A Trip to Venus/Chapter IX
|←Chapter VIII||A Trip to Venus by
Chapter IX. The Flower Of The Soul.
|Published in 1897 by Jarrold & Sons, London|
Early on the chief day of the festival Otāré came and took us to see the mystical rite of cutting the "Flower of the Soul."
The morning was fine, and the clear waters of the lake were bright with boats filled with joyous parties bound like ourselves for the Holy Island.
Landing at a noble quay of red granite, we climbed the steep and shaggy sides of the mountain by a sacred and winding avenue, bordered with blooming trees and statuary. Most of the figures were exquisitely carved in a white wood or stone, having a pearly sheen, and represented the former priestesses of the Temple, or illustrated the animating spirit of the cult.
On gaining the summit we found ourselves at the brim of a spacious hollow or basin, which in past ages must have been the crater of the volcanic peak. The grassy slopes of the basin were laid out in flower gardens and terraces of coloured marbles, shaded with sombre trees, and ornamented with sculpture. In the bottom lay an oval sheet of water a mile long or more, and from the midst of it, towards the near end, a beautiful islet, crowned by a magnificent temple, rose like a mirage to the view, and seemed to float on its glassy bosom.
Words of mine cannot give any idea of that sublime architecture, which resembled no earthly order, though it seemed to partake of both the Saracenic and the Indian. Fragrant timber, precious stones, and burnished metals; in fine, the richest materials known to the builders, had been united with consummate art into one harmonious emblem of their faith. The first beams of the rising sun blazed on its golden roof and fretted pinnacles of diamond, and ruby, sapphire, topaz, and emerald; but the lower part was still in shadow. Nevertheless, we could distinguish a grand portal in the southern front, which faced the sun, and a broad flight of marble steps descending from it into the water; but the massive doors were shut, and not a soul was to be seen about the temple.
As the worshippers arrived they seated themselves on the turf amongst the flowering shrubs, or on the benches along the terraces, and either spoke in subdued tones, or preserved a religious silence. Otāré led us to a kind of throne or stand facing the temple, and raised above the other seats, where his father, as chief of the community, sat in state. Dinus received us with his usual gracious dignity, and gave us chairs on his right and left hand.
From this height we enjoyed a splendid panorama of the Craterland, at least that portion which had already caught the sunshine. It lay beneath us like a picture, the surface rising in a series of zones from the central sea, which mirrored the serene azure and plume-like vapours of the heavens, through the sweet meadows, and the smiling gardens, to the luxuriant wilderness beyond; and we could plainly see the shadow of the bounding rampart shrink towards the south as the sun mounted higher and higher.
It was a lovely dawn. A rosy mist hung like a veil of gauze over the southern sky, and from behind a bar of purple cloud, lined with gold, which rested on the summit of the cliffs, a coronet of auroral beams or crepuscular rays, blue on a pink ground, shot upwards, heralding the advent of the sun, and reminding me of the ancient simile of the earth as a bride awaiting the arrival of her lord.
At length the first glowing tip of the solar disc peeped over the rim of the crater, and a deep low murmur, swelling to a shrill cry, ascended from the passive multitude.
All the people rose to their feet, and every eye was turned on the south front of the temple, which was now illuminated to the edge of the water. As the sunlight crept over the surface it sparkled on the dense foliage of what seemed a bed of water-lilies flourishing quite close to the marble stairs.
Presently a rich and stately barge, moved by crimson oars, and enlivened with young girls draped in sky-blue, was seen to glide round a corner of the temple, and come to rest beside the water-lilies.
A deep silence, as of breathless expectation, fell upon the vast assembly, and then, without other warning, the great purple doors of the temple swung open, and revealed a white-robed figure walking at the head of a glittering procession of maidens decked in jewels and luminous scarves, which vied with the colours of the rainbow. It was the young priestess and her train of virgins.
Simultaneously the immense multitude raised their voices in a sacred hymn of melting sweetness, very low at first, but gathering volume as the priestess descended the marble stairs to the waterside.
Here, on the lowest of the steps, one of her maidens put into her hand a sacred knife or sickle, which, as Otāré informed us had a blade of gold, and a handle of opal. The woman then retired, and we saw her stand erect for a moment in the full blaze of the mellow sunlight, with her golden hair falling about her in a kind of glory, and stretch out her arms towards the sun in a superb attitude of adoration. Then, with a slow and swan-like movement, she entered the water, and wading among the lilies, cut the sacred blossom, and held it aloft in triumph, while the music swelled to a mighty pæan of thanksgiving and praise.
After that she went on board the barge, which had been waiting for her, and was rowed around the border of the lake not far from the shore, so that the onlookers might see the loveliness of the flower, and even smell its perfume. The barge was not unlike an ancient galley in shape, but ornately curved like the proa of a South Sea Islander. The rowers were concealed underneath the deck, but the crimson oars kept time to the music of their voices, and the spectators joined in the song as the vessel glided onwards.
As for the priestess, she lay reclining under a golden canopy on the poop, with her face half turned towards the people, and holding the sacred lily in her hand, whilst two of her maidens fanned her with brilliant plumes,
"And made their bends adorning."
Ever since she had come out of the temple I had scarcely taken my eyes off her, and now that I could see the marvellous beauty of her countenance, I was absolutely fascinated. Never shall I forget these moments as long as I live, and yet I cannot give a clear and connected relation of them. I see only a picture in my mind of a purple couch under a golden canopy, a fair form, a beautiful head crowned with golden hair, a glowing arm holding a white flower on its long green stalk. Suddenly, as if impelled by an instinct, she turns her face full upon me as the barge comes opposite to her father's throne. I see her great violet eyes fixed upon mine as though she would read into my very soul. I do not shrink from that pure search. On the contrary, I feel myself drawn towards her by an irresistible attraction, and return her gaze.
She does not look away. She smiles--yes, she smiles upon me, and inclines her head to see me, like a sunflower following the sun, as she is floating past.
From that moment I was an altered man. The vision of that peerless beauty had worked a miracle in my nature. A strange peace, an unfathomable joy, I should rather say an ecstacy of bliss, reigned in my heart. I felt that I had found something for which my soul had craved without knowing it, and had been seeking unawares--something beyond all price, which is not merely the best that life, eternity, can offer; but gives to life, eternity, an inestimable value--I felt that I had found the counterpart of myself--the celestial mate of my spirit. Henceforth there was only one woman in the world, in the universe, for me. A mysterious instinct whispered that we belonged to each other--that this incomparable creature was mine by an inviolable right, if not on this side of time at all events hereafter, and for ever. I felt, too, that my own being had now completed its development, and burst into bloom like a plant under the vivifying rays of the sun.
Exulting in my new-found happiness, and overcome with gratitude for it, I watched the receding boat in a sort of trance until the matter-of-fact voice of Gazen broke the spell.
"Prettiest sight I ever saw in my life," said he to Otāré. "Quite a living picture."
"I am glad you like it," responded Otāré evidently gratified.
"But what is the good of it?" enquired the professor.
"The good of it?" rejoined the Venusian; "it is beautiful, and gives us pleasure."
"Oh, of course; but what is the meaning--the inner meaning of it?"
"Ah! the meaning of it," said Otāré, a new light breaking on him, "I will explain. You saw the flower which the priestess cut and carried in her hand--?"
"A kind of water-lily, is it not?"
"Yes, it is the Sacred Lily. The plant is rooted in the mire at the bottom of the pond, and grows up through the water to the surface. The stem rises in a serpentine curve, and terminates in a flower-bud, which opens with a sigh of delight when the sun strikes upon it, and fills the air with its perfume."
"A sigh, did you say?"
"Yes, a low sweet sound resembling a sigh. The flower is white--'living white'--that is to say, white shot with many colours like the opal. We call it the Sun Lily, or 'Flower of the Soul.'"
"Why 'Flower of the Soul?'"
"Because we say it has the infinite and ever-changing beauty of the soul. It is an emblem of Love, and its manifestations--beauty, genius, holiness. In particular it signifies the birth or awakening of love in the human soul. As the plant may be said to exist for the flower, its chief glory, so the man attains his perfection through love, which confers a boundless and immortal worth upon his life. As the root takes from the soil and the flower brings forth the fruit, so hate feeds upon the ill, and love dies for the good of others. It also represents the human race, for man, and especially woman, may be regarded as the flower of this lower world. Moreover, the entire plant, root, stem, and flower, is symbolical of all creation, and some of our poets have named it the 'Lily of Life.' For as the plant begins in the black earth to end in the sunny ether, so the world, the universe, begins in chaos and darkness, to end in light and order; begins in matter and force, to end in life and spirit--begins in hate and selfishness, to end in love and self-sacrifice--begins in ugliness, to end in beauty. Thus the flower and root stand for the upper and lower limits or poles of nature, and the stalk which joins them for the upward range or path of creation. It is a beautiful stem, curving in opposite ways like a serpent, or the side of a wave; in fact, it is the most beautiful curve we know--it runs like this."
Here Otāré described a flamboyant curve in the air with his finger.
"If I'm not mistaken it is what our artists call the 'line of beauty,'" observed Gazen.
"Oh, indeed!" responded Otāré, with pleased surprise. "Well, with us it is a symbol of the continuous unfolding of things; the graceful progress of development."
"So the path of evolution is the 'line of beauty,'" said the professor.
"Apparently," rejoined Otāré, "and as the ends of the curve point oppositely, we say that a thing has not reached its final stage--that its development is not complete--until it has turned to its opposite. Thus man is not a finished being until hate and selfishness have turned to love and self-sacrifice. The flower of the soul is love, and as the sun is an emblem of the divine love, when the sacred lily opens and displays all its beauty in the sunshine, it means to us that the flower of the soul blooms in the smile of 'The Giver.'"
"I see," said the professor; "and what is done with the flower?"
"It is an offering," replied Otāré, "and after the Priestess of the Lily, or Priestess of the Sun, as we call her, has shown it to the people it will be treasured in the temple, and will never fade."
"Beautiful woman, the priestess! And so young."
"She is barely seventeen. The Priestess of the Sun Lily must be in the flower of her age, and the early dawn of her womanhood. Every year by the popular voice she is chosen from all the maidens of the country for her intelligence, beauty, and goodness. For a year before the ceremony she lives in the temple with her maidens, and never leaves the sacred island, or has any visitors from the outer world. During this period she undergoes a preparation and purification for the fulfilment of her holy office--the culling of the flower. It consists mainly in the study of our sacred writings, the eating of a certain food, and bathing in the waters of a holy fountain, which issues from the rock in a sacred grotto of the island. When the ceremony of cutting the lily is over, and the holy month has expired, that is to say in ten days from now, she will leave the temple and return to her family. Another girl will take her place--the priestess appointed for the coming year--in fact, the maiden who gave her the sickle."
I had listened to this conversation with breathless interest, but without daring to take part in it.
"Will she ever marry?" enquired Gazen.
I waited for the answer with a beating heart.
"Oh, yes," replied Otāré, "why not? She will marry if she finds a lover whom she can love. There are many who admire Alumion."
"What of yourself?" asked the professor, smiling pointedly. "You seem to know a good deal about her."
"I am her brother."
Nothing more was said, for at this moment the barge was seen coming from behind the temple, after having made a round of the spectators, and presently drew up at the marble stairs. Again the doors swung open, and the maidens reappeared to welcome their mistress with a song of joy. I saw her ascend the steps bearing the lily in her hand, then turn and wave an adieu to the multitude, who responded by a parting hymn as the great purple valves closed together and rapt her from my sight.