The Blossom and the Fruit
Mabel Collins

Part VI.
CHAPTER XXVI.

Fleta bore out the character of one overcome by grief only too easily. She found herself close to the crisis, the bitterest suffering of her life; and the fierce regret for the past stood in her way. In the morning, when she rose and stood before her mirror, she saw a worn, wan face, eyes deeply bordered with shadow, and a new line of pain on her smooth forehead. She saw these things, but without thought. It was just what she had expected to see, for she had let the storm rage in her soul through the night. And now she stood there muttering to herself:

“The expiation is close - I have to begin the expiation.”

It was a cool, fresh, clear morning; Fleta had risen very early. She set her window wide open, and stepped out on to the balcony. From it she could see over the city and away to the blue hills beyond. For a long hour she leaned here, drinking in the morning freshness, and a dim, faint peace came to her soul from the clear skies. At last her attention was attracted by a sound in the room, and she turned to look back into it. A figure [261] stood there; she looked doubtingly at it. Yes, it was her father, the king.

He regarded her very earnestly as she re-entered the room. She wore a loose white gown, on which her dark hair fell in a tumbled mass. It was a sad figure.

“Do you wonder at this early visit?” said the king. “I have not rested at all; and just now I was wandering in the garden when I saw you standing here. I have come to ask you a strange question. Who are you? What are you?”

“Why do you ask me these things?” said Fleta, in a very low voice.

“Because you, cannot be my child, nor yet your mother’s. Last night’s experience convinced me of your extraordinary powers. You divested Adine of her likeness to yourself. How, I cannot tell. I would never let myself believe you to be a magician until now; but it useless any longer to hide the truth. I have been looking at you from the garden. There is no mark of my family or your mother’s in your face or figure. I saw you as I have never seen you before, without a mask. You have always worn one for me. Just now I discovered a profound unfamiliarity in you which has roused my curiosity into a passion. Your face, divested of its softer charms, is that of a man; through it looks a spirit which suffers. Tell me what you are.”

“I am your daughter,” said Fleta. “You need not doubt that, or fancy me changed in my cradle. My heritage is true, unlike though I may be to you and the others who have gone before me.” [262]

“Your heritage! It is not mental, nor physical; it is not in any way visible.”

“That,” said Fleta, “is because I have moulded myself for my own ends.”

“Now you speak as you look. You have some strange power. Whence do you get it? I say, what are you? You are no ordinary mortal.”

Fleta smiled; a smile of such sadness as can hardly be imagined.

“No; I am not an ordinary mortal. The difference is only this. I had found out that there is a straight path to divinity, and I was treading that path: but lost my way.”

“You have not begun to tread it since I have known you,” said the King. “You began before.” He spoke in a changed voice.

“Yes,” said Fleta. “I began before. I began in a pre-historic age, when the world was a vast wilderness of savage beauty. I marked out my destiny then by a fierce act of rebellion against the passion which makes human life possible, against the blind hunger of man for sensation which drives him into this dull world of matter and compels him to live innumerable ignorant lives, worthy only of animals. I hated it! I rebelled! I raised my hand and took life. It was the first step into power, and it has darkened the sun for me through ages. I have lived it out, I have expiated it only after many lives of pain. But in taking power I took knowledge. I began to climb the great ascent of life towards the divine. And in every re-birth I have gained more power and more knowledge.” [263]

She ceased. She had spoken passionately, from her heart. The King had never taken his eyes from her face. The soldier, rough, almost devoid of sentiment, stood there spell-bound. He was facing a reality.

“Tell me more,” he said. “Why do you suffer so now?”

“Why do I suffer?” said Fleta. “Must you ask me this?”

“I desire very much to know,” said the king, in a low voice.

“You have a right to ask me,” said Fleta, sadly. “Not your right as my father, but your right as a servant of the White Brotherhood. You are but just within their influence, and you have never been conscious of it, though you have obeyed it. I have been possessed by an arrogance which convinced me I could by my strength obtain the right to enter the order. My longing to enter it gave me the privilege of birth it your house. I have     had great opportunities, but,” she concluded, in a tone of infinite sadness, “I have failed!”

“Is that why you suffer?” said the King.

“No,” answered Fleta. “I suffer because those who loved me long ago love me still; they have been in the marvellous orchard of life where Nature flowers in superb lavishness. The orchard is beautiful, yes! Nothing can be more beautiful. But there is a force always at work, a force which demands progress. After the blossom the fruit. To be man and woman, to love, to live each for the other, this is glorious, as is everything in nature. But it comes to an end. The miracle of transmutation must be worked. The sweet softness [264] of the blossom, mere beauty, that must pass, and the hard fruit come and ripen to its harvest. The lesson must be learned, and the soul pass on. O! there is one who holds me from the gate by his love. But I must purify him, I must take him to the gate, or else lose all hope myself of ever reaching it!”

She hardly seemed to remember who she spoke to. Her pent-up feeling had hardly broken into words, and emotion made her speak on without pause till she ceased. There was silence for a minute or two; then the King approached her.

“Tell me,” he said. “What am I to you?”

“A friend,” she answered, “always a good and true friend. Nothing else. Your lessons in life have lain apart from me. We have never even been father and daughter save in circumstance.”

“It is true,” he answered, with a sigh. “Yet I would it were not so. You are far beyond me. Help me.”

Fleta held out her hand. The King took it, and so they stood for a few moments in silence. Then she gently took her hand away, and turning from him, sat down in a chair. Her pallor was so extreme the King was alarmed. And, indeed, she looked more like death than life. He hastily left the room, returning in a few moments with a sender glass full of a dark wine. He put it to her lips. She opened her eyes, smiled faintly, but pushed back his hand.

“I need it not,” she said as the King held the glass in his hand. “Though it is more than mortal brain can endure to look back over the stairway of life. Reason [265] seems to reel on its throne before such a sight. So deep is the abyss, so great the height, so incredible the ascent. My mind is worn out. I must rest, I must sleep, or I shall lose my senses. Let no one disturb me till I call; but do one thing for me, my father; let Hilary Estanol be sent for. I must see him when I wake.”

She rose, and moving to her bed flung herself upon it. What a death-like figure it was! The king turned away. He could not bear the sight. He left the room, and calling a waiting woman to him bade her sit by the door and watch it, letting no one enter but himself. Next he sent a messenger to Hilary. Then he went to his own writing-room, where he moved to and fro, thinking; his thoughts were running riot, plunging back into the past, leaping into the future; he was unconscious of the present moment, once having let it go. [266]

CHAPTER XXVII.

Three hours later Fleta awoke. She had been wrapped in a profound sleep; so deep, she was as one returning from the dead. It had restored her mind; her inner strength had returned. She knew, in the moment she woke, that she was fit now to go on with her task.

She rose, went to the door, and called. The waiting woman who sat close by came to her. When she found Fleta wished to dress she went away, bringing back with her some sewing-maids who had been busily working all the morning. In a little while Fleta had bathed, her hair had been dressed and coiled round her head, and she was robed in black - mourning for her husband of a day. Her burned and helpless arm was wrapped in black silk and placed in a sling. She looked in the glass and smiled. Fleta the beautiful, the radiant, thus disfigured, thus dressed. She quickly turned away, trailing her black train after her.

She had already inquired and learned that Hilary Estanol was waiting for her in her own old sitting-room, where she had made her home when necessity or caprice had induced her to dwell in the palace for a few days [267] together during her girlhood. It was kept as it had always been - bright, coloured in gold and white, the walls lined with books, the windows filled with flowers.

Hilary started up as he heard her at the door. He uttered a sharp cry of pain as she entered. The change was indeed awful - from Adine, the flower and froth of Fleta’s gayest superficial life, to this pallid trouble-stricken, sad-eyed woman. Her dress accentuated his feeling. It seemed to shock and surprise him. He had forgotten, in his recent happiness, that she was Otto’s wife. He turned away and hid his face in his hands.

“Do not be so distressed,” she said in a very sweet and quiet tone. “This must seem terrible to you when but yesterday you were dancing with my mocking shadow. I have sent her away from me for ever, because she has too deeply betrayed my trust in her in betraying you. How is it possible that you, born under the star of true knowledge, like myself, one of the children of the life of effort, could be so cheated and pleased by a mere phantasm? Well, I know you regret that phantasm - I know you loved it very dearly. I read the pain in your heart because I show myself to you without the phantasmal appearance - without beauty or youth or gaiety. My dear friend, it is not for you to choose between pain and pleasure. You have not the power. If you choose pleasure you will be for ever pursuing a will of the wisp and never reaching it; the pursuit will soon become pain. But though you have not that choice I can give you one which may seem to you very like it. You can choose between this Fleta who now speaks to you, the servant of the White [268] Brotherhood, and that Fleta whom you worshipped such a little while ago - my mocking shadow.”

“Where shall I find that Fleta?” asked Hilary, in a strained voce of pain.

“You will be mocked by her as much as you will if you choose to be so,” was all Fleta’s answer.

“But will you wear that guise?”

“Ah, you want the two Fletas in one!” she cried out - “no, that is over. You have desired that for a long time, and now and then you have almost fancied you had got it - is it, riot so? In that morning sunshine, on the first journey we took together - sometimes at the garden house - you imagined that without losing the priestess you could claim the woman. That is impossible - it never has been, it never can be, you must have the one or the other. I have waited for you long enough; now you must choose. I have the power to give you what you wish. If you only desire the woman, the thing that will die in a few years, then I will make this body that now speaks to you young and beautiful and gay, and leave it for your amusement; for I am very weary of it, and it is only for your sake that I now stay in it, and if you make that choice we part for ever. But if you choose me as I am, the servant of knowledge, then you have to recognise in me your master, and desire nothing from me but such knowledge as I can give you.”

Hilary rose and went to the window. It seemed for a moment as if his senses were about to desert him. But a moment later he turned round and faced her.

“I am not strong enough to make such a choice,” he said with a sort of defiance in his tone. [270]

“Not strong enough!” exclaimed Fleta, in a voice full of contempt. “Go then, and take your own way, followed by the darkness you have worked for yourself. Do not blame anyone else, whatever you may suffer. You have invoked the false shadows that surround the man who knows not whether he wishes good or ill. It is over.”

She turned and moved very slowly out of the room, her black dress trailing behind her. Hilary started forward as if to stop her, but immediately drew himself back again, and remained standing motionless, watching her go. The door closed and still he did not move. But at last, after a long silence he roused himself - for his one wish was to leave the palace without having to speak to anyone again. He succeeded, although he had to grope his way almost like a blind man. He was stupefied, half dazed, scarcely conscious of what he was doing. A great loneliness was eating away at his heart - a hunger was at work there, as real as physical hunger. For he had more than worshipped Fleta the woman - he had lived on the thought of her, on the passion he had only for her image. And now she seemed to have been shattered before his eyes, and to be like a broken statue destroyed for ever. He comforted himself perpetually with the thought that he had not chosen this so easily destroyed idol. And yet, even in the midst of this comfort, another memory would come - of. Fleta’s scorn, when he said he could not choose. This gave him some dumb perplexity and pain; but he was not learned enough to know that if he had chosen the woman she would have had less scorn for [271] him, and more pity. It was the weakness of that dreadful moment, come and gone so quickly, which condemned him in the sight of Fleta and her order. Had he but found strength enough to decide positively for ill, he would have laid the foundations of such power as would have enabled him, later on, to choose positively for good in another earthly life.

The moment had indeed come quickly and gone quickly, and it appeared to Hilary as if he had had no time given him in which to decide and choose. And yet he dimly knew that if that moment could have been protracted to a thousand years he would have been no nearer a positive choice; and he dimly knew, also, that the moment which seemed to come so unexpectedly was, indeed, only a summing-up of his life - that ever since he had known Fleta he had been in this state of hopeless indecision. The great chance had been given him, and he had been unable to take it. He did not realise the blow in this form yet, though the consciousness came, keenly enough, later on. He only knew, as yet, that he had lost Fleta - all the Fleta he had known and worshipped, the woman and the priestess both.

It was over. [271]

CHAPTER XXVIII.

The next morning Fleta had a long talk with the king; a very quiet and serious one. During that day on which she saw Hilary she would see no one else, not even her father; she remained alone, and no one knew whether she slept or waked, whether she was suffering or at rest. But in the morning she went to her father’s breakfast-room, and entered it, wearing her black robes. She was altered by the hours of solitude; at first the king thought it was her youth and beauty that had returned to her. But a second glance showed him that this was not so. The subtle, feminine charm which she had hitherto exercised was gone. She stood before him slender, fair, proud in bearing as ever; but the radiant beauty had not returned. The eyes were sad, the strange, sweet smile had seemingly left the mouth for ever. Had a painter put her on his canvas he would have used the face for one of those sexless angels the early Italians knew how to paint.

“I am going to England,” were her first words. “Will you help me?”

“It is my business,” was the king’s answer. “Tell me what you wish.” [272]

Fleta sat down beside him; and they talked for a long while. Then she returned to her room, and the king summoned his secretary and his steward and began to make the arrangements she wished.

Late that afternoon Fleta left the palace. She was wrapped in a fur cloak that hid her black dress, and her pale face was hidden by a black lace veil. She put this aside and kissed the king’s hand, as she took a final leave of him in the great hall of the palace.

“Send for me instantly if you need me,” he whispered to her. She bowed her head and turned away. The whole retinue of the palace was assembled to see her depart. But no one accompanied her, or entered her travelling carriage with her. On this journey she was to go alone. Not even a maid or servant of any sort was with her. [273]

CHAPTER XXIX.

Some parts of the north-east coast of England are singularly desolate and wild, and strangely deserted, considering how small the island is. One would suppose it hardly possible to find retreat in an over-populated small country such as the British islands. But nineteenth century life is centred in cities, and in the present day people find no landmarks in Nature, and do not understated that by the edge of the sea, or in the midst of fields, they may be surrounded by aerial hosts who have been associated with that special spot since the wild small island was built amid its harassing seas. It has been a centre and point of a special character, for those who read between the lines during all this age of the earth of which we have any knowledge.

But there are some who know and feel the powers that are not visible to the material eyes, and who know how to use them.

In a remote, desolate, and very bleak part of the north-eastern coast there stands a small house, well sheltered by a high hill close behind it and a thick belt of tree. The land on which the house stands is part [274] of a very large estate, which has been cut up and sold by successive spendthrift and dissolute owners. These men had Norman blood in them, and never took complete root upon English soil. The big castle which was their family house was most often untenanted, and so was this small dower-house on the seashore. It was now the property of a younger son, who had scarcely ever been seen by the people of the place; never at all since he had been quite a boy. Now and again someone visited the old house for a few days; lights were seen in the windows so unexpectedly that the peasants said the house was haunted. But at present it was in regular occupation. A foreign servant came into the village one day to make purchases, and said that he was with a friend of Mr. Veryan, to whom the house belonged, who had borrowed it to live in for some months. He told anyone who was curious enough to question him that his master was a doctor of great reputation in spite of being still comparatively young; that he had come to this remote place in order to be quiet and carry on some special studies. It was not likely that his quiet would be disturbed, for the old castle was nothing but a big ruin; the elder branch of the family being represented by an agent, who was doubtful whether to make money out of converting the castle into a show-place, or to pull it down and sell the bricks it was built of. No one had any kind of positive idea where the present owner was. And this was the condition of an old and proud family. Everything had been squandered; even the beautiful old family plate had long since been packed and sent to London for sale. [275] It was said that the worst of all the succession of spendthrifts who had dissipated the fine old property was the beautiful wife of the last lord, the mother of the two sons now the sole representatives of the name. She was a Hungarian of noble family according to the statements made at the time of her marriage. But the servants and peasants always declared her to be a gipsy, pure and simple, and, moreover, a witch. She was extraordinarily beautiful and fascinating, and in the few short years of their married life did with her husband whatever she fancied.

Her death had been a terrible one, and the poor people firmly believed that her ghost haunted the old castle in which her luxuriously furnished rooms, decked in a quaint barbaric fashion, were still to be seen, hardly touched since her death. Even the agent, whose one idea seemed to be to sell anything convertible into money, had left her many costly ornaments in their accustomed places. Some kind of superstitious feeling kept him from having these rooms stripped. He had been in great terror of the beautiful chatelaine during her life, and possibly he had not shaken off that fear even now. It was the only theory by which to account for the reverence with which these rooms were treated, for her son had given no orders about them.

The new resident at the Dower House lived in great seclusion and quite alone, save for his two foreign servants, who appeared to do for him all that he needed. He was a great rider, but the hours he spent out of doors were usually those of the very early morning, so that he was seldom seen. It was soon discovered, however, [276] that he was an extraordinarily handsome man, in the prime of life. All sorts of rumours at once were circulated about him. A recluse is expected, to be old, crooked, eccentric in manner. Why should this man, to whom life would be supposed to have every attraction possible, shut himself up in absolute solitude? He was met now and again by one of the labourers who had to rise with the dawn and go to work, evidently returning from a walk. Such habits as these, to the sloth-loving English peasant, could only indicate the restlessness of a mind diseased or guilty. Yet there was something in the face of the man which forbad this mode of accounting for his peculiar tastes from being even talked of; the dullest mind could not but recognise the power and strength shown in that beautiful face.

His servants always called him “Monsieur,” giving him no name. They appeared to think the peasants of too little importance to require any more definite information; and as no letters ever came to the Dower House, no name was associated with its resident. This, in itself, seemed odd; but common persons soon get used to a custom of that kind, and think no more of it once the first shock is over.

As a matter of fact, however, it is impossible to remain incognito in a civilized country for long together. Some prying person, possessed of a kind of officialism, is sure to disturb the temporary peace of this form of oblivion. In this case the agent did it. He rode up to the Dower House one day, got off his horse, and sent in his name. In a few moments he was ushered into a room which he did not recognise, so [277] completely was its appearance changed since he had seen it last. It was entirely hung with tapestry on which were worked figures of the most life-like character: warriors, women in dresses of different periods, monks and clowns. These were not formed into groups and pictures as is usual upon tapestry, but were marshalled round the room, like so many witnesses of any scene which might take place within it. So real was the effect that the agent half misdoubted whether the interview was indeed a tete-a-tete one, when his host came forward to meet him.

He was dressed in a grey shooting suit, the simplest dress possible for an Englishman to wear in the country. Yet it so well suited and set off his splendid figure and face, that his visitor was for a moment startled into silence. When he found self-possession enough to speak, it was with much more than his usual gravity.

“I presume, sir,” he said, “that you have some reason for being here without letting the people know who you are; though it seems a strange thing to do, for you must be recognised sooner or later. I have not seen you since you were a child, but your likeness to your mother is unmistakeable as I know that Sir Harold Veryan is at present in Africa. I presume I am speaking to Ivan Veryan.”

“You are right” was the answer. “I had no serious intention of concealing my identity, for that would be absurd. But my servants habitually call me M'sieu, finding my name difficult; and as the poor people here have no recollection of me I should refer that they [278] remain ignorant of who I am. I wish for complete solitude here, not to assume the position of the next heir, who may be supposed to take an interest in the fate of the castle, the condition of the cottages, and the felling of the timber.”

“If you wanted seclusion this seems the last place to come to,” observed the agent.

“I find a seclusion here which suits me, for the time being,” was the reply. “I only want one thing - a key to one of the doors of the castle, as I came here partly to use its library - unless all the books have been sold.”

“The books have not been touched,” replied the agent, “the library was one of Lady Veryan’s favourite rooms, and none of them have been disturbed.”

“Then I shall be glad to have a key as soon as you can send it me.”

“And you wish no one told of your presence here?” inquired the agent, doubtfully.

“Who should care to know of it?”

“The county families -” he said hesitatingly, wishing very much for permission to retail his piece of gossip at the next market-day in the county town. There was always a middle-day dinner at the biggest hotel, where all sorts of magnates and men of property and business met and talked; and he would have interested the whole tableful if he could have informed them that one of the Veryans had actually returned to England and was living in his own house.

“If I wish to see any of my neighbours I will call on them,” was the decided answer; “till then, I should prefer that nothing is said about me.” [279]

The air of command with which this was spoken made it final. The agent said nothing more on the subject, but soon took his leave. Later in the day a messenger came to the Dover House with a key of the castle gate, and a key of one of the doors of the castle. [280]

CHAPTER XXX.

The old castle of the Veryans - which was a queer building, roomy, rambling, not beautiful, but very strong and amply veiled with green ivy, stood on high ground, looking well over land and sea. It was not sheltered like the Dower House, but faced all fortunes of weather, confident in its own strength. No tree stood close to it, for the position was too exposed. But gardens which had once been glorious, and even now were beautiful with the remains of their past glory, stretched on every side. They had the supreme charm, unknown to modern gardens, of never being flowerless. All the year round, even in the bitterest weather, lines and stars of colour made the ground beautiful.

Along the cliff edge of the garden two high walls were built; and between these was the Lady’s Walk - a place of delight to any sightseer who might stray to this deserted place. A wide gravel path went straight down its centre, forming a wonderfully dry promenade. On each side were wide flower beds full of rare plants that grew well in this sheltered spot; and the walls were covered with fruit trees and blooming creepers which flourished luxuriantly. On the side of the sea were [281] openings in the wall, here and there; and seats were placed in sheltered, sunny nooks, from which the grand view might be seen.

It was to the Lady’s Walk that Ivan went direct, as soon as he entered the castle grounds that same evening. The flower-beds were neglected and overgrown, the creepers untrimmed and hanging in thick masses from the walls. The place was all the more beautiful from this neglect just overlying the high and careful cultivation of the past. It was like the languor of a tired beauty, her hair loose and undressed, but its richness undimmed.

Ivan wandered up and down the path for a long time, full of thought, very grave, yet sometimes smiling faintly. It was the early spring, and small yellow flowers were peering out here and there, some on the rounds, some on the walls. This colour, which is so associated with the birth of the year, had a meaning of its own for Ivan. He stopped often to look at these flowers, but he did not pluck them. He never picked a flower or a leaf, except for use in some definite experiment.

At one end of the walk the common rose called the monthly rose was trained upon the wall, and on this there was one delicate pink bud, half blown. This flower appeared at last to attract Ivan’s attention entirely. He sat down on a bench near it and looked at it for a long while.

It was late in the afternoon, but though the air was growing very cold the light was still strong, for the long days had begun. He sat there, apparently disinclined to move, full of thought. [282]

A sound of footsteps disturbed him. Turning his head he saw Fleta approaching him, walking down the path with the rare, proud carriage which distinguished her.

“You left the gate open for me?” she said questioningly.

“Yes,” he answered.

“Then I did right to come to you here?” she said, in a reassured tone.

“Certainly you did right,” he replied. “Do not doubt your own knowledge. You have known from the first you had to meet me here.”

“Yes,” she answered.

Ivan had risen when she approached him, and they stood face to face. His eyes were steadily and very earnestly fixed on her. Fleta had only glanced at him, and then turned her gaze on the sea. But in the pause that followed her answer she suddenly lifted her eyes and answered his look.

“I needed the mask,” she said, speaking with an evident effort; “for I was still woman enough to worship you as a splendid being of my own race. I did right to cast the mask away, and suffer as I did, because it has made my lesson shorter, if fiercer. I know now that you are not a being of my own race - supposing me still nothing more than a woman. You are divine and a teacher, and I can be nothing to you but your servant. Teach me to serve! Teach me to so transform this love for you that it shall become pure service, not to you, but to the divine in you. I have cut all knots; I have cast aside all that dragged me back. My duty is done [283] and utterly fulfilled. I stand freed from the past. Teach me!”

Ivan stepped to the side of the path and plucked the pink rosebud. He gave it her. Fleta held it in her hand, but looked at it as if utterly bewildered.

“Do you not know the colour?” he said. When you have entered the Hall of Learning, you will see such flowers on the altars. The purple of passion burns out to this pale pink, which also is the colour of resurrection and of dawn. Sit here till I return.”

He left her and walked down the path, through the gardens to the gate. Here Fleta’s carriage was standing. He bade the man take Fleta’s trunks to the village inn and leave them there till they should be fetched away, paid and dismissed him. Then he re-entered the grounds, locking the gate behind him.

He went to Fleta, where she still sat, regarding the flower she held in her hand.

“Are you ready for the offering?” he asked her.

“Yes, I am ready,” she replied, without looking up.

“Come, then,” he said, and turned to walk away over the grassy slopes of the garden. She rose and accompanied him. It was nearly dark now. He walked round the castle to a side door, which he opened. A deathly chill came from the interior of the building. Fleta shivered slightly as she crossed the threshold.

“Are you afraid?” said Ivan, pausing before he closed the door; “there is still time to go back.”

“Back to what?” asked Fleta.

“I cannot answer that,” he replied. “I do not know what you have left behind you.” [284]

“I have cut off everything,” she answered. “There is nothing for me to return to. Let me go on. I am afraid of nothing now. How should I be?”

Ivan closed the door and led the way down a long passage. He opened a door and said, “Enter.” Fleta passed through it, and was immediately aware that he had shut it behind her without passing through himself - that in fact she was alone.”

Alone! - and where? She had no notion - she only knew she was in complete darkness.

For the first time she fully realised the ideas of darkness and solitude. They did not terrify her, but they presented themselves as absolute facts to her consciousness; the only facts she was conscious of. Moreover, she was vividly aware that she could not escape from them, which made them much more intensely real. She could not guess which way to move, nor did it occur to her that she would be in any way benefitted by moving. She stepped back to the door through which she had passed, which was, to her fancy, the only link between her and the actual world, and stood there with her hand upon it.

The next, thing she became conscious of was that there was no air. At all events she believed there was none, which was quite as bad as if it were so. She imagined herself in some very large place, whether a room or a hall she could not guess, which was hermetically sealed and had been so for years.

Faint fancies as to what kind of place she was in formed themselves in her mind at first, but presently passed away altogether; for she had no clue or image [285] to which to attach any picture. Her mind became quite blank. Presently she became aware that she had lost all sense of time. She could not tell if she had been standing in this way for minutes or for hours. Her sensations were extraordinarily acute, and yet to her they hardly seemed to exist, because there was nothing objective for them to be marked by. In a little while, the moment when Ivan had ushered her into this place had become removed to an immense distance in the past, and presently she found herself thinking of Ivan as a figure in her life which had entirely retreated from it; she could not imagine that she would see him to-morrow; for to-morrow appeared to her no longer to be possible. This black night looked like an eternity.

No danger or adventure which she had ever experienced had affected her like this. She was completely unprepared for such a sudden fill into the abyss of nothingness. And yet she had just strength enough to stand against it by summoning the philosophy which told her never to fear anything, for nothing could in reality injure her. She kept her mind and nerves from being affected by steadily recollecting this. But she was unable to stem a wave of exhaustion which gradually swept over her and which made her tremble as she stood.

It was the incredible completeness of the silence and darkness which baffled her and at last daunted her. No creak or groan sounded in the house, no echo of wind or sea came to her.

At last she began to doubt if she was alive or whether, instead of passing through a door, she had [286] stepped into some deep water and met death unconsciously. But she had too much experience, too great a knowledge of life and of death, to be deceived so easily. She would never have succumbed even so far as she had done, so far as to be physically unnerved to any extent, but that she had been anticipating some experience of an entirely different character. She believed she had offered her heart, had lived past the mistakes which hitherto had held her back, and that she would have been able to ask direct help from her master and obtain it. Something friendly, quiet, natural, had been more in her expectations than anything else. Instead of which she found herself facing the most extraordinary experience she had ever been through.

The complete and absolute silence wrought on her physical sensibilities more than any other circumstance. She found she was watching the silence, listening to it, and that she dreaded to move, that she held her breath in some vague and unreasonable dread of disturbing it. It seemed to be a positive fact instead of a negative one, this complete and immovable silence. Then suddenly a power appeared to rise within her to oppose this fact - a power stronger than it. And as the feeling came to her, the silence broke, and a soft shower of music filled the air - something as tender as tears and as lovely as sunshine. The keenest pleasure filled Fleta’s soul, and she leaned against the door and listened. But suddenly a thought darted into her mind: “The silence is here still - this music is only my own imagination, filling the hateful void!” And as the thought came the silence [287] returned. Fleta fell on her knees. It was the first time she had moved since she entered this place. With the movement came a whole rushing tide of emotions, of feelings, of fancies, a great passing phantasmagoria. She saw Ivan standing at her side, but she would not even turn to look at him, for she knew this was only an image created by her longing. She saw the place in which she was, suddenly lit and full of people. It was a great hall, gloomy and vast. There was a moving crowd in it of persons dressed very brilliantly.

“Ah!” cried, Fleta, in a voice of despair, “that I should be so cheated by my own fancies is too terrible!” and with the sound of her voice, the darkness returned, closing heavily in upon her. She rose and drew herself up to her full height. A consciousness of what she was actually experiencing had come, and she became instantly calm and strong.

“I refuse,” she said aloud, “to go through this neophyte’s exercise. I am not the slave of my senses any longer. I dominate them; I see beyond them. Come you to me, thou that art my own self, and that art pure, impalpable, unsubstantial, without glamour. Come you and guide me, for there is none other and nothing else on which my consciousness has power to rest.”

She leaned back against the door, for she was trembling with the force of her own fierce effort. The door and the floor on which she stood were now her only links with the actual or material world. She knew of nothing else; it appeared to her as though she had forgotten the material world and knew not whether she [288] lived or died; certainly the power of hope or of fear was leaving her. She became indifferent to everything except the desire to hold her own higher self, her pure soul in view; her longing to face herself, and so find some certainty and knowledge, swallowed up every other desire. She remained a long time, resolutely fixing her whole intensity of will on this, and waited, momently expecting to see the starry figure close in front of her. Once she saw it, quite distinctly; but it was like a marble statue, lifeless. She knew this was no reality, only her own imagining, and her power and strength began slowly to leave her after this cold vision.

If unconsciousness could have come to her now, it would have come like rain to a parched land. Her brain w on fire, her heart like lead.

But nothing came to her, nothing became visible. And then she knew that she had offered up not only the physical senses and emotion, but the psychic senses and power.

Again she fell on her knees, and clasping her hands fell into an attitude as if of prayer. In reality she was in profound meditation. As in a long series of pictures, she now saw herself passing through innumerable experiences. She saw herself, and without anger, regret, or pain, suffer, and enjoy. She watched her slow separation from those who loved her, even until now when Ivan left her in the hour of trial.

She had passed through fiery trial and all the tests of the passions and emotions. But these were as nothing beside this mysterious blank, this great chasm of [289]  darkness, which seemed to be not only outside her, but actually within her own soul.

How was it to end? Was there any end? Or was this the state to which her labours had brought her triumphantly, and in which she must remain? Impossible. This was not life; it was death. And was not her effort to attain to life in its essential vitality? Death surely could not be the final king!

Fleta, the powerful, the disciple, as she had imagined herself, with knowledge, thus doubted and despaired. Her confidence left her when she saw this blankness which lay before her.

So it must be always with the unknown.

Suddenly a new mood fell on her. She began to dread lest she should see forms and shapes, or conjure up the voice or features of anyone she knew or loved. Most of all, she dreaded to see again the image of Ivan at her side.

“If I see this,” she said to herself, “then indeed I shall be fallen back into the world of forms. I must not look for anything but darkness.”

At this moment a hand was very gently laid on her hair. Fleta was not so completely unnerved as to tremble or cry out; yet the shock of the sudden contact shook her so that she could not speak or move. Then came a voice:

“My child,” said a very gentle voice, which sounded like a woman’s, “do you not know that out of chaos must come order, out of darkness light, out of nothingness something? Neither state is permanent. Do not make the mistake of dreading or welcoming the return [290] to the world of forms after having become one with the formless.”

Fleta made no answer. She was aware that there was some deep familiarity about this voice which as yet she could not understand. She was at home, like a child with its mother. All fear, all anxiety, all doubt, had dropped from her.

“You must not die under this ordeal,” said the voice, and you have been here many hours. Come with me, and I will take you to a quiet place where you can rest.”

Fleta rose; a hand was put into hers. When she attempted to move she realised that she must, indeed, have been here a long time; for she was entirely numbed and helpless, and found it almost impossible to use her limbs. She put out her right hand mechanically, as if to balance herself, and was much startled by being unable to stretch her arm. Immediately she touched a wall close to her. In a moment she understood that she was in no large hall, but in a small, narrow cell, scarcely wide enough for two steps to be taken in it. This seemed to her very strange, for she had so positively believed herself to be in some very spacious place.

“How wide my fancy is!” she thought, almost smiling to herself. For now she was at peace, without any anxiety, though she knew not where she was or who was with her. [291]