Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold

PART ONE Chapter Three

It was Redival who ended the good time. She had always been feather-headed and now grew wanton, and what must she do but stand kissing and whispering love-talk with a young officer of the guard (one Tarin) right under Batta's window an hour after midnight. Batta had slept off her wine in the earlier part of the night and was now wakeful. Being a busybody and tattler in grain, she went off straight and woke the King, who cursed her roundly but believed her. He was up, and had a few armed men with him, and was out into the garden and surprised the lovers before they knew that anything was amiss. The whole house was raised by the noise of it. The King had the barber to make a eunuch of Tarin there and then (as soon as he was healed, they sold him down at Ringal). The boy's screams had hardly sunk to a whimper before the King turned on the Fox and me, and made us to blame for the whole thing. Why had the Fox not looked to his pupil? Why had I not looked to my sister? The end of it was a strict command that we were never to let her out of our sight. "Go where you will and do what you will," said my father. "But the salt bitch must be with you. I tell you, Fox, if she loses her maidenhead before I find her a husband, you'll yell louder for it than she. Look to your hide. And you, goblin daughter, do what you're good for, you'd best.

Name of Ungit! if you with that face can't frighten the men away, it's a wonder."

Redival was utterly cowed by the King's anger and obeyed him. She was always with us. And that soon cooled any love she had for Psyche or me. She yawned and she quarrelled and she mocked. Psyche, who was a child so merry, so truthful, so obedient that in her (the Fox said) Virtue herself had put on a human form, could do no right in Redival's eyes. One day Redival hit her. Then I hardly knew myself again till I found that I was astride of Redival, she on the ground with her face a lather of blood, and my hands about her throat. It was the Fox who pulled me off and, in the end, some kind of peace was made between us.

Thus all the comfort we three had had was destroyed when Redival joined us. And after that, little by little, one by one, came the first knocks of the hammer that finally destroyed us all.

That year after I fought Redival was the first of the bad harvests. That same year my father tried to marry himself (as the Fox told me) into two royal houses among the neighbouring kings, and they would have none of him. The world was changing, the great alliance with Caphad had proved a snare. The tide was against Glome.

The same year, too, a small thing happened which cost me many a shuddering. The Fox and I, up behind the pear trees, were deep in his philosophy. Psyche had wandered off, singing to herself, among the trees, to the edge of the royal gardens where they overlook the lane.

Redival went after her. I had one eye on the pair of them, and one ear for the Fox. Then it seemed they were talking to someone in the lane, and shortly after that they came back.

Redival, sneering, bowed double before Psyche and went through the actions of pouring dust on her head. "Why don't you honour the goddess?" she said to us.

"What do you mean, Redival?" asked I, wearily, for I knew she meant some new spite.

"Did you not know our step-sister had become a goddess?"

"What does she mean, Istra?" said I. (I never called her Psyche now that Redival had joined us.)

"Come on, step-sister goddess, speak up," said Redival. "I'm sure I've been told often enough how truthful you are, so you'll not deny that you have been worshipped."

"It's not true," said Psyche. "All that happened was that a woman with child asked me to kiss her."

"Ah, but why?" said Redival.

"Because ! because she said her baby would be beautiful if I did."

"Because you are so beautiful yourself. ! Don't forget that. She said that."

"And what did you do, Istra?" asked I.

"I kissed her. She was a nice woman. I liked her."

"And don't forget that she then laid down a branch of myrtle at your feet and bowed and put dust on her head," said Redival.

"Has this happened before, Istra?" said I.

"Yes. Sometimes."

"How often?"

"I don't know."

"Twice before?"

"More than that."

"Well, ten times?"

"No, more. I don't know. I can't remember. What are you looking at me like that for? Is it wrong?"

"Oh, it's dangerous, dangerous," said I. "The gods are jealous. They can't bear ! "

"Daughter, it doesn't matter a straw," said the Fox. "The divine nature is without jealousy.

Those gods ! the sort of gods you are always thinking about ! are all folly and lies of poets.

We have discussed this a hundred times."

"Heigh-ho," yawns Redival, lying flat on her back in the grass and kicking her legs in the air till you could see all there was of her (which she did purely to put the Fox out of countenance, for the old man was very modest). "Heigh-ho, a step-sister for goddess and a slave for counsellor. Who'd be a princess in Glome? I wonder what Ungit thinks of our new goddess."

"It is not very easy to find out what Ungit thinks," said the Fox.

Redival rolled round and laid her cheek on the grass. Then, looking up at him, she said softly, "But it would be easy to find out what the Priest of Ungit thinks. Shall I try?"

All my old fear of the Priest, and more fears for the future than I could put a name to, stabbed into me.

"Sister," said Redival to me, "give me your necklace with the blue stones, the one our mother gave you."

"Take it," said I. "I'll give it to you when we go in."

"And you, slave," she said to the Fox. "Mend your manners. And get my father to give me to some king in marriage; and it must be a young king, brave, yellow-bearded, and lusty. You can do what you like with my father when you're shut up with him in the Pillar Room.

Everyone knows that you are the real King of Glome."

The year after that we had rebellion. It came of my father's gelding Tarin. Tarin himself was of no great lineage (to be about a king's house at all) and the King had thought his father would have no power to avenge him. But the father made common cause with bigger men than himself, and about nine strong lords in our northwest rose against us. My father took the field himself (and when I saw him ride out in his armour, I came nearer to loving him than I had been yet) and beat the rebels, but with great slaughter on both parts and, I think, more slaughter of the beaten men than was needed. The thing left a stench and a disaffection behind it; when all was done, the King was weaker than he had been.

That year was the second bad harvest and the beginning of the fever. In the autumn the Fox took it and nearly died. I could not be with him, for as soon as the Fox fell sick the King said, "Now, girl, you can read and write and chatter Greek. I'll have work for you. You must take the Fox's place." So I was nearly always in the Pillar Room, for there was much business at the time. Though I was sick with fear for the Fox, the work with my father was far less dreadful to me than I expected. He came, for the time, to hate me less. In the end he would speak to me, not, certainly, with love, but friendly as one man might to another. I learned how desperate his affairs were. No neighbouring houses of divine blood (and ours cannot lawfully marry into any other) would take his daughters or give him theirs. The nobles were muttering about the succession. There were threats of war from every side, and no strength to meet any one of them.

It was Psyche who nursed the Fox, however often forbidden. She would fight, yes, and bite, any who stood between her and his door; for she, too, had our father's hot blood, though her angers were all the sort that come from love. The Fox won through his illness, thinner and greyer than before. Now mark the subtlety of the god who is against us. The story of his recovery and Psyche's nursing got abroad; Batta alone was conduit-pipe enough, and there were a score of other talkers. It became a story of how the beautiful princess could cure the fever by her touch; soon, that her touch was the only thing that could cure it. Within two days half the city was at the palace gate ! such scarecrows, risen from their beds, old dotards as eager to save their lives as if their lives in any event were worth a year's purchase, babies, sick men half-dead and carried on beds. I stood looking at them from behind barred windows, all the pity and dread of it, the smell of sweat and fever and garlic and foul clothes.

"The Princess Istra," they cried. "Send out the Princess with her healing hands. We die!

Healing, healing, healing!"

"And bread," came other voices. "The royal granaries! We are starving."

This was at first, while they stood a little way off from the gate. But they got nearer. Soon they were hammering at it. Someone was saying, "Bring fire." But, behind them, the weaker voices wailed on, "Heal us, heal us. The Princess with the healing hands!"

"She'll have to go out," said my father. "We can't hold them." (Two-thirds of our guards were down with the fever.)

"Can she heal them?" said I to the Fox. "Did she heal you?"

"It is possible," said the Fox. "It might be in accordance with nature that some hands can heal. Who knows?"

"Let me go out," said Psyche. "They are our people."

"Our rump!" said my father. "They shall smart for this day's work if ever I get the whip-hand of them again. But quick. Dress the girl. She has beauty enough, that's one thing. And spirit."

They put a queen's dress on her and a chaplet on her head and opened the door. You know how it is when you shed few tears or none, but there is a weight and pressure of weeping through your whole head. It is like that with me even now when I remember her going out, slim and straight as a sceptre, out of the darkness and cool of the hall into the hot, pestilential glare of that day. The people drew back, thrusting one another, the moment the doors opened. I think they expected a rush of spearmen. But a minute later the wailing and shouting died utterly away. Every man (and many a woman too) in that crowd was kneeling.

Her beauty, which most of them had never seen, worked on them as a terror might work.

Then a low murmur, almost a sob, began; swelled, broke into the gasping cry, "A goddess, a goddess." One woman's voice rang out clear. "It is Ungit herself in mortal shape."

Psyche went on, walking slowly and gravely, like a child going to say a lesson, right in among all the foulness. She touched and she touched. They fell at her feet and kissed her feet and the edge of her robe and her shadow and the ground where she had trodden. And still she touched and touched. There seemed to be no end of it; the crowd increased instead of diminishing. For hours she touched. The air was stifling even for us who stood in the shadow of the porch. The whole earth and air ached for the thunderstorm which (we knew now) would not come. I saw her growing paler and paler. Her walk had become a stagger.

"King," said I, "it will kill her."

"Then more's the pity," said the King. "They'll kill us all if she stops."

It was over in the end, somewhere about sunset. We carried her to her bed, and next day the fever was on her. But she won through it. In her wanderings she talked most of her gold and amber castle on the ridge of the Grey Mountain. At her worst, there was no look of death upon her face. It was as if he dared not come near her. And when her strength came back she was more beautiful than before. The childishness had gone. There was a new and severer radiance. "Ah, no wonder," sang the Fox, "if the Trojans and the Achaeans suffer long woes for such a woman. Terribly does she resemble an undying spirit."

Some of the sick in the town died and some recovered. Only the gods know if those who recovered were those whom Psyche had touched, and gods do not tell. But the people had, at first, no doubts. Every morning there were offerings left for her outside the palace; myrtle branches and garlands and soon honeycakes and then pigeons, which are specially sacred to Ungit. "Can this be well?" I said to the Fox.

"I should be greatly afraid," said he, "but for one thing. The Priest of Ungit lies sick with the fever himself. I do not think he can do us much mischief at present."

About this time Redival became very pious and went often to the house of Ungit to make offerings. The Fox and I saw to it that she always had with her a trusty old slave who would let her get into no mischief. I thought she was praying for a husband (she wanted one badly since the King had, in a manner, chained her to the Fox and me) and also that she was as glad to be out of our sight for an hour as we were to be out of hers. Yet I warned her to speak to no one on the way.

"Oh, make your mind easy, Sister," says Redival. "It's not me they worship, you know: I'm not the goddess. The men are as likely to look at you as at me, now they've seen Istra."

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