The Blossom and the Fruit
Mabel Collins

Part IV.
CHAPTER XVI.

Everything was closed, the world was dark to her; there was no turning, either to the right or to the left. We have all experienced this; even to young children this bitterness comes, when the darkness falls on their souls. In the grown man it is so great a thing that it blinds him and blackens his life sometimes for years. In one who is treading so dangerous, so difficult a path as was Fleta, it comes as a horror, a shame, a despair. For, she had more knowledge, more intelligence, than ordinary human creatures, who have not yet raised their eyes or their hopes beyond the simple joys of earth. She had a knowledge so great that it weighed on her like a terrible load and crushed her very spirit when, as now, she could not tell how to use it.

She knew perfectly what it was she had to do; but in what way was she to do it? She, the supreme, the pearless, the unconquerable one, who rose up again unaided after every disaster, and who could not be held back by any kind of personal difficulty or danger, was now paralysed. Paralysed because she had to influence, to guide, to lead, some other human being. Alone she [168] could go no farther; another soul must stand beside her, and yet another. And as yet none were ready! None!

She hardly noticed what passed around her, though she mechanically fulfilled her part; and she gave no thought to the events of the day until she found herself at last in her own room again - once more at peace, once more undisturbed except by those who waited on her. Even these she sent away, and sat still in her chair, alone, yet so full of wild and passionate thoughts that the very air seemed full of their vibration, and to be quivering with life.

The queen was alone. How utterly alone none but herself could tell. One of her maids looked into the room and saw the beautiful young queen sitting there so completely motionless that she supposed she had fallen asleep in the great easy chair, and would not disturb her. Fleta’s face was turned aside, and laid on the silken cushions, and it was so still and expressionless that one might fancy it a thing carved in ivory, rather than of flesh and blood. For all colour had died out of it, and there was no faintest fleeting shadow of changing pression.

Fleta was alone with a terrible reality, a fearful problem, and one which she well knew she must solve, or else die of despair. And this offered her no thought, of escape as it does to most, for she knew well that if she died it would only be to live again, and find herself again face to face with this problem.

For all nature follows laws; and as the plants grow, so does man. Life must progress, and none can stay it. [169] And Fleta had entered into the great rush of intelligent and vivid life which lies above the animal existence with which most men are content. No natural triumph, no power of her beauty, no magic of her personal charms, no accomplishment of her brilliant intellect could please or satisfy her any longer, for she had come into a keener consciousness, a knowledge of things undying. And she knew herself to be undying, incapable of death; and that she must suffer and suffer till this terrible point was passed.

It seemed to her impossible to pass it.

She might not ever hope to near the gate she longed to reach, unless she brought with her other souls, souls purified and ready. Her strength, her power must be used to save them, not herself.

But there were none who would be saved.

These two men who stood on either side of her, and who through many lives had stood on either side of her, even now, even yet, after so long, they were blinded by their love for her. And as she fully realised this a deep sigh passed all through her frame and made it quiver faintly like a dying thing in pain.

That love! with which she had held them and led them so long - the love of her, which had guided them so near the gate. Was it possible that now they must fall away, and because of that very love! Was it possible?

Suddenly Fleta rose and began to pace the room to and fro impatiently. “Shall I use my power?” she said to herself, half aloud. “Shall I make myself hideous, old, a withered and faded hag? Would that [170] kill this passionate love in them? Would that make me their guide and not a thing which is beautiful, and which each desires for himself? I must think - I must think!”

Moving to and fro in her room she thought silently for a long while. But there was no ray of gladness or light of conscious strength on her face.

“I must try it, I suppose,” she said aloud, at last. “I must throw aside my youth and my beauty, and see if they can either of them discover the soul within. But it is a great risk - a terrible risk.”

This she said quietly, and as one in deep thought. But suddenly something seemed to touch, and rouse, and sting her, as if a knife had entered her flesh.

“Great Powers!” she exclaimed, in a voice of agony. “What do I see in myself? Risk? - risk of what? Of their souls being lost because I am not able to help them. Folly! If they are to be saved, some aid will be given even if it is not mine. Risk! - risk of what? Of my losing their love. There is no longer any disguising it. I have been fooling myself. Hilary! Otto! forgive me, that I should ever have spoken as if I were wiser or more unselfish than you. The mask is torn away. I am deceived no longer. I never dreamed that I must serve or save any but these two who have been to me friends and companions through ages. And this is Fleta, who fancied herself free, able to enter the hall of truth, able to stand before the great masters and learn from them! Is my soul never to be purified? Can my heart never be burnt out? Oh, fire of agony, come and kill this weakness!” [171]

She staggered to her chair, and sat there, staring fixedly at the floor before her with wild eyes.

“How am I to burn these last ashes out of myself? How? And to think of it! - to know, as I see now, that for lifetime after lifetime I have fancied myself a saviour free in myself, only helping these others! And all this sad while I have but been leaning on their love, clinging to them as any frail thing might. If these did not love I should fancy love was not; if these did not follow and aid me I should fancy the world empty. And love, true love, the love that gives utterly and asks not, is not yet born in me! Well, I am punished - I have punished myself before I knew my fault! The world is not empty, indeed, but I am alone in it. Yes, utterly alone. My master has left me - my friends have left me. I have done wrong to each and all, and they are gone. Can I wonder that this is so? No, for I deserved it - and I deserve it.”

Fleta drew a cloak round her that hung on the back of her chair. She drew it over her face and head and her whole form, so that she lay back like a mummy in its wrappings. For hours she sat like this, and quite motionless. Several times persons came into the room and looked at her, but she lay so still, and had so evidently arranged herself in this way, that no one liked to disturb her, thinking she must be asleep. For there was nothing ceremonial at which it was necessary for her to appear; the king and the queen were to have dined alone quietly. But when Fleta did not come, the king did not ask for her. And so the evening passed and the night came. [172]

Then Fleta rose, and hastily putting on a dark robe and cloak hurried out of the room when there chanced to be no one to observe her movements. She stole down the stairs quickly, like a passing shadow, and succeeded in reaching the garden unseen. The strong fragrance of the magnolia flowers attracted her, and for a moment she stood still, seeing in her mind’s eye the scenes of that morning re-enacted. But at last she broke away, and hurried across the dim lawn, till she reached the boundary of the garden. Then she passed along swiftly and silently, keeping by the wall. Her object was evidently to find a gate, or some way out of the enclosure. It was not to meditate under trees, or to smell the sweetness of the flowers that she had come here. It was only that she did not know how else to get to the city - she had not liked to try the great front entrance to the palace, for she did not want to be noticed or followed. At last she came to an iron gate, high and well spiked. She looked at it for a moment, and then suddenly sprang on it and climbed it quickly, passing over it in some swift adroit way that was rather an effort of will than any skill of body. Just as she descended, she heard the sentry on his beat approaching her. Like a serpent she glided away into the shadow of some opposite trees. But, for all her swiftness the sentry had seen her. He knew it was a woman, this fleet shadow; he had a single glimpse of this pallid face, and its wild, strange expression; and he was afraid to follow. For he did not think it a creature of flesh and blood like himself. And yet poor Fleta’s heart was beating so hurriedly when she reached the [173] shade that she had to stand still a little while to stay it.

But at last she recovered her nerve, and went steadily onwards towards the lights of the city. Either instinct or some mysterious knowledge seemed to guide her, for she went direct to the part of the city she wanted - its worst quarter, where all night long there was a glare of light and a crying of strange and discordant voices. For the gipsies were constantly here, in the heart of this city; nomads though they must be always, yet here they most frequently returned as to some place resembling home. And they so inflamed the passions and the love of excitement which was in the people, that round the shanties and hovels in which they dwelled, an orgy was held perpetually.

Fleta walked on through the narrow and crooked streets of the poor district, and walked so quickly and steadily that no one spoke to her or delayed her, though many paused and looked after her for a long while. She could not altogether hide her star-like beauty. At last she reached the place she wanted. Here there was a three-cornered open space, paved, with a fountain in its centre. When this part of the city was built, it had been intended for better purposes than those it served; workpeople were the class the houses had been planned for. But the whole quarter was now taken possession of by the race of ruffians, thieves and murderers; a race which lives alone in every city because none dare be in its midst. This three-cornered square was its centre, a meeting point of many ways; and in it was held at night an open [174] market. It should have had trees around the pathway, and shrubs beside the fountain in its midst, but all traces of such civilization had long disappeared from it. It was given over to squalor and dirt. When Fleta entered it the market was just becoming lively. It was a strange mart indeed; at one stall rags were sold and old cooking vessels; at another jewels of some considerable value. But anything of beauty which might be for sale here, was well hidden under the dingy covering of squalor which overshadowed the whole.

Fleta walked straight across the square to the fountain. Beside it, at the point which she approached, was placed a ricketty, dirty old tent. On the ground inside it was a sort of bed of rags, on which sat an old woman. The tent was but just big enough to shelter her; she set facing its opening. By her side was a wooden stool, on which she told fortunes with a filthy old pack of cards. A woman was leaning over her now, watching the cards with breathless anxiety as she dealt them out.

Fleta drew quite close and then paused, leaning against the side of the dry fountain, and regarding this sordid scene with her beautiful eyes.

The old woman looked up after a moment. “Ah, it’s you?” she said.

“Yes,” answered Fleta; and that was all. The old woman told her cards, and pocketed her silver with elaborate care. Then, her customer leaving her and no other appearing for the moment, she looked again at Fleta.

“Want your fortune told?” she said, abruptly. She always spoke with a rough abruptness and many [175] abbreviations; but it is almost impossible to give any adequate idea of her peculiar terseness of style, since she spoke (at all events to Fleta) the true Romany tongue. To the woman whose fortune she had told she spoke in a rough dialect of the country.

“Yes,” said Fleta.

The old woman laughed aloud, a queer, cackling laugh, and then got out a little black pipe and began to fill it. Suddenly she put this aside again, and looked up.

“I begin to feel as if you mean it. That can’t be possible.”

“Yes,” said Fleta, for the third time. And her face grew whiter every time she spoke. The old witch peered at her out of her small eyes.

“Then it’s come to hard times with you, my dear! But you’re queen here, aren’t you?”

Fleta only nodded.

“Then how do you manage to be in a place like this alone? Oh, well, I know you are clever enough for the devil himself. But what has happened that you come to me?”

“I have lost my footing,” said Fleta, very calmly. “I do not know which way to turn; and you must help me to find out.”

“I must, must I?” growled the old woman, her unpleasant amiability suddenly turning to a virulent ill humour. “So you keep your airs? How did you find out I was here?”

Fleta did not answer.

“You’re clever enough for that still, are you, my dear? [176]

“Then why can’t you look into to-morrow and next year for yourself?”

Fleta clasped, her hands and held her peace.

“I insist upon knowing,” said the old woman, with a flare of fury, “or I’ll not do your bidding, not even if you fill me with pains from top to toe. I know what you are; I know you’d rack me with torments, as you’ve done before now, to get knowledge out of me. Go on, do it if you like. I’ve got a new trick that’ll help me bear it. I’ll not do a thing for you unless you tell me why you come to me for help. I thought you were now white as a lily, sitting on a throne, talking with angels. What’s the reason you’re here?”

Such a speech would have made most people smile. But Fleta knew with whom she had to deal, her old companion and instructress, and regarded it very seriously, weighing her words as she slowly answered.

“I tried to pass the initiation of the White Star, and I failed. My powers are gone, and, I am blind and alone.”

The old woman uttered an extraordinary ejaculation, something between an oath and a cry.

“You tried for that, did you? Why, no woman has ever passed it. You deserve to be blind and dumb too, for your insolence.”

And then the old wretch burst out laughing, Fleta standing by quietly watching her.

“I know quite well what you’re set to do now,” the witch said at last. You’re set to save souls, just as I’m set to send them to hell, as we both did in our last lives. Well, you won’t find it easy. Nobody wants you now you’ve started into that business.” [177]

“I’ve found that out already,” said Fleta.

“And they do want me,” cried the witch. “Only think of that, and remember how pretty you are, and how ugly I am! People like their souls lost for them; they hate having them saved. That’s the common herd that I’m talking of. But there’s somebody wanting to be saved now - somebody wanting help.”

Fleta remained standing quite still, her eyes fixed on the old woman.

“Shall I tell you who it is?”

“Tell me the truth, Etrenella; I command it.”

After a moment the old woman spoke in a low voice, less harsh than before.

“It is your master, Ivan. If you must go saving souls, save his. He needs somebody to help him.” Fleta involuntarily started, and retreated a step; the

fixed gaze she had kept on Etrenella relaxed.

“Do you mean this?” she exclaimed, utterly deceived.

Etrenella laughed, and dropped into her original manner.

“You, needn’t pretend you don’t know when I’m telling the truth;” she said; “you’re not gone back to be a baby, I’m sure of that. Now look you here, my queen; I can give you something much better than your throne, or your king, or your kingdom, or anything else on this earth for you; I can make Ivan love you more dearly than the White Star itself; he’s half way to it already, and does but want a touch. I can do it if you give me the word - ah! I see your face, my white queen; I see your hands trembling - so that’s why you failed, is it?” [178]

And this terrible Etrenella took up her little black pipe and proceeded to fill and light it; while Fleta leaned against the fountain sick and faint, as if unto death, with the tide of emotions which rushed over her. It was the greatest temptation she had ever met.

After one shrewd, cruel glance, at this quivering figure, Etrenella went on speaking.

“You needn’t hesitate. You’ve got crimes enough on your conscience. I can see them in the very air round you. What was that you made Hilary Estanol kill for you, you vampire? You made him commit murder, and you know it. The thing was nearly human!”

“You sent it!” cried Fleta, suddenly finding strength to speak.

“Yes, I did. And why not? I’d heard you were married, and I sent to hear about you. It was quick and clever of you to kill him and take his life for yourself. You’d be in a fever now if you hadn’t done it, and very near death. That little Duchess will die after awhile; you scared her so that she can’t get over it. And how about Hilary Estanol? Isn’t his soul very near lost through this beauty of yours? And so you can’t have your laboratory now? Ah!”

“Speak to me as you should speak,” cried Fleta, recovering herself and quickly taking the command again. “Tell me where to look for my master.”

“I can’t tell you that,” said Etrenella. “You’ve got to get much more hungry than you are yet before you find him; so much I know. And I’ll tell you this, for it’s

quite plain, and you might read it yourself; everything [179] will crumble away from you - not only your friends, but your throne and your kingdom. You will be just as much neglected as if you were as ugly as the old father of devils. My trade’s a better one. Come, now, isn’t it so?”

Fleta turned and walked straight away without once pausing or looking back or hesitating. It was evident she did not look upon Etrenella as a person towards whom it was necessary to use politeness. When Etrenella saw that she was really going, she half rose off her rags and flung a screech after her.

“You’ll have to go to hell’s door to find him, I can tell you that!”

Fleta walked on, seemingly unmoved. But the words repeated themselves again and again in her ears, and seemed to echo along the streets. The whole city appeared to Fleta to be full of her own woe - there was none else, and nothing else in it - or, indeed, in the world. [180]

CHAPTER XVII.

On the very morrow - or, rather, indeed, on the same day, for the dawn came as Fleta walked through the city - Etrenella’s predictions began to be fulfilled. Fleta had entered the palace safely, though how this had been accomplished she could not even recollect. And at an hour when she was usually out among the flowers, she lay on her bed in a stupor of exhaustion and despair. A message came that the King particularly wished to see her. It sounded so urgent a message that Fleta thought it beat not to deny herself to him, weary though she was. She rose, put on a loose white lace robe, and went into a little sitting room that looked on the garden to wait his coming, The singing of the birds worried her, and she retreated from the window - to which she had gone from habit - to the back of the room. She was standing there when Otto entered, and he paused a moment, startled by her appearance. The morning freshness, which no midnight labour had ever taken from her face before, was not on it now; she was as white as the dress she wore, and with her black hair falling unbound upon her shoulders, she looked like a spectre rather than a living woman. [181]

“You are ill, frightfully ill!” exclaimed Otto.

Fleta deliberately walked to a mirror, and looked into it. And then she smiled such a bitter smile.

The thought in her heart was this: “I am fading already - the human mechanism goes always the same weary old round, and he will very soon tire of me now. It is over.”

And with this cull sadness in her heart she turned away without any answer, and sat down on a couch in the dimmest corner of the room. The appearance of this action was as of indifference which actually amounted to insolence. Otto was a little nettled by it, and said no more, for the moment, as to Fleta’s illness.

“I intruded on you,” he said, stiffly, “merely because it was my business to do so. Last night war was declared between two great Powers. My position and that of my kingdom is simply that of a gnat between one’s forefinger and thumb; the allied powers are so strong, and so situated, that I must be crushed. Of course, I must fight it out, though the end is a foregone one, and inevitable. But you must not stay here. You must go at once. I cannot guarantee your safety after another twenty-four hours are passed. And I owe that much to your father. Go, now, and get ready and leave this place. Do not delay an hour or a minute. You have been my queen for a day - no doubt that has been long enough for you.”

“Quite long enough,” answered Fleta, quietly, “and yet the fall of the curtain seems a little hurried. I knew your position, of course; but I thought you expected
to save it, and hoped for my assistance in so [182] doing. That, in fact, it was still a matter of diplomacy.”

“So it was till last night,” answered Otto. “I had no idea that any such sudden action was meditated. I had intended that we should both visit London and St. Petersburg within the next two months, and I fully admit that I expected great help from you in dealing with these powers. But everything has been taken out of my hands and it has all been finished without my knowledge.”

He walked to the window, and then, standing with his back to her, said, in a tone of deep feeling:

“Is it any of your cursed witchcraft, Fleta? Did you stir these men in their dreams, so that they should combine to crush me?”

“For a moment Fleta seemed about to answer fiercely; but she controlled herself by an effort, and then said, in a very low voice:

“As your queen I am loyal to you.”

There was something extraordinarily impressive in the way she said this. It convinced Otto instantly. He turned on her with a sudden swift flash of interest and vivacity in his face. It was the first gleam through the cloud that had been on him all the time he had been with her.

“Will you show yourself to the army before you go?” he exclaimed. “It would make all the difference. The men have no heart in them.”

“Not!” cried Fleta, rising instantly. A spot of colour was on each cheek, her eyes glittered.

“When shall I come?” she said. [183]

“Now,” answered Otto, responding to her spirit. “On the great plain outside the city they are holding parade. Will you come?”

“One moment!” cried Fleta.

She swept past him, and shut the door of her own room. No one was there, and quite alone she made her toilette. This was so much the better, for it made her task easier. For three minutes she stood perfectly motionless inside the shut door. Her face was as set as that of a statue; every line was marked and rigid, and her eyes were like the eyes of a tiger. Her fierce will, roused into action, passed through all her frame and powers, and called out all, the latent vigour in them. And so she worked a miracle, as many a clever conjuror does. It seemed like a conjuring trick to herself, when, the three minutes over, she advanced to the I mirror, and saw her face all alight with life, her cheeks flushed, her eyes vivid and sparkling, and youth returned more dewy than before. She hastily coiled up her hair, and fastened it by jewelled pins; she passed her hand over her face, with the same sort of result that women produce with creme, and rouge, and powder, and half-an-hour’s labour - the whole sparkling effect was blended, softened, made more beautiful. She threw aside her white robe, and hurriedly found in a wardrobe a dress of cloth of gold, over which she drew a long cloak all of white and gold, and lined with crimson.

Then she went to the door, opened it, and, said, “I am ready.”

“My God!” exclaimed Otto, “you are indeed a witch. [184] You are well, you are brilliant, you are twenty times more beautiful than ever. Oh, Fleta! listen to me. I will never leave your side, I will serve you like a slave if you will only let me love you.”

“Love me!” exclaimed Fleta, with the most burning scorn. “No - don’t deceive yourself. You only love my beauty - a thing of the moment only. If instead of making myself beautiful I chose to make another woman so, you would transfer your love to her. Come, take me to your soldiers. They, at least, are honest. They like a woman while she is young and pretty, and weary her with their love; and when she is old, they let her cook, for them and carry the loads like an ass. You kings are the same, only you have not the courage to say so. Come - I am ready - lead the way.”

Her manner was so imperious, Otto had no choice but to obey without further words.

And now came the one brief hour in which Fleta ever felt herself a queen; for yesterday’s pageant had not touched her. As she moved among the soldiers it was like a torch carried along that lit fire where ever it went.

Seeing the young queen in her triumphant beauty among them the men rose to the wildest enthusiasm. Now and again, when it was possible, she spoke a few words to the men round her, who stood devouring her with their eyes and listening as though her voice was heaven-sent. The old General who rode by her carriage looked twenty years younger, when he saw his men’s faces all aflame.

“I wish your Majesty would go into the field of action with us,” he exclaimed, suddenly. [185]

“So do I,” answered Otto, from the other side.

“Well, I will,” said Fleta, quietly.

“What do you mean?” exclaimed Otto, in a different tone. He had no idea of her taking his words seriously, he had simply expressed the enthusiasm which the sight of her influence excited in him.

“Tell the men, General,” said Fleta, “that I am going to the battle-field with them. I shall return to the palace at once and make my preparations. It is of no use for either of you to remonstrate now my mind is made up. I am going.”

She ordered her coachman to turn back to the palace, and to drive quickly; so that no one had time to consider or to hesitate. She was gone; but not her influence. And when it spread about among the men that she was going with them, the excitement was something extraordinary.

The first move was to send a large detachment to the frontier, where there was a great plain on which the army was to camp. Here it was anticipated that the first blows would be struck. The King and the General both went with this part of the army; and now Fleta was to go too. Everybody envied these lucky men, who were pretty certain to lose their lives, but would nevertheless be smiled on by the young queen; so wild are the sentiments of war when once roused. They were all awake in Fleta herself. She found a fierce relaxation in this excitement which had entered her veins and made her blood grow warm again; it was a reprieve, a rest from the terrible anxieties of her life, and it seemed to her as if it had perhaps just come in time to prevent [186] the strain under which she was suffering from driving her mad. As the thought came into her mind she paused in what she was doing at the moment and raised her hands to her head. “It is possible,” she said to herself, “it might have been a lifetime wasted in a mad-house. This war-fever has come as a rest; I will not let myself think while it lasts - I will take the passion and live in it.” And so, with fresh vigour, she hurried the maids who were packing and arranging for her. The hour of starting from the city had not given her very long to get ready in; but she was more than punctual - she was in her place some minutes before she was expected. She stood up in her carriage to bow in answer to the enthusiastic greeting she received. By the side of the carriage rode a servant leading a very spirited young horse. It was Fleta’s favourite, the one she had ridden to and fro from her garden house at home into the city; it had been brought with her to her new home. She had given orders that it was to accompany her now. Otto inquired why she had brought it; but she made no answer. The march was not a long one; it only lasted a day and a half. Fleta’s carriage was closed when they started on the next morning; no one had seen her since they had camped for the night, not even Otto. Nor did anyone see her till the midday halt was called, when she stepped out of her carriage, wearing a ridinghabit of very soft, fine crimson cloth. Her non-appearance had somewhat dulled the spirits of the men; but now that they saw her, and dressed in this way, moving about among them, it was just as if the sun had [187] suddenly burst out in the heavens, so the old General told her; and he begged her not to shut herself up again at once.

“I am not going to,” cried Fleta, who seemed to be in her gayest and most gracious humour. “I am going to ride the rest of the way.”

What a march that was, that afternoon! None of the men who survived the night could ever forget it; they talked of it afterwards more than, of anything else. The tender figure in its crimson dress, riding so gaily between the King and the General, was a kind of loadstone to which all eyes were drawn. It was extraordinary to observe the swift subtle influence which Fleta exercised. Her presence inspired the whole troop, and the feeling everywhere was that of courage and success.

Late in the day, when the twilight began to fall, Fleta fell into a dim reverie. She was not thinking of anything in particular, her mind appeared to be veiled and asleep. She forgot to turn her face from one side to the other as she had done during the afternoon, firing the men with the light from her brilliant eyes. Her gaze was fixed before her, but unseeingly, and she simply rode on without thought. As it grew darker she became aware that something was happening around her; but so buried was she in the abyss of thought or imagination she had entered that she did not pause nor did she give her attention in any way. Possibly, she could not, for her eyes were as set and strange as those of a sleepwalker. She rode rapidly on through the gathering darkness, and at last her horse grew uncontrollably [188] terrified and darted away at a tremendous pace. Fleta kept her seat, swaying lightly with the movements of the maddened horse, over whom she no longer attempted any guidance; indeed she let the reins fall from her hands, and simply grasped a handful of the long flying mane in order to steady herself.

A wild cry reached her ear at last, and roused her partly from the abstraction in which she was plunged. A wild cry, in a familiar voice, and yet one that was unrecognisable from the terror that filled it. “Fleta! Fleta!” came to her on the wind. At the same moment her horse reared, stumbled and fell backward. He gave a shriek of agony as he did so that almost stunned Fleta’s senses, it was so terrible. He was dead in another moment, for he had been shot, and mercifully the shot was immediately fatal. Fleta rose to her feet, and looking found her discovered the most extraordinary scene. She was right under the enemy’s fire, and near her were only a few dying men and horses, who had been shot down in their attempt to fly in the direction in which she had been riding. There was a blurred moon, half hidden by clouds, but enough light was given by it for Fleta to see very plainly that her own soldiers were flying from the scene in every direction; and also that the ground was cumbered with dead bodies, further back. She stood perfectly, still, gazing round her in a kind of frozen horror; and she was still a target for the shot fell all about her. But she seemed to bear a charmed life; and she stood unmoved. A horse, urged to its wildest pace, was approaching her with thundering hoofs; and the cry rang out again: “Fleta! Fleta!” [189] Then in another moment the horse was at her side, stopped suddenly, and stood panting and trembling. Someone leaned down towards her. “Make haste, spring up behind me,” cried a hoarse voice, thick with fear for her. She stared at the face. How long had she known those eyes? Had they not spoken love to her through ages? And yet they were strange to her now, for she had indeed forgotten the very existence of this man who loved her so dearly.

“You, Hilary?” she exclaimed.

“Spring up,” he exclaimed. “Don’t you see you are being shot at? Make haste!”

She obeyed him, without any further words, and in another moment the great horse he rode, was tearing away with them through the gloomy night.

When they were in moderate safety, Hilary slackened speed, for he knew that unless he was merciful to the horse now it would fail them later on. [190]

CHAPTER XVIII.

The dawn broke in the sky at last, to Hilary’s great relief; for he had had no easy task to guide the horse while it was dark. Now they could ride on quietly, and his greatest anxiety for the moment was allayed. In the strange stillness of the first few moments of the light he turned in his saddle and looked at Fleta. She returned his gaze very quietly, but she seemed preoccupied and absorbed in some hidden thoughts of her own.

“Safe!” said Hilary, aloud. He alone knew the torturing anxiety he had suffered about her, the frenzy of despair he endured when he saw her standing coolly beneath the fire of the enemy.

“O, you of little faith,” said Fleta, with a smile.

“You might have been shot!” he answered, a quiver in his voice. “Your courage is indomitable, I know; but it is madness to stand as a target, not courage.”

“I have some work to do yet,” answered Fleta. “I am in no danger of death. You have buried all the knowledge you have ever acquired beneath so deep a crust, Hilary, that you cannot even find a little faith to work with.”

She spoke in atone of cool contempt, undisguised. It [191] nettled Hilary, whose irritable nature had suffered severely from the terrible anxiety he had been through.

“The shot has been herd at work on your men, the wen you led on to their destruction, Fleta; and you don’t even think of the poor wretches, apparently. I think you are utterly heartless.”

“The men I led on?” exclaimed Fleta, in unfeigned amazement. “I wonder what you can mean?”

“Why, you know well enough. They would have turned and run away long before if you had not always kept ahead; for it was perfectly plain that nothing but destruction could come of going on. But the men would have followed you anywhere - they followed you to their death.”

“Merciful Powers!” exclaimed Fleta, “and I let myself go a thousand miles from that battle-field - I know absolutely nothing of what went on through the evening and night, Hilary, till you found me - absolutely nothing. Those deaths are on my soul, I know it - I do not try to evade it. But only through thoughtlessness. I was away on what was to me the first and chief work I had to do - I was out of my body the whole time. And that body, that mere animal, that physical presentment of me led these unfortunate men to death! What demon was it that held the reins of my horse? It was not, I - no, I was far away. If I had stayed, we should have won the battle.”

Hilary was sobered and subdued by the extraordinary tone of excitement and the deep seriousness with which she spoke. [192]

“Is that true?” he Said. “Had you the power to win that battle?”

“No,” answered Fleta, “for you see I have failed. I thought of one soul that I love, and forgot the many to whom I was indifferent. This is a fearful sin, Hilary, on the path I am treading. I must suffer for it. I failed for want of strength. I should have had patience till the battle was over.”

“But,” said Hilary, “perhaps we had to lose that battle.”

“There was the national destiny to reckon with, I know,” answered Fleta, “but I was strong enough, at one time to-day, to reckon with that. For you know very well, Hilary, that a being who has won power at such cost as I have can control the forces which rule the masses of men.”

Hilary made no answer, but fell into a profound fit of thought.

“We must get to a town, and to a station, as soon as possible,” said Fleta, presently. “We have a long way to go.”

“Where are we going?” inquired Hilary. “I did not know we had any goal but to reach a place of safety.”

“Safety!” said Fleta, impatiently.

“Well, where are we going then?” said Hilary, repeating his question with an air as if he were determined no longer to express surprise or even anxiety.

“To England,” replied Fleta.

“England!” Hilary could not help repeating the word, this time with great surprise. “And why?” [193]

“We have to do some work in England. At least, I have.”

“It is my place to take care of you,” said Hilary, in a rather strained voice, as if he were endeavouring to control himself under great emotion. Fleta noticed it in spite of the fact that her thoughts were even now elsewhere - very far away from the country road they were traversing.

“Why do you speak so strangely?” she asked.

“Do I speak strangely?” said Hilary. “Well, I have been through a good deal to-night. I have seen you right under fire - that was enough by itself. But I was never on a battle-field before, and it is no light thing to see, for the first time, hundreds of men shot down.” A faint sigh from Fleta interrupted him here, but he went on, apparently with an effort. “I have seen more - I saw someone with whom I had been been very much associated shot, and die in agony.”

Fleta leaned forward and looked into Hilary’s face, putting her hand on his shoulder, and compelled him to turn towards her. To Hilary it seemed as if her eyes penetrated his brain, and read, all that was in it.

“I know,” she said at last, very quietly, yet with a vein of anguish in her voice that cut Hilary to the heart with grief for her grief. She let her hand drop from his shoulder, and took her eyes from his face.

“I know,” she said. “You need not tell me. Everything will crumble away from you, your friends, your king and your kingdom. It has come, and come quickly. You spoke well, Etrenella. Otto is dead. And his death is at my door. My destiny sweeps on so fiercely that [194] men die when their lives touch mine. It is horrible. Your friends, too, she said. I think I have no friend, Hilary, unless I reckon you as the only one. I hardly know, for I think love in you drowns all friendship. Well, you will leave me, at all events, and that soon. And Otto is dead!”

She relapsed into thought or some mood of feeling which was so profound Hilary could not determine to address her; it required some courage to do so when she woke the severe and terrible look that was on her face now. What did it mean? Was it grief? Hilary had no idea. She was close to him, and he felt her form touch him with every movement of the horse. And yet she was as far removed as a star in the sky. She was an enigma to him, unreadable. That her words were unintelligible did not trouble him; he often found it impossible to fallow her as she talked. But he resented this heavy veil which fell between them, and left him a whole world away from her, so far that he knew she was unconscious even of his physical neighbourhood. Could he ever make her feel him? Could he ever make her love him? This heart-breaking question seemed to come upon him as one quite new, and also as one unanswerable. He forgot how long he had been striving to win her love - he only knew that now, this moment, his need of it had become a thousand-fold intensified. He succumbed to the pain with which he became conscious that his love was a hopeless one - for how could he make this star, this creature so far removed from any ordinary forms of life, how could he make her give him any part of her heart? And so they [195] went on, each buried in sad thought, and removed from each other by a wide gulf. For Fleta’s soul was set on one great thought, one all-absorbing aim; it rose up and obscured all else, even the memories of the horrors of the night, just as it had obscured them when they were actually happening.

And that thought was of the star of her life, the other soul towards which all her existence was set. Ah, unhappy child of the lofty star! Why is it that your human nature must drag you back to the dark place of feeling where the great light is invisible and only another soul, any individual Life, can shine to you with any powerful brilliance? Fleta felt herself tottering - knew her soul to be standing on the brink of a terrible abyss. But one thoughtless step, and she would find herself loving as other women love - adoring, concentrating all thought on the object of adoration, and so limiting the horizon of her life to the span of that other’s soul and intellect. Suddenly a quiver passed through Fleta’s form which shook her like an aspen. “Is it true what Etrenella said?” she was asking herself. “Do I already love him? Is the fate on me, not merely a thing possible to happen? And was he, too, that great one, on the verge of this abyss, so that he needed but one touch? Is it, possible to fall from such a height?” This she thought of with a deep shame, sadness and humility. For though her own heart was being torn by a fierce human longing, yet she knew well what standard of unselfishness was required of the members of the White Brotherhood; and she felt Ivan’s possible failure to be a thing inconceivably greater[196] than her own, so much greater that the idea awed and shamed her even in the midst of her longing. The idea of Ivan was a religious one to her; the thought of his failure was to her as the thought of sacrilege. So that she got not one gleam of joy from the thought that possibly he might have learned to love her. Not one gleam - strange though it may sound, when she had reached a state of feeling in which his image filled all space and stood alone. For she understood, in her sad heart, that to love her would be to him despair and pain, while to her it would mean endless remorse, should she be the instrument to drag him from his high estate. Such was her folly - so deep the delusion she was plugged in! A deep sigh escaped her, so deep that it made Hilary turn to look at her face; but no answering look came to him, and he turned away again. Thus they went on till they reached the neighbourhood of a small town.

“We can take the train from here,” said Hilary. “But I do not see how to get into the town while you wear that dress. I don’t know whether we are safe here or not. Can you think of any way to get some different dress?”

He stopped the horse, and Fleta sprang to the ground. She discovered now that she was roused, how tired she was.

“I must have some breakfast before I even try to think,” she answered; “let us go to the nearest house and beg food first of all.”

She set off on foot without waiting for any answer. Hilary followed her, leading the tired horse. For some [197] distance she hurried on, with quick steps, then stopped by a gate in a thicket hedge. The house was invisible. Hilary had no idea there was one there. But Fleta used finer senses than those which men usually employ; she had followed her instinct, as we say when we speak disparagingly of the animals, creatures still possessed of actual knowledge, because their development has not yet brought them within the light of intellect, which, like a powerful lamp, makes darkness deeper beyond the reach of its rays. Fleta opened the gate and entered, not staying to think, but obeying her instinct; she walked up a narrow pathway thickly bordered by flowers which shone and glittered with the morning dew. This path seemed to end in nothing but a thicket of trees. Yet under these trees, when she reached them, lay a widening way which turned suddenly aside; and the entrance to a tiny cottage was marked by two grand yew trees. Fleta stopped suddenly, clasped her hands together, and it seemed as if she breathed either a prayer or a thanksgiving. Hilary had reached her, side by now, having fastened his horse at the gate-way and hastened after her. He was puzzled that she did not advance, and asked her why she paused.

“My fate,” she said, “is for the moment blended with the fate of the noble one I go to. I have only just understood this; and I understand also that this can only continue while I think and feel without any dark shadow of selfishness in my thoughts and feelings.”

“What makes you say this now?” asked Hilary, controlling a certain impatience that rose within him at what seemed to him complete irrelevance. But he [198] now knew enough of Fleta to feel that if he could see and hear as she saw and heard she would never seem irrelevant.

“What makes me say it? A very simple thing. I have committed a great crime in this murderous thoughtlessness of mine; a crime which must be punished sooner or later by Nature’s immutable laws. Is it likely then that of my own fate I should encounter, in the moment of need, with a servant of the White Brotherhood? No; it is the fate of that other whose servant I am. That you may never again be so ignorant I tell you this - that yew trees mark the entrance to the home of every one in the world who is pledged to the service of the silver star. And why? - because the yew tree has extraordinary power and properties. Come, let us go in.”

They went on, Fleta leading the way. The cottage door stood wide open. Within was the most simple and primitive interior of the country. The cot evidently consisted of but two rooms, one behind the other; in the farther one all domestic work was done. In the larger, the one into which the front door opened, the resident slept, and lived, and dined, and studied. This last was an unusual characteristic of peasants, and therefore one unusual feature appeared in the room - a small shelf of books, the volumes being very old. No one was in the house; two glances were sufficient for the search of the rooms. Fleta, after these two glances, went straight to a corner cupboard and opened it. Before Hilary had quite recovered from his surprise at this, she had half laid the table, putting first on it a white cloth and then [199] producing cheese and bread and milk, and a jar of honey.

“Come,” she said. “This is food freely given us. Let us eat.”

Without staying to question her assurance, as he might have done had he been less hungry, Hilary sat down and assisted with a great sense of comfort in this impromptu meal.

They had appeased the first pangs of hunger when a shadow, suddenly darkened the doorway.

“It is you!” cried Fleta, in a tone of the greatest amazement.

Hilary, who was sitting with his back to the door, started and turned round. He recognised immediately, in spite of the present dress he wore, the monk, Father Amyot. [200]

CHAPTER XIX.

“Yes,” said Father Amyot. “Are you surprised to see me?”

“I am, indeed,” replied Fleta, slowly.

“Then you are losing, knowledge fast. Can you have forgotten that there are duties to perform at the death of even a blind slave of the Great Brotherhood, much more so of one who actually has taken an elementary vow?”

Fleta looked at him as he spoke with the same puzzled air she had worn since his entrance. Then suddenly she cried out, “Ah, you, mean Otto!” and suddenly, leaning her head on her hands, burst into a passion of tears.

Hilary felt numbed, as if some blow had struck him dumb. He had never seen Fleta weep like this - he had never conceived it possible she could do so. He had come to regard her self-reliance and immoveable composure as essential and invariable parts of her character. And now, at the mention of her dead husband’s name, she broke down like a child, and wept as a woman of the people might weep when reminded of her widowhood.

But it was only a fierce, passionate storm, that passed [201] as quickly as it came. With a quick movement Fleta rose from her bowed attitude, and started to her feet. Amyot’s eyes, a great severity in them, had been fixed on her all the while. He now held out his hands, both filled with flowering herbs, a vast bunch of them.

“Who is to do this?” he asked. “You know what it is.”

Fleta looked at the delicate little flowers and shuddered.

“Yes, I know what it is,” she answered, in a voice of pain. “I shall do it. That work is mine. I have power and strength left me to do this difficult work. I will recall my knowledge.”

She advanced towards him, and, with a fierce, proud gesture, she took the herbs into her own hands. Father Amyot surrendered them, without any further word. Then he crossed the narrow floor and stood in front of Hilary.

“Your mother,” he said, “is ill, very ill; and her sufferings are greatly increased because of her anxiety about you. It is your business to go to her.”

Hilary did not reply, but turned his head and looked at Fleta. Amyot answered the gesture. “She is my charge,” he said.

Thoughts came with an unwelcome swiftness into Hilary’s mind. Father Amyot would not only be as devoted an attendant upon Fleta, but one far more fitted; and he had, moreover, mysterious powers at command which Hilary lacked. He knew all this in a second of thought. And then came the wild outcry of his heart, “I will not leave her!” and the desperate [202] pang of knowing it to be the wrench from Fleta which made his duty impossible. More than once had he left her in anger and vowed never to return to her; yet he found himself always at her feet again, helpless, hungry, unable to live without her voice and her presence. Poor human soul that lives on love and passion, and mingles the two so that one cannot be told from the other. But this it is, this mixture of the beast and the god, the animal and the divine, which is humanity. A hard place to live through truly; but once we were as innocent as the gentle brutes, and later we shall be pure as our own divinity. But the blur has to be lived through and learned from, as the child has to go through youth to manhood, and in that space of youth learn the powers and arts which make manhood admirable.

And Hilary was learning this fierce lesson at its hardest point. For the facet of the many-sided soul of man which is turned most nearly on his earth-life is that of desire. Sex is its most ready provocative; and so the world goes on without pause, the creation of forms being the easiest task for man. Then come the hundred-eyed shapes of desire, filling the soul with hunger of all sorts; making even the tender mother’s love into a passion because it asks return and knows not how to give generously unless it is repaid, by love for love.

Hilary did not answer Amyot, or ask any further question. He accepted the truth of his news and the reasonableness of his command without doubt. For Amyot had been the example of a saintly life and [203] a holy character in the city which was Hilary’s birthplace ever since he could remember.

He did not hesitate about obedience. He rose from his chair ready to depart, and to yield Fleta up to the monk’s guardianship. But he did not know how to go without one word, or look, or touch, from the woman he worshipped - yes, worshipped, in spite of the fierce efforts he had himself made to tear himself from her. He knew how, as he stood for a long minute gazing at her, that he had been held high in hope and delight at the idea of being the companion of her flight, of shielding her, so far as he could, from the dangers of her path, even though the object which she pursued actually separated them and destroyed all sympathy. He advanced a step nearer to her.

“Good-bye,” he said, in a choked voice; “you don’t need me now.”

Fleta turned and looked at him, and a sudden deep softness passed into her face and added deeply to her beauty.

“You know that I need you always,” she said quietly, yet with a ring of sadness in her voice that seemed to touch Hilary to the very soul. “I have told you so; you do know it, Hilary. Because duty separates us for a while do not look at me like this, as if you were leaving me for ever. That can never be, Hilary, unless you forcibly separate your destiny from mine. We were born under the same star. Willingly we had entered on the same fate. Try to look afar and recognise the great laws which govern us, the vast area of life in which we have to move, and then you will not suffer [204] like this for a mere sorrow of the moment. It is like a child with whom the grief for a broken toy becomes so great that it seems to blot out all the possibilities of his future life. So with you, Hilary; you let your passion and longing of the passing moment blot out the giant way you have to tread. Do not be so delayed.”

She spoke this little sermon-like reproof with so much gentleness and tenderness, that it robbed it of that appearance, and Hilary, who had often resented her words before, did not resent them now. The tender look within her beautiful eyes touched him in some obscure place of feeling, which, until now, she had never reached. A deep sadness seemed to suddenly come upon him like a wave; for the first time a dim sense reached him of the fact that it was not Fleta who refused him her love, but fate, inexorable, and without appeal, which forbade it to him. It was not Fleta’s to give - and yet had her soul melted towards him. He saw it in her eyes, he heard it in her voice? What was this tenderness? He could not tell; but he knew it was not the love he desired, and a fierce grief, a devouring, sadness, took possession of his heart - never again to be dislodged, though it might be, perhaps, forgotten in the absorption of work. It was the first yielding of himself to the fates, the first giving up of all hope of joy which was possible to him in ordinary life.

With a heavy sigh he passed out of the cottage without any word of farewell. Then he stood for a moment outside, stupefied at his own barbarism. “Because it hurts me to say good-bye, I leave her without a word, like a savage!” He flung himself back to the doorway. [205]

“May you have peace, my queen,” he said. Fleta looked up from the flowers in her hands. He saw that starry tears stood shining in her eyes. She only smiled, but the smile was so sweet that it was enough. Hilary hurried away, not pausing another moment lest his courage should forsake him.

Amyot followed him.

“Can you walk,” he asked, “or are you worn out?”

“Not as far as walking is concerned,” answered Hilary. “It will be the best thing for me.”

“Then leave us the horse. He is spent now, but will recover with a day’s rest. There is a cart here in which I can harness him, and so carry the queen. It will be better so, for we must keep in the country and go a long way before we can take any other kind of conveyance. But you have only to walk into the next village, where you will find a diligence starts which will take you on your way home.”

“Tell me which way to turn,” said Hilary, as he stood at the gate. Amyot gave him directions, and then, just as Hilary was starting, caught his shoulder in a strong grip.

“My son,” he said, “I have tried to teach you religion. I want to teach you that there is something beyond all religions, the divine power which creates them, the divine power of man himself. It is in you, it is strong and powerful, else you could not be loved as you are. Grasp it, make it part of your consciousness. You must suffer, I know, but try to forget that. Growth in itself is sometimes scarcely distinguishable from pain. Go, my son, and face the duties of your life. And remember, when you are in need of knowledge, that your one-time [206] director is known to you now as the humble servant of great masters; come to me if you want help.”

“And how,” inquired Hilary, who was outside the gate, but pausing to listen to the priest, “am I to find you?”

Amyot drew a ring from his finger. A single stone of a deep yellow colour was set in a gold circlet.

“Never use it for any other purpose,” he said, “but if you really need me, look intently into that stone. Good-bye.”

He went back up the narrow pathway to the cottage; and Hilary started on his walk.

Fleta stood between the yew trees of the doorway.

“I am ready,” she said, with an abstracted air, as he approached, looking at her inquiringly.

“I will leave you now,” he answered. “You know your work better than I do; I must attend to the horse and to other matters. At sundown we will start. I shall accompany you; it has been made my business to watch you through this test. Are you still entirely confident in your own knowledge?”

“Entirely,” answered Fleta.

“I shall go with you,” he repeated, “I know a straight way which will enable us to reach the spot we want when the moon has risen.”

Fleta retired into the cottage and closed and fastened the door. She would be alone here now for some hours. But she had plenty to do which would occupy her; and she commenced at once upon her task.

It would have puzzled anyone who could have observed her now, that she seemed to be completely at home in the cottage. She opened certain well-concealed [207] cupboards and put her hand unhesitating upon vessels or other things she might need, even though these were hidden in dark recesses.

But there was nothing extraordinary in this after all, for these cottages which have yew trees at the porch are all built after a certain fashion and adapted for certain purposes; once having been shorn the uses of such a place one is the same as another. And Fleta had several times been in these obscure sanctuaries and knew well their contents. She passed on into the room beyond, and here by a few touches effected an extraordinary transformation. The little kitchen, which had the appearance of the very simplest peasant’s kitchen possible, was altered by a certain re-arrangement of its furniture, a putting away of certain vessels and bringing forth of others, into a primitive holy of holies containing a plain altar. Over this altar a strangely-shaped copper vessel hung above a vase of burning spirit. And in this copper vessel a liquid of dark colour boiled and threw up a white scum. Fleta had obtained this liquid out of various great glass jars, securely stoppered and hidden in a secret cupboard. She had taken different quantities from the several jars, deciding these quantities with no hesitation. Only sometimes pausing with her hand to her forehead, before commencing some new part of the business she had in hand, as though anxiously testing her memory.

When the liquid had thrown up a quantity of scum which Fleta had carefully taken from it, and had become almost clear, she began to throw in the herbs, which Father Amyot had gathered. These she had sorted and [208] arranged in various heaps upon the altar; and now she gathered one here and one there from the heaps, seemingly taking each one up with a definite purpose. As she threw each small and delicate flower or leaf into the seething liquid, she became more and more enrapt, and her face grew unlike its natural self. Gradually her movements between the different bunches took a dancing or rhythmic character, and she began to sing in a very low, almost inaudible voice. The rapidity of her movements increased, and they also became more complicated, so that at last the dance had acquired a perfectly marked character. When the last of the herbs was cast in, she whirled away from the altar, and plunged at once into the most fantastic and elaborate figures. Her consciousness seemed altogether gone, or so one would have fancied from the death-like expressionlessness of her face; but yet her eyes were kept always fixed on the deep recess of the chimney, where now a great volume of grey smoke was ascending from the vessel.

Suddenly she stopped and became quite motionless, standing in the front of the altar. To her eyes there was a shape now visible amid the grey smoke. [209]

CHAPTER XX.

Standing there in silence and alone, Fleta awaited the complete working of the spell. Its fruition needed a deep and profound quiet following upon the vibration of the air which she had artfully produced.

The whole of the little room seemed full of a grey smoke now. And then the shape her eyes perceived stood close in front of her.

“It is thou?” she demanded.

“At your bidding I am here,” answered a voice, which seemed to come from a long distance. “But it is torment. Why do you stop my effort to enter bliss?”

“Come nearer,” was the answer, spoken in so positive a tone that no demur from the command seemed possible. Nor was there any. In another moment the shape which had seemed but a darker cloud of smoke became definite, and Otto, the dead King, stood before her, dressed as he had been for battle, and with his face covered with blood from a wound in his head.

“Let me go,” he said, angrily; “you bring me back to the pains of death. I want rest and pleasure. There is a pleasant place which I had nearly reached - let me return there. Why torment me?”

“I torment you,” replied Fleta, in an even voice, [210] “because I have to keep you from that place of pleasure where the spirits of the dead waste ages in enjoyment. This is not for you, who have taken the first vow of the White Brotherhood. Unceasing effort is now the law of your being,” she added, assuming in her great illusion and fierce pride a power and knowledge which were beyond her. “You are no longer of those who pass from earth to Heaven. You have entered on the great calling - consciously you work for the world, consciously you have to learn and grow. I would be willing to warn you only, that in Heaven every cup of pleasure would be to you poison, and let you choose. But I cannot do that. I am no longer your wife, nor even to you one you love, or a friend; at this moment we stand in our true relation; you a neophyte of the Great Order, bound only by its earliest vow, yet bound inexorably; I, a neophyte also, but having passed all early initiations and standing at the very door of supreme knowledge. To you I am as a master. And I am, in fact, an absolute master at this moment, for it is the whole Brotherhood which speaks in my voice. I command you to take no rest in any paradise or state of peace, but to go unflinchingly on upon your path of noble effort; enter at once again upon earth life, and set yourself in humility and with unflinching courage to learn the lesson that earth life teaches. Go, soul of the dead, and become once more the soul of the living, entering on your new life with the resolution that during it you will take the next vow of the neophyte.”

She had raised her left hand in a gesture of command [211] as she spoke the latter part of her speech. The gesture was a peculiar one, and full of an extraordinary unconscious pride almost Satanic in its strength. The shade drew back before it and made no further protest. Some overpowering spell seemed to hold his will in check. As her last words were uttered, the form became merged in the grey smoke. Fleta flung up both hands, and waved them above her head. The cloud cleared away from her, and slowly the smoke began to disappear altogether from the room. Fleta threw herself upon the ground with an air of complete exhaustion, and lay there, as still as though she too were one of the dead. The time passed on, and all the little house remained still and silent. The quiet was intense. At last Fleta sighed; a sigh of great weariness and sadness. She moved a little, and presently raised herself, with some difficulty as it seemed. But she did it, and then, standing up, looked round the room. She was faint and dizzy and her great beauty had paled and grown dim. But she sustained herself by resolute will for the tasks which lay before her. They were heavy ones, as she well knew, and she had not recovered herself in any measure from the ordeal of the past night; but this only intensified her resolution.

It was dusk now; and she could but just see to rearrange the little room so that it should again present its ordinary appearance. The full day had gone in the effort she had made. She set about removing all traces of it, and when this was done, she went through the front room, opened the door of the house and passed out into the air. This seemed to be a great relief to her. [212] She stood for awhile beneath the yew trees breathing the soft air of the twilight as if it gave her life. While she stood thus Father Amyot came up the pathway. He gave her a keen searching glance.

“You are ready to go?” he said.

“Yes,” she answered; “I am ready to go.”

She turned back into the house and stood hesitating a moment on the threshold.

“Shall I wear this dress?” she asked doubtfully, looking down at her scarlet habit.

“No,” he answered; “I have a peasant’s dress for you. It is outside, in the cart which is ready to take us. I will fetch it for you, and you had better lay aside that dress at once. Indeed, I think, if you will give it me I will bury it so that it shall be safely concealed.”

When all this was done, Amyot led the way to the gate where the horse Hilary had ridden stood harnessed to a small peasant’s cart. Some of the horses which had run riderless from the battle-field were taken care of and used by the peasants, so Amyot hoped that using this horse would not attract any attention. The animal usually used in the cart was a small mule, and he was anxious to do what they had to do more quickly than they could if they drove this.

They got into the cart and drove off, retracing the steps that Fleta had come on the previous night. To any passer-by they would at the first glance wear all the appearance of two ordinary peasants; and yet only the dullest could have avoided a second glance at the strange faces; Father Amyot’s so skeleton-like, so [213] spiritual in expression, Fleta’s so beautiful, and so full of the marks of absorbing thought.

It was not until quite late at night that they reached the battle-field. The moon was at its full, and shone in a clear pale sky, lighting up the ghastly scene with terrible vividness. Father Amyot fastened the horse to a tree when they had come to the spot he wished to reach; and then they set out on foot, searching among the dead.

Presently Amyot, looking up, saw that Fleta was walking steadily on in a definite direction; he immediately gave up his general search, and followed her.

Her steps did not falter at all, and Father Amyot had to walk very rapidly in order to reach her side. When he was close beside her he looked into her face, and saw there the abstract expression common, as a rule, only to sleep-walkers. He appeared at once quite satisfied, dropped his eyes to the ground, and simply walked as she walked. He was roused after some half-hour, or perhaps a little less, by Fleta’s stopping quite suddenly. She passed her hand over her face and heaved a deep sigh.

“Well,” she said, “I have found it.”

She looked down as she spoke on to a confused mass of human bodies which lay at her feet. In the heap, easily distinguishable at a glance, was the young king’s figure; it looked heroic and superb as it lay there, the arms spread wide, the face upturned to the sky, and on the face was an expression which had never been on it during life, one of profound peace, of complete contentment. [214]

Fleta dropped on her knees and looked at the face for a long moment, but still, only a moment. Then she quickly arose, and turned to Amyot.

“Now,” she said, “what is to be done? Must we carry him into the woods?”

“No need for it,” said Amyot. “This spot is the loneliest in the world just now. No one will visit this battle-field at night. There is a place there, see, where the shrubs grow thickly.”

“Be it so,” said Fleta. “But we must make a circle to keep away the phantoms and ghouls.”

“You can do that quickly enough,” answered Amyot. “I will carry him there first.”

Fleta stood back. She would very willingly have helped in the task, but she knew that Amyot, who looked so worn that most persons imagined him to be very frail, was in reality a perfect Hercules. He had undertaken physical labours and achieved heroic efforts, which only a man of iron frame could have lived through. Fleta knew this well, and therefore gave her sole attention to her own special part of the task they had in hand. Having watched Amyot separate the body of the young king from those of the soldiers and officers it lay among, she moved away to the shrubbed space Amyot had pointed out. Here there lay no bodies of horses or men; partly, perhaps, because it was somewhat raised above the surrounding ground, and partly, also, because of the shrubs. She stood for a short time in the centre of the spot; remained there almost motionless until Amyot, carrying his heavy burden, was close beside her. “Lay it there,” she said, pointing to a piece of [215] rough ground where there were scarcely any shrubs, and which was almost in the centre of the shrubby space. Amyot laid the young king down, gently enough, but letting the weight of the body crush beneath it the few plants which were in its way. Fleta came near and bent over the prostrate figure. She did not close the eyes, which with most persons is the first instinctive action. She left them open, staring strangely at the moonlit sky. But she raised his hands and clasped them together on his breast. As she did so she noticed the signet-ring on his finger. She looked at it for a moment; and then drew it off and placed it on her own finger above her wedding-ring.

“I was your queen for a day only,” she said, “but never your wife. Still this is mine. You had no other queen; and alas, poor Otto, I think had no other love. Poor Otto, to love such a woman as I am, who has no heart to give you back!”

She fell on her knees by the side of the figure, and buried her face in her hands. Scarcely a moment had passed before Amyot touched her on the shoulder. She looked up and saw him standing tall and gaunt, more like a spectre than a man, at her side.

What was that, strange look on his face? Was it horror or disgust at this fearful magical rite in which she was engaged.

“Beware,” he said, “this is no time for emotion. I speak knowingly, for could I kill out the feelings of my soul I should not be the slave I am. You run a thousand-fold risk in yielding to them now, when you have but just defied the demons that throng this [216] battle-field. Rise up and be yourself and keep them back; else you may be overpowered, yes, even you, a chosen child of the White Star.”

Why did he speak these words with such ironic emphasis? She could not stay to conjecture; her chosen work lay before her.

Fleta rose without a word, and without any hesitation. Her face changed; the softer lines gave place to strong ones; a fierce vigour shone from her eyes, which but a moment before had held tears in them.

She looked round her with a haughty glance, as a princess might look on a rough mob which threatened to close in upon her; yet to the ordinary sight there was nothing visible in the flooding moonlight but the motionless forms of the dead men and horses who lay intermingled in so ghastly a manner. Fleta smiled a little as she turned from side to side.

“Stand you here, father,” she said, “keep watch on this spot.”

She went slowly from him, moving very easily; yet it was evident after a little while that she was guiding her steps so as to form a figure. It was a complex figure, and Amyot, watching her, though he knew well what it was her movements shaped, wondered at the ease with which she did it. In fact, she had forgotten her body; the magic figure was written in her mind, and her footsteps followed the lines which lay before her inner sight.

As she moved, she sang, in a sort of monotone, some words which Amyot could not hear, close though he was to her; and every now and then flung out her arms with [217] an imperious gesture. At last, when she had moved all round, and returned to the place from which she had begun to move, she drew the signet ring from her finger, and described some shape in the air before her with it.

“Are your willing for the torment?” she asked. She kept, her eyes fixed on the ring, and whence she drew her answer, Amyot could not tell; but evidently she was satisfied, for a moment later she said, “Be it so.”

Then she stepped to Amyot’s side, and drawing a jewelled box which hung by a chain from her waist, into her hands, she opened it and took out a primitive flint end steel. Amyot stood like a statue, apparently absorbed in thought or in prayer, while she struck a light and set the shrubs and dying ferns on fire. At first, no flame came, and it seemed as though no fire could be kindled in the green wood; and Fleta, starting up, spoke some fierce words as she struck a light afresh. Then the flame rose, and leaped from side to side; and in a few minutes there was a great blaze. Fleta stood with her hands over it, seeming to draw it hither and thither, and always leading it towards the body of the young king. And as the tongue of flame touched him and licked his face, a strange thing happened. It seemed as though the fiery contact had galvanised the body, for it half rose, and a strange groan broke the deadly silence. But this was all. The head and shoulders fell back into a lake of fire, and silence followed, save for the noise made by the fire itself. The two living forms stood perfectly still watching the horrid sight, till Fleta at last moved, turned towards Amyot, and said, “We may go now.” [218]

She led the way quickly front the fiery ground; but suddenly stopped as she reached the line of the figure she had made.

“What am I to do?” she said, wildly. “I cannot go on! I am not strong enough to meet these devils! See Otto himself stands here waiting to kill me.”

“Otto himself?” repeated Amyot, in a voice of amazement.
“No, no,” said Fleta, hurriedly. “Not Otto, but that animal part of himself which has become separated. Now I have to deal with it. Ah, but it wears his very shape and face - Amyot, it is awful.”

You a coward!” said Amyot in a tone of disdain and disbelief.

“But do not hurry me on!” exclaimed Fleta. “I must have time to think, to know how to meet this. Do you not see that this fiend has power to dog my steps?”

“You must go on,” said Amyot, “unless you would die a miserable death. The fire is close on us. Have you power to check it?”

Fleta looked back and uttered one word in an accent of despair.

“No,” she said.

“Neither have I,” said Amyot. “I am willing to stay with you and die, if there is no other course for you.”

“Oh, it would be so much the easiest,” said Fleta, “but I cannot. How is it possible? My life is not my own. Ivan needs me. No, I must go on. But how can I quell this monster, this animal which stands here? Am I to be killed by a ghoul if I escape the fire?”

As she spoke the fire leaped up and caught her cloak, [219] and rushed upon her right arm. She sprang forward and flung herself into a great pool of blood, which quenched the fire, while Amyot, snatching his cloak from his shoulders, threw it upon her, and pressed out the sparks.

“Rise up,” he said, hoarsely. “Come on, now that you have decided. The fire is spreading, quickly.”

“It will not go far,” said Fleta, in a strange, feeble voice; “there is too much blood.” But she rose up as she spoke. What a figure was this standing there in the moonlight? Even Amyot, whose eyes, were always turned inward, looked wonderingly at her. In the white light her beauty was more extraordinary than ever it had seemed in a brilliantly-lit room. Her face was perfectly white, and her eyes shone like blazing stars. She held out, to gaze at it, the cruelly burned arm, all stained most horribly with blood.

“I cannot restore that," she said, with a strange smile.

“It is the mark of the deed you have done,” said Amyot. “Perhaps that disfigurement may gain you admission when next you try to enter the Great Order.”

Fleta made no reply, but turned and walked rapidly away, Amyot following her quickly and silently. [220]