"Before we go further," began Cyril Grey, "I think it right to express a doubt as to the advisability of our procedure. We have already seen the most determined opposition to our plans; and for my part, I would say frankly that it might be wiser, certainly safer, to abandon them."
Lisa turned on him like a tigress. "I don't know what your plans are, and don't care. But I didn't think you'd go back on them."
"Impulsive ladies," returned Cyril, "rush in where angels fear to tread."
"I'll go," said she. "I'm sorry for all that has happened — all!" and she fixed her lover with a look of infinite contempt.
Cyril shrugged his shoulders. "If you feel like that, of course, we can continue. But when the pinch comes, don't squeal! I have warned you."
"Brother Cyril could not draw back if he wished," put in Sister Cybele. "He is bound by his oath — as, in a little while, you will be."
Lisa read upon the woman's face a smile, as of triumphant malice. It disturbed her far more than Cyril's protest. Was she indeed in a trap? It might be so; then, Cyril, who had tried to save her, was in the trap too. She must go on, if only to be able to save him when opportunity occurred. At present she was wholly in the dark. She could feel the atmosphere of constraint, of subtle and terrible forces in the abyss which she was treading blindfold upon some razor-edge whose supports she could not even imagine; the adventure was to her a supreme excitement, and she lived first and last for that. Had she known herself better, she would have understood that her love for Cyril was little more than a passion for the bizarre. But at the moment she was Joan of Arc and Juliet in one.
Moreover, she had the instinctive feeling that wherever these people might be going it was certainly somewhere. They were engineers building a bridge to an unknown land, just as methodically and purposefully as the builders of an earthly bridge. There was no doubt as to the validity of their knowledge or their powers. She perceived that Lord Antony Bowling had spent his life in the investigation of disjointed, purposeless items of mostly plain fraud; while under his very nose the Brethren of this Order were proceeding calmly with some stupendous task, not troubling even to acquaint the world with their results. And she could dimly guess why this was so, and must be so. They did not wish to be dragged into foolish controversies with the ignorant.
And just then Simon Iff took up the conversation with a remark in tune with that thought.
"We shall not ask you for any pledge of secrecy, he said, "for you have only to say what you see and hear to be laughed at for a liar. If this be our last meeting, we are quits. You will be taken to a little chapel leading from this room. There you will find a circle, which you must enter, being careful not to touch it, even with your dress; for that would be dangerous. Within that circle you must remain until we send for you, unless you wish to leave, in which case you have only to pass through the white curtains in the north. You will find yourself in a lighted passage; open the dooor at the end, you will be in the street, where my automobile awaits your orders. Your use of this exit will, however, close your career in magick; in any future relations we should merely be good friends — or I hope so — but we should not consider any proposal to reconstruct the present situation."
"I will wait until you send for me," cried Lisa. "I swear it."
Simon Iff placed his hand upon her brow; in another instant he was gone from the room.
Sister Cybele rose and took her by the hand. "Come!" said she; "but you had better bid farewell to your lover." The girl once again thrilled to the undertone of malice in the voice. But Cyril took her fondly in his arms, and crushed her to him.
"To-morrow," he said, "brave heart, true heart! To-morrow we shall be alone together!"
Trembling, la Giuffria returned to Sister Cybele, and followed her to the door of the chapel. She threw a last look over her shoulder: to her amazement Cyril was regarding her with a cynical smile of amusement. Her heart went deadly cold; she felt the pull of Sister Cybele's hand, suddenly grown iron and inexorable. The door shut behind her with a monstrous clang; and she found herself in a room at once obscure and menacing.
She wondered why they called it a chapel. It was a bell-shaped cave. She dimly saw the white curtains of which Iff had spoken; there was nothing else in the room but a square thin altar whose surface was of polished silver, around whose base ran a broad copper band, evidently the circle referred to, and ten lamps, set in little stars of iron, which gave a faint blue light. The entire chamber was cut out of the solid rock. Only that part of it which lay within the circle had been dressed; the rest of the floor, and the walls, which bent over to meet in a point, were rough.
She stepped carefully into the circle, raising her dress. Sister Cybele faced her squarely. In the woman's face Lisa read a thousand evil purposes, a cruelty devilishly hot as Cyril's was devilishly cold, and the assurance in those grey eyes that she had fallen into the power of creatures utterly abominable. Sister Cybele suddenly broke into a short harsh laugh, then stepped aside, and Lisa, turning quickly, only saw the door close behind her. Heedless of caution, she leapt after her in the impulse of self-preservation — but the door was entirely smooth on the inside. She beat against it, uttering a horrible, fierce cry: but only silence answered her.
The impulse passed as quickly as it had come. Mechanically she stepped back into the circle. And as she did so the thought of Simon Iff came to calm her. The other two might puzzle her, but she felt that Iff would neither do nor suffer wrong.
During dinner, too, she had fixed her gaze, fascinated, upon the Mahathera Phang. She knew that he was more than friendly to the Order, though not a member of it; and his face, coupled with the fact that he had not spoken even once in her presence, redoubled that confidence.
In front of the little altar, she discovered, as her eyes accommodated themselves to the dimness, a curiously-shapen stool covered with leather. She squatted on it, and found it a very Paradise of ease. And then it dawned upon her that she had to wait. To wait!
There was no sound or movement to fix her attention; presently she began to amuse herself by making faces at herself in the polished silver of the altar. It was not long before she tired of that; and once again she found herself waiting.
Her imagination soon began to people the little room with phantoms; the memory of the Thing in the Garden began to obsess her. Once again Simon Iff came to the rescue. She knew that her imagination was at work, and that, even had the shapes about her been real, they could not harm her. She heard herself repeating the old mystic's words: "Because there is in him no place of death."
She became perfectly calm; for a little while her thoughts occupied her. Suddenly they fled, and she found herself (so to speak) in a small open boat, without provisions, in the midst of a limitless ocean of unutterable boredom.
She had a period of fidgets; that over, she became listless, and merely prayed for sleep.
Then she noticed that a square pencil of light had entered from the apex of the chapel, and was casting glory upon the top of the altar. She rose instantly — and gasped in amazement, for figures were moving on the silver.
Three men, with strange musical instruments, species respectively of flute, viol, and drum, were walking across a room. This room was hung with rose-coloured curtains, and lit with silver candelabra. At one end was a dais, and on this the men took their seats. They began to tune their instruments, and so strong was her fancy, that she thought she heard them. It was a fantastic Oriental dance-music. Presently a small boy, a negro, dressed in a yellow tunic and baggy breeches of pale blue, entered the room. He carried a salver, on which were a great flask of wine and two goblets of gold.
Then, to her utter amazement, Cyril Grey stepped into the room with Sister Cybele. They took the wine from the boy, and, each placing the left hand on the left shoulder of the other, they touched their goblets, and, throwing their heads back, drained them. The boy took the empty cups and disappeared.
She saw Cyril and Cybele draw together; they gave a laugh which (once again) she fancied she could hear. It rang demoniac in her very inmost soul. An instant more, and their mouths met in a kiss.
Lisa felt her knees give way. She caught the altar, and saved herself from falling; but she must have lost consciousness for a second or two, for when her eyes opened she saw that they had discarded their robes, and were dancing together. It was wild and horrible beyond all imagination; the dancers were locked so closely that they appeared like a single monster of fable, a thing with two heads and four legs which writhed or leapt in hideous ecstasy.
She was so shaken that she did not even ask herself the nature of the vision, whether it was a dream, an hallucination, a picture of the past, or an actual happening. The bacchanal obscenity of it was overwhelming. Again and again she turned her eyes away; but they always returned to the gaze, and every gesture shot a pang of agony to her soul. She understood the ambiguities of her lover; his strange behaviour seemed like an open book to her; and the malice of Sister Cybele, her elfin laughter, her satanic sneer, sank into her bleeding heart like acid, burning, fuming.
The revel did not diminish; instead, it took novel and more atrocious forms. All that she had ever conceived of sensuality of bestiality, was a thousandfold surpassed. It was an infinite refinement of abomination joined with an exaggeration of grossness that might have turned Georges Sand to stone. The light went out.
The thought of flight from that abominable chapel never came to her. It was Cyril — the man to whom she had given herself utterly at the first touch — who was plunging this poisoned dagger into her soul. And she could not even die; it was ferocity and madness that awoke in her. She would wait until the morning — and she would find a way to be avenged. Yet she felt that she was slowly bleeding to death; it did not seem that any morning could ever come to her. She would not be able to face Cyril; it seemed somehow as if the shame were hers.
And then she screamed aloud — a soft hand was on her shoulder. "Hush! Hush!" came a gentle voice in her ear. It was the girl who had waited on her at dinner. Even at the time Lisa had noticed that she was very different to the others; for they were of most cheerful countenance, and this girl's eyes were red with weeping. "Come away!" said the girl, "come away while it is time. This is the first chance I have ever had to escape; I was set to watch the chapel door to-night; and I found the spring. Oh, come away quickly! They're criminals; they corrupt you and they torture you. Oh do come, sister! I can't escape without you; the man in the automobile would stop me. But if you come, I can slip away. It's only a step through the passage. Oh God! Oh God! if I had only gone when I was as you are!" Lisa's whole soul went out in sympathy to the gentle creature." Look what they've done to me!" "Feel all down my back!" The girl winced with pain even at Lisa's gentle finger-tips. Her back was a mass of knotted weals; she must have been beaten savagely with a sjambok or a knout.
"And see my arms!" The girl lifted her hands, and the loose sleeves of her robe fell back. From wrist to elbow she was a mass of parallel cuts. "I wouldn't do what they wanted," she moaned, "it was too horrible. You'd think no woman would; but they do. Sister Cybele's the worst. O come! do come from this abominable house!"
Lisa had touched the summit of the mountain of hysteria. Her feelings were far beyond all expression; she was living in a world deeper than feeling. She gained the consciousness of her own nature, something far deeper than anything she had ever known, and she expressed its will in words of absolute despair. "I can't leave Cyril Grey."
"I'm afraid of him more than all the others," whispered the girl." I loved him too. And when I came to him two days ago, thinking that he still loved me — he laughed — and he had me whipped. Oh come away!"
"I can't," said Lisa, brokenly. "But you shall go. Here, take my dress; give me your robe. The chauffeur won't know the difference. Tell him to drive to the Grand Hotel; ask for Lavinia King; I'll get word to you to-morrow, and money if you need it. But - I - can't - go."
The last words dripped out icily from the frozen waters of her soul. Quickly the girl dressed herself in Lisa's clothes: then she threw the white robe over her — La Giuffria never thought of the symbolism of the action; she would have rather stood naked before a thousand men than appear in that garment of infamy —
The girl pressed one soft kiss upon her forehead: then was gone headlong through the curtains. Lisa heard the clang of the outer door, and a breath of cold air swept round the room.
It dizzied her, as if she had been drunk; she remembered no more; probably she slept.
At last, she came to consciousness again in a most strange state of being. A peculiar smell was in the air, something as of the sea; she felt a physical exhilaration incomparable. Her mind was still quite blank as to the past; she was not even surprised at her surroundings. She rose and began to stretch her arms in a dozen physical exercises. Just as she touched her toes for the tenth time the door behind her opened. Sister Cybele was standing there. "Come, Sister!" she cried, "it will be dawn in three minutes; first we must make the Adoration of the Sun, and then comes breakfast!"
The horror of the night returned to Lisa in a flash. But somehow it had receeded into a deeper stratum of her being; when it came to a question of any possible action, she seemed remote. She had the horrible fancy that she had died in the night. She followed Sister Cybele as she would have followed her executioner to the block.
Together they went up a spiral staircase. They came to a large room, circular in shape; it was full of the members of the Order, in their robes. At the East, where an oriel opened toward the dawn, she could see the figure of Simon Iff, his eyes fixed, awaiting the rising of the Sun.
A beam touched his face; and he began:
"Hail unto thee that art Ra in thy rising; even unto thee that art Ra in thy strength, that travellest over the Heavens in thy Bark in the uprising of the Sun! Tahuti standeth in his splendour at the prow, and Ra-Hoor abideth at the helm; hail unto thee from the abodes of night!"
It seemed to her that the whole assembly, uniting in the singular gesture with which Simon Iff accompanied his words, was uplifted in some subtle way beyond her understanding. The crowd-psychology assailed her; and she gritted her teeth to curse this hypocrisy of devilry.
But at that moment the crowd broke like a wave upon the beach; and she saw a girl running upon her.
"Oh, you were splendid, sister!" cried a voice, and two scarred arms were thrown about her neck. It was the girl of the night before!
"Didn't you escape?" babbled Lisa, incoherent.
But the child's ringing laughter silenced her. "I forgive you for spoiling my record," she bubbled over. "You know, I'm supposed to get them five times in six."
Lisa stood bewildered. But Sister Cybele was wringing her hands and kissing her, and Cyril Grey was telling the child that he had first claim on the strangle-hold —
And then they all suddenly melted from her. Simon Iff was walking toward her, and his hand was open.
"I congratulate you, sister," he said solemnly, "upon your initiation to our holy Order. You have well earned the robe in which you stand, for you have paid its price — service to others without thought of the consequence to yourself. Let us break our fast!"
And he took Lisa's arm; presently they came to the refectory. As in a well-rehearsed play, every one fell into his place; and before Lisa realized the utter subversion that had taken place in her being, Sister Cybele was on her feet, proclaiming:
"Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law."
Lisa thought that breakfast the most delicious she had ever tasted in her life.
A great reaction from the strain of the previous twenty-four hours was upon her. She had lived a lifetime in that period; and in a sense she had most surely died and been reborn. She felt like a little child. She wanted to climb on to everybody's knee, and be hugged! She had regained at a single stroke the infant's faith in human nature; she looked at the universe as simply as a great artist does. (For in him too lives and rejoices the Eternal Babe).
But her greatest surprise was in her physical health and energy. She had passed through a fierce and furious day, a night of infernal torture; yet she was unaccountably buoyant, eager, assiduous in every act, from her smiled word of pleasure to the drinking of her coffee.
Everything at that meal seemed matter of intoxication. She had not previously realized that toast, properly understood, was a superior stimulant to brandy.
When breakfast ended, she could not have walked across the room. It was dancing or nothing, so she said to herself.
Somehow she found herself once more in the Chapel of Abominations. On the altar was laid a sprig of gorse, and the sunlight, streaming through the apex of the vault, made its thorny bloom of the very fire and colour of day.
Simon Iff stood behind the altar; Cyril Grey was on her right hand, Sister Cybele on her left. They joined their hands about her.
"I will now complete the formality of your reception," said the old man. "Say after me: 'I (your name).'"
"Solemnly promise to devote myself" She repeated the phrase.
To the discovery of my true purpose in this life."
She echoed in a lower tone.
All three concluded "So mote it be." "I receive you into this Order," which Simon Iff, "I confirm you in the robe which you have won; I greet you with the right hand of fellowship; and I induct you to the Gate of the Great Work." Still holding the hand which he had grasped, he led her from the chapel.
They passed through the refectory, and entered a room on its other side. This room was furnished as a library; there was nothing in it to suggest magick.
"This is the Hall of Learning," said Simon Iff "Here must your work begin. And, innocent as it seems, it is a thousandfold more dangerous than the chapel from which you have come forth with so much credit."
Lisa seated herself, and prepared to listen to the exposition of her task in life which she expected to follow.
But she could not know why the old mystic was at so great pains (as he afterwards proved) to make every syllable of his discourse intelligible; for she had not heard his conference with Cyril Grey at the moment when Sister Cybele had called her.
"Brother Cyril!" the old mystic had said, "I shall go on — I shall even put more than the necessary care into the work — as if this were victory and not defeat.
"I tell you that you will never do anything yourself, still less anything for others, so long as you rely on women. This victory of the woman's is only the chance resultant of a chaos of emotional states. She's in it for the fun of the thing; she's not even an artist; she's merely the female of the species; and I do not alleviate the situation by one further precision — your species!"
"Are women no use? Why were they made?" asked Cyril, angry He did not know that his question was prompted by a desire yet unconquered in himself. But Simon Iff answered him with mock humility.
"I am unskilled to unravel the mysteries of the Universe. Like Sir Isaac Newton, I am —" But seeing the muffled rage in the boy's eyes, he spared him the conclusion.