What I babbled, between tears and laughter, in the first wildness of my joy (the water still between us) I don't know. I was recalled by Bardia's voice.
"Careful, Lady. It may be her wraith. It may - ai! ai! - it is the bride of the god. It is a goddess." He was deadly white, and bending down to throw earth on his forehead.
You could not blame him. She was so brightface, as we say in Greek. But I felt no holy fear.
What? - I to fear the very Psyche whom I had carried in my arms and taught to speak and to walk? She was tanned by sun and wind, and clothed in rags, but laughing - her eyes like two stars, her limbs smooth and rounded, and (but for the rags) no sign of beggary or hardship about her. "Welcome, welcome, welcome," she was saying. "Oh, Maia, I have longed for this. It was my only longing. I knew you would come. Oh, how happy I am! And good Bardia, too. It was he that brought you? Of course; I might have guessed it. Come, Orual, you must cross the stream. I'll show you where it's easiest. But, Bardia - I can't bid you across. Dear Bardia, it's not - "
"No, no, Blessed Istra," said Bardia (and I thought he was very relieved). "I'm only a soldier." Then, in a lower voice, to me, "Will you go, Lady? This is a very dreadful place.
Perhaps - "
"Go?" said I. "I'd go if the river flowed with fire instead of water."
"Of course," said he. "It's not with you as with us. You have gods' blood in you. I'll stay here with the horse. We're out of the wind and there's good grass for him here."
I was already on the edge of the river.
"A little further up, Orual," Psyche was saying. "Here's the best ford. Go straight ahead off that big stone. Gently! make your footing sure. No, not to your left. It's very deep in places.
This way. Now, one step more. Reach out for my hand."
I suppose the long bed-ridden and in-doors time of my sickness had softened me. Anyhow, the coldness of that water shocked all the breath out of me; and the current was so strong that, but for Psyche's hand, I think it would have knocked me down and rolled me under. I even thought, momentarily amid a thousand other things, "How strong she grows. She'll be a stronger woman than ever I was. She'll have that as well as her beauty."
The next was all a confusion - trying to talk, to cry, to kiss, to get my breath back, all together. But she led me a few paces beyond the river and made me sit in the warm heather, and sat beside me, our four hands joined in my lap, just as it had been that night in her prison.
"Why, Sister," she said merrily, "you have found my threshold cold and steep! You are breathless. But I'll refresh you."
She jumped up, went a little way off, and came back, carrying something; the little cool, dark berries of the Mountain, in a green leaf. "Eat," she said. "Is it not food fit for the gods?"
"Nothing sweeter," said I. And indeed I was both hungry and thirsty enough by now, for it was noon or later. "But oh, Psyche, tell me how - "
"Wait!" said she. "After the banquet, the wine." Close beside us a little silvery trickle came out from among stones mossed cushion-soft. She held her two hands under it till they were filled and raised them to my lips.
"Have you ever tasted a nobler wine?" she said. "Or in a fairer cup?"
"It is indeed a good drink," said I. "But the cup is better. It is the cup I love best in the world."
"Then it's yours, Sister." She said it with such a pretty air of courtesy, like a queen and hostess giving gifts, that the tears came into my eyes again. It brought back so many of her plays in childhood.
"Thank you, child," said I. "I hope it is mine indeed. But, Psyche, we must be serious; yes, and busy too. How have you lived? How did you escape? And oh - we mustn't let the joy of the moment put it out of our minds - what are we to do now?"
"Do? Why, be merry, what else? Why should our hearts not dance?"
"They do dance. Do you not think - why, I could forgive the gods themselves. I'll shortly be able to forgive Redival; perhaps. But how can - it will be winter in a month or less. You can't - Psyche, how have you kept alive till now? I thought, I thought - " but to think of what I had thought overcame me.
"Hush, Maia, hush," said Psyche (once more it was she who was comforting me). "All those fears are over. All's well. I'll make it well for you too; I'll not rest till you're as happy as I. But you haven't yet even asked me my story. Weren't you surprised to find this fair dwelling place, and me living here; like this? Have you no wonder?"
"Yes, Psyche, I am overwhelmed in it. Of course I want to hear your story. Unless we should make our plans first."
"Solemn Orual," said Psyche mockingly. "You were always one for plans. And rightly too, Maia, with such a foolish child as me to bring up. And well you did it." With one light kiss she put all those days, all of my life that I cared for, behind us and began her story.
"I wasn't in my right mind when we left the palace. Before the two temple girls began painting and dressing me they gave me a sweet, sticky stuff to drink - a drug, as I guess - for soon after I had swallowed it everything went dreamlike, and more and more so for a long time. And I think, Sister, they must always give that to those whose blood is to be poured over Ungit, and that's why we see them die so patiently. And the painting on my face helped the dreaminess too. It made my face stiff till it didn't seem to be my own face. I couldn't feel it was I who was being sacrificed. And then the music and incense and the torches made it more so. I saw you, Orual, at the top of the stairway, but I couldn't lift even a hand to wave to you; my arms were as heavy as lead. And I thought it didn't matter much, because you too would wake up presently and find it was all a dream. And in a sense it was, wasn't it? And you are nearly awake now. What? still so grave? I must wake you more.
"You'd think the cold air would have given me my mind back when we came out of the great gates, but the drug must have been still coming to its full power. I had no fear; nor joy either. Sitting there on that litter, up above the heads of all that crowd, was a strange enough thing anyway . . . and the horns and the rattles were going on all the time. I don't know whether the journey up the mountain was long or short. Each bit of it was long; I
noticed every pebble on the road, I looked long, long at every tree as we passed it. Yet the whole journey seemed to take hardly any time. Yet long enough for me to get some of my wits back. I began to know that something dreadful was being done to me. Then for the first time I wanted to speak. I tried to cry out to them that there was some mistake, that I was only poor Istra and it couldn't be me they meant to kill. But nothing more than a kind of grunting or babbling came out of my mouth. Then a great bird-headed man, or a bird with a man's body - "
"That would be the Priest," said I.
"Yes. If he is still the Priest when he puts on his mask; perhaps he becomes a god while he wears it. Anyway, it said, 'Give her some more,' and one of the younger priests got on someone else's shoulders and put the sweet sticky cup to my lips again. I didn't want to take it, but, you know, Maia, it all felt so like the time you had the barber to take that thorn out of my hand long ago - you remember - you holding me tight, and telling me to be good, and that it'd all be over in a moment. Well, it was like that, so I felt sure I'd better do whatever I was told.
"The next thing I knew - really knew - was that I was off the litter and on the hot earth, and they were fastening me to the Tree with iron round my waist. It was the sound of the iron that cleared the last of the drug out of my mind. And there was the King, shrieking and wailing and tearing his hair. And do you know, Maia, he actually looked at me, really looked, and it seemed to me he was then seeing me for the first time. But all I wished was that he would stop it and then he and all the rest would go away and leave me alone to cry. I wanted to cry now. My mind was getting clearer and clearer and I was terribly afraid. I was trying to be like those girls in the Greek stories that the Fox is always telling us about, and I knew I could keep it up till they were gone, if only they would go quickly."
"Oh, Psyche, you say all's well now. Forget that terrible time. Go on quickly and tell me how you were saved. We have so much to talk about and arrange. There's no time - "
"Orual! There's all the time there is. Don't you want to hear my story?"
"Of course I do. I want to hear every bit. When we're safe and - "
"Where shall we ever be safe if we're not safe here? This is my home, Maia. And you won't understand the wonder and glory of my adventure unless you listen to the bad part. It wasn't very bad, you know."
"It's so bad I can hardly bear to listen to it."
"Ah, but wait. Well, at last they were gone, and there I was alone under the glare of the sky with the great baked, parched mountain all round me, and not one noise to be heard. There wasn't a breath of wind even by the Tree; you remember what the last day of the drought was like. I was already thirsty - the sticky drink had done that. Then I noticed for the first time that they had so bound me that I couldn't sit down. That was when my heart really failed me. I did cry then; oh, Maia, how badly I wanted you and the Fox! And all I could do was to pray, pray, pray to the gods that whatever was going to happen to me might happen soon. But nothing happened, except that my tears made me thirstier. Then, a very long time after that, things began gathering round me."
"Oh, nothing dreadful. Only the mountain cattle at first. Poor lean things they were. I was sorry for them, for I thought they were as thirsty as I. And they came nearer and nearer in a great circle, but never very near, and mooed at me. And after that there came a beast that I had never seen before, but I think it was a lynx. It came right up close. My hands were free and I wondered if I would be able to beat it off. But I had no need to. After advancing and drawing back I don't know how many times (I think it began by fearing me as much as I feared it) it came and sniffed at my feet, and then it stood up with its forepaws on me and sniffed again. Then it went away. I was sorry it had gone; it was a kind of company. And do you know what I was thinking all this time?"
"At first I was trying to cheer myself with all that old dream of my gold and amber palace on the Mountain . . . and the god . . . trying to believe it. But I couldn't believe in it at all. I couldn't understand how I ever had. All that, all my old longings, were clean gone."
I pressed her hands and said nothing. But inwardly I rejoiced. It might have been good (I don't know) to encourage that fancy the night before the Offering, if it supported her. Now, I was glad she had got over it. It was a thing I could not like, unnatural and estranging.
Perhaps this gladness of mine is one of the things the gods have against me. They never tell.
"The only thing that did me good," she continued, "was quite different. It was hardly a thought, and very hard to put into words. There was a lot of the Fox's philosophy in it - things he says about gods or 'the divine nature' - but mixed up with things the Priest said, too, about the blood and the earth and how sacrifice makes the crops grow. I'm not explaining it well. It seemed to come from somewhere deep inside me, deeper than the part that sees pictures of gold and amber palaces, deeper than fears and tears. It was shapeless, but you could just hold onto it; or just let it hold onto you. Then the change came."
"What change?" I didn't know well what she was talking about, but I saw she must have her way and tell the story in her own fashion.
"Oh, the weather of course. I couldn't see it, tied the way I was, but I could feel it. I was suddenly cool. Then I knew the sky must be filling with clouds, behind my back, over Glome, for all the colours on the Mountain went out and my own shadow vanished. And then - that was the first sweet moment - a sigh of wind - west-wind - came at my back.
Then more and more wind; you could hear and smell and feel the rain drawing near. So then I knew quite well that the gods really are, and that I was bringing the rain. And then the wind was roaring (but it's too soft a sound to call it a roar) all round me, and rain. The Tree kept some of it off me; I was holding out my hands all the time and licking the rain off them, I was so thirsty. The wind got wilder and wilder. It seemed to be lifting me off the ground so that, if it hadn't been for the iron round my waist, I'd have been blown right away, up in the air. And then - at last - for a moment - I saw him."
"Not it; him. The god of the wind; West-wind himself."
"Were you awake, Psyche?"
"Oh, it was no dream. One can't dream things like that, because one's never seen things like that. He was in human shape. But you couldn't mistake him for a man. Oh, Sister, you'd understand if you'd seen. How can I make you understand? You've seen lepers?"
"Well, of course."
"And you know how healthy people look beside a leper?"
"You mean - healthier, ruddier than ever?"
"Yes. Now we, beside the gods, are like lepers beside us."
"Do you mean this god was so red?"
She laughed and clapped her hands. "Oh, it's no use," she said. "I see I've not given you the idea at all. Never mind. You shall see gods for yourself, Orual. It must be so; I'll make it so.
Somehow. There must be a way. Look, this may help you. When I saw West-wind I was neither glad nor afraid (at first). I felt ashamed."
"But what of? Psyche, they hadn't stripped you naked or anything?"
"No, no, Maia. Ashamed of looking like a mortal - ashamed of being a mortal."
"But how could you help that?"
"Don't you think the things people are most ashamed of are the things they can't help?"
I thought of my ugliness and said nothing.
"And he took me," said Psyche, "in his beautiful arms which seemed to burn me (though the burning didn't hurt) and pulled me right out of the iron girdle - and that didn't hurt either and I don't know how he did it - and carried me up into the air, far up above the ground, and whirled me away. Of course he was invisible again almost at once. I had seen him only as one sees a lightning flash. But that didn't matter. Now I knew it was he, not it, I wasn't in the least afraid of sailing along in the sky, even of turning head over heels in it."
"Psyche, are you sure this happened? You must have been dreaming!"
"And if it was a dream, Sister, how do you think I came here? It's more likely everything that had happened to me before this was a dream. Why, Glome and the King and old Batta seem to me very like dreams now. But you hinder my tale, Maia. So he carried me through the air and set me down softly. At first I was all out of breath and too bewildered to see where I was; for West-wind is a merry, rough god. (Sister, do you think young gods have to be taught how to handle us? A hasty touch from hands like theirs and we'd fall to pieces.) But when I came to myself - ah, can you think what a moment that was! - and saw the House before me; I lying at the threshold. And it wasn't, you see, just the gold and amber house I used to imagine. If it had been just that, I might indeed have thought I was dreaming. But I saw it wasn't. And not quite like any house in this land, nor quite like those Greek houses the Fox describes to us. Something new, never conceived of - but, there, you can see for yourself - and I'll show you over every bit of it in a moment. Why need I try to show it in words?
"You could see it was a god's house at once. I don't mean a temple where a god is
worshipped. A god's House, where he lives. I would not for any wealth have gone into it. But I had to, Orual. For there came a voice - sweet? oh, sweeter than any music, yet my hair rose at it too - and do you know, Orual, what it said? It said, 'Enter your House' (yes, it called it my House), 'Psyche, the bride of the god.'
"I was ashamed again, ashamed of my mortality, and terribly afraid. But it would have been worse shame and worse fear to disobey. I went, cold, small, and shaking, up the steps and through the porch and into the courtyard. There was no one to be seen. But then the voices came. All round me, bidding me welcome."
"What kind of voices?"
"Like women's voices - at least, as like women's voices as the wind-god was like a man. And they said, 'Enter, Lady, enter, Mistress. Do not be afraid.' And they were moving as the speakers moved, though I could see no one, and leading me by their movements. And so they brought me into a cool parlour with an arched roof, where there was a table set out with fruit and wine. Such fruits as never - but you shall see. They said, 'Refresh yourself, Lady, before the bath; after it comes the feast.' Oh, Orual, how can I tell you what it felt like?
I knew they were all spirits and I wanted to fall at their feet. But I daren't; if they made me mistress of that house, mistress I should have to be. Yet all the time I was afraid there might be some bitter mockery in it and that at any moment terrible laughter might break out and - "
"Ah!" said I, with a long breath. How well I understood.
"Oh, but I was wrong, Sister. Utterly wrong. That's part of the mortal shame. They gave me fruit, they gave me wine - "
"The voices gave you?"
"The spirits gave them to me. I couldn't see their hands. Yet, you know, it never looked as if the plates or the cup were moving of themselves. You could see that hands were doing it.
And, Orual" (her voice grew very low), "when I took the cup, I - I - felt the other hands, touching my own. Again, that burning, though without pain. That was terrible." She blushed suddenly and (I wondered why) laughed. "It wouldn't be terrible now," she said. "Then they had me to the bath. You shall see it. It is in the most delicate pillared court open to the sky, and the water is like crystal and smells as sweet as . . . as sweet as this whole valley. I was terribly shy when it came to taking off my clothes, but - "
"You said they were all she-spirits."
"Oh, Maia, you still don't understand. This shame has nothing to do with He or She. It's the being mortal - being, how shall I say it? . . . insufficient. Don't you think a dream would feel shy if it were seen walking about in the waking world? And then" (she was speaking more and more quickly now) "they dressed me again - in the most beautiful things - and then came the banquet - and the music - and then they had me to bed - and the night came - and then - he."
"The Bridegroom . . . the god himself. Don't look at me like that, Sister. I'm your own true Psyche still. Nothing will change that."
"Psyche," said I, leaping up, "I can't bear this any longer. You have told me so many wonders. If this is all true, I've been wrong all my life. Everything has to be begun over again. Psyche, it is true? You're not playing a game with me? Show me. Show me your palace."
"Of course I will," she said, rising. "Let us go in. And don't be afraid whatever you see or hear."
"Is it far?" said I.
She gave me a quick, astonished look. "Far to where?" she said.
"To the palace, to this god's House."
You have seen a lost child in a crowd run up to a woman whom it takes for its mother, and how the woman turns round and shows the face of a stranger, and then the look in the child's eyes, silent a moment before it begins to cry. Psyche's face was like that; checked, blank; happiest assurance suddenly dashed all to pieces.
"Orual," she said, beginning to tremble, "what do you mean?"
I too became frightened, though I had yet no notion of the truth. "Mean?" said I. "Where is the palace? How far have we to go to reach it?"
She gave one loud cry. Then, with white face, staring hard into my eyes, she said, "But this is it, Orual! It is here! You are standing on the stairs of the great gate."