Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold

PART ONE Chapter Sixteen

I crept in by the back parts of the palace and soon learned that my father had not yet come home from the hunting. But I went as soft and slinking to my place as if he had. When it became clear to my own mind (it did not at first) that I was hiding now not from the King but from the Fox, it was a trouble to me. Always before he had been my refuge and comforter.

Poobi cried over my wound and when she had the bandage off - that part was bad - laid good dressings on it. That was hardly done, and I was eating (hungrily enough) when the Fox came.

"Daughter, daughter," he said. "Praise the gods who have sent you back. I have been in pain for you all day. Where have you been?"

"To the Mountain, Grandfather," said I, keeping my left arm out of sight. This was the first of my difficulties. I could not tell him of the self-wounding. I knew, now I saw him (I had not thought of it before), that he would rebuke me for putting that kind of force upon Psyche. One of his maxims was that if we cannot persuade our friends by reasons we must be content "and not bring a mercenary army to our aid." (He meant passions.)

"Oh, child, that was sudden," he said. "I thought we parted that night to talk it over again in the morning."

"We parted to let you sleep," said I. The words came fiercely, without my will and in my father's own voice. Then I was ashamed.

"So that's my sin," said the Fox, smiling sadly. "Well, Lady, you have punished it. But what's your news? Would Psyche hear you?"

I said nothing to that question but told him of the storm and the flood and how that mountain valley was now a mere swamp, and how I had tried to cross the stream and could not, and how I had heard Psyche go weeping away, on the south side of it, out of Glome altogether. There was no use in telling him about the god; he would have thought I had been mad or dreaming.

"Do you mean, child, you never came to speech with her at all?" said the Fox, looking very haggard.

"Yes," I said. "We did talk a little - earlier."

"Child, what is wrong? Was there a quarrel? What passed between you?"

This was harder to answer. In the end, when he questioned me closely, I told him about my plan of the lamp.

"Daughter, daughter!" cried the Fox, "what daemon put such a device in your thoughts?

What did you hope to do? Would not the villain by her side - he, a hunted man and an outlaw - be certain to wake? And what would he do then but snatch her up and drag her away to some other lair? Unless he stabbed her to the heart for fear she'd betray him to his pursuers. Why, the light alone would convince him she'd betrayed him already. How if it were a wound that made her weep? Oh, if you'd only taken counsel!"

I could say nothing. For now I wondered why indeed I had not thought of any of these things and whether I had never at all believed her lover was a mountainy man.

The Fox stared at me, wondering more and more, I saw, at my silence. At last he said, "Did you find it easy to make her do this?"

"No," said I. I had taken off, while I ate, the veil I had worn all day; now I greatly wished I had it on.

"And how did you persuade her?" he asked.

This was the worst of all. I could not tell him what I had really done. Nor much of what I'd said. For when I told Psyche that he and Bardia were both agreed about her lover I meant what was very true; both agreed it was some shameful or dreadful thing. But if I said this to the Fox, he would say that Bardia's belief and his were sheer contraries, the one all old wives' tales and the other plain workaday probabilities. He would make it seem that I had lied. I could never make him understand how different it had looked on the Mountain.

"I - I spoke with her," said I at last. "I persuaded her."

He looked long and searchingly at me, but never so tenderly since those old days when he used to sing "The Moon's Gone Down," I on his knee.

"Well. You have a secret from me," he said in the end. "No, don't turn away from me. Did you think I would try to press or conjure it out of you? Never that. Friends must be free. My tormenting you to find it would build a worse barrier between us than your hiding it. Some day - but you must obey the god within you, not the god within me. There, do not weep. I shall not cease to love you if you have a hundred secrets. I'm an old tree and my best branches were lopped off me the day I became a slave. You and Psyche were all that remained. Now - alas, poor Psyche! I see no way to her now. But I'll not lose you."

He embraced me (I bit my lip not to scream when his arm touched the wound) and went away. I had hardly ever before been glad of his going. But I thought, too, how much kinder he was than Psyche.

I never told Bardia the story of that night at all.

I made one resolve before I slept, which, though it seems a small matter, made much difference to me in the years that followed. Hitherto, like all my countrywomen, I had gone bareface; on those two journeys up the Mountain I had worn a veil because I wished to be secret. I now determined that I would go always veiled. I have kept this rule, within doors and without, ever since. It is a sort of treaty made with my ugliness. There had been a time in childhood when I didn't yet know I was ugly. Then there was a time (for in this book I must hide none of my shames or follies) when I believed, as girls do - and as Batta was always telling me - that I could make it more tolerable by this or that done to my clothes or my hair. Now, I chose to be veiled. The Fox, that night, was the last man who ever saw my face; and not many women have seen it either.

My arm healed well (and so all wounds have done in my body) and when the King returned, about seven days later, I no longer pretended to be ill. He came home very drunk, for there'd been as much feasting as hunting on that party, and very out of humour, for they had killed only two lions and he'd killed neither and a favourite dog had been ripped up.

A few days later he sent for the Fox and me again to the Pillar Room. As soon as he saw me veiled, he shouted, "Now, girl, what's this? Hung your curtains up, eh? Were you afraid we'd be dazzled by your beauty? Take off that frippery!"

It was then I first found what that night on the Mountain had done for me. No one who had seen and heard the god could much fear this roaring old King.

"It's hard if I'm to be scolded both for my face and for hiding it," said I, putting no hand to the veil.

"Come here," he said, not at all aloud this time. I went up and stood so close to his chair that my knees almost touched his, still as a stone. To see his face while he could not see mine seemed to give me a kind of power. He was working himself into one of those white rages.

"Do you begin to set your wits against mine?" he said almost in a whisper.

"Yes," said I, no louder than he, but very clearly. I had not known a moment before what I would do or say; that one little word came out of itself.

He stared at me while you could count seven and I half thought he might stab me dead.

Then he shrugged, and snarled out, "Oh, you're like all women. Talk, talk, talk . . . you'd talk the moon out of the sky if a man'd listen to you. Here, Fox, are those lies you've been writing ready for her to copy?"

He never struck me, and I never feared him again. And from that day I never gave back an inch before him. Rather I pressed on - so well that I told him not long after how impossible it was that I and the Fox should guard Redival if we were to work for him in the Pillar Room. He growled and cursed, yet henceforth he made Batta her jailer. Batta had grown very familiar with him of late and spent many hours in the Bedchamber. Not, I suppose, that he had her to his bed - even in the best of her days she had scarcely been what he called "savoury" - but she tattled and whispered and flattered him and stirred his possets, for he began to show his years. She was equally thick, for the most part, with Redival; but those were a pair who could be ready to scratch each other's eyes out one moment, and snuggling up for gossip and bawdy the next.

This, and all other things that were happening in the palace, mattered to me not at all. I was like a condemned man waiting for his executioner, for I believed that some sudden stroke of the gods would fall on me very soon. But as day came after day and nothing happened, I began to see, at first very unwillingly, that I might be doomed to live, and even to live an unchanged life, some while longer.

When I understood this I went to Psyche's room, alone, and put everything in it as it had been before all our sorrows began. I found some verses in Greek which seemed to be a hymn to the god of the Mountain. These I burned. I did not choose that any of that part of her should remain. Even the clothes that she had worn in the last year I burned also; but those she had worn earlier, and especially what were left of those she wore in childhood, and any jewels she had loved as a child, I hung in their proper places. I wished all to be so ordered that if she could come back she would find all as it had been when she was still happy, and still mine. Then I locked the door and put a seal on it. And, as well as I could, I locked a door in my mind. Unless I were to go mad I must put away all thoughts of her save those that went back to her first, happy years. I never spoke of her. If my women mentioned her name I bade them be silent. If the Fox mentioned it I was silent myself and led him to other things. There was less comfort than of old in being with the Fox.

Yet I questioned him much about what he called the physical parts of philosophy, about the seminal fire, and how soul arises from blood, and the periods of the universe; and also about plants and animals, and the positions, soils, airs, and governments of cities. I wanted hard things now, and to pile up knowledge.

As soon as my wound was well enough I returned very diligently to my fencing lessons with Bardia. I did it even before my left arm could bear a shield, for he said that fighting without shields was also a skill that ought to be learned. He said (and I now know it was true) that I made very good progress.

My aim was to build up more and more that strength, hard and joyless, which had come to me when I heard the god's sentence; by learning, fighting, and labouring, to drive all the woman out of me. Sometimes at night, if the wind howled or the rain fell, there would leap upon me, like water from a bursting dam, a great and anguished wonder - whether Psyche was alive, and where she was on such a night, and whether hard wives of peasants were turning her, cold and famished, from their door. But then, after an hour or so of weeping and writhing and calling out upon the gods, I would set to and rebuild the dam.

Soon Bardia was teaching me to ride on horseback as well as to fence with the sword. He used me, and talked to me, more and more like a man. And this both grieved and pleased me.

So things went on till the Midwinter, which is a great feast in our country. On the day after it the King came home from some revels he had been at in a lord's house, about three hours after noon, and in mounting the steps that go up into the porch he fell. It was so cold that day that the water the houseboys had used for scouring the steps had frozen on them. He fell with his right leg under him across the edge of a step, and when men ran to help him up he roared out with pain and was ready to set his teeth in the hands of anyone who touched him. Next minute he was cursing them for leaving him to lie there and freeze. As soon as I came I nodded to the slaves to lift him up and carry him in, whatever he said or did. We got him to his bed, with great agony, and had the barber to him, who said (as we all guessed) that his thigh was broken. "But I've no skill to set it, Lady, even if the King would let my fingers near it." I sent a messenger over to the house of Ungit to the Second Priest, who had the name of a good surgeon. Before he came the King had filled himself up with enough strong wine to throw a sound man into a fever, and as soon as the Second Priest got his clothes out of the way and began handling the leg, he started screaming like a beast and tried to pluck out his dagger. Then Bardia and I whispered to one another, and we got in six of the guards and held the King down. Between his screams he kept on pointing at me with his eyes (they had his hands fast) and crying out,

"Take her away! Take away that one with the veil. Don't let her torture me. I know who she is. I know."

He had no sleep that night or the day and night after (on top of the pain from his leg, he coughed as if his chest would burst), and whenever our backs were turned Batta would be taking him in more wine. I was not much in the Bedchamber myself, for the sight of me made him frantic. He kept on saying he knew who I was for all my veil.

"Master," said the Fox, "it is only the Princess Orual, your daughter."

"Aye, so she tells you," the King would say. "But I know better. Wasn't she using red hot iron on my leg all night? I know who she is. . . . Aiai! Aiai! Guards! Bardia! Orual! Batta!

Take her away!"

On the third night the Second Priest and Bardia and the Fox and I all stood just outside his door and talked in whispers. The Second Priest's name was Arnom; he was a dark man, no older than I, smooth-cheeked as a eunuch (which he cannot have been, for though Ungit has eunuchs, only a weaponed man can hold the full priesthood).

"It's likely," said Arnom, "that this will end in the King's death."

"So," thought I. "This is how it will begin. There'll be a new world in Glome, and if I get off with my life, I shall be driven out. I too shall be a Psyche."

"I think the same," said the Fox. "And it comes at a ticklish time. There's much business before us."

"More than you think, Lysias," said Arnom (I had never heard the Fox called by his real name before). "The house of Ungit is in the very same plight as the King's house."

"What do you mean, Arnom?" said Bardia.

"The Priest is dying at last. If I have any skill, he'll not last five days."

"And you to succeed him?" said Bardia. The priest bowed his head.

"Unless the King forbids," added the Fox. This was good law in Glome.

"It's very necessary," said Bardia, "that Ungit and the palace should be of one mind at such a moment. There are those who'd see their chance of setting Glome by the ears otherwise."

"Yes, very necessary," said Arnom. "No one will rise against us both."

"It's our good fortune," said Bardia, "that there's no cause of quarrel between the Queen and Ungit."

"The Queen?" said Arnom.

"The Queen," said Bardia and the Fox now both together.

"If only the Princess were married, now!" said Arnom, bowing very courteously. "A woman cannot lead the armies of Glome in war."

"This Queen can," said Bardia; and the way he thrust out his lower jaw made him seem a whole army himself. I saw Arnom looking at me hard, and I think my veil served me better than the boldest countenance in the world, maybe better than beauty would have done.

"There is only one difference between Ungit and the King's house," he said, "and that concerns the Crumbles. But for the King's sickness and the Priest's I would have been here before now to speak of it."

I knew all about this and saw now where we were. The Crumbles was good land on the far side of the river, and it had been a cat-and-dog quarrel ever since I started working for my father as to whether it belonged, or how much of it belonged, to the King or to Ungit. I had always thought (little cause as I had to love Ungit) that it should belong to her house, which was indeed poorly provided for the charge of continual sacrifices. And I thought too that if once Ungit were reasonably furnished with land, the priests could be stopped from wringing

so much out of the common people by way of gifts.

"The King still lives," said I; I had not spoken before, and my voice surprised them all. "But because of his sickness I am now the King's mouth. It is his wish to give the Crumbles to Ungit, free and forever, and the covenant to be cut in stone, upon one condition."

Bardia and the Fox looked at me with wonder. But Arnom said, "What is that, Lady?"

"That Ungit's guards be henceforward under the Captain of the King's guard, and chosen by the King (or his successor), and under his obedience."

"And paid by the King (or his successors) too?" said Arnom quick as lightning.

I had not thought of this stroke, but I judged any resolute answer better than the wisest pondering. "That," said I, "must be according to the hours of duty they spend in Ungit's house and here."

"You drive - that is, the King drives - a hard bargain, Lady," said the priest. But I knew he would take it, for I knew that Ungit had more need of good land than of spears. Also, it would be hard for Arnom to succeed to the Priesthood if the palace was against him. Then my father began roaring out from within and the priest went back to him.

"Well done, daughter," whispered the Fox.

"Long live the Queen," whispered Bardia. Then they both followed Arnom.

I stood outside in the great hall, which was empty, and the fire low. It was as strange a moment as any in my life. To be a queen - that would not sweeten the bitter water against which I had been building the dam in my soul. It might strengthen the dam, though. Then, as a quite different thing, came the thought that my father would be dead. That struck me dizzy. The largeness of a world in which he was not . . . the clear light of a sky in which that cloud would no longer hang . . . freedom. I drew in a long breath, one way, the sweetest I had ever drawn. I came near to forgetting my great central sorrow.

But only for a moment. It was very still, and most of the household was in bed. I thought I heard a sound of weeping - a girl's weeping - the sound for which always, with or without my will, I was listening. It seemed to come from without, from behind the palace. Instantly crowns and policies and my father were a thousand leagues from my mind. In a torture of hope I went swiftly to the other end of the hall and then out by the little door between the dairy and the guard's quarters.

The moon was shining, but the air was not so still as I thought. And where now was the weeping? Then I thought I heard it again. "Psyche," I called. "Istra! Psyche!" I went to the sound. Now I was less sure what it was. I remembered that when the chains of the well swung a little (and there had been breeze enough to sway them just now) they could make a noise something like that. Oh, the cheat of it, the bitterness!

I stood and listened. There was no more weeping. But something was moving somewhere.

Then I saw a cloaked form dart across a patch of moonlight and bury itself in some bushes. I was after it, quick as I could. Next moment I plunged my hand in among the branches.

Another hand met it.

"Softly, sweetheart," said a voice. "Take me to the King's threshold."

It was a wholly strange voice, and a man's.

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