Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold

PART ONE Chapter Thirteen

It was nearly dark in the palace, and as I came to my chamber door a voice said in Greek,

"Well?" It was the Fox, who had been squatting there, as my women told me, like a cat at a mouse-hole.

"Alive, Grandfather," said I, and kissed him. Then, "Come back as soon as you can. I am wet as a fish and must wash and change and eat. I'll tell you all when you come."

When I was reclothed and finishing my supper, his knock came at the door. I made him come and sit with me at table and poured him drink. There was no one with us but little Poobi, my dark-skinned maid, who was faithful and loving and knew no Greek.

"You said alive," the Fox began, raising his cup. "See. I make a libation to Zeus the Saviour."

He did it Greek-fashion with a clever twist of the cup that lets fall just one drop.

"Yes, Grandfather, alive and well and says she's happy."

"I feel as if my heart would crack for joy, child," said he. "You tell me things almost beyond belief."

"You've had the sweet, Grandfather. There's sour to follow."

"Let me hear it. All is to be borne."

Then I told him the whole story, always excepting that one glimpse in the fog. It was dreadful to me to see the light die out of his face as I went on, and to feel that I was darkening it. And I asked myself, "If you can hardly bear to do this, how will you bear to wipe out Psyche's happiness?"

"Alas, alas, poor Psyche!" said the Fox. "Our little child! And how she must have suffered!

Hellebore's the right medicine, with rest, and peace, and loving care . . . oh, we'd bring her into frame again, I don't doubt it, if we could nurse her well. But how are we to give her all or any of the things she needs? My wits are dry, daughter. We must think, though, contrive.

I wish I were Odysseus, aye, or Hermes."

"You think, then, she's mad, for certain?"

He darted a quick glance at me. "Why, daughter, what then have you been thinking?"

"You'll call it folly, I suppose. But you weren't with her, Grandfather. She talked so calmly.

There was nothing disordered in her speech. She could laugh merrily. Her glance wasn't wild. If I'd had my eyes shut, I would have believed her palace was as real as this."

"But, your eyes being open, you saw no such thing."

"You don't think - not possibly - not as a mere hundredth chance - there might be things that are real though we can't see them?"

"Certainly I do. Such things as Justice, Equality, the Soul, or musical notes."

"Oh, Grandfather, I don't mean things like that. If there are souls, could there not be soul-houses?"

He ran his hands through his hair with an old, familiar gesture of teacher's dismay.

"Child," he said, "you make me believe that, after all these years, you have never even begun to understand what the word soul means."

"I know well enough what you mean by it, Grandfather. But do you, even you, know all? Are there no things - I mean things - but what we see?"

"Plenty. Things behind our backs. Things too far away. And all things, if it's dark enough."

He leaned forward and put his hand on mine. "I begin to think, daughter, that if I can get that hellebore, yours had better be the first dose," he said.

I had had half a thought, at the outset, of telling him about the ferly, my glimpse of the palace. But I couldn't bring myself to it; he was the worst hearer in the world for such a story. Already he was making me ashamed of half the things I had been thinking. And now a more cheering thought came to me.

"Then, perhaps," said I, "this lover who comes to her in darkness is also part of the madness."

"I wish I could believe it," said the Fox.

"Why not, Grandfather?"

"You say she's plump and rosy? not starveling?"

"Never better."

"Then who's fed her all this time?"

I was silenced.

"And who took her out of the irons?"

I had never thought of this question at all. "Grandfather!" I said. "What is in your mind?

You - you of all men - are not hinting that it is the god. You'd laugh at me if I said so."

"I'd be more likely to weep. Oh, child, child, child, when shall I have washed the nurse and the grandam and the priest and the soothsayer out of your soul? Do you think the Divine Nature - why, it's profane, ridiculous. You might as well say the universe itched or the Nature of Things sometimes tippled in the wine cellar."

"I haven't said it was a god, Grandfather," said I. "I am asking who you think it was."

"A man, a man, of course," said the Fox, beating his hands on the table. "What? Are you still a child? Didn't you know there were men on the Mountain?"

"Men!" I gasped.

"Yes. Vagabonds, broken men, outlaws, thieves. Where are your wits?"

Indignation came burning into my cheeks and I sprang up. For any daughter of our house to mix, even in lawful marriage, with those who have not (at least by one grandparent) divine descent, is an utter abomination. The Fox's thought was unendurable.

"What are you saying?" I asked him. "Psyche would die on sharp stakes sooner than - "

"Peace, daughter," said the Fox. "Psyche doesn't know. As I read it, some robber or runaway has found the poor child, half-crazed with terror and loneliness, and with thirst, too (likely enough), and got her out of her irons. And if she were not in her right mind, what would she most probably babble of in her ravings? Her gold and amber house on the Mountain, of course. She has had that fantasy from her childhood. The fellow would fall in with it. He'd be the god's messenger . . . why, that's where her god of the Westwind comes from. It would be the man himself. He'd take her to this valley. He'd whisper to her that the god, the bridegroom, would come to her that night. And after dark, he'd come back."

"But the palace?"

"Her old fantasy, raised up by her madness and taken by her for reality. And whatever she tells the rascal about her fine house, he echoes it all. Perhaps adds more of his own. And so the delusion is built up stronger and stronger."

For the second time that day I was utterly aghast. The Fox's explanation seemed too plain and evident to allow me any hope of doubt. While Bardia was speaking, his had seemed the same.

"It looks, Grandfather," said I dully, "as if you had read the riddle right."

"It needed no Oedipus. But the real riddle's still to guess. What must we do? Oh, I'm barren, barren. I think your father has addled my brains with beating me about the ears. There must be some way . . . yet we've so little time."

"And so little freedom. I can't pretend to be on my sickbed much longer. And once the King knows I'm whole, how shall I ever get to the Mountain again?"

"Oh, for that - but I'd forgotten. There's been news today. The lions have been seen again."

"What?" I cried in terror. "On the Mountain?"

"No, no, not so bad as that. Indeed, rather good than bad. Somewhere down south, and west of Ringal. The King will have a great lion hunt."

"The lions back . . . so Ungit has played us false after all. Perhaps he'll sacrifice Redival this time. Is the King in a great rage?"

"Rage? No. Why, you'd think the loss of a herdsman and (what he values far more) some of the best dogs, and I don't know how many bullocks, was the best news he'd ever heard! I never saw him in better spirits. There's been nothing in his mouth all day but dogs and beaters and weather . . . and such rummage and bustle - messages to this lord and that lord - deep talks with the Huntsman - inspecting of kennels - shoeing of horses - beer flowing like water - even I have been slapped on the back in pure good fellowship till my ribs ache with it. But what concerns us is that he'll be out at the hunting the next two days at least. With luck it might be five or six."

"Then that's the time we have to work in."

"No more than that. He goes at daybreak tomorrow. And anyway, we'd have little longer.

She'll die if winter catches her on the Mountain. Living without a roof. And she'll be with child, no doubt, before we've time to look about us."

It was as if I'd been hit about the heart. "Leprosy and scabs on the man!" I gasped. "Curse him, curse him! Psyche to carry a beggar's brat? We'll have him impaled if ever we catch him. He shall die for days. Oh, I could tear his body with my bare teeth."

"You darken our counsels - and your own soul - with these passions," said the Fox. "If there were anywhere she could lie hidden (if we could get her)!"

"I had thought," said I, "we could hide her in Bardia's house."

"Bardia! He'd never take one who's been sacrificed into his house. He's afraid of his own shadow where gods and old wives' tales are concerned. He's a fool."

"That he is not," said I, sharply enough, for the Fox often nettled me with his contempt for very brave and honest people if they had no tincture of his Greek wisdom.

"And if Bardia would," the Fox added, "that wife of his wouldn't let him. And everyone knows that Bardia's tied to his wife's apron-strings."

"Bardia! And such a man. I couldn't have believed - "

"Pah! He's as amorous as Alcibiades. Why, the fellow married her undowered - for her beauty, if you please. The whole town knows of it. And she rules him like her slave."

"She must be a very vile woman, Grandfather."

"What does it matter to us whether she is or no? But you needn't think to find refuge for our darling in that house. I'll go further, daughter. There's nothing for it but to send her right out of Glome. If anyone in Glome knew that she had not died, they would seek her out and sacrifice her again. If we could get her to her mother's family . . . but I see no way of doing it.

Oh Zeus, Zeus, Zeus, if I had ten hoplites and a sane man to command them!"

"I can't see," said I, "even how to get her to leave the Mountain. She was obstinate, Grandfather. She obeys me no more. I think we must use force."

"And we have no force. I am a slave and you are a woman. We can't lead a dozen spears up the Mountain. And if we could, the secret would never be kept."

After that we sat silent for a long time, the fire flickering, Poobi sitting cross-legged by the hearth, feeding the logs into it, and playing a strange game of her own people's with beads (she once tried to teach it to me, but I could never learn). The Fox made as if to speak a dozen times but always checked himself. He was quick to devise plans, but no less quick to see the faults in them.

At last I said, "It all comes to this, Grandfather. I must go back to Psyche. I must overrule her somehow. Once she is on our side, once she knows her shame and danger, then the three of us must devise as best we can. It may be that she and I must go out into the wide world together - wander like Oedipus."

"And I with you," said the Fox. "You once bade me run away. This time I'll do it"

"One thing's certain," said I. "She shall not be left to the felon who has abused her. I will choose any way - any way - rather than that. It rests on me. Her mother's dead. (What mother but me has she ever known?) Her father's nothing, nothing for a father, and nothing for a king either. The honour of our house - the very being of Psyche - only I am left to care for them. She shall not be left. I'll - I'll"

"What, child? You are pale! Are you fainting?"

"If there is no other way, I will kill her."

"Babai!" said the Fox, so loud that Poobi stopped her game and stared at him. "Daughter, daughter. You are transported beyond all reason and nature. Do you know what it is?

There's one part love in your heart, and five parts anger, and seven parts pride. The gods know I love Psyche, too. And you know it; you know I love her as well as you do. It's a bitter grief that our child - our very Artemis and Aphrodite all in one - should live a beggar's life and lie in a beggar's arms. Yet even this . . . it is not to be named beside such detested impieties as you speak of. Why, look at it squarely, as reason and nature have made it, not as passion would paint it. To be poor and in hardship, to be a poor man's wife - "

"Wife! You mean his trull, his drab, his whore, his slut."

"Nature knows nothing of these names. What you call marriage is by law and custom not nature. Nature's marriage is but the union of the man who persuades with the woman who consents. And so - "

"The man who persuades - or, more likely, forces or deceives - being some murderer, alien, traitor, runaway slave or other filth?"

"Filth? Perhaps I do not see it as you do. I am an alien and a slave myself; and ready to be a runaway - to risk the flogging and impaling - for your love and hers."

"You are ten times my father," said I, raising his hand to my lips. "I meant no such thing.

But, Grandfather, there are matters you don't understand. Psyche said so herself."

"Sweet Psyche," he said. "I have often told her so. I am glad she has mastered the lesson.

She was ever a good pupil."

"You don't believe in the divine blood of our house," I said.

"Oh yes. Of all houses. All men are of divine blood, for there is the god in every man. We are all one. Even the man who has taken Psyche. I have called him rascal and villain. Too likely he is. But it may not be. A good man might be an outlaw and a runaway."

I was silent. All this meant nothing to me.

"Daughter," said the Fox suddenly (I think no woman, at least no woman who loved you, would have done it). "Sleep comes early to old men. I can hardly keep my eyes open. Let me go. Perhaps we shall see more clearly in the morning."

What could I do but send him away? This is where men, even the trustiest, fail us. Their heart is never so wholly given to any matter but that some trifle of a meal, or a drink, or a sleep, or a joke, or a girl, may come in between them and it, and then (even if you are a queen) you'll get no more good out of them till they've had their way. In those days I had not yet understood this. Great desolation came over me.

"Everyone goes from me," I said. "None of them cares for Psyche. She lives at the very outskirts of their thoughts. She is less to them, far less, than Poobi is to me. They think of her a little and then get tired and go to something else, the Fox to his sleep, and Bardia to his doll or scold of a wife. You are alone, Orual. Whatever is to be done, you must devise and do it. No help will come. All gods and mortals have drawn away from you. You must guess the riddle. Not a word will come to you until you have guessed wrong and they all come crowding back to accuse and mock and punish you for it."

I sent Poobi to bed. Then I did a thing which I think few have done. I spoke to the gods myself, alone, in such words as came to me, not in a temple, and without a sacrifice. I stretched myself face downward on the floor and called upon them with my whole heart. I took back every word I had said against them. I promised anything they might ask of me, if only they would send me a sign. They gave me none. When I began there was red firelight in the room and rain on the roof; when I rose up again the fire had sunk a little lower, and the rain drummed on as before.

Now, when I knew that I was left utterly to myself, I said, "I must do it . . . whatever I do . . . tomorrow. I must, then, rest tonight." I lay down on the bed. I was in that state when the body is so tired that sleep comes soon, but the mind is in such anguish that it will wake you the moment the body's sated. It woke me a few hours past midnight, with no least possibility of further sleep in me. The fire was out; the rain had stopped. I went to my window and stood looking out into the gusty blackness, twisting my hair in my fists with my knuckles against my temples, and thought.

My mind was much clearer. I now saw that I had, strangely, taken both Bardia's explanation and the Fox's (each while it lasted) for certain truth. Yet one must be false. And I could not find out which, for each was well-rooted in its own soil. If the things believed in Glome were true, then what Bardia said stood; if the Fox's philosophy were true, what the Fox said stood. But I could not find out whether the doctrines of Glome or the wisdom of Greece were right. I was the child of Glome and the pupil of the Fox; I saw that for years my life had been lived in two halves, never fitted together.

I must give up, then, trying to judge between Bardia and my master. And as soon as I said that, I saw (and wondered I had not seen before) that it made no difference. For there was one point on which both agreed. Both thought that some evil or shameful thing had taken Psyche for its own. Murdering thief or spectral Shadow-brute - did it matter which? The one thing neither of them believed was that anything good or fair came to her in the night.

No one but myself had dallied with that thought even for a moment. Why should they? Only my desperate wishes could have made it seem possible. The thing came in darkness and forbade itself to be seen. What lover would shun his bride's eyes unless he had some terrible reason for it?

Even I had thought the opposite only for an instant, while I looked at that likeness of a house across the river.

"It shall not have her," I said. "She shall not lie in those detestable embraces. Tonight must be the last night of that."

Suddenly there rose up before me the memory of Psyche in the mountain valley, brightface, brimming over with joy. My terrible temptation came back; to leave her to that fool-happy dream, whatever came of it, to spare her, not to bring her down from it into misery. Must I be to her an avenging fury, not a gentle mother? And part of my mind now was saying, "Do not meddle. Anything might be true. You are among marvels that you do not understand.

Carefully, carefully. Who knows what ruin you might pull down on her head and yours?"

But with the other part of me I answered that I was indeed her mother and her father, too (all she had of either), that my love must be grave and provident, not slip-shod and indulgent, that there is a time for love to be stern. After all, what was she but a child? If the present case were beyond my understanding, how much more must it be beyond hers?

Children must obey. It had hurt me, long ago, when I made the barber pull out the thorn.

Had I not none the less done well?

I hardened my resolution. I knew now what (which of two things) I must do, and no later than on the day which would soon be breaking - provided only that Bardia were not going on the lion hunt and that I could get him clear of that wife of his. As a man, even in great pain or sorrow, can still be fretted by a fly that buzzes in his face, I was fretted by the thought of this wife, this petted thing, suddenly starting up to delay or to hinder.

I lay down on my bed to wait for morning, calmed and quiet in a way now that I knew what I would do.

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