|ACROSS THE ZODIAC by Percy Greg|
We were received on landing by our former host and conducted to his house. On this occasion, however, I was not detained in the hall, but permitted at once to enter the chamber allotted to us. Eveena, who had exacted from me all that I knew, and much that I meant to conceal, respecting the occasion of our journey, was much agitated and not a little alarmed. My own humble rank in the Zinta rendered so sudden and imperative a summons the more difficult to understand, and though by this time well versed in the learning, neither of us was familiar with the administration of the Brotherhood. I was glad therefore on her account, even more than on my own, when, a scratch at the door having obtained admission for an ambâ, it placed before me a message from Esmo requesting a private conference. Her father’s presence set Eveena’s mind at rest; since she had learned, strangely enough from myself, what she had never known before, the rank he held among the brethren.
“I have summoned you,” he said as soon as I joined him, “for more than one reason. There is but one, however, that I need now explain. Important questions, are as a rule either settled by the Chiefs alone in Council, or submitted to a general meeting of the Order. In this case neither course can be adopted. It would not have occurred to myself that, under present circumstances, you could render material service in either of the two directions in which it may be required. But those by whom the cause has been prepared have asked that you should be one of the Convent, and such a request is never refused. Indeed, its refusal would imply either such injustice as would render the whole proceeding utterly incompatible with the first principles of our cohesion, or such distrust of the person summoned as is never felt for a member of the Brotherhood. I would rather say no more on the subject now. Your nerve and judgment will be sufficiently tried to-night; and it is a valuable maxim of our science that, in the hours immediately preceding either an important decision or a severe trial, the spirit should be left as far as possible calm and unvexed by vague shadows of that which is to come.”
The maxim thus expressed, if rendered into the language of material medicine, is among those which every man of experience holds and practically acts upon. I turned the conversation, then, by inviting Esmo into my own apartment; and I was touched indeed by the eager delight, even stronger than I had expected, with which Eveena welcomed her father, and inquired into the minutest details of the home life from which she had been, as it seemed to her, so long separated. What was, however, specially characteristic was the delicate care with which, even in this first meeting with one of her own family, she contrived still to give the paramount place in her attention to her husband, and never for a moment to let him feel excluded from a conversation with whose topics he was imperfectly acquainted, and in which he might have been supposed uninterested. The hours thus passed pleasantly away; and, except when Kevimâ, joined us at the evening meal, adding a new and unexpected pleasure to Eveena’s natural delight in this sudden reunion, we remained undisturbed until a very low electric signal, sounding apparently through several chambers at once, recalled Esmo’s mind to the duties before him.
“You will not,” he said, “return till late, and I wish you would induce Eveena to ensure, by composing herself to sleep before your return, that you shall not be asked to converse until the morning.”
He withdrew with Kevimâ, and, as instructed, I proceeded to change my dress for one of pure white adapted to the occasion, with only a band of crimson around the waist and throat, and to invest myself in the badge of the Order. The turban which I wore, without attracting attention, in the Asiatic rather than in the Martial form, was of white mingled with red; a novelty which seemed to Eveena’s eyes painfully ominous. In Martial language, as in Zveltic symbolism, crimson generally takes the place of black as the emblem of guilt and peril. When Esmo re-entered our chamber for a moment to summon me, he was invested, as in the Shrine itself, in the full attire of his office, and I was recalled to a recollection of the reverence due to the head of the Brotherhood by the sudden change in Eveena’s manner. To her father, though a most respectful, she was a fearlessly affectionate child. For Clavelta she had only the reverence, deeply intermingled with awe, with which a devout Catholic convert from the East may approach for the first time some more than usually imposing occupant of the Chair of St. Peter. Before the arm that bore the Signet, and the sash of gold, we bent knee and head in the deference prescribed by our rules—a homage which the youngest child in the public Nurseries would not dream of offering to the Camptâ himself. At a sign from his hand I followed Esmo, hoping rather than expecting that Eveena would obey the counsel indirectly addressed to her. Traversing the same passages as before, save that a slight turn avoided the symbolic bridge, and formally challenged at each point as usual by the sentries, who saluted with profoundest reverence the Signet of the Order, we passed at last into the Hall of Initiation.
But on this occasion its aspect was completely changed. A space immediately in front of what I may call the veil of the Shrine was closed in by drapery of white bordered with crimson. The Chiefs occupied, as before, their seats on the platform. Some fifty members of the Order sat to right and left immediately below; but Esmo, on this occasion, seated himself on the second leftward step of the Throne, which, with the silver light and the other mystic emblems, was unveiled in the same strange manner as before at his approach. Near the lower end of the small chamber thus formed, crossing the passage between the seats on either hand, was a barrier of the bright red metal I have more than once mentioned, and behind it a seat of some sable material. Behind this, to right and left, stood silent and erect two sentries robed in green, and armed with the usual spear. A deep intense absolute silence prevailed, from the moment when the last of the party had taken his place, for the space of some ten minutes. In the faces of the Chiefs and of some of the elder Initiates, who were probably aware of the nature of the scene to follow, was an expression of calm but deep pain and regret; crossed now and then by a shade of anxiety, such as rarely appeared in that abode of assured peace and profound security. On no countenance was visible the slightest shadow of restlessness or curiosity. In the changed aspect of the place, the changed tone of its associations and of the feelings habitual to its frequenters, there was something which impressed and overawed the petulance of youth, and even the indifference of an experience like my own. At last, stretching forth the ivory-like staff of mingled white and red, which on this occasion each of the Chiefs had substituted for their usual crystal wand, Esmo spoke, not raising his voice a single semitone above its usual pitch, but with even unwonted gravity—
“Come forward, Asco Zvelta!” he said.
The sight I now witnessed, no description could represent to one who had not seen the same. Parting the drapery at the lower end, there came forward a figure in which the most absolutely inexperienced eye could not fail to recognise a culprit called to trial. “Came forward,” I have said, because I can use no other words. But such was not the term which would have occurred to anyone who witnessed the movement. “Was dragged forward,” I should say, did I attempt to convey the impression produced; —save that no compulsion, no physical force was used, nor were there any to use it. And yet the miserable man approached slowly, reluctantly, shrinking back as one who strives with superior corporeal power exerted to force him onward, as if physically dragged on step by step by invisible bonds held by hands unseen. So with white face and shaking form he reached the barrier, and knelt as Esmo rose from his place, honouring instinctively, though his eyes seemed incapable of discerning them, the symbols of supreme authority. Then, at a silent gesture, he rose and fell back into the chair placed for him, apparently unable to stand and scarcely able to sustain himself on his seat.
“Brother,” said the junior of the Chiefs, or he who occupied the place farthest to the right; —and now I noticed that eleven were present, the last seat on the right of him who spoke being vacant— “you have unveiled to strangers the secrets of the Shrine.”
He paused for an answer; and, in a tone strangely unnatural and expressionless, came from the scarcely parted lips of the culprit the reply—”
“It is true.”
“You have,” said the next of the Chiefs, “accepted reward to place the lives of your brethren at the mercy of their enemies.”
“It is true.”
“You have,” said he who occupied the lowest seat upon the left, “forsworn in heart and deed, if not in word, the vows by which you willingly bound yourself, and the law whose boons you had accepted.”
Again the same confession, forced evidently by some overwhelming power from one who would, if he could, have denied or remained silent.
“And to whom,” said Esmo, interposing for the first time, “have you thus betrayed us?”
“I know not,” was the reply.
“Explain,” said the Chief immediately to the left of the Throne, who, if there were a difference in the expression of the calm sad faces, seemed to entertain more of compassion and less of disgust and repulsion towards the offender than any other.
“Those with whom I spoke,” replied the culprit, in the same strange tone, “were not known to me, but gave token of authority next to that of the Camptâ. They told me that the existence of the Order had long been known, that many of its members were clearly indicated by their household practices, that their destruction was determined; that I was known as a member of the Order, and might choose between perishing first of their victims and receiving reward such as I should name myself for the information I could give.”
“What have you told?” asked another of the Chiefs.
“I have not named one of the symbols. I have not betrayed the Shrine or the passwords. I have told that the Zinta is. I have told the meaning of the Serpent, the Circle, and the Star, though I have not named them.”
“And,” said he on the left of the Throne, “naming the hope that is more than all hope, recalling the power that is above all power, could you dare to renounce the one and draw on your own head the justice of the other? What reward could induce a child of the Light to turn back into darkness? What authority could protect the traitor from the fate he imprecated and accepted when he first knelt before the Throne?” “The hope was distant and the light was dim,” the offender answered. “I was threatened and I was tempted. I knew that death, speedy and painless, was the penalty of treason to the Order, that a death of prolonged torture might be the vengeance of the power that menaced me. I hoped little in the far and dim future of the Serpent’s promise, and I hoped and feared much in the life on this side of death.”
“Do you know,” asked the last inquirer again, “no name, and nothing that can enable us to trace those with whom you spoke or those who employed them?”
“Only this,” was the answer, “that one of them has an especial hatred to one Initiate present,” pointing to myself; “and seeks his life, not only as a child of the Star, not only as husband of the daughter of Clavelta, but for a reason that is not known to me.”
“And,” asked another Chief, “do you know what instrument that enemy seeks to use?”
“One who has over her intended victim such influence as few of her sex ever have over their lords; one of whom his love will learn no distrust, against whom his heart has no guard and his manhood no wisdom.”
A shiver of horror passed over the forms of the Chiefs and of many who sat near them, incomprehensible to me till a sudden light was afforded by the indignant interruption of Kevimâ, who sat not far from myself.
“It cannot be,” he cried, “or you can name her whom you accuse.”
“Be silent!” Esmo said, in the cold, grave tone of a president rebuking disorder, mingled with the deeper displeasure of a priest repressing irreverence in the midst of the most solemn religious rite. “None may speak here till the Chiefs have ceased to speak.”
None of the latter, however, seemed disposed to ask another question. The guilt of the accused was confessed. All that he could tell to guide their further inquiries had been told. To doubt that what was forced from him was to the best of his knowledge true, was to them, who understood the mysterious power that had compelled the spirit and the lips to an unwilling confession, impossible. And if it had seemed that further information might have been extracted relative to my own personal danger, a stronger tie, a deeper obligation, bound them to the supposed object of the last obscure imputation, and none was willing to elicit further charges or clearer evidence. Probably also they anticipated that, when the word was extended to the Initiates, I should take up my own cause.
“Would any brother speak?” asked Esmo, when the silence of the Chiefs had lasted for a few moments.
But his rebuke had silenced Kevimâ, and no one else cared to interpose. The eyes of the assembly turned upon me so generally and so pointedly, that at last I felt myself forced, though against my own judgment, to rise.
“I have no question to ask the accused,” I said.
“Then,” replied Esmo calmly, “you have nothing now to say. Give to the brother accused before us the cup of rest.”
A small goblet was handed by one of the sentries to the miserable creature, now half-insensible, who awaited our judgment. In a very few moments he had sunk into a slumber in which his face was comparatively calm, and his limbs had ceased to tremble. His fate was to be debated in the presence indeed of his body, but in the absence of consciousness and knowledge.
“Has any elder brother,” inquired Esmo, “counsel to afford?”
No word was spoken.
“Has any brother counsel to afford?”
Again all were silent, till the glance which the Chief cast in order along the ranks of the assembly fell upon myself.
“One word,” I said. “I claim permission to speak, because the matter touches closely and cruelly my own honour.”
There was that inaudible, invisible, motionless “movement,” as some French reporters call it, of surprise throughout the assembly which communicates itself instinctively to a speaker.
“My own honour,” I continued, “in the honour dearer and nearer to me even than my own. What the accused has spoken may or may not be true.”
“It is true,” interposed a Chief, probably pitying my ignorance.
“May be true,” I continued, “though I will not believe it, to whomsoever his words may apply. That no such treason as they have suggested ever for one moment entered, or could enter, the heart of her who knelt with me, in presence of many now here, before that Throne, I will vouch by all the symbols we revere in common, and with the life which it seems is alone threatened by the feminine domestic treason alleged, from whomsoever that treason may proceed. I will accuse none, as I suspect none; but I will say that the charge might be true to the letter, and yet not touch, as I know it does not justly touch, the daughter of our Chief.”
A deep relief was visible in the faces which had so lately been clouded by a suspicion terrible to all. Esmo’s alone remained impassive throughout my vindication, as throughout the apparent accusation and silent condemnation of his daughter.
“Has any brother,” he said, “counsel to speak respecting the question actually before us?”
One and all were silent, till Esmo again put the formal question: —
“Has he who was our brother betrayed the brotherhood?”
From every member of the assembly came a clear unmistakable assent.
“Is he outcast?”
Silence rather than any distinct sign answered in the affirmative.
“Is it needful that his lips be sealed for ever?”
One or two of the Chiefs expressed in a single sentence an affirmative conviction, which was evidently shared by all present except myself. Appealing by a look to Esmo, and encouraged by his eye, I spoke—
“The outcast has confessed treason worthy of death. That I cannot deny. But he has sinned from fear rather than from greed or malice; and to fear, courage should be indulgent. The coward is but what Allah has made him, and to punish cowardice is to punish the child for the heritage his parents have inflicted. Moreover, no example of punishment will make cowards brave. It seems to me, then, that there is neither justice nor wisdom in taking vengeance upon the crime of weakness.”
In but two faces, those of Esmo and of his next colleague on the left, could I see the slightest sign of approval. One of the other chiefs answered briefly and decisively my plea for mercy.
“If,” he said, “treason proceed from fear, the more cause that a greater fear should prevent the treason of cowardice for the future. The same motives that have led the offender to betray so much would assuredly lead him to betray more were he released; and to attempt lifelong confinement is to make the lives of all dependent on a chance in order to spare one unworthy life. The excuse which our brother has pleaded may, we hope, avail with a tribunal which can regard the conscience apart from the consequences. It ought not to avail with us.”
But the law of the Zinta, as I now learned, will not allow sentence of death to be passed save by an absolutely unanimous vote. It is held that if one judge educated in the ideas of the Order, appreciating to the full the priceless importance of its teaching and the guilt of treason against it, is unpersuaded that there exists sufficient cause for the supreme penalty, the doubt is such as should preclude the infliction of that penalty. It is, however, permitted and expected that the dissentients, if few in number, much more a single dissentient, shall listen attentively and give the most respectful and impartial consideration to the arguments of brethren, and especially of seniors. If a single mind remains unmoved, its dissent is decisive. But it would be the gravest dereliction of duty to persist from wilfulness, obstinacy, or pride, in adhesion to a view perhaps hastily expressed in opposition to authority and argument. The debate to which my speech gave rise lasted for two hours. Each speaker spoke but a few terse expressive sentences; and after each speech came a pause allowing full time for the consideration of its reasoning. Two points were very soon made clear to all. The offender had justly forfeited his life; and if his death were necessary or greatly conducive to the safety of the rest, the mercy which for his sake imperilled worthier men and sacred truths would have been no less than a crime. The thought, however, that weighed most with me against my natural feeling was an experience to which none present could appeal. I had sat on many courts-martial where cowardice was the only charge imputed; and in every case in which that charge was proved, sentence of death had been passed and carried out on a ground I could not refuse to consider sufficient: —namely, that the infection of terror can best be repressed by an example inspiring deeper terror than that to which the prisoner has yielded. Compelled by these precedents, though with intense reluctance, I submitted at last to the universal judgment. Esmo having collected the will, I cannot say the voices, of the assembly, paused for a minute in silence.
“The Present has pronounced,” he said at last. “Are the voices of the Past assentient?”
He looked around as if to see whether, under real or supposed inspiration, any of those before him would give in another name a judgment opposite to that in which all had concurred. Instinctively I glanced towards the Throne, but it remained vacant as ever. Then, fixing his eyes for a few moments upon the culprit, who started and woke to full consciousness under his gaze—and receiving from the Chief nearest to him on the left a chain of small golden circles similar to that of the canopy, represented also on the Signet, while he on the right held a small roll, on the golden surface of which a long list of names was inscribed—our Superior pronounced, amid deepest stillness, in a low clear tone, the form of excommunication; breaking at the appropriate moment one link from the chain, and, at a later point, drawing a broad crimson bar through one cipher on the roll:—
“Conscience-convict, tried in truth,
Judged in justice, doomed in ruth;
Ours no more—once ours in vain—
Falls the Veil and snaps the Chain,
Drops the link and lies alone: —
Traitor to the Emerald Throne,
Alien from the troth we plight,
Nature native to the night;
Trained in Light the Light to scorn,
Soul apostate and forsworn,
False to symbol, sense, and sign,
To the Serpent’s pledge divine,
To the Wings that reach afar,
To the Circle and the Star;
Recreant to the mystic rule,
Outlaw from the sacred school—
Backward is the Threshold crossed;
Lost the Light, the Life is lost.
Go; the golden page we blot:
Go; forgetting and forgot!
Go—by final sentence shriven,
Be thy crime absolved in Heaven!”
Once more the Throne and the Emblems behind and above it had been veiled in impenetrable darkness. Instinctively, as it seemed, every one present had risen to his feet, and stood with bent head and downcast eyes as the Condemned, rising mechanically, turned without a word and passed away.
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