Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold

PART ONE Chapter Fourteen

It seemed long to me before the palace was stirring, though it stirred early because of the King's hunting. I waited till that noise was well begun. Then I rose and dressed in such clothes as I had worn the day before, and took the same urn. This time I put in it a lamp and a little pitcher of oil and a long band of linen about a span and a half broad, such as bridesmaids wear in Glome, wrapped over and over round them. Mine had lain in my chest ever since the marriage night of Psyche's mother. Then I called up Poobi and had food brought to me, of which I ate some and some I put in the urn under the band. When I knew by the horse-hoofs and horns and shoutings that the King's party was gone, I put on my veil and a cloak and went down. I sent the first slave I met to find whether Bardia were gone to the hunting, and if he were in the palace, to send him to me. I waited for him in the Pillar Room. It was a strange freedom to be in there alone; and indeed, amid all my cares, I could not help perceiving how the house was, as it were, lightened and set at liberty by the absence of the King. I thought, from their looks, that all the family felt it.

Bardia came to me.

"Bardia," said I, "I must go again to the Mountain."

"It's impossible you should go with me, Lady," he said. "I was left out of the hunting (ill-luck for me) for one purpose only; to watch over the house. I must even lie here at nights till the King's back."

This dashed me very much. "Oh, Bardia," said I, "what shall we do? I am in great straits. It's on my sister's business."

Bardia rubbed his forefinger across his upper lip in a way he had when he was graveled.

"And you can't ride," he said. "I wonder now - but no, that's foolishness. There's no horse to be trusted with a rider that can't ride. And a few days hence won't serve? The best would be to give you another man."

"But, Bardia, it must be you. No one else would be able . . . it's a very secret errand."

"I could let Gram off with you for two days and a night."

"Who is Gram?"

"The small dark one. He's a good man."

"But can he hold his tongue?"

"It's more a question if he can ever loosen it. We get hardly ten words from him in as many days. But he's a true man, true to me, above all, for I once had the chance to do him a good turn."

"It will not be like going with you, Bardia."

"It's the best you can do, Lady, unless you can wait."

But I said I could not wait, and Bardia had Gram called. He was a thin-faced man, very black-eyed, and (I thought) looked at me as if he feared me. Bardia told him to get his horse and await me where the little lane meets the road into the city.

As soon as he was gone, I said, "Now, Bardia, get me a dagger."

"A dagger, Lady? And for what?"

"To use as a dagger. Come, Bardia, you know I mean no ill."

He looked strangely at me, but got it. I put it on at my belt where the sword had hung yesterday. "Farewell, Bardia," said I.

" Farewell, Lady? Do you go for longer than a night?"

"I don't know, I don't know," said I. Then, all in haste, and leaving him to wonder, I went out and went on foot by the lane and joined Gram. He set me up on the horse (touching me, unless it was my fantasy, as one who touched a snake or a witch) and we began.

Nothing could be less like that day's journey and the last. I never got more than, "Yes, Lady," or, "No, Lady," out of Gram all day. There was much rain and even between the showers the wind was wet. There was a grey driving sky and the little hills and valleys, which had been so distinct with brightness and shade for Bardia and me the other day, were all sunk into one piece. We had started many hours later, and it was nearer evening than noon when we came down from the saddle into that secret valley. And there at last, as if by some trick of the gods (which perhaps it was), the weather cleared so that it was hard not to think the valley had a sunlight of its own and the blustering rains merely ringed it about as the mountains did.

I brought Gram to the place where Bardia and I had passed the night and told him to await me there, and not to cross the river. "I must go over it myself. It may be I shall recross it to your side by nightfall, or in the night. But I think that whatever time I spend on this side I will spend over yonder, near the ford. Do not come to me there unless I call you."

He said, as always, "Yes, Lady," and looked as if he liked this adventure very little.

I went to the ford - about a long bow-shot from Gram. My heart was still as ice, heavy as lead, cold as earth, but I was free now from all doubting and deliberating. I set my foot on the first stone of the crossing and called Psyche's name. She must have been very close, for almost at once I saw her coming down to the bank. We might have been two images of love, the happy and the stern - she so young, so brightface, joy in her eye and limbs - I, burdened and resolute, bringing pain in my hand.

"So I spoke truly, Maia," she said as soon as I had crossed the water and we had embraced.

"The King has been no hindrance to you, has he? Salute me for a prophetess!"

This startled me a moment, for I had forgotten her foretelling. But I put it aside to be thought of later.

Now, I had my work to do; I must not, now of all times, begin doubting and pondering again.

She brought me a little way from the water - I don't know into what part of her phantom palace - and we sat down. I threw back my hood and put off my veil and set down the urn beside me.

"Oh, Orual," said Psyche, "what a storm-cloud in your face! That's how you looked when you were most angry with me as a child."

"Was I ever angry? Ah, Psyche, do you think I ever scolded or denied you without grieving my heart ten times more than yours?"

"Sister, I meant to find no fault with you."

"Then find no fault with me today either. For indeed we must talk very gravely. Now listen, Psyche. Our father is no father. Your mother (peace upon her!) is dead, and you have never seen her kindred. I have been - I have tried to be and still I must be - all the father and mother and kin you have. And all the King too."

"Maia, you have been all this and more since the day I was born. You and the dear Fox are all I ever had."

"Yes, the Fox. I'll have something to say of him, too. And so, Psyche, if anyone is to care for you or counsel you or shield you, or if anyone is to tell you what belongs to the honour of our blood, it can be only I."

"But why are you saying all this, Orual? You do not think I have left off loving you because I now have a husband to love as well? If you would understand it, that makes me love you  - why, it makes me love everyone and everything - more."

This made me shudder but I hid it and went on. "I know you love me, Psyche," said I. "And I think I should not live if you didn't. But you must trust me too." She said nothing. And now I was right on top of the terrible thing, and it almost struck me dumb. I cast about for ways to begin it.

"You spoke last time," I said, "of the day we got the thorn out of your hand. We hurt you that time, Psyche. But we did right. Those who love must hurt. I must hurt you again today.

And, Psyche, you are still little more than a child. You cannot go your own way. You will let me rule and guide you."

"Orual, I have a husband to guide me now." It was difficult not to be angered or terrified by her harping on it. I bit my lip, then said, "Alas, child, it is about that very husband (as you call him) that I must grieve you." I looked straight at her eyes and said sharply, "Who is he?

What is he?"

"A god," she said, low and quivering. "And, I think, the god of the Mountain."

"Alas, Psyche, you are deceived. If you knew the truth, you would die rather than lie in his bed."

"The truth?"

"We must face it, child. Be very brave. Let me pull out this thorn. What sort of god would he be who dares not show his face?"

"Dares not! You come near to making me angry, Orual."

"But think, Psyche. Nothing that's beautiful hides its face. Nothing that's honest hides its name. No, no, listen. In your heart you must see the truth, however you try to brazen it out with words. Think. Whose bride were you called? The Brute's. And think again. If it's not the Brute, who else dwells in these mountains? Thieves and murderers, men worse than brutes, and lecherous as goats we may be sure. Are you a prize they'd let pass if you fell in their way? There's your lover, child. Either a monster - shadow and monster in one, maybe, a ghostly, un-dead thing - or a salt villain whose lips, even on your feet or the hem of your robe, would be a stain to our blood."

She was silent a long time, her eyes on her lap. "And so, Psyche," I began at last, tenderly as I could - but she tossed away the hand that I had laid on hers. "You mistake me, Orual. If I am pale, it is with anger. There, Sister, I have conquered it. I'll forgive you. You mean - I'll believe you mean - nothing but good. Yet how - or why - you can have blackened and tormented your soul with such thoughts . . . but no more of that, if ever you loved me, put them away now."

"Blackened my thoughts. They're not only mine. Tell me, Psyche, who are the two wisest men we know?"

"Why, the Fox for one. For the second - I know so few. I suppose Bardia is wise, in his own way."

"You said yourself, that night in the five-walled room, that he was a prudent man. Now, Psyche, these two - so wise and so different - are both agreed with each other and with me concerning this lover of yours. Agreed without doubt. All three of us are certain. Either Shadowbrute or felon."

"You have told them my story, Orual? It was ill done. I gave you no leave. My lord gave no leave. Oh, Orual! It was more like Batta than you."

I could not help it if my face reddened with anger, but I would not be turned aside.

"Doubtless," I said. "There is no end to the secrecy of this - this husband as you call him.

Child, has his vile love so turned your brain that you can't see the plainest thing? A god? Yet on your own showing he hides and slinks and whispers, 'Mum,' and 'Keep counsel,' and

'Don't betray me,' like a runaway slave."

I am not certain that she had listened to this. What she said was: "The Fox too! That is very strange. I never thought he would have believed in the Brute at all."

I had not said he did. But if that was what she took out of my words, I thought it no part of my duty to set her right. It was an error helping her towards the main truth. I had need of all help to drive her thither.

"Neither he nor I nor Bardia," said I, "believes for one moment in your fancy that it is the god; no more than that this wild heath is a palace. And be sure, Psyche, that if we could ask every man and woman in Glome, all would say the same. The truth is too clear."

"But what is all this to me? How should they know? I am his wife. I know."

"How can you know if you have never seen him?"

"Orual, how can you be so simple? I - how could I not know?"

"But how, Psyche?"

"What am I to answer to such a question? It's not fitting . . . it is . . . and especially to you, Sister, who are a virgin."

That matronly primness, from the child she was, went near to ending my patience. It was almost (but I think now she did not mean it so) as if she taunted me. Yet I ruled myself.

"Well, if you are so sure, Psyche, you will not refuse to put it to the test."

"What test? Though I need none myself."

"I have brought a lamp, and oil. See. Here they are." (I set them down beside her.) "Wait till he - or it - sleeps. Then look."

"I cannot do that."

"Ah! . . . You see! You will abide no test. And why? Because you are not sure yourself. If you were, you'd be eager to do it. If he is, as you say, a god, one glimpse will set all our doubts at rest. What you call our dark thoughts will be put to flight. But you daren't."

"Oh, Orual, what evil you think! The reason I cannot look at him - least of all by such trickery as you'd have me do - is that he has forbidden me."

"I can think - Bardia and the Fox can think - of one reason only for such a forbidding. And of one only for your obeying it."

"Then you know little of love."

"You fling my virginity in my face again, do you? Better it than the sty you're in. So be it. Of what you now call love, I do know nothing. You can whisper about it to Redival better than to me - or to Ungit's girls, maybe, or the King's doxies. I know another sort of love. You shall find what it's like. You shall not - "

"Orual, Orual, you are raving," said Psyche; herself unangered, gazing at me large-eyed, sorrowful, but nothing humble about her sorrow. You would have thought she was my mother, not I (almost) hers. I had known this long time that the old meek, biddable Psyche was gone forever; yet it shocked me afresh.

"Yes," I said. "I was raving. You had made me angry. But I had thought (you will set me right, I don't doubt, if I am mistaken) that all loves alike were eager to clear the thing they loved of vile charges brought against it, if they could. Tell a mother her child is hideous. If it's beautiful she'll show it. No forbidding would stop her. If she keeps it hidden, the charge is true. You're afraid of the test, Psyche."

"I am afraid - no, I am ashamed - to disobey him."

"Then, even at the best, look what you make of him! Something worse than our father. Who that loved you could be angry at your breaking so unreasonable a command - and for so good a reason?"

"Foolishness, Orual," she answered, shaking her head. "He is a god. He has good grounds for what he does, be sure. How should I know of them? I am only his simple Psyche."

"Then you will not do it? You think - you say you think - that you can prove him a god and set me free from the fears that sicken my heart. But you will not do it."

"I would if I could, Orual."

I looked about me. The sun was almost setting behind the saddle. In a little while she would send me away. I rose up.

"An end of this must be made," I said. "You shall do it. Psyche, I command you."

"Dear Maia, my duty is no longer to you."

"Then my life shall end with it," said I. I flung back my cloak further, thrust out my bare left arm, and struck the dagger into it till the point pricked out on the other side. Pulling the iron back through the wound was the worse pain; but I can hardly believe now how little I felt it.

"Orual! Are you mad?" cried Psyche, leaping up.

"You'll find linen in that urn. Tie up my wound," said I, sitting down and holding my arm out to let the blood fall on the heather.

I had thought she might scream and wring her hands or faint. But I was deceived. She was pale enough but had all her wits about her. She bound my arm. The blood came seeping through fold after fold, but she staunched it in the end. (My stroke had been lucky enough.

If I had known as much then as I do now about the inside of an arm, I might not - who knows? - have had the resolution to do it.)

The bandaging could not be done in a moment. The sun was lower and the air colder when we were able to talk again.

"Maia," said Psyche, "what did you do that for?"

"To show you I'm in earnest, girl. Listen. You have driven me to desperate courses. I give you your choice. Swear on this edge, with my blood still wet on it, that you will this very night do as I have commanded you; or else I'll first kill you and then myself."

"Orual," said she, very queenlike, raising her head, "you might have spared that threat of killing me. All your power over me lies in the other."

"Then swear, girl. You never knew me break my word."

The look in her face now was one I did not understand. I think a lover - I mean, a man who loved - might look so on a woman who had been false to him. And at last she said,

"You are indeed teaching me about kinds of love I did not know. It is like looking into a deep pit. I am not sure whether I like your kind better than hatred. Oh, Orual - to take my love for you, because you know it goes down to my very roots and cannot be diminished by any other newer love, and then to make of it a tool, a weapon, a thing of policy and mastery, an instrument of torture - I begin to think I never knew you. Whatever comes after, something that was between us dies here."

"Enough of your subtleties," said I. "Both of us die here, in plainest truth and blood, unless you swear."

"If I do," said she hotly, "it will not be for any doubt of my husband or his love. It will only be because I think better of him than of you. He cannot be cruel like you. I'll not believe it.

He will know how I was tortured into my disobedience. He will forgive me."

"He need never know," said I.

The look of scorn she gave me flayed my soul. And yet, this very nobleness in her - had I not taught it to her? What was there in her that was not my work? And now she used it to look at me as if I were base beneath all baseness.

"You thought I would hide it? Thought I would not tell him?" she said, each word like the rubbing of a file across raw flesh. "Well. It's all of a piece. Let us, as you say, make an end.

You grow more and more a stranger to me at each word. And I had loved you so - loved, honoured, trusted, and (while it was fit) obeyed. And now - but I can't have your blood on my threshold. You chose your threat well. I'll swear. Where's your dagger?"

So I had won my victory and my heart was in torment. I had a terrible longing to unsay all my words and beg her forgiveness. But I held out the dagger. (The "oath on edge," as we call it, is our strongest in Glome.)

"And even now," said Psyche, "I know what I do. I know that I am betraying the best of lovers and that perhaps, before sunrise, all my happiness may be destroyed forever. This is the price you have put upon your life. Well, I must pay it."

She took her oath. My tears burst out, and I tried to speak, but she turned her face away.

"The sun is almost down," she said. "Go. You have saved your life; go and live it as you can."

I found I was becoming afraid of her. I made my way back to the stream, crossed it somehow. And the shadow of the saddle leaped across the whole valley as the sun set.

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