To have seen her fair face is no small boast, but to be summoned to her presence—I cannot remember her so gracious to any one, since—" she paused suddenly, deliberately. Tristan regarded her slantwise over his shoulder, without making response. At last, irritated, he knew not why, he asked curtly: "What is your mistress?
The flattery seemed so spontaneous that it would have puzzled one possessed of greater guile than Tristan to have uncovered her cunning. Nor was Tristan unwilling to seem strong to her; for the moment he was almost tempted to continue questioning her regarding her mistress. Do you not know a woman's ways?
My mistress loves a strong arm. You may serve her. They had left the garden and had arrived before a high stone wall that skirted the precincts of Theodora's palace. Cypresses and bays raised their tops above the stones. Great cedars cast deep shadows. In the wall there was a door studded with heavy iron nails. The girl took a key that dangled from her girdle, unlocked the door and beckoned to Tristan to enter. Tristan stood and gazed. In the light of the moon which drenched all things he saw a garden in which emerald grass plots alternated with beds of strange-tinted orchids, flowers purple and red.
At the end of the plaisaunce there opened an orange thicket and under the trees stood a woman clad in crimson, her white arms bare. She wore sandals of silver, and her dusky hair was confined in a net of gold. As Tristan was about to yield to the overmastering temptation the memory of Hellayne conquered all other emotions. He turned back from the door and looked full into the girl's dark eyes.
Her face changed suddenly like a fickle sky, and there was something in her eyes too wicked for words. Without vouchsafing a reply, Tristan turned and lost himself in the desolation of Mount Aventine.
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The moon and her sister planets passed through their appointed spheres of harmonious light and law, and from all cloisters and convents prayers went up to heaven for pity, pardon and blessing on sinful humanity that had neither pity, pardon nor blessing for itself, till, with magic suddenness, the dense purple skies changed to a pearly grey, the moon sank pallidly beneath the earth's dark rim and the stars were extinguished one by one.
Tristan still slept on his improvised couch, a marble slab he had chosen when he discovered that he had lost his way in the wilderness of the Aventine. His head on his arm he lay quite still among the flowers, wrapt in a sort of dizzy delirium in which the forms of Theodora and Hellayne strangely intermingled, until the riddles of life were blotted out together with the riddles of Fate. Tristan spent the greater part of the day visiting the churches and sanctuaries, offering up prayers for oblivion and peace. His heart was heavy within him.
Like the stray leaf that has been torn from its native branch and flutters resistlessly, aimlessly hither and thither, at the mercy of the chance breeze, nevermore to return to its sheltering bough, so the lone wanderer felt himself tossed about by the waves of destiny, a human derelict without a haven where he might escape the storms of life.
Guiltless in his own conscience of an imputed sin, in that his love for Hellayne had been pure and holy, Tristan could find little comfort in the enforced penance, while his hungry heart cried out for her who had so willed it. And, as with weary feet he dragged himself through the streets of the pontifical city, he vaguely wondered, if his would ever be the peace of the goal. In the darkness in which he walked, in the perturbation of his mind, he longed more than ever to open his heart to some one who would understand and counsel and guide his steps. The Pontiff being a prisoner in the Lateran, Tristan's ardent wish to confide in the successor of St.
Peter had suffered a sudden and a keen disappointment. Peter's, to whom he might turn for ease of mind, and a natural reluctance to lay bare the holiest thoughts man may give to woman, restrained him for the nonce from seeking these channels. Thus three days had sped, yet naught had happened to indicate that events would shape the course so ardently desired by Tristan.
It was there, on one of the terraces crowning the splendid heights of immortal Rome, with a view of the distant Sabine and Alban hills, fading into the evening dusk, that the memory of the golden days of Avalon returned to him in waves of anguish that almost mastered his resolve to begin life anew under conditions that seemed insupportable. Again Hellayne was by his side, as in dream-forgotten Avalon.
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Again side by side they wandered where the shattered columns of old grey temples, all that remained of a sunny Greek civilization of which they knew nothing, crowned the heights above the lazy lapping waves of the tideless Tyrrhenian sea. There, for whole hours would they sit, the air full of the scent of orange and myrtle; under almond trees, covered with blossoms that sprinkled the emerald ground like rosy snowflakes, and watch the white sails of the far feluccas that trailed the waves in monotonous rhythm to or from the sunlit shores of Africa.
The distant headlands looked faint and dreamy, and the sparkling sea broke, gurgling, foaming among the rocks at their feet, as it had broken at the feet of other lovers who had sat there centuries ago, when those shattered columns had been white in their freshness and the temples had been wreathed with the garlands of youth. And the eternal waves said to them what they had said to the dead and forgotten; and the fickle winds sang to them what they had sung to the fair and the nameless, and they stretched forth their hands, and saw but the sea and the sun.
And they knew not the deity to whom those temple columns had been raised, just as he knew not to whose worship those fallen columns had been erected, nor guessed they who had knelt at the holy shrines.
And as they sat there, the man and the woman, their eyes probing the depths of living sapphire, they would watch the restless sea-weed that seemed to coil and uncoil like innumerable blue snakes upon a bed of bright blue flames, and the luminous mosses that trembled like blue stars ceaselessly towards the surface that they never, never reached. And down there in the crystal palaces they would fancy that they saw faces as of glancing mermen, even as the lovers of older days had seen passing Tritons and the scaly children of Poseidon. And again she would croon those sad melancholy songs that came from her lips like faint echoes of Aeolian harps.
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Now she flung them upon the air in bursts of weird music, to the accompaniment of a breaking wave, songs so passionate and elemental that they seemed the cry of these same radiant waters when churned by the storm into fury. Or they might have been such wailings as spirits imprisoned in old sea caves would utter to the hollow walls, or which the ghosts of ship-wrecked crews might send forth from the rocks where they had perished.
Or again they might suggest some earthly passion, love, jealousy, the cry of a longing heart, till the dirge seemed to wear itself out and the soul of the listener seemed to sail out of the tempest into bright and peaceful waters like those that skirted dream-lost Avalon, scarcely rippled by the faint breeze of summer, breaking in long unfurling waves among the rocks at their feet. Thus they used to sit long hours, heart listening to heart, soul clinging to soul, while she bared her throat to the scent-laden breezes that fanned her and looked out on the dazzling horizon—till a lightning flash from the clear azure splintered the dream and broke two lives.
For a long time Tristan gazed about, vainly trying to order his thoughts. Could he but forget!
Would but the present engulf the past! His adventure at the Church of Santa Maria of the Aventine and his chance meeting with Theodora recurred to him at intervals throughout the day, and he could not but admit that the reports of the woman's beauty were far from exaggerated. Perchance, if the memory of Hellayne had been less firmly rooted in his soul, he, too, might, like many another, have sought solace at the forbidden fount. However, he was resolved to avoid her, for he had seen something in the swift glance she had bestowed upon him that discoursed of matters it behooved him to beware of.
And yet he wondered how she had received his denial, she, whom no man had denied before. Then this memory also faded before the exigencies of the hour. The sun had sunk to rest in a sky of turquoise, crimson and gold, when Tristan found himself standing on the eminence where seven decades later Crescentius, the Senator of Rome, was to build the Church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. Leaning on a broken pillar, Tristan watched the evening light as it spread a veil of ethereal splendor over the Seven Hills and there came to him a strange feeling of remoteness as to one standing upon some hill-set shrine.
Wrapt in deep thoughts and meditations, Tristan descended the stairs leading from the summit whence in after time the name of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli—Holy Mother at the Altar of Heaven—was to ring in the ears of thousands like a beautiful rhythmic chant, and after a time he found himself in the Piazza fronting the Lateran. Slowly the worshippers began to assemble. Their numbers increased to almost a hundred, though they seemed but as so many shadows in the vast nave.
There was something in their faces, touched by the uncertain glimmer of the tapers and lamps, that filled him with awe, as if he were standing among the ghosts of the past. A very old priest, whose features Tristan could not distinguish, began to chant the Introitus, in deep long drawn notes. Through the narrow windows filtered the light of the rising moon.
It did little more than stain the dusk. Over the sombre high altar hung the white ivory figure of the Christ, bowed, sagged, in the last agony. A few blood-red poppies were the only flowers upon the altar.
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The fumes of incense rose in spiral columns to the vaulted ceiling. The Kyrie had been chanted, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Later the Host was consecrated and the cup before the kneeling worshippers, and the priest was turning to those near him who, as was still the custom in those days, were present to communicate in both kinds.
He dipped his fingers in the cup, cleansing them with a little wine. He consumed the cleansings and turned to read the antiphony with resonant voice.
Lord Jesus receive their spirit and lay not this sin to their charge! Then, with hands folded over his breast, he moved towards the altar in the centre, touched it with his lips, and, turning once more to the people, said:. For at that moment rough shouts were heard and through a side door, near a chapel, a body of ruffians rushed into the Basilica, their faces vizored and masked.
With shouts and oaths they made their way towards the altar. The worshippers scattered, the mail-clad ruffians smiting their way through their kneeling ranks up to the altar where stood the form of a youth clad in pontifical vestments, pale but calm in the face of the impending storm. It was Pope John XI.
Tristan had not noted his presence during the ceremony. Now, like a revelation, the import of the scene flashed upon his mind. Bearing Tristan down by the sheer weight of their numbers, they rushed upon the Pontiff, stripped him of his pallium and chasuble, leaving him but one sacred vestment, the white albe. Unable to reach the Pontiff's side, unable to aid him, Tristan stood rooted to the spot, an impotent witness of the most heinous sacrilege his mind could picture, almost turned to stone.