The Blossom and the Fruit
Mabel Collins

Part V.
CHAPTER XXI.

It was broad daylight when they had again reached the gateway of the cottage. Amyot had not been able to drive rapidly, for the movement of the rough card was not easy, and he was afraid of Fleta’s being too weak to bear it. She fainted several times during the journey, and at last fell into a deep swoon, from which she could not be awakened. Father Amyot lifted her from the cart when at last they had reached their temporary shelter, and carried her in his arms up the path and between the yew trees. He placed her very gently on some rugs upon the ground, and put a cushion beneath her head. Then hastily he took the horse and cart into the rough shed which served for stables, gave the horse a feed, and then hurried back to the house. He applied no restoratives to Fleta, as another person would have done. He knelt down beside her, after an earnest look at her face, and took her hands in his. Almost immediately he rose again, with an abrupt, heavy sigh.

“She will be very ill,” he said aloud. “I wonder if she is to live? It seems hardly possible now. But what is to be, is to be.”

He went into the inner room and opened one of the hidden cupboards, from which Fleta had taken her [221] materials for the rite which she had gone through there. Slowly, and with much thought, Amyot took out certain phials, from each of which he dropped a few drops into a curious square glass. When the mixture was made a very faint smoke and a scarcely perceptible perfume rose from it. He held it in his hand and looked at it, as if in doubt, for some minutes.

“Dare I give it her?” he said, speaking aloud to himself. He had acquired this habit in his monastic life in the city, where he dwelled in afar more isolated manner than he did when in the remote monasteries, or indeed under any other circumstances.

“Dare I give it her? Is it my province to decide whether she is to live and face this terrible fate she has brought on herself? I cannot do it. This is a decision she alone may make. May she snake it rightly! He poured the precious drops from the glass upon the ashes of the hearth. A bright light, almost a flame, vividly blue, leaped up for an instant and was gone. Amyot replaced the glass, closed the door of its keeping-place, and went slowly back to where Fleta lay.

Certainly she appeared now like one dead. No faintest tinge of colour was on her face or lips, no faintest sign of breathing showed. He put his hand on her pulse. It was still.

“She alone must decide,” he said, in a low tone, in a voice of intense pain. It was as if he found himself compelled to face the fact that she might choose to die, and as if that thought were agony.

“And yet,” he said, suddenly, “why should I doubt that she will live? She, who is always ready for action [222] and never stays for rest or for pleasure? Of course she will wish to live - fool that I am! Why do I not help her?”

And after turning to look at the white, statuesque face, he moved quickly again into the farther room, evidently with the intention of once more mixing the medicine which he had flung on the ashes.

But before he had time to move more than a step or two across the floor he heard a sound at the doorway of the cottage. He paused and looked back. A figure stood there - tall, wrapped in a long travelling cloak, and with a wide hat on, which almost concealed the face. But Amyot recognised the outline of the form, and immediately made a profound obeisance.

“I have already mixed the potion once and then threw it away, thinking it too great a task for me to take upon me, to deal with her for life or death. Yet now I have thought that she is certainly determined to live, and I was about to mix it again and give it her. Shall I do so, Ivan?”

“No,” was the answer, “not now. Come, and we will watch beside her. She has enemies we may save her from.”

Ivan put off his hat and cloak, and showed himself in a plain monk’s dress. His face bore marks of sternness and profound thought, which were not on it when Hilary saw him at the monastery in the forest. They were new, too, since Amyot had seen him last.

“You are tired, my master,” said Amyot. “Let me get you food.”

“Not now,” repeated Ivan. “We must guard her. I [223] have come a great distance in order to be by her side.”

All through the long morning they sat beside Fleta’s body, with gaze fixed intently on her, without moving, without speaking. Probably neither of them was conscious of time, whether it passed quickly or slowly. It was just noon when Ivan moved. He rose suddenly and yet very quietly, and touched Amyot. Together they went slowly out through the sheltered doorway into the sunshine.

“She will live,” said Ivan. “I know that now. Do not you?”

“Yes,” said Amyot. “But I have never doubted it since I thought seriously for a moment. At first I was blinded by my distress.”

“Let us break our fast out here in the air,” said Ivan. “We commenced our watch at nine-this morning; we will begin it at nine to-night. Before midnight her soul must have passed on, or returned.”

He began to walk to and fro up and down the pathway to the cottage. Amyot seemed to take the post of servitor as a matter of course. He accomplished his tasks with the same austere earnestness with which he undertook anything he had to do. Nothing trivial seemed to be any trouble to him, or subject for thought or discussion. While he moved to and fro his soul appeared to be as remote and as buried in ecstasy as when he lay on the altar steps of the city cathedral. In a very short time a table stood on the grass and a white cloth was spread on it; and coffee, and bread and fruits were placed ready. A passer-by who might have [224] looked into the cottage garden would only have seen two poor monks, and would have guessed that they were being hospitably entertained by the cottager. The meal did not take long; neither spoke, for it seemed as if each had too much thought within his mind to have much time to spare for expressing any of it. And yet, perhaps, this silence was only a return to monastic habits, which came naturally when these two found themselves sitting at table together. For they had been reared side by side; and when Amyot called Ivan “my master,” it sounded very beautifully from his lips. It had in it all the profound reverence due to a superior; but the expressive “mine” added an affectionateness which could only be shown from an elder to a younger man.

All through the long bright day Fleta lay like a corpse, just as Amyot had first placed her. She was never left alone for more than a few minutes; either Ivan or Amyot came and sat beside her. At last the evening came. At nine o’clock the two took their places one on each side of her. It was a strange vigil, for all was so perfectly still and silent that it seemed only like watching beside the dead; and yet there was a purpose in it which religious watchers beside the dead know not of. Whether Fleta had lived or died this watch would have been observed. When the body has only just loosed hold of the spirit it is in these hours that danger is at hand.

Until eleven o’clock there was no sound or movement; the group might have been cut in marble. But then Ivan stirred slightly, and placed one hand on Amyot’s arm. The priest looked up quickly, and was about to [225] speak; but instantly his gaze became rivetted and he gazed in silence.

Behind Fleta’s head hung a deep, dark shadow, which from moment to moment seemed more clearly to take some form upon it. There were different figures shaping themselves out of its vague substance. At last three outlines were clearly seen. Fleta herself, pale, grey, ghost-like; and beside her, Otto - strong, dark, powerful. Amyot started when he recognised the other face; it was Hilary’s. He stood there, dark, and strong as Otto; and Fleta’s pale shape rose like a dim flame between them, wavering a little to and fro, as if from want of strength.

“Why is she so weak?” asked Amyot, in a piteous, whisper.

“Do you not know?” said Ivan. “Because this is her shade, her animal soul. She is compelled to rouse that stronger than ever into life in order to speak to these two so that they will understand. For they live unconsciously in the world of shades, while she lives in it knowingly.”

At this moment the form of Fleta became suddenly stronger and more clear; and Amyot heard her voice quite clearly, yet with a peculiar remoteness and distance about the sound. The words came slowly, too, as if she were not sure of her strength.

“I summoned you,” she said, “I summoned you both that you should speak to me face to face before we go on into a new chapter of life. Can you remember, you two, that long ago, when first you loved me as men love on earth? When first this soul, this human life, awoke to consciousness? Do you remember, beneath those wild [226] apricot trees, how passion and desire and selfish purposes over-mastered us each and all? Yes, even I; for in me the animal soul was even then tempered by the growing power of the divine spirit in me, yet selfishness, a love of myself before all created things, prompted me when I killed the man who first desired to win my love for himself. I have expiated that sin; and by its force I won the power by which I work now. The chains that unite us were forged then, in those old savage days; they unite us even now. But now they must change and alter, or be broken for ever. I have suffered long ages through you both; suffered until this very hour. But now I have a right to be free. I have a right to be free, not from you, because your companionship is precious to me, but from your love, your human love, which kills and destroys the divine life in you and fetters it in me. Otto, you know that in my last effort for you I called upon myself the anger of this animal soul which now represents you here and assumes your shape; I drove it from you and left you free to pass on purified into other lives. Is this thing to follow me through my life and madden me by memories of your cruel love? Otto, from your place of quiet I call you; come, kill this thing and free me! Let me remember you as one who had gentleness for me, not that devouring thing which men call love.”

A profound silence followed this speech, and the two who watched saw the figure of Otto waver and grow fainter. At last it flung itself on Fleta, as if to catch her in an embrace; but the movement was only like that of a flickering flame, and as Fleta stood motionless, gazing [227] intently on the quivering form, an unutterably sad and terrible cry sounded on the air, and the thing had vanished. Ivan drew a long, deep breath as of intense relief. Fleta stood as statue-like in her shadow form as in that unconscious body which lay upon the floor, until Hilary approached nearer and touched her.

She immediately turned to him, and again her voice was audible, now with a sweet tone in it which had not been there before, and a strangely mournful tone also.

“Hilary!” she said, “listen to me. I ask of you, as I have asked of Otto’s death in your present shape. I have been asking it of you all this lifetime, since I have known you as Hilary. Do you not know that your love is a burden to me, and that it scorches your own spirit, and snakes it blind and helpless? Free yourself from it, Hilary! Know me for what I am, no longer a woman to be loved, as of old, but a disciple of the light - one who is striving to pass on to a larger life. It is time you came and stood beside me; you are ready for it; but for this blind passion which still makes your eyes dim. Come, Hilary, let this savage self of yours die, and pass back into the nature from which it rose. You have used it, learned from it, experienced it to the full. You lie asleep now, in your bed at home; I see your body much snore clearly than this shade which stands before me. Be as courageous as Otto, who has conquered. His spirit is in a place of quiet, till the swift moment comes when he will wake to a new life of work, unhampered by that shade just now destroyed. Your spirit stands back and lets the shade be king. Come to me in your divine self and be my friend and companion; do this now, and banish [228] for ever this shade with hungering eyes. Then, when you wake in the dawn, the disorder of your mind and the fever of your soul will have passed away. You will love me no less, Hilary; but it will be a love that will help instead of paralysing you. We have used the blossom, Hilary; it has come to its full flower; its petals are ready to fall. It is time now to see the fruit! Come, Hilary, I must pass on! Come with me.”

The shadows changed and melted suddenly away. In their place came new and confused forms, which by degrees shaped themselves into a room. Then Amyot saw that the figure of Hilary Estanol lay in it, locked in sleep. But suddenly Hilary started from that sleep, and Amyot heard his voice as if from an immense distance cry out, “Fleta, did you call me? I am coming - I am coming!”

And Hilary sprang from his bed and hastily began to dress.

“She has failed,” said Ivan, mournfully. “Poor child, she must carry her burden yet farther.” The darkness closed in round them; the lights and shadows all had died away.

A faint fluttering sigh reminded them of the dead Fleta, who lay so helplessly. Was life returning to her? Ivan rose and struck a light, and bearing a taper in his hand, came and stooped over her. Yes, she was stirring a little; a faint flickering of her eyelids ended suddenly in their opening wide, and her glorious eyes looked straight into Ivan’s. The vacant dim glance changed instantly into one of rapt adoration and deep delight. [229]

Stooping over her he could hear the faint whisper that came from the white lips.

“Ivan! Ivan! You will help me!”

He rose, gave the light into Amyot’s hand, and passed out through the porch into the darkness of the night. Here, he stood still, in the cool air, deeply thinking … This is why she failed just now with Hilary! This is why she must have failed in her initiation! Not pride, nor self-consciousness, not anything a mask would hide, but simply because she leaned on him because she looked on him as a god. Proud soul, how bitter must her failure have been! The fearless, resolute heart, to face the awful White Brotherhood before the time! What could he do? Her suffering must yet be bitter; for she spoke truth when she said that with her the time for the blossom-life of pleasure is over. It is the hour for the divine fruit to shape itself. And neither nature nor super-nature can be stayed by any adept’s hand, nor any spirit’s prayer or command.

His head bowed, his thoughts deeply at work, he went away in the darkness and wandered far into the forest. And Fleta, the frail, broken, worn-out body of Fleta, lay, after that first moment of joy, in such pain and weakness that delirium soon came and blotted out all knowledge and all thought. [230]

CHAPTER XXII.

Fleta awoke to consciousness again to find herself lying on the cottage floor; her head had slipped from the pillow placed for it, and was upon the flags. Probably the extreme discomfort of her position had helped to rouse her. She tried to lift herself, but found she was too weak. With great difficulty she raised her head to the cushion. Then she looked round the room in a dim wonder. Brilliant sunshine came in through the small window and the half-open door. The air that reached her was soft and pleasant. In a feeble contentment she looked at the sunlight playing on the floor. A profound, child-like happiness filled her soul. She desired nothing, knew nothing, thought of nothing. But the brain refused to remain inactive; the first stir of its machinery brought to her recollection the horrors of the battle-field - dim, confused, unintelligible, but horrible. She cried aloud in a strange shrill voice - at first incoherently, making no definite sound. Then she called Amyot’s name over and over again. But there was no answer; no one came; she was alone. She ceased to cry out, and shut her eyes from sheer weakness. [231]

But memory proved too strong for her. The recollection of the last awful episode came back to her mind, and instantly she opened her eyes to learn the truth. Had it all been a nightmare - that fire, that blood? No; it had all been real, for her right arm lay beside her, scorched, maimed, blasted, hideous to look on; and the stain of blood was on it and on her dress. This last fact seemed to fill her with horror more than anything else; staring with fixed eyes at the blood, she tried so raise herself. It was a long time before she could succeed, and when at last she was on her feet it was only to totter to a chair and sink down again. The change of position at first brought the fierce overwhelming consciousness of weakness, and nothing more. But afterwards it seemed to restore her more to herself; in a few moments she had begun to realise her position.

She sat there on a straight wooden cottage chair, against the wall; her figure was half in the sunshine and half in the shade. Who would have recognised in this broken, wan-faced, maimed woman the splendid young queen? - she who had been so royal in the consciousness of her own inner power.

She looked down at her disfigured arm.

“This could not have happened had I not failed in my trial,” she murmured.

“Ah! Fleta, poor soul,” she murmured, a moment later; “how sick and weak thou art! Have you lost the secret of power, of youth, of immortality? Is it gone? Is all gone because of that failure?”

She sat more upright, and seemed as if summoning her own strength; the fierce determination on her face [232] took from it all softness, all delicacy. No one had ever seen her look like this, even in her most resolute moments. It was the face of a soul struggling for life, of a strangled thing striving for breath. Then, quickly, the look altered, softened and grew stronger, both. She raised herself from her chair and stood upright; as if vigour had begun to return to her body. And so it was. She moved across the room, slowly, but resolutely, and without wavering. She went into the inner room and approached the secret cupboard. And now she herself proceeded to mix that draught which Amyot had prepared for her and cast away after it was ready. She had no hesitation or doubt; she drank it after along look into it, and some words murmured faintly under her breath.

Courage, fire, vitality came to her from that draught. She stood still, letting the blood surge up and colour her cheeks and fire her brain.

“I am alive again,” she said to herself; “now I must act. I must accomplish the purification.”

She looked about her for her peasant’s cloak, and presently found it thrown upon a chair in the outer room. It was unstained, and when put on covered the disorder of her dress. She drew it about her as well as she could, not yet being used to have but one arm and hand. There was a hood attached to it, and this she drew over her head. As she did so something fell out and fluttered to the floor; a paper, folded. She stopped to pick it up, and opened it. There was nothing inscribed on it but a star; no writing of any sort. Fleta trembled a little as she looked at it.

“They watch me, then!” she said to herself; “the [233] awful brotherhood watch me. Who has been here? Who has left this? It was not Amyot, for he does not know the sign that burns in its midst. The White Brotherhood! Cold abstractions, men no longer!” She began to walk to and fro in the narrow cottage-room while she spoke, holding the paper before her. “Human no longer! It withers my soul to think of them. Yet to become one of them, to be like them, is my only hope. Passion, life, humanity, these are the fires of death for me. I have no home but in the White Brotherhood.”

She stopped abruptly; folded the paper again and placed it within her dress, and seemed to immediately become rapt again in the object she had had in view before finding it. She stepped towards the porch and out beneath the yew-trees. Here she paused a moment, closely scrutinising the trunks of the trees one after the other. On one she found some marks cut in the bark which appeared to be what she was in search of; for after studying them very carefully and murmuring to herself as she did so, she hastily walked down the path, into the road, and then left it again as soon as possible by striking across some wild land. Evidently she knew what direction to follow quite clearly; but as evidently she had never trodden the way before. For sometimes she was much perplexed to find the crossing over swollen streams, though always after much search she reached a place where it was easy to pass over. Sometimes she found herself near houses, apparently to her great annoyance, for she would make a circuit round to avoid them, and then return to her direct path. At last she entered the forest, following [234] the track of a stream which struck straight into it. It was not easy to follow the water-course for the brushwood which grew along its side, and overhung it; but she persevered in keeping close to it, even in its windings, so that now it was evidently her guide.

The afternoon wore away while her long walk lasted. The sun had set, and it was grey twilight outside the forest; within its shadow it was dark as night. Fleta followed the gleam of the water as it caught rays of light here and there. At last something shone darkly before her like a black pearl. She uttered a cry of delight and thankfulness. It was a wide deep pool, surrounded closely by forest trees which grew to the very edge. But it was large enough to have room to reflect the sky. And it was still, as if it were a pool of death. But to Fleta it seemed to mean life. She pressed eagerly on till she reached its very brink. Then she threw her cloak aside, and after that her dress. Her dress she washed in the water wherever it was stained, rubbing it as well as she could with her one hand. The effort was useless; and finding it so she rolled up the dress and flung it away among the brushwood. She stood now like a ghost, in a fine white linen robe which she had worn under her riding habit; it was richly bordered at all its edges with needlework. The peasant’s dress cast off, the figure was that of the young queen again, clothed in purple and fine linen. This dress was unstained, as she found to her great pleasure; she took it off and laid it with her cloak, and then completely undressed. A moment later, and a gleaming shape flung itself into the deep waters. Her long hair lay spread on the surface. [235] Fleta was a remarkable swimmer, one who loved the water; and often when living in the Garden House which had been her home, she spent hours of the summer nights swimming in a lake which was in its grounds. But now she had but one arm to use. Yet she was so well practised, and so accustomed to the water, that she was able to keep herself afloat, and guide herself hither and thither, though she could not strike out boldly for the midst of the pond nor dive as she would have done otherwise. A long time she remained in; when at last she returned to the shore there was a smile of strange contentment on her face. She wrung out her dripping hair, and dressed herself quickly. Drawing her long cloak over the white linen dress, she instantly set out on her return journey. She walked easily and lightly now, seeming impervious to cold, and insensible to the clinging damp of her hair.

It was nearly midnight when she regained the cottage. She looked anxiously at the moon a moment before she entered:

“It is not too late I” she said.

Quickly entering, she closed and barred the door behind her. The moonlight shed a long direct ray across the room through the small window. Fleta threw aside her cloak, and knelt down directly within this ray.

“Come!” she said, aloud. “Come, thou that art, myself, I myself, my own supreme being. Come, I demand to speak with you that are myself, to know the meaning of my life, to know what path to take!”

The moon-ray appeared to shape itself; Fleta looked up. A form, no more materialised than the moonlight [236] stood over her. It was herself - yes, her own face, her own dark hair. Who that has once achieved this terrible moment can again be as other men? Fleta looked - yes; it, was her own face, but how cold, how white, how implacable! Her own dark hair, but bright with gleaming roses. Words came.

“Ask me not to speak with you, for you are still in the mud of earth while I am crowned with flowers.”

Fleta uttered a strange cry, hardly articulate; and then fell forward, insensible. She lay a long while like this, directly in the moon-ray, its white gleam on her face. Then consciousness came back to her, and she began at once to speak, talking with herself.

“How dare I summon that starry spirit which I degraded and dragged back from the very door of initiation? No wonder that my own shame has prostrated me like this. But I have learnt much in this dark hour of unconsciousness - yes, Fleta, you have learned, now profit. Chain that lofty flower-crowned part of yourself to the maimed and ignorant Fleta of earth! How? By doing her will. She is more heroic, more terrible, more severe, than any other master could be. I have seen my master’s face soften with pity - but this one is implacable. I am bound to her from now - I obey her.

“What was it she showed me? What was it I saw, and heard, and learned? That I, Fleta, the Fleta of earth, am not free, and cannot enter the gate of the initiates. And till I can do so, she stands at the gate waiting for me, waiting to become one with me - and then her crown will be mine. [237]

“Her crown! At what a cost! To tear the last human feeling from my soul.

“Yes, my master, the scales are fallen from my eyes. I knoll why I am desolate, why you have left me utterly alone. I have loved you, I have worshipped you, only as a disciple may love his master, still it has been love, longing, leaning, hunger for your grand presence and your fine and spirit-stirring thought. Life had no savour and no meaning without the superb and delicate perfume of your presence to gladden it. All this is over. I will yield to it no longer, for I desire it not, neither do you desire it. That it burns in my veins still - yes - burns - makes it the more necessary that it shall be conquered. I will be alone henceforward, and look for no help or comfort save in myself.”

She rose to her feet as she uttered the last words, and drew herself up to her full height. Her bearing was erect, as though no weariness or sickness had ever befallen her; yet she looked very sadly at the arm which hung withered at her side.

“How weak I was to fear that thing! How is it that I did not have more confidence in my power? Well, be it so; I must bear the mark of my cowardice.”

The cottage was still utterly deserted save for herself. It was very lonely; she had tasted no food for a long time. Yet she seemed indifferent to the discomfort and solitude of her position. She walked across the room, and in doing so, recognised that she had exhausted all her strength in the strange struggles and efforts she had gone through. She went to the cupboard, and again, mixed a vitalising draught. That taken, her power [238] returned; a faint colour came into her face; she looked like the Fleta of the palace, the young queen full of strength; only that there was a new intensity in her face, something which greatly altered its expression. She returned to the larger room and began to pace up and down, thinking very earnestly as she did so.

“Your Master Ivan - if you must go saving souls, save his - you’ll have to go to hell’s door to find him!” She murmured these words of Etrenella’s over and over again to herself. Presently she stood quite still, looking through the narrow window at the quiet scene without, but not seeing it. She was absorbed in internal questioning.

“How could I be so blinded as to believe her, that witch, that traitress?” she exclaimed aloud, at last. “What made me wish to go to her? Was I actually blinded by love? O! how ready I was to brave the terrors of hell’s door. Fool! to be so readily deceived. Insane pride, that could prompt me to believe such folly. Of my master there is no need to ask pardon, for my mad thoughts could not injure him; but I ask pardon of the Divine humanity, the White Brotherhood, that I could have dreamed that one who is apart of its divinity could fall from that noble place. -

“How is it that I have purified my thoughts and heart, so that now I see my folly? What have I done to get, this light?

“I understand. I have begun my work. I have saved Otto from himself. But there were two for me to bring with me to the gateway. Who is the other? Hilary! He with whom I have failed so many times? [239] He whose touch is like death to me from the memories of dead loves it brings? Ah! Fleta! Yes, you are still in the mud of earth. Come, be brave and go to work! The blossom has fallen and is decaying; its over-sweet scent sickens and disgusts me. I must look for the fruit.”

Her whole manner suddenly changed now. She busied herself in coiling up her long hair, and finding her cloak to wrap herself in. Then, for the first time during the ordeals she had been passing through, she thought of food. She found bread and fruit in the little pantry, and of this ate almost hungrily. Then she drew her cloak round her, and leaving the cottage, closed the door behind her. [240]

CHAPTER XXIII.

What a long and terrible journey was that on which Fleta entered! The horse and cart had gone from the stable; she had no money with which to obtain any sort of conveyance. But she had a number of valuable rings on her fingers, and round her neck was a string of uncut jewels of all kinds, a favourite necklace of hers because of its barbaric simplicity. She wore it always under her dress in order to carry about with her a little locket which held in it some treasured possession of hers. When she reached a large village she succeeded in disposing of one of her rings for a twentieth of its value, and with the money she purchased a complete peasant’s costume. Thus dressed, and wrapped in her cloak with its hood drawn close over her face, she could walk along the roads without exciting much comment. She bought food as she went, for she found her strength very insufficient for the task before her; but she could not bring herself to sleep or rest beneath any roof, and walked on by night as by day. She went a long distance out of her course in order to avoid the battle field, the scene of her great fault, when her longing to find Ivan and the rapt thought of saving him from some great [241] danger, had caused her to forget the task she was then engaged in and so sacrificed the army and the king. It seemed as if she dared not tax her strength by passing through the scene of such associations. At last she readied a large town where there were jewellers to whom she could offer the stones of her necklace for sale. They were of treat value, being so large, though rough and uncut. She sold three of these for a mere nothing, considering what the jewels were; but it was a fortune to her, for it was enough money for her to travel all the rest of the way in coach or carriage. She professed to have found the stones on the battlefield, for the jeweller, looking at her peasant’s dress and her carefully concealed face, seemed very suspicious of her. Lest his curiosity should prompt him to leave her watched, she hastily engaged a carriage at the nearest inn, and left the town, scarcely pausing to taste food.

That evening she drove through the city where for one day she had reigned as queen, and which she had left triumphantly at the head of her army. It was desolated; the shops closed, the streets empty, signs of mourning everywhere. Fleta shrank back into her carriage, white and horror-stricken. This was her work! For a moment it seemed as if remorse would sweep over her and prostrate her utterly. But she fought the feeling with a fierce courage.

“I will not regret the past,” she cried aloud. “I have to redeem it.”

And now she passed over the road which she had last driven over when with Hilary and the young Duchess and that other nameless thing she had entered the city. Her [242] blood grew cold at the memory. Why had she let Hilary kill that creature of the devil? Surely she could have kept it far from her by her own strength had she not already begun to fall. It must have been so. Her atmosphere must have lost its purity before that thing could have approached her so closely; her soul had not cognisance of its strength when she could let Hilary be her defender. She sat thinking of those strange things and striving to learn the meaning of the past. They were heavy lessons that she learned in these memories, and her face blanched to a more deadly white as she thought of them.

At last she saw the towers and gleaming roofs of her own city, her native home. She dismissed her carriage some distance before the gates. She wished to enter altogether unobserved. It was dusk, and by drawing her hood close over her face she succeeded in passing through the streets without attracting any attention, though here she was so well known that she feared even her walk and bearing would be recognised. She soon reached the long and wide main street, close to the cathedral. Here all was bright; it was as gay as ever, perhaps gayer, for all who feared war and its terrors and preferred the pleasures of life had hurried here from Otto’s city at the first note of disaster. It was thronged with carriages; evidently there was some great excitement on hand. Many of the ladies were still shopping; coming from flower shops with bouquets, from milliners and jewellers, on all kinds of business intent. Fleta knew them nearly all by sight; a faint amusement rose within her as she passed on through the crowd, a mere unnoticed peasant. How different it used [243] to be when she walked down this street. As she wandered on, looking hither and thither for the face she wanted, she drew near her father’s palace, and saw at once what was the event of the night. The whole palace was illuminated and en fete; evidently there was to be a state dinner and a ball afterwards. A thought came quickly into Fleta’s mind. Hilary would certainly be at the ball; she too would be there. Without thought of fatigue, or of distance, she immediately turned her steps on to the road leading out of the city to her own dear garden house. She had rested so far in the carriage that she could walk this distance without any trouble. She found the house, as she expected, quite deserted. Oh, how sweet was the familiar fragrant scent of the garden! It seemed as though she had passed through a lifetime of experience since she had last been here. And so, indeed, she had. It made no difference to her that the house was shuttered and barred, for she had a secret mode of entrance to her laboratory which she could always use. In a few moments she stood within it, and paused awhile in the darkness to enjoy the faint lingering perfume of the incense. A sense of power came upon her as she stood here.

“O, if I am recovering my lost place!” she exclaimed to herself. “If my powers return to me! But I must not think of this; I must go on with my work.”

She easily found her way in the dark, for the place was so perfectly familiar. In a few moments she had struck alight, and then she lit a large hanging lamp which made the whole room brilliant. The empty [244] incense vessel stood beneath it. She looked at this a moment longingly, then turned away with a sigh. “I may not,” she murmured. She quickly set herself to the task she had in hand. A large deep cupboard, almost as big as a room, was in one of the thick walls. She opened this and carried in a light. It was all hung with dresses; not ordinary dresses, but rather such as one sees in the property-room of a theatre, only that all of them were of the most rich character, except in cases where this was contrary to their style. She took out first a white robe, one that she had worn when Hilary had come to her at the garden house, and when, finding her in the garden, he had thought how like a priestess she looked, blinded though he was by love. It was, in fact, the dress of a priestess of an ancient order long since supposed to be dead.

Before the great mirror in the laboratory she performed a careful toilette. All travel stains disappeared; she restored to her skin, by perfumed waters, a delicate freshness; she brushed out her hair, and coiled it round her head like a crown. She dressed herself in the white robe, and fastened it at the throat with a very old clasp, which she took from a locked casket. As she did so, a flame leaped into her eyes; a light came into her face. “Yes, I am that one again, I have her fire and her courage; I am the priestess of the desolate woods, looking to the first dawn-ray for my guidance, not to any human intelligence. So be it. I am as strong in that personality as in the Princess Fleta’s; let me take and use the strong courage of that pure nature worship. Let me dedicate myself to it [245] anew but also with new intelligence. I cannot again be taught by spirits of the air and water, but I can be as indifferent to man as I was then. Come, with your strength, my past self of the solitary woodland altar!”

So saying, she moved away from the mirror, and, as she went, broke into a low, monotonous chant. Monotonous - yes! But how full of magic! It made the blood in her own veins grow fiery.

From the great cupboard she took out another dress: that of the old fortune-teller, which she had worn when she first met Hilary. With the large cloak and hood she completely concealed her white dress; and she masked her face so as only to show her eyes, which looked the more marvellously brilliant when thus isolated. [246]

CHAPTER XXIV.

Two hours later she presented herself at the door of the palace. The dinner was over, and guests were crowding into the ball. It was not a masque, as on the occasion when she wore this dress before, so that she had to resort to a more complicated plan of obtaining entrance. She recognized all the servants standing round the broad entrance and upon the great oaken staircase. She selected one of the group and went straight up to him.

“Tell the king,” she said, “that I wish to speak to him.”

The man looked at the crooked figure of the old gipsy, and laughed. “Not to-night,” he answered.

“Yes, to-night,” she said, and she looked straight at him with her wonderful eyes. The smile faded off his face, and he answered seriously:

“It is impossible, indeed,” he said. “Come in the morning.”

“I wish to go into the ball-room,” said Fleta. “I will amuse the guests if his Majesty pleases.”

The servant shook his head.

“Not to-night,” he repeated; “the people are too grand.” [247]

“I’ll tell them tales of themselves that will make them stare!” said Fleta, with a curious laugh that made the servant look wonderingly at her.

“You mustn’t stand here,” he said, as a new group of guests arrived at the door. The old gipsy’s red cloak made her a conspicuous figure. She curtsied deeply as a tall handsome lady passed her.

“You will have your wish, Duchess,” she said, in a low voice; “but not as you would like it. Your husband will lose all he has at the cards to-night, and stab himself before he leaves the tables.”

The lady stopped, stared at her with wide-open, horror-struck eyes, and then hurried away, speechless and white.

“Come, you must go,” said the servant, rather roughly. “This will never do.”

Fleta quickly hurried after the lady she had spoken to, and put her hand on her dress.

“If you will help me,” she said, “I can help you. You play to-night and let me sit near you; and you shall win more than your husband loses.”

“Impossible!” said the Duchess. “How can I do it?”

“Tell the king I would speak with him. I have news of his daughter. She is found.”

The Duchess looked at her for a moment; then the terror left her face, and she burst out laughing.

“You have overshot the mark, my good woman,” she said. “I think I will manage without your help to-night.”

Fleta stood back against the wall, silent and amazed.

The servant again came, and said she must go. She drew a ring from her finger, and held it out to him. [248]

“Take this to the king,” the said, “and tell him its bearer wishes to enter the ball-room.”

The servant hesitated, looked at the ring, and was evidently struck by its value and beauty. He turned and went up the wide stairway. It was quite a quarter of an hour before he returned. Fleta remained motionless, where he had left her.

“Come,” he said; “the king says you are to enter.”

The bent figure of the old red-cloaked woman went up the flower-decked staircase and entered among the throng of courtiers and splendidly dressed ladies. Everybody stared at her; immediately they supposed it was some surprise of the king’s, to give an added amusement to the night. A lady who was standing by him said so, as she saw the quaint figure approaching. The king turned hastily. He was troubled and anxious to know who it was carried this ring, which was his daughter’s and had belonged to her mother.

“I understood this was a masque to-night, your Majesty,” said Fleta, in a very low voice, as she approached him. “That is why I wear this dress. Let me pass as a fortune-teller, and amuse some of your guests. Presently I will tell you my errand.”

“As you please,” said the King, seeing no better way out of the situation. “You shall have the little gold boudoir, and hold your reception there.”

“Give me back the ring,” said Fleta, in the same low voice. He hesitated, evidently uncertain what to do. She put out her left hand from under the cloak, and held it towards him as if to take the ring. He started violently, and uttered a sort of suppressed [249] cry. It was a hand that no one could mistake, having once seen it; and he knew the rings on the fingers. He dropped the ring he held into the open palm of this hand, at which he gazed so strangely. Fleta hastily drew it under her cloak; she could not understand his manner, and it was time to put an end to the situation, which was beginning to attract attention.

In the same moment everything was explained to her. For there, on the other side of the King, just approaching him, she saw herself, beautiful, triumphant, radiant, dressed with the greatest splendour, and shining with diamonds. Instantly she saw it all, realised everything, and marvelled at her recent blindness. This was Adine.

And the man beside her, the handsomest man in the whole room, young, tall, with his face alight with love and pride; the man on whom Adine leaned, resting the tip of her gloved fingers on his arm? It was Hilary Estanol.

The group of which the King was the centre was standing just at the entrance to the ball-room. At this moment some exquisite waltz music began, and Fleta saw these two figures pass away down the room, the first, and for some moments the only, couple dancing. Together they moved marvellously, like shapes in a vision of rhythmic movement. Fleta looked after them, and then turned quickly away.

“Myself, and not myself,” she thought. But her thoughts were quickly stayed by the words she heard around her.

“What a sight!” said some one close by her. “The Princess always seemed to me mad, but I never thought [250] she could do this. Imagine her refusing to wear a widow’s dress, or even to stay quietly in her rooms, just because the king Otto’s body has not been found; though there are two or three officers here to-night who saw him fall. It is disgraceful; I cannot understand how the king allows it.”

“Oh, he never had any influence over her,” said some one else. “She is a witch, and he is obliged to let her do as she chooses. But to flaunt her love affair with Hilary Estanol before everyone’s eyes at such a tune as this is in execrable taste.”

A great deal more was said, but she could not stay to hear it. Some one was showing her the way into the little gold boudoir. Here she sat down alone, thankful for even a moment’s peace. She took off her mask, and, leaning her head on her hand, tried to think. But in a moment there was a sound at the door. She hastily put on her mask. Two or three court ladies came, one after the other, and then some of the courtiers. Everyone went out startled and white. Each had not only been alarmed at the gipsy’s knowledge, but had received some severe words. Presently there was a little pause, some laughter; then the doorway opened wide to show Hilary and Adine standing together there. Fleta fixed her eyes on the image of herself, never even glancing at Hilary. The door closed, and Adine advanced into the room alone.

She seemed disinclined to do so, and the smile died away from her lips. Fleta threw off the mask and cloak and rose to her feet, a terrible look on her face. Thus [251] they stood opposite each other for a moment of silence. Then Fleta spoke, in a cold, stern voice:

“You have betrayed my trust, and this masquerade must come to an end. I do not need you any longer.” Adine shivered and turned very pale.

“I thought you were dead,” she said, stupidly, as if she could think of no other words to say. Fleta flung a look of scorn at her.

“As if I should die while you live!” she said, “It is enough that you have had these days and nights to use my power and name and to darken both name and power. Go, now; it is full time. And you go for ever. You will never take my place again. You cannot return to the convent; you have no claim there now. Go back to your home with the peasants.”

Adine uttered a sharp cry of pain, and staggered back as if struck. But she said nothing. All power appeared to have left her.

“There is no time to lose,” said Fleta, after a moment’s silence. “You have done wrong and I have to make it right. Come, throw aside my likeness, throw off that dress, put away the mad follies which have been turning your brain and making your soul too great for you!”

As she spoke Adine stepped back and sank into a chair. A kind of stupor seemed upon her, a helplessness. Yet she obeyed Fleta in a mechanical way that was piteous; she drew the jewels out of her hair, unclasped the diamonds from her neck, with slow fingers began to unfasten the gorgeous dress she wore. Fleta watched her steadily, without relaxing her gaze. [252] The strangest thing in the whole scene, could there have been any on-locker to appreciate it, was that the likeness between the two grew momently less. As Adine obeyed she seemed to alter visibly. She stooped forward so that her stature appeared to be lessened; her ayes narrowed and contracted; her mouth lost its firmness, and the lower lip took on a droop that changed her whole face. No one could have mistaken her now for Fleta, though the shape and colouring of the two women was still the same. But from one the spirit had gone, while in the other it was stronger. Fleta had never looked so powerful, so completely herself, as at this hour. All her courage and confidence had returned to her in the moment she discovered the urgent need of action.

She approached Adine and stood close to her. “What are you doing?” cried out Adine at last, in a voice choked by distress and fear.

“I am reading your sins, said Fleta. “I see very plainly that unless I can blot those sins out you will have the death of a struggling soul to answer for. You! - that are not strong enough to answer for yourself! How dared you play with Hilary Estanol? Do you not know that he is a chosen one, not like the other men, you meet? Could you not have been content with making my name a shame to me and a thing for men to laugh at, without tampering with one chosen by the Great Brotherhood? You knew he was chosen - you saw him there in the forest. Traitor! Ingrate! You are capable of nothing but to be a tool - you cannot grow a spirit within your [253] vicious body. Go - it is not I who condemn you, but the Brotherhood. You have betrayed the trust placed in you - you must suffer for it.”

Fleta ceased speaking, and the room was quite still. Adine leaned back in her chair and uttered no word. Fleta herself was buried in profound thought; she stood like a statue, her eyes fixed on some terrible thing which was in reality visible only to her mind.

Again she saw her own crime acting through the folly of someone weaker than herself. “For these wild hours of infatuation,” she murmured at last, in a kind of whisper, “how much have I to pay! Fool! Because the actual image of my master had come before my eyes and blinded them to all else - because I had let that witch pour maddeningly sweet poison into my soul, and make me dream my master needed me - only for a little while - only a little while was I mad enough to let the dream darken my sight - yet in that time an army is crushed, a king is sacrificed, and now it is I myself, that part of me which I had impressed on this poor ignorant girl that has forgotten all that is good and remembered pleasure only. I have much to do! - and I have to do it alone. I have no master now. How is it possible I should have, I that have thus sacrificed his confidence? Oh, Fleta, Fleta, be quick to learn the horrid lesson, the first that must be conquered. Learn that there can never again be for you man or woman to love or lean on. Quick! not even yourself - only your aspiration!”

She spoke out loud now, and vehemently. As she uttered the last word she went to the door, opened it [254] but an inch, and said to the person nearest it that the Princess wished for the king to come to her at once. In two or three minutes her father pushed open the door and entered. Fleta quickly closed and locked it. The king stood amazed, looking in silence from one figure to the other. Both were transformed, and the situation was inexplicable. [255]

CHAPTER XXV.

“Her day is over,” said Fleta, after a minute or two. “She must go!”

“But who is she? What does this mean? What mad folly is it now that you are engaged in?”

“You know,” said Fleta, quietly, “that this peasant girl has taken my place here before.”

“You have told me so, but I never believed it.”

“Surely you believe now. You saw my hand; and knew me when I entered disguised.”

“It is true. Why indulge in such masquerades?”

“It is not my doing that she is here. It is her own hardihood, for which she must suffer.”

“But how is the thing possible; that my own eyes and senses could be deceived? Fleta, you are cheating me!”

“You have been cheated, certainly,” said Fleta, coldly. “If you would listen to the voice of your higher instincts you would not be so easily cheated. Adine might easily deceive the world, even might readily deceive Hilary Estanol, because he is blinded by longing. But I do not think she could have deceived you save for the fumes of wine. You would know your daughter, [256] did you not sacrifice all right to your relationship with her. Come, now, let us put this scene to an end. You must contrive some mode of sending Adine out of the palace unseen; and for me to go to my own rooms unseen. I am worn out with hardships.”

“It is impossible!” said the king. “There is no way from this room.”

“Positively none?” said Fleta. “Think!” She had lived so little in the palace that she knew nothing of its construction. It was well-known to contain many secret passages and doorways.

“Positively none,” said the king.

“Then I must act for us all,” said Fleta. “Come, Adine, make haste, and take off that dress and give it me.”

Adine did so tremblingly and with nerveless hands. Her face was as white as the dress. The king stood watching her face. Suddenly he turned to Fleta.

“How had that girl the power to make herself your image till just now?”

“The power was given to her,” said Fleta, “and she has abused it.”

The king turned away with an impatient movement. “You always talk enigmas,” he said.

“I answer plainly,” said Fleta, “as I will answer any question you ask me.”

“Where is your husband?”

“Dead. I myself have seen his dead body, have seen it burned to ashes, have seen his spirit freed from it.”

“It is true, then!” said the king, mournfully. “I had hoped against hope.” [257]

Adine was now dressed in the fortune-teller’s cloak, and masked. Fleta had not put on her the priestess’s robe she had worn herself, but had put the cloak over the white lace-decked under-dress which Adine wore. She was completely disguised.

“Now stoop, as I did,” said Fleta. “Come, you can imitate me well enough. Now, father, open the door and let her go. Hasten, Adine, go to your home and repent. And do not forget that unless you keep a close watch upon your tongue about all that you have known and seen, the Dark Brothers will visit you with instant death. Be warned!”

The king opened the door, and Adine passed through it, entering at once into a crowd, which was greatly surprised to see her come out. She was questioned on every side, but would return no answer. Without speaking she hurried through the rooms and down the great staircase.

“What has happened?” said the guests one to another. “Why are the king and the princess shut in there together still?”

“What are we to do now?” asked the king, shutting the door and turning again to Fleta.

“You go,” said she, putting hastily on Adine’s brilliant dress; “tell them the gipsy came to bring me the certain news of Otto’s death, that she brought me the signet-ring from his finger. See, I have the ring here; I took it myself from his dead hand. Let the guests go. I shall go to my rooms; I shall take my place as his widow, returned to you.” [258]

“You are right,” said the king. “It is the best way. Are you ready?”

“Yes,” said Fleta. “Go. Leave the door open to me when you go, and let anyone come to me that wishes.”

She sat down on a chair by the table, rested her arm on it and her head on her hand. She was utterly worn out, and she knew that if she simply let herself feel her complete weariness, and heart-sickness, no acting would be necessary to present the appearance of grief. The moment she relaxed her effort the light fled from her face, her eyes, grew dull, and she had all the look of one crushed under a heavy blow.

Instantly that the king left the doorway Hilary Estanol appeared in it. But when he caught sight of Fleta’s figure he did not enter; he paused horror-stricken; he heard the king speaking and turned to listen to him. Some of the court ladies came to the doorway and pushed past him. He let them go in. An hour ago, maddened by his love for Fleta, he would have dared any comment and approached her first had he seen her in trouble. But a strange chill had fallen on him when first his eyes met those of the gipsy when she entered; he had not recognised her - was it likely, so completely deceived as he was? - but he was terrified by her, and had lingered near the door of the room in great fear. Now that he saw her figure sitting there so rigidly, with that terrible death-like look on her face, he staggered, overpowered by something he could not understand. It was as though an ice-cold hand had caught at his heart and checked its very beating. Ah! poor Hilary! [259]

In half-an-hour the palace was almost deserted. While still there were a few guests in the rooms Fleta rose and walked through them. Stately, sorrow-stricken, with darkened eyes she passed.

“She must have cared for him, then!” they whispered one to another, “and really would not believe him dead. And we all thought her heartless!”

So the young uncrowned queen, the young widow, went to her own rooms, followed by sympathy. And who could guess at the deep solitude, the hopeless sorrow, of that heart? The neophyte, who had failed and lost all that made life dear in the failure; the would-be initiate, who knows all love and companionship must be laid aside for all time. This is the darkest hour of human life, this fearful moment of shadow before the dawn, when passion and love, and all unequal friendship or companionship, must be for ever surrendered for the hopeless and absolute solitude which darkens the door of initiation. Into such an hour of despair and agony none dare penetrate. It was easy for Fleta to wear the appearance of a widow grieving for her husband, when in her heart was the awful grief which every candidate of the White Brotherhood who fails carries in his heart for ever. The grief of complete surrender; not of one love, or one loved, but of all, does not touch the soul nor pollute the thoughts of him who has made himself ready for the Hall of Initiation. [260]