The Blossom and the Fruit
Mabel Collins

 

Only,
One facet of the stone,
One ray of the star,
One petal of the flower of life,
But the one that stands outermost
and faces us who are men and women.

This strange story has come from a far country and was brought in a mysterious manner; we claim only to be the scribes and the editors. In this capacity, however, it is we who are answerable to the public and the critics. We, therefore ask, in advance, one favour only of the reader; that he will accept (while reading this story) the theory of the re-incarnation of souls as a living fact.

Contents

Part I

Chapters

I.

-

V.

Part II

Chapters

VI.

-

X.

Part III

Chapters

XI.

-

XV.

Part IV

Chapters

XVI.

-

XX.

Part V

Chapters

XXI.

-

XXV.

Part VI

Chapters

XXVI.

-

XXX.

Part VII

Chapters

XXXI

-

XXXV.

Part I
Chapters I. - V.

Preface

The great contending forces of good and evil we see battling in the world on every plane. This book is called the story of a black magician, because it show the struggles and mistakes of one who has been an adept in black magic and who is endeavouring with great force, but very blindly, to reach towards the White Brotherhood and learn good instead of evil. Fleta, who, in her earlier incarnation, took power selfishly into her own hands, became by virtue of that power a black magician: one who has knowledge and use it for selfish ends. We see her at the masked ball in the first chapter, endeavouring by her arts to attract the companion of many of her past lives; but her object in doing this is to bring him directly under the influence of Ivan, that one of the White Brotherhood who, in his divine pity, has stretched his hand out towards her. Her aim is to begin the occultists’ great work of saving others, especially those whom she has formerly injured. But through what terrible experiences she passes, and those about her, in this endeavour! We see her falling back instinctively on her old rites and using her old powers; we see Hilary deceived by his senses and passions. Fleta forgets that the Lotus flower can only bloom within one’s own soul: but oh! reader, do not judge of Fleta, nor of her relation to the White Brotherhood, till you have seen her fierce career to its end and read the words in which, at last, Ivan says “Enter.” [4]

Introduction

Containing two sad lives on earth,
And two sweet times of sleep in Heaven.

A LIFETIME.

Overhead the boughs of the trees intermingle, hiding the deep blue sky and mellowing the fierce heat of the sun. The boughs are so covered with white blossoms that it is like a canopy of clustered snow-flakes, tinged here and there with a soft pink. It is a natural orchard, a spot favoured by the wild apricot. And among the trees, wandering from shine to shade, flitting to and fro, is a solitary figure. It is that of a young woman, a savage, one of a wild and fierce tribe dwelling in the fastnesses of an inaccessible virgin forest. She is dark, but beautiful. Her blue-black hair hangs far down over her naked body; its masses shield the warm, quivering, nervous brown skin from the direct rays of the sun. She wears neither clothing nor any ornament. Her eyes are dark, fierce and tender; her mouth soft and natural as the lips of an opening flower. She is absolutely perfect in her simple savage beauty and in the natural majesty of her womanhood, virgin in herself and virgin in the quality of her race, which is untaught, undegraded. But in her sublimely natural face is the dawn of a great [5]

tragedy. Her soul, her thought, is struggling to awake. She has done a deed that seemed to her quite simple, quite natural; yet now it is done a dim perplexity is rising within her obscure mind. Wandering to and fro beneath the rich masses of blossom-laden boughs, she for the first time endeavours to question herself. Finding no answer within she goes again to look on that which she has done.

A form lies motionless upon the ground within the thickest shade of the rich fruit trees. A young man, one of her own tribe, beautiful like herself, and with strength and vigour written in every line of his form. But he is dead. He was her lover, and she found his love sweet, yet with one wild treacherous movement of her strong supple arm she had killed him. The blood flowed from his forehead where the sharp stone had made the death wound. The life blood ebbed away from his strong young form; a moment since his lips still trembled, now they were still. Why had she in this moment of fierce passion taken that beautiful life? She loved him as well as her untaught heart knew how to love; but he, exulting in his greater strength, tried to snatch her love before it was ripe. It was but a blossom, like the white flowers overhead; he would have taken it with strong hands as though it were a fruit ripe and ready. And then in a sudden flame of wondrous new emotion the woman became aware that the man was her enemy, that he desired to be her tyrant. Until now she had thought him as herself, a thing to love as she loved herself, with a blind unthinking trust. And she acted passionately upon the guidance [6] of this thing - feeling - which until now she had never known. He, unaccustomed to any treachery or anger, suspected no strange act from her, and thus, unsuspicious, unwarned, he was at her mercy. And now he lay dead at her feet. And still the fierce sun shone through the green leaves and silvern blossoms and gleamed upon her black hair and tender brown skin. She was beautiful as the morning when it rose over the tree tops of that world-old forest. But there is a new wonder in her dark eyes; a question that was not there until this strange and potent hour came to her. What ages must pass over her dull spirit ere it can utter the question; ere it can listen and hear the answer?

The savage woman, nameless, unknown save of her tribe, who regard her as indifferently as any creature of the woods, has none to help her of stay in its commencement the great roll of the wave of energy she has started. Blindly she lives out her own emotions. She is dissatisfied, uneasy, conscious of some error. When she leaves the orchard of wild fruit trees and wanders back to the clearer part of the forest beneath the great trees, where her tribe dwells, when she returns among them her lips are dumb, her voice is silent. None ever heard that he, the one she loved, had died by her hand, for she knew not how to frame or tell this story. It was a mystery to her, this thing which had happened. Yet it made her sad, and her great eyes wore a dumb look of longing. But she was very beautiful, and soon another young and sturdy lover was always at her side. He did not please her; there was not the glow in his eyes that had [7] gladdened her in those of the dead one whom she had loved. And yet she shrank not from him, nor did she raise her arm in anger, but held it fast at her side lest her passion should break loose unawares. For she felt that she had brought a want, a despair upon herself by her former deed; and now she determined that she would act differently. Blindly she tried to learn the lesson that had come upon her. Blindly she let herself be the agent of her own will. For now she became the willing slave and serf of one whom she did not love, and whose passion for her was full of tyranny. Yet she did not, she dared not, resist this tyranny; not because she feared him, but because she feared herself. She had the feeling that one might have who had come in contact with a new and hitherto unknown natural force. She feared lest resistance or independence should bring upon her a greater wonder, a greater sadness and loss than that which she had already brought upon herself.

And so she submitted to that which in her first youth would no more have been endured by her than the bit by the wild horse.

The apricot blossom has fallen and fruit has followed it; the leaves have fallen and the trees are bare. The sky is grey and wild above, the ground dank and soft with fallen leaves below. The aspect of the place has changed, but it is the same; the face and form of the woman have changed, but she is the same. She is alone again in the wild orchard, finding her way by instinct to the spot where her first lover died. She has found it. What is there? Some white bones that lie together; a skeleton. The woman's eyes fasten and feed on the [8] sight and grow large and terrible. Horror at last is struck into her soul. This is all that is left of her young love, who died by her hand - white bones that lie in ghastly order! And the long hot days and sultry nights of her life have been given to a tyrant who has reaped no gladness and no satisfaction from her submission; for he has not learned yet even the difference between woman and woman. All alike are mere creatures like the wild things; creatures to hunt and to conquer. Dumbly in her dark heart strange questionings arise. She turns from this graveyard of her unquestioning time and goes back to her slavery. Through the years of her life she waits and wonders, looking blankly at the life around her. Will no answer come to her soul?

AFTER BLEEP, AWAKENING.

Splendid was the veil that shielded her from that other soul, the soul she knew and of which she showed her recognition by swift and sudden love. But the veil separated them; a veil heavy with gold and shining with stars of silver. And as she gazed upon these stars, with delighted admiration of their brilliance, they grew larger and larger, till at length they blended together, and the veil became one shining sheen gorgeous with golden broideries. Then it became easier to see through the veil, or rather it seemed easier to these lovers. For before the veil had made the shape appear dim; now it appeared glorious and ideally beautiful and strong. Then the woman put out her hand, hoping to obtain the [9] pressure of another hand through the shining gossamer. And at the same instant he too put out his hand, for in this moment their souls communicated, and they understood each other. Their hands touched; the veil was broken; the moment of joy was ended and again the struggle began.

A LIFETIME.

Sitting, singing, on the steps of an old palace, her feet paddling in the water of a broad canal, was a child who was becoming more than a child; a creature on the threshold of life, of awakening sensation. A girl, with ruddy gold hair, and innocent blue eyes, that had in their vivid depths the strange startled look of a wild creature. She was as simple and isolated in her happiness as any animal of the woods or hills - the sunshine, the sweet air with the faint savour of salt in it, her own pure clear girlish voice, and the gay songs of the people that she sang - these were pleasure enough and to spare for her.

But the space of unconscious happiness or unhappiness which heralds the real events of a life was already at an end. The great wave which she had set in motion was increasing in volume ceaselessly; how long before it shall reach the shore and break upon that far-off coast? None can know, save those whose eyesight is more than man's. None can tell; and she is ignorant, unknowing. But though she knows nothing of it, she is within the sweep of the wave, and is powerless to arrest it until her soul shall awake.

“My blossom, my beautiful wild flower,” said a voice [10] close beside her. A young boatman had brought his small vessel so gently to the steps she had not noticed his approach. He leaned over his boat towards her, and touched her bare white feet with his hand.

“Come away with me, Wild Blossom,” he said. “Leave that wretched home you cling to. What is there to keep you there now your mother is dead? Your father is like a savage and makes you live like a savage too. Come away with me, and we will live among people who will love you and find you beautiful as I do. Will you come? How often have I asked you, Wild Blossom, and you have never answered. Will you answer now?”

“Yes,” said the girl, looking up with grave, serious eyes, that had beneath their beauty a melancholy meaning, a sad question.

The man saw this strange look and interpreted it as clearly as he could.

“Trust me,” he said, “I am not a savage like your father. When you are my little wife I will care for you far more dearly than myself. You will be my soul, my guide, my star. And I will shield you as my soul is shielded within my body, follow you as my guide, look up to you as to a star in the blue heavens. Surely you can trust my love, Wild Blossom?”

He had not answered the doubt in her heart, for he had not guessed what it was, nor could she have told him. For she had not yet learned to know what it was, nor to know of it more than that it troubled her. But she put it aside and silenced it now, for the moment had come to do so. Not till she had learned her lesson [11] much more fully could the question ever be expressed even to her own soul, and before this could be, the question must be silenced many times.

“Yes,” she said, “I will come.”

She held out her hand to him as if to seal the compact. He interpreted the gesture by his own desire, and taking her hand in his drew her towards him. She yielded and stepped into the boat. And then he quickly pushed away from the steps, and, dipping his oars in the water, soon had gone far away down the canal. Blossom, looking earnestly back, watched the old palace disappear. In some of its old rooms and on its sunny steps her child-life had been spent. Now she knew that was at an end. She understood that all was changed henceforth, though she could not guess into what she was going, and she waited for her future with a strange confidence in the companion she had accepted. This puzzled her dimly. Yet how should she lack confidence having known him long ago and thrown away his love and his life beneath the wild apricot trees, having seen afterwards the steadfastness of his love when her soul stood beside his in soul life?

A long way they went in the little boat. They left the canals and went out upon the open sea, and still the boatman rowed unwearyingly, his eyes all the while upon the beautiful wild blossom he had plucked and carried away with him to be his own, his dear and adored possession. Far away along the coast lay a small village of fishermen’s cots. It was to this that the young man guided his boat, for it was here he dwelled.

At the door of his cot stood his old mother, a quaint [12] old woman with wrinkled, rosy face, wearing a rough fishwife’s dress and coarse shawl; her brown hand shaded her eyes as she watched her son’s boat approaching. Presently a smile came on her mouth. “He’s gotten the blossom he’s talked of so often in his sleep. Will he be happy now, the good lad?”

He was truly a good lad; for his mother knew him well, and the more she knew him the deeper grew her love. She would do anything for his happiness. And now she took to her arms the child, the Blossom, and cherished her for his sake. Before many days had passed, the fishing village made a féte day for the wedding of its strongest boatman. And the women’s eyes filled with tears when they looked at the sad, tender, questioning face of the beautiful Wild Blossom.

She had given her love without hesitation, in complete confidence. She had given more; herself, her life, her very soul. The surrender was now complete.

And now, when all seemed done and all accomplished, her question began to be answered. Dimly she knew that, spite of the husband at whose feet she bowed, spite of the babes she carried in her arms, till their tiny feet were strong enough to carry them down over the shore to the merge of the blue waters, spite of the cottage home she garnished and cleansed and loved so dearly, spite of all, her heart was hungry and empty. What could it mean, that though she had all, she had none? Blossom was grown a woman now, and there were some lines of care and of pain on her forehead. Yet still she was beautiful, and still she bore her [13] child-name of Blossom; but the beauty of her face grew sadder and more strange as the years went by, the years that bring ease and satisfaction to the stagnant soul. Wild Blossom’s soul was eager and anxious; she could not still the mysterious voices of her heart, and these told her (though perhaps she did not always understand their speech) that her husband was not in reality her king; that he heard no sound from that inner region in which she chiefly existed. For him there was contentment in the outward life that he lived, in sheer physical pleasure, in the excitement of hard work, and the dangers of the sea, in the beauty of his wife, the mirth of his happy children. He asked no more. But Wild Blossom’s eyes had the prophetic light in them. She saw that all this peace must pass, this pleasure end; she recognised that these things did not, could not, absolutely satisfy the spirit; her soul seemed to tremble within her as she began to feel the first dawn of the terrible answer to her sad questioning.

A deeper dream of rest;
A stronger waking.

Many a long year later, a solitary woman dwelled in that fisherman’s cottage on the shore of the blue sea. She was old and bowed with age and trouble. But still her eyes were brighter than any girl’s in the village, and held in them the mysterious beauty of the soul; still her hair, once golden, now grey, waved about her forehead. The people loved her and were kind to her, for she was always gentle and full of generous thought. But they never understood her, for they were long ages [14] behind her in her growth. She was ready now for the great central test of personal existence; the experience of life in civilization. When the old fishwife lay dead within her cottage, and the people came to grieve beside her body, they little guessed that she was going oil to a great and glorious future: a future full of daring and of danger. When her eyes closed in death, her inner eyes opened on a sight that filled her with absolute joy. She was in a garden of fruit trees, and the blossom of the trees was at its full. When her eyes fell on this white maze of flowers and drank in its beauty, she remembered the name she had borne on earth and dimly understood its meaning. The blossoms hid from her the sky and all else until a soft pressure on her hand drew her eyes downward; and then she saw beside her that one whom she had loved through the ages, and who, side by side with her, was experiencing the profound mystery, and learning the strange lesson of incarnation in the world where sex is the first great teacher. And with each phase of existence that they passed through, these two forged stronger and stronger links that held them together and compelled them again and again to meet, so that together they were destined to pass through the vital hour; the hour when the life is shaped for great ends or for vain deeds.

Here within this sheltered place, where blossoms filled the air with sweetness and beauty, it seemed to them that they had attained to the full of pleasure. They rested in perfect satisfaction, drinking deep draughts of the joy of living. To them existence was a final and splendid fact in itself; existence as they then had it. [15] The moment in which they lived was sufficient, they desired none other, nor any other place, nor any other beauty, than those they had. None knows, and none can tell what time or age was passed in this deep contentment and fulfillment of pleasure. At last Wild Blossom’s soul woke from its sleep, satiated; the hunger returned to gnaw at her heart; the longing to know reasserted itself. Holding tight the hand she held in hers, she sprang from the soft couch on which she lay. Then, for the first time, she noticed that the ground was so soft and pleasant, because there, where she had lain, had drifted great heaps of the fallen fruit blossoms. The ground was all white with them, though some had begun to lose their delicate beauty, to curl and wrinkle and turn dark. Then she looked overhead and saw that the trees had, with the loss of the delicate petals, lost their first fairness, the splendour of the spring. Now they were covered with small, hard, green fruit, scarce formed, unbeautiful to the eye, hard to the touch, acid to the taste. With a shudder of regret for the sweet spring-time that was gone, Wild Blossom hurried away from the trees, still holding fast that other hand in hers. She was going to face new, strange experiences, perhaps terrible dangers; her task seemed the easier for that tried companionship, for the nearness of that other who was climbing the same steep ladder of life. [16]

CHAPTER I.

In a masked ball there is an element of adventure that appeals to the daring of both sexes, to the bright and witty spirits. Hilary Estanol was just such an one as the hero of a bright revel should be. A beautiful boy, with a lovely face, and eyes that had in them a deep sadness. In repose his face was almost womanish in its softness; but a chill brilliance was in his smile, a certain slight cynicism coloured all his speech. Yet Hilary had no reason to be a cynic, and he was not one who adopted anything from fashion or affectation. The spring of this uncalled-for coldness and indifference lay in himself.

To-night he was the centre of attraction in Madame Estanol’s drawing-rooms. This bal masque was to celebrate his coming of age and Hilary had never looked so womanish as when he stood among his friends, receiving their congratulations and admiring their gifts. He wore the dress of a troubadour, and it was one which became him well, not only in its picturesqueness as a costume, but in the requirements of the character. He had the faculty of the improvisatore, his voice was rich and soft, his musical and poetic gifts swift and versatile. Hilary was adored by his friends, but disliked, [17] indeed almost hated, by his one near relation, his mother. She was standing near him now, talking to a group who had gathered round her. She was one of the cleverest women of the day, and, still beautiful and full of a charming pride, held a court of her own. Her dislike for Hilary was founded on her estimate of his character. To one of her intimate friends she had said, not long before this night, “Hilary will disgrace his name and family before there is one grey thread in his dark hair. He has the qualities that bring despair and ensure remorse. God will surely forgive me that I say this of my son; but I see it before me, an abyss into which he will drag me with him; and I wait for it every day.”

A guest, just arrived, approached Madame Estanol with a smile, and after greeting her affectionately, said, in a whisper, “I have brought a friend with me. Welcome her in her character as a fortune-teller. She is very witty, and will amuse us presently, if you like.”

She moved aside a little, and Madame Estanol saw standing behind her a stooping figure, an old haggard crone, with palsied head, and hand that trembled as it grasped her stick.

“Ah, Countess! it is not possible to recognize your friend under this disguise,” said Madame Estanol. “Will you not tell me who she is?”

“I am pledged to say nothing but that she is a fortune-teller,” said the Countess Bairoun. “Her name she herself will reveal only to one person; and that person must be born under the star that favoured her own birth.” [18]

The fortune-teller turned her bent head towards Madame Estanol, and fixed a pair of brilliant and fascinating eyes on hers. Immediately Madame Estanol became aware of a strong charm that drew her towards this mysterious person. She advanced and held out her hand to assist the old woman in moving across the room.

“Come with me,” she said, “I should like to introduce you to my son. He is the hero of this scene to-night, for the ball is held in honour of his coming of age.”

They went through the maskers that were now beginning to throng the large drawing-rooms, and everyone turned to look at the strange figure of the tottering old crone. Hilary Estanol was leaning against the high carved oak mantle frame of the inner drawing room, surrounded by a laughing group of his intimate friends. He held his mask in his hand, and as he stood there smiling, his dark curls falling on his forehead, his mother thought, as she approached him, “My boy grows handsomer every hour of his gay young life.” When Hilary saw his mother’s strange companion he advanced a step, as if to welcome her. But Madame Estanol checked him with a smile. “I cannot introduce our visitor to you,” she said, “for I do not know her name. She will tell it to but one person, who must have been born under the same star as herself. Meantime, we are to greet her in her character as the fortune-teller.”

This announcement was welcomed by a murmur of amusement and interest.

“Then will our kind visitor perhaps exercise her craft [11] for us?” asked Hilary, gazing with curiosity at the trembling head and grey locks before him. The old woman turned her head sideways, and gave him a look from those strange brilliant eyes. He, too, like his mother, felt the charm from them. But he felt more. Something suddenly wakened within him; a rush of inexplicable emotions roused him into amazement; he put his hand to his forehead: he was bewildered, almost faint.

There was a small drawing-room which opened out of the room they were in. It was so tiny that it held but a table covered with flowers, a low couch and an easychair. The laughing group that surrounded Hilary went eagerly to convert this room into the sanctum of the prophetess. They lowered and softened the shaded light; drew close the blinds and shut the doors, locking all but one. Here was placed a guardian who was to admit grudgingly and one by one those who were fortunate enough to speak alone with the sybil, for she would only see certain of the guests whom she selected herself from the throng, describing their appearance and dress to the guardian of her improvised temple. These were all ladies of great position. They entered laughing and half defiant. They came out, some pale, some red, some trembling, some in tears, - “Who can she be?” they whispered in terrified tones to one another, and in that terror showed how she had penetrated their hearts and touched on their secret thoughts.

At last the guardian of the door said that Hilary himself was to enter.

When Hilary went in, the young man, as he closed [20] the door on the fortune-teller and her new guest, turned with a laugh to the group behind him.

“Already she has startled him,” he said, “I heard him utter almost a cry as he entered.”

“Could you see in?” asked one, “perhaps she has taken off her disguise for her host!”

“No, I saw nothing,” he answered. “Can none of you who have been in guess who she is?”

“No,” answered a girl who had come out from the ordeal with white and trembling lips. “It is impossible to guess. She knows everything.”

It was as they had supposed. She had taken off her disguise for her host. The staff, the large cloak, the wig and cap lay on the ground. With the swift use of a cosmetiqued kerchief she had removed from her fair skin the dark complexion of the ancient sybil. When Hilary entered she had completed this rapid toilette and sat leaning back in a low chair. She was dressed in a rich evening costume; she held a mask in her hand ready for use. But now her face was uncovered; her strange and brilliant eyes were fixed on Hilary; her beautiful mouth wore a half smile of amusement at his surprise. It was more than surprise that he experienced. Again that rush of inexplicable emotion overpowered him. He felt like one intoxicated. He regarded her very earnestly for a few moments.

“Surely,” he said, “we have met before!”

“We were born under the same star,” she answered, in a voice that thrilled him. Until now he had not heard her speak. The sense of same strong link or association that united them, was made doubly strong [21] by the sound of that voice, rich, strong and soft. Suddenly he recognised the meaning of his emotion. He no longer struggled against it, he no longer was bewildered by it.

He approached her and sat down upon the couch at her side. He regarded her with wonder and adoration, but no longer with awe or surprise. For he understood that the event which he had imagined would never come was already here - he was in love.

“You said you would disclose your name to the one who was born under the same star as yourself.”

“Do you not know me?” she said, with a slight look of surprise. She fancied everyone knew her at least by sight.

“I do not,” he answered, “though indeed I am perplexed to think I can ever have lived without knowing you.”

Flattery produced no effect upon her, she lived in an atmosphere of it.

“I am the Princess Fleta,” she answered. Hilary started and coloured a little at the words, and could ill control his emotion. The Princess Fleta held a position in the society of the country, which, can only belong to one who stands next to a throne that rules an important nation. She was a personage among crowned heads, one to whom an emperor might, without stooping, offer his love; and Hilary, the child of an officer of the Austrian army, and of a poor daughter of a decayed aristocratic family, Hilary had in the swift stirring of love at first sight, told his own heart that he loved her! It could never be unsaid, and he knew it. He had [22] whispered the words within himself, the whisper would find a hundred echoes. He must always love her.

The Princess turned her wonderful eyes on him and smiled.

“I have done my work for to-night,” she said. “I have amused some of the people, now I should like to dance.”

Hilary was sufficient of a courtier not to be deaf to this command, though his whole soul was in his eyes and all his thoughts fixed on her beauty. He rose and offered her his arm, she put on her mask and they left the room. When Hilary appeared among the crowd that hung round the door of the fortune-teller’s sanctum, accompanied by a slender, graceful woman, whose face was hidden save for the great dark eyes, there was an irrepressible murmur of excitement and wonder. “Who can she be?” was repeated again a hundred times. But no one guessed. None dreamed thin could be the Princess Fleta herself; for there were but few houses she would visit at, and no one imagined that there could be any inducement to bring her to Madame Estanol’s. The mystery of her presence she explained to Hilary while they danced together.

“I am a student of magic,” she said, “and I have already learned some useful secrets. I can read the hearts of the courtiers who surround me, and I know where to look for true friends. Last night I dreamed of the friend I should find here. Do you care for these mystic occupations?”

“I know nothing of them,” said Hilary.

“Let me teach you, then,” said the Princess, with a [23] light laugh. “You will be a good pupil, that I know. Perhaps I may make a disciple of you! and there are not many with whom that is possible.”

“And why?” asked Hilary. “Surely it is a fascinating study to those who can believe in the secrets.”

“Scepticism is not the great difficulty,” answered the Princess, “but fear. Terror turns the crowd back from the threshold. Only a few dare cross it.”

“And you are one of the few,” said Hilary, gazing on her with eyes of burning admiration.

“I have never felt fear,” she answered.

“And would it be impossible to make you feel it, I wonder?” said Hilary.

“Do you desire to try?” she answered, with a smile at his daring speech. It did not sound so full of impertinence as it looks, for Hilary’s eyes and face were all alight with love and admiration, end his voice trembled with passion.

“You can make the attempt if you choose,” she said, glancing at him with those strange eyes of hers. “Terrify me if you can.”

“Not here, in my own house, it would not be hospitable.”

“Come and see me, then, some day when you think it will amuse you. Try and frighten me. I will show you my laboratory, where I produce essences and incenses to please the gnomes and ghouls.”

Hilary accepted this invitation with a flush of pleasure.

“Take me to the Countess,” she said at last. “I am going home. But I want her first to introduce me to your mother.” [24]

The Countess was delighted that the Princess had made up her mind to this. She hardly thought Madame Estanol would be pleased to discover that the great lady had been masquerading in her drawing-room, and had not cared to throw off her disguise even for her hostess. And the Countess valued the friendship of Madame Estanol; so she was glad the willful Princess had decided to treat her with politeness.

Madame Estanol could scarcely conceal her surprise at learning what the dignity was which had been hidden under the disguise of the old fortune-teller. The Princess did not remove her mask, and, with a laugh, she warned Madame Estanol that some of her guests would not be pleased to discover who the sybil was who had read their hearts so shrewdly.

When she had gone, Hilary’s heart and spirits had gone with her. It seemed as if he hardly cared to speak; his laughter had died away altogether. His thoughts, his very self, followed the fascinating personality that had bewitched him.

Madame Estanol saw his abstraction, his flushed eager look, and the new softness of his eyes. But she said no word. She feared the Princess, who was well known to be full of caprice and willfulness. She feared lest Hilary should be mad enough to yield to the charm of the girl's beauty and confident manner; the charm of power, peculiar, or rather, possible only to one in a royal place. But she would say no word; knowing Hilary well, she knew that any attempt to influence him against it would only intensify his new passion. [25]

CHAPTER II.

Two days later Hilary nerved himself to pay the visit to the Princess. He thought she could not consider it to be too soon, for it seemed to him two months since he had seen her.

She lived in a garden-house some two or three miles away in the country. Her father’s palace in the city never pleased her; she only came there when festivities or ceremonials made her presence necessary. In the country, with her chaperone and her maids, she was free to do as she chose. For they were one and all afraid of her, and held her “laboratory” in the profoundest respect. None of them would have entered that room except to avoid some dreadful doom.

Hilary was taken to the Princess in the garden, where she was walking to and fro in an avenue of trees which were covered with sweet-scented blossoms. She welcomed Hilary with a charming manner, and the hour he spent with her here in the sunshine was one of the wildest intoxication. They began openly to play the pretty game of love. Now that no eyes were on then the Princess let him forget that she belonged to a different rank from his own. When she was tired of walking, “Come,” she said, “and I will show you my [26] laboratory. No one in this house ever enters it. If you should say in the city that you have been in that room you will be besieged with questions. Be careful to soy nothing.”

“I would die sooner,” exclaimed Hilary, to whom the idea of talking about the Princess and her secrets seemed like sacrilege.

The room was without windows, perfectly dark but for a softened light shed by a lamp in the centre of the high ceiling. The walls were painted black, and on them were drawn strange figures and shapes in red. These had evidently not been painted by any artizan hand; though bold in touch, they were irregular in workmanship. Beside a great vessel which stood upon the ground, was a chair, and in this chair a figure upon which Hilary’s attention immediately became fastened.

He saw at once that it was not human, that it was not a lay figure, that it was not a statue. It resembled most a lay figure, but there was something strange about it which does not exist in the mere form on which draperies are hung. And its detail was elaborated; the skin was tinted, the eyes darkened correctly, the hair appeared to be human. Hilary remained at the doorway unable to advance because of the fascination this form exercised upon him.

The Princess looked back from where she stood in the centre of the room beneath the light; she saw the direction of his gaze and laughed.

“You need not fear it,” she said.

“Is it a lay figure?” asked Hilary, trying to speak [27] easily, for he remembered that she despised those who knew fear.

“Yes,” she answered, “it is my lay figure.”

There was something that puzzled Hilary in her tone.

“Are you an artist?” he asked.

“Yes,” she,answered, “in life - in human nature. I do not work with a pencil or a brush; I use an agent that cannot be seen yet can be felt.”

“What do you mean?” asked Hilary.

She turned on him a strange look, that was at first distrustful, and then grew soft and tender.

“I will not tell you yet,” she said.

Hilary roused himself to answer her lightly.

“Have I to pass through some ordeal before you tell me?” he asked.

“Yes,” she answered gaily, “and already an ordeal faces you. Dare you advance into the room or no?”

Hilary made a great effort to break the spell that was on him. He went hastily across the room to where she stood. Then he realised that he had actually passed through an ordeal. He had resisted some force, the nature of which he knew not, and he had come out the victor. Realising this brought to him another conviction.

“Princess,” he said, “there is someone else in this room besides you and me. We are not alone.”

He spoke so suddenly, and from so great a sense of startled surprise, that he did not pause to think whether his question were a wise one or not. The Princess laughed as she looked at him.

“You are very sensitive,” she said. “Certainly we [28] were born under the same star, for we are susceptible to the same influences. No, we are not alone. I have servants here whom no eyes have seen but mine. Would you like to see them? Do not say yes hastily. It means a long and tedious apprenticeship, obtaining mastery over these servants. But unless you conquer them you cannot often see me; for if you are much near to me they will hate you, and their hate is greater than your power to resist it.”

She spoke seriously now, and Hilary felt a strange sensation as he looked at this beautiful girl standing beneath the lamp light. He experienced a sudden dread of her as of someone stronger than himself; and also an impassioned desire to serve her, to be her slave, to give his life to her utterly. Perhaps she read the love in his eyes, for she turned away and moved towards the figure in the chair.

“I know this distresses you,” she said. “You shall see it no longer.” She opened a large screen which was formed of some gold-coloured material covered with shapes outlined in black. She arranged this so that the figure was altogether hidden from view and also the great vessel which stood beside it.

“Now,” she said, “you will breathe more freely. And I am going, to show you something. We did not come out of the sunshine for no purpose. And we must be quick, for my good aunt will be terrified when she finds I have brought you in here. I believe she will hardly expect to sea you alive again.”

She opened a gold vessel, which stood upon a cabinet, while she spoke, and the air immediately became full of [29] a strong sweet perfume. Hilary put his hand to his forehead. Was it possible that he could be so immediately affected, or was it his imagination that the red shapes and figures which were on the black wall moved and ordered and arranged themselves? Yet, so it was; to his eyes the forms mingled and, again broke up and re-mingled. A word was formed and then another. It was unconsciously imprinted on. Hilary’s memory before it changed and vanished; he noticed only the mysterious occurrence which was happening before his eyes. Suddenly he became aware that a sentence had been completed; that words had been written there which he would never have dared to utter; that on the wall before him had appeared in letters as of fire the secret of his heart. He staggered back and drew his eyes with difficulty from the wall to fix them in amazement and fear, upon the Princess. Her face was flushed, her eyes were bright and tender.

“Did you see it?” he asked in a trembling voice.

For a moment she hesitated; then she answered, “Yes, I saw it.”

There was a brief silence. Hilary looked again at the wall, expecting to see the thought in his mind written there. But the shapes were returning to their original appearance, and the perfume was dying out of the sir.

“Come,” said the Princess, suddenly, “we have been here long enough. My aunt will be distressed. Let us go to her.”

She led the way from the room, and Hilary followed her. In another moment they were in a large drawing-room, flooded with sunshine and fragrant with flowers; [30] the Princess’ aunt was busied with silks which she had entangled while at her embroidery; the Princess was on her knees beside her, holding a skein of yellow silk upon her hands. Hilary stood a moment utterly bewildered. Had he been dreaming? Was that black room and its terrible atmosphere a phantasy?

He had stayed long enough, and he now took his leave reluctantly. The Princess, who would have no ceremony at the Garden House, rose from her knees and said she would open the gate for him. Hilary flushed with pleasure at this mark of kindness.

The gate she took him to was a narrow one that stood in a thick-set hedge of flowering shrubs. When he had passed through he looked back, and saw the Princess leaning on the gate, framed in gorgeous blossoms. She smiled and held out her hand to him. The richness of her presence intoxicated him, and he lost all sense of the apparently impassable gulf between them.

“You, read the words,” he said, “and you give me your hand in mine?”

“I read the words,” she answered, in a soft voice that thrilled him, “and I give you my hand in yours. Good-bye!”

She had touched his hand for an instant, and now she was gone. Hilary turned to walk through the flowering hedges to the city. But his heart, his thought, his soul remained behind. She had read the words, and she was not angry. She knew of his love for her and she was not angry. She had read his heart and had not taken offence. What might he not hope for? [31]

Then came another thought. She had read the words. Then that black room was no phantasy, but a fact as actual as the sunshine. What were the powers of this strange creature that he loved? He knew not; but he knew that he loved her.

An overpowering desire carried him daily on that road between the flowery hedges to the Garden House. Only sometimes had he the courage to enter. Most often he lingered, at that narrow gate, embosomed in flowers and looked longingly over it. The first time that he entered after the visit in which his secret was written before his eyes, he found the Princess standing within the gate. She held out her hand to him, saying simply, “I knew you were coming. I have prepared something, and I have persuaded my aunt that no terrible thing will happen if you are in my laboratory for a little while. So come with me.”

It was brilliantly lit, this black walled room she called her laboratory. The great vessel stood in the midst of the floor beneath the lamp, and from it rose flame end smoke. A strong and vivid perfume filled the air, and the upper part of the high room was clouded with grey blue smoke, that shone in the light like silver.

In the chair beside it sat a figure: it was that of a beautiful woman. A strange mixture of emotions overpowered Hilary. At the first glance he felt that this figure was the same he had seen the other day; at the second he recognised his mother. He rushed forward to her and became aware that she was lifeless, then! he [32] turned passionately upon the Princess with anger and horror in his face.

“What have you done? What have you done?” he cried.

“Nothing,” she said, with a smile. “I have done no harm. Do you not see that is only an image? My lay figure, as I told you.”

He gave a long look at the inanimate shape that was so perfect a representation of his mother, and then he turned upon the Princess a look of more intense horror than before.

“What are you doing?” he asked, in a low voice.

“No harm!” she answered, lightly, “Your mother hates and fears me. I cannot endure that. I am making her love me. I am making her desire your presence here with me.”

For awhile they stood in silence by the side of the vessel and its flaming contents; then suddenly Hilary cried out: “I cannot bear it! Put an end to this terrible spell.” “Yes,” said the Princess, “I will, but not to its results.”

She drew the screen before the seated figure, and threw something into the vessel that instantly quenched the flame.

Then she led Hilary from the room, and they walked up and down beneath the trees, talking of things as lovers talk - things that interested themselves but none other.

When Hilary returned home his mother rose from her couch and held out her hand to him. She drew him to sit beside her. [33]

“Hilary,” she said, “something tells me you have been with the Princess Fleta. It is well, and I am glad. She is a good friend for you; ask her if I shall come to see her.”

Hilary rose without replying. The dew stood on his brow. For the first time he was conscious of actual fear, and the fear he felt was of the woman he loved. [34]

CHAPTER III.

In a chapel of the great Cathedral in the city there was at certain hours always a monk who gave advice to all who consulted him.

To him went Hilary some days later. In the interim he had not seen the Princess. His soul had been torn hither and thither, to and fro. His passion for the beautiful girl held him fast, while his horror of the magician repelled him from her. He went to the Cathedral in the afternoon determined that he would reveal all his distress to the monk. Father Amyot was in the vestry, but someone was with him, for the door was closed. Hilary knelt down at the small altar of the chapel there to wait. Presently there was a slight sound; he turned his head to see if the superior was now free. The Princess Fleta stood beside him, her eyes fixed on him; it was she who at this instant only had been in consultation with the superior. Hilary, amazed and dumb with wonder, could only gaze upon her. She kept her strange and fascinating eyes fixed on his for a moment and then turned and with swift, soft steps left the chapel. Hilary remained kneeling motionless before the altar, his mind absorbed in what was hardly so much thought [35] as amazement. Fleta was not then what he thought her. If she were sensitive to religious impressions she could not be the cold magician which she had appeared to  him to be when he recollected the last scene in the laboratory. Perhaps after all she used her power generously and for good. He began to see her in another light. He began to worship her for her goodness as well as for her strong attractions. His heart leaped with joy at the thought that her soul was as beautiful as her body. He rose from his knees and turned instinctively and without thought to follow her. As he did so he passed Father Amyot, who came slowly down the long aisle, and, without paying the slightest heed to anyone, flung himself at full length upon the ground. He wore a long robe of coarse black cloth, tied at the waist with a black cord; a hood of the same cloth covered his long hair. He was like a skeleton, perfectly fleshless and emaciated. His face lay sideways on the stone; he seemed unconscious, so profound was his abstraction. The eyes were open, but had no sight in them. They were large grey blue eyes, full of a profound melancholy, which gave them an appearance as if tears stood in them. This melancholy affected Hilary strangely; it touched his heart, made thrill and vibrate some deeply sensitive chord in his nature. He stood gazing a moment at the prostrate figure, and then with a profound obeisance left the chapel.

The Princess Fleta had her horse waiting for her. She was a constant and daring rider, and seldom entered the city except on horseback, to the amazement [36] of the Court ladies, who in the City rode in carriages, that they might dress beautifully. But Fleta had no vanity of this kind. Probably no other girl of her age would have willingly adopted the hideous dress of the witch and worn it before so many curious eyes. Her own beauty and her own appearance were subjects of but the slightest thought to her. She would walk down the fashionable promenade in her riding-habit among the magnificent toilets of the Court ladies. This she was doing now while a servant led her horse up and down. Hilary watched her from a distance, unable to summon courage to approach her in the midst of such a throng of personages. But presently Fleta saw him and came with her swift light step towards him. “Will you walk with me?” she asked. “There is no one here to be my companion but you.”

“And why is that?” asked Hilary, as with flushed face and eager steps he accompanied her.

“Because there are none that sympathize with me. You alone have entered my laboratory.”

“But would not any of these be glad to come if yon would admit them?”

“Not one would have the courage, except perhaps some few wild spirits who would dare anything for mere excitement. And they would not please me.”

Hilary was silent. Her words showed him very plainly that he pleased her. But there was a chill in his nature which now asserted itself. Here in the midst of so many people her hold on him was lessened, and he doubted her more than ever. Was she merely playing with him for her own amusement? Her high [37] position gave her this power, and he could not resent it, for even to be her favourite for a day would be accounted by any man an honour and a thing to boast of. And Hilary was being signalled out for public honour. He felt the envious glances of the men whom he met, and immediately a cold veil fell on his heart. He desired no such envy. To his mind love was a thing sacred. His scorn of life and doubt of human nature awakened at this moment of triumph. He did not speak, but the Princess answered his thought.

“We will go away from here,” she said. “In the country you are a creature of passion. Here you become a cynic.”

“How do you know my heart?” he asked.

“We were born under the same star,” she answered, quietly.

“That is no sufficient answer,” he replied. “It conveys no meaning to me, for I know nothing of the mysterious sciences you study.”

“Come, then, with me,” she answered, “and I will teach you.”

She signed to her servant, who brought her horse; she mounted and rode away with merely a smile to Hilary. She knew that, in spite of the chill that was on him; he would hunger for her in her absence and soon follow. And so he did. The pavements appeared empty, though crowds moved over them; the city seemed lifeless and dull, though it was one of the gayest in the world. He turned from the streets, and walking into the country, found himself very soon at the narrow wicket-gate of the Princess Fleta’s Garden House. [38]

She was wandering up and down the avenue between the trees. Her dress was white now, and very long and soft, falling in great folds from her shoulders. As she moved slowly to and fro, the dancing sunlight playing on her splendid form, it seemed to Hilary that he saw before him not a mere woman, but a priestess. Her late visit to the Cathedral recurred to him; if the religious soul was in her, might she not, indeed, spite of her strange acts, be no magician, but a priestess? He returned to his former humour, and was ready to worship at her feet. She greeted him with a smile that thrilled him; her eyes read his very soul, and her smile brought to it an unutterable joy. She turned and led the way to the house, and Hilary followed her.

She opened her laboratory door, and immediately Hilary became aware of the strong odour of some powerful incense. The dim smoke was still in the room, but the flame had all died away in the vessel. By the side of the vessel lay a prostrate figure. Hilary uttered a cry of amazement and of horror as he recognised Father Amyot. He turned such a look of dismay upon the Princess that she answered his thought in a haughty tone which she had never before used in addressing him.

“It is not time yet to ask me the meaning of what you may see here. Some day, perhaps, when you know more, you may have the right to question me; but not now. See, I can change this appearance that distresses you in a moment.”

She raised the prostrate figure, and flung off from it the white robe that resembled Father Amyot’s. [39] Beneath, it was clothed in a dull red garment such as Hilary had first seen it in. With a few swift touches of her hand the Princess changed the expression of the face. Father Amyot was gone, and Hilary saw sitting in the chair before him that unindividualised form and face which, at his visit to the laboratory, had affected him with so much horror. The Princess saw the repugnance still in his face, and, with a laugh, opened the screen with which she had hidden the figure before.

“Now,” she said, “come and  sit beside me on this couch.”

But before she left the great vessel she threw in more incense and lit it. Already Hilary was aware that the fumes of that which had been already burned had affected his brain. The red figures moved upon the black wall, and he watched them with fascinated eyes.

They shaped themselves together not, this time, into words, but into forms. And the wall, instead of black, became bright and luminous. It was as though Hilary and Fleta sat alone before an immense stage. They heard the spoken words and saw the gestures and the movements of these phantasmal actors as clearly and with as much reality as though they were creatures of flesh and blood before them. It was a drama of the passions; the chief actors were Hilary and Fleta themselves. Hilary almost forgot that the real Fleta was at his side, so absorbed was he in the action of the phantasmal Fleta.

He was bewildered, and he could not understand the meaning of what he saw clearly, though the drama was [40] enacted in front of him. He saw the orchard fall of blossoming trees; he saw the splendid savage woman. He knew that he himself and this Fleta at his side, were in some strange way, playing a part in this savage guise; but how or what it was he could not tell. Fleta laughed as she watched his face. “You do not know who you are,” she cried. “That is a great loss, and makes life much more difficult. But you will know by-and-bye if you are willing to learn. Come, let as look at another and a very different page of life.”

The stage grew darker, and moving shadows passed to and fro upon it, - great shadows that filled Hilary’s soul with dread. At last they drew back and left a luminous space where Fleta herself was visible. Fleta, in this same human shape that she wore now, yet strangely changed. She was much older and yet, more beautiful; there was a wonderful fire in her brilliant eyes. On her head was a crown, and Hilary saw that she had great powers to use or abuse - it was written on her face. Then something drew his eyes down and he saw a figure lying helpless at her feet - why was it so still? it was alive! - yes, but it was bound and fettered; bound hand and foot.

“Are you afraid?” broke out Fleta’s voice, with a ring of mocking laughter in it. “Surely you are not afraid - why should I not reign? why should you not suffer? You are a cynic; is there anything good to be expected?”

“Perhaps not,” said Hilary. “It may be that you are heartless and false. And yet, as I stand here now, I feel that though you may betray me by-and-bye, and [41] take my life and liberty from me, yet I love your very treachery.”

Fleta laughed aloud, and Hilary stood silent, confused by the words he had spoken hastily without pausing to think whether they were fit to speak or not. Well, it was done now. He had spoken of his love. She could refuse ever to see him again, and he would go into the outer darkness.

“No,” she said, “I shall not send you away. Do you not know, Hilary Estanol, that you are my chosen companion? Otherwise, would you be here with me now? The word love does not alarm me; I have heard it too often. Only I think it very meaningless. Let us put it aside for the present. If you let yourself love me you must suffer; and I do not want you to suffer yet. When pain comes to you the youth will go from your face; you do not know how to preserve it, and I like your youth.”

Hilary made no answer. It was not easy to answer such a speech, and Hilary was not in the humour for accomplishing anything difficult. His brain was confused by the fumes of the incense and by the strange scenes so mysteriously enacted before his eyes. He scarcely knew what Fleta this was that stood beside him. And yet he knew he loved her though he distrusted her! With each moment that he passed by her side he worshipped her more completely, and the disbelief interfered less and less with his proud joy in being admitted to her intimacy.

“Now,” said Fleta, “I want you to do a new thing. I want you to exercise your will and compel my servants [42] who have been pleasing us with phantasies, to show us a phantasy of your own creation. You can do this very well, if you will. It only needs that you shall not doubt you can do it. Ah! how quickly does the act follow the thought!” She uttered the last words with a little cry of amused pleasure. For the dim shadows had rapidly masked the stage and then again withdrawn, leaving the figure of Fleta very clearly visible, beautiful and passionate, her face alight with love, held clasped in Hilary’s arms, her lips pressed close to his.

The real Fleta who sat beside him rose now with a shake of her head, and a laugh which was not all gay. The shadows closed instantly over the stage, and a moment later the illusion was destroyed and the solid wall was there before Hilary’s eyes. He had become so accustomed to witness the marvellous inside of this room that he did not pause to wonder; he followed Fleta as she crossed to the door, and tried to attract her attention.

“Forgive me, my Princess,” he murmured over and over again.

“Oh, you are forgiven,” she said at last, lightly. “You have not offended, so it is easy for me to forgive. I do not think a man can help what is in his heart; at all events, no ordinary man can. And you, Hilary, have consented to be like the rest. Are you content?”

“No!” he answered, instantly. And as he spoke he understood for the first time the fever that had stirred him all through his short bright life. “Content! How should I be? Moreover, is not our star the star of restlessness and action?” [43]

For the first time, Fleta turned on him a glance of real tenderness and emotion. When he said the words “our star,” it seemed as if he had touched her heart.

“Ah!” she said, “how sorely I long for a companion!”

Then she turned from him very abruptly, and almost before he knew she had moved she had opened the door, and was standing outside waiting for him. “Come!” she said, impatiently. He followed her immediately, for he had no choice but to do so; yet he was disappointed. He was more deeply disappointed when he found that she led the way with swift steps into the room where her aunt sat. Arrived there, Fleta threw herself into a chair, took up a great golden fan and began to fan herself, while she talked about the gossip of the Court. The change was so sudden that for some moments Hilary could not follow her. He stood bewildered, till the aunt pushed a low chair towards him; and he felt then that the old lady was not surprised at his manner, but only sorry for him. And then suddenly the cynic re-asserted itself in his heart. A thought that bit like flame suddenly started into life. Had the bewildered emotion that had been, as he knew, visible on his face; been seen on others before? was Fleta not only playing with him, but playing with him as she had played with many another lover? The thought was more hateful than any he had ever suffered from; it wounded his vanity, which was more tender and delicate than his heart.

Fleta gave him no opportunity of anything but talk such as seemed in her stately presence too trivial to be [44] endured, and so at last he rose and went his way. Fleta did not accompany him to the gate this time. She left him to go alone, and he felt as if she had withdrawn her favour in some degree; and yet, perhaps, that was foolish, he told himself, for after all, both he and she had said too much to-day.

Fleta was betrothed. She had been betrothed at her christening. Before long her marriage would take place; and then that crown seen in the vision would be placed on her head. Had it needed the vision to bring that fact to his mind? asked Hilary of himself. If so, it was time, he bitterly added, for Fleta was not a woman who was likely to give up a crown for the sake of love. His heart rose fiercely within him as he thought of all this. Why had she tempted him to speak of love? For surely he never would have dared to so address her had she not tempted him; so he thought.

If he could have seen Fleta now! As soon as he left the room she had risen and slowly moved back to her laboratory. Entered there, she drew away a curtain which concealed a large mirror let deep into the wall. She did this resolutely, yet as if reluctantly. Immediately her gaze became fixed on the glass. She saw Hilary’s figure within it moving on his way towards the city. She read his thoughts and his heart. At last she dropped the curtain with a heavy sigh, and let her arms fall at her side with a gesture that seemed to mean despair; certainly it meant deep dejection. And presently some great tears dropped upon the door at her feet.

None since Fleta was born, had seen her shed tears. [45]

CHAPTER IV.

Father Amyot on the next morning sent a message to Hilary praying him to come and see him. This Hilary did at once, and in much perplexity as to what the reason of such a summons could be. He went straight to the Cathedral, for there he knew the     ascetic monk passed all his time. He found hint, as he expected, prostrate on the ground, and almost in the same attitude he had seen him in yesterday. Horribly too it reminded him of the attitude of that figure lying on the floor of Fleta’s laboratory when he had entered it. He had to touch Father Amyot to attract his attention; then at once the monk rose and led the way out of the Cathedral into the cloisters, which joined it to the monastery close at band. He went on, without speaking, his head drooped. Hilary could but follow. At last they reached a bare cell in which was no furniture but a crucifix and a perpetual lamp burning before it, and against the wall a bench.

Here Father Amyot sat down, and he motioned with his hand to Hilary to sit beside him.

Then he fell into a profound reverie; and Hilary, watching him, wondered much what was in his mind. [46] Was Fleta even now working her spells upon him and moulding her thoughts according to her will?

It almost seemed like it, for her name was the first word he uttered. “The Princess Fleta,” he commenced, “is about to go upon a long and dangerous journey.”

Hilary started and turned his face away, for he knew that he had turned pale. Was she really going to leave the city ? How unexpected! How terrible!

“In a very short time,” went on Father Amyot, “the Princess will be married, and she has a mission which she desires to accomplish before her wedding, and she says that you can assist her in this. It is for the fulfillment of this mission that she is undertaking the journey I speak of; supposing you should agree to help her you would have to accompany her.”

Hilary made no answer. He had no answer ready. His breath was taken away, and he could not recover it all in an instant. The whole thing seemed incredible; he felt it to be impossible; and yet a conviction was already falling on him that it would take place.

“Of course,” resumed Father Amyot, seeing that Hilary was not disposed to speak, “you will want to know your errand, you will want to know why you are going on this journey. This it will be impossible for you to know. The Princess does not choose to inform anyone of what her errand is.”

“Not even the person whom she says can help her?” exclaimed Hilary, in amazement.

“Not even you.”

“Well,” said Hilary, rising with a gesture of [47] indignation, “let her find someone else to go blindly in her wake. I am not the man.”

So saying he walked across the cell to the doorway, forgetting even to say good-bye to Father Amyot.

But the priest’s voice arrested him.

“You would travel alone, save for one attendant.”

Hilary turned and faced the priest in amazement.

“Oh, impossible!” he exclaimed, “yet it is true.”

To Hilary the cynic, the thing suddenly assumed an intelligible form. Fleta wanted to take a journey in which she would prefer a companion because of its danger; yet she could not give her confidence to any one. She proposed to herself to use his love for her; she offered him her society as a bribe to take care of her, to ask no questions and tell no tales. The idea did not please him.

“I have heard of princesses risking anything, relying on the power of their position; I have heard that the royal caprice is not to be measured by the reason of other men and women. Perhaps it is so. But Fleta! I thought her different even from her own family.”

These were the first thoughts that came into his mind. His ready conclusion was that Fleta was willing that he should be her lover if he would be her servant also. But immediately afterwards came the fair vision of Fleta herself in her white robes, and with the face of a priestess. Her, purpose was inscrutable, like herself. He confessed this as he stood there, surging doubts in his mind. And then suddenly a fragrance came across his sense - a strong perfume, that he associated with [48] Fleta’s dress - the next a breath of incense. His brain grew dizzy; he staggered back and leaned against the wall. He no longer appeared to himself to be in Father Amyot’s cell - he was in Fleta’s laboratory, and her hand touched his face, her breath was on his brow. Ah, what madness of joy to be with her! To travel with her, to be her associate and companion, to pass all the hours of the day by her side. Suddenly he roused himself, and, starting forward, approached Father Amyot.

“I will go,” he said.

“It will cost you dear,” said the monk. “Think again before you decide.”

“It is useless to think,” cried Hilary. “Why should I think? I feel - and to feel is to live.”

Father Amyot seemed not to hear his words. He was apparently already buried in prayer. Evidently he had said all that he intended to say; and Hilary, after a glance at him, turned and left the cell. He knew the monk’s moods too well to speak again, when once that deep cloud of profound abstraction had descended on his face.

He went away, passing back as he had come, through the Cathedral. At the high altar he paused an instant, and then knelt and murmured a prayer. It was one he had learned, and he scarce attached any meaning to the familiar words. But it comforted him to feel that he had prayed, be it never so meaningless a prayer. For Hilary had been reared in all the habits of the devout Greek Catholic.

Then he went out and took his way towards the Garden House, walking with long strides. He was [49] determined to know the truth, and that at once. Amid all the brilliant men who crowded her father’s Court was he indeed the only one who could touch her heart? An hour ago he would have laughed at anyone who had told him he had touched it; yet now he believed he had. And what intoxication that belief was! For the first time he began to feel the absolute infatuation of love. And looking back it seemed to him that an hour ago he had not loved Fleta - that he had never loved her till this minute.

He found her standing at the gate, among the flowers. She was dressed in white, and some crimson roses were fastened at her neck. Her face was like a child’s, full of gaiety and gladness. Hilary’s heart bounded with the delight it gave him to see her like this. She opened the gate for him, and together they walked towards the house.

“I have been to see Father Amyot,” said Hilary. “He sent for me this morning.”

“Yes,” answered Fleta, quietly. “He had a message to you from me. Are you willing to undertake a tiresome task for one you know so little?”

“My Princess,” murmured Hilary, bending his head as he spoke.

“But not your Queen,” said Fleta, with a laugh full of the glorious insolence only possible to one who had the royal blood in her veins, and knew that a crown was waiting for her.

“Yes, my Queen,” said Hilary.

“If you call me that,” said Fleta, quickly, and in a different tone, “you recognise a royalty not recognised by courtiers.” [50]

“Yes,” replied Hilary, simply.

“The royalty of real power,” added Fleta, significantly, and with a penetrating look into his eyes.

“Call it what you will,” answered Hilary, “you are my Queen. From this hour I give allegiance.”

“Be it so,” said Fleta, with a light girlish laugh, “be ready, then, to-morrow at noon. I will tell you where to meet me. I will send a message in the morning.”

Suddenly a recollection crossed Hilary’s mind which had hitherto been blotted out from it. “My mother,” he said.

“Oh,” said Fleta, “I have been to see Madame Estanol. My father goes into the country to-day, and she believes you go with him. She is glad you should join the court.”

“Strange,” said Hilary, unthinkingly, “for she has always set her face against it.” Then the smile on Fleta’s face made him think his words foolish.

“It is as my Queen orders. Seemingly, men and women obey her even in their inmost hearts.”

“No,” said Fleta, with a sigh, “that is just what they do not! It is that power which I have yet to obtain. They obey me, yes, but against the dictates of their inmost hearts. If you really loved me, we could obtain that power; but you are like the others. You do not love me with your inmost heart.”

“I do not!” exclaimed Hilary, in amazement, stunned by her words.

“No,” she answered, mournfully, “you do not. If you really loved me you would not calculate chances and risks, you would not consider whether I am [51] profligate or virtuous, whether I am my father’s daughter or a child of the stars! I tell you, Hilary Estanol, if you were capable of loving me truly, you might find your way to the gods with me and even sit among them. But it is not so with you. You vacillate even in your love. You cannot give yourself utterly. That means grief to you, for you cannot find perfect pleasure in a thing which you take doubtingly and give but by halves. Still you shall travel with me; and you shall be my companion and friend. There is none other to whom I would give this chance. How do you think you will reward me? Oh, I know too well. Go now, but be ready when I send for you.”

So saying, she turned and went into the house, leaving him in the garden. For a few moments he stood there embarrassed, not knowing which way to turn or what to do. But he was not annoyed or disturbed, as his vanity might have led him to be at another time, by such cavalier treatment. He was aghast, horrified. Was this the girl he loved? this tyrant, this proud spirit, this strange woman, who before he had wooed her reproached him with not loving her enough? Within him lurked a conventional spirit, strong under all circumstances, even those of the most profound emotion, and Fleta’s whole conduct shocked and distressed that spirit so that it groaned, and more, upbraided him for his mad love. But the fierce growth of that rove could not be checked. He might suffer because it lived, but he was not strong enough to kill it.

He turned and walked away from the house and slowly returned to the city. He was ashamed and [52] disheartened. His love seemed to disgrace him. He had entertained lofty ideas which now were discarded for ever. For he knew that to-morrow he would start upon a long journey, the end of which was to him unknown, by the side of a girl whom he could never marry, yet of whom he was the avowed lover. Well, be it so. Hilary began to look at these things from a fatalistic point of view; his weakness led him to shrug his shoulders and say that his fate was stronger than himself. So he went home gloomily, yet with a burning and feverish heart. He immediately set to work making ready for his departure for an indefinite period. His mother he found was prepared for this, as Fleta had told him; and more - seemed to regard Fleta as a kind of gentle goddess who had brought good fortune into his path.

“I have always resisted the idea of your hanging about the Court,” she said, “but it is different if indeed the King wishes to have you with him. That must lead to your obtaining some honourable post. What I dreaded was your becoming a mere useless idler. And I am glad you are going into the country, dear, for you are looking very pale and quite ill.”

Hilary assented tacitly and without comment, to the deceit with which Fleta had paved the way for him. [53]

CHAPTER V.

Adventure is said to be sweet to the young; if it was so to Hilary, he must soon have found abundant pleasure in the possession of enough sweets. For the next few days scarcely an hour passed without an event large enough in his eyes to be an adventure.

He was ready at the hour Fleta had named; and had provided against all possible contingencies by taking with him the smallest possible amount of luggage. For aught he knew they might have to climb mountains in the course of this journey. And moreover, he knew Fleta’s unprincess-like distaste for superfluities; he would not have been surprised to see her start in her riding habit and take no luggage at all. The difficulty he dreaded was his mother’s surprise at this scant provision of his. But good luck - or was it something else? - took her away. She was summoned to visit a sick friend at a little distance out of the city, and said good-bye to Hilary before her departure. So Hilary made his preparations without being troubled by criticism.

At noon a lad presented himself at the door of the Estanol’s house, with a note which he said he was to give into Hilary’s own hand. Hilary immediately went [54] to him and took it; as he guessed, it was from Fleta. A single line! - and no signature!

“I am waiting for you outside the north gate.” Hilary took his valise in his hand, afraid to hire a carriage lest it should not please her that he brought any eyes to note their meeting. He walked out of the city by the quietest side streets he could select, hoping not to encounter any of his friends. He met no one he knew, and with a sigh of relief passed out through the gate and walked on to the broad country road beyond it. Drawn up under some trees was a handsome travelling carriage, with four horses and postillions. Hilary was surprised. He had not expected so much luxury. When he reached the carriage he was even more surprised. Fleta was hardly dressed as for a journey; she wore a much richer robe than usual, and her head and shoulders were covered with beautiful black lace. She leaned back in a corner of the roomy carriage, with a voluptuous dreamy expression on her face which was new to Hilary. Opposite her sat Father Amyot. Hilary could not but regard the monk with amazement. Was the town to lose its favourite preacher? How then could all the gossips in it be prevented from hearing of the Princess Fleta’s journey? But Hilary resolved not to harass himself with conjecture. He entered the carriage, and Fleta motioned to him to seat himself at her side.

At her side! Yes, that was his place. And Father Amyot, the popular preacher, beloved and almost worshipped by the people, whose inspired words touched upon the secrets and the sorrows of the city: Amyot, [55] who was the model of piety to all who knew him, sat opposite in the carriage. Did he watch the lovers? Seemingly not. His eyes were lowered and his gaze was apparently fixed on his clasped hands. He sat there like a statue. Once or twice when Hilary glanced at his face, he fancied he must be there unwillingly. Was it so? Was he Fleta’s tool and servant held by her domineering temper to do her bidding? Surely not. Father Amyot was too well known as a man of power for the idea to be credible. Hilary checked himself for the hundredth time in these hopeless speculations, and determined to enjoy the moment he was in possession of, and not trouble about the next one till it came; nor yet endeavour to read others’ hearts. And so this young philosopher went open-eyed, as he believed, to his destruction.

The carriage rolled away at a great speed; it was drawn by four beautiful Russian horses, and the postillions were Fleta’s own, and accustomed to her likings. She was a most daring and intrepid rider, and nothing pleased her in the way of motion except great speed. She was a lover of animals, and her horses were the finest kept in the city. It was strange to Hilary to try and realise her singular independence of position, as to-day he felt compelled to. For himself he was still to a great extent in leading-strings; he had made no position for himself, nor even planned any career; he was dependent on his mother’s fortune, and consequently, to a certain extent, could act only according to her approval. He was still so young that all this seemed natural enough. But Fleta was younger than himself, though it was [56] difficult always to remember it, so dominant was her temper. A glance at her fresh face, still so soft in its outlines as to have something childish about it when her expression permitted; at her figure, so slender in spite of its stateliness, recalled the fact that the Princess was indeed only a girl. Did the man who was about to marry her suppose that this young Queen was a creature unformed, fresh from the schoolroom, altogether malleable to his hand?

During the whole of the afternoon they drove on with scarcely a pause, and with very little conversation to pass the time. Yet for Hilary it flew with swift wings. The mere sensation of his novel position was enough for him as yet. To be beside Fleta and to watch her mysterious face for so long together satisfied for the moment his longing soul. Fleta herself seemed buried in profound thought. She sat silent, her eyes on the country they passed through, but her mind, as far as Hilary could judge, wandering in some remote region. As for Father Amyot, his regard remained fixed upon a small crucifix which he held hidden within his clasped hands, and now and then his lips moved in prayer, while on that austere face no expression seemed to have room but that of adoration or contemplation of the divine.

At sundown they stopped at a very small way-side inn. Hilary could not believe they were going to stay here, for it looked little more than a place where men drink and horses are fed. Yet so it was. The carriage was driven round to the side of the small house, the horses taken out of it, and Fleta led the way in at a side door, followed by her two companions. [57]

Within they found a motherly, plain and kindly woman, who evidently knew Fleta well; Hilary learned afterwards that this landlady had been a kitchenmaid in the royal household. And now he saw strange things indeed. For this inn was in reality nothing but a drinking shop for the drivers who passed along the road. It had no parlour, nor any accommodation for travellers of a better sort. And Fleta knew this, as was evident at once. She drew a hard chair forward, close to the great fire which flamed up the wide open chimney, and sat down seemingly quite at her ease.

“We must have some supper,” she said to the landlady. “Get us what you can. Can you find room for these gentlemen to-night?”

The landlady came near to Fleta and spoke in a low voice; the Princess laughed.

“There are no bedrooms in this house, it seems,” she said, aloud; “in fact, it is not a hotel. Shall we drive on or shall we sit here through the night?”

“The horses are tired,” said Father Amyot, speaking for the first time since they had left the city.

“True,” said Fleta, absently - for already she appeared to be thinking of something else. “I suppose, then, we must stay here.”

Hilary had never passed, nor ever contemplated passing, a night in such rough fashion. He was fond of comfort, or rather of luxury. But what could he do when his Princess, the greatest lady in the land, set him the example? Any protest would have appeared effeminate, and his pride held him silent. Still, when, after a very indifferent supper, they all returned to the [58] hard wooden chairs beside the fire, Hilary for the moment very sincerely wished himself at home in his own comfortable rooms. As he wished this, suddenly he became aware that Fleta’s dark eyes had turned upon him, and he would not look up, for he believed she had read his thought. He wished he could have hidden it from her, for he had no mind to be held as more effeminate than herself.

There was a sort of second kitchen even rougher and more cheerless than the one in which they sat; and there the postillions and other men, the ordinary customers of the house, were crowded together, drinking and talking, and singing. Their presence was horrid to Hilary, who was conscious of refined susceptibilities, but Fleta seemed quite indifferent to the noise they made and the odour of their coarse tobacco; or rather it might be that she was unaware of anything outside her own thoughts. She sat, her chin on her hand, looking into the fire; and so graceful and perfect was her attitude that she had the air of being a masterpiece of art placed amid the commonest surroundings. She looked more lovely than ever from the contrast, but yet the incongruity was painful to Hilary.

The silence in the room in which they sat became the more marked from contrast with the increasing noise in the crowded room without. At last, however, the hour came for the house to be closed, and the landlady politely showed her customers the door; all except those who were travellers on the road. These, including the postillions, gathered into the chimney corner and became quiet, at last, falling sound asleep. To Hilary it seemed [59] now that he was living through a painful dream, and he longed for the awakening - willing to awake, even if that meant that he would be at home and away from Fleta.

At last sleep came to him and his head drooped forward; he sat there, upright in the wooden chair, fast asleep. When he awoke, it was with a tense of pain in every limb, from the posture which he had maintained; and he could scarcely refrain from crying out when he attempted to move. But he instantly remembered that if the others were sleeping he must not wake them. Then he quickly looked round. Father Amyot sat near, looking just as he had looked since they entered the house; he might have been a statue. Fleta’s chair was empty.

Hilary roused himself, sat up and stared at her empty place; then looked all round the kitchen. It occurred to him that possibly the landlady had found some resting-place for the young Princess. A sense of oppression came over him; the kitchen seemed stifling. He rose with difficulty and stretched himself, then found his way out into the air. It was a glorious morning; the sun had just risen, the world seemed like a beautiful woman seen in her sleep. How sharp the sweet fresh air was! Hilary drew a deep breath of it. The country in which this lonely little inn stood was exceedingly lovely, and at this moment it wore its most fascinating appearance. A sense of great delight came upon Hilary; the uneasiness of the past night was at an end, and he was glad now and full of youth and strength. He turned and walked away from the house, soon leaving the road and plunging into the dewy grass. [60] There was a stream in the valley, and here he determined to bathe. He quickly reached it, and in another moment had hastily undressed, and was plunged in the ice-cold water. An intoxicating sense of vigour came over him as he experienced the keen contact. Never had he felt so full of life as now! It was not possible to remain long in the water, it was so intensely cold; he sprang out again and stood for a moment on the bank in the brilliant morning sunshine, looking like a magnificent figure carved by the god of the day, his flesh gleaming in the light. Slowly he began at last to put on his dress, feeling as if in some way this meant a partial return and submission to civilization. Something of the savage which lay deep hidden in him had been roused and touched. A fire burned that hitherto he had never felt, and which made him long for pure freedom and uncriticised life. And this was Hilary Estanol! It seemed incredible that a draught of fresh morning air, a plunge into ice-cold water beneath the open sky should have been enough to unloose the savage in him, which was held fast beneath his conventional and languid self, as it is in all of us, and all those whom we meet in ordinary life. He moved hastily, striding on as though he were hurrying to some end, but this haste was only due to a new pleasure in motion. There was a grove of old yew trees near the stream; a grove which with the superstitious was held to be sacred. That it should be revered was no wonder, so stately were the ancient trees, so deep the shadow they cast. Hilary went towards this grove, attracted by its splendid appearance; as he approached its margin a dim sense of familiarity came over him. Never had he [61] left the city by this road, yet it seemed to him that he had entered the grove of yews by the early morning light already many a time. We are all accustomed to meet with this curious sensation; Hilary laughed at it and put it away. What if he had visited this spot in a dream? Now it was broad daylight, and he felt himself young and a giant. He plunged into the deep shadow, pleased by the contrast it made to the brilliant light without.

Suddenly his heart leaped within him and his brain reeled. For there, before him, stood Fleta; and the brilliant Princess looked like a spirit of the night, so pale and grave and proud was her face and so much a part did she seem of the deep shadow of the wood.

“Is it you?” she said with a smile, a smile of mystery and deep, unfathomable knowledge.

“Yes, it is!” he answered, and felt, as he spoke, that he said something in those words which he did not himself understand. They stood side by side for a moment in silence; and then Hilary remembered himself to be alone with this woman, alone with her in the midst of the world. They were separated by the hour from other men and women, for the world still lay asleep; they were separated by the deep shadow of the wood from all moving life that answered to the sun. They were alone - and overwhelmed by this sudden sense of solitude Hilary spoke out his soul.

“Princess,” he said, “I am ready to be your blind servant, your dumb slave, speaking and seeing only when you tell me. You know well why I am willing to be the tool in your hands. It is because I love you. [62] But you must pay a price for your tool if you would have it! I cannot only worship at your feet. Fleta, you must give yourself to me, absolutely, utterly. Marry that man to whom you are betrothed if you desire to be a queen, but to me you must give your love, yourself. Ah! Fleta, you cannot refuse me!”

Fleta stood still a long moment, her eyes upon his face. “No,” she said, “I cannot refuse you.”

And to Hilary, for an instant of horror, it seemed to him that in her eyes was a glance of ineffable scorn. And there was ice in the smile on her lips and in the touch of her hand as she laid it in his.

“The bond is made,” she said, “all that you can take of me is yours. And I will pay you for your love with my love. Only do not forget that you and I are different - that we are, after all, two persons - that we cannot love in exactly the same way. Do not forget this!”

Hilary knew not what to answer. As she spoke the last words he recognised his princess, he saw the queen before him. What did she mean? Well, he was so unhappy that his love had gone from him to a lady of royal birth. It could not be undone, this folly. He must be content to take that part which a subject may take in the life of a queen, even though he be her lover.

The thought brought a pang, a swift stab to his heart, and a sigh burst from his lips. Fleta put her hand on his arm.

“Do not be sad so soon,” she said, “let us wait for trouble. Come, let us go out into the sunshine.”

They went out, hand in hand; they wandered down beside the stream and looked into the gleaming waters. [63]