The spring gathered her garments together, then flung them wide over the Bay of Naples. Hers is the greatest force in Nature, because her clarion sounds the summons of creation. It is she that is the Vicegerent of the All-Father, and of His spirit hath He dowered her with a triple essence.
In southern lands, even before the Equinox opens its gates before her conquering armies, one feels her imminent. Her light-armed troops swarm over the breached ramparts of the winter, and their cry is echoed in the dungeons of the soul by those whom she has come to save.
Yet in her hands is nothing but a sword. It is a disturbance of the equilibrium to which the dying year has attained after its long joy and agony; and so to the soul which is at ease she comes with alarum and tocsin. A soul like Iliel's, naturally apt to receive every impulse, to multiply it, and to transform it into action, is peculiarly sensitive, without knowing it, to cosmic forces so akin to its own inborn turbulence.
In her idlest moods, Lisa la Giuffria would have started for China at the least provocation, provided that she could start within the hour.
She could take a lover, or throw one away, a dozen times in a year, and would have been indignant and amazed if any one had called her fickle. She was not insincere; but she believed with her whole soul that her immediate impulse was the true Will of her whole Self. One night at the Savoy Hotel with Lavinia King, just before Christmas, the talk had turned on the distress then prevailing in London. Instantly she had dragged the whole party downstairs, provided it with the entire supply of silver money that the hotel happened to have on hand, and rushed it to the Embankment to rescue the unemployed. That night she was a super-Shaftsbury; she formulated a dozen plans to solve the problem of poverty, root, branch, and leaf; and the next morning her dressmaker found her amid a sheaf of calculations.
But a new style of costume being displayed, she had plunged with equal ardour into a cosmopolitan scheme of dress reform.
To such an one a thwarted impulse involves almost a wreckage of the soul. Iliel began openly to chafe at the restrictions to which her own act had bound her. She had never been a mother, and the mere physical disabilities of her condition were all the more irritating because they were so unfamiliar.
The excitement of the Butterfly-chase had kept her toe to the mark, and the strange circumstances with which she was surrounded had aided to make it easy for her. It flattered her vanity that she was the keystone of so great an arch, destined to span earth and heaven. Her new conditions, the relaxation of the tension, threw down her exaltation. The experiment was over; well, then, it ought to be over — and she had months of boredom before her which must be endured with no stimulus but that of normal human duty. She was one of those people who will make any sacrifice at the moment, beggar themselves to help a friend, but who are quite incapable of drawing a weekly cheque for a trifling sum for no matter how important a purpose.
In this March and April she was one mass of thwarted impulse. The mere necessity, demanded by safety, of remaining within the circle, was abhorrent to her. But, though she did not know it, she was held in subjection by the wills of her guardians.
In Astrology, the moon, among its other meanings, has that of "the common people," who submit (they know not why) to any independent will that can express itself with sufficient energy. The people who guillotined the mild Louis XVI died gladly for Napoleon. The impossibility of an actual democracy is due to this fact of mob-psychology. As soon as you group men, they lose their personalities. A parliament of the wisest and strongest men in the nation is liable to behave like a set of schoolboys, tearing up their desks and throwing their inkpots at each other. The only possibility of co-operation lies in discipline and autocracy, which men have sometimes established in the name of equal rights.
Now Iliel was at present a microcosm of the Moon, and her resentments were either changed into enthusiasms by a timely word from Sister Clara or one of the others, or else ignored. The public is a long-suffering dumb beast, an ass crouching beneath heavy burdens, and it needs not only unendurable ill-treatment, but leadership, before it will revolt. All Iliel's impulses were purposeless, negative things, ideas rather of escape than of any definite programme. She wanted to jump out of the frying-pan, neither fearing the fire nor having any clear idea of how to act when she got there. She lacked so much as a day-dream of any alternative Future; hers was the restless wretchedness of a morphineuse deprived of the drug.
She was, as it were, the place where four winds met; and such a place is dangerous for a ship that is without internal means of propulsion. She sagged, a dismasted derelict, in tow of Cyril Grey; and the rope of love which held her to him strained her creaking timbers.
The first evidence of these very indefinite feelings was shown by her unreasonableness. Under the rigid discipline of the ceremonies, she had been too well schooled, too absorbed, too directly under the influence of the forces invoked, to feel or express constraint; the mere human hygiene of her present position served only to make her more discontented. A similar phenomenon has been observed also with democracies; they are happiest when most thoroughly cowed and bullied.
Once or twice she treated Cyril to an outburst of temper; but he was very young, so he was tactless enough to refuse to be angry, and made every allowance for her. Such treatment insults women like Lisa; their rage smoulders in them. A blow and a caress would have tripled her passion for him. "What is the use of being a Chinese god," she might have asked, "if you do not gratify your worshippers by inflicting Chinese tortures?"
But the principal manifestation of her moral instability was in her whims.
These were in some degree, no doubt, due to her physical condition; but the mental stress exaggerated them to an abnormal height, like a glacier cramped between two mountain chains. It is necessary, in this world, to be made of harder stuff than one's environment. But Iliel had no ambition to any action; she was reflex; simple reaction to impression was what she thought her will. And so she inflicted phantasies upon the patient fold about her; one day she was all for dressing herself strangely; another day she would insist upon a masque or a charade; but she took no true pleasure in any of these things. Cyril Grey was assiduous in meeting her desires; there were but two prohibitions left of all the elaborate restrictions of the second stage of the experiment; she might not be unduly intimate with him, and she might not in any way communicate with the outside world. In other words, the citadel and the ramparts must be kept intact; between these was a wide range for whim. Yet she was not content; it was just those two forbidden things that haunted her. (The serpent is a later invention in the story of the Fall!) Her unconscious wish to violate these rules led to a dislike for those who personified their rigidity; namely Cyril Grey and Brother Onofrio. And her febrile mind began to join these separate objects in a common detestation.
This shewed itself in a quite insane jealousy of their perfectly natural and necessary intimacy. Sometimes, as they sat sunning themselves upon the wall of one of the terraces she would come flaming down the garden with some foolish tale, and Brother Onofrio at least could not wholly hide his annoyance. He was naturally anxious to make all he could out of the presence of the more advanced adept; and his inborn ecclesiastical contempt for women showed through the tissue of his good manners. Cyril's most admirable patience tried her even more sorely. "Are you my lover or my grandfather?" she screamed at him one night, when he had been more than usually tactful.
Had the matter rested there, it had been ill enough with her. But the mind of man is a strange instrument. "Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do" is a rattling good piece of psychology. Iliel had nothing to occupy her mind, because she had never trained herself to concentrate the current of her thoughts on one thing, and off all others. A passion for crochet-work has saved many a woman from the streets or the river. And as on marshes methane forms, and Will o' th' Wisp lures peasants to their oozy doom, so in the idle mind monsters are bred. She began to suffer from a real insanity of the type of persecution-mania. She began to imagine that Cyril and Brother Onofrio were engaged in some mysterious plot against her. It was lucky that every one in the house possessed medical knowledge and training, with specialization in psychology, so that they knew precisely how to treat her.
Yet in the long run that very knowledge became a danger. The extraordinary powers of mind — in certain limited directions — which insanity often temporarily confers, enabled her to see that she was regarded as in a critical mental state. She accepted the situation as a battle, instead of co-operating in frank friendship, and began to manoeuvre to outwit her guardians. Those who have any experience of madness, or its congeners, drug-neuroses, know how infernally easy was her task. Many's the woman who, with her pocket handkerchief to her face, and the tears pouring from her eyes, has confessed all to the specialist, and begged him to break her of the whisky habit, the while she absorbed a pint or so of the said whisky under cover of the said pocket handkerchief.
Iliel simply noted the states of mind which they thought favourable, and simulated them. Peaceful absorption in nature, particularly in the moon when she was shining, pleased them; and she cultivated these states, knowing that the others never disturbed her at such times; and, thus secured, she gave herself over to the most hideous thoughts.
They were in fact the thoughts of madness. It is a strange fact that the most harmless states of mind, the most correct trains of idea, may accompany a dangerous lunacy. The difference is that the madman makes a secret of his fancies. Lord Dunsany's stories are the perfect prose jewels of a master cutter and polisher, lit by the rays of an imagination that is the godlike son of the Father of All Truth and Light; but if he kept them to himself, they would be the symptoms of an incurable lesion of the brain. A madman will conceal the Terrible Secret that "today is Wednesday," perhaps "because the devil told him to do so." "I am He who is Truth" was the boast of a great mystic, Mansur, and they stoned him for it, as they stone all men who speak truth; but had he said "Hush! I am God!" he would have been merely a maniac.
So Iliel acquired the habit of spending a great part of the day in her cradle, and there indulging her mind in every possible morbidity. The very fact that she could not go on to action served to make the matter worse. It is a terrible error to let any natural impulse, physical or mental, stagnate. Crush it out, if you will, and be done with it; or fulfil it, and get it out of the system; but do not allow it to remain there and putrefy. The suppression of the normal sex instinct, for example, is responsible for a thousand ills. In Puritan countries one inevitably finds a morbid preoccupation with sex coupled with every form of perversion and degeneracy. Addiction to excess of drink, and to the drug habits, which are practically unknown in Latin countries, increase one's admiration at the Anglo-Saxon temperament.
Thus also Iliel's stagnant mind bred fearsome things. Hour after hour, the pageant of diseased thoughts passed through the shadowy gulfs of her chaotic spirit. Actual phantoms took shape for her, some seductive, some menacing; but even the most hideous and cruel symbols had a fierce fascination for her. There was a stag-beetle, with flaming eyes, a creature as big as an elephant, with claws in constant motion, that threatened her continually. Horribly as this frightened her, she gloated on it, pictured its sudden plunge with those ghastly mandibles upon her flanks. Her own fatness was a source of curious perverse pleasure to her; one of her favourite reveries was to imagine herself the centre of a group of cannibals, watch them chop off great lumps from her body, and seethe them in the pot, or roast them on a spear, hissing and dripping blood and grease, upon the fire. In some insane or atavistic confusion of mind this dream was always recognized as being a dream of love. And she understood, in some sub-current of thought, why Suffragettes forced men to use violence upon them; it is but a repressed sexual instinct breaking out in race-remembrance of marriage by capture.
But more dangerous even than such ideas were many which she learned to group under a name which one of them gave her. It was not a name that one can transcribe in any alphabet, but it was exactly like a very short slight cough, hardly more than a clearing of the throat, a quite voluntary cough of the apologetic type. She had only to make this little noise, and immediately a certain landscape opened before her. She was walking on a narrow ribbon of white path that wound up a very gentle slope. On either side of her were broad rough screes, with sparse grass and scrub peeping between the stones. The path led up to a pass between two hills, and near the crest of the ridge were two towers, one on either side of the path, as if for defence. These towers were squat and very ugly, with no windows, but mere slits for archery, and they had no sign of habitation. Yet she was quite sure that Something lived there, and she was conscious of the most passionate anxiety to visit whoever it might be. The moon, always in her wane, shone bright above the path, but little of her illumination extended beyond those narrow limits. Upon the screes she could see only faint shadows, apparently of some prowling beast of the jackal or hyena type, for she could hear howling and laughing, with now and again fierce snarls and cries as though a fight were in progress "in that fell cirque." But nothing ever crossed the path itself, and she would walk along it with a sense of the most curious lightness and pleasure. It was often her intention to go to the towers; but always she was deterred from doing so by the Old Lady.
It was at a sharp turn of the path round an immense boulder that this individual usually appeared, coming from a cleft in its face. On the first occasion she had herself greeted the Old Lady, asking if she could assist her. For the Old Lady was seated on the ground, working very hard.
"May I help you?" said Iliel, "in whatever you are doing?"
The Old Lady sighed very bitterly, and said that she was trying to make a fire.
"But you haven't got any sticks."
"We never use sticks to make a fire — in this country."
The last three words were in sing-song.
Anything round, and anything red, and anything ripe — in this country."
"And how do you kindle it? Have you matches, or do you rub sticks together, or do you use the sun's rays through a burning-glass?"
"Hush! there is no phosphorus, nor any sticks, nor any sun — in this country."
"Then how do you get fire?"
"There is no fire — in this country."
"But you said you were making a fire!"
"Trying to make a fire, my dear; we are always trying, and never succeeding — in this country."
"And how long have you been trying?"
"There is no time — in this country."
Iliel was half hypnotized by the reiteration of that negation, and that final phrase. She began to play a game.
"Well, Old Lady, I've something round, and something red, and something ripe to make your fire with. I'll give it to you if you can guess what it is."
The Old Lady shook her head. "There's nothing round, and there's nothing red, and nothing ripe — in this country."
"Well, I'll tell you: it's an apple. If you want it, you may have it."
"We never want anything — in this country."
"There's no going on — in this country."
"Oh, but there is, and I'm off."
"Don't you know what a treasure we have — in this country?"
The Old Lady dived into the cleft of the rock, and came out again in a moment with a monkey, and a mouse-trap, and a mandolin.
"I began," she explained, "with an arrow, and an adder, and an arquebus; for there are terrible dangers in the beginning — in this country."
"But what are they good for?"
"Nothing at all — in this country. But I'm changing them for a newt, and a narwhal, and a net, hoping that one day I may get to the end, where one needs a zebra, a zither, and a zarape', and one can always exchange those for something round, and red, and ripe — in this country.
It was really a sort of child's fairy story that Iliel was telling herself; but the teller was independent of her conscious mind, so that she did not know what was coming next. And really the Old Lady was quite a personality. On the second occasion she showed Iliel how to use her treasure. She made the monkey play the mandolin, and set the mouse-trap; and sure enough the newt and the narwhal, attracted by the music swam up and were duly caught. As for the net, the Old Lady bartered her three treasures for Iliel's hair-net.
"I'm afraid it isn't very strong to catch things with," she said.
"I only need an orange, and an oboe, and an octopus; and they are easy enough to catch — in this country."
Little by little the Old Lady beguiled Iliel, and one day, while they were setting a trap to catch a viper, and a vineyard, and a violin with their unicorn, and their umbrella, and their ukulele, she suddenly stopped short, and asked Iliel point-blank if she would like to attend the Sabbath on Walpurgis-night — the eve of May-day — for "there's a short cut to it, my dear, from this country."
Iliel revolted passionately against the idea, for she scented something abominable; but the Old Lady said:
"Of course we should disguise you; it would never do for you to be recognized by Cyril, and Brother Onofrio, and Sister Clara; they wouldn't like to know you live — in this country."
"I don't," said Iliel, rather angrily, "I only come out here for a walk."
"Ah, my dear," chuckled the Old Lady, "but a walk's as good as a whale — in this country. And you remember that the whale didn't put out Jonah where he wanted to go, but where somebody else wanted him. And that's the breed of whale we have — in this country."
"How do you know they'll be there on Walpurgis-night?"
"A how's as good as a hen — in this country. And what a hen doesn't know you may ask of a hog, and what a hog doesn't know you may ask of a horse, and what a horse doesn't know isn't worth knowing — in this country."
Iliel was in a black rage against her friends — why had they not asked her to come with them? And she went back that day in a vile temper.
This adventure of the Old Lady was only one of many; but it was the most vital, because the most coherent. Indeed, it led in the end to results of importance. For Iliel agreed to go to the Sabbath on Walpurgis-night. The Old Lady was very mysterious as to the method of travel. Iliel had expected conventionality on that point; but the Old Lady said:
"There are no goats, and no broomsticks — in this country."
Most of her visions were simply formless and incoherent horrors. Her foolish thoughts and senseless impulses took shape, usually in some distortion of an animal form, with that power of viscosity which is to vertebrates the most loathsome of all possibilities of life, since it represents the line of development which they have themselves avoided, and is therefore to them excremental in character. But to Iliel's morbidity the fascination of these things was overpowering. She took an unnatural and morose delight in watching the cuttle-fish squeeze itself slowly into a slime as black and oozy as the slug, and that again send trickling feelers as of leaking motor-oil, greasy and repulsive, with a foul scum upon its surface, until the beast looked like some parody of a tarantula; then this again would collapse, as if by mere weariness of struggle against gravitation, and spread itself slowly as a pool of putrefaction, which was yet intensely vital and personal by reason of its power to suck up everything within its sphere of sensation. It struck her that such creatures were images of Desire, a cruel and insatiable craving deprived of any will or power to take a single step towards gratification; and she understood that this condition was the most hideous and continual torture, agony with no ray of hope, impotence so complete as even to inhibit an issue in death. And she knew, too, that these shapes were born of her own weaknesses; yet, so far from rousing herself to stamp them out in her mind, she gloated upon their monstrosity and misery, took pleasure in their anguish, which was her own, and fed them with the substance of her own personality and will. It was this, a spiritual "Nostalgie de la boue," which grew upon her like a cancer or a gangrene; treacheries of the body itself, so that the only possible remedy is instant extirpation; for once the flesh abandons its will to firmness, to organization, and to specialized development, its degeneration into formless putrefaction becomes an accelerating rush upon a steepening slope.
How tenuous is the thread by which man climbs to the stars! What concentration of the sub-conscious will of the race, through a thousand generations, has determined his indomitable ascent! A single slackness, a single false step, and he topples into the morass wherein his feet still plash! Degeneration is the most fatally easy of all human possibilities; for the fell tug of cosmic inertia, that pressure of the entire universe which tends to the homogeneous, is upon man continuously; and becomes constantly more urgent the more he advances upon his path of differentiation. It is more than a fable, Atlas who supports the Universe upon his shoulders, and Hercules, the type of the man, divinely born indeed, who must yet regain Olympus by his own fierce toil, taking upon himself that infinite load.
The price of every step of progress is uncounted, even in myriads of lives self-sacrificed; and every man who is unfaithful to himself is not only at war with the sum of things, but his own comrades turn upon him to destroy him, to crush out his individuality and energy, to assimilate him to their own pullulating mass. It is indeed the power of the Roman Empire which erects the Cross on Calvary; but there must needs be Caiaphas and Herod, so blind that they crush out their own one hope of salvation from that iron tyranny; and also a traitor among those who once "left all and followed" the Son of Man.
And who shall deny true Godhead to humanity, seeing that no generation of mankind has been without a Saviour, conscious of his necessary doom, and resolute to meet it, his face set as a flint towards Jerusalem?