THERE is a woman, young, and beautiful, and wise, who grows not old as she dances down the centuries: she was in the beginning, and she will be in the end, ever young, ever enticing, and always inscrutable. Her back is to the East and her eyes are towards the night, and in her wake lieth the world. Wherever she danceth, there man casteth the sweat from his brow and followeth her. Kings have fled their thrones for her; priests their temples; warriors their legions; and husbandmen their ploughs. All have sought her; yet ever doth she remain subtle, enticing, virginal. None have known her save those little ones who are born in the cave under the cavern; yet all have felt the power of her sway. Crowns have been sacrificed for her; gods have been blasphemed for her; swords have been sheathed for her; and the fields have lain barren for her; verily! the helm of man’s thoughts has been cloven in twain by the magic of her voice. For like some great spider she has enticed all into the silken meshes of her web, wherein she hath spun the fair cities of the world, where sorrow sits tongueless and laughter abideth not; and tilled the fertile plains, where innocence is but as the unopened book of Joy. Yet it is she also who hath led armies into battle; it is she who hath brought frail vessels {199} safely across the greedy ocean; it is she who hath enthroned priests, crowned kings, and set the sword in the hand of the warrior; and it is she who hath helped the weary slave to guide his plough through the heavy soil, and the miner to rob the yellow gold from the bowels of the earth. Everywhere will you find her dancing down empires, and weaving the destiny of nations. She never sleeps, she never slumbers, she never rests; ever wakeful, day and night, her eyes glisten like diamonds as she danceth on, the dust of her feet burying the past, disturbing the present, and clouding the future. She was in Eden, she will be in Paradise!

I followed her, I abandoned all for her; and now I lie, as a fevered man, raving in the subtle web of her beauty.

Lo! there she stands swaying between the gates of Light and Darkness under the shadow of the Three of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, whose fruits are death; yet none that have not tasted thereof can tell whether they be sweet or bitter to the tongue. Therefore all must pluck and eat and dream. But when the time cometh for the mystic child to be born, they shall awake, and with eyes of fire behold that on the summit of the mountain in the centre of the garden there groweth the Tree of Life.

Now round the trunk of the Tree and the lower branches thereof there twines a woman, wild, wanton, and wise; whose body is as that of a mighty serpent, the back of which is vermilion, and the belly of red-gold; her breasts are purple, and from her neck spring three heads.

And the first head is as the head of a crown‚d princess, and is of silver, and on her brow is set a crown of pearls, and her eyes are as blue as the sapphire; but upon perceiving {200} man they turn green and yellow as the water of a troubled sea; and her mouth is as a moonstone cleft in twain, in which lurks a tongue born of flame and water.

And on beholding her, I cried to her in a loud voice, saying: “O Priestess of the Veil who art throned between the Pillars of Knowledge and Ignorance, pluck and give me of the fruit of the Tree of Life that I may eat thereof, so that my eyes shall be opened, and that I become as a god in understanding, and live for ever!”

Then she laughed subtly, and answered me saying: “Understanding, O fool that art so wise, is Ignorance. Fire licketh up water, and water quencheth fire; and the sword which one man fleeth from, another sheatheth in his breast. Seek the Crown of Truth, and thou shalt be shod with the sandals of Falsehood; unclasp the girdle of Virtue, and thou shalt be wrapped in the shroud of Vice.”

And, when she had finished speaking, she wove from her lips around me a net-work of cloud and of flame; and in a subtle song she sang to me: “In the web of my tongue hast thou been caught; in the breath of my mouth shalt thou be snared. For Time shall be given unto thee wherein to seek all things; and all things shall be thy curse, and thine understanding shall be as the waves of the sea ever rolling onwards to the shore from whence they came; and when at the height of their majesty shall their pride and dominion be dashed against the rocks of Doubt, and all thy glory shall become as the spume and the spray of shattered waters, blown hither and thither by the storm.”

Then she caught me up in the web of her subtleties and breathed into my nostrils the breath of Time; and bore me {201} to the Abyss, where all is as the darkness of Doubt, and there she strangled me with the hemp and the silk of the abominations and arrogance of mine understanding.

And the second head is as the head of a young woman veiled with a veil as clear as rock crystal, and crowned with a crown fashioned in the shape of a double cube around which is woven a wreath of lilies and ivy. And her countenance is as that of Desolation yet majestic as an Empress of Earth, who possessing all things yet cannot find a helpmeet worthy to possess her; and her eyes are as opals of light; and her tongue as an arrow of flame.

And on beholding her I cried in a loud voice saying: “O Princess of the Vision of the Unknown, who art throned as a sphinx between the hidden mysteries of Earth and Air, give me of the fruit of the Tree of Life that I may eat thereof, so that mine eyes shall be opened, and I may become as a god in understanding, and live for ever!”

And when I had finished speaking she wept bitterly and answered me saying: “Verily if the poor man trespass within the palace gate, the king’s dogs shall be let loose so that they may tear him in pieces. Also, if the king seek shelter in the hut of the pauper the louse taketh refuge in his hair, and heedeth not his crown nor his cap of ermine and gold. Now, thou, O wise man who art so foolish, askest for Understanding; yet how shall it be given unto him who asketh for it, for in the giving it it ceaseth to be, and he who asketh of me is unworthy to receive. Wouldst thou enter the king’s palace in rags and beg crumbs of his bounty? Take heed lest, the king perceiving thee not, his knaves set the hounds upon thee, so that even the rags that thou possessest are torn from thee: or, {202} even should the kind cast his eyes on thee, that he be not overcome with fury at the presumption of thine offence, and order thee to be stripped naked and beaten from his garden with staves back to the hovel whence thou camest. And being a king, if thou seekest knowledge and understanding in a beggar’s hut, thou shalt become as an abode of vermin, and a prey to hunger and thirst, and thy limbs shall be bitten by cold and scorched with fire, and all thy wealth will depart from thee and thy people will cast thee out and take away thy crown. Yet there is hope for the beggar and the king, and the balances which sway shall be adjusted, and the sun shall drink up the clouds, and the clouds shall swallow the sun, and there shall be neither darkness nor light. Pledge thy pride and it will become but the habitations of vermin, pledge thy humility and thou shalt be cast out naked to the dogs.”

Then when she had finished speaking she bared her breast to me, and it was as the colour of the vault of heaven at the rising of the sun; and she took me in her arms and did caress me, and her tongue of fire crept around and about me as the hand of a sly maid. Then I drank in the breath of her lips, and it filled me as with the spirit of dreams and of slumber, so that I doubted that the stars shone above me, and that the rivers flowed at my feet. Thus all became as a vast Enigma to me, a riddle set in the Unknowability of Space.

Then in a subtle voice she sang to me: “I know not who thou art, or whence thou camest; whether from across the snowy hills, or from over the plains of fire. Yet I love thee; for thine eyes are as the blue of still waters, and thy lips ruddy as the sun in the West. Thy voice is as the voice of a {203} shepherd at even, calling together his flock in the twilight. Thy breath is as the wind blown from across a valley of musk; and thy loins are lusty as red coral washed from the depths of the sea. Come, draw nigh unto me, O my love: my sister ensnared thee with her subtle tongue, she gave thee to suck from the breasts of Time: come, I will give thee more than she, for I will give unto thee as an inheritance my body, and thou shalt fondle me as a lover, and as a reward for thy love will I endow thee with all the realms of Space — the motes in the sunbeam shall be thine, and the starry palaces of night, all shall be thine even unto the uttermost depths of Infinity.” So she possessed me, and I her.

And the third head is as the head of a woman neither young nor old, but beautiful and compassionate; and on her forehead is set a wreath of Cypress and Poppies fastened by a winged cross. And her eyes are as star-sapphires, and her mouth is as a pearl, and on the lips crouches the Spirit of Silence.

And on beholding her I cried to her in a loud voice, saying: “O Thou Mother of the Hall of Truth! Thou who art both sterile and pregnant, and before whose judgment-seat tremble the clothed and the naked, the righteous and the unjust, give me of the fruit of the Tree of Life, that I may eat thereof so that mine eyes shall be opened, and that I become as a god in understanding, and live forever!”

Then I stood before her listening for her answer, and a great shaking possessed me, for she answered not a word; and the silence of her lips rolled around me as the clouds of night and overshadowed my soul, so that the Spirit of life left me. Then I fell down and trembled, for I was alone. {204}

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Part I: Index | Preface | The Black Watch-Tower | The Miser | The Spendthrift | The Bankrupt | The Prude | The Child | The Wanton | The Slave | The Warrior | The King | The White Watch-Tower

The Temple of Solomon the King | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII | Part VIII | Part IX


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