“Foolish woman!” she said in pitying tones. “Wast thou so vexed that thou wouldst strip thyself of the pleasant shape which heaven has given thee? Surely this is madness, Atene, for how knowest thou in what likeness thou mightest be sent to tread the earth again? As no queen perhaps, but as a peasant’s child, deformed, unsightly; for such reward, it is said, is given to those that achieve self-murder. Or even, as many think, shaped like a beast—a snake, a cat, a tigress! Why, see,” and she picked the dagger from the ground and cast it into the air, “that point was poisoned. Had it but pricked thee now!” and she smiled at her and shook her head.
But Atene could bear no more of this mockery, more venomed than her own steel.
“Thou art not mortal,” she wailed. “How can I prevail against thee? To Heaven I leave thy punishment,” and there upon the rocky peak Atene sank down and wept.
Leo stood nearest to her, and the sight of this royal woman in her misery proved too much for him to bear. Stepping to her side he stooped and lifted her to her feet, muttering some kind words. For a moment she rested on his arm, then shook herself free of him and took the proffered hand of her old uncle Simbri.
“I see,” said Ayesha, “that as ever, thou art courteous, my lord Leo, but it is best that her own servant should take charge of her, for—she may hide more daggers. Come, the day grows, and surely we need rest.”
Together we descended the multitudinous steps and passed the endless, rock-hewn passages till we came to the door of the dwelling of the high-priestess and were led through it into a hall beyond. Here Ayesha parted from us saying that she was outworn, as indeed she seemed to be with an utter weariness, not of the body, but of the spirit. For her delicate form drooped like a rain-laden lily, her eyes grew dim as those of a person in a trance, and her voice came in a soft, sweet whisper, the voice of one speaking in her sleep.
“Good-bye,” she said to us. “Oros will guard you both, and lead you to me at the appointed time. Rest you well.”
So she went and the priest led us into a beautiful apartment that opened on to a sheltered garden. So overcome were we also by all that we had endured and seen, that we could scarcely speak, much less discuss these marvellous events.
“My brain swims,” said Leo to Oros, “I desire to sleep.”
He bowed and conducted us to a chamber where were beds, and on these we flung ourselves down and slept, dreamlessly, like little children.
When we awoke it was afternoon. We rose and bathed, then saying that we wished to be alone, went together into the garden where even at this altitude, now, at the end of August, the air was still mild and pleasant. Behind a rock by a bed of campanulas and other mountain flowers and ferns, was a bench near to the banks of a little stream, on which we seated ourselves.