The Blossom and the Fruit
Mabel Collins

Part II.
CHAPTER VI.

That day the journey began early, and was very protracted. Twice during it they halted at little inns to rest the horses and to obtain what food they could. By the evening they had entered upon the most deserted region of the great forest which was one of the prides of the country. The King’s hunting seat, where he now was, stood in a part of this forest, but in quite another region, a long distance from the wild place where Hilary and his companions now were. Hilary had never been within the forest, as few from the city ever penetrated it except as part of the King’s retinue, and then they only saw such tracts of it as were preserved and in order. Of this wilder region practically little vas known, and the spirit of adventure within Hilary made him rejoice to find that their journey led them through this unpopulated district. His curiosity as to their destination was not now very acute, for the experiences of the passing moments were all-sufficient. It is true that he was conscious of the great gulf fixed between himself and Fleta. He knew her to be his superior in every respect. He knew not only that he must always be separated from her by their difference in station, but that, he was more [64] vitally separated from her by their difference in thought - and that even now. But he was made happy by a look of love that plunged deep from her eyes into his own now and again, and he was thrilled to the heart when her hand touched his with a light and delicate pressure that he alone could understand. Ah! that secret understanding which separates lovers from all the rest of the world. How sweet it is! How strange it is, too, for they are overpowered by a mutual sense of sympathy which appears to be a supreme intelligence, giving each the power to look into the other’s heart. Dear moments are they when this is realised, when all life outside the sacred circle in which the two dwell is obscure and dim, while that within is rich, and strong, and sweet. Hilary lived supremely content only in the consciousness of being near this woman whom he loved; for now that he had actually asked her love, and been granted it, nothing else existed for him save that sweet fact. He was indifferent to the hardships, and, indeed, probable dangers, of the journey they were upon, which might have made a more intrepid spirit uneasy; for now he was content to suffer, or even to die, if all conditions were shared with Fleta. All her life could not be shared with him, but all his could be shared with her. When a man reaches this point, and is content to face such a state of things between himself and the woman he loves, he may be reckoned as being in love indeed.

Quite late at night it was when this day’s journey ended, and the splendid horses were really tired out. But a certain point evidently had to be reached, and [65] the postillions pushed on. Fleta at last seemed to grow a little anxious, and several times rose in the carriage to look on ahead; once or twice she inquired of the postillions if they were certain of their way. They answered yes; though how that could be was to Hilary a mystery, for they had been for a long while travelling over mere grass tracts, of which there were many, to his eyes undistinguishable one from the other. But the postillions either had landmarks which he could not detect, or else knew their way very well. At last they stopped; and in the dim light Hilary saw that there was a gate at the side of the track, a gate wide enough to drive through, but of the very simplest construction. It might have defended merely a spot where young trees were planted, or some kind of preserving done; and it was set in a fence of the same character, almost entirely hidden by a thick growth of wild shrubs. The Princess Fleta produced from her dress a whistle on which she sounded a clear ringing note, and then everybody sat still and waited. It seemed to Hilary that it was quite a long while that they waited; perhaps it was not really long, but the night was so still, the silence so profound, the feeling of expectancy so strong. He was, for the first time since they started, really very curious as to what would happen next. What did happen at last was this. There was a sound of laughter and footsteps, and presently two figures appeared at the gate; one that of a tall man, the other that of a young, slight girl. The gate was unlocked and thrown wide open, and a moment later the young girl was in the carriage, embracing Fleta with the greatest enthusiasm and [66] delight. Hilary hardly knew how everything happened, but presently the whole party was standing together inside the gate, the carriage had driven in and was out of sight. Then the tall man shut and locked the gate, after which he turned back, and walked on ahead with the young girl at his side, while Hilary followed with Fleta. The moon had risen now, and Hilary could see her beautiful face plainly, wearing on it an unusually gay and happy expression; her lips seemed to smile at her own thoughts. The sweet gladness in her face made Hilary’s heart spring with joy. It could not be rejoining her friends that made her so glad, for they had gone on and left her alone with him.

“Fleta - my princess - no, my Fleta,” he said, “are you happy to be with me? I think you are!”

“Yes, I am happy to be with you - but I am not Fleta.”

“Not Fleta!” echoed Hilary, in utter incredulity.

He stopped, and catching his companion’s hand, looked into her face. She glanced up, and her eyes were full of shy coquetry and ready gaiety.

“I might be her twin sister, might I not, if I am not Fleta herself? Ah! no, Fleta’s fate is to live in a court, mine to live in a forest. Live! - no, it is not life!”

What was it in that voice that made his heart grow hot with passion? Fiercely he exclaimed to himself that it was, it must, be Fleta’s voice. No other woman could speak in such tones - no other woman’s words give him such a sense of maddening joy.

“Oh! yes,” he said, “it is life - when one loves, one lives anywhere.”

“Yes, perhaps, when one loves!” was the answer. [67]

“You told me this morning that you loved me, Fleta,” cried Hilary, in despair.

“Ah! but I am not Fleta,” was the mocking answer. It sounded like mockery indeed as she spoke. And yet the voice was Fleta’s. There was no doubt of that. He looked, he listened, he watched. The voice, the face, the glorious eyes, were Fleta’s. It was Fleta who was beside him, say she what she might.

They had been following the others all this while, and had now reached a clearing in the wood, where was a garden full of sweet flowers, as Hilary could tell at once by the rich scents that came to him on the night air.

“I am glad we have reached the house,” said his companion, “for I am very tired and hungry. Are not you? I wonder what we shall have for supper. You know this is an enchanted place, which we call the palace of surprises. We never know what will happen next. That is why one can enjoy a holiday here as once can enjoy it nowhere else. At home there is a frightful monotony about the eating and drinking. Everything is perfect, of course, but it is always the same. Now here one is fed like a Russian one day, and a Hungarian the next. There is a perpetual novelty about the menus, and yet they are always good. Is not that extraordinary? And oh! the wines, great heavens! what a cellar our sainted father keeps. I can only bless, with all my heart, the long dead founders of his order, who instituted such a system.”

Hilary had regarded his companion with increasing amazement during this speech. Certainly it was unlike Fleta. Was she acting for his benefit? But at the [68] words “sainted father” another idea thrust that one out of his head. What had become of Father Amyot ? He had not seen him leave the carriage, or approach the house.

“Oh, your holy companion has gone to his brethren,” said the girl, with a laugh. “They have a place of their own where they torture themselves and mortify the flesh. But they entertain us well, and that is what I care for. We will have a dance to-night. Oh! Hilary, the music here! It is better than that of any band in the world!”

“If you are not Fleta, how do you know my name?”

“Simple creature! What a question! Why, Fleta has told me all about you. Did you never hear that the princess had a foster-sister, and that none could ever tell which was which, so like were we - and are we! Did you never hear that Fleta’s mother was blonde, and dull, and plain, and that Fleta is like none of her own family? Oh, Hilary, you, fresh from the city, you know nothing!”

A sudden remembrance crossed Hilary’s mind.

“I have heard,” he said, “that no one could tell where Fleta had drawn her beauty from. But I believe you draw it from your own beautiful soul!”

“Ah, you still think me Fleta? I have had some happy hours in the city before now when Fleta has let me play at being a princess. Ah, but the men all thought the princess in a strange, charming, delightful humour on these days. And when next they saw her, that humour was gone, and they were afraid to speak to her. Come in. I am starving!” [69]

They had entered a wide, low doorway, and stood now within the great hall. What a strange hall it was! The floor was covered with the skins of animals, many of them very handsome skins; and great jars held flowering plants, the scent from which made the air rich and heavy. A wood fire burned on the wide hearth, and before it, still in the dress she had travelled in, stood Fleta.

Yes, Fleta.

The girl who stood at Hilary’s side laughed and clapped her hands as he uttered a cry of amazement, even of horror.

“This is some of your magic, Fleta!” he exclaimed, involuntarily.

The Princess turned at his words. She was looking singularly grave and stern; her glance gave Hilary a sense almost of fear.

“No,” she answered in a low, quiet voice that had a tone, as Hilary fancied, of pain, “it is not magic. It is all very natural. This is Adine, my little sister; so like me that I do not know her from myself.”

She drew Adine to her with a gesture which had a protecting tenderness in it. This was the Princess who spoke, queen-like in her kindness. Hilary stood, unable to speak, unable to think, unable to understand. Before him stood two girls - each Fleta. Only by the difference of expression could he detect any difference between them. One threw him back the most coquettish and charming glance, as she went towards her grave sister. He could feel keenly how vitally different the two were. Yet they stood side by side, and though [70] Fleta said “my little sister” there was no outward difference between them. Adine was as tall, as beautiful and the same in everything!

“Do not be startled,” said Fleta, quietly; “you will soon grow used to the likeness.”

“Though I doubt,” added Adine, with a wicked glance from her brilliant eyes, “whether you will ever tell us apart except when we are not together.”

“Come,” said Fleta, “let us go and wash the travel stains off. It is just supper time.”

Fleta talked of travel stains, but as Hilary looked at her queenly beauty, he thought she seemed as fresh as though she had but this moment come from the hands of her maid. However, the two went away arm in arm, Adine turning at the door to have one last glance of amusement at Hilary’s utterly perplexed face. He was left alone, and he remained standing where he was, without power of thought or motion.

Presently some one came and touched him on the shoulder; this was necessary in order to attract his attention. It was the tall man who had come to the gate to meet them. He was very handsome, and with the most cheerful and good-natured expression; his blue eyes were full of laughter.

“Come,” he said, “come and see your room. I am master of the ceremonies here; apply to me for anything you want - even information! I may, or may not give it, according to the decision of the powers that be. Call me Mark. I have a much longer name, in fact, half-a-dozen much longer ones, and a few titles to boot; but they would not interest you, and in the midst of a [71] forest where nobody has any dignity, a name of one syllable is by far the best.” While he talked on like this, apparently indifferent as to whether Hilary listened or no, he led the way out of the hall and down a wide, carpeted corridor. He opened the last door in this, and ushered Hilary in.

Hilary found himself in a room which no longer permitted him to regret his own rooms at home, for it was more luxurious. A great bath stood ready filled with perfumed water, and he hastened to bathe himself therein, with a sort of idea that he was perhaps suffering from hallucinations, some of which he might wash away. His scanty luggage had been brought into the room, and when the bath was over Hilary got out a velvet suit which he thought would do well for eveningdress in this palace of surprises. He was but just ready when a knock came at his door, and, without further ceremony, Mark opened it and looked in.

“Come,” he said, “we don’t wait for anybody here. The cook won’t stand it. He is a very holy father indeed, and nobody dare say him nay, unless it were, the Princess herself. She always does as she likes. Are you ready?”

“Quite,” replied Hilary.

Opening out of the entrance-hall was a great oak door, double, and very richly carved. This had been shut when Hilary passed by it before; now it stood open, and Mark led the way through it. They entered an immense room, of which the floor was polished so that it shone like a mirror. Two figures were standing in the midst of this room, dressed alike in clouds of white [72] lace; they were the two Fletas, as to Hilary’s eyes they still seemed.

His heart was torn as he gazed on them, waiting for a glance of love, a gleam of love-light, to tell him which was his own, his Fleta, his princess, the Fleta whom he served. There was none; they had been talking together very earnestly and both looked sad and a little weary.

As Hilary’s eyes wandered from one face to the other his mind grew confused. And then suddenly a flash of bewitchingly beautiful laughter came on one of the faces; and immediately he decided that must be Adine. And yet, had he not seen just such laughter flash across Fleta’s face? But all this passed in a moment, and no more time was given him for thought. A table stood at one end of the hall, set as a king’s table might be; covered with the finest linen, edged with deep lace, and with gold dishes of fruit upon it; it was decorated with lovely flowers. Hilary opened his eyes a little even in the midst of his other much greater perplexities, to see this luxury here in the midst of the forest. And was it prepared in Honour of Fleta, who ate a crust of dry bread in an alehouse with perfect cheerfulness, or rather, indifference? Fleta took her place at the end of the table; at least, one sister did so, and the other took her place beside Hilary - he could not yet determine which was which, and his whole soul was absorbed in the attempted solution of that problem. Mark sat at the other end of the table, evidently prepared to do such labours of carving as might be necessary. Two places more were set at the side of the table, but no one came to fill them. [73] A very elaborate dinner was served, and a very good one; and Hilary thought he was satisfied now, that it was Adine who sat next him, for she showed herself an unmistakable little gourmand. He had just come to this conclusion when his attention was distracted by the great doors being thrown open again for two persons to enter. Everyone rose, even Fleta, who advanced with a smile to meet these new-comers. Hilary rose also and turned from the table. Two men stood there; one a man but little older than himself, and of extremely fine appearance. Little more than a boy, yet he had a dignity which made him something much more, and Hilary felt immediately a kind of jealousy, undefined, vague, but still jealousy. For Fleta had put both her hands into those of this handsome young man and greeted him with great warmth. At his side stood a small shrivelled old man, in the same dress that Father Amyot always wore. This circumstance again made Hilary wonder what had become of father Amyot, but he concluded Adine’s account had been the correct one.

There was something familiar in the face of the young man, so Hilary thought; while he wigs thinking this, Fleta turned and introduced them to each other.

He was the young king to whom Fleta was betrothed. This is a history of those things which lie behind the scenes, not a history of that which is known to all the world. We will give this young King the name of Otto. Let those who like fix upon his kingdom and assign to him his true name.

He sat down opposite Hilary; and the old priest took his place beside him. Hilary returned to his chair, [74] feeling that all strength, and hope, and power, and life had gone from him. By a fierce and terrible revulsion of his whole nature and all his recent feelings, he returned to his cynical estimate of mankind and most of all of Fleta. She had brought him to this place simply to taunt and harass him, and show him his madness and folly in aspiring to her love in the face of such a rival. It cut Hilary’s heart like a knife to find the young King so magnificent a creature. And Fleta, why had she come here to meet him? Why had she brought her unhappy lover with her? Hilary tore himself with doubts, and fears, and questions; and sat silent, not ever noticing the plates that were placed before him and taken away untouched. The others talked and laughed gaily, Otto being apparently possessed of a hundred things to say. Hilary did not hear what they were, but it annoyed him to find his rival speaking so much in that rich, musical voice of his, while he himself sat dumb, silenced by a bitter pain that tore his heart.

“You are sad,” said a soft voice at his side, “it is hard, if you love Fleta, to see her monopolised by some one else. How often have I had to suffer it? Well, it must be so, I suppose. Why am I sorry for you, I wonder? For if Otto were not here you would monopolise Fleta, and have no eyes for anyone else. Ah me!”

The sigh was very tender, the voice very low and soft; and that voice was Fleta’s voice, those lovely eyes uplifted to his were Fleta’s eyes. Yes, it was so! he thought as he looked back. Did he not know Fleta well enough by now?

“Ah, you are playing with me,” he exclaimed eagerly, [75] “it is Fleta now, not Adine! Is it, not so? Oh, my love, my love, be honest and tell me!”

He spoke like this under cover of the others voices, but Fleta looked round alarmed.

“Hush!” she said, “take care. Your life would be lost if you revealed our secret here. After dinner is over, come with me.”

This appointment made Hilary happy again; his heart leaped up, his pulses throbbed; all the world changed. He found some fruit was before him, he began to eat it, and to drink the wine in his glass. Fleta was watching him.

“You have just begun to dine!” said Fleta with a soft laugh. “Well, never mind; you are young and strong. Do you think you could live through a great many hardships?”

Hilary made the lover’s answer, which is so evident that it need not be recorded. He did not know how he said it, but he desired to tell her that for her he would endure anything. She laughed again.

“It may be so!” she said, thoughtfully; and then he caught her eyes fixed upon him with a searching glance that, for an instant seemed to turn the blood cold in his veins. His terrible thoughts and doubts of her returned again the more fiercely for their momentary repulsion. He emptied his glass, but eat nothing more, and was very glad when they all rose from the table together, a few moments later. He followed the figure of the girl who had sat next him since Otto’s entrance, believing that Fleta had then changed her place. She went across the great room and led the way into a [76] green-house which opened out of it. A very wonderful green-house it was, full of the strangest plants. They were extremely beautiful, and yet in some way they inspired in him a great repugnance. They were of many colours, and the blossoms were variously shaped, but evidently they were all of one species.

“These are very precious,” said Fleta, looking at the flowers near her tenderly. “I obtain a rare and valuable substance from them. You have seen me use it,” she added, after a moment’s pause. Hilary longed to leave the greenhouse and sit elsewhere; but that was so evidently not Fleta’s wish that he could not suggest it. There were seats here and there among the flowers, and she placed herself upon one of them, motioning Hilary to sit beside her.

“Now,” she said, “I am going to tell you a great many things which you have earned the right to know. To begin with, you are now in a monastery, belonging to the most rigid of all religious orders.”

“Are you a Catholic?” asked Hilary, suddenly. And then laughed at himself for such a question. How could Fleta be catalogued like this? He knew her to be a creature whose thought could not be limited.

“No,” she answered, simply. “I am not a Catholic. But I belong to this order. I fear such an answer will be so unintelligible as to be like an impertinence. Forgive me, Hilary.”

Ah, what a tone she spoke in, gentle, sweet - the voice of the woman be loved. Hilary lost all control over himself. He sprang to his feet and stood before her.

“I do not want to know your religion,” he exclaimed, [77] passionately, “I do not what to know where we are, or why we are here. I ask you only this - Are you indeed my love, given to me, as you said this morning? - or is your love given to the king, and are you only laughing at me? It is enough to make me think so, to bring me here to meet him! Oh, it is a cruel insult, a cruel mockery! For, Fleta, you have made me love you with all my heart and soul. My whole life is yours. Be honest and tell me the truth.”

“You have a powerful rival,” said Fleta, deliberately. Is he not handsome, courtly, all that a king should be? And I am pledged to him. Yes, Hilary, I am pledged to him. Would you have the woman you love live a lie for your sake, and hourly betray the man she marries?”

“I would have her give me her love,” said Hilary, despairingly, “at all costs, at all hazards. Oh, Fleta, do not keep me in agony. You said this morning that you loved me, that you would give yourself to me. Are you going to take those words back?”

“ No,” said Fleta, “I am not. For I do love you, Hilary. Did I not see you first in my sleep? Did I not dream of you? Did I not come to your house in search of you? Unwomanly, was it not? No one but Fleta would have done it. And Fleta would only have done it for love. You do not know what she risked - what she risks now - for you! Oh, Hilary, if you could guess what I have at stake. Never mind. None can know my own danger but myself.”

“Escape from it!” said Hilary in a sort of madness. A passionate desire to help her came over him and [78] swept all reasonable thoughts away. “You are so powerful, so free, there is no need for you to encounter danger. Does it lie in these people, in this strange place? Come back, then, to the city, to your home. What is there to induce you to run risks, you that have all that the world can offer? Is there anything you need that you cannot have?

“Yes,” said Fleta, “there is. I need something which no power of royalty can give me. I need something which I may have to sacrifice my life to obtain. Yet I am ready to sacrifice it - oh, how ready! What is my life to me? What is my life to me? Nothing!”

She had risen and was impatiently walking to and fro, moving her hands with a strange eager gesture as she did so; and her eyes were all aflame. This was the woman he loved. This, who said her life was nothing to her. Hilary forgot all else that was strange in her words and manner in the bitter thought. Could she then return his love - no, it was impossible, if she meant these strange and terrible words that she uttered!

“Ah, this it is that keeps me back,” she said, before he had time to speak. Her voice had altered, and her face had grown pale, so pale that he forgot everything else in watching her.

“This it is that keeps me from my strength, this longing for it!” And with a heavy sigh she moved back to her seat and fell into it with a weariness he had never seen in her before. Her head drooped on her breast, she fell into profound thought. Presently she spoke again, disjointedly, and in such words as seemed unintelligible. [79]

“I have always been too impatient, too eager,” she said sadly, “I have always tried to take what I longed for without waiting to earn it. So it was long ago, Hilary, when you and I stood beneath those blossoming trees, long ages ago. I broke the peace that kept us strong and simple. I caused the torment of pain and peril to arise in our lives. We have to live it out - alas, Hilary, we have to live it out! - and live beyond it. How long will it take us - how long will it take!”

There was a despair, an agony in her voice and manner, that were so new, he was bewildered, he hardly recognised her. Her moods changed so strangely that he could not follow them, for he had not the key; he could not read her thought. He sat dumb, looking in her sad drawn face.

“My love, my love,” he murmured at last, hardly knowing that he spoke, hardly knowing what his thought was that he spoke, only full of longing. “Would that I could help you! Would that I understood you!”

“Do you indeed wish to?” asked Fleta, her voice melting into a tone of tender eagerness.

“Do you not know it?” exclaimed Hilary. “My soul is burning to meet yours and to recognise it, to stand with you and help you. Why are you so far off, so like a star, so removed and unintelligible to me, who love you so! Oh, help me to change this, to come nearer to you!”

Fleta rose slowly, her eyes fixed upon his face.

“Come,” she said. And she held out her hand to him. He put his into it, and together, hand in hand, they left the conservatory. They did not enter the great [80] dining hall, where now there was music and dancing, as Hilary could see and hear. They left the house of the strange flowers by a different doorway, which admitted them to a long dim corridor. Fleta opened the door by a key that was attached to a chain hanging from her waist; and she closed it behind her. Hilary asked no questions, for she seemed buried in thought so profound that he did not care to rouse her.

At the end of the corridor was a small and very low doorway. Fleta stooped and knocked, and without waiting for any answer pushed the door open.

“May I come in, Master?” she said.

“Come, child,” was the answer, in a very gentle voice. “I am bringing some one with me.”

“Come,” was repeated.

They entered. The room was small, and was dimly lit by a shaded lamp. Beside the table, on which this stood, sat a man, reading. He put a large book which he had been holding, on to the table, and turned towards his visitors. Hilary saw before him the handsomest man he had ever seen in his life. He was still young, though Hilary felt himself to be a boy beside him; he rose from his chair and stood before them very tall and very slight, and yet there was that in his build which suggested great strength. He looked attentively at Hilary for a moment, and then turned to Fleta.

“Leave him here.” Fleta bowed and immediately went out of the room without another word. Hilary gazed upon her in amazement. Was this the proud, imperious princess who yielded such instant and ready obedience? It seemed incredible. But he forgot the [81] extraordinary sight immediately afterwards in the interest excited by his new companion, who at once addressed him:

“The Princess has often spoken to me of you,” he said, “and I know she has much wished that this moment should arrive. She will be satisfied if she thinks you appreciate with your inner senses the step you are about to take if you accord with her wishes. But I think it right you should know it in every aspect as far as that is possible. If you really desire to know Fleta, to approach her, to understand her, you must give up all that men ordinarily value in the world.”

“I have it not to surrender,” said Hilary, rather bitterly, “my life is nothing splendid.”

“ No, but you are only at the beginning of it. To you the future is full of promise. If you desire to be the Princess Fleta’s companion, your life is no longer your own.”

“No - it is hers - and it is hers now!”

“Not so. It is not hers now, nor will it be hers then. Not even your love does she claim for her own. She has nothing.”

“I don’t understand,” said Hilary, simply. “She is the Princess of this country; she will soon be the Queen of another. She has all that the world has to give a woman.”

“Do you not know the woman you love better than to suppose that she cares for her position in the world?” demanded this man whom Fleta called her master. “At a word from me, at any hour, at any time she will leave her throne and never return to it. That she will [82] do this certainly some day I know very well; and her sister will take her place, the world being no wiser than it now is. Fleta looks forward to this change eagerly”

“Well, perhaps,” admitted Hilary.

“Neither has she your love nor your life as her own. In loving her you love the great order to which she belongs, and she will gladly give, your love to its right owner. She has done this already in bringing you to me.”

Hilary started to his feet, stung beyond endurance.

“This is mere nonsense, mere insult,” he said, angrily, “Fleta has accepted my love with her own lips.”

“That is so,” was the answer, “and she is betrothed to King Otto.”

“I know that,” said Hilary, in a low voice.

“And what did you hold Fleta to be then? A mere pleasure seeker, playing with life like the rest, devoid of honour and principle? Was this your estimate of the woman you loved? What else indeed could it be, when you said, let her give her hand to King Otto while you know her love is yours! And you could love such a woman! Hilary Estanol, you have been reared in a different school than this. Does not your own conscience shame you?”

Hilary stood silent. Every word struck home. He knew not what to say. He had been willfully blinding himself; the bandages were rudely drawn aside. After a long pause he spoke, hesitatingly:

“The Princess cannot be judged as other women would be; she is unlike all others.”

“Not so, if she is what you seem to think her; then she is just like the rest, one of the common herd.” [83]

“How can you speak of her in that way?”

“How can you think of her as you do, dishonouring her by your thoughts?”

The two stood opposite each other now, and their eyes met. A strange light seemed to struggle into Hilary’s soul as these bitter words rang sharply on his ear. Dishonouring her? Was it possible? He staggered back and leaned against the wall, still gazing on the magnificent face before him.

“Who are you?” he said at last.

“I am Father Ivan, the superior of the order to which the Princess Fleta belongs,” was the reply. But another voice spoke when his ceased, and Hilary saw that Fleta had entered, and was standing behind him.

“And he is the master of knowledge, the master in life, the master in thought, of whom the Princess Fleta is but a poor and impatient disciple. Master, forgive me! I cannot endure to hear you speak as if you were a monk, the mere tool of a religion, the mere professor of a miserable creed.”

She sank on her knees before Father Ivan, in an attitude strangely full of humility. The priest bent down and lifted her to her feet. They stood a moment in silence, side by side, Fleta’s eyes upon his face devouring his expression with a passionate and adoring eagerness. How splendid they looked! Suddenly Hilary saw it, and a wild, fierce, all-devouring flame of jealousy awoke in his heart - a jealousy such as King Otto, no, nor a hundred King Otto’s could not have roused in him.

For he saw that this Ivan, who wore a priest’s dress, [84] yet was evidently no priest, who spoke as if this world had no longer any meaning for him, yet who was magnificent in his personal presence and power - he saw that this man was Fleta’s equal. And more, he saw that Fleta’s whole face melted and softened, and grew strangely sweet, as she looked on him. Never had Hilary seen it like that. Never had Hilary dreamed it could look like that. Stumbling like a blind man he felt for the door, which he knew was near, and escaped from the room - how, he knew not. Hurriedly he went on, through places he did not see, and at last found himself in the open air. He went with great strides away through the tall ferns and undergrowth until he found himself in so quiet a spot that it seemed as if he were alone in the great forest. Then he flung himself upon the ground and yielded to an agony of despair which blotted out sky and trees, and everything from his gaze, like a great cloud covering the earth. [85]

CHAPTER VII.

The cloud lifted to reveal Fleta’s face. She was bending over him; she was at his side; she was almost leaning on his face.

“My dear, my dear,” she said, in a soft whispering voice, “has the blow been too great? Tell me, Hilary, speak to me? Have you still your senses?”

“And you love that man?” was Hilary’s sole answer, fixing his eyes in a cold strange gaze on her.

“Oh! Hilary, you talk of what is unknown to you! I love him, yes, and with a love so profound it is unimaginable to you.”

“And you tell me this! You tell this to the man who loves you, and who has already devoted his whole life to you! Do you want a madman for your service?”

“A life!” exclaimed Fleta, with a strange tone that had a ring as of scorn in it. “What is a life? I count it nothing. Our great aims lie beyond such considerations.”

Hilary raised himself and looked into her face.

“Then you are mad,” he said, “and if so, a madman in your service is but fit. Nevertheless, my Princess, do not forget with what forces you have to contend. I am [86] but a man; you have accepted my love. Only just now you have made me a murderer at heart - in desire. How soon shall I be one in reality? That depends on you, Fleta. The next time I see your gaze fixed on that man’s face as I saw it but now I will kill him.”

Fleta rose to her full height sad lifted her face to the sky; as she stood there a sort of shiver passed through her, a shiver as of pain. Instantly Hilary’s humour changed. “You are ill,” he exclaimed. She turned her eyes on him.

“When that murderous mood is on you, it will not be Father Ivan that you kill, but me, whom you profess to love. Do you understand that?”

“Ah!” cried Hilary, uttering a sound as if his heart was bursting under the torture, “that is because you love him so! Well, I can only long and serve. I have no power to protest. Yet I ask you, oh! Princess, is it fit to use a man’s heart to play at your queenly coquetries with? A king, your betrothed - a mysterious priest, the man you love - are not these enough but that you must take a boy, obscure and untaught in such misfortunes, and trample on his love? It is unlike the nobility I have seen in you. Good-bye, for this, Princess! I am never your lover again as I was before. I can never believe in your pure sweet heart - only this morning it seemed to me as a pearl, as a drop of limpid water. Good-bye, my idol! Yet I am your servant to obey always, for I gave you my life to do with as you would. Call me, and I come, like your dog; but I will not stay by you, for no longer is it anything but pain to do so.”

With these wild, fierce reproaches, which seemed to [87] stir the quiet air of the woodland, and make it seethe and turn with passion and despair, he turned and went from her. Fleta stood motionless, and her eyes drooped heavily; only she murmured, “We were born under the same star!”

Her voice was very low, yet it reached Hilary’s ear. The words seemed to lash his heart.

“Under the same star!” he repeated, in a voice of agony, standing suddenly still. “No, Fleta. You are the queen, I the subject. Not only so, but you know it, and use your power to the full. Did you not promise yourself utterly to me to be mine?”

“I promised to give you my love for yours; I promised to give you all that you can take of me. My love is greater than you can even imagine, else I would not have listened to one word of your reproaches. They have humbled me, but I have borne it.”

“Ah, Fleta! you talk enigmas,” exclaimed Hilary, moving rapidly back, to her side; “you are enough to madden a man; yet I cannot but love you. Why is this? Every act of yours proves you heartless, faithless, and yet I love you! Why is this? Oh, that I could read the riddle of your existence! Who are you? - What is this mysterious place? - Who is that priest whose rule you acknowledge? I will know!”

Fleta turned on him a sudden sweet smile, that seemed to light up his inner being as the flame of a lamp illumines a dusky room.

“Yes,” she said, “find out. I cannot tell you, yet I desire you - oh! indeed, I desire you to know. Compel the secret - force it. Yes, yes, Hilary!” [88]

She spoke eagerly, with a bright ring in her voice that thrilled his soul. He forgot the Princess, the conspirator, the religieuse - he only remembered the girl he loved - young, fresh, flower-like, with the fair sweet face close to his own. With an unutterable cry of love he held out his arms to her.

“Oh, my dear, my love, come!” he said, in trembling tones that vibrated with his passion. But Fleta turned away without a word and walked through the tall ferns, her robe trailing on the ground. No backward glance, no turn of the head, not even a movement of those white statuesque hands which hung at her sides. In one was a long grass which she had plucked before she came to him. Even that, though it fluttered in the wind, had a strangely stiff air, as if it had become a part of that statue which but a moment since was a woman. Hilary stood gazing after this retreating figure, powerless to move, powerless to rouse in his mind any thought but one; and that was not a thought. It was knowledge - consciousness. He knew, he felt, that he dared not follow Fleta and address her as men address the women they love; he dared not woo her with the fever on his lips that burned there. And why? Not because of her royal birth, or her beauty, or her power. He knew not why - he could not understand himself. It was as though a spell were cast on him that held him silent and motionless.

When at last she was out of sight a sudden reaction took place. The whole burning force of the strong young man’s nature broke loose and raged wildly through his whole system; he no longer was capable of thought, [89] he only felt the blood that rushed to his head and made his brain reel as though he had drunk strong wine. He suddenly became aware that he had aged, grown, become a new creature in these last moments of experience. He had called himself a man five minutes ago; but now he knew that when he had uttered those words, he was only a boy. Across a great gulf of feeling he looked back at the love that was in him when he had so spoken. Now his passion burned like a fire on the altar of life; every instant the flames grew stronger and mounted more fiercely to his inflamed brain.

The savage had burst forth. The savage, untamed man, which smoulders within, and hides behind the cultivated faces of a gentle age. One strong touch on the chord of passion, and Hilary Estanol, a chivalric and courteous product of a refined time, knew himself to be a man, and knew that man to be a savage. A savage full of desire, of personal longing, thinking of nothing but his own needs. And to Hilary this sudden starting forth of the nature within him seemed like a splendid unfolding. He remained standing erect, strong, resolute. His seething mind hastily went over his whole position and Fleta’s. Everything suddenly bore a new, vivid, stirring aspect.

“This is a nest of conspirators!” he exclaimed to himself. “That man, Ivan, is a conspirator or worse, else he would not hide here. What crowned head is it that he threatens? He is a criminal. I will discover his secret; I will rescue Fleta from him; by the strength of my love I will win her love from him; I will make [90] her my own. Come, I must calm myself - I must be sober, for I have to find out the meaning of this mysterious place.”

He walked slowly through the wood, trying to still the throbbing in his brain, to check the fierce pulsations of his heart and blood. He knew that now he needed all his instincts, all his natural intelligence, all his power of defence; for, in his present humour, he walked as an enemy to all men; by his new tide of feeling he had made every man his enemy. The young King Otto had a prior right to the Fleta whom he desired to make his own; King Otto was indeed his enemy. Ivan had her love; how bitterly did Hilary hate that priest! And Adine, the false Fleta - what was she but a mere tool of the priest’s, a creature used to baffle and blind him? She was the one most likely to trip his steps, for she defied even the knowledge which his love gave him of Fleta’s face!

He was full of energy and activity, and his blood desired to be stilled by action. He had quickly decided that he must immediately do two things: inspect the whole exterior of the house, so as to get some notion of what rooms were in it, and what their uses; and explore the outer circle of the grounds, to see if there was any difficulty about leaving them. As the latter task involved most exercise, he chose to undertake it first, and swiftly, with long strides, made his way through the woodlands in the direction where the boundaries must lie. It did not take him long to traverse a considerable distance; for he felt stronger than ever in his life before. He had been a delicate [91] lad, now he knew himself to be a strong man, as if new blood ran in his veins. The moon was high in the heavens, it was nearly full and its light was strong. By it he soon discovered that the strange place in which he was had a more cunning and effective defence than any high wall or high barrier. It was surrounded by tangled virgin woodland growth, where, as it seemed, no man’s foot could have ever trodden.

Hilary found it hard to believe that such wild land existed within a drive of the city. But it was there, and there was no passing through it, unless he worked his way with a wood-axe, inch by inch, as men do when they make a clearing. Such a task was hopeless, even if he had the tools, for it was impossible to tell in what direction to move.

He returned at last, after many fruitless efforts; there seemed to be no vestige of a path. He had discovered the gate by which their entrance had been made; and discovered also that it was guarded. A figure moved slowly to and fro in the shadow of the trees; not with the air of one strolling for pleasure, but with the regular movements of a sentry. It was an unfamiliar figure, but dressed in the garb of the order.

Hilary went quietly along by the side of the path that led to the house. It was useless to waste more time on this investigation; quite clearly he was a prisoner. And it seemed to him equally clear that unless he could escape, no information would be of any use to him. He must be able to carry it to the city, where he would be free to take it to Fleta’s father, or even to other crowned heads in other countries, according to its [92] rest. He had wandered round and round the house a dozen times, only to find himself bewildered by its strange shape, and the shrubberies which grew up close to the walls, and disheartened by the solid barricading of those windows which it was easy to approach. And yet at last he found a window wide open, and a room brightly lit; a lamp stood on the table and showed the pleasant room, well-furnished, and with a bed in it, dressed in fine linen and soft laces such as perhaps only members of an ascetic order know how to offer to their guests. Hilary stood a moment on the threshold, and then suddenly recognised it as his own room. It gave him an odd feeling, this, as if he had been watched and arranged for; treated like a prisoner. Well, it was useless to evade that dark fact - a prisoner he was. Recognising defeat for the moment, Hilary determined to accept it as gracefully as might be. He entered, closed his window and the strong shutters which folded over it, and then quickly laid himself down with intent to sleep. But sleep would not come, and he found all his thoughts and all his interest centred on Father Ivan. He tried to prevent this but could not; he chased Fleta’s image in vain - he could scarcely remember her beautiful face! What was its shape and colour? He tortured himself in trying to recall the face he loved so dearly. But always Father Ivan’s figure was before his eyes; and suddenly it struck him that this vision was almost real, for he saw Ivan raise his hand in a commanding gesture which seamed to be directed towards himself. A moment later and he fell fast asleep, like a tired child. At this moment Ivan vas standing is his own room, [95] looking for an instant at the clock. He stood, perhaps, a little longer than was needed in order to see the time, and a frown came on his fine, clear forehead which drew the arched eyebrows together. Then he turned quickly, left his room, and closed its door behind him. He went to the door which was so strongly barred, and noiselessly loosened its fastenings, which swung heavily yet quite softly away from it. He opened the door and went in.

In a sort of curtained recess was a low divan, which quite filled it, rising hardly a foot from the ground. This was covered with great rugs made of bear and wolf skin. Fleta lay stretched upon them, wrapped in a long cloak of some thick white material, which was bordered all round with white fur, and, indeed, lined with it, too. And yet when Ivan stooped and touched her hand it was cold as ice.

“Come,” he said; and turning, went slowly away from her. Fleta rose and followed him. Her eyes were half-closed, and had something of the appearance of a sleepwalker’s, and yet not altogether, for though they appeared dim and unseeing yet there was purpose, and consciousness, and resolution in them. No one who had not seen Fleta before in this state could have recognised those eyes, so set and strange were they. Ivan approached large curtained archway, and drawing the curtain aside he motioned to Fleta to pass through. As she did so he touched one of her hands, as it hung at her side. Immediately she raised it, and throwing the cloak aside showed that she held a white silk mask. Her dress beneath the cloak was of white silk. Slowly she raised the mask to her face and was about to put it on [96] when a change of state came so suddenly upon her that it was like a tropical tornado. She opened her starry eyes wide and vivid light flashed from them; she flung the mask away upon the floor and clasped her hands violently together, while her whole frame shook with emotion.

“Why must I mask myself?” she exclaimed. “You have not told me why.”

“I have,” said Ivan, very quietly. “No woman has ever entered there till now.”

“What then?” cried Fleta, fiercely. “There is no shame, in being a woman! Have I not assailed that door in vain in a different character? Now, a woman, I demand entrance. Master, I will not disguise myself.”

“Be it so,” said Ivan, “yet take the mask with you lest your mood should change again. You were willing, you remember, but a while since.”

Fleta stood motionless, regarding the mask as it lay on the floor. Then she lifted her head suddenly and looked Ivan straight in the eyes.

“I will cast my sex from me: and mask my womanhood without any such help as that.”

Immediately that she had spoken Ivan walked on. They were in a long corridor, lit, and with the walls faintly coloured in pale pink on which shone some silver stars. Yet, bright though it was, this corridor seemed strangely solemn. Why was it so? Fleta looked from side to side, and could not discover. There was something new to her which she did not understand. Though she had been instructed in so many of the mysteries, and so much of the knowledge of the order, she had [97] never entered this corridor, nor indeed had she before known of its existence. They slowly neared the end of it where was a high door made of oak, and seemingly very solidly fastened; but Father Ivan opened it easily enough.

“My God!” cried Fleta instantly, in a low voice of deep amazement. “Where am I? What country am I in? Father, was that corridor a magic place? This is no longer my own country! How far have you carried me in this short time?”

“A long way, my daughter; come, do not delay.”

A vast plain, prairie-like, stretched before them, encircled on the right by the narrowing end of a huge arm of mountains which disappeared upon the far horizon. Upon the plain was one spot, was one place, were a livid flame-like light burned, and could be seen, though the whole scene was bathed in strong moonlight. Ivan commenced to rapidly take his way down a steep path which lay before them. And then Fleta became aware that they were themselves upon a height and had to descend into the plain. She did not look back; all her thoughts were centered on that vivid light which she now saw came from the windows of a great building. Then she suddenly saw that a number of persons were in the plain; although it was so large yet there were enough people to look like a crowd, which was gathering together from different directions. All were approaching the building.

“Father,” she said to Ivan, who was leading the way rapidly. “Will they go in?”

“Into the temple? Those on the plain? Indeed no. [98] They are outside worshippers; that crowd is in the world and of it, and yet has courage to come here often when there is no light, and the icy winds blow keen across the plain.”

“And they never enter. Why, my master, they can have no strength.”

Ivan glanced back for an instant, a curious look in his eyes.

“It is not always strength that is needed,” lie said in a low voice. Fleta did not seem to hear him: her eyes were fixed on the temple windows. Suddenly, she stopped and cried out:

“Is this a dream?”

“You are not asleep,” said Ivan, with a smile.

“Asleep! no,” she answered, and went on her way with increased rapidity.

Very soon they stood on the plain and advanced with great speed towards the temple. Fleta was naturally hardy; but now it seemed to her that the very idea of fatigue was absurd. She could scale mountains in order to reach that light. And yet what was it in it that drew her so? None but herself could have told. But Fleta’s heart beat passionately with longing at the sight of it. Ivan turned on her a glance of compassion.

“Keep quiet,” he said.

He was answered with a look and tone of fervour. “Yes; if it is in human power,” she replied.

The great crowds were slowly gathering towards the temple and formed themselves into masses of silent and scarcely moving figures. Fleta was now among them, and though so absorbed by the idea of the goal before [99] her, she was attracted by the strange appearance of these people. They were of all ages and nationalities, but more than two-thirds of them were men; they one and all had the appearance of sleep-walkers, seeming perfectly unconscious of the scene in which they moved and of their object in reaching it. Their whole nature was turned inwards; so it appeared to Fleta. Why, then, had they come to this strange place, so difficult of access, if when come they could neither see nor hear? Fleta considered these things rapidly in her mind, and would again have asked an explanation of Father Ivan but that while her steps slackened a little, his had hastened. He had already reached the door of the temple - when Fleta reached it he was not there. Of course he had entered, and Fleta, without fear or hesitation, put her hand on the great bar which held the door and lifted it. It was not difficult to lift; it seemed to yield to her touch, and swung back smoothly. With a slight push the great door opened a little before her - not wide; only as far as she had pushed it. Ah! there was the light! There, in her eyes! It was like life and joy to Fleta. She turned her eyes up to gaze on it, and stood an instant with her hands clasped, in ecstasy.

Someone brushed lightly by, and, passing her, went straight in. That reminded her that she, too, desired to go straight in. She nerved herself for the supreme effort. For she was learned enough to know that only the initiate in her faith, could enter that door; and she bad not, in any outward form, passed the initiation. But she believed she had passed it in her soul; she had tested her emotions on every side and found [100] the world was nothing to her; she had flung her mask away, believing her woman’s shape and face to be the merest outward appearance, which would be unseen at the great moment. And now it hardly seemed as if she were a woman - she stood transfigured by the nobility of her aspirations - and some who stood on the step outside remained there awestruck by her majestic beauty. By a supreme effort she resolved to face all - and to conquer all. She boldly entered the door and went up the white marble steps within it. A great hall was before her, flooded with the clear, soft light she loved; an innumerable number of objects presented themselves to her amazed eyes, but she did not pause to look at them - she guessed that the walls were jewelled from their sparkling - she guessed that the floor was covered with flowers, which lay on a polished silver service, from the gleaming and the colour - and who were these, the figures in silver dresses with a jewel-like an eye that saw, clasped at the neck? A number came towards her. She would not allow herself to feel too exultant - she tried to steady herself - and, yet joy came wildly into her heart, for she felt that she was already one of this august company. But their faces, as they gathered nearer, were all strange and unfamiliar. She looked from one to another.

“Where is Ivan?” she murmured.

Suddenly all was changed. The white figures grew in numbers till there seemed thousands - with outstretched hands they pushed Fleta down the steps - down, down, down, resist how she might. She did more. She fought, she battled, she cried aloud, first for [101] justice, then for pity. But there was no relenting, no softening in these superhuman faces. Fleta fled at last from their overpowering numbers and inexorable cruelty, and then there came a great cry of voices, all uttering the same words

“You love him! Go!”

Fleta fell, stunned and broken, at the foot of the outer step, and the great door closed behind her. But she was not unconscious for more than a few minutes. She opened her eyes and looked at the starry sky. Then she felt suddenly that she could not endure even that light and that the stars were reading her soul. She rose and hurried away, blindly following in any path that her feet found. It did not take her to any familiar place. She found herself in a dark wood. The moss was soft and fragrant, and violets scented it. She lay down upon it, drawing her white cloak round her and hiding her eyes from the light. [102]

CHAPTER IX.

It seemed to her that for long ages she was alone. Her mind achieved great strides of thought which at another time would have appeared impossible to her. She saw before her clearly her own folly, her own mistake. Yesterday she would not have credited it - yesterday it would have been unmeaning to her. But now she understood it, and understood too how heavy and terrible was her punishment; for it was already upon her. She lay helpless, her eyes shut, her whole body nerveless. Her punishment was here. She had lost all hope, all faith.

A gentle touch on her hand roused her consciousness, but she was too indifferent to open her eyes. It mattered little to her what or who was near her. The battle of her soul was now the only real thing in life to her.

A voice that seemed strangely familiar fell on her ears; yet last tune she had heard it it was loud, fierce, arrogant; now it was tender and soft, and full of an overwhelming wonder and pity.

“You, Princess Fleta, here? My God! what can have happened? Surely she is not dead? No! What is it, then?” [103]

Fleta slowly opened her eyes. It was Hilary who knelt beside her; she was lying on the dewy grass, and Hilary knelt there, the morning sun shining on his head and lighting up his beautiful boy’s face. And Fleta, as she lay and looked dully at him, felt herself to be immeasurably older than he was; to be possessed of knowledge and experience which seemed immense by his ignorance. And yet she lay here, nerveless, hopeless.

“What is it?” again asked Hilary, growing momently more distressed.

“Do you want to know?” she said gently, and yet with an accent of pity that was almost contempt in her tone. “You would not understand.”

“Oh, tell me!” said Hilary. “I love you - let me serve you!”

She hardly seemed to hear his words, but his voice of entreaty made her go on speaking in answer:

“I have tried,” she said, “and failed.”

“Tried what?” exclaimed Hilary, “and how failed? Oh, my Princess, I believe these devils of priests have given you some fever - you do not know what you are saying!”

“I know very well,” replied Fleta; “I am in no fever. I am all but dead - that is no strange thing, for I am stricken.” Hilary looked at her as she lay, and saw that her words were true. How strange a figure she looked, lying there so immovably, as if crushed or dead, upon the dewy grass; wrapped in her white robes. And her face was white with a terrible whiteness; the great eyes looked out from the white face with a sad, smileless gaze; and would those pale drawn lips [104] never smile again? Was the radiant, brilliant Fleta changed for ever into this paralyzed white creature? Hilary knew that even if it was so he loved her more passionately and devotedly than before. His soul yearned towards her.

“Tell me, explain to me, what has done this?” he cried out, growing almost incoherent in his passionate distress. “I demand to know by my love for you. What have you tried to do in this awful past night?”

Fleta opened her eyes, the lids of which had drooped heavily; and looked straight into his as she answered:

“I have tried for the Mark of the White Brotherhood, I have tried to pass the first initiation of the Great Order, I did not dream I could fail, for I have passed through many initiations which men regard with fear. But I have failed.”

“I cannot believe,” said Hilary, “that you could fail in anything. You are – dreaming - you are feverish. Let me lift you, let me carry you into the house.”

“Yes, I have failed,” answered Fleta, dully; “failed, because I had not measured the strength of my humanity. It is in me - in me still! I am the same as any other woman in this land. I, who thought myself supreme - I, who thought myself capable of great deeds! Ah, Hilary, the first simple lesson is yet unlearned. I have failed because I loved - because I love like any other fond and foolish woman! And yet no spark of any part of love but devotion is in my soul. That is too gross. Is it possible to purge even that away? Yes, those of the White Brotherhood have [105] done it. I will do it even if it take me a thousand years, a dozen lifetimes!”

She had raised herself from the ground as she spoke, for a new fierce passion had taken the place of the dull despair in her manner; she had raised herself to her feet, and then unable to stand had fallen on to her knees. Hilary listened, yet hardly heard; only some of her words hurried into his mind. He bent down till his face touched her white cloak where it lay on the grass, and kissed it a dozen times.

“You have failed because of love? Oh, my Princess, then it is not failure! Men live for love, men die for love! It is the golden power of life. Oh, my Princess, let me take you from this terrible place - come back with me to the world where men and women know love to be the one great joy for which all else is well lost. Fleta, while I doubted that you loved me I was as wax; but now that I know you do, and with a love so great that it has power to check the career of your soul, now I am strong, I am able to do all that a strong man can do. Come, let me raise you and take you away from here to a place of peace and delight.”

He had risen to his feet and stood before her, looking magnificent in the morning sunshine. He was slight of build, yet that slightness was really indicative of strength; when Hilary Estanol had been effeminate it was because he had not cared to be anything else. He stood grandly now, his hands stretched towards her; a man, lofty, transformed by the power of love. Fleta looking at him saw in his brilliant eyes the gleam of the conquering savage. She rose suddenly and confronted him. [106]

“You are mistaken,” she said, abruptly. “It is not you that I love.”

Then, as suddenly as Fleta had moved and spoken, the man before her vanished, with his nobility, and left the savage only, unvarnished, unhumanised.

“My God,” gasped Hilary, almost breathless from the sudden blow, “then it is that accursed priest?”

“Yes,” answered Fleta, her eyes on his, her voice dull, her whole form like that of a statue, so emotionless did she seem, “it is that accursed priest.”

She moved away from him and looked about her. The spot was familiar. She was in the woodland about the monastery. She could find her way home now without difficulty. And yet how weak she was, and how hard it was to take each footstep! After moving a few paces she stood still and tried to rouse herself, tried to use her powerful will.

“Where are my servants?” she said in a low voice. “Where are those who do my bidding?”

She closed her eyes, and standing there in the sunlight, used all her power to call the forces into action which she had learned to control. For she was a sufficiently learned magician to be the mistress of some of the secrets of Nature. But now it seemed she was helpless - her old powers were gone. A low, bitter cry of anguish escaped from her lips as she realised this awful fact. Hilary, terrified by the strange sound of her voice, hastily approached her and looked into her face. Those dark eyes, once so full of power, were now full of an agony such as one sees in the eyes of a hunted and dying creature. Yet Fleta did no faint or fail, or cling to the [107] strong man who stood by her side. After a moment she spoke, with a faint yet steady voice.

“Do you know the way to the gate?” she asked.

“Yes,” replied Hilary; who indeed had but recently explored the whole demesne. “Take my hand,” she said, “and lead me there.” She used her natural power of royal command now; feeble though she was, she was the princess. Hilary did not dream of disobeying her. He took the cold and lifeless hand she extended to him, and led her as quickly as was possible over the grass, through the trees and flowering shrubs, to the gateway. As they neared it she spoke:

“You are to go back to the city,” she said. “Do not ask why - you must go; yet I will tell you this - it is for your own safety. I have lost my power - I can no longer protect you, and there are both angels and devils in this place. I have lost all! all! And I have no right to risk your sanity, as well as my own. You must go.”

“And leave you here?” said Hilary, bewildered.

“I am safe,” she answered, proudly. “No power in heaven or earth can hurt me now, for I have cast my all on one stake. Know this, Hilary, before we part; I shall never yield or surrender. I shall cast out that love that kills me from my heart - I shall enter the White Brotherhood. And, Hilary, you too will enter it. But, oh! not yet! Bitter lessons have you yet to learn! Good-bye, my brother.”

The sentinel who guarded the gate now approached them in his walk; Fleta moved quickly towards him. [108]

After a few words had passed between them he blew a shrill, fine whistle. Then he approached Hilary.

“Come,” he said, “I will show you the way for some distance and will then obtain you a horse and a guide to the city.”

Hilary did not hesitate in obeying Fleta’s commands; he knew he must go. But he turned to look once more into her mysterious face. She was no longer there. He bowed his head and silently followed the monk through the gate into the outer freedom of the forest.

Fleta meantime crept back to the house through the shelter of the trees. Her figure looked like that of an aged woman, for she was bowed almost double and her limbs trembled as she moved. She did not go to the centre door of the house, but approached a window which opened to the ground and now stood wide. It was the window of Fleta’s own room; she hurried towards it with feeble, uncertain steps. “Rest! Rest! I must rest!” she kept murmuring to herself. But on the very threshold she stumbled and fell. Someone came immediately to her and tried to raise her. It was Father Ivan. Fleta disengaged herself, tremblingly yet resolutely. She rose with difficulty to her feet and gazed very earnestly into his face.

“And you knew why I should fail?” she said.

“Yes,” he answered, “I knew. You are not strong enough to stand alone amid the spirit of humanity. I knew you clung to me. Well have you suffered from it. I know that very soon you will stand alone.”

“Of what use would that mask have been?” demanded Fleta, pursuing her own thoughts. [109]

“None. If you had obeyed me and worn it you would have been of so craven a spirit you could never have reached the temple, never have seen the White Brotherhood. You have done these things, which are more than any other woman has accomplished.”

“I will do yet more,” said Fleta. “I will be one of them.”

“Be it so,” answered Ivan. “To do so you must suffer as no woman has yet had strength to suffer. The humanity in you must be crushed out as we crush viper beneath our feet.”

“It shall be. I may die, but I will not pause. Good-bye, my master. As I am a queen in the world of men and women, so you are king in the world of soul, and to you I have done homage; that homage they call love. It is so, perhaps. I am blind yet, and know not. But no more may you be my king. I am alone, and all knowledge I gain I must now gain myself.”

Ivan bowed his head as if in obedience to an unanswerable decree, and in a moment had walked away among the trees. Fleta watched him stonily till he was out of sight, then dragged herself within the window to fall helplessly upon the ground, shaken by sobs and strong shudders of despair. [110]

CHAPTER X.

It was late in the day before Fleta again came out of her room. She seemed to have recovered her natural manner and appearance; and yet there was a change in her which anyone who knew her well must see. She had not been into the general rooms, or greeted the other guests; nor did she do so now. Her face was full of resolution, but she was calm, at all events externally. Without going near the guest rooms or the great entrance hall, she made her way round the house to where a very small door stood almost hidden in an angle of the wall. It was such a door as might lead to the cellars of a house, and when Hilary had explored the night before he had scarcely noticed it. But it was exceedingly solid and well fastened. Fleta gave a peculiar knock upon it with a fan which she carried in her hand. It was immediately opened, and Father Amyot appeared.

“Do you want me?” he asked.

“Yes; I want you to go on an errand for me.”

“Where am I to go?”

“I do not know; probably you will know. I must speak to one of the White Brotherhood.”

Amyot’s face clouded and he looked doubtfully at her. [111]

“What is there you can ask that Ivan cannot answer?”

“Does it matter to you?” said Fleta imperiously. “You are my messenger, that is all.”

“You cannot command me as before,” said Father Amyot.

“What! do you know that I have failed? Does all the world know it?”

“The world?” echoed Amyot, contemptuously. “No; but all the Brotherhood does, and all its servants do. No one has told me, but I know it.”

“Of course,” said Fleta to herself. “I am foolish.” She turned away and walked up and down on the grass, apparently buried in deep thought. Presently she raised her head suddenly, and quickly moved towards Amyot, who still stood motionless in the dim shadow of the little doorway. She fixed her eyes on him; they were blazing with an intense fire. Her whole attitude was one of command.

“Go,” she said.

Father Amyot stood but for a moment; and then he came out slowly from the doorway, shutting it behind him.

“You have picked up a lost treasure,” he said. “You have found your will again. I obey. Have you told me all your command?”

“Yes. I must speak to one of the White Brothers. What more can I say? I do not know one from another. Only be quick!”

Instantly Amyot strode away over the grass and disappeared. Fleta moved slowly away, thinking so [112] deeply that she did not know anyone was near her till a hand was put gently on her arm. She looked up, and saw before her the young king, Otto.

“Have you been ill?” he asked, looking closely into her face.

“No,” she answered. “I have only been living fast - a century of experience in a single night! Shall I talk to you about it, my friend?”

“I think not,” answered Otto, who now was walking quietly by her side. “I may not readily understand you. I am anxious above all to advance slowly and grasp each truth as it comes to me. I have been talking a long time to-day to Father Ivan; and I feel that I cannot yet understand the doctrines of the order except as interpreted through religion.”

“Through religion?” said Fleta. “But that is a mere externality.”

“True, and intellectually I see that. But I am not strong enough to stand without any external form to cling to. The precepts of religion, the duty of each towards humanity, the principle of sacrifice one for another, these things I can understand. Beyond that I cannot yet go. Are you disappointed with me?”

“No, indeed,” answered Fleta. “Why should I be?”

Otto gave a slight sigh as of relief. “I feared you might be,” he answered: “but I preferred to be honest. I am ready, Fleta, to be a member of the order, a devout member of the external Brotherhood. How far does that place me from you, who claim to stand among the wise ones of the inner Brotherhood.”

Fleta looked at hint very seriously and gravely. [113]

“I claim it,” she said; “but is it mine? Yet I will win it, Otto; even at the uttermost price, I will make it mine.”

“And at what cost?” said Otto. “What is that uttermost price?”

“I think,” she said slowly, “I already feel what it is. I must learn to live in the plain as contentedly as on the mountain tops. I have hungered to leave my place in the world, to go to those haunts where only a few great ones of the earth dwell, and from them learn the secret of how to finally escape from the life of earth altogether. That has been my dream, Otto, put into simple words; the old dream of the Rosicrucian and those hungerers after the occult who have always haunted the world like ghosts, unsatisfied, homeless. Because I am a strong-willed creature, because I have learned how to use my will, because I have been taught a few tricks of magic, I fancied myself fitted to be one of the White Brotherhood. Well, it is not so. I have failed. I shall be your queen, Otto.”

The young king turned on her a sudden look full of mingled emotions. “Is that to be, Fleta? Then may I be worthy of your companionship!”

Fleta had spoken bitterly, though not ungently. Otto’s reply had been in a strange tone, that had exultation, reverence, gladness in it; but not any of the passion which is called love. A coquette would have been provoked by a manner so entirely that of friendship.

“ Otto,” said Fleta, after a moment’s pause, during which they had walked on side by side. “I am going to test your generosity. Will you leave me now?” [114]

“My generosity?” exclaimed Otto. “How is it possible for you to address me in that way?” Without any further void of explanation he turned on his heel and walked quickly away. Fleta understood his meaning very well; she smiled softly as she looked for a moment after him. Then, as he vanished, her whole face changed, her whole expression of attitude too. For a little while she stood quite still, seemingly wrapt in thought. Then steadily and swiftly she began to move across the grass and afterwards to thread her way through the trees. Having once commenced to move she seemed to have no hesitation as to the direction in which she was going. And, indeed, if you had been able to ask her how she knew, what path to take, she would have answered that it was very easy to know. For she was guided by a direct call, from Amyot, as plainly heard as any human voice, though audible only to her inner hearing. To Fleta, the consciousness of the double life - the spiritual and the natural - was a matter of constant experience, and, therefore, there was no need for the darkness of midnight to enable her to hear a voice from what ordinary men and women call the unseen world. To Fleta that world was no more unseen than unheard. She saw at once, conquering time and space, the spot where she would find Father Amyot at the end of her rapid walk; and more, the state she would find him in. The sun streamed in its full power and splendour straight on the strange figure of the monk, lying rigidly upon the grass. Fleta stood beside him and looked down on his face, upturned to the sky. For a little while she did nothing, but stood there with a [115] frown upon her forehead and her dark eyes full of fierce and changing feeling. Amyot was in one of his profound trances, when, though not dead, yet he was as one dead.

“Already my difficulties crowd around me,” exclaimed Fleta, aloud. “What folly shall I unknowingly commit next? My poor servant - dare I even try to restore you - or will nature be a safer friend?”

Full of doubt and hesitation she turned slowly away, and began to pace up and down the grass beside the figure of the priest. Presently she became aware that she was not alone - someone was near her. She started and turned quickly. Ivan stood, but a pace from her, and his eyes were fixed very earnestly upon her.

He was not dressed as a priest, but wore a simple hunting dress, such as an ordinary sportsman or the king incognito might wear. Simple it was, and made of coarse materials; but its easy make showed a magnificent figure which the monkish robes had disguised. His face had on it a deep and almost pathetic seriousness; and yet it was so handsome, so nobly cut, and made so brilliant by the deep blue eyes, which were bluer than their wont now, even in the full blaze of the sun - that in fact as a man merely, here stood one who might make any woman’s heart, queen or no queen, beat fiercely with admiration. Fleta had never seen him like this before; to her he had always been the master, the adept in mysterious knowledge, the recluse who hid his love of solitude under a monkish veil. This was Ivan! Young, superb, a man who must be loved. Fleta stood still and silent, answering the gaze of those questioning, serious blue eyes, with the purposeful, [116] rebellious look which was just now burning in her own. The two stood facing each other for some moments without speaking - without, as it seemed, desiring to speak. But in these moments of silence a measuring of strength was made. Fleta spoke first.

“Why have you come?” she demanded. “I did not desire your presence.”

“You have questions to ask which I alone can answer.”

“You are the one person who cannot answer them, for cannot ask them of you.”

“It is of me that you must ask them,” was all Ivan’s reply. Then he added: “It is of me you have to learn these answers. Learn them by experience if you like, and blindly. If yon care to speak, you shall be answered in words. This will spare you some pain, and save you years of wasted time. Are you too proud?”

There was a pause. Then Fleta replied deliberately: “Yes, I am too proud.”

Ivan bowed his head and turned away. He stooped over Father Amyot, and taking a flask from his pocket, rubbed some liquid on the monk’s white and rigid lips.

“I forbid you,” said Ivan, “to use your power over Amyot again.”

“You forbid me?” repeated Fleta, in a tone of profound amazement. Evidently this tone was entirely new to her.

“Yes, and you dare not disobey me. If you do, you will suffer instantly.”

Fleta looked the amazement which was evidently beyond her power to express in words. Ivan’s manner [117] was cold, almost harsh. Never had he addressed her without gentleness before. Hastily she recovered herself and, without pausing to address to him any other word, she turned away and went quickly through the trees and back to the house. Otto was standing at one of the windows; she went straight to him.

“I wish to go back to the city at once,” she said, “will you order my horses?”

“May I come with you?”

“No, but you may follow me to-morrow if you like.”