beads, into my hands as though it had been a great king's ransom . . . . .
As she had done so long ago, I held it against the light and let the sun-rays play amongst its colours . . . . . The beads were of glass, of tinkling gaudy glass, each one of them a lie, each one but a polished illusion!
But the old woman sat looking over that land of water and forest and smiled, because her Faith was greater far than all the world's wisest wisdom!
Vaiavala, canst thou tell me why? Why that woman was allowed to waste her life because of a lie, to become an outcast, a wandering lunatic, because of a thing that had never been? Vaiavala, canst thou give me an answer when this I ask thee—was that woman to be envied, or was she to be pitied? Was she a fool, or was she really wiser than those who had told her the truth? Vaiavala, canst thou give me an answer?”
But Vaiavala sits silent and says not a word. Yet, through the dusk that fills the chamber, it seems to Dornadhu that over her lips hovers the same smile as he had seen on the face of the outcast woman
“But more have I to relate, Vaiavala; so much has accumulated here in my heart, so many questions, such longing, so many words that have never been spoken; therefore, Vaiavala, must thou patiently listen even if thou wilt not answer.
One early morning I was walking through a forest dense and dreary, but beautiful as Nature even at its saddest can be. Mist wreathed the tree-trunks and floated like fairy veils amongst the boughs. Underfoot a carpet of moss deadened the sound of my steps; I had the feeling of walking in a fog-filled cathedral, over precious rugs spread out for some feast. From each branch-tip drops were falling, the trees were weeping I know not why, and their tears fell heavy on my uncovered head.
Each step brought me deeper into the silence of the forest—I was in no hurry, and the sadness of my heart raised me above every fear.
Suddenly I came upon a small forest pool, sombre and glistening like a secret discovered in a hidden place. Its colour was so green that it might have been melted emeralds diluted into a precious liquid jealously guarding its beauty, hiding it away from human eyes.
Bending over the surface I looked into the water, and a great longing seized me to perceive its bottom, to discover what lay in its depths, hut for a long time I saw nothing, nothing at all . . . . . I could not tear myself away, I felt t hat that sleeping water ought to bring me some message, to teach me some lesson, to whisper me some strange tidings from the depth of its heart.
At last I was tired and sat down by the edge, but my eyes never left the dark gleaming mirror beneath me.
I was becoming drowsy, when all of a sudden something white rose from the centre of the pool, and with a start I realised that it was a hand, beautifully formed, the white tapering fingers closed round a crystal ball!
At that moment a sun-ray pierced the mist overhead and flashed down upon the ball, lighting it up with every colour of the rainbow.
So strange was the sight that I thought I was dreaming; a great desire filled me to grasp that hand, and take possession of the shining globe it appeared to be offering me.
However, I hesitated, too unreal did it seem, like a mirage that surely must dissolve at my touch. Then, when I least expected it, the hand suddenly threw the ball high into the air, it hung a moment suspended like a soap bubble and then came down with a thud into the moss at my feet and lay there like a fantastic jewel, concentrating upon its surface all the light from the sky—throwing over the dark green moss a small patch of flame. Slowly, almost with awe, I stretched out my hand towards it, I lifted it up, held its beauty between my fingers, and gazed with a strange feeling of expectation at its polished surface.
How heavy it was! How shining! Though transparent and white, how varied were the hues that shimmered upon it. I held it quite near my face, my two palms encircled it with a feeling akin to fear.
At first I saw nothing except a thousand colours—there were so many that they quite confused my sight. Vaiavala, are there more colours than we see upon earth? Meseemed that within this small globe there were unknown tints that I never espied elsewhere.
The longer I looked the more mysterious became what I saw. The colours took form, and visions passed before my eyes, visions indistinct and hazy, as sometimes we have in sleep—and then suddenly from out the crystal globe it was thy face that stared at me, Vaiavala! Thy beauty, thine eyes, thy lips! . . . . .
With a cry I let the glistening treasure fall at my feet, overcome with a nameless dread. Why did it frighten me to see thy face thus, Vaiavala, thy beautiful face? Why, in spite of my great longing, did it give me no joy to see thy features look up at me from that magic ball?
I had the vague presentiment that if I looked again into its depths I should see something dreadful, something that would appal me, something that I would never be able to forget.
A great wish came over me to flee from that spot, to think no more of what I had seen, to run always further and further away, forsaking the mystical object that lay there upon its bed of moss.
But, Vaiavala, I could not go from it! Some charm held me rooted to the ground, and quite unconsciously I bent down and once more the heavy ball was in my hand—and there was thy face, thy dearly beloved face, and thy legendary eyes were still fixed upon me! Ever closer did I bend towards thee, so near that at last with a cry of longing I had laid my lips upon thine, upon those alluring lips which ever thou refusest me!
I cannot say what I felt! But it was not joy, Vaiavala, it was more akin to pain; it was as though my life-blood were slowly oozing from my heart, slowly, drop by drop! . . . . .
Long I held thy mouth beneath mine; then, quite dazed, I raised my head, threw it back with a sigh of relief, and looked up into the sky. All the mist had melted away, and above me the great blue vault shone like a promise of joy . . . . . but the ball in my hand seemed to call me, seemed to draw my gaze once more to its surface, and yet a fearful dread came over me because of what I was going to see . . . . . I looked, and then . . . . . I let the heavy object slip from my fingers, escape from my loosened grasp, and like an uncanny sprite it rolled away down to the pool, and with a splash was gone . . . . .
But I, Vaiavala, I sank on my knees into the moss and covered my face with my hands, for, Vaiavala, it was not thy face I had been looking at, but it was at the face of Death—it was not thy lips I had been kissing, but the grim grin of a skull . . . . .
I had been walking for many days through a country of plains, where the sunsets were a flaming glory, and where each dawn rose pink and golden like the veil of an Eastern Queen. The cornfields rippled in ripe abundance on both sides of the roads, roads which were long and so thickly covered with dust that stifling clouds rose from beneath my feet, powdering my clothes and my hair. Afar off, against the horizon, the solitary well-poles stood like forbidding fingers pointing to the sky—but the water the wells hid in the depths of their shafts was cool and welcome to my lips.
One evening I came to a snow-white convent half-hidden behind willows; their leaves had a silvery sheen, their trunks were twisted and gnarled and weatherbeaten, like legendary monsters prowling around the thick old walls, guarding them, forbidding the wanderers' approach.
The bells were ringing loudly; their voices were deep and solemn, vibrating through the evening air, carrying towards me some message I did not understand.
The whitewashed shingle-roofed church stood in a wall-encircled court which was paved with uneven stones. Its outer portal was formed by six heavy columns hewn in stone, the door was of carved oak wood, and from the dark interior weird chants floated out to where I stood.
A single fir-tree grew lonely and austere before the entrance, and around its trunk large snakes of ivy had climbed, embracing it with a stifling hug.
A line of columns, solid and primitive, ran along the court on three of the sides, supporting a second colonnade built over the first, behind which I saw small open doors, indicating human habitations. Everything was as white as an angel's wing; the evening sun lay over a part of the wall, turning it into the mysterious gold of which I have so often spoken to thee, Vaiavala.
I approached the wide open door of the church and looked in. At first naught could I see but hundreds of small tapers, narrow and yellow, crowned with wavering flames as golden as the light upon the white wall outside, but here in the obscurity these many flames looked like fire-flies in a shadow-filled forest.
Gradually my eye became accustomed to the obscurity and, entering, I saw that the whole church was full of dark-robed nuns who were chanting quaint dirges, monotonous and too primitive to be musical. Mysterious was the scene, the dark veils of the nuns hardly detached themselves from the sombre walls, which were decorated with archaic saints upon a dull blue background. Here and there the lights reflected themselves in a golden halo, throwing a sudden shine upon- the vault above; otherwise the only light spots were the women's candle-lit faces, and even over these, unexpected shadows flitted like dark moths as the small flames wavered beneath them. Some of the faces were old and wrinkled, some were young and fair; on some hope lay written, on some faith, on some ecstasy, but most of them bore only traces of a great longing; they too, Vaiavala, seemed to be asking the eternal “Why?” with which I so often weary thine ears, so that their eyes were tragic to look upon.
And there on the floor before the screened-in altar was a bier, narrow, humble and poor. One of the nuns lay upon it, small and rigid, like a pale wax figure. Young she was, and her two hands were crossed high over her bosom, resting there like two faded leaves. In the centre of her breast a tiny silver image had been placed for the believers to kiss before she was hidden for ever under the sod . . . . .
Her dark veil, like the shadow of night, framed-in her emaciated face which was as small as a child's, and then it fell in folds over the sides of the coffin down on to the pavement which pious feet had worn away.
I felt like an intruder amongst those praying women, who were so absorbed in their chanting that they had not noticed my approach. Their voices rose and fell through the gloom, whilst outside the bell was still calling its fervent message to the skies above.
I could not detach my eyes from the dead nun's face; it was so small, so innocent, so fair. I longed to read peace imprinted on her brow, but meseemed that I read an unanswered question upon her close-shut lips, something sorrowful and pathetic, that still in death prayed for the thing that in life had passed her by.
Covering her feet a precious embroidery, strangely in contrast with the austerity of her garment, had been spread. It lay in rich folds of pearly grey, over which a wonderful design had been worked in gold; the stitches were so fine and luminous that they might have been made of threads from a spider's web, holding captive the sunrays that had been caught in their meshes.
I cannot tell thee why, Vaiavala, but that gorgeous embroidery filled me with a feeling of awe; some curious legend seemed to be woven into its shining folds, I felt that it had its story, I longed to go up to it and lay my hands upon it.
There came a moment when all the nuns fell on their faces upon the stones of the pavement; their tapers were still clasped in their hands and shone over their bended heads like stars reflected in a tranquil pool.
I turned my head, and upon the altar steps I saw a very old priest holding up a golden cross. The chants had ceased, but outside the bell was still calling, calling in a monotonous voice.
But on her lowly bier the dead little nun lay indifferent with upturned face, the question hovering about her cold still lips.
Then they bore her away into the lengthening shadows, bore her to a quiet place; into the ground they laid her, covering her up with dark rich soil, shutting her out from the light of the day, from the smile of the skies, from the tears that were shed over her grave.
But the beautiful embroidery lay in the church, forgotten on the stones of the floor . . . . .
That evening I begged to be allowed to rest within those hallowed walls, and answer was given me that for three days I could look upon the sainted abode as my home.
On the third evening I sat at the feet of a very old nun who was spinning her flax under the white colonnade. Behind us the door of her humble dwelling stood open. I could see how miserable was her couch, but I saw also that on the whitewashed walls hung a precious image of the Virgin Mary, mellowed by age, framed in heavily-wrought silver, .with a large halo encircling her head. A faded rosemary-twig had been stuck before it, from which a string of amber beads slowly swung, casting a long shadow over the wall.
On this evening the voices of the bells were stilled. The old woman was talking, was telling me a story—the story of the dead little nun . . . . .
Vaiavala, wilt thou listen to her tale?
“We called her Sister Mary” related the very old nun, “Mary, after the Mother of God.
I know not whence she came, nor who her parents were, nor for what reason she quitted the world.
I am but a simple recluse, unlearned in the ways of men, but something within me makes me understand the human heart. Soon I guessed that hers had been broken at an early age, that some remembrance was she guarding beneath her lowered lashes, some secret that was hers alone.
She was humble and obedient, bending her head before the severe rules of our convent, rising for prayers at all hours, fasting and doing penance with the oldest and most saintly amongst us.
But one sunny spring morning I, Sister Veronica, saw her face at the window, and never shall I forget its expression. She was listening to the voice of a nightingale, and such a look of longing was in her eyes that I turned away to see no more—it was to me as though I had opened a door of which I had stolen the key . . . . .
But from that day I watched Sister Mary and she became, so to say, the child of my soul. I tried wherever I could to ease for her the burden of daily life, but so shy, so silent was she that but very little could I do.
The more I watched her, the more evident it became to me, that she carried about with her some trouble that darkened her soul.
One day she came to our Mother Superior and begged to be allowed to embroider a cloth for our church.
The venerable woman's consent was easy to obtain. From a wandering merchant who passed our door Sister Mary bought a fine piece of velvet, grey as an autumn sky.
I cannot tell thee why she chose so mournful a colour, for generally it is our custom to embroider on red or blue or green, colours that are bright to the eye.
But one thing struck me; she bought no silk, no golden thread, but only a needle, the very finest she could find.
She never talked of the work she was doing, nor did we ever see her needle in hand, so that most of us forgot about the embroidery she had promised for our church.
But I, I had not forgotten, and wondered why she never brought it at the hours when we sat together, for then she was always spinning her flax . . . . .
It was on a night when the moon shone bright that at a very late hour I passed the door of her cell—for we all live one next the other beneath this white colonnade—it stood half open, and with sudden curiosity I stopped and looked in . . . . .
There sat Sister Mary with a taper on the table beside her, and on her knees lay a wonderful embroidery, half of it already done. The thread that she held in her hand was golden, but so fine that it might have been spun by a fairy.
I wondered whence she had it, for clearly did I remember that she had bought neither silk nor metal. I stood quite still and watched her. With extraordinary precaution lid she draw her needle through the heavy grey stuff, asthough in fear of the thread breaking; it was so fine in fact that I saw it only when the light shone thereon.
All at once my eyes perceived the material with which she was working; it lay in a heap on the stool beside her, and was as golden as autumn's farewell to the year . . . . .
Whence had she got it? And why were the threads so long? So long that they hung over the side of the stool to the ground? . . . . .
Then I saw that that golden abundance which she had beside her was hair! A shimmering treasure of wonderful curls!
I could not tear myself away from that door. With a fascination akin to suffering I watched those thin small hands with the invisible thread; I gazed at those marvellous curls that lay so helpless upon the humble stool. They looked like an offering carried for sacrifice before the altar of God. They hung down limp and resigned, only one small curl had wound itself round a leg of the stool as though in protest against the power that had severed it from life . . . . .
There came a time when Sister Mary lay dying on her couch—she was fading away as a flower that had never been watered, as a flower that soon will be dust.
Daily I came to her bedside and looked with pity into the tragedy of her eyes, her poor hungry eyes that claimed some happiness that bad never been hers.
It was on an Easter morning, all the bells were ringing, for the Son of God had risen from the dead . . . . .the service was over but the hells still had their tale to tell as I came to sit beside Sister Mary's bed.
Death was written in large letters over her face, and my old heart wondered why the call should come to her first, leaving me beneath the weight of years I carried so wearily. The precious cloth she was embroidering lay over her knees; no doubt she had been trying to work, but being too feeble the heavy stuff had slipped from her grasp, and she had fallen back on her couch with closed eyes.
With a start I perceived that about one of her hands she had entwined the golden tresses, the wonderful hair she was using as silk . . . . .
For a long time I looked down at her without revealing my presence, then very gently I touched her wrist.
For a moment she looked at me with eyes full of fear; then suddenly she burst into tears and, as she raised her hands to cover her face, the beautiful hair fell in a pathetic little heap to the ground.
And on that Easter morning, whilst outside the bells were sending afar their message of hope, Sister Mary told me her humble story—a simple story, a story of love.
A man, young and handsome—the gift of herself, heart, soul, and body, a few days of rapture, and then the end.
He had been killed whilst smuggling forbidden goods over the mountain passes, leaving her destitute, dishonoured and roofless, a waif on the face of the earth.
She had wandered from village to village, but no one would receive her, nor give her a home. The wives found her too fair, the girls were jealous, the men too eager to lure her within their doors. One treasure was hers, a treasure that above all her lover had worshipped—her golden tresses, that like a mantle covered head and shoulders. This was in a country where nearly every woman's hair is as dark as the raven's wing, so that this sun-coloured marvel was coveted by all; and that became her curse which once had been her pride and her joy.
Golden Mary they called her; they pointed at her the finger of scorn, crushed her with their disdain, offering to buy from her the hair that had been her lover's joy. And so life became a misery to her, and she longed to throw it away . . . . .
Then the thought carne to her to offer it to God, to sacrifice before his altar her hair of gold, to leave the world with its sneers, its lures and its tears, and hide herself behind these white walls of peace.
But a sin she had committed: she could not tear from her heart the love of the tresses that once had been her pride.
On the day when the cold scissors had severed their wealth from her head she had managed to hide the ringlets beneath her garments, and with the cunning of a criminal had she kept them ever since hidden away beneath the meagre belongings each Sister is allowed to possess.
But at night she would take out the soft long curls and hide her face in their shining skeins, and think of the one who was dead.
She knew it was a sin to cling to earthly love after having taken the veil, so her secret became a very heavy burden that she carried with her day by day.
One early spring morning, when the birds were singing, the thought had come to her to sacrifice her sinfully-guarded possession for a second time upon God's holy altar, and because it was as golden as sunshine over fields of corn, to embroider therewith a cloth for the church.
From that day her heart was less heavy, but as she dared not divulge her secret, she had stolen the hours from her night's rest to do her work in.
Soon the knowledge came to her that it was her life she vas embroidering into that grey piece of stuff, that with each stitch she drew her strength was dwindling, and, with her strength, also the heavy burden that lay on her heart. But oh! the work was difficult, for the thread she was using was as delicate as a young bride's hope on her marriage morn. Often did the hair break beneath her careful touch; but now her task was nearly finished—only a small corner still to be done . . . . .
“But” added the stooping old nun, “that little corner was never done; Golden Mary died—died that night . . . . .”
For a long time we sat quite silent, the old nun and I. Night had crept over the earth as we were talking, the white columns alone were perceptible, standing like a long row of ghosts dwindling into the distance, making the courtyard appear endlessly long.
The spindle had fallen from Sister Veronica's hands. She was mumbling some simple prayer, and from time to time she crossed herself devoutly, bending her head very low.
Then stiffly she rose, for, although accustomed to spend hours on her knees, her limbs were old and weary; she went into her cell and came back with something soft and shining which she reverently laid in my hands . . . . .
Vaiavala, it was a lock of Golden Mary's hair, a silken curl still full of mysterious life, shimmering, flexible, and oh! so pathetic. I held it up to the light of the candle, and it curled round my finger like a forlorn little spirit seeking love . . . . .
Sister Veronica gave me that silken curl, and I, Vaiavala, I ran to the freshly-made grave; with my fingers I dug a hole over where Golden Mary lay, into that hole, Vaiavala, I laid the shimmering curl. I laid it as near Mary's heart as I could.
But that night I no more returned to the convent but lay for many hours on the little nun's grave, lay there beneath the shining stars, upon the grave of one I had never known . . . . .
Vaiavala, canst thou tell me why?
In that same country, Vaiavala, I one day closely followed two women who were sauntering together along a narrow path, a narrow little path bordered with flowers. Neither of the women was young, Vaiavala, but the one walked like a Queen, her head thrown back, and the soil she trod on seemed to answer her step, to be glad that she was passing that way. The trees, the flowers, the birds were mysteriously in harmony with her movements; it was to me as though she were in intimate communion with the things that grow.
The other held her face turned to the ground, and seldom did she raise it to look at the sky overhead. Her gait was shuffling and yet precise; no buoyancy was in her tread.
These two women were talking, and distinctly did their voices sound in the clear still air. Of no special interest were the things they related, but the quality of their voices was so different that, strangely fascinated, I listened to their words.
The first one's voice was sonorous, vibrating, and had something within its notes that reminded me of tears and kisses, and yet all she said came like a song from her lips. I had the feeling that she hid great depths within her heart, great possibilities of either joy or suffering. I had the curious sensation that she could have turned into gold the things she touched.
The other's voice always cut into the first with something like a complaint, with something that reminded me of fetters and chains, of clipped wings and tight-shut windows. Through all that the other related this second voice broke in with words that tarnished the glamour of the summer's day, words that were like nets thrown over birds to stop them from soaring through the skies.
Vaiavala, I know not if thou followest my meaning, but in all things the one saw shining rainbows, whilst the other saw only the dust that powdered her sandals . . . . .
They had halted beneath a tree, and the younger woman, with dream-filled eyes, looked up into its branches and began talking about someone who had gone. Her words trembled with emotion, sometimes her voice was soft as velvet, sometimes there was a ring in it like far-off bugle notes.
All she said lifted my heart above life's corroding cares; she had a way of bringing out each beauty, of throwing a heavenly glamour over the simplest fact. I followed her mind-pictures as one who sees before him a beloved landscape over which the sun is pouring its golden radiance; at moments even the clouds seemed to part, revealing the snow of angels' wings.
The other was listening with a reserve that was full of protest, and when her companion paused, she broke into her speech and suddenly the world filled with gloom, there was no sunshine left, the clouds were a threatening terror; the leaves whispered no mysterious tidings, the birds' voices held no promise, the earth was but earth and the stones but stones! Love was but a delusion, pleasure but a lure, happiness but a bubble, flowers but wilting hay, hope but a fading spectre, faith but an idle word, God but a bogy with which to frighten small children.
Again the first woman's voice rose like a song into the air; she was pleading her cause, relating some joy that had been; her words drew pictures that were beautiful as well as holy, words through which a divine spirit seemed to move; and in spite of the evident grief that shook her, I felt that no bitterness had place in her heart.
With tight-shut lips the other stood rigid, and so uncomprehending was her expression that the talker's words seemed to fade or turn to ashes as they reached her brain; their wings seemed broken, they fell to the ground like tired leaves, then suddenly they ceased . . . . . and I saw that her eyes were full of tears.
I don't think she knew that she was crying, anyway she found no more to say to the woman who stood beside her; but all at once a warm tear fell trembling upon her hand and, with a little cry, she bent towards it, exclaiming “Oh look! The sky, the sun, the green of the trees, the flowers of the field are all reflected within this one small tear; didst thou know that a tear could be so beautiful that it could hold a rainbow within its tiny surface?” As she spoke the large tear rolled from her hand down on to the road.
“Look!” answered the other, “the tear has turned to mud as it touched the ground!” But the other was not listening; with folded hands she was looking into the sky, as though she could read some message within its limitless blue.
Vaiavala, which woman saw things as they really are? The one who could see the rainbow within a tiny tear, or the one who only saw how it turned to mud on the ground?
Vaiavala, what answer canst thou give me?”
But Vaiavala sits quite still and does not reply.
“Vaiavala, perhaps thou art impatient, perhaps thou wishest me to hurry my tale, to weary thee no more with the hazy problems that have weighted my mind? But so long have I been silent, Vaiavala, that now having reached thy feet I must open my heart, I must allow all my pent-up suffering to flow in words from my lips. One day perhaps, Vaiavala, thou wilt answer me why so great a longing I found in all human eyes; perhaps one day thou wilt deign to tell me if Love really is but a delusion and happiness, but a bubble that a sigh can break into a thousand tears. One day perhaps thou wilt say that I have been but a fool, Vaiavala, wandering after the shadow of a thing that never existed.
Sometimes, O Vaiavala, I am afraid that my hair will be white before I reach the mystery that lies behind thy marble brow.
Vaiavala, why could I not hurry to my goal, seeing naught before me but the long road over which I had to wander? Why had I to weight my heart with the tears of others, and my brain with the questions I read in their faces? Why had I to linger and listen to voices telling me of strange sufferings that had naught to do with my own life and destiny? Speak, Vaiavala, a single word—tell me why?”
Vaiavala bends forward, and slowly the words drop from her lips: “I am never weary of thy stories, Dornadhu; to many more could I listen. A long string of human tears is more precious than a flashing diamond chain. Whilst thou speakest I feel them slipping one by one, like a long rosary, through my fingers. Some are heavy, some are but fugitive drops, some are icy cold, some are as warm as life, and I too, Dornadhu, can see a rainbow within each single surface, even of the smallest amongst them.
I would not bid thee go ever further on thy way if thine eyes had remained closed and thine ears had not opened to the voices of those who weep. Tell me more, Dornadhu, and one day maybe thou wilt not even need an answer from these lips of mine; thine own soul will have solved the mystery.
But speak now about thyself, Dornadhu. Tell me of thine own pains and sufferings, of thine own smiles and tears, for till now it is but of others that thou hast told me, Dornadhu.”
And once again Vaiavala lays her fingers against the sad man's forehead; like a warm flame the touch envelopes his brain, new life does it bring rushing to his veins.
“Why need I talk about myself, Vaiavala? Oh! dost thou not see further into my heart than I myself can do? I have the feeling that nothing is new to thee, although thou sittest there lonely and immovable upon thy throne of stone. The sound of the water that laps against thy walls, both inside and outside thy dwelling, must tell thee more than my poor voice can do. Meseems thou boldest all the threads of life between thy ten white fingers, and that thou couldst play upon them as upon the strings of a harp.
But as I must forever fulfil thy desires I shall now tell thee about something that knocked at the gates of my heart—of which thou alone possessest the key. Listen, Vaiavala, for now I come nearer my goal!
For many days had I been sailing over the great blue sea when I reached a distant harbour in a land I had never seen—for tidings had come to me that somewhere in this country lay the temple with the great red stone.
Through a dream of enchantment I seemed to he wandering, so fair was the world around me, so manifold the flowers, so spreading the trees, so lovely the women's faces.
Wherever I went doors were opened before me, gentle hands held sweet fruits up to my mouth, and more than one soft voice bade me tarry. But everywhere, Vaiavala, in all human eyes did I see that look of longing; old and young seemed moved by the same desire for something that passed them by—even in the eyes of children did I see it, but in theirs it was but an eager question which they imagined could be easily answered.
Only once did I see great peace imprinted upon mortal brow.
But the man was very old, Vaiavala, and his eyes were blind . . . . .
I was sauntering one evening over far-stretching asphodel fields. Out of the shadowy earth the tall pale shafts grew up all around me, some as high as my shoulder; each flower was a star of delicate pink, and their perfume, like their name, was full of mystery, and spoke of things the soul conceives but never can fathom. Over all a soft grey mist was floating that mingled with the horizon.
Slowly I advanced through these dreamland flowers which stared at me as though wondering why I disturbed their silence. But their faces were friendly, and I loved their paleness and their straight-growing stems.
I cannot tell thee what peace lay over that stretch of ground; there was a haziness about its colouring, a softness of tone that reminded me of the folds of thy dress, Vaiavala . . . . . so that I was seized by the great need of thee, by the great desire to touch thy hand and look into thy face. I was tired, so long had I wandered, so much had I seen and heard, so many lands had I left behind me, and not yet had I reached my goal.
Because of thee, Vaiavala, nowhere could I take the happiness that oft-times was offered to me; nowhere could I lay my head against a heart that answered mine, thy face, thine eyes, thy voice were always there to separate me from others, reminding me that thy slave I was—thine alone. And yet, Vaiavala, I was lonely and needed love. Sometimes, Vaiavala, I felt as though I had been quite near happiness, that it had brushed my sleeve, opened wide its door to hid me enter, but that I had passed unseeing, blinded by my love for thee. But now I must speak of a happiness that came quite near; that I saw, that I touched with my hands, that I . . . . . but listen, Vaiavala!
As I stood upon that asphodel field, in silent communion with Nature's beauty, I saw a rider coming towards me.
Ash-grey was his horse, grey was his cloak, and shadowy the colour of his armour. In his hands he carried a spear, the point of which shone in the waning light.
The mane of his steed was so long that it almost touched the ground; its tail floated out behind it like a wisp of fog, its hoofs too were grey as finely-veined agate, and so lightly did they tread that they hardly crushed the plants over which they passed.
The man's face was stern, his hair was black, his eyes lay deep in their sockets beneath dark brows that barred his forehead with an uncurving line. He seemed not to see me but stared over my head into the distance—he was like a shadow risen from shadowy lands. His head was bare, save for a wreath of pale poppies which lay upon his raven locks.
He reined in his horse and stood quite still, the butt-end of his spear resting amongst the roots of the asphodel plants.
As, amazed, r stared at this unwonted vision, another rider rose out of the mist and halted where the first one was standing.
White was his horse as the foam upon wind-whipped waves, silver his armour, and on both sides of his helmet two large wings he wore, white as those of a seagull; in his hand he held a sword that shone like a sunbeam piercing through summer clouds.
His face was young, and soft was the smile that played round his half open lips; his eyes were blue as the flowers of spring, blue as Italian skies.
Then out of the distance a third rider came and stood in a line with the other two. His horse was black as the cloak of night, his armour as dark as ebony wood, his face as pale as a holy church-taper, and round his head he ware a bright and shining circlet resembling hoar-frost on a moonlit night.
In his hand he held a blood-red rose covered with trembling dew, his face was ascetic as that of a saint, and his eyes held a strange light, as though they were shining through tears.
Beautiful were these strangers, and with awe I stood staring, waiting to hear what they might have to say; for now all three were looking at me. On a sudden I felt shabby, dusty, and way-worn; I felt ashamed of my saddened features, of my dream-haunted eyes; ashamed of the haggard lines that marked my countenance. I felt as a shadow pursuing shadows in contrast to these three who were so bright.
Then the first one spoke, and these were his words:
“Follow me, O stranger, for with the point of my spear can I open a door which will reveal unto thee possibilities of which thou hast never dreamed!”
And the second spoke:
“Follow me, O stranger, for with my sword I can cut a chain that no other blade can sever.”
And the third one said:
“Follow me, O stranger, for this red rose I shall lay upon a heart in which a great love has found its resting place.”
And all three lifted their arms and pointed in the same direction; the one with his spear, the other with his sword, the last with the rose that was the colour of blood . . . . .
Was I dreaming, or had I strayed into a land of visions? I could not speak, my tongue had lost all power, my arms hung limp on both sides of my body, only my eyes were wide open, absorbing the beauty of those three strange riders that, phantom-like, had come into my life.
Then, one after the other, each of them asked:
“Stranger, are thou coming with us?” and with husky voice I answered:
“Lead the way, I will follow; but sorely puzzled am I to know which of you three I should choose!”
“No need to choose” answered the first, “for we are brothers, and go the same way—come with us, for thou art weary. We see that far hast thou wandered, and that thou art in sore need of rest.”
So I followed the three riders, Vaiavala, and meseemed as though my feet hardly touched the ground.
Soundless was the tread of their chargers as they advanced over the dusky plain; the asphodel plants seemed to bow before them, in homage and each long shaft cast a longer shadow before the hoofs of their horses. As the light of day faded from the skies, the black and the grey charger became one with their surroundings, but the white horse stood out all the clearer, and seemed like a moving promise which I had to follow till the end of the world . . . . . also the tip of the spear that the grey knight held shone like a star in a Southern sky.
I know not how long we walked; I felt no fatigue, no fear, no apprehension, I simply followed these unknown riders. I knew I would have followed them wheresoever they led.
Night came on and still we were wandering. An early moon had risen in the sky, flooding the road we were taking with a silvery radiance. Like dew it lay on every stone; each plant, each flower became a luminous treasure full of ghostly magic. I looked up into the heavens that were alive with thousands of millions of stars, and the longer I gazed, the more stars grew out of the sapphire blue vault above me—an Eastern night full of splendour, full of colour in spite of the darkness, full of life in spite of the silence, full of mystery that contained sleeping unfathomed possibilities.
Bringing my eyes with reluctance back to the ground I saw a long, low, flat-roofed building appear on the horizon, as white as a linen shroud. Its uneven lines had about them a calm beauty that filled me with wonder and delight. It might have been a holy city rising out of the desert to encourage the pilgrim's flagging spirit. Soon I perceived that the three riders were heading that way.
Still, for a time we advanced, and then almost before I was aware of what was happening, we all four reached a broad, low portal, studded with heavy nails that shone in the moonlight like precious pearls.
Noiselessly the great doors opened, swinging silently back on invisible hinges, and the three strange knights crossed the threshold, I in their wake.
We had passed into a world of mystical enchantment. A large garden, surrounded by walls so high and so white that they might have been chalk cliffs near some lonely sea: the whole enclosure was paved with large marble slabs that shone like freshly fallen snow. Against the walls long beds of milky roses were planted, and the flowers were shedding by thousands their delicate petals; huge white moths hovered about them like restless spirits. In the centre was a large pool of dark water which gleamed like polished onyx, and this water was covered with water-lilies that had opened widely to gaze at the sky above; so many there were that they tried to rival the stars overhead.
Strangely did the horses' hoofs sound on the pavement; and now it was the white charger that was hardly discernible, whilst the other two, like great shadows, led the way.
They were moving towards the wall that lay beyond the pool, a wall which was less high than the others. As we came nearer I saw three doors . . . . . three narrow metal doors, and they also were flooded with mystical moonlight.
The three knights halted before the three doors. My heart began suddenly to beat, for I felt that some strange mystery would soon be revealed to me . . . . .
The grey knight did not dismount but raised his spear high in the air, where it shone with marvellous radiance. Then, lowering it, he touched the first door. It swung back on its hinges . . . . .
I had come quite near, and was standing close against the rider's stirrup. Leaning forward I gazed through the opening, but at first I could not see anything, nothing at all but thick grey vapours that floated out towards me as though a great fire were burning beyond.
The rider was soon enveloped by them, so that he seemed smoking like a high heap of ashes; his charger's tail and mane mingled with the fumes till man and horse became one intangible cloud.
But these fumes were not smoke; they did not blind my eyes, neither did they lie damp on my face and hands. I cannot say of what nature they were.
Still I gazed through the open door, and at last I could distinguish a small path, a narrow little way, running like a fleeing secret through the moving mists, and shadowy, ghostly steps must have passed along it, for there were traces of foot prints on that uncanny small road to which I could see no end. However, in the dwindling distance, meseemed a faint light was shining, like the moon behind clouds.
A great desire came to me to step over the threshold, to follow those phantom footprints, to run along that little path that led I knew not whither. Following my impulse I made a step forward, when a restraining hand was laid on my shoulder.
“Not yet, O stranger!” said the knight, “first turn thee towards my brother, and see what he has to show thee beyond that second door!”
Obediently I turned and went up to the snow-white rider and looked into his marvellous face. A beautiful smile illuminated his features, and his eyes were full of god-like tenderness. Lightly he laid his hand on my head, and it was as though a great gladness uplifted my soul.
Then the radiant rider raised his sword, and, like a flash of lightning it struck the metal door, drawing from its surface the sound of a deep-toned bell. Slowly it swung back on its hinges, and it was as though I were looking through the gates of Paradise.
A garden I saw all flooded with golden light, and growing on a flowering meadow were three wide-spreading magnolia trees, covered over and over with snow-white blooms. Their immaculate purity was unshadowed by foliage, their great cups had opened widely and shone like stars of frost. A delicious perfume pervaded the air, and a thousand opal-tinted butterflies floated amongst the boughs. There was no night within that garden; it was full of radiant sunshine.
And there upon the soft green grass, half hidden amongst a medley of pale narcissus, lay a maiden with her face hidden in her outstretched arms.
Her limbs were covered with rags, and round her body a heavy chain had been wound, wounding her delicate flesh.
Like a shining river her hair flowed through the grass, away from her uncovered neck.
The white knight dismounted, and stepping through the open door went up to where the maiden lay; with a sudden stroke of his sword he severed the chains from her frail young body.
How he did it remains a mystery, for although the stroke was a mighty one, the young girl rose unharmed to her feet, the chains falling off her to the ground, where they lay in coils like a dead serpent.
As I gazed upon this youthful figure a curious transformation came over it. Gradually the rags it wore turned into a radiant robe, and on a sudden it was no more a girl that stood before me but an angel all bright and wonderful; such a light encompassed her that it was more than I could bear. I fell on my knees on the threshold and covered my face with my hands.
When again I looked up, the door was shut and the knight was once more seated like a figure of silver upon his snow-white horse . . . . .
Long I gazed into his beautiful face; the marvellous smile was on his lips, and both his hands were joined in prayer round the blade of his sword, which he held up like a cross before him.
“Who was it?” I asked in an awed whispering voice, and this was the answer he gave me:
“Love didst thou see—Love chained, and Love set free!”
“And where is she now?” I asked.
“She is in the Garden of Eden awaiting the one God will send unto her” was the knight's reply.
Again I asked: “And who is that to be?”
Strangely did my heart beat as my lips framed the question.
“That is God's secret” was the solemn reply.
Then I bowed my head as one who had been rebuked.
“There is still a door which has not yet been opened before thee” continued the knight. “Hast thou the desire to see what lies beyond, or wouldst thou rather return the way thou camest?”
“Let me see all there is to be seen” was the answer I gave him. And slowly I moved to where the black rider stood with the rose in his hand. I noticed with awe that the dew still lay on its petals; in the moonlight they shone like tears.
The man's face was pale, his eyes stared at me like deep waters of which no bottom can be seen. The line of his lips was sorrowful; he did not greet me, nor give sign of welcome as I carne to his side. But leaning from his saddle he stretched out his hand and touched the door with the crimson flower.
Slowly, without sound, it opened, and at first nothing could I see but a thick dark curtain that hung to the ground in heavy folds. The black knight slipped from his saddle, and with a quick movement drew the curtain aside . . . . .
What then I saw was a small circular chapel of golden mosaic. A bluish light filtered through narrow glass windows which had the colour of precious sapphires, so that a luminous radiance lay in long azure lines over the black marble floor.
The chapel was quite empty, except for a low couch that stood on the floor, and upon that couch that was draped with precious stuffs lay a wonderful woman—with closed eyes. A soft veil was spread over her, and close to her head sat a strange old hag, wizened and witch-like, who was bending over a brazero, out of which vapours so penetratingly sweet were rising that the odour made me feel almost faint.
The old creature did not raise her head as the knight stepped into the chapel, although his spurs rang dismally on the marble slabs. She seemed dazed by some great sorrow; tears were rolling clown her furrowed cheeks, falling one by one amongst the ashes and the smoke floated like a veil round her sad grey locks.
Breathlessly I watched the black knight's movements, wondering if he would awake the sleeping woman; like a shadow I followed his steps.
Bending down he very gently removed the veil from her face . . . . . a beautiful face, flawless, perfect, but white as a garden lily. Her profile was outlined against the golden background, and had the rigidity of a marble statue.
The longer I looked the more wonderful did her features appear to me. I longed to bend over her, to kiss her, to bid her awake. I longed to look into her eyes, to hear the sound of her voice, to feel the touch of her fingers . . . . .
Then suddenly I saw the expression of the dark knight's face! Such an agony of sorrow did I read thereon that instinctively I turned my eyes away, for I felt that I was on holy ground.
No sound came from the crouching hag, but her tears continued to drop one by one into the glowing embers. And suddenly I understood that I was in the presence of Death! The beautiful woman was not sleeping; she was dead . . . . . dead! . . . . .
When I looked closer I saw that in her pale right hand she held an arrow . . . . . an arrow, the point of which bore traces of blood.
What did it all mean? Who was she? What had she been to the man at my side?
He now knelt down beside the couch, and as one who performs some holy rite, he laid the rose on her bosom—the blood-red rose—and as he did so the dew-drops fell from the petals to the ground as though her stilled heart were weeping great tears of woe.
He did not kiss her face, he did not touch her hands with his lips, his movements were not those of a lover, but rather of a vassal doing homage before his Queen.
Silently he rose to his feet and stood for a moment quite still, looking down upon the beautiful face; then very gently he drew the arrow from between her fingers—the arrow that was stained with blood . . . . .
Why did he take the arrow that she had been holding in her hand? As he turned I saw something very curious come to pass. The red rose that lay on her heart suddenly opened—opened widely—and all the crimson petals fell to the ground one by one; and verily now her heart was not weeping, but bleeding heavy drops of blood . . . . .
But the black knight did not see that his offering had fallen to pieces, for his face was hidden in his hands . . . . .
Then we were outside in the moonlight once more, but I have no remembrance how we got there. The three heavy doors were shut, and the three knights sat in a row on their chargers, and three pairs of eyes were intently fixed upon me . . . . .
I stood dumb before them, overcome by all I had seen. I longed to ask for a word of explanation, but I could not raise my voice, no sound came over my lips.
Then it was that the white knight spoke; the knight whose smile was so strangely wonderful—whose voice was as soft-falling snow.
“Stranger, we have revealed to thee what few have seen. Three doors did we open before thee, and now we ask thee: which door wilt thou that we should open once more?”
And still I stood mute. A great trembling came over me, Vaiavala, for I knew not what answer I should give; nor did I understand what these riders expected of me.
At last, in a hoarse whisper I managed to ask: “What is the meaning of these doors—where do they lead? Can I open whichever I would?”
And again it was the silver-clad knight who answered:
“The first door means Life; means the Unknown, means Hope. Some call it Fatigue, some call it Endeavour, some call it Ambition, some call it Work, some call it Sorrow, and the fewest call it Joy.
The second door means Love: some call it Heaven, some call it Hell . . . . .
And the third door means Death: some call it Rest, some call it Despair, some call it Attainment, some call it the End, and others call it the Beginning—each according to the need of his soul, according to the life that lies behind him . . . . .
I am not here to teach thee which of these things is the Truth, but I and my sterner brothers ask thee which of the three doors thou wouldst we should open once more?”
I could not answer, but I looked from the one to the other, and each face was beautiful and dear to me—I could not say which moved me most . . . . .
The man with the ash-grey charger seemed still to ask something of life, some unanswered desire like the one I carried in my own heart. He who rode the snow-white horse had the face of one who stands in the centre of Joy, but he whose steed was black as night seemed to have gone beyond the shores of Hope, leaving Life and Love behind him . . . . .
I knew not which I loved best, nor which I longed to follow. Their eyes were to me as the stars of Heaven, each bearing another meaning that I was only half allowed to understand . . . . .
Now it was the grey knight who spoke, and meseemed his voice was full of yearning, such as the winds carry over the mountains on nights when the leaves are falling to the ground, and this vas what he said:
“Open the first door and thy road will be long, but Hope will ever lead thee like a luminous comet—even when clouds encircle thee . . . . . Open the second door; if thou art strong enough Joy will be thine . . . . . Open the third door, and if thou art tired, Rest wilt thou find . . . . .”
Vaiavala, I was tired! So when I heard these words I knew that my longing carried me towards that third and last door . . . . . my only wish was to enter therein, to forget that any other doors there were that could yield to my touch . . . . .
My foot was already turning that way; all else had I forgotten, Vaiavala! Even my great wish to serve thee always; yea, even my desire for thy lips was forgotten in the great hope of the Rest that was so near—when the black knight stretched out a hand and stopped me:
“Answer me first, O stranger” he said, “Has no desire dwelling in thy heart? Has no hope place in thy soul? Whence hast thou come, and whither art thou bound? Does no duty bind thee to the things of this world? Enter not within that door unless thou art ready to return no more! Does no one await thy coming? Hast thou given no promise? Is there no voice thou hearest through the silence? Are there no eyes thou seest in the dark? Is there no face thou dreamest of in sleep?”
Then I gave a great sob, Vaiavala, and meseemed as though something cold and hard were breaking in my heart, and I saw thy beauty, thy red lips, I saw thy deep unanswering eyes, thy white hands that have been laid on my head; and I knew, Vaiavala, that I was not yet ready to enter that third and last door, neither because of thee could I enter the second. Only the first could open before me, Vaiavala, for my longing was still too mighty—my heart was not yet at peace.
With bended head I passed the three mysterious brothers, and though my face was hidden in my hands I felt how their eyes rested upon me; as one driven by some irresistible power I turned my steps to the first door, through which I had perceived the small path with the phantom footprints . . . . .
When I had reached it I stopped and turned to look once more upon the mystic figures.
There they stood, like three holy Saints come down to earth. I felt as though I owed them some debt I could never repay, as though they had always dwelt within my heart, as though they were mysteriously part of myself . . . . .
Vaiavala, canst thou tell me why?
I was now on the shadowy path . . . . . I was on the other side of the first bronze door . . . . . I was alone, separated from the three men who had led me hitherward. As I stood there, enveloped by floating mists, I wondered if all had been but a dream; I wondered if those three mysterious riders had only been three visions that sleep had conjured before my brain?
I looked about me. Nothing could I distinguish. On all sides I was shut in by fog—in front of me, over my head, beneath my feet it rolled in heavy clouds.
I could not distinguish what was underfoot, the light was so faint, and too hazy the state of my thoughts.
I know not how long I had been walking; to me it seemed hours, although I felt no fatigue. Then gradually the mists began to clear a little, and a faint shine pierced their thickness, beckoning to me to hurry on.
I began to run; faster and faster became my pace, as though my feet had wings. My body seemed to have lost all weight, I hardly knew how I was moving. It was more as though the ground beneath me were slipping away.
But where was I going? Why had I taken this road? The road of Life the white knight had called it . . . . . and it was because of thee, Vaiavala, that I had chosen it—because of thee that I was running down it like a child after a shadow.
But now forms were growing out of the fog like the ghosts of trees, one after another, more and more, and with each stride I made they became less indistinct. Also the ground beneath me became firmer, and all at once I realised that I was running down a narrow path paved with stones, between two lines of tall cypress trees, that rose out of the ground like black columns of smoke mounting to the skies.
But even upon the stone slabs I could still see the shadowy foot prints that had passed before me down that way . . . . .
Who could it have been? A lover running to some happy tryst? Or perhaps a lonely heavy-hearted wanderer like myself, or a sorry dreamer not strong enough to seize happiness when it came his way? Or perhaps some prisoner escaping from his chains, or some criminal seeking shelter?
I paused awhile and looked about. As far as my eye could reach, the narrow path lay before me, with the dark trees on both sides. I turned round, and behind me the same path stretched seemingly without end.
Again I began to run, and now my feet made a pattering sound upon the stones, and more than once I looked back to see if I were being pursued. The fog came down anew, shutting out all things from my sight. I ran and ran, till all at once I was brought to a standstill by a slow-flowing river that gleamed through the mists like a broad grey ribbon shot with silver thread.
Breathless I halted on the very brink—in fact my feet nearly touched the water's edge. I had just stopped in time to save myself from a fall.
Never had I seen so sluggish a current; it rolled so slowly past me that it hardly seemed to move. On both banks weeping willows were drooping their branches into the water, they swept over the surface like long grey locks.
All this I perceived but indistinctly, as through a filmy veil, for all about me was rendered hazy by the curtain of vapours that lay over the water, that hung between the branches, that floated over everything, dimming my sight as though my eyes were full of tears.
Then I saw something white floating on the water, swimming slowly by, and perceived with astonishment that it was a wreath—a wreath of delicate white anemonies . . . . . and as I gazed more wreaths came floating along, all of them white like large rings of snow. And they lay so helplessly on the water, as though abandoning their fate to the mercy of the sluggish stream.
As I bent over the bank, watching these mysterious wreaths, I heard a faint sound, and, turning, I saw a long file of figures coming towards me over the path by which I had just come.
Hurriedly I concealed myself behind the branches of a willow tree, and again it was to me as though I were dreaming. And this is what I saw:
A procession of barefooted maidens shrouded in mist-coloured veils, bearing in their hands flaming torches that cast a fiery shine through the folds that enveloped them, and made the white wreaths they wore glow like glaciers when the sun has set, and a last shine remains like a blessing over the highest peaks.
When the maidens reached the water's edge they stopped; a lovely chant, full of longing and mystery, rose into the air and floated through the branches towards me. So melting was its sound that my heart vas ready to break, for a great yearning did it awake in my breast.
The strange song rose and fell as though on the waves of some phantom sea; the whole air seemed full of voices, to be vibrant with hymns of praise.
Then, with an unexpected movement that took me by surprise, the maidens simultaneously turned their torches to the ground, putting their flames out against the damp stones upon which they stood. As they did so I saw three grey marble steps leading down to the water's edge—curious it was that I had not noticed them sooner.
And now a strange scene came to pass, which I could only faintly perceive, like a dream vision veiled by the fumes of the fog. The maidens let the torches fall from their hands and, lifting their white arms like long swans' necks over their heads, they took their wreaths from off their brows and, holding them for a moment to their faces, they touched them with their lips, and then with gestures of infinite grace they flung them far out into the river, where they floated away like sad little dreams.
With arms crossed over their breasts they stood awhile with bowed heads, like adoring priestesses before an altar of sacrifice. No song came now from their lips, silence lay over the earth; a faint breeze alone rustled through the branches, for the myriad leaves were whispering to each other, asking the meaning of what they saw. I too, Vaiavala, greatly desired to know who these virgins were, and what was the strange rite they had performed on the brink of this slow-flowing stream.
But now they all turned from the water's edge, and picking up their extinguished torches they mounted the three stone steps and filed silently away, not by the road they had come, but along a small path almost hidden beneath the weeping-willow branches that bordered the river.
I counted them as they passed: there were twenty of them, but their faces I could not see. Then, creeping out of my shelter, I watched their retreating forms, rejoicing over the way they moved; they resembled widowed Queens following the fallen to the grave. Soon their draperies became one with the foggy surroundings, and they were lost to my sight.
I was just wondering if I should follow the road they had taken, when a shrouded figure came rushing towards the river, her veil flying about her like morning mists.
I had no time to step aside, so that the hurrying maiden nearly ran into my arms.
With a cry of fear she halted before me, drawing her draperies closer around her, and shielding her face with her uplifted arms, as one who fears an assault.
Carefully I approached her and, laying a hand upon her shoulder, I said in a voice that I endeavoured to render as gentle as possible:
“Be not afraid, O solitary maiden! I am not here to harm thee; I am but a weary wanderer who, having lost his way, seeks someone who can show him a road he may safely take. Canst thou tell me where I am, or is there perchance aught I can do in thy service?”
The girl let her arms fall from her face, and through the clinging folds of her veil I could see how young she was.
Like a frightened bird she raised her head and with faltering voice began to speak, stumbling over her words, for she was breathless from her flight.
“I am too late too late . . . . . all the others were ready before me . . . . . all the flowers had they plucked; there were no more to be found, and without a white wreath I dared not come! And then I grew afraid and desperate; nowhere, nowhere were any white flowers left—and we priestesses dare not pluck flowers with colours that are bright. So . . . . . the others left me . . . . . and this is the Feast of Feasts, and if I come too late Zorohana will smite me with his wrath, and Dalua will tear the veil from my head and cover me with shame . . . . . for thou must know it is the Feast of Feasts!”
And covering her face with her hands, the woeful virgin wailed in great distress.
“I found but a single' white flower and see, it is broken! Its white leaves hang as though fading too soon, yet it is young and could have lived many a day beneath the smiles of the sun, but I broke its petals in my hurried flight . . . . .” And she held up before me an ivory-tinted iris, of which two translucent petals hung sadly down, as though the storm had battered them about.
“Thou knowest not” continued the maiden, “what it means to incur the great god's ire, or to have to face Dalua when anger is upon her. Then her eyes become flaming torches, and her face white like that of the dead; but her lips remain red, as though she had been drinking blood . . . . . O Dalua, Dalua! I dare not face her in her wrath! . . . . .” And again the poor child was overcome by despair. I could make naught of her speech, yet greatly did I long to know what she meant.
“Come” said I gently, “sit down upon this marble step, and it may be given to me to help thee in thy plight, but before all else I must better understand of what thou speakest. Tell me, who is this Dalua, whose eyes resemble flaming torches, and whose lips are as red as blood?”
For a moment she stared at me, then with the gesture of a child who clings to its mother, she suddenly seized my hand and, pressing her close to my side, I drew her down to the water's edge; she did not take her fingers from mine, but sat huddled close to my knees. The crushed iris fell from her grasp to the river, where it floated slowly away; and then she began to relate what now I shall tell thee, Vaiavala. And her voice was like that of a child recounting mysterious tales of long ago. This is what she said:
“Beyond this slow-flowing river a temple there lies, built of stone that is dark as night; but its floors are golden, as though the sun had fallen from the skies.
Behind many a close-shut door is an inner chamber, and there upon a throne of ivory, in solitary grandeur, sits Zorohana the mighty god. Seldom is his countenance uncovered, for a heavy veil shrouds his glory. Only once a year, in the month of Flowers, at the Feast of Feasts, are his features seen, but so great is his beauty that all tremble and fall down before him, unable to sustain so wondrous a sight.
The temple is served by twenty-one priestesses who cast flowers before him and polish his feet with their hair, burning incense and singing sweet hymns to his praise. They also tend the gardens that lie in front of the temple in terraces, built one above the other, overlooking a lake.
But only one lives within the temple gates; a strange and mysterious woman, of whom no one knows the age, nor whence she came—always has she been there, and years do not alter her face.
Dalua is her name, and her power is such that the god alone is her master, and all in the land bend to her will. She knows every language, and all arts are hers; no secrets can be hidden from her, but her smile is as a two-edged sword, and her voice carries within its notes the sound of Fate.
On the day of the Feast of Feasts every virgin in the land brings a wreath down to the river, and, casting it into the water, begs the slow-moving current to carry her offering to the holy lake that lies beneath the great god's dwelling. Virgins alone have the right to offer these floral gifts. On other days other sacrifices are made before the great god's throne, but never yet have I seen of what nature they are, for on those days Dalua alone serves Zorohana her master, and I know not what rites are performed.
I was chosen but a year ago, and only once have I beheld Zorohana's face, and now no doubt never more will I be allowed to serve his glory!”
Overcome with despair, the innocent creature threw herself forward, hiding her face upon my knees.
“Vaiavala, greatly was I moved by this tempestuous grief, and, bending towards her, I lifted her up against my breast and held her in my arms as though she had been hurt a weeping child. As I did so the veil fell away from her head, and her face, Vaiavala, was as a lily covered with dew . . . . .
I bent down, O Vaiavala, and I kissed her eyes . . . . .
And now the maiden was leading me along the path that bordered the river. The willow-branches brushed her face and more than once caught in the folds of her veil, dragging her head backwards, arresting her advance; then she would turn, and long would her eyes rest on mine, and I felt less lonely, because of the look she gave me. Aluna was her name, her face was soft as a velvety peach, her mouth had an anxious droop, and her large eyes were the colour of sapphires when they are starred by a light. The fingers that clasped my hand were eager and clinging, like those of a child, and often would she smile through her tears.
I know not if it was her fear that made her my friend, but anxious she was that I should not leave her alone.
Vaiavala, thou knowest how, because of thee, no other woman can have place in my heart. Yet it did me good to feel such confidence, because each man dreams of soft lips that call upon his help, of small white hands that try to hold him fast. So I followed this maiden, Vaiavala, simply because in need of me she was . . . . .
As we walked along the fog began to lift, and pale rays of sun shot through the floating vapours like long fingers of light that were searching for something they had lost.
Then, as though by magic, the clouds that encircled us suddenly lifted, revealing the wonderful vision of a temple suspended at the summit of a precipitous rock. Almost at our feet lay a lake, of which the sleeping green waters were covered by thousands of snow-white wreaths, that lay upon them like dead swans that had been wantonly destroyed, and the sluggish stream was bearing more and more wreaths to this place of rest . . . . .
My companion had knelt down by the water's edge, and I saw that her hands were clasped, and that she was gazing up to the temple with a look of ecstasy mingled with fear.
Gigantic it rose against the sky, its huge black columns supporting a flat malachite roof that shone like a lizard's back.
Over the lake a delicate vapour was still hanging, which gave the wreaths the appearance of small smoking altars, where incense was burning in honour of Zorohana the mighty god . . . . .
“Thou must take me to the temple” I said to the girl, and, rising to her feet, she led me to where a small boat lay moored amongst the low rushes that grew at certain places along the edge. I noticed, however, that the poor child was trembling as though a great fever were shaking her limbs.
I wanted to row her across, but she had seized the two heavy oars, and I soon realised that she was skilled in this art. I watched her face beneath the folds of her veil, and I saw how the tears were falling down her cheeks.
“Art thou afraid?” I asked, and in reply to my question she bowed her head.
“But I shall not forsake thee” I said, leaning towards her. And a sad little smile was the answer to my words.
“Hast thou heard of a precious ruby adored in this temple?” was my next inquiry, and at my words Aluna started, and looked at me with frightened eyes; and then with a low voice she whispered:
“Yes! the Great One wears it on his forehead, and it contains marvellous powers, and is feared and adored by all. But at night Dalua takes it from Zorohana's brow and carries it into the chamber where she sleeps, and there it lies in a crystal chalice which has the form of a tulip. But when the night is darkest the magic stone glows like embers; it even has been told that it can speak, but I know not if this be true.
Vaiavala, I sat pensive, wondering over what the girl had said. But again she plied her oars, and cleverly steering her way in and out of the wreaths, she soon reached the further side, and there we left the boat.
We were standing in a grove of cypresses that solemnly pointed towards the skies. In the centre of these giant trees, there where the shade was thickest, a marble altar had been built. Mysteriously did it shine, and its paleness attracted me like the face of a corpse.
Taking me by the hand Aluna obliged me to bend my knees at her side. She leaned her forehead against the hard cold stone, and I saw that she was praying with all her soul; but I, Vaiavala, could do naught but gaze at the pale marble, forgetting the girl who was with me. And out of the stillness meseemed that I heard the sound of
Vaiavala, canst thou tell me why?
Aluna had led me as far as the lower garden terrace, and there amongst a rambling mass of roses we lay hidden like two thieves who had no right to be there.
Our hearts were beating, we were breathless, for the ascent had been steep and we had mounted without pausing the thousand and one steps that led from the cypress grove to the place where we crouched.
All around us flowers were planted in luxurious masses, and the sound of many bees hovered through the air. Against the black sides of the temple magnolia trees bloomed in snowy profusion; their blossoms were so large that they looked like flights of white doves upon leafless boughs.
I could see how fantastic was the size of the columns. They stood like giant shadows supporting the roof of shimmering green. Behind their double rows the great portals stood open; a narrow carpet of gold had been laid over the centre of the many black steps that led to the building, and through the open door it ran like a mighty python sliding along in hopes of penetrating within the inner sanctuary.
I longed to get nearer, to have a look into the interior; a great desire came over me to see the god, to see Dalua the high-priestess, to see the stone I had come to fetch . . . . .
As though answering my thoughts, Aluna, who was cowering with her head on my shoulder, her two hands convulsively clutching mine, began to whisper, and her soft breath fanned my cheek so that I closed my eyes, for indeed, Vaiavala, it was like a caress.
“We must wait” she said, “for now is the hour when the floral offerings are being laid at Zorohana's feet. Ah me, and I am not there! Will I ever again dare come before his face? All the year round with impatience have I been awaiting the Feast of Feasts, so as once more to look upon the glory of his countenance.
Wait still awhile, then I shall lead thee nearer, and thou shalt see Dalua come out, followed by her priestesses, for she passes over the golden carpet, descending to the lower terrace; thence, looking down upon the waters, she blesses with strange words the wreaths that all the virgins of the land send on this day to Zorohana their god.
Mairara, the great river, bears all these gifts down to the holy lake, and even the maidens who, hindered by illness or misfortune, cannot go to the water's edge, send their offerings by others, for no happiness is hers during the year if on the Feast of Feasts she bring not a wreath, for it is the day set apart for the virgins of the land. Therefore am I accursed, no doubt, for was not my gift but a flower with broken leaves!”
I felt how sobs mounted to her throat, and I drew her nearer to me, laying my lips against her golden hair. It was to me as though I held the whole of Spring in my arms. To feel her thus near me was infinitely soothing, and although a great grief shook her dear young body, her presence brought strange peace to my soul.
For a time we remained thus; Aluna lying close against my breast, both of us forgetting the danger we ran. Her heart was beating against my side, and a great tenderness rose within me, a great longing to be kind to this frightened child.
I felt no love for her, Vaiavala, no desire for closer caresses. She did not fire my blood nor make my pulses race, but it was to me as though something very holy had touched my life. The abandon of this innocent body within my arms was as a healing hand upon my unstilted yearning for thee.
Aluna was the first to break the silence that had fallen between us. She stood up with a start, and, pulling her veil down over her face, she drew me to my feet; with a warning finger pressed against her lips she led me to the second terrace, and thence to the higher one, upon which the temple stood.
We crept along, hiding behind the bushes and shrubs, concealed by their wealth of bloom, till we reached the foot of the black steps that led up to the open portal. For a moment we stood shelterless, but my companion dragged me behind a low wall that bordered the steps, where a tangle of white roses fell down like a curtain, mercifully covering our retreat. Thorny was our refuge, but between the long rambling branches we could see without being seen.
We were only just in time. A sound of chanting burst through the great metal door, and a troop of maidens came dancing out, some with small harps in their hands, others with cymbals, and some struck with small sticks against strange metal instruments that gave out a sound of deep-toned bells.
These dancers were hardly older than children, their tunics were short, and of the colour of maize when it lies ripe on the fields. They wore golden sandals that shone like fallen stars beneath their feet.
Then came two priests in shining apparel of blue and gold. Upon their heads they wore metal mitres, studded with many gems.
Each carried in his hand a bowl of jade; flat was its shape, and its colour was that of a mountain glacier when the moon looks down upon it. A mysterious flame burnt in their centre, and thin spirals of smoke rose from them straight into the air.
Then came the twenty priestesses I had seen at the water's edge, but now their robes were as white as the hawthorn blossom, their faces were uncovered, and wreaths of jasmine crowned their heads.
Two and two they descended the black stone steps. So strong was the reverberation from the golden carpet that the hem of their tunics seemed ablaze with light. Like transparent wings their veils floated behind them, giving them the appearance of angels come down to earth.
Suddenly Aluna's hand began to tremble in mine, she tightened her grasp, and, her lips close to my ears, she whispered:
And then, Vaiavala, a sight I saw as seldom man is allowed to look upon!
Two giant Nubians came striding out of the doorway. Their ebony bodies shone in the light like burnished bronze. Their mighty limbs were naked save for the golden cloths about their loins and the scarlet sandals on their feet. Their arms were crossed over their powerful chests, and their eyes were like coals in a setting of snow. Their heads were entwined with scarlet turbans, the ends of which hung down at the side of their faces.
But it was the woman that came behind them who made me draw in my breath with a gasp, half fear, half ecstasy, for, Vaiavala, wonderful she was indeed.
A marble-white apparition clothed in raiment that changed from red to blue, from blue to violet, from violet to gold, with each step she took, so that she seemed to have wrapped herself within a rainbow fallen from the skies; transparent it was, as finely spun glass, so that the wondrous body could be seen through it in all its perfection.
Tall as a Grecian column, she wore a jewelled girdle beneath her small rounded breasts, that were protected by tiny shields of heavily chased gold, set with priceless emeralds.
Her hair was not long, but stood out round her face in a maze of short curls that looked black as night; only as the sun smote down upon them they had the tint of ripe plums when they hang all blue upon their branches.
Pressed deep on her forehead she wore a circlet of emeralds, from which large drops of grey pearls hung down almost into her eyes, and on each side long strings of emeralds fell amongst her raven locks like green adders hiding amongst gorse over which a great fire has passed.
Never had I seen woman so pale, nor face so white, nor lips so fearfully red. A mask of ivory dashed with a line of blood, sinister and perfect, attractive and repulsive, giving me the feeling of freezing, whilst flames encircled my heart . . . . .
I could not see her eyes, for her face was not turned our way, but somehow I felt that they must be as terrible as a night of storm.
She looked straight before her with head held high, and between her snowy fingers she carried a crystal chalice, within which something red glowed like a beacon seen from afar.
At both sides, Vaiavala, four black panthers strode in couples, treading softly like giant cats; their eyes were greener than the emeralds their mistress wore, their coats were like velvet, and so glossy that they shone like silver in the sunlight. These prowling beasts of prey were attached to Dalua's girdle with chains of gold.
I cannot describe how she walked. She might have been floating over clouds, yet her advance gave the feeling of strength comparable only to that of the panthers at her side, and just as soft was her tread.
Her feet were bare, and the nails of her toes had been dyed with red.
All this I saw, Vaiavala, and a strange madness came over my brain, filtering into my blood, as I looked upon her.
Because of thee, Vaiavala, I had always been indifferent to woman's charms, but now I had a terrible desire to kiss her crimson lips, and as great was my desire, Vaiavala, to throw myself upon her, to wrestle with her strength, and to make with my fingers a living chain round that long ivory throat—Vaiavala, I felt as though with my hands I longed to throttle the life from her body . . . . .
Yes, these were the passions she awoke within me when I looked upon her face . . . . .
Vaiavala, canst thou tell me why?
It was night. The mists were again rising from the lake, creeping around the giant temple, enwrapping it with floating veils of white, hiding its base so that it appeared to be built on a sea of clouds.
Somewhere behind these vapours the full moon hung high in the skies, so that the night was not dark, but fantastically lit with a dim radiance, as though the day were shining somewhere far away through curtains of thick white wool.
And I, Vaiavala, hung suspended between heaven and earth, cowering on a window-ledge, peeping into the temple where Zorohana sat enthroned.
Aluna had led me to this place, for I had left her no peace. I desired once more to contemplate the face of the wonderful woman with the scarlet lips.
Sadly had the maiden looked at me as, with a timid hand, she caressed my cheek. “Thou too, Dornadhu” she sighed, “thus has it always been; no man can resist her charm—like a snake she snares them all within her spell. When once they have looked upon her waxen face they feel they must look again. Yet it has been said that she keeps her eternal youth by drinking the heart-blood of those who have loved her fatal beauty. I tremble for thee, Dornadhu; I hoped thou wouldst be stronger than the others that came before thee!” And the look she gave me made me understand that her lonely little heart had too easily opened its doors to let the stranger in!
All day long had we been hiding together; she had led me to a secret place where, sheltered beneath the shadow of a cave, she had brought me food, and I had lain waiting for night to come down. She had somehow revealed her presence to her maiden companions, for she returned after a very short absence with a bowl of milk in her hands, but tears coursing down her cheeks.
Nothing could she tell me except that we were in great danger, because Dalua was wrath against her, but this night she would not search for the culprit, for she was needed by Zorohana the god.
And then, Vaiavala, I had cruelly threatened to leave her unless she enabled me to look into the temple so as to gaze once more into the pale woman's face.
Therefore was I perched in this precarious position, peering through a chink of onyx window that allowed me a secretive glimpse into Dalua's dwelling.
Listen well, Vaiavala, for indeed what I saw was no usual sight.
The chamber resembled a crypt; it was built of unpolished black stone, and its low-domed ceiling was held up by thick-set columns of gigantic build. The floor was of golden mosaic—“as though the sun had fallen to the ground”, to use Aluna's descriptive words. The room was empty but for a large broad couch, covered over and over with tawny tiger-skins, on which a huge crimson cushion still kept the imprint of a human body. In the centre of the floor there was a small shallow pool, circular in shape. A thin jet of water shot out of the centre, and, strangest of all, Vaiavala, wonderful bubbles of many colours were thrown up into the air by this tiny fountain, bubbles so marvellous in hue that at first I could not detach my eyes from them. They followed one another, each trying to outdo the former in beauty and lightness. They shot up towards the ceiling, their magic colouring clearly defined against the sombre walls. They hung a moment in the air and then they were gone, to be replaced by others.
They did not burst, they simply were no more, like dreams too lovely to last.
Having satiated my eyes with that magic play of colours, I turned my gaze again to the ground and saw how Dalua's four great panthers lay round the shallow fountain; like enormous shadows from hell they crouched, their velvety limbs abandoned-in plastic ease.
In a further corner stood a slim bronze tripod that had taken the tints of lichens, out of which sweet-smelling fumes were rising in wavering lines of blue, like long sighs become visible.
There was a harmony of line and colour about the place greater than any I had ever seen; and yet it filled me with a feeling of hidden disaster, as though black thoughts in keeping with the tones of the wall hovered everywhere, saturating the air with things unseen, but heavy with sin.
Opposite the window where I was hiding I noticed an enormous door. It was of sombre metal inlaid with intricate golden designs, and three strangely entwined circles of rubies marked the centre, as though some mysterious finger had traced them with blood. I know not wherefore, but those red circles drew my eyes ever towards them like , uncovered wounds which I hated to look upon, and from which, however, I could not take my gaze away.
Making an effort, I turned my head from the room and stared awhile at the moon's pale face as she slipped from behind the clouds, peeping at me as though she longed to send me some message, and when I looked again into the chamber the great door had been opened and I could see into an enormous circular hall, as black as the room I had been watching, but lit by an odd blue light that filled the place with mystic enchantment.
But it was not the hall that I saw, nor its proportions, nor its walls, nor its floor; it was the wondrous apparition that stood in the open door.....Dalua!
She stood facing the window where I crouched, and for an awful moment I imagined that her eyes had discovered my retreat, for they were looking straight at me. Fearful eyes, O Vaiavala! They were verily like phosphorescent lights gleaming over hidden waters where swamps lie sleeping.
Her beauty was almost more than human being could face. Snow and alabaster, ivory and ermine had been blended together to form her perfect body, which the long tunic only veiled so as to make it more terribly tantalising.
The robe she wore seemed woven out of the first rays of dawn. Fiery was its hue, and of each movement she made a golden shine played over its folds, as though some god had caressed her with fingers of light.
One snowy arm resting against the lintel of the door was raised above her head; her two white feet seemed like twin flowers fallen upon the golden floor, but her toe nails were rosy red, like shells polished by the waves of the sea. Her breasts heaved beneath the small golden shields that glistened like tiny mountain peaks lit by the midday sun.
The great panthers had risen from their postures of repose, and like slinking cats out of some nightmare they crept over the floor towards her, fawning upon her with caressing movements full of stealthy expectation, moving from side to side their sleek tails, which resembled black serpents searching their prey.
Dalua threw back her head and gave forth a long-drawn call, unlike anything I had ever heard. Immediately the two huge Nubians were at her side, as though risen out of the ground. She gave them some order I could not understand, then she bent towards her uncanny pets, and before I could realise what was happening, she was wildly wrestling with all four of them, her movements as quick, lithe, and powerful as their own. It was a wild game, splendid to behold, but it had within it something cruel and terrible, that made my blood run cold.
Suddenly, with a gesture of inimitable grace, she flung the great beasts from her and stood up panting and breathless, stretching her arms above her head, whilst a wild laugh escaped her crimson lips, her strong teeth shining as white as a peeled kernel in an over-ripe fruit. Round her pale cheeks the bluish curls foamed like short waves of some tempestuous sea.
Every pulse in my body throbbed and raced as I looked upon her beauty. I felt a tinghng sensation at the tips of my fingers, and again the overpowering desire was upon me to throttle the life out of that too-perfect throat, to feel it struggle beneath the grip of my ten steely fingers that were longing to kill . . . . .
But now the two slaves came back, bearing in their hands bowls of burnished gold. Still loudly laughing, Dalua seized hold of the first and set it down before the panthers; then, taking the second, she placed it alongside of the first . . . . .
But oh! listen, Vaiavala! The bowls were full of blood! And Dalua was laughing, and her mirth sounded like mocking voices from the gates of hell . . . . .
The panthers raised their heads from the howls out of which they were drinking, and with green glittering eyes looked at their mistress, whilst small streams of scarlet flowed from their lips upon the floor of gold . . . . .
Turning with one of her wind-swift movements, she again gave some order to her slaves.
The one fetched from some far-off corner a wreath of roses burning-red, and a filmy transparent mantle of shining gold. The wreath he pressed with his huge dark hands upon her weirdly-tinted curls, throwing over her shoulders the sun-coloured cloak which he clasped with a golden clasp. And the other took from the floor the four golden chains, which he slipped round the black panthers' necks, fastening the ends to Dalua's jewelled girdle.
I could not bear to see those uncanny giants approach her wonderful body; when they touched her with their horrible fingers I was seized with a sensation of rage, yet meseemed that Dalua lingered too willingly beside their brutal strength. I hated the smiles she gave them, and the way she bent her beautiful visage backwards, gazing up with parted lips into their faces of sin.
Dalua, with sliding step, turned through the open door. Dully growling, the four wild beasts followed her movements, obeying the chains that held them captive; and I saw how she passed into the mighty hall beyond, where now only I perceived a white figure seated on a throne in the centre of the golden floor. Vaiavala, words fail me when I try to describe the god that sat there upon his ivory seat . . . . .
Young was his face as the new-born day, the realization of each man's dream of perfection, with a beauty beyond all human hopes—changeless, immovable, inconceivably still.
A crown of light encircled his brow, and in the centre of his forehead a ruby, there shone of wondrous size. His hands were crossed over his breast; in the one he held a silver arrow, in the other a small flower fashioned out of four great pearls, of which the heart was a diamond, coloured like a drop of honey. His feet were resting upon a glistening serpent that had the changing tints of a humming-bird's wing—verily I believe the brute was alive, for no art could render such colours, nor such supple curves. I knew not which to gaze at most, Dalua or Zorohana her god, for both were of matchless beauty!
Over god and priestess the extraordinary bluish radiance played, filling the place as with the mystic light of the moon.
The Nubians had laid a small crystal bowl between the hands of their mistress, and I saw that also this bowl was full of blood! . . . . .
Dalua put her lips to it, and to my horror she actually drank of the gore! Then, slowly advancing, she dipped her fingers into the crimson fluid and sprinkled therewith the feet of her god.
As she did so, the python which lay curled up beneath them slowly began to move, heaving its endless coils into sudden creeping life. Terrible and beautiful was the unrolling of that many-coloured monster, of which as yet I could see neither tail nor head. There was something about it like deep waters beginning to rise, of a tempest swelling from under the ocean . . . . .
Vaiavala, I was feeling so tense and so wild that maybe my; nerves were overstrained, but I had firmly to clench my teeth together so as not to scream out at what now I saw.
Dalua had placed her precious bowl on the floor; by slow degrees the sliding reptile had unwound its coils, and was gliding towards it . . . . . at the same moment Dalua began to dance—a dance such as never before had I seen. Slow, rythmic, wonderful, her body was as lithe and sinuous as the creature that was creeping towards her. But what was so terrible, Vaiavala, was that the four black panthers were obliged to move backwards and forwards with her, for were they not chained to her girdle of gems! I saw that they hated it, resenting their captivity and the part to which they had been put; I felt that gladly would they have rent her asunder had not some charm kept them at bay.
So clever were Dalua's movements that the four chains never got entangled as she moved and glided over the glittering floor; they waved about her body like four rays of light.
Both splendid and repulsive was that wild dance in honour of the immovable, indifferent god; but more was still to come, O Vaiavala!
At a moment when Dalua, with one of her most unexpected movements had thrown herself back, arching her limbs like an ivory bow till her fingers nearly touched the floor behind her, the sliding monster began to creep slowly, very slowly, up her slim bended body, crushing her gold-red tunic beneath his clinging embrace . . . . .
Dalua did not move from her extraordinary posture; no feeling of revolt, disgust, or fear shook her limbs, but she allowed the living horror to take possession of all her beauty, and, worst of all, Vaiavala, close to the golden floor I could see her wonderful lips smiling a voluptuous smile, whilst her eyes veritably gleamed like those of the four wild beasts that stood looking on in cowed approval!
Then, slowly, this fiend-like woman straightened her body, slowly like the opening petals of a magic flower . . . . . There was something soft and languorous about her movements, as though with pleasure she were yielding to a caress that all her senses responded to in delighted abandonment . . . . .
Then again she was standing upright, and the python was rolled round her chest and twisted about her two outstretched arms, its tail in one of her palms, its horrible flat head in the other, and on her lips was the eternal smile!
Like a crowned Empress, the marvellous woman advanced to the throne of her god, and, kneeling down before him, bent her head till her wreath of roses touched his two white feet, the four black panthers standing behind her like uncanny shadows of the night . . . . .
As thus she leaned in adoration before him, her two arms still extended with the terrible serpent coiled around them like thick bangles of translucid enamel, the roses began to shed their petals over the great god's feet.
They fell in a shower of crimson, bathing his snow-white toes with a stream of colour.
Indifferent, immovable, the god smiled down upon his servant who was the most beautiful creature on earth . . . . .
But I, Vaiavala, remembered the rose that had fallen to pieces on the dead woman's heart, and meseemed as though it were because of beings such as this terrible Dalua that other women's hearts must break!
Vaiavala, canst thou tell me why?
It was next day. The moon and her pale mystical light had been replaced by an all-invading sun that streamed down upon me in golden rivers as I bravely mounted the giant steps that led to the door of the temple. Today it was shut; its surface gleamed with a thousand lights, for it was of burnished copper, and so shining that each time I looked at it, arrows of fire seemed to pierce my eyes.
During the night a plan had ripened in my mind . . . . .
I had quitted Dalua's window overcome by all I had seen, a wild fever of longing raging through my blood—longing for what I could not clearly say . . . . . yet I knew that I must see the enchantress from near, speak to her, look into her uncanny eyes, touch her hands . . . . . touch. . . . .
And forgive me, Vaiavala, but at that hour of madness I thought no more of the stone thou hadst bidden me ravish; it was of that mask-like face that I thought, Vaiavala; of those lips I had seen smiling close to the golden floor; it was of the lithe-gliding body that the serpent had embraced; it was of those strange blue curls over which the red roses had shed their dying petals; it was of those two white feet with the tinted toe-nails; it was of those arms, those shield-covered breasts . . . . . all that I must see from near, must touch . . . . . must . . . . .
Vaiavala, at dawn I had taken Aluna in my arms, all rosy from her sleep, where I had left her the night before in a corner of the cave. Dead leaves and morsels of moss clung to her veil and had sought a nest in the fluff of her hair. Like an awakening kitten, she had nestled against me, and looking down upon her youth I realised that here I could have drunk deeply of pure mountain waters, yet my lips thirsted for the poisonous wine which that other woman could give me.
Man-like, I claimed that which lay beyond my reach, and had no desire to take what easily could have been mine.
Yet the girl's eyes were as blue as the heavens on a summer's morn, her face had the tint of apple-blossoms, her lips were soft and loving, her hands had a gentleness that was a promise of sweeter things, and the rays of the sun had been ravished to paint the sheen on her hair . . . . .
But I, Vaiavala, was speaking of my desire to go to that other woman . . . . . and that neither danger, nor risk, nor . . . . .ultimate misfortune could keep me back; no, not even the tears that clouded her dear eyes, nor the two tender arms that clung round my neck, nor the warm living lips that in a fit of despair were trying to hold me back with their kisses . . . . . for, Vaiavala, when danger seemed near . . . . .to me this soft young thing gave way to the new-born love she had conceived . . . . .
Oh why, Vaiavala, should her innocent heart have bloomed beneath the weary sadness of the wanderer's dream-filled eyes? Indeed, 0 Vaiavala, better it had been had she kept her treasures for one more worthy . . . . .
However, it was this clinging maiden who finally helped me to my desire, and we decided that I should approach the temple as a humble pilgrim seeking to fall down in adoration before the great god's feet.
Aluna got me a staff, both long and thick, and laid in my hands a wreath of flowers; she told me at what hour the high-priestess would probably open the temple door and bade me kneel as a waywearied supplicant before its mystery, awaiting there my fate from the hands of the terrible woman, and the mercy or the rage of Zorohana her god . . . . .
So I threw my dark cloak over my shoulders, seized the long staff and, kissing the weeping girl, I climbed one by one the black steps of the temple.
And now, with bent head, I was kneeling before the shut copper door; on the dark stone before me lay the wreath of blue flowers like a small piece of sky torn from the heavens.
My two hands were clasped round my stick, against which I leaned my head; beneath my tunic my heart beat like a heavy hammer.
Long did I remain in this humble posture—I know not how long. But when I heard the great door slowly open, I dared not raise my head.
A smell of incense came wafted towards me with a feeling of coolness, for the glittering shield of the door had made place to a void that was full of shade. Still I kneeled with lowered head, and ever more rapid became the beating of my heart . . . . .
Suddenly a ringing voice made me look up, and there in the open door stood Dalua!! Dalua, clad in green like the waves of the sea, a green that might have been blue, that had within it the cold tones of the glacier, that was deep as mountain lakes, yet shimmered like frosted torrents. Her girdle was a blaze of diamond, and on her strange-coloured curls she wore a heavy wreath of blue water-lilies with deep golden hearts. Her hands were full of the same precious flowers; some had fallen at her feet and lay on the black pavement like small birds that a ruthless hand has killed.
Her terrible red lips were half open, and beneath her frowning brows her eyes shone greener than the colour of her dress. As usual, her feet were bare, and each of her toe-nails might have been a shining pink topaz.
With her swinging step she strode over to where I knelt, for I had bent my head once more, and must veritably have looked like a humble mendicant come from afar.
“Who art thou, stranger?” came Dalua's voice, that seemed to pierce me through and through. “This is not a day of high offerings, too late hast thou come; the great god needs none of thy gifts—get thee hence, and trouble not his peace!”
I raised my head and gazed at her beauty finding no answer. I was dumb before her extraordinary charm; but no doubt my eyes expressed more than my lips could have done, for the hard expression began to fade on Dalua's face. “Whence comest thou?” she asked less harshly, “Why are thy clothes so dusty and thine eyes so sad? Too much longing do I see in their depth. But go! carry it elsewhere, for Zorohana hath no need of thy flowers or sighs.”
But then I cried in a loud voice:
“Dalua! O let me pronounce thy name, for has it not a sound that fills every heart with hope and fear! Dalual! I have come from far to fall down before Zorohana, the greatest of gods. I am searching for that which is hardest to find; therefore is it my desire to cry out my prayer before the glory of his face.” And I looked up at her with trembling lips.
“How Gamest thou here? Who showed thee thy way? What right hadst thou to penetrate within this holy enclosure, where no human foot dares enter without my consent? Meseems almost as though there had been some treachery! . . . . . Thou hast drawn down upon thee the great god's ire, for none bath a right to look upon him except on certain days of the year; get thee hence, I say, or it may go badly with thee!”
But I kept my eyes fixed upon her, I could not tear them away from her face, from those lips that looked as though they had been dipped in blood. I answered her, and my voice sounded hollow, like the voice of a stranger:
“I come from a country that has no name, neither does it matter who I am. I carry within my heart the great longing that sends all wanderers forth, the desire towards the unreachable treasures each man dreams that he alone will find. Therefore have I strayed through many a land, led by an impulse that nothing can stay; and now, looking upon thy face, I wonder if perchance God has led me to eternal sources I never dared hope I would reach! Dalua! Therefore allow the tired wanderer to look upon thy god, thanking him humbly for having led me thus far, allowing me to stand beneath the same sky as thou!” And I rose from my knees, joining my hands in supplication, knowing no more what words I was saying, neither if a part I were playing, nor if indeed I were speaking the truth. But I felt how words bubbled up to my lips, words with which I must answer this woman, words, Vaiavala, that ought to have been kept for thee alone!
Vaivala, in truth it was my pent-up longing that poured from my heart, the eternal desire for that something my whole being needed, and which thou didst always cruelly withhold!
“Dalua!” I cried, “Each man strives after perfection—he will run from land to land, he will cross seas, he will climb mountains, led by an insatiable desire for the things that lie beyond his grasp. Most of them at the outset imagine that they know what they want, but the further they wander, the more do they realise that each step is but a new desire towards the one that lies beyond . . . . .
Thus higher and higher does he climb, leaving behind him both tears and smiles, but ever striving for that something which his soul has never clearly conceived . . . . .
Dalua, meseems at this hour as though I had found my desire; as though it lay hidden within thy sea-green eyes, behind thy lips that are the colour of blood, between thy hands that are full of flowers. Dalua, open thy door, open thy heart, reveal to me the mysteries of thy being . . . for, Dalua, I am thirsting! Dalua, I am dying of thirst!”
Vaiavala, I had lost all control over my tongue, the words came pouring over my lips, they were drawn from my soul by her terrible beauty, for man is defenceless before this greatest of powers! His heart, his soul cry out towards it, his hands open in the desire to hold it fast, to be the first and the last that ever dare touch it! To be the only one! . . . . .
And the strange woman stood smiling before me, the sun enwrapping her with a mantle of light. Upright stood she, magnificently aware of the spell she had cast over me, and, as I watched her, I saw how her expression changed, and how her ire turned gradually into cunning, into the eternal desire of woman to play with the hearts of men. I saw her body straighten beneath the sudden temptation that came to her, to try what game she could play with mine . . . . .
Meseemed I was able to follow her every thought, but in spite of my intuition I was as wax in her hands; I knew I had met my master—I trembled, and yet rejoiced! . . . . .
“So great is thy desire, o stranger” were the words she spoke, “that I shall take it upon myself to lead thee into the temple, and let thee lay thy offering before the feet of Zorohana my god, and my prayers shall so ardently mount towards him that perchance his wrath may spare thee and forgive thee, because thy road has been long, and because thou comest from so far—it cannot he expected of thee to know the customs of this land.”
And, turning, the wonderful woman led me through the wide-open door. As I passed the threshold, the two giant Nubians appeared out of the dark interior and stood at the entrance like sentinels risen out of hell.
On their faces there was an ugly leer. They seemed to be rejoicing over someone's misfortune.
But I, Vaiavala, felt as though my feet were treading on air!
Again it was night, but this time I was not outside in the dark, perilously perched upon the ledge of a window, but inside the crypt-like room . . . . . I was sitting on the fur-covered couch, and close to my knees in a robe of glittering silver sat Dalua, and in her hand she was holding a glass filled with golden wine . . . . .
Her wild locks were tossed about her face, her brow was clasped by a circlet of honey-coloured diamonds, entwined with flowers neither blue nor mauve, but of which the overpowering perfume stole like magic into my overheated blood. I will not tell thee, O Vaiavala, of all that had gone before, for need a man speak of the hours when he lives beneath the needs of his soul? For, although I hated this woman, I had gone mad with joy beneath the touch of her lips, beneath the caress of her imperious hands.
I had seen her dance before the face of her god in a robe that had the sun's glowing colour, and in another that resembled the starlit night. Six times for the joy of the stranger had she changed her apparel; I had seen her floating like mist on an autumn meadow, I had seen her draped in white, like a drift of snow, in blue, like the horizon where sky and waves melt into one, in purple, like the juice of the freshly-crushed grapes, and each time I could have sworn that it was the colour that made her most hard to resist.
I had seen her dance madly, like a woman who has lost all reason; slowly, as though overcome by woe; lightly, as a spirit floating on a cloud; languorously, like one dying of love; and her limbs had shone through her draperies like a marvellous mystery only half-revealed. And once, O Vaiavala, had she cast all her raiment from her and I had seen her in all her incomparable perfection, without either veil or girdle or golden shields, and that time, Vaiavala, her four panthers had crept round and round her like four evil spirits awaiting their hour of revenge.
But the great python had remained curled up beneath the feet of the god, as though no life were running through its shining coils.
Whilst Dalua had danced—was it for Zorohana, or was it in my honour, that I cannot tell—the two Nubians had continually thrown unknown ingredients upon the ember-filled tripods that stood in the four dark corners of the hall; strange lights had flared up, shedding marvellous reflections over the dancing, twisting, bending figure, and I looked on with throbbing pulses and beating heart, deeply absorbing the poison the woman's fascination distilled into my blood . . . . .
Love and hate mingled in my soul, a desire to kiss, and a desire to kill, but the woman's eyes never left me—they were ever watching me like those of a cat.
Once she had led me up to her god, and I had laid the blue wreath Aluna had given me on the ground before his throne. In a moment of madness Dalua had mounted with her bare feet upon the sleeping serpent, its soft coils giving beneath her weight, and, stretching up her beauty towards the immovable god, had kissed him upon his lips of stone . . .
The god had neither smiled nor frowned, but at that moment the woman in all her perfection was but as a worm looking up at the face of the sun. Never had she appeared to me so small and so worthless. But when she turned, o Vaiavala, I actually saw in her hard green eyes that same look of longing I had seen in all eyes, along all the roads I had wandered under the sun and the stars, under the wind, the rain, and the dust of every land I had passed through . . . . .
And I wondered, Vaiavala, if even this lawless woman had some ideal, some desire she had never reached? Perchance she also had her dream of longing? Did she hope that one day her god would awake out of his indifference, and that whilst he kissed her glowing lips he would pierce her insatiable heart with the silver arrow he held in his hand? . . . . . and somehow, since the moment that thought came to my mind, I always kept thinking of that arrow which the god clasped in his fingers of stone.
I know not, Vaiavala, what pleasure Dalua found in my presence, nor what end she had in view, but when I wanted to leave her I felt that no longer was I free; I felt that a golden chain had been thrown round my neck, like those of the cowed and captive panthers which had been obliged to follow her every movement as she danced her symbolic dance.
Then suddenly I thought of Aluna, and a great desire came over me to see what she was doing, to feel sure that she was safe . . . . .
Did Dalua read my thoughts? I know not, but from that moment with subtle cunning she began to question me as to how I had found my way to this far-off temple, of how I had crossed the lake and climbed the stairs, as to where I had spent the night . . . . . and once she had pronounced the name of Aluna, and with narrowed eyes she had watched my trembling lips . . . . . Vaiavala, although never a word did I say, I felt that from that instant the fate of my poor little companion was sealed, and that Dalua needed none of my confessions to confirm her suspicions, but such was the power of this weird enchantress that, as long as her eyes were upon me, I felt naught but my desire for her.
She must though have noticed a certain change in my manner—was she not all-seeing?—for she redoubled her sweetness, and her caresses were such that I nearly swooned beneath the touch of her hovering white fingers. She put a cup of golden-yellow wine to my lips, and, as I sipped it, I felt that I must die or kill this woman, for I could bear no more!
Then, quite unexpectedly, my fair jailer left me alone in her chamber of stone. She shut the metal door upon me, the black metal door upon which the three ruby circles glistened like three stains of blood.
I know not why she had left me . . . . . At first I sat dazed, with racing pulses, and empty head. For a wild instant I had thought of escaping, but the moment I rose to my feet the four black panthers rose also, and stood before the door like four dark warnings that spoke of an inevitable fate.
And then for the first time the remembrance of thee, Vaiavala, flooded my brain, and in silence I cried my despair to the walls of stone, and my mad desire to be with thee, far from this abode of sin! I cursed my weakness, and the despicable passion that had thrown me into this wild woman's arms . . . . .
I passed my fingers over my lips, trying to efface the taste of Dalua's kisses that still burnt upon them. With loathing and disgust I passed my hands over my crumpled tunic, striving to straighten the disorder her embrace had wrought in my apparel. I tried to smooth my locks that I felt were tumbled and matted, as one who has walked against the storm . . . . . a sensation of sickness enveloped me, a 'disgust of all human passions . . . . . a wild craving for the calm beauty of thy face, for the cool mists that eternally envelop thee. And suddenly meseemed as if thou alone knewest the secret of life, and that in thy everlasting wisdom thou hadst rightly done when thou didst for ever refuse me the touch of thy lips which, at this hour of abject suffering, when Dalua's kisses were still hot, seemed a draught from the eternal-sources of Heaven.
O Vaiavala, thou hadst thy revenge in that hour, for never, oh! never was I so completely thine; never, oh! never had I felt how thou alone wert all my desire, all my faith, all my hope, all my belief . . . . . and because for the first time I had sinned towards thee, meseems I felt thee softer, less distant, because now it was myself not thee that I most reproached; I was humble because of my weakness, and like a weeping child I yearned to seize hold of thy hand . . . . .
But the door opened, and Dalua stood on the threshold looking at me. In her left hand she held the silver arrow, and I saw that its point was stained with blood!
Her eyes had a queer expression, but the eternal smile had not left her lips. Behind her came one of her giants, carrying in his mighty hand a small metal bowl that was full of blood.
Slowly the fatal woman came towards me; she was paler than ever, and her robe shimmered silver like the road the moon marks over the ocean when it sleeps.
She drew me down on the couch beside her, she leaned all her beauty towards me, she bent her half-open lips to mine, like a ripe fruit ready to be picked . . . . . but my eyes saw naught but her fingers, for, Vaiavala they were tipped with blood!. . . . .
What then happened I really do not know; nothing comes clearly back to my mind; I only know that, like a madman, I threw her from me, tearing the arrow from between her fingers. I sprang past the Nubian, who was so taken by surprise that the bowl he was holding fell with a crash to the ground, and I saw how the blood ran in a tiny stream over the floor. But like a wild deer I sprang through the door, rushing blindly into the hall where the god sat eternally smiling, through the many enclosures, down the mighty steps of stone, till I reached the night beyond. There I stood a moment, shaking my clenched fist towards the face of the pale old moon, and at that moment, Vaiavala, meseemed that heaven and earth, the stars, the sky, the silence of night, and all the hearts of men had joined together as eternal foes meaning to curse me, to point me out as one who had broken his faith . . . . .
Vaiavala, I need not ask thee why!
How was it no steps were following mine? Was it possible that those black fiends were not at my heels as through the dark I sought my way back to the cave where, in the early morn, I had left Aluna all in tears? How was it that some monster did not spring out from behind each tree to stop my flight? But no! deep silence everywhere; even the leaves on the trees were not whispering to each other. Only once meseemed I heard a wild laugh ringing out of the temple into the night! But it may also have been a delusion of my overwrought nerves. Suddenly I felt something heavy in my hand, and, remembering the silver arrow I had ravished from Dalua, I held it to the rays of the moon. The light made it resemble an innocent feather, but as I stared at it it seemed to turn into a cruel little secret of which the hidden meaning soon would be revealed.
Was I mad? Or had I really lived through this day of passion and folly? Had I really held that marvellous woman in my arms, kissing her lips, and receiving from hers caresses such as never I knew could exist? My blood still ran wild from her touch; the perfume of her hair and of her many coloured apparel still clung to my clothes, filling me with a nameless repulsion. Yet my pulses leapt at the remembrance of her, for fatal was her beauty, and incomparable the perfection of her body.
Perhaps it was all an illusion? Only some haunting remembrance out of the world of dreams?
But now I had reached the entrance of the cave, and, bending my head, I crept within. At first I could not see anything at all—I groped about as one struck by blindness. With my hands I felt my way along the walls; uneven and damp was their surface, and my feet sank deeply into the dead leaves that covered the ground.
With a gasp of relief I espied in the further corner the folds of Aluna's mist-coloured robe. So she was still there, thank God! thank God! Hastily must I awake her, and together must we flee through the night, away from this place of temptation and danger.
Kneeling down beside her I bent over her, and with trembling fingers I touched her body, her face—I felt her soft hair beneath my hands.
How deeply she slept . . . . . how chill was her skin, how silent her slumber.
“Aluna!” I whispered, “Aluna! Arise, we must flee! Aluna, don't be afraid; we must not tarry, for danger lurks in every corner—the night is filled with foes. Aluna dearest, awake and come with me!”
Silence . . . . .Aluna did not stir. Why did she not move?
“Aluna! Aluna!” I cried, regardless of who might hear me; “Aluna, come, we must hurry, there is no time to be lost!”
But Aluna lay silent, and no movement answered my call. The sweet head was not lifted, the dear eyes did not open to gaze into mine.
I was getting more accustomed to the dark; I could see more distinctly around me, and now I could also distinguish the features of the girl . . . . .
Her head was thrown back, and oh! Vaiavala, her eyes were not shut; they were wide open! But they did not see me, they were staring with sightless orbs at the roof above. . . . . and over her breast her two hands were convulsively clenched with a gesture of fearful protest.
My heart thumped against my sides like the surge of some anguish-filled tide beating against imprisoning boundaries. I leant over her, I took one of her hands from her breast; it was cold and hung heavily in mine, and when I looked nearer I saw it was darkly stained with streaks of blood. . . . .
For a moment I felt I was turning to stone, and yet this horror hardly came as a surprise—something within me had 'expected it all along, some instinct told me that this would be!
I knelt like one who has received a deadly blow, holding that blood-covered hand in mine, and staring at her poor dead face without being able to detach my gaze from those open sightless eyes.
Aluna! Aluna! . . . . . and this morning she had pressed all her soft budding maidenhood against my heart that had turned away from her innocence towards those lips of sin . . . . .
Too late! Never more would I be able to whisper consoling words into her ears, never more would I be able to answer the longing she had carried in her hardly-awakened desires towards the eternal sources of Love! Too late! Never more would I be able to tell her that I had turned in loathing and disgust from the one who had taken her life!
For ever must she sleep with the thought heavy upon her that the stranger she had loved and trusted had succumbed like all the others to the wiles of that fatal being, who kissed and killed, and laughed at the tears of men. Never would she know that I had rushed back to her as one rushes to a fountain of cool, clear water after a night of fever and delirium.
Then the curiosity came to me to see how she had died . . . . .
I moved her stiffened fingers from her breast and saw a tiny deep hole in the very centre of her heart, out of which an uncanny little stream of darkness had oozed like a small gliding snake . . . . .
Aluna must only have been dead a few moments . . . . . I had come just too late!
I fell across her body and gave way to my grief and distress, half-mad with pain and impotent indignation, feeling all the time that I had been in some way the cause of this ruthless dastardly crime.
“Aluna, dear little innocent, flown to purer regions—wherever thou mayst be, may the dear God above allow thee to see how scalding were the tears the stranger shed over thy forever stilled heart!”
Then I thought of the arrow still clutched in my hands, and I saw that its blood-covered point exactly fitted into the tiny hole out of which Aluna's precious life had escaped in a dark stream no one had been there to staunch.
For a while no thought clearly came to my mind; all seemed blank, hopeless. I had no desire, no wish, no hope!
A terrible weariness came over me; I felt how my limbs refused me obedience, felt that I was on the point of swooning. For a while I lay quite still, holding the dead girl in my arms, murmuring words of endearment to the ears that could hear me no more.
But gradually a thought began to take shape in my mind, clearly detaching itself from the chaos in which my brain was floundering. The arrow in my hand seemed whispering some message to me, some order that soon I would have to obey; I felt it tremble between my fingers as though eager to do its work!
Suddenly I got up. Now I knew what deed I was to accomplish before leaving this place of secret sin. I looked at the bloodstained arrow, and I felt how it cried for revenge!
Bending towards the dead girl I closed her staring eyes. I laid her hands over her breast so that they covered the ugly wound in her heart, and whispering to her that I would return, I ran into the night.
I knew what, I had to do. I did not tremble, I did not doubt; I was quite without fear, and at that moment I felt very near thee, Vaiavala!
Canst thou tell me why?
Once more I was mounting the great temple steps. The moon seemed to sanction the deed I had to do, for she had hidden her face behind a dense curtain of clouds. I felt that she was looking at me, but that she had veiled her brightness so that shade might envelop me as I stole my way cautiously back whence I had come.
But would the great door be open? What were the terrible woman's habits? Did her Nubians guard her all night? Did her four panthers sleep by her couch? Did she rest behind locked doors? Did she hide her beauty in chambers I had not seen?
But so sure was I that the deed had to be done that no fear lurked in my heart; it beat much less stormily than it had done when first I had mounted those steps, for Love tries the heart far more than Fear—that, O Vaiavala, I know but too well!
My feet made no sound upon the stone pavement; I stole along, grazing the walls, slinking past the giant pillars that supported the roof. I reached the copper door; it was open . . . . . wide open . . . . .
I did not pause. Boldly I entered, deadening my tread as a beast of prey creeping towards its victim.
I followed the way Dalua had led me that morning; my feet once more were moving over the golden floor, but how different were my feelings now. From hall to hall I passed, keeping close to the wall like a thief. The whole abode was full of that strange blue light that made it so mysteriously enchanting. Within my fingers the silver arrow shone, a tiny moonbeam . . . . .
Always nearer did I come to the centre chamber where the great god sat enthroned. Would he still be smiling his eternal smile? Would he allow me to steal past him, to enter the further chamber where his beautiful servant hid away her charms and her sins?
Did he know that she loved him? Had he ever deigned to see that look of longing I had discovered in the fierce woman's eyes? And suddenly, it seemed to me, that the deed I was to do might give Dalua her desire; might perchance send her there where her real god awaited her, where his hand would be stretched out towards her in welcome . . . . .
But surely I was raving, or such mad imaginations would not come to my mind! However, I found comfort in that idea, for indeed, Vaiavala, awful it is to carry the thought of murder in one's heart!
No door had I found closed, no obstacle had as yet impeded my advance. How had it come that Dalua had not sent her great fiends to pursue the stranger who had dared to enter her sanctuary? Had not Aluna told me that she was supposed to retain her eternal youth by drinking the life-blood of those she had loved? Was she perhaps satisfied with her work? Did she consider sufficient her revenge? Perchance she believed that I loved the poor innocent who had died beneath her hands?
And suddenly a thought so horrible crossed my mind that I nearly screamed aloud . . . . . She did not need my blood, for had she not returned from her murderous deed with a bowl of warm red gore that her slave carried in his
hands! . . . . .
But . . . . . as I leapt from her embrace, had not the slave let the precious bowl fall from his grasp? Over the floor its contents had run—a tiny red stream on the golden mosaic! Was it Aluna's blood? Was it the warm life that so short awhile before had flowed through her veins? . . . . .
Into what fearful abode had I strayed! Verily this was the temple of temptation and sin. Oh Vaiavala, why had my steps led me hither? Why, oh! why hadst thou need of that magic stone? Why, for thy sake, O Vaiavala, was I to become a man of unclean hands, a ravisher of life? Must light lead to darkness, as the day to the night, that in its turn must be overcome to reach the rising sun?
Verily, Vaiavala, too deep were these problems; they shot like hot irons through my aching brain, but they remained unsolved. Therefore, having reached thee, I lay them unanswered at thy feet.
Zorohana let me pass; he did not try to retain me, no movement did he make to hold me back, no flash of lightning did he send to strike down the criminal as he stole his way towards the holy of holies where his servant dwelt . . . . . Did he perchance sanction my deed?
I had reached Dalua's door—wide open it stood . . . . . I could look into her chamber . . . . . but oh! what would I see?
Marvellous it was, that which I saw, Vaiavala; a wondrous sight! There on her couch lay the enchantress, sweetly slumbering, as though neither storm nor passion, neither love nor hate, neither desire nor sin, neither sorrow nor death had ever crossed her road . . . . .
One perfect arm was folded under her head, her terribly red lips half open with a smile that was almost that of a child . . . . . Her dark curls were scattered over the crimson cushion like a harvest of ripe blue grapes. An oppressive perfume filled the place; it lay heavily on my lungs, on my brain; it seemed to steal like poison into my blood, I felt how it began to lame my limbs . . . . .
Then I saw that the strange woman had covered her couch with a mass of datura-blossoms. They lay all about her, her body rested amongst them as though it had fallen into a drift of snow.
For a moment I thought that perhaps she had wished to die—but then an idea struck me, and I think the right one it was. So passionate was this woman, so wild her blood, so restless her desires, so violent the life that streamed through her veins, that sleep and she but seldom could be friends and yet like other weaker mortals there came hours when she craved for rest; therefore had she scattered those venomous flowers around her, and their deadly perfume, which would have killed any other, brought peaceful repose to this creature of sin, this daughter of Satan, this blood-drinking vampire from the other world.
Where were her panthers? Where were her slaves? Nowhere did I perceive them. Had the enchantress enveloped them also in the same deep sleep? Or were they lurking somewhere in dark corners, ready to leap upon the intruder and do the work Dalua had disdained to do?
Had she thought so little of me that she imagined I would not return to cry vengeance upon her for the deed she had done? Had she so entirely forgotten my existence? Had she shaken off the remembrance of the man in whose arms she had spent so passionate a day, as one throws off a garment when the hour of rest is at hand?
Bitter indeed was this thought, hot with humiliation and shame. Deep oblivion was she enjoying, so as to collect new forces for the moment when she would need all her deadly charm to ensnare the next fool that would come her way.
Then suddenly my eyes were attracted by something that glowed on a small table near her head . . . . .
The ruby! The magic ruby I had come to fetch! In my selfish madness I had entirely forgotten my quest!
There it lay in the tulip-shaped chalice of which Aluna had spoken. It glowed through the crystal, casting a fiery radiance over the table like a finger of flame.
I lifted the precious gem in my hand, and in doing so meseemed that new life flowed through my veins, that my brain was clearing, and that the weight that oppressed my heart became lighter and more easy to bear.
But as I seized the magic stone for the first time, Dalua moved and a deep sigh escaped her lips; the flowers about her trembled as before a coming storm. But I could do naught but stare at the stone; a wonderful strength seemed to come from it, to uplift my whole being with a feeling of exultation and pleasure . . . . .
I turned towards the sleeping woman, and, holding the glowing gem over her forehead, I looked for a last time into her face . . . . .
Her eyes were slowly opening . . . . ., the long lashes were gradually lifting; it was like a curtain being very gently drawn up . . . . . Now her pupils were staring into mine with an expression so strange, so inexplicable, so deeply mysterious, that I felt as though I was looking down an endless passage with a small light somewhere quite at the end, a light I could not reach . . . . .
And then all at once, Vaiavala, I understood what the message of those eyes was!
Vaiavala, Dalua was tired! Dalua longed for death, and Dalua was unable to die!
Dalua's eyes held within them all the concentrated longing I had seen in all the eyes of all the human race.
Dalua lived to kill—lived on the blood she took from others' hearts, for thus was her fate! But Dalua was weary! Dalua had only one desire, the desire of death.
Then, O Vaiavala, the deed became easy to do—the deed became like a holy rite I had been sent out to perform.
I bent over her, her lips were smiling, her lips were half-open, and her eyes were full of exultation and hope.
I raised the silver arrow, Vaiavala, and I plunged it deep into that restless heart . . . . .deeply did I plunge it in till no further could it go . . . . .
The blood spurted up towards me, crimson, warm, a fountain of life that was flowing for ever away . . . . . away . . . . .
No cry did she give, no sound came through her lips, but a deep-drawn sigh of farewell, the sigh of a soul flying away to eternal rest . . . . . Her last look seemed like a long grateful caress; slowly her eyes closed, her lips trembled once more, as though to whisper a last word, and then were still.
Dalua was dead . . . . .
I stood beside her couch, the ruby in my hand, and, Vaiavala, it was to me as though I had opened a door to a new and wonderful life.
Vaiavala, canst thou tell me why?
Dornadhu is suddenly still; the last words fall from his lips like small shining stones into deep waters, and he hides his face upon Vaiavala's feet.
The mysterious woman sits silent, but softly she moves her hands and takes up the precious stone; the light radiates from it and throws a red shine through her fingers. Strangely beautiful is her expression as she leans over it; there is something gentle and tender about it like the wings of a mother-bird; then slowly she speaks:
“I thank thee for thy gift, Dornadhu; it is precious above all gems, and the tears it cost thee and others enhances its value and maketh more perfect its beauty.”
Dornadhu raises a face convulsed with pain and emotion; his eyes seem full of questions, full of a straining desire towards some unreachable goal.
“Have even the tears of the innocent made more precious thy gem?” he asks, and a great sorrow is in his voice.
“Yes” answers Vaiavala, “for no tears are shed in vain; they all go to wash something away, and be it but the sins of others, blessed is their work. God uses the tears of the innocent to remove stains that no other water can cleanse. For one day thou wilt know that over on the Other Shore there is but one great work, and all carry their efforts towards it, be it in sin or in beauty, and the Great One who makes harvest of human hearts knows the value of each; none does He reject, but those that on earth gave their tears in vain will know when the Great Hour comes that no single drop was lost, and greatly will they rejoice when they hear to what use they were put!
They will not ask why they wept whilst others laughed; why they toiled whilst others made gay; they will understand, and they will say it is good, and their eyes will be opened to a light that is greater than that of the sun!”
“But tell me, Vaiavala”, cries Dornadhu, “was I right when I read that accumulated longing within the eyes of Dalua the temptress? Was I right when I plunged the arrow deep into her heart? Was it but a delusion I followed, so as to ease my conscience of a deed that I ought never to have done? Tell me, Vaiavala, had I the right to kill? Did I really bring rest to a soul that was weary from the too-long roads over which it had wandered? . . . . . Or am I but a murderer, with hands stained with blood?”
“Dornadhu”, answers Vaiavala, “each man can but live up to the height of his own conscience; the deeds he does are the outward expression of his thoughts. Sometimes he may stand in horror before what he has done—an hour ago he would never have imagined that his hand could be raised in such a manner . . . . . No man has a right to take another's life, .but it may be that a stronger force has led him whither he would not go.
Too dark is the glass through which thy earthly eyes are looking; too young is thy blood, too selfish thy desires, to have the clear sight. The nearer thou reachest the end of thy road, the more transparent will become the glass, but it is only on opening the Great Door that thou wilt really understand.
Thou didst imagine that Dalua needed rest; perhaps thou wast right, and if with that mortal blow thou didst feel that a weight was falling from thy heart, perchance no mistake it was; but, Dornadhu, searching thy mind, was there no other deed which more bitterly thou didst regret?”
And Dornadhu hides his face in his hands whilst waves of shame rise to his cheeks.
“It is the hours when we live beneath ourselves that darken our souls, Dornadhu. Each man carries a light in his heart, by which he searches his way; with some it is a strong and shining sun, with others it is but a twinkling star, with some it is but a radiance that another sheds. But the light becomes dim when the man approaches the thing he should not do, the thing that each heart feels is sin to him . . . . . For a child it is often but the stealing of an apple, the telling of a lie which its mother reads in its eyes; but the sins man commits grow with his years, and are counted against him according to the degree in which his conscience warns him, according to the inner voice he hears.
Thy moment of sin, Dornadhu, was less the instant when thou didst end the wild woman's life than the first step that led thee over her threshold; from that moment did not all within thee arise and tell thee not to give way to temptation? Thou wouldst not have killed Dalua if the first step had not been taken—for easy is the road that leads downwards, it needs less effort than the upward climb.
The chain of sin is but too quickly forged; each link becomes heavier and larger than the last, till finally it becomes a fetter so strong that it can no more be broken, nor can one henceforward escape its clutches; it weights one's feet till one loses all hope of being free.
When Dalua took the life of the innocent maiden thy desire of vengeance was but a natural impulse of justice, but at the bottom of thy heart well didst thou know that half the guilt was thine, and precious to thee was Dalua's look of longing, for it made thee appear to thyself more like a saviour than a man who ends a life.
It is for God to weigh the tears that flow, but it is for man to humbly lay them at His feet. Nor must he ever try to lessen a deed of darkness by rolling off his guilt on another's shoulders, and if he be worthy of climbing final heights, one day all his tears, even the bitterest, will but add to the cleansing waters that will wash his sins away!”
And very gently, like a mother, does Vaiavala draw the tired man up against her heart.
She does not kiss him, she does not offer him the lips he yearns to reach, but the weary wanderer feels a great and wonderful peace spread over his being. His fatigue seems to leave him, and the bitter ache of his heart to become less.
“Thou art not yet ready, Dornadhu, to be given thy desire. Vaiavala once more must send thee forth to see, to learn, to suffer.
Dark was thy last experience, but sometimes man must go far down into obscurity to better realise how blessed is light. But some remain there, preferring the mud in which their feet are floundering, to the smile of God beneath shining skies.
They imagine that in the dark no one can see them, they think their ill-deeds will not be counted; therefore they choose to make no effort to rise. But the Eternal Eye sees also into darkness, and they cannot hide their heads away.
But some there are that patiently climb step by step back to the light they have lost; and these climbers are perhaps those for whom at the end the light is most glorious, for steep and strenuous has been their road—therefore does rest seem all the more blessed. Of blood have been their tears, and blood has marked the road their torn feet have taken; but each sigh will be remembered, and each tear will wipe out a sin of the past.
I speak thus unto thee, Dornadhu, for was it not I who sent thee forth to ravish the ruby in the temple of Zorohana the mysterious god? And because of my demand didst thou encounter temptation and crime on thy way; but man must learn to walk through mire if he hopes to understand and see, must be able to lift himself above the clogging morass over which he moves, till the hem of his cloak shows no more stains. If he is worthy of final success this his life alone can prove.
No doubt there are those who died on the way. Although their hearts were pure, and undefiled their ideal, they never reached the goal they were striving for, their bodies could not stand the strain, their efforts were vain, their hopes unfulfilled, their hearts broke before their weary hands touched the treasure they had set out to gain. They saw others pass them by; with hungry eyes they contemplated those happier ones, their own forces spent, their race at an end, their aim unreached!
Why this should be, is a question many have asked, and one day no doubt also this mystery will be cleared, but today I shall not tell thee the reason—I want to know the end of thy adventure. Didst thou return to Aluna, who lay so still in her cave?”
Dornadhu's head is still resting against Vaiavala's heart; he feels like a storm-beaten vessel which has reached its haven. He longs never more to move, he longs to die within that adored embrace. It is as a mother that she has folded him against her; she has not allowed him to touch her lips; she has not answered his greatest desire but so weary is he, so tired, that no other wish does he feel at present but to close his eyes and think no more, to let himself go to the soothing enchantment of that touch.
But he guesses that Vaiavala will soon desire new efforts of him, that she will not allow him to remain there long. Again with sinking heart will he listen to the cruel word “Go!” and again he will have to set forth; and so tired he is, so in need of repose, so cruelly in need of love!
Now at her question he does not move his head; closer he nestles to the great strong heart that he feels beating beneath his cheek, it is like a mighty tide that rolls always back to the same spot, carrying within it all the promises of life, all the mysteries still to be revealed.
The weary wanderer lays his lips against that heart, and it is to him as though time, space, and desire stood still . . . . .
But again Vaiavala asks “Didst thou return to Aluna?”
“Yes, I returned” answers Dornadhu, “I returned, and with a mighty effort I carried her out of the cave; like one in a dream, who uses a strength beyond his own; I carried her down the thousand steps till I reached the cypress grove. And there upon the marble altar I laid her, and the moon looked down upon her face; her long hair hung over the side, and so white was the light that her hair was like a sheet of water falling to the ground . . . . .
I knelt beside the altar, my forehead against the cold, hard stone; no prayers came to my lips, I simply let my grief and my bewilderment surge through my mind, whilst my overstrained heart felt as though it would burst in twain.
Then, almost unconscious of what I did, I unfastened the boat that was still moored as we had left it, oh! so long ago. I lifted the dead girl from the altar—I know not if her body was heavy or light, I only know that strangely glad I was that her eyes were shut.
In the boat I laid her and, seizing the oars, I began to row across the lake.
She lay there like a tired sleeper, and again the moon stared at her face.
Each stroke of my oars drew long lights upon the quiet water, and when I lifted them above the surface, drops fell from them in showers like silver tears.
Were they weeping for the maiden whose hands had so often plied them, for the maiden who would return no more?
The lake was still covered with white wreaths. The flowers were fresh, and stared up with pale lovely faces at the sky. The radiance of the moon made them appear precious and mysterious, like secrets that were longing to reveal themselves to the stars above. Each seemed to conceal among its leaves the desire of the virgin who carried it down to the river—a tale of love or longing seemed written on each wreath.
Once I bent down over the side of the boat and lifted one of the white offerings from the water. I let the drops fall all silver from its flowers, and then I laid it beneath Aluna's hands, I laid it upon her heart—for had she not wept because no wreath had she been able to bring to Zorohana her god? And now one of the blessed garlands lay on her breast, and methought that Zorohana would not be wrath that I had thus made use of what was his.
Wonderful was the beauty of the night, great its peace, immense its silence. I felt far away from crime and passion, far from the wild hours I had lived. The still waters of the lake seemed a flood of tears separating me from what had been . . . . . and, when I looked over to the other shore, I saw the figure of the black rider awaiting me like a dream that has come true. It was but part of the night's great mystery, but a vision that had to be!
I reached the other side, I stepped out of the boat, I lifted the maiden in my arms, and it was quite natural that the black knight bent towards me to receive the holy burden I had borne towards him over the lake.
His wonderful eyes looked deep into mine, but all he said was:
“Go thy way, stranger; thy time has not yet come to rest. Take not the path that leads back to the door through which thou didst enter, for thou wouldst find it closed.
I shall take thy precious burden from thee and carry it there where it belongs. But go thou along the river and it will guide thy steps whither thy fate must lead thee.
The road of life didst thou choose, for thus was it decreed. Turn not back to look behind thee, nor waste thy strength in idle tears. What has been is passed; it remains for thee to win the morrow. Fare thee well, and may thy road be blessed!”
The sad man turned his horse, and Aluna lay in his arms like a long white lily wrapped in mist.
I stood and gazed after him, and when he had disappeared, humbly, with bent head, I followed the path along the river's edge.
I returned to thee, Vaiavala. Over hill and plain did I wander, over seas did I sail, human voices did I hear, and into many faces did I look; but no more would I tarry. I closed my eyes to the human longing I met on all roads, I would no more listen to the cries of distress that mounted from many tortured hearts, I would no more lend a helping hand, for I was in a great hurry—a great haste drove me towards thee, a great need to see thy face.
Voluntarily was I dumb and blind and deaf. I no more wanted to see, to hear, to listen, or to help. My own heart ached too sorely, my hands seemed unclean, my feet were weary, and my soul was dark with distress.
Over all I looked upon the eternal “Why?” seemed written in fiery letters, craving for an answer that would not come. I was afraid of my own weakness, I had tasted of the bitter waters of sin, and I needed the touch of thy hand to take their taste away. But when I reached thy old castle walls meseemed that they frowned down at me, asking me what right I had to come?
I mounted thy stairs, and the higher I climbed the lighter became the weight of my heart. Led by my eternal desire, I reached thy holy feet, and now that I am here, that I have told thee of my smiles and my tears, have made thee acquainted with the adventures that came into my life, now humbly I ask thee: What more dost thou need of me?”
Dornadhu raises his head, and his beautiful face is full of nameless anxiety. His clasped hands tremble, and his look is haunted with fear.
But Vaiavala bends towards him and lays her lips on his eyes: “Dornadhu” she whispers, “not yet hast thou looked beyond every door; not yet hast thou shed every tear.
With my lips on thine eyes I open out new roads before thee; I need thee more perfect, I need thee more cleansed. With these kisses that I imprint upon thy tired lids I put a new strength into thee, unlike any that yet has been.
Go forth once more, O weary world-wanderer, and bring me the white flower that is purer than eternal snows. Be not afraid, for my hand shall not forsake thee; thou shalt not lose thy way.
With my kisses, Dornadhu, have I opened thine eyes, and thou must close them no more.
Thou must not draw back before the sorrow or the wounds thou seest; thou must not shut thine ears to the cries of distress that will mount towards thee. For ever open must be thy hand; thy heart must be ready for each burden of tears. Blessed be thy way, Dornadhu, and of inconceivable sweetness the perfume of the white flower when thy fingers will clasp its stem.
Seek not Vaiavala's closer embrace till the hour cometh when thou wilt be strong enough to bear it!
Bring me the flower from the far-off mountain pass—I shall await thy return, and holy will be the day when my embrace will be more than that of a mother's, when I shall lift thee up towards me and let thee read in my heart.
Go forth with courage, with faith, with hope, with the love of others in thy soul.
Fare thee well, Dornadhu; the time has come when again we must part!”
And Dornadhu makes no complaint; obediently he rises. For a last time he looks into the eyes of the strange woman who holds his fate in her hands. He bends before her, he kisses her feet, and without protest he leaves her presence, and goes back without murmur to the long roads which have hade him so weary.