ONE year passed by; fifty-two lessons had been taken. Every week, under the cloak of a masquerade ball, we met together for mutual study and improvement. Camille and I were still great friends – brother and sister; likewise, a strong attachment had grown up between me and my peasant sister, who while often dressed in different costumes, always kept her face concealed. In vain were my solicitations, she checked them in no uncertain tone.
“Camille, who is she?” I asked one day.
“Know the rule,” she answered, “those who keep masked must be unknown.”
The veiled woman, who never dressed in anything but black, however, seldom gave me an opportunity for conversation, but when she did, strange though it may seem, I was the happiest of men. I had become, after the first night, a member of a student group, and the peasant girl was my sister student. I made rapid progress, for, as my teacher had said, my preparatory training had been the best. The blanks and gaps of materialistic science were filling up, and its superficialities and guesswork were becoming everyday more exposed.
But this increasing knowledge only made plainer and more evident certain missing links upon which I questioned and pondered in vain. The main teacher, who had given me my first instructions, gave a lecture at the opening of each session. These lectures were pregnant with significant hints upon which he refused to answer all questions, telling us to think and work it out.
When upon one occasion I showed signs of dissent, he said: “Knowledge is not to be communicated, but evolved. Knowledge does not come from within. All your study of books and things is but to establish the instrumental conditions by and through which the knower can break forth and manifest.”
I thought much upon this and commenced to dwell and meditate upon this Knower. The results were wonderful; I commenced to acquire knowledge in a manner I knew not how, and often spoke with a wisdom that surprised me. Now, after a year of study, it became evident to me that I was yet only in a semi-esoteric and comparatively outside group.
With this conclusion in my mind, I formed a determination to advance and went to the first meeting of the second year with this resolve in mind. I recalled that, when I had signed my pledge, the spokesman had said my advance would depend upon my growth and fitness and could not be obtained in what some people call dreams. Upon the night mentioned, after going through the customary opening dance, I entered the study room and approaching the chief teacher whispered something in his ear.
“Where did you get that?” he asked quickly, looking up with surprise on his face.
“I never got it; I know it,” I answered, seriously.
“Well, don’t communicate that here,” he said, and without another word he took a book from his pocket, and drawing forth a card wrote some mystical characters upon it.
Then, handing it to me, he said: “On next meeting night present that card to the right hand inner guard; now, proceed with your studies and say nothing.”
It was the fifty-fourth night, and I entered and handed my card to the veiled woman at the right. She took the card, and having read it motioned me to hand it to the patriarch on the left. After careful scrutiny, he nodded as in affirmation and, as I received the card back, made a sign to the woman who said: “Enter at the right and await our coming.”
Heretofore, I had always turned to the left, but as she spoke, a concealed door opened near her, and I passed through into a small room finished in pure white. I took a seat upon a white divan, and had waited some time when the patriarch and woman entered.
“Brother,” said the woman, taking a seat in front of me, while the patriarch seated himself at a table nearby, “your presence before us demands that you give us your unqualified confidence. The Esoteric Examiner tells us you have information which belongs only to members of the sixth sub. Where did you get it?”
“By meditation and inward concentration upon the Spirit,” I answered, almost before I thought, and was then surprised at my answer. They looked at one another and the patriarch drew nearer.
“Don’t you know that such practice is dangerous to those who are unprepared?” questioned the patriarch in very serious tones.
“In my unselfish desire for knowledge, I deem myself prepared,” I responded.
“Is your life pure and free from taint? Are you free from even from a shadow of selfish ambition?” he again questioned.
“My life is pure, from childhood it has been thus,” I replied.
“Why do you seek knowledge?”
“Because it is the soul’s true nature so to seek,” I answered.
“Will you ever use your knowledge for evil purposes or selfish ends?”
“I will not; the self is dead.” As I said this I was startled at the intensity of my answer. My companions looked at each other and the patriarch continued:
“If this knowledge brings you power, how will you use it?”
“For my fellowmen and truth,” I answered, as an inspiration grew upon me. “Not otherwise, nor indiscreetly?”
“Only for the good and with certainty of right; not otherwise.”
“Have you learned the power and do you possess self-control?”
“I think I have,” I answered, as I thought of the woman in black. “Your words imply a doubt, where is your weakness?”
“I would not be too positive; there may be conditions under which I might lose control of the heart; although I have been sorely tried.” I was thinking of my parents and the possibility of love.
As though she divined my thoughts, the woman asked: “Have you ever loved?”
“As a child for parent, yes; as brother for sister, yes; as...” and I hesitated.
“And not as lover?” asked the woman.
“I am in doubt, the word to me has uncertain meaning, but, I must confess, an unknown sister here affects me strangely.”
“Who is she?”
“I know not; she is always dressed in black and never is unmasked.”
The two looked at one another, and the conversation was abruptly changed by the patriarch who asked:“How did you learn that man is seven minus two?”
“All the afternoon in deepest thought I had dwelt on man’s mysterious constitution. So deep in thought was I, the supper hour went by and in my chair deep sleep came over me. Suddenly, I arose in space and was carried over the ocean; unburdened by a form of weight, I passed in thought’s swift motion to the East. I saw the Snowy Range deep in the blue of heaven high above the clouds.
Then, by some miracle of change of which all dreams are made, I found myself a student over a book in some unknown and isolated crypt. Here many mysteries, many things of wonder did I read. Long did I study, much did I learn and then a blank. Oh, that I could recall this knowledge! But when once more I awoke naught but this one fact and the memory of the dream remained.”
That strange inward activity which at frequent intervals throughout my life had stirred within me had once more arisen, and I spoke as one inspired. My questioners, who had been watching me with sparkling eyes, now both spoke at once: “We welcome thee as now art thou a member of the Sixth Degree, and she shall be your teacher!”
I was about to speak again, when the patriarch pressed his finger to his lips in token of silence and spoke: “Two paths start from the Sixth Degree, both leading to the Seventh; and thou must wear a mask until thy path is chosen. Let no one see thy face while here assembled unless permit is given. Now, to the hall; a friend awaits you.”
As the patriarch finished speaking a door opened, and at his motion passed through into the hall. The second waltz was in progress, and I, this time asked and attired like a knight, was about to seek a partner, when a nun, veiled and robed in purest white, laid a fair, white hand upon my arm.
The same thrilling sensation of pleasure ran through me, and my heart beat violently as, in a sweet, musical voice, she said: “In the name of peace and love, Sir Knight, discard thy arms. Dost thou still sanction war, most cruel war? Or is they dress a mask on man of noble heart and honor?”
“Fair nun,” with beating heart I made reply, “If all women had the power of thy sweet voice, the world would soon have peace and all who fight would love. But, fair nun, thou dost wrong the knights of chivalry who ever fought for virtue and for love.”
“Ah, that this, indeed, were true, but my memory says not so. Well do I remember when in past life knights, claiming honor, fought for and stole poor nuns?”
“Thou canst not be thus old, fair nun; what dost thou mean?”
“The age of form is not the age of soul. You and I have both lived on earth many times before.”
What strange feeling was this stirring in my heart? What strange ecstasy of joy within my soul? I could not charge this conversation for a dance; she was bordering on the greatest question of life, the deepest subject of my thoughts.
With a never-before experienced feeling of pleasure, I urged her on: “If we have lived before, and thou rememberest, why not I? Perhaps I am the knight of yore who stole thee; if so, it was for love. And if I loved thee once, I love thee still; for, I am one who never loves but once.”
“But not so bold, thou warrior armed and mailed, thou mayest unknowingly speak truth, at least in part; if thou art interested in this subject, let us go where we can be alone.”
“Most gladly,” I replied, as she took my arm and led the way to the right side of the hall. Angel of love, I thought, she must have changed from black to white. Her voice was the same as that of her whom I had first met on the drive to Madame Petrovna, but how different from the woman in black whom I met in the hall. Could they be the same? If so, what meant this sudden change?
I have never been through any of the doors on the right-hand side of the room, and as we now passed through one, I found myself in a room finished in white and trimmed with gold. She closed the door and motioned me to a sofa; taking a seat beside me, she removed her veil, saying as she did so: “Will not the knight unmask his face?”
For a moment, I was speechless, the marvelous beauty of her face surpassing anything I had ever seen. At the same time, strange memories crowded through my mind. Where had I seen that face before?
Large brown eyes filled with a light of love, windows, truly, of a mighty soul. Long, regular lashes, shapely brows, and a mouth of exquisite form. A face of pearl white with a healthy tint of rose upon the cheeks, but, above all, her facial expression, which made her a perfect picture of divine beauty. No wonder she wore a mask to avoid attention; no one could see that face without a pause.
Without dropping her wondrous eyes, and apparently unconscious of my admiration, she repeated her request. Only a short time before I had been warned by the patriarch not to show my face, and recalling my pledge, I with hesitancy replied: “I am pledged to remain masked.”
“We are alone,” she answered; and I was on the point of yielding, when, with a long-drawn sigh, she put on her veil and motioned me to desist. Now I saw it was a trial, and she had seen my weakness. They had told of a friend and teacher, but nothing of a tempter.
“Sir Knight,” she said now, “we were talking of past lives, and you asked why you did not remember such. First, the brain memory, which experiences of this life; past lives have their records in the soul. Training brings the soul to consciousness, and with this consciousness all memories of the past preserved therein. Now, if you will kindly listen, I will tell you a story; please let your soul awake.”
Again, she removed her veil, and taking a seat directly in front of me, looked me fixedly in the eyes and continued in a low, musical voice:
It is a bright spring morning. A light breeze is carrying golden colored clouds across the azure blue of heaven. The fruit trees are covered with wide-open flowers and blossoms and the air fragrant with their wetness, while the happy birds sing everywhere. The mountain-bordered horizon on one side, and the silver rivers flowing through fields of green to the placid mirror of the sea upon the other shows that we are in Ancient Greece. Two figures are journeying along the pathway that winds across the foothills. One, a young man in all glory of his strength and beauty with features and half-exposed form, the like of which has seldom been seen since Greece has passed away. At his side is a beautiful woman, a Grecian woman, such as Phidias would have sought for a model.
They are going to the Games, the Olympian Games: he in full confidence of his ability and skill, she happy in the thought of his sure victory. With hands clasped and swinging arms, they go joyfully along their way. Picking wild flowers, she makes a wreath and crowns his golden curls, and, in token of appreciation, he stops to caress her and kiss her rosy cheeks. Thus, with joyous song, they go merrily along. It seems that the gods, nature, and men have united for once in joy and peace. But now a courier, rushing up behind, o’ertakes them.
'Xerxes is coming! Men are needed to guard the pass. All true Greeks join Leonidas at Thermopylae. Do your duty!'
And he rushes on. With hastened footsteps, the couple hurries along to the outskirts of the crowd that surrounds the Games. The word goes forth that the Games cannot be neglected, even though the host is near; among the crowd they find a company preparing for an immediate start to guard the pass. The youth enlists to join them, and his fair companion, with tears restrained, combs his hair in the careful style of those who fight till death and with a parting kiss says, ‘For Grecian liberty I give you.’
His name is Cleomedes, and with Leonidas his body lay upon the path that wound o’er Ceta’s mount. That night Iole, Cleomedes’ companion, was searching for her lover’s form among the slain. She finds him, his face now cold and white but beautiful with noble calm. Yes, she will take one golden ringlet from that noble head to ever keep his love in mind.
A looting soldier of the Eastern horde thus finds her and seeks her virtue to betray. What monsters sport as men! She fights; in rage, he stabs her, and she falls with bleeding wound upon the body of her lover. With mingled blood, she dies, and night comes o’er the scene.
She paused for a moment, but I was in a spell; some magic power had seized me. Every word brought pictures to my mind, and all were scenes most strangely familiar. Seeing me thus silent, she continued:
More than a thousand years have passed, and vast changes have been wrought. The Roman world has come and gone and civilization’s night is on. The scene is now in Gaul. A youthful monk, ever bent on deeds of charity and love, is bending o’er the mangled forms that fill the fields of Poitiers.
’Tis night, and the pale moon stealing from behind the clouds seems to give forms to specters that hover o’er this awful field of blood. All unmindful the monk works on; with bandages, he binds the wounded, both Moor and Gaul alike. Morning finds him following the wake and administering to the fallen Moors. He gives no thought of heathen; he works for man alone. Journeying on, he comes to a convent among the Pyrenees.
Tired and worn out from travel without food, he stops to rest. A youthful abbess meets him and gives him kindly welcome. He stays. The abbess is deeply versed in occult lore; so is the monk and even now is secretly on his way to Seville to get instructions from the Moors. Their souls in sympathy and strangely drawn together, they fall in love and, contrary to their vows, live as man and wife, bound only by the ties of love.
For a time, all goes well, and they live happily together. But who could then escape the spies of Tome. They were found out. He was cast into a basement cell, and for many weary years he lingered until death, kind friend, relieved him. She, poor nun, persecuted by those who knew not honor, sought relief in flight, but knights return her captive, and she dies in the cell beside her lover.
She had finished, and her white hands, which by some magnetic attraction had drawn to mine, were trembling as I held them. Her soul-consuming eyes were still on mine, and I was speechless. By some unknown power, the present had become linked with the past. Lost memories, indeed, now filled my soul, and the meaning of her stories came to me like a revelation.
An impulse came over me to enfold her in my arms and claim again my long-lost love, but second thought prevailed and with trembling voice I gasped: “My God! And is this our past life history? Has love, eternal love, once more brought us together?”
With wonderful self-control, she answered: “My brother knight, be calm; pure love is indeed eternal. What does your soul say?”
“My soul is clouded, my spirit vision bedimmed by this flesh encasement, and through the smoke I see but indistinctly,” I answered. “Well, my dear brother,” she said, pressing my hand, “in the next degree all becomes clear, and the past yields all its knowledge to you.”
“And do you belong to this degree?” I asked, now recovered from my spell.
“By right, I do; by choice, I am here,” she replied. Then almost before I thought, I said: "Then let us join our forces and push on together.”
Looking me in the eyes, she clasped my hands, and in eager and serious tones replied: “Do you mean it? Have you the strength?”
“I do, my love, my soul; with you I have all strength.”
My love would out; and on the impulse of the moment, I had spoken. Still holding my hand and with a wonderful tenderness in her voice, she asked: “Do you know the first condition?”
“No, but if you go with me, it shall be fulfilled.” She now dropped my hands, and drawing back, in a calm, serious voice said: “Well, we shall see: but you must first pass through the sixth degree. Much will be required of you, and I will commence as your teacher at the next meeting. But, it is now getting late, and you must meet my other sixth-degree brothers and sisters.”
As she spoke, she arose. Be it confessed, for the first time I was selfish; she called me like the others, simply brother. I wished for and thought our past relations entitled me to a dearer term.
“Be a knight now,” she said, as we again entered the hall. The study hours had passed some time, and the hall was alive with the informal group conversations, which always followed. I looked around for my peasant girl but, of course, only as a matter of interest.
“Who do you seek?” asked my companion, noticing my glances.
“A peasant sister who has been kind to me,” I replied.
“The peasant has become a nun,” she replied in the voice that my peasant sister had made so familiar to my ears. In astonishment, I looked at her.
“What!” I exclaimed, “you and she the same?”
“The same, yet not the same; I played a part and evidently with success,” she answered.
“And where is the black-veiled nun?” I asked, wondering if she too had played her part.
“Black is a somber color and partakes of earth; she must have been in mourning. I hope she mourns no more,” she replied, in tender and what I thought significant tones.
“And have we sadness and mourners even here?” I asked.
“Ah, yes, my brother; is there a place on earth where sorrow does not find its way? All bound to earth have sorrow, more or less, and there are to come those who are by right above the earth, for a lingering brother still tarry. But, brother, you have learned enough tonight, and as I am to your teacher, we still have many nights to learn together; now, let us meet our friends.”
My companion and my mask seemed to bring me closer to the others who were masked and who had, heretofore, been somewhat distant.
“We all assume new names here,” said my companion, as we approached a group of masked brothers and sisters.
“My name is Iole, and I suggest that you take Cleomedes; will you?”
“Since what you have told me, none could be more agreeable, dear sister, if such I must still call you; and, as I take the name, so will I ever cherish in my memory the glimpse you have given me of Ancient Greece.” As I spoke, I pressed her hand, and she returned the pressure. A gypsy girl leaning upon the arm of a stalwart Turk now attracted my attention.
“Let me make you acquainted with a subject of the Sultan,” said Iole, as they approached.
“El Arab, this is Cleomedes,” she said, addressing the Turk; and as he answered and bowed with Oriental salaam, she continued: “And this is Rahula, Cleomedes.”
As I took the small, gypsy hand, unusually whit for one of her tribe, a strange agitation seized me, and I noticed that she trembled and seemed likewise agitated. She bowed in silence to my address and drew her shawl more closely around her neck and head. Somewhat surprised at this unusual silence, I was eying her more closely than I should, perhaps, when Iole called me away to another group. This time passed until the hour for adjournment arrived.
“And will the nun permit a knight to escort her to her convent?” I asked, as we approached the entrance.
“Believing you, Sir Knight, to be unlike the knights of old, I accept your company with pleasure.” We passed the entrance; no one but the outer doorkeeper was on duty.
“You must take my carriage; no other are allowed within the convent grounds,” said my companion.
“It seems the ladies run things here, but, if you so request, I must,” I answered.
The carriage rolled rapidly away, I sitting close beside my companion; some restraining power repelled any further demonstrations of affection. Her presence was sufficient, and for some time not a word was spoken. I was happy in silent joy. Did she likewise feel the joy I felt? I thought so, and on we rode in the silence. At last the carriage stopped, and looking out I beheld the arched gate surmounted by the tiger held by Cupid’s chains. This entrance I had never been able to find since the day of my first visit, when the veiled woman had cast such a glamour over me.
But now, doubt was dispelled, and I said: “Art thou, white nun, my sister Iole, she who was in black?”
“The same, Sir Knight; and thou art the father priest whom I refused to know.”
“And why were you so cruel?”
“You were not then of my degree, and had no right to know me. We have rules as strict as castes, but all can enter who are worthy; you will learn more as you progress.”
The carriage now drew up in front of the great Corinthian portico, and I was thinking I was some distance from my home, when she said: “This time my carriage will take you home.”
I was preparing to assist her, when she motioned me to keep my seat, and shaking my hand, said:
We will meet again next Thursday night and take more serious teachings. In the meantime, study well, analyze thyself and learn the art of self-control for you may be sorely tried. And remember what I told you on our first drive, 'Great is he who controls the body, still greater he who controls the mind, but greatest of all he who controls the heart.'
Turning, with a kind “good-bye,” she was gone; the carriage turned about and took me toward my home.
“Ah, God!” I cried when now alone. “Control the heart! What superhuman effort that must take! And why should I control my heart? I love with purest love and what can ask for its suppression?”
Yes, after years of ideal dreaming, the pent-up love within my heart had broken loose. What a torrent these accumulations made! But for the strange controlling power her presence exercised upon me, it would have been a passion and found more violent expression; but her superior will changed the tempest into calm and made my passion peace – the peace of love supreme.
That night I dreamed of Iole, and all the following week naught filled my thoughts. Where was my study now? Where was my self-control?
I argued: “Why should I crush out this love, so pure, so strong?”
And, deeming my argument unanswerable, I determined to know the reason why before I did.
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