"What's that?" I asked innocently.
"Only this. As you know, I have always been a confirmed bachelor on principle. Women introduce too many complications into life, and although it involves some sacrifice, on the whole, I have thought it best to do without them and leave the carrying on of the world to others."
"Well, what of it? Your views are not singular, Bickley."
"Only this. While you were ill the sweetness of that Lady Yva and her wonderful qualities as a nurse overcame me. I went to pieces all of a sudden. I saw in her a realisation of every ideal I had ever entertained of perfect womanhood. So to speak, my resolves of a lifetime melted like wax in the sun. Notwithstanding her queer history and the marvels with which she is mixed up, I wished to marry her. No doubt her physical loveliness was at the bottom of it, but, however that may be, there it was."
"She is beautiful," I commented; "though I daresay older than she looks."
"That is a point on which I made no inquiries, and I should advise you, when your turn comes, as no doubt it will, to follow my example. You know, Arbuthnot," he mused, "however lovely a woman may be, it would put one off if suddenly she announced that she was—let us say—a hundred and fifty years old."
"Yes," I admitted, "for nobody wants to marry the contemporary of his great-grandmother. However, she gave her age as twenty-seven years and three moons."
"And doubtless for once did not tell the truth. But, as she does not look more than twenty-five, I think that we may all agree to let it stand at that, namely, twenty-seven, plus an indefinite period of sleep. At any rate, she is a sweet and most gracious woman, apparently in the bloom of youth, and, to cut it short, I fell in love with her."
"Like Bastin," I said.
"Bastin!" exclaimed Bickley indignantly. "You don't mean to say that clerical oaf presumed—well, well, after all, I suppose that he is a man, so one mustn't be hard on him. But who could have thought that he would run so cunning, even when he knew my sentiments towards the lady? I hope she told him her mind."
"The point is, what did she tell you, Bickley?"
"Me? Oh, she was perfectly charming! It really was a pleasure to be refused by her, she puts one so thoroughly at one's ease." (Here, remembering Bastin and his story, I turned away my face to hide a smile.) "She said—what did she say exactly? Such a lot that it is difficult to remember. Oh! that she was not thinking of marriage. Also, that she had not yet recovered from some recent love affair which left her heart sore, since the time of her sleep did not count. Also, that her father would never consent, and that the mere idea of such a thing would excite his animosity against all of us."
"Is that all?" I asked.
"Not quite. She added that she felt wonderfully flattered and extremely honoured by what I had been so good as to say to her. She hoped, however, that I should never repeat it or even allude to the matter again, as her dearest wish was to be able to look upon me as her most intimate friend to whom she could always come for sympathy and counsel."
"What happened then?"
"Nothing, of course, except that I promised everything that she wished, and mean to stick to it, too. Naturally, I was very sore and upset, but I am getting over it, having always practised self-control."
"I am sorry for you, old fellow."
"Are you?" he asked suspiciously. "Then perhaps you have tried your luck, too?"
His face fell a little at this denial, and he answered:
"Well, it would have been scarcely decent if you had, seeing how lately you were married. But then, so was that artful Bastin. Perhaps you will get over it—recent marriage, I mean—as he has." He hesitated a while, then went on: "Of course you will, old fellow; I know it, and, what is more, I seem to know that when your turn comes you will get a different answer. If so, it will keep her in the family as it were—and good luck to you. Only—"
"Only what?" I asked anxiously.
"To be honest, Arbuthnot, I don't think that there will be real good luck for any one of us over this woman—not in the ordinary sense, I mean. The whole business is too strange and superhuman. Is she quite a woman, and could she really marry a man as others do?"
"It is curious that you should talk like that," I said uneasily. "I thought that you had made up your mind that the whole business was either illusion or trickery—I mean, the odd side of it."
"If it is illusion, Arbuthnot, then a man cannot marry an illusion. And if it is trickery, then he will certainly be tricked. But, supposing that I am wrong, what then?"
"You mean, supposing things are as they seem to be?"
"Yes. In that event, Arbuthnot, I am sure that something will occur to prevent your being united to a woman who lived thousands of years ago. I am sorry to say it, but Fate will intervene. Remember, it is the god of her people that I suppose she worships, and, I may add, to which the whole world bows."
At his words a kind of chill fell upon me. I think he saw or divined it, for after a few remarks upon some indifferent matter, he turned and went away.
Shortly after this Yva came to sit with me. She studied me for a while and I studied her. I had reason to do so, for I observed that of late her dress had become much more modern, and on the present occasion this struck me forcibly. I do not know exactly in what the change, or changes, consisted, because I am not skilled in such matters and can only judge of a woman's garments by their general effect. At any rate, the gorgeous sweeping robes were gone, and though her attire still looked foreign and somewhat oriental, with a touch of barbaric splendour about it—it was simpler than it had been and showed more of her figure, which was delicate, yet gracious.
"You have changed your robes, Lady," I said. "Yes, Humphrey. Bastin gave me pictures of those your women wear." (On further investigation I found that this referred to an old copy of the Queen newspaper, which, somehow or other, had been brought with the books from the ship.) "I have tried to copy them a little," she added doubtfully.
"How do you do it? Where do you get the material?" I asked.
"Oh!" she answered with an airy wave of her hand, "I make it—it is there."
"I don't understand," I said, but she only smiled radiantly, offering no further explanation. Then, before I could pursue the subject, she asked me suddenly:
"What has Bickley been saying to you about me?" I fenced, answering: "I don't know. Bastin and Bickley talk of little else. You seem to have been a great deal with them while I was ill."
"Yes, a great deal. They are the nearest to you who were so sick. Is it not so?"
"I don't know," I answered again. "In my illness it seemed to me that you were the nearest."
"About Bastin's words I can guess," she went on. "But I ask again—what has Bickley been saying to you about me? Of the first part, let it be; tell me the rest."
I intended to evade her question, but she fixed those violet, compelling eyes upon me and I was obliged to answer.
"I believe you know as well as I do," I said; "but if you will have it, it was that you are not as other human women are, and that he who would treat you as such, must suffer; that was the gist of it."
"Some might be content to suffer for such as I," she answered with quiet sweetness. "Even Bastin and Bickley may be content to suffer in their own little ways."
"You know that is not what I meant," I interrupted angrily, for I felt that she was throwing reflections on me.
"No; you meant that you agreed with Bickley that I am not quite a woman, as you know women."
I was silent, for her words were true.
Then she blazed out into one of her flashes of splendour, like something that takes fire on an instant; like the faint and distant star which flames into sudden glory before the watcher's telescope.
"It is true that I am not as your women are—your poor, pale women, the shadows of an hour with night behind them and before. Because I am humble and patient, do you therefore suppose that I am not great? Man from the little country across the sea, I lived when the world was young, and gathered up the ancient wisdom of a greater race than yours, and when the world is old I think that I still shall live, though not in this shape or here, with all that wisdom's essence burning in my breast, and with all beauty in my eyes. Bickley does not believe although he worships. You only half believe and do not worship, because memory holds you back, and I myself do not understand. I only know though knowing so much, still I seek roads to learning, even the humble road called Bastin, that yet may lead my feet to the gate of an immortal city."
"Nor do I understand how all this can be, Yva," I said feebly, for she dazzled and overwhelmed me with her blaze of power.
"No, you do not understand. How can you, when even I cannot? Thus for two hundred and fifty thousand years I slept, and they went by as a lightning flash. One moment my father gave me the draught and I laid me down, the next I awoke with you bending over me, or so it seemed. Yet where was I through all those centuries when for me time had ceased? Tell me, Humphrey, did you dream at all while you were ill? I ask because down in that lonely cavern where I sleep a strange dream came to me one night. It was of a journey which, as I thought, you and I seemed to make together, past suns and universes to a very distant earth. It meant nothing, Humphrey. If you and I chanced to have dreamed the same thing, it was only because my dream travelled to you. It is most common, or used to be. Humphrey, Bickley is quite right, I am not altogether as your women are, and I can bring no happiness to any man, or at the least, to one who cannot wait. Therefore, perhaps you would do well to think less of me, as I have counselled Bastin and Bickley."
Then again she gazed at me with her wonderful, great eyes, and, shaking her glittering head a little, smiled and went.
But oh! that smile drew my heart after her.
Chapter XX. Oro and Arbuthnot Travel by Night
As time went on, Oro began to visit me more and more frequently, till at last scarcely a night went by that he did not appear mysteriously in my sleeping-place. The odd thing was that neither Bickley nor Bastin seemed to be aware of these nocturnal calls. Indeed, when I mentioned them on one or two occasions, they stared at me and said it was strange that he should have come and gone as they saw nothing of him.
On my speaking again of the matter, Bickley at once turned the conversation, from which I gathered that he believed me to be suffering from delusions consequent on my illness, or perhaps to have taken to dreaming. This was not wonderful since, as I learned afterwards, Bickley, after he was sure that I was asleep, made a practice of tying a thread across my doorway and of ascertaining at the dawn that it remained unbroken. But Oro was not to be caught in that way. I suppose, as it was impossible for him to pass through the latticework of the open side of the house, that he undid the thread and fastened it again when he left; at least, that was Bastin's explanation, or, rather, one of them. Another was that he crawled beneath it, but this I could not believe. I am quite certain that during all his prolonged existence Oro never crawled.
At any rate, he came, or seemed to come, and pumped me—I can use no other word—most energetically as to existing conditions in the world, especially those of the civilised countries, their methods of government, their social state, the physical characteristics of the various races, their religions, the exact degrees of civilisation that they had developed, their attainments in art, science and literature, their martial capacities, their laws, and I know not what besides.
I told him all I could, but did not in the least seem to satisfy his perennial thirst for information.
"I should prefer to judge for myself," he said at last. "Why are you so anxious to learn about all these nations, Oro?" I asked, exhausted.
"Because the knowledge I gather may affect my plans for the future," he replied darkly.
"I am told, Oro, that your people acquired the power of transporting themselves from place to place."
"It is true that the lords of the Sons of Wisdom had such power, and that I have it still, O Humphrey."
"Then why do you not go to look with your own eyes?" I suggested.
"Because I should need a guide; one who could explain much in a short time," he said, contemplating me with his burning glance until I began to feel uncomfortable.
To change the subject I asked him whether he had any further information about the war, which he had told me was raging in Europe.
He answered: "Not much; only that it was going on with varying success, and would continue to do so until the nations involved therein were exhausted," or so he believed. The war did not seem greatly to interest Oro. It was, he remarked, but a small affair compared to those which he had known in the old days. Then he departed, and I went to sleep.
Next night he appeared again, and, after talking a little on different subjects, remarked quietly that he had been thinking over what I had said as to his visiting the modern world, and intended to act upon the suggestion.
"When?" I asked.
"Now," he said. "I am going to visit this England of yours and the town you call London, and you will accompany me."
"It is not possible!" I exclaimed. "We have no ship."
"We can travel without a ship," said Oro.
I grew alarmed, and suggested that Bastin or Bickley would be a much better companion than I should in my present weak state.
"An empty-headed man, or one who always doubts and argues, would be useless," he replied sharply. "You shall come and you only."
I expostulated; I tried to get up and fly—which, indeed, I did do, in another sense.
But Oro fixed his eyes upon me and slowly waved his thin hand to and fro above my head.
My senses reeled. Then came a great darkness.
They returned again. Now I was standing in an icy, reeking fog, which I knew could belong to one place only—London, in December, and at my side was Oro.
"Is this the climate of your wonderful city?" he asked, or seemed to ask, in an aggrieved tone.
I replied that it was, for about three months in the year, and began to look about me.
Soon I found my bearings. In front of me were great piles of buildings, looking dim and mysterious in the fog, in which I recognised the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, for both could be seen from where we stood in front of the Westminster Bridge Station. I explained their identity to Oro.
"Good," he said. "Let us enter your Place of Talk."
"But I am not a member, and we have no passes for the Strangers' Gallery," I expostulated.
"We shall not need any," he replied contemptuously. "Lead on."
Thus adjured, I crossed the road, Oro following me. Looking round, to my horror I saw him right in the path of a motor-bus which seemed to go over him.
"There's an end to Oro," thought I to myself. "Well, at any rate, I have got home."
Next instant he was at my side quite undisturbed by the incident of the bus. We came to a policeman at the door and I hesitated, expecting to be challenged. But the policeman seemed absolutely indifferent to our presence, even when Oro marched past him in his flowing robes. So I followed with a like success. Then I understood that we must be invisible.
We passed to the lobby, where members were hurrying to and fro, and constituents and pressmen were gathered, and so on into the House. Oro walked up its floor and took his stand by the table, in front of the Speaker. I followed him, none saying us No.
As it chanced there was what is called a scene in progress—I think it was over Irish matters; the details are of no account. Members shouted, Ministers prevaricated and grew angry, the Speaker intervened. On the whole, it was rather a degrading spectacle. I stood, or seemed to stand, and watched it all. Oro, in his sweeping robes, which looked so incongruous in that place, stepped, or seemed to step, up to the principal personages of the Government and Opposition, whom I indicated to him, and inspected them one by one, as a naturalist might examine strange insects. Then, returning to me, he said:
"Come away; I have seen and heard enough. Who would have thought that this nation of yours was struggling for its life in war?"
We passed out of the House and somehow came to Trafalgar Square. A meeting was in progress there, convened, apparently, to advocate the rights of Labour, also those of women, also to protest against things in general, especially the threat of Conscription in the service of the country.
Here the noise was tremendous, and, the fog having lifted somewhat, we could see everything. Speakers bawled from the base of Nelson's column. Their supporters cheered, their adversaries rushed at them, and in one or two instances succeeded in pulling them down. A woman climbed up and began to scream out something which could only be heard by a few reporters gathered round her. I thought her an unpleasant-looking person, and evidently her remarks were not palatable to the majority of her auditors. There was a rush, and she was dragged from the base of one of Landseer's lions on which she stood. Her skirt was half rent off her and her bodice split down the back. Finally, she was conveyed away, kicking, biting, and scratching, by a number of police. It was a disgusting sight, and tumult ensued.
"Let us go," said Oro. "Your officers of order are good; the rest is not good."
Later we found ourselves opposite to the doors of a famous restaurant where a magnificent and gigantic commissionaire helped ladies from motor-cars, receiving in return money from the men who attended on them. We entered; it was the hour of dinner. The place sparkled with gems, and the naked backs of the women gleamed in the electric light. Course followed upon course; champagne flowed, a fine band played, everything was costly; everything was, in a sense, repellent.
"These are the wealthy citizens of a nation engaged in fighting for its life," remarked Oro to me, stroking his long beard. "It is interesting, very interesting. Let us go."
We went out and on, passing a public-house crowded with women who had left their babies in charge of children in the icy street. It was a day of Intercession for the success of England in the war. This was placarded everywhere. We entered, or, rather, Oro did, I following him, one of the churches in the Strand where an evening service was in progress. The preacher in the pulpit, a very able man, was holding forth upon the necessity for national repentance and self-denial; also of prayer. In the body of the church exactly thirty-two people, most of them elderly women, were listening to him with an air of placid acceptance.
"The priest talks well, but his hearers are not many," said Oro. "Let us go."
We came to the flaunting doors of a great music-hall and passed through them, though to others this would have been impossible, for the place was filled from floor to roof. In its promenades men were drinking and smoking, while gaudy women, painted and low-robed, leered at them. On the stage girls danced, throwing their legs above their heads. Then they vanished amidst applause, and a woman in a yellow robe, who pretended to be tipsy, sang a horrible and vulgar song full of topical allusions, which was received with screams of delight by the enormous audience.
"Here the hearers are very many, but those to whom they listen do not talk well. Let us go," said Oro, and we went.
At a recruiting station we paused a moment to consider posters supposed to be attractive, the very sight of which sent a thrill of shame through me. I remember that the inscription under one of them was: "What will your best girl say?"
"Is that how you gather your soldiers? Later it will be otherwise," said Oro, and passed on.
We reached Blackfriars and entered a hall at the doors of which stood women in poke-bonnets, very sweet-faced, earnest-looking women. Their countenances seemed to strike Oro, and he motioned me to follow him into the hall. It was quite full of a miserable-looking congregation of perhaps a thousand people. A man in the blue and red uniform of the Salvation Army was preaching of duty to God and country, of self-denial, hope and forgiveness. He seemed a humble person, but his words were earnest, and love flowed from him. Some of his miserable congregation wept, others stared at him open-mouthed, a few, who were very weary, slept. He called them up to receive pardon, and a number, led by the sweet-faced women, came and knelt before him. He and others whispered to them, then seemed to bless them, and they rose with their faces changed.
"Let us go," said Oro. "I do not understand these rites, but at last in your great and wonderful city I have seen something that is pure and noble."
We went out. In the streets there was great excitement. People ran to and fro pointing upwards. Searchlights, like huge fingers of flame, stole across the sky; guns boomed. At last, in the glare of a searchlight, we saw a long and sinister object floating high above us and gleaming as though it were made of silver. Flashes came from it followed by terrible booming reports that grew nearer and nearer. A house collapsed with a crash just behind us.
"Ah!" said Oro, with a smile. "I know this—it is war, war as it was when the world was different and yet the same."
As he spoke, a motor-bus rumbled past. Another flash and explosion. A man, walking with his arms round the waist of a girl just ahead of us; seemed to be tossed up and to melt. The girl fell in a heap on the pavement; somehow her head and her feet had come quite close together and yet she appeared to be sitting down. The motor-bus burst into fragments and its passengers hurtled through the air, mere hideous lumps that had been men and women. The head of one of them came dancing down the pavement towards us, a cigar still stuck in the corner of its mouth.
"Yes, this is war," said Oro. "It makes me young again to see it. But does this city of yours understand?"
We watched a while. A crowd gathered. Policemen ran up, ambulances came. The place was cleared, and all that was left they carried away. A few minutes later another man passed by with his arm round the waist of another girl. Another motor-bus rumbled up, and, avoiding the hole in the roadway, travelled on, its conductor keeping a keen look-out for fares.
The street was cleared by the police; the airship continued its course, spawning bombs in the distance, and vanished. The incident was closed.
"Let us go home," said Oro. "I have seen enough of your great and wonderful city. I would rest in the quiet of Nyo and think."
The next thing that I remember was the voice of Bastin, saying:
"If you don't mind, Arbuthnot, I wish that you would get up. The Glittering Lady (he still called her that) is coming here to have a talk with me which I should prefer to be private. Excuse me for disturbing you, but you have overslept yourself; indeed, I think it must be nine o'clock, so far as I can judge by the sun, for my watch is very erratic now, ever since Bickley tried to clean it."
"I am sorry, my dear fellow," I said sleepily, "but do you know I thought I was in London—in fact, I could swear that I have been there."
"Then," interrupted Bickley, who had followed Bastin into the hut, giving me that doubtful glance with which I was now familiar, "I wish to goodness that you had brought back an evening paper with you."
A night or two later I was again suddenly awakened to feel that Oro was approaching. He appeared like a ghost in the bright moonlight, greeted me, and said:
"Tonight, Humphrey, we must make another journey. I would visit the seat of the war."
"I do not wish to go," I said feebly.
"What you wish does not matter," he replied. "I wish that you should go, and therefore you must."
"Listen, Oro," I exclaimed. "I do not like this business; it seems dangerous to me."
"There is no danger if you are obedient, Humphrey."
"I think there is. I do not understand what happens. Do you make use of what the Lady Yva called the Fourth Dimension, so that our bodies pass over the seas and through mountains, like the vibrations of our Wireless, of which I was speaking to you?"
"No, Humphrey. That method is good and easy, but I do not use it because if I did we should be visible in the places which we visit, since there all the atoms that make a man would collect together again and be a man."
"What, then, do you do?" I asked, exasperated.
"Man, Humphrey, is not one; he is many. Thus, amongst other things he has a Double, which can see and hear, as he can in the flesh, if it is separated from the flesh."
"The old Egyptians believed that," I said.
"Did they? Doubtless they inherited the knowledge from us, the Sons of Wisdom. The cup of our learning was so full that, keep it secret as we would, from time to time some of it overflowed among the vulgar, and doubtless thus the light of our knowledge still burns feebly in the world."
I reflected to myself that whatever might be their other characteristics, the Sons of Wisdom had lost that of modesty, but I only asked how he used his Double, supposing that it existed.
"Very easily," he answered. "In sleep it can be drawn from the body and sent upon its mission by one that is its master."
"Then while you were asleep for all those thousands of years your Double must have made many journeys."
"Perhaps," he replied quietly, "and my spirit also, which is another part of me that may have dwelt in the bodies of other men. But unhappily, if so I forget, and that is why I have so much to learn and must even make use of such poor instruments as you, Humphrey."
"Then if I sleep and you distil my Double out of me, I suppose that you sleep too. In that case who distils your Double out of you, Lord Oro?"
He grew angry and answered:
"Ask no more questions, blind and ignorant as you are. It is your part not to examine, but to obey. Sleep now," and again he waved his hand over me.
In an instant, as it seemed, we were standing in a grey old town that I judged from its appearance must be either in northern France or Belgium. It was much shattered by bombardment; the church, for instance, was a ruin; also many of the houses had been burnt. Now, however, no firing was going on for the town had been taken. The streets were full of armed men wearing the German uniform and helmet. We passed down them and were able to see into the houses. In some of these were German soldiers engaged in looting and in other things so horrible that even the unmoved Oro turned away his head.
We came to the market-place. It was crowded with German troops, also with a great number of the inhabitants of the town, most of them elderly men and women with children, who had fallen into their power. The Germans, under the command of officers, were dragging the men from the arms of their wives and children to one side, and with rifle-butts beating back the screaming women. Among the men I noticed two or three priests who were doing their best to soothe their companions and even giving them absolution in hurried whispers.
At length the separation was effected, whereon at a hoarse word of command, a company of soldiers began to fire at the men and continued doing so until all had fallen. Then petty officers went among the slaughtered and with pistols blew out the brains of any who still moved.
"These butchers, you say, are Germans?" asked Oro of me.
"Yes," I answered, sick with horror, for though I was in the mind and not in the body, I could feel as the mind does. Had I been in the body also, I should have fainted.
"Then we need not waste time in visiting their country. It is enough; let us go on."
We passed out into the open land and came to a village. It was in the occupation of German cavalry. Two of them held a little girl of nine or ten, one by her body, the other by her right hand. An officer stood between them with a drawn sword fronting the terrified child. He was a horrible, coarse-faced man who looked to me as though he had been drinking.
"I'll teach the young devil to show us the wrong road and let those French swine escape," he shouted, and struck with the sword. The girl's right hand fell to the ground.
"War as practised by the Germans!" remarked Oro. Then he stepped, or seemed to step up to the man and whispered, or seemed to whisper, in his ear.
I do not know what tongue or what spirit speech he used, or what he said, but the bloated-faced brute turned pale. Yes, he drew sick with fear.
"I think there are spirits in this place," he said with a German oath. "I could have sworn that something told me that I was going to die. Mount!"
The Uhlans mounted and began to ride away.
"Watch," said Oro.
As he spoke out of a dark cloud appeared an aeroplane. Its pilot saw the band of Germans beneath and dropped a bomb. The aim was good, for the missile exploded in the midst of them, causing a great cloud of dust from which arose the screams of men and horses.
"Come and see," said Oro.
We were there. Out of the cloud of dust appeared one man galloping furiously. He was a young fellow who, as I noted, had turned his head away and hidden his eyes with his hand when the horror was done yonder. All the others were dead except the officer who had worked the deed. He was still living, but both his hands and one of his feet had been blown away. Presently he died, screaming to God for mercy.
We passed on and came to a barn with wide doors that swung a little in the wind, causing the rusted hinges to scream like a creature in pain. On each of these doors hung a dead man crucified. The hat of one of them lay upon the ground, and I knew from the shape of it that he was a Colonial soldier.
"Did you not tell me," said Oro after surveying them, "that these Germans are of your Christian faith?"
"Yes; and the Name of God is always on their ruler's lips."
"Ah!" he said, "I am glad that I worship Fate. Bastin the priest need trouble me no more."
"There is something behind Fate," I said, quoting Bastin himself.
"Perhaps. So indeed I have always held, but after much study I cannot understand the manner of its working. Fate is enough for me."
We went on and came to a flat country that was lined with ditches, all of them full of men, Germans on one side, English and French upon the other. A terrible bombardment shook the earth, the shells raining upon the ditches. Presently that from the English guns ceased and out of the trenches in front of them thousands of men were vomited, who ran forward through a hail of fire in which scores and hundreds fell, across an open piece of ground that was pitted with shell craters. They came to barbed wire defenses, or what remained of them, cut the wire with nippers and pulled up the posts. Then through the gaps they surged in, shouting and hurling hand grenades. They reached the German trenches, they leapt into them and from those holes arose a hellish din. Pistols were fired and everywhere bayonets flashed.
Behind them rushed a horde of little, dark-skinned men, Indians who carried great knives in their hands. Those leapt over the first trench and running on with wild yells, dived into the second, those who were left of them, and there began hacking with their knives at the defenders and the soldiers who worked the spitting maxim guns. In twenty minutes it was over; those lines of trenches were taken, and once more from either side the guns began to boom.
"War again," said Oro, "clean, honest war, such as the god I call Fate decrees for man. I have seen enough. Now I would visit those whom you call Turks. I understand they have another worship and perhaps they are nobler than these Christians."
We came to a hilly country which I recognised as Armenia, for once I travelled there, and stopped on an seashore. Here were the Turks in thousands. They were engaged in driving before them mobs of men, women and children in countless numbers. On and on they drove them till they reached the shore. There they massacred them with bayonets, with bullets, or by drowning. I remember a dreadful scene of a poor woman standing up to her waist in the water. Three children were clinging to her—but I cannot go on, really I cannot go on. In the end a Turk waded out and bayoneted her while she strove to protect the last living child with her poor body whence it sprang.
"These, I understand," said Oro, pointing to the Turkish soldiers, "worship a prophet who they say is the voice of God."
"Yes," I answered, "and therefore they massacre these who are Christians because they worship God without a prophet."
"And what do the Christians massacre each other for?"
"Power and the wealth and territories that are power. That is, the King of the Germans wishes to rule the world, but the other Nations do not desire his dominion. Therefore they fight for Liberty and Justice."
"As it was, so it is and shall be," remarked Oro, "only with this difference. In the old world some were wise, but here—" and he stopped, his eyes fixed upon the Armenian woman struggling in her death agony while the murderer drowned her child, then added: "Let us go."
Our road ran across the sea. On it we saw a ship so large that it attracted Oro's attention, and for once he expressed astonishment.
"In my day," he said, "we had no vessels of this greatness in the world. I wish to look upon it."
We landed on the deck of the ship, or rather the floating palace, and examined her. She carried many passengers, some English, some American, and I pointed out to Oro the differences between the two peoples. These were not, he remarked, very wide except that the American women wore more jewels, also that some of the American men, to whom we listened as they conversed, spoke of the greatness of their country, whereas the Englishmen, if they said anything concerning it, belittled their country.
Presently, on the surface of the sea at a little distance appeared something strange, a small and ominous object like a can on the top of a pole. A voice cried out "Submarine!" and everyone near rushed to look.
"If those Germans try any of their monkey tricks on us, I guess the United States will give them hell," said another voice near by.
Then from the direction of the pole with the tin can on the top of it, came something which caused a disturbance in the smooth water and bubbles to rise in its wake.
"A torpedo!" cried some.
"Shut your mouth," said the voice. "Who dare torpedo a vessel full of the citizens of the United States?"
Next came a booming crash and a flood of upthrown water, in the wash of which that speaker was carried away into the deep. Then horror! horror! horror! indescribable, as the mighty vessel went wallowing to her doom. Boats launched; boats overset; boats dragged under by her rush through the water which could not be stayed. Maddened men and women running to and fro, their eyes starting from their heads, clasping children, fastening lifebelts over their costly gowns, or appearing from their cabins, their hands filled with jewels that they sought to save. Orders cried from high places by stern-faced officers doing their duty to the last. And a little way off that thin pole with a tin can on the top of it watching its work.
Then the plunge of the enormous ship into the deep, its huge screws still whirling in the air and the boom of the bursting boilers. Lastly everything gone save a few boats floating on the quiet sea and around them dots that were the heads of struggling human beings.
"Let us go home," said Oro. "I grow tired of this war of your Christian peoples. It is no better than that of the barbarian nations of the early world. Indeed it is worse, since then we worshipped Fate and but a few of us had wisdom. Now you all claim wisdom and declare that you worship a God of Mercy."
With these words still ringing in my ears I woke up upon the Island of Orofena, filled with terror at the horrible possibilities of nightmare.
What else could it be? There was the brown and ancient cone of the extinct volcano. There were the tall palms of the main island and the lake glittering in the sunlight between. There was Bastin conducting a kind of Sunday school of Orofenans upon the point of the Rock of Offerings, as now he had obtained the leave of Oro to do. There was the mouth of the cave, and issuing from it Bickley, who by help of one of the hurricane lamps had been making an examination of the buried remains of what he supposed to be flying machines. Without doubt it was nightmare, and I would say nothing to them about it for fear of mockery.
Yet two nights later Oro came again and after the usual preliminaries, said:
"Humphrey, this night we will visit that mighty American nation, of which you have told me so much, and the other Neutral Countries."
[At this point there is a gap in Mr. Arbuthnot's M.S., so Oro's reflections on the Neutral Nations, if any, remain unrecorded. It continues:]
On our homeward way we passed over Australia, making a detour to do so. Of the cities Oro took no account. He said that they were too large and too many, but the country interested him so much that I gathered he must have given great attention to agriculture at some time in the past. He pointed out to me that the climate was fine, and the land so fertile that with a proper system of irrigation and water-storage it could support tens of millions and feed not only itself but a great part of the outlying world.
"But where are the people?" he asked. "Outside of those huge hives," and he indicated the great cities, "I see few of them, though doubtless some of the men are fighting in this war. Well, in the days to come this must be remedied."
Over New Zealand, which he found beautiful, he shook his head for the same reason.
On another night we visited the East. China with its teeming millions interested him extremely, partly because he declared these to be the descendants of one of the barbarian nations of his own day. He made a remark to the effect that this race had always possessed points and capacities, and that he thought that with proper government and instruction their Chinese offspring would be of use in a regenerated world.
For the Japanese and all that they had done in two short generations, he went so far as to express real admiration, a very rare thing with Oro, who was by nature critical. I could see that mentally he put a white mark against their name.
India, too, really moved him. He admired the ancient buildings at Delhi and Agra, especially the Taj Mahal. This, he declared, was reminiscent of some of the palaces that stood at Pani, the capital city of the Sons of Wisdom, before it was destroyed by the Barbarians.
The English administration of the country also attracted a word of praise from him, I think because of its rather autocratic character. Indeed he went so far as to declare that, with certain modifications, it should be continued in the future, and even to intimate that he would bear the matter in mind. Democratic forms of government had no charms for Oro.
Amongst other places, we stopped at Benares and watched the funeral rites in progress upon the banks of the holy Ganges. The bearers of the dead brought the body of a woman wrapped in a red shroud that glittered with tinsel ornaments. Coming forward at a run and chanting as they ran, they placed it upon the stones for a little while, then lifted it up again and carried it down the steps to the edge of the river. Here they took water and poured it over the corpse, thus performing the rite of the baptism of death. This done, they placed its feet in the water and left it looking very small and lonely. Presently appeared a tall, white-draped woman who took her stand by the body and wailed. It was the dead one's mother. Again the bearers approached and laid the corpse upon the flaming pyre.
"These rites are ancient," said Oro. "When I ruled as King of the World they were practised in this very place. It is pleasant to me to find something that has survived the changefulness of Time. Let it continue till the end."
Here I will cease. These experiences that I have recorded are but samples, for also we visited Russia and other countries. Perhaps, too, they were not experiences at all, but only dreams consequent on my state of health. I cannot say for certain, though much of what I seemed to see fitted in very well indeed with what I learned in after days, and certainly at the time they appeared as real as though Oro and I had stood together upon those various shores.
Chapter XXI. Love's Eternal Altar
Now of all these happenings I said very little to Bastin and Bickley. The former would not have understood them, and the latter attributed what I did tell him to mental delusions following on my illness. To Yva I did speak about them, however, imploring her to explain their origin and to tell me whether or not they were but visions of the night.
She listened to me, as I thought not without anxiety, from which I gathered that she too feared for my mind. It was not so, however, for she said:
"I am glad, O Humphrey, that your journeyings are done, since such things are not without danger. He who travels far out of the body may chance to return there no more."
"But were they journeyings, or dreams?" I asked.
She evaded a direct answer.
"I cannot say. My father has great powers. I do not know them all. It is possible that they were neither journeyings nor dreams. Mayhap he used you as the sorcerers in the old days used the magic glass, and after he had put his spell upon you, read in your mind that which passes elsewhere."
I understood her to refer to what we call clairvoyance, when the person entranced reveals secret or distant things to the entrancer. This is a more or less established phenomenon and much less marvelous than the actual transportation of the spiritual self through space. Only I never knew of an instance in which the seer, on awaking, remembered the things that he had seen, as in my case. There, however, the matter rested, or rests, for I could extract nothing more from Yva, who appeared to me to have her orders on the point.
Nor did Oro ever talk of what I had seemed to see in his company, although he continued from time to time to visit me at night. But now our conversation was of other matters. As Bastin had discovered, by some extraordinary gift he had soon learned how to read the English language, although he never spoke a single word in that tongue. Among our reference books that we brought from the yacht, was a thin paper edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which he borrowed when he discovered that it contained compressed information about the various countries of the world, also concerning almost every other matter. My belief is that within a month or so that marvelous old man not only read this stupendous work from end to end, but that he remembered everything of interest which it contained. At least, he would appear and show the fullest acquaintance with certain subjects or places, seeking further light from me concerning them, which very often I was quite unable to give him.
An accident, as it chanced, whereof I need not set out the details, caused me to discover that his remarkable knowledge was limited. Thus, at one period, he knew little about any modern topic which began with a letter later in the alphabet than, let us say, C. A few days afterwards he was acquainted with those up to F, or G; and so on till he reached Z, when he appeared to me to know everything, and returned the book. Now, indeed, he was a monument of learning, very ancient and very new, and with some Encyclopedia-garnered facts or deductions of what had happened between.
Moreover, he took to astronomical research, for more than once we saw him standing on the rock at night studying the heavens. On one of these occasions, when he had the two metal plates, of which I have spoken, in his hands, I ventured to approach and ask what he did. He replied that he was checking his calculations that he found to be quite correct, an exact period of two hundred and fifty thousand years having gone by since he laid himself down to sleep. Then, by aid of the plates, he pointed out to me certain alterations that had happened during that period in the positions of some of the stars.
For instance, he showed me one which, by help of my glasses, I recognised as Sirius, and remarked that two hundred and fifty thousand years ago it was further away and much smaller. Now it was precisely in the place and of the size which he had predicted, and he pointed to it on his prophetic map. Again he indicated a star that the night-glass told me was Capella, which, I suppose, is one of the most brilliant stars in the sky, and showed me that on the map he had made two hundred and fifty thousand years ago, it did not exist, as then it was too far north to appear thereon. Still, he observed, the passage of this vast period of time had produced but little effect upon the face of the heavens. To the human eye the majority of the stars had not moved so very far.
"And yet they travel fast, O Humphrey," he said. "Consider then how great is their journey between the time they gather and that day when, worn-out, once more they melt to vaporous gas. You think me long-lived who compared to them exist but a tiny fraction of a second, nearly all of which I have been doomed to pass in sleep. And, Humphrey, I desire to live—I, who have great plans and would shake the world. But my day draws in; a few brief centuries and I shall be gone, and—whither, whither?"
"If you lived as long as those stars, the end would be the same, Oro."
"Yes, but the life of the stars is very long, millions of millions of years; also, after death, they reform, as other stars. But shall I reform as another Oro? With all my wisdom, I do not know. It is known to Fate only—Fate-the master of worlds and men and the gods they worship—Fate, whom it may please to spill my gathered knowledge, to be lost in the sands of Time."
"It seems that you are great," I said, "and have lived long and learned much. Yet the end of it is that your lot is neither worse nor better than that of us creatures of an hour."
"It is so, Humphrey. Presently you will die, and within a few centuries I shall die also and be as you are. You believe that you will live again eternally. It may be so because you do believe, since Fate allows Faith to shape the future, if only for a little while. But in me Wisdom has destroyed Faith and therefore I must die. Even if I sleep again for tens of thousands of years, what will it help me, seeing that sleep is unconsciousness and that I shall only wake again to die, since sleep does not restore to us our youth?"
He ceased, and walked up and down the rock with a troubled mien. Then he stood in front of me and said in a triumphant voice:
"At least, while I live I will rule, and then let come what may come. I know that you do not believe, and the first victory of this new day of mine shall be to make you believe. I have great powers and you shall see them at work, and afterwards, if things go right, rule with me for a little while, perhaps, as the first of my subjects. Hearken now; in one small matter my calculations, made so long ago, have gone wrong. They showed me that at this time a day of earthquakes, such as those that again and again have rocked and split the world, would recur. But now it seems that there is an error, a tiny error of eleven hundred years, which must go by before those earthquakes come."
"Are you sure," I suggested humbly, "that there is not also an error in those star-maps you hold?"
"I am sure, Humphrey. Some day, who knows? You may return to your world of modern men who, I gather, have knowledge of the great science of astronomy. Take now these maps with which I have done, and submit them to the most learned of those men, and let them tell you whether I was right or wrong in what I wrote upon this metal two hundred and fifty thousand years ago. Whatever else is false, at least the stars in their motions can never die."
Then he handed me the maps and was gone. I have them today, and if ever this book is published, they will appear with it, that those who are qualified may judge of them and of the truth or otherwise of Oro's words.
From that night forward for quite a long time I saw Oro no more. Nor indeed did any of us, since for some reason of his own he forbade us to visit the under ground city of Nyo. Oddly enough, however, he commanded Yva to bring down the spaniel, Tommy, to be with him from time to time. When I asked her why, she said it was because he was lonely and desired the dog's companionship. It seemed to us very strange that this super-man, who had the wisdom of ten Solomons gathered in one within his breast, should yet desire the company of a little dog. What then was the worth of learning and long life, or, indeed, of anything? Well, Solomon himself asked the question ages since, and could give no answer save that all is vanity.
I noted about this time that Yva began to grow very sad and troubled; indeed, looking at her suddenly on two or three occasions, I saw that her beautiful eyes were aswim with tears. Also, I noted that always as she grew sadder she became, in a sense, more human. In the beginning she was, as it were, far away. One could never forget that she was the child of some alien race whose eyes had looked upon the world when, by comparison, humanity was young; at times, indeed, she might have been the denizen of another planet, strayed to earth. Although she never flaunted it, one felt that her simplest word hid secret wisdom; that to her books were open in which we could not read. Moreover, as I have said, occasionally power flamed out of her, power that was beyond our ken and understanding.
Yet with all this there was nothing elfish about her, nothing uncanny. She was always kind, and, as we could feel, innately good and gentle-hearted, just a woman made half-divine by gifts and experience that others lack. She did not even make use of her wondrous beauty to madden men, as she might well have done had she been so minded. It is true that both Bastin and Bickley fell in love with her, but that was only because all with whom she had to do must love her, and then, when she told them that it might not be, it was in such a fashion that no soreness was left behind. They went on loving her, that was all, but as men love their sisters or their daughters; as we conceive that they may love in that land where there is no marrying or giving in marriage.
But now, in her sadness, she drew ever nearer to us, and especially to myself, more in tune with our age and thought. In truth, save for her royal and glittering loveliness in which there was some quality which proclaimed her of another blood, and for that reserve of hidden power which at times would look out of her eyes or break through her words, she might in most ways have been some singularly gifted and beautiful modern woman.
The time has come when I must speak of my relations with Yva and of their climax. As may have been guessed, from the first I began to love her. While the weeks went on that love grew and grew, until it utterly possessed me, although for a certain reason connected with one dead, at first I fought against it. Yet it did not develop quite in the fashion that might have been expected. There was no blazing up of passion's fire; rather was there an ever-increasing glow of the holiest affection, till at last it became a lamp by which I must guide my feet through life and death. This love of mine seemed not of earth but from the stars. As yet I had said nothing to her of it because in some way I felt that she did not wish me to do so, felt also that she was well aware of all that passed within my heart, and desired, as it were, to give it time to ripen there. Then one day there came a change, and though no glance or touch of Yva's told me so, I knew that the bars were taken down and that I might speak.
It was a night of full moon. All that afternoon she had been talking to Bastin apart, I suppose about religion, for I saw that he had some books in his hand from which he was expounding something to her in his slow, earnest way. Then she came and sat with us while we took our evening meal. I remember that mine consisted of some of the Life-water which she had brought with her and fruit, for, as I think I have said, I had acquired her dislike to meat, also that she ate some plantains, throwing the skins for Tommy to fetch and laughing at his play. When it was over, Bastin and Bickley went away together, whether by chance or design I do not know, and she said to me suddenly:
"Humphrey, you have often asked me about the city Pani, of which a little portion of the ruins remains upon this island, the rest being buried beneath the waters. If you wish I will show you where our royal palace was before the barbarians destroyed it with their airships. The moon is very bright, and by it we can see."
I nodded, for, knowing what she meant, somehow I could not answer her, and we began the ascent of the hill. She explained to me the plan of the palace when we reached the ruins, showing me where her own apartments had been, and the rest. It was very strange to hear her quietly telling of buildings which had stood and of things that had happened over two hundred and fifty thousand years before, much as any modern lady might do of a house that had been destroyed a month ago by an earthquake or a Zeppelin bomb, while she described the details of a disaster which now frightened her no more. I think it was then that for the first time I really began to believe that in fact Yva had lived all those aeons since and been as she still appeared.
We passed from the palace to the ruins of the temple, through what, as she said, had been a pleasure-garden, pointing out where a certain avenue of rare palms had grown, down which once it was her habit to walk in the cool of the day. Or, rather, there were two terraced temples, one dedicated to Fate like that in the underground city of Nyo, and the other to Love. Of the temple to Fate she told me her father had been the High Priest, and of the temple to Love she was the High Priestess.
Then it was that I understood why she had brought me here.
She led the way to a marble block covered with worn-out carvings and almost buried in the debris. This, she said, was the altar of offerings. I asked her what offerings, and she replied with a smile:
"Only wine, to signify the spirit of life, and flowers to symbolise its fragrance," and she laid her finger on a cup-like depression, still apparent in the marble, into which the wine was poured.
Indeed, I gathered that there was nothing coarse or bacchanalian about this worship of a prototype of Aphrodite; on the contrary, that it was more or less spiritual and ethereal. We sat down on the altar stone. I wondered a little that she should have done so, but she read my thought, and answered:
"Sometimes we change our faiths, Humphrey, or perhaps they grow. Also, have I not told you that sacrifices were offered on this altar?" and she sighed and smiled.
I do not know which was the sweeter, the smile or the sigh.
We looked at the water glimmering in the crater beneath us on the edge of which we sat. We looked at heaven above in which the great moon sailed royally. Then we looked into each other's eyes.
"I love you," I said.
"I know it," she answered gently. "You have loved me from the first, have you not? Even when I lay asleep in the coffin you began to love me, but until you dreamed a certain dream you would not admit it."
"Yva, what was the meaning of that dream?"
"I cannot say, Humphrey. But I tell you this. As you will learn in time, one spirit may be clothed in different garments of the flesh."
I did not understand her, but, in some strange way, her words brought to my mind those that Natalie spoke at the last, and I answered:
"Yva, when my wife lay dying she bade me seek her elsewhere, for certainly I should find her. Doubtless she meant beyond the shores of death—or perhaps she also dreamed."
She bent her head, looking at me very strangely.
"Your wife, too, may have had the gift of dreams, Humphrey. As you dream and I dream, so mayhap she dreamed. Of dreams, then, let us say no more, since I think that they have served their purpose, and all three of us understand."
Then I stretched out my arms, and next instant my head lay upon her perfumed breast. She lifted it and kissed me on the lips, saying:
"With this kiss again I give myself to you. But oh! Humphrey, do not ask too much of the god of my people, Fate," and she looked me in the eyes and sighed.
"What do you mean?" I asked, trembling.
"Many, many things. Among them, that happiness is not for mortals, and remember that though my life began long ago, I am mortal as you are, and that in eternity time makes no difference."
"And if so, Yva, what then? Do we meet but to part?"
"Who said it? Not I. Humphrey, I tell you this. Nor earth, nor heaven, nor hell have any bars through which love cannot burst its way towards reunion and completeness. Only there must be love, manifested in many shapes and at many times, but ever striving to its end, which is not of the flesh. Aye, love that has lost itself, love scorned, love defeated, love that seems false, love betrayed, love gone astray, love wandering through the worlds, love asleep and living in its sleep, love awake and yet sleeping; all love that has in it the germ of life. It matters not what form love takes. If it be true I tell you that it will win its way, and in the many that it has seemed to worship, still find the one, though perchance not here."
At her words a numb fear gripped my heart.
"Not here? Then where?" I said.
"Ask your dead wife, Humphrey. Ask the dumb stars. Ask the God you worship, for I cannot answer, save in one word—Somewhere! Man, be not afraid. Do you think that such as you and I can be lost in the aching abysms of space? I know but little, yet I tell you that we are its rulers. I tell you that we, too, are gods, if only we can aspire and believe. For the doubting and timid there is naught. For those who see with the eyes of the soul and stretch out their hands to grasp there is all. Even Bastin will tell you this."
"But," I said, "life is short. Those worlds are far away, and you are near."
She became wonderful, mysterious.
"Near I am far," she said; "and far I am near, if only this love of yours is strong enough to follow and to clasp. And, Humphrey, it needs strength, for here I am afraid that it will bear little of such fruit as men desire to pluck."
Again terror took hold of me, and I looked at her, for I did not know what to say or ask.
"Listen," she went on. "Already my father has offered me to you in marriage, has he not, but at a price which you do not understand? Believe me, it is one that you should never pay, since the rule of the world can be too dearly bought by the slaughter of half the world. And if you would pay it, I cannot."
"But this is madness!" I exclaimed. "Your father has no powers over our earth."
"I would that I could think so, Humphrey. I tell you that he has powers and that it is his purpose to use them as he has done before. You, too, he would use, and me."
"And, if so, Yva, we are lords of ourselves. Let us take each other while we may. Bastin is a priest."
"Lords of ourselves! Why, for ought I know, at this very moment Oro watches us in his thought and laughs. Only in death, Humphrey, shall we pass beyond his reach and become lords of ourselves."
"It is monstrous!" I cried. "There is the boat, let us fly away."
"What boat can bear us out of stretch of the arm of the old god of my people, Fate, whereof Oro is the high priest? Nay, here we must wait our doom."
"Doom," I said—"doom? What then is about to happen?"
"A terrible thing, as I think, Humphrey. Or, rather, it will not happen."
"Why not, if it must?"
"Beloved," she whispered, "Bastin has expounded to me a new faith whereof the master-word is Sacrifice. The terrible thing will not happen because of sacrifice! Ask me no more."
She mused a while, seated there in the moonlight upon the ancient altar of sacrifice, the veil she wore falling about her face and making her mysterious. Then she threw it back, showing her lovely eyes and glittering hair, and laughed.
"We have still an earthly hour," she said; "therefore let us forget the far, dead past and the eternities to come and be joyful in that hour. Now throw your arms about me and I will tell you strange stories of lost days, and you shall look into my eyes and learn wisdom, and you shall kiss my lips and taste of bliss—you, who were and are and shall be—you, the beloved of Yva from the beginning to the end of Time."
Chapter XXII. The Command
I think that both Bastin and Bickley, by instinct as it were, knew what had passed between Yva and myself and that she had promised herself to me. They showed this by the way in which they avoided any mention of her name. Also they began to talk of their own plans for the future as matters in which I had no part. Thus I heard them discussing the possibility of escape from the island whereof suddenly they seemed to have grown weary, and whether by any means two men (two, not three) could manage to sail and steer the lifeboat that remained upon the wreck. In short, as in all such cases, the woman had come between; also the pressure of a common loss caused them to forget their differences and to draw closer together. I who had succeeded where they both had failed, was, they seemed to think, out of their lives, so much that our ancient intimacy had ended.
This attitude hurt me, perhaps because in many respects the situation was awkward. They had, it is true, taken their failures extremely well, still the fact remained that both of them had fallen in love with the wonderful creature, woman and yet more than woman, who had bound herself to me. How then could we go on living together, I in prospective possession of the object that all had desired, and they without the pale?
Moreover, they were jealous in another and quite a different fashion because they both loved me in their own ways and were convinced that I who had hitherto loved them, henceforward should have no affection left to spare, since surely this Glittering Lady, this marvel of wisdom and physical perfections would take it all. Of course they were in error, since even if I could have been so base and selfish, this was no conduct that Yva would have wished or even suffered. Still that was their thought.
Mastering the situation I reflected a little while and then spoke straight out to them.
"My friends," I said, "as I see that you have guessed, Yva and I are affianced to each other and love each other perfectly."
"Yes, Arbuthnot," said Bastin, "we saw that in your face, and in hers as she bade us good night before she went into the cave, and we congratulate you and wish you every happiness."
"We wish you every happiness, old fellow," chimed in Bickley. He paused a while, then added, "But to be honest, I am not sure that I congratulate you."
"Why not, Bickley?"
"Not for the reason that you may suspect, Arbuthnot, I mean not because you have won where we have lost, as it was only to be expected that you would do, but on account of something totally different. I told you a while ago and repetition is useless and painful. I need only add therefore that since then my conviction has strengthened and I am sure, sorry as I am to say it, that in this matter you must prepare for disappointment and calamity. That woman, if woman she really is, will never be the wife of mortal man. Now be angry with me if you like, or laugh as you have the right to do, seeing that like Bastin and yourself, I also asked her to marry me, but something makes me speak what I believe to be the truth."
"Like Cassandra," I suggested.
"Yes, like Cassandra who was not a popular person." At first I was inclined to resent Bickley's words—who would not have been in the circumstances? Then of a sudden there rushed in upon my mind the conviction that he spoke the truth. In this world Yva was not for me or any man. Moreover she knew it, the knowledge peeped out of every word she spoke in our passionate love scene by the lake. She was aware, and subconsciously I was aware, that we were plighting our troth, not for time but for eternity. With time we had little left to do; not for long would she wear the ring I gave her on that holy night.
Even Bastin, whose perceptions normally were not acute, felt that the situation was strained and awkward and broke in with a curious air of forced satisfaction:
"It's uncommonly lucky for you, old boy, that you happen to have a clergyman in your party, as I shall be able to marry you in a respectable fashion. Of course I can't say that the Glittering Lady is as yet absolutely converted to our faith, but I am certain that she has absorbed enough of its principles to justify me in uniting her in Christian wedlock."
"Yes," I answered, "she has absorbed its principles; she told me as much herself. Sacrifice, for instance," and as I spoke the word my eyes filled with tears.
"Sacrifice!" broke in Bickley with an angry snort, for he needed a vent to his mental disturbance. "Rubbish. Why should every religion demand sacrifice as savages do? By it alone they stand condemned."
"Because as I think, sacrifice is the law of life, at least of all life that is worth the living," I answered sadly enough. "Anyhow I believe you are right, Bickley, and that Bastin will not be troubled to marry us."
"You don't mean," broke in Bastin with a horrified air, "that you propose to dispense—"
"No, Bastin, I don't mean that. What I mean is that it comes upon me that something will prevent this marriage. Sacrifice, perhaps, though in what shape I do not know. And now good night. I am tired."
That night in the chill dead hour before the dawn Oro came again. I woke up to see him seated by my bed, majestic, and, as it seemed to me, lambent, though this may have been my imagination.
"You take strange liberties with my daughter, Barbarian, or she takes strange liberties with you, it does not matter which," he said, regarding me with his calm and terrible eyes.
"Why do you presume to call me Barbarian?" I asked, avoiding the main issue.
"For this reason, Humphrey. All men are the same. They have the same organs, the same instincts, the same desires, which in essence are but two, food and rebirth that Nature commands; though it is true that millions of years before I was born, as I have learned from the records of the Sons of Wisdom, it was said that they were half ape. Yet being the same there is between them a whole sea of difference, since some have knowledge and others none, or little. Those who have none or little, among whom you must be numbered, are Barbarians. Those who have much, among whom my daughter and I are the sole survivors, are the Instructed."
"There are nearly two thousand millions of living people in this world," I said, "and you name all of them Barbarians?"
"All, Humphrey, excepting, of course, myself and my daughter who are not known to be alive. You think that you have learned much, whereas in truth you are most ignorant. The commonest of the outer nations, when I destroyed them, knew more than your wisest know today."
"You are mistaken, Oro; since then we have learned something of the soul."
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "that interests me and perhaps it is true. Also, if true it is very important, as I have told you before—or was it Bastin? If a man has a soul, he lives, whereas even we Sons of Wisdom die, and in Death what is the use of Wisdom? Because you can believe, you have souls and are therefore, perhaps, heirs to life, foolish and ignorant as you are today. Therefore I admit you and Bastin to be my equals, though Bickley, who like myself believes nothing, is but a common chemist and doctor of disease."
"Then you bow to Faith, Oro?"
"Yes, and I think that my god Fate also bows to Faith. Perhaps, indeed, Faith shapes Fate, not Fate, Faith. But whence comes that faith which even I with all my learning cannot command? Why is it denied to me and given to you and Bastin?"
"Because as Bastin would tell you, it is a gift, though one that is never granted to the proud and self-sufficient. Become humble as a child, Oro, and perchance you too may acquire faith."
"And how shall I become humble?"
"By putting away all dreams of power and its exercise, if such you have, and in repentance walking quietly to the Gates of Death," I replied.
"For you, Humphrey, who have little or none of these things, that may be easy. But for me who have much, if not all, it is otherwise. You ask me to abandon the certain for the uncertain, the known for the unknown, and from a half-god communing with the stars, to become an earthworm crawling in mud and lifting blind eyes towards the darkness of everlasting night."
"A god who must die is no god, half or whole, Oro; the earthworm that lives on is greater than he."
"Mayhap. Yet while I endure I will be as a god, so that when night comes, if come it must, I shall have played my part and left my mark upon this little world of ours. Have done!" he added with a burst of impatience. "What will you of my daughter?"
"What man has always willed of woman—herself, body and soul."
"Her soul perchance is yours, if she has one, but her body is mine to give or withhold. Yet it can be bought at a price," he added slowly.
"So she told me, Oro."
"I can guess what she told you. Did I not watch you yonder by the lake when you gave her a ring graved with the signs of Life and Everlastingness? The question is, will you pay the price?"
"Not so; the question is—what is the price?"
"This; to enter my service and henceforth do my will—without debate or cavil."
"For what reward, Oro?"
"Yva and the dominion of the earth while you shall live, neither more nor less."
"And what is your will?"
"That you shall learn in due course. On the second night from this I command the three of you to wait upon me at sundown in the buried halls of Nyo. Till then you see no more of Yva, for I do not trust her. She, too, has powers, though as yet she does not use them, and perchance she would forget her oaths, and following some new star of love, for a little while vanish with you out of my reach. Be in the sepulchre at the hour of sundown on the second day from this, all three of you, if you would continue to live upon the earth. Afterwards you shall learn my will and make your choice between Yva with majesty and her loss with death."
Then suddenly he was gone.
Next morning I told the others what had passed, and we talked the matter over. The trouble was, of course, that Bickley did not believe me. He had no faith in my alleged interviews with Oro, which he set down to delusions of a semi-mesmeric character. This was not strange, since it appeared that on the previous night he had watched the door of my sleeping-place until dawn broke, which it did long after Oro had departed, and he had not seen him either come or go, although the moon was shining brightly.
When he told me this I could only answer that all the same he had been there as, if he could speak, Tommy would have been able to certify. As it chanced the dog was sleeping with me and at the first sound of the approach of someone, woke up and growled. Then recognising Oro, he went to him, wagged his tail and curled himself up at his feet.
Bastin believed my story readily enough, saying that Oro was a peculiar person who no doubt had ways of coming and going which we did not understand. His point was, however, that he did not in the least wish to visit Nyo any more. The wonders of its underground palaces and temples had no charms for him. Also he did not think he could do any good by going, since after "sucking him as dry as an orange" with reference to religious matters "that old vampire-bat Oro had just thrown him away like the rind," and, he might add, "seemed no better for the juice he had absorbed."
"I doubt," continued Bastin, "whether St. Paul himself could have converted Oro, even if he performed miracles before him. What is the use of showing miracles to a man who could always work a bigger one himself?"
In short, Bastin's one idea, and Bickley's also for the matter of that, was to get away to the main island and thence escape by means of the boat, or in some other fashion.
I pointed out that Oro had said we must obey at the peril of our lives; indeed that he had put it even more strongly, using words to the effect that if we did not he would kill us.
"I'd take the risk," said Bickley, "since I believe that you dreamt it all, Arbuthnot. However, putting that aside, there is a natural reason why you should wish to go, and for my own part, so do I in a way. I want to see what that old fellow has up his extremely long sleeve, if there is anything there at all."
"Well, if you ask me, Bickley," I answered, "I believe it is the destruction of half the earth, or some little matter of that sort."
At this suggestion Bickley only snorted, but Bastin said cheerfully:
"I dare say. He is bad enough even for that. But as I am quite convinced that it will never be allowed, his intentions do not trouble me."
I remarked that he seemed to have carried them out once before.
"Oh! you mean the Deluge. Well, no doubt there was a deluge, but I am sure that Oro had no more to do with it than you or I, as I think I have said already. Anyhow it is impossible to leave you to descend into that hole alone. I suggest, therefore, that we should go into the sepulchre at the time which you believe Oro appointed, and see what happens. If you are not mistaken, the Glittering Lady will come there to fetch us, since it is quite certain that we cannot work the lift or whatever it is, alone. If you are mistaken we can just go back to bed as usual."
"Yes, that's the best plan," said Bickley, shortly, after which the conversation came to an end.
All that day and the next I watched and waited in vain for the coming of Yva, but no Yva appeared. I even went as far as the sepulchre, but it was as empty as were the two crystal coffins, and after waiting a while I returned. Although I did not say so to Bickley, to me it was evident that Oro, as he had said, was determined to cut off all communication between us.
The second day drew to its close. Our simple preparations were complete. They consisted mainly in making ready our hurricane lamps and packing up a little food, enough to keep us for three or four days if necessary, together with some matches and a good supply of oil, since, as Bastin put it, he was determined not to be caught like the foolish virgins in the parable.
"You see," he added, "one never knows when it might please that old wretch to turn off the incandescent gas or electric light, or whatever it is he uses to illumine his family catacombs, and then it would be awkward if we had no oil."
"For the matter of that he might steal our lamps," suggested Bickley, "in which case we should be where Moses was when the light went out."
"I have considered that possibility," answered Bastin, "and therefore, although it is a dangerous weapon to carry loaded, I am determined to take my revolver. If necessary I shall consider myself quite justified in shooting him to save our lives and those of thousands of others."
At this we both laughed; somehow the idea of Bastin trying to shoot Oro struck us as intensely ludicrous. Yet that very thing was to happen.
It was a peculiarly beautiful sunset over the southern seas. To the west the great flaming orb sank into the ocean, to the east appeared the silver circle of the full moon. To my excited fancy they were like scales hanging from the hand of a materialised spirit of calm. Over the volcano and the lake, over the island with its palm trees, over the seas beyond, this calm brooded. Save for a few travelling birds the sky was empty; no cloud disturbed its peace; the world seemed steeped in innocence and quiet.
All these things struck me, as I think they did the others, because by the action of some simultaneous thought it came to our minds that very probably we were looking on them for the last time. It is all very well to talk of the Unknown and the Infinite whereof we are assured we are the heirs, but that does not make it any easier for us to part with the Known and the Finite. The contemplation of the wonders of Eternity does not conceal the advantages of actual and existent Time. In short there is no one of us, from a sainted archbishop down to a sinful suicide, who does not regret the necessity of farewell to the pleasant light and the kindly race of men wherewith we are acquainted.
For after all, who can be quite certain of the Beyond? It may be splendid, but it will probably be strange, and from strangeness, after a certain age, we shrink. We know that all things will be different there; that our human relationships will be utterly changed, that perhaps sex which shapes so many of them, will vanish to be replaced by something unknown, that ambitions will lose their hold of us, and that, at the best, the mere loss of hopes and fears will leave us empty. So at least we think, who seek not variation but continuance, since the spirit must differ from the body and that thought alarms our intelligence.
At least some of us think so; others, like Bickley, write down the future as a black and endless night, which after all has its consolations since, as has been wisely suggested, perhaps oblivion is better than any memories. Others again, like Bastin, would say of it with the Frenchman, plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Yet others, like Oro, consider it as a realm of possibilities, probably unpleasant and perhaps non-existent; just this and nothing more. Only one thing is certain, that no creature which has life desires to leap into the fire and from the dross of doubts, to resolve the gold—or the lead—of certainty.
"It is time to be going," said Bastin. "In these skies the sun seems to tumble down, not to set decently as it does in England, and if we wait any longer we shall be late for our appointment in the sepulchre. I am sorry because although I don't often notice scenery, everything looks rather beautiful this evening. That star, for instance, I think it is called Venus."
"And therefore one that Arbuthnot should admire," broke in Bickley, attempting to lighten matters with a joke. "But come on and let us be rid of this fool's errand. Certainly the world is a lovely place after all, and for my part I hope that we haven't seen the last of it," he added with a sigh.
"So do I," said Bastin, "though of course, Faith teaches us that there are much better ones beyond. It is no use bothering about what they are like, but I hope that the road to them doesn't run through the hole that the old reprobate, Oro, calls Nyo."
A few minutes later we started, each of us carrying his share of the impedimenta. I think that Tommy was the only really cheerful member of the party, for he skipped about and barked, running backwards and forwards into the mouth of the cave, as though to hurry our movements.
"Really," said Bastin, "it is quite unholy to see an animal going on in that way when it knows that it is about to descend into the bowels of the earth. I suppose it must like them."
"Oh! no," commented Bickley, "it only likes what is in them—like Arbuthnot. Since that little beast came in contact with the Lady Yva, it has never been happy out of her company."
"I think that is so," said Bastin. "At any rate I have noticed that it has been moping for the last two days, as it always does when she is not present. It even seems to like Oro who gives me the creeps, perhaps because he is her father. Dogs must be very charitable animals."
By now we were in the cave marching past the wrecks of the half-buried flying-machines, which Bickley, as he remarked regretfully, had never found time thoroughly to examine. Indeed, to do so would have needed more digging than we could do without proper instruments, since the machines were big and deeply entombed in dust.
We came to the sepulchre and entered.
"Well," said Bickley, seating himself on the edge of one of the coffins and holding up his lamp to look about him, "this place seems fairly empty. No one is keeping the assignation, Arbuthnot, although the sun is well down."
As he spoke the words Yva stood before us. Whence she came we did not see, for all our backs were turned at the moment of her arrival. But there she was, calm, beautiful, radiating light.
Chapter XXIII. In the Temple of Fate
Yva glanced at me, and in her eyes I read tenderness and solicitude, also something of inquiry. It seemed to me as though she were wondering what I should do under circumstances that might, or would, arise, and in some secret fashion of which I was but half conscious, drawing an answer from my soul. Then she turned, and, smiling in her dazzling way, said:
"So, Bickley, as usual, you did not believe? Because you did not see him, therefore the Lord Oro, my father, never spoke with Humphrey. As though the Lord Oro could not pass you without your knowledge, or, perchance, send thoughts clothed in his own shape to work his errand."
"How do you know that I did not believe Arbuthnot's story?" Bickley asked in a rather cross voice and avoiding the direct issue. "Do you also send thoughts to work your errands clothed in your own shape, Lady Yva?"
"Alas! not so, though perhaps I could if I might. It is very simple, Bickley. Standing here, I heard you say that although the sun was well down there was no one to meet you as Humphrey had expected, and from those words and your voice I guessed the rest."
"Your knowledge of the English language is improving fast, Lady Yva. Also, when I spoke, you were not here."
"At least I was very near, Bickley, and these walls are thinner than you think," she answered, contemplating what seemed to be solid rock with eyes that were full of innocence. "Oh! friend," she went on suddenly, "I wonder what there is which will cause you to believe that you do not know all; that there exist many things beyond the reach of your learning and imagination? Well, in a day or two, perhaps, even you will admit as much, and confess it to me—elsewhere," and she sighed.
"I am ready to confess now that much happens which I do not understand at present, because I have not the key to the trick," he replied.
Yva shook her head at him and smiled again. Then she motioned to all of us to stand close to her, and, stooping, lifted Tommy in her arms. Next moment that marvel happened which I have described already, and we were whirling downwards through space, to find ourselves in a very little time standing safe in the caves of Nyo, breathless with the swiftness of our descent. How and on what we descended neither I nor the others ever learned. It was and must remain one of the unexplained mysteries of our great experience.
"Whither now, Yva?" I asked, staring about me at the radiant vastness.
"The Lord Oro would speak with you, Humphrey. Follow. And I pray you all do not make him wrath, for his mood is not gentle."
So once more we proceeded down the empty streets of that underground abode which, except that it was better illuminated, reminded me of the Greek conception of Hades. We came to the sacred fountain over which stood the guardian statue of Life, pouring from the cups she held the waters of Good and Ill that mingled into one health-giving wine.
"Drink, all of you," she said; "for I think before the sun sets again upon the earth we shall need strength, every one of us."
So we drank, and she drank herself, and once more felt the blood go dancing through our veins as though the draught had been some nectar of the gods. Then, having extinguished the lanterns which we still carried, for here they were needless, and we wished to save our oil, we followed her through the great doors into the vast hall of audience and advanced up it between the endless, empty seats. At its head, on the dais beneath the arching shell, sat Oro on his throne. As before, he wore the jewelled cap and the gorgeous, flowing robes, while the table in front of him was still strewn with sheets of metal on which he wrote with a pen, or stylus, that glittered like a diamond or his own fierce eyes. Then he lifted his head and beckoned to us to ascend the dais.
"You are here. It is well," he said, which was all his greeting. Only when Tommy ran up to him he bent down and patted the dog's head with his long, thin hand, and, as he did so, his face softened. It was evident to me that Tommy was more welcome to him than were the rest of us.
There was a long silence while, one by one, he searched us with his piercing glance. It rested on me, the last of the three of us, and from me travelled to Yva.