Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold

PART ONE Chapter Two

I can say very little about my father's second wife, for she did not live till the end of her first year in Glome. She was with child as soon as anyone could reasonably look for it, and the King was in high spirits and hardly ever ran across the Fox without saying something about the prince who was to be born. He made great sacrifices to Ungit every month after that.

How it was between him and the Queen I do not know; except that once, after messengers had come from Caphad, I heard the King say to her, "It begins to look, girl, as if I had driven my sheep to a bad market. I learn now that your father has lost two towns ! no, three, though he tries to mince the matter. I would thank him to have told me he was sinking before he persuaded me to embark in the same bottom." (I was leaning my head on my window-sill to dry my hair after the bath, and they were walking in the garden.) However that might be, it is certain that she was very homesick, and I think our winter was too hard for her southern body. She was soon pale and thin. I learned that I had nothing to fear from her. She was at first more afraid of me; after that, very loving in her timid way, and more like a sister than a stepmother.

Of course no one in the house went to bed on the night of the birth, for that, they say, will make the child refuse to wake into the world. We all sat in the great hall between the Pillar Room and the Bedchamber, in a red glare of birth-torches. The flames swayed and guttered terribly, for all doors must be open; the shutting of a door might shut up the mother's womb. In the middle of the hall burned a great fire. Every hour the Priest of Ungit walked round it nine times and threw in the proper things. The King sat in his chair and never moved all night, not even his head. I was sitting next to the Fox.

"Grandfather," I whispered to him, "I am terribly afraid."

"We must learn, child, not to fear anything that nature brings," he whispered back.

I must have slept after that, for the next thing I knew was the sound of women wailing and beating the breast as I had heard them do it the day my mother died. Everything had changed while I slept. I was shivering with cold. The fire had sunk low, the King's chair was empty, the door of the Bedchamber was at last shut, and the terrible sounds from within it had stopped. There must have been some sacrifice too, for there was a smell of slaughtering, and blood on the floor, and the Priest was cleaning his holy knife. I was all in a daze from my sleep, for I started up with the wildest idea; I would go and see the Queen. The Fox was after me long before I reached the door of the Bedchamber. "Daughter, daughter," he was saying. "Not now. Are you mad? The King ! "

At that moment the door was flung open and out came my father. His face shocked me full awake, for he was in his pale rage. I knew that in his red rage he would storm and threaten, and little might come of it, but when he was pale he was deadly. "Wine," he said, not very loud; and that too was a bad sign. The other slaves pushed forward a boy who was rather a favourite, as slaves do when they are afraid. The child, white as his master and in all his finery (my father dressed the younger slaves very fine) came running with the flagon and the royal cup, slipped in the blood, reeled, and dropped both. Quick as thought, my father whipped out his dagger and stabbed him in the side. The boy dropped dead in the blood and wine, and the fall of his body sent the flagon rolling over and over. It made a great noise in that silence; I hadn't thought till then that the floor of the hall was so uneven. (I have re-paved it since.)

My father stared for a moment at his own dagger; stupidly, it seemed. Then he went very gently up to the Priest.

"What have you to say for Ungit now?" he asked, still in that low voice. "You had better recover what she owes me. When are you going to pay me for my good cattle?" Then, after a pause, "Tell me, prophet, what would happen if I hammered Ungit into powder and tied you between the hammers and the stone?"

But the Priest was not in the least afraid of the King.

"Ungit hears, King, even at this moment," he said.

"And Ungit will remember. You have already said enough to call down doom upon all your descendants."

"Descendants," says the King. "You talk of descendants," still very quiet, but now he was shaking. The ice of his rage would break any moment. The body of the dead boy caught his eye. "Who did that?" he asked. Then he saw the Fox and me. All the blood rushed into his face, and now at last the voice came roaring out of his chest loud enough to lift the roof.

"Girls, girls, girls!" he bellowed. "And now one girl more. Is there no end to it? Is there a plague of girls in heaven that the gods send me this flood of them? You ! you ! " He caught me by the hair, shook me to and fro, and flung me from him so that I fell in a heap. There are times when even a child knows better than to cry. When the blackness passed and I could see again, he was shaking the Fox by his throat.

"Here's an old babbler who has eaten my bread long enough," he said. "It would have paid me better to buy a dog as things turn out. But I'll feed you in idleness no longer. Some of you take him to the mines tomorrow. There might be a week's work in his old bones even now."

Again there was dead silence in the hall. Suddenly the King flung up his hands, stamped, and cried, "Faces, faces, faces! What are you all gaping at? It'd make a man mad. Be off!

Away! Out of my sight, the whole pack of you!"

We were out of the hall as quick as the doorways would let us.

The Fox and I went out of the little door by the herb-garden on the east. It was nearly daylight now and there was a small rain beginning.

"Grandfather," said I, sobbing, "you must fly at once. This moment, before they come to take you to the mines."

He shook his head. "I'm too old to run far," he said. "And you know what the King does to runaway slaves."

"But the mines, the mines! Look, I'll come with you. If we're caught I'll say I made you come. We shall be almost out of Glome once we're over that." I pointed to the ridge of the Grey Mountain, now dark with a white daybreak behind it, seen through the slanting rain.

"That is foolishness, daughter," said he, petting me like a small child. "They would think I was stealing you to sell. No; I must fly further. And help me you shall. Down by the river; you know the little plant with the purple spots on its stalk. It's the roots of it I need."

"The poison?"

"Why, yes. (Child, child, don't cry so.) Have I not told you often that to depart from life of a man's own will when there's good reason is one of the things that are according to nature?

We are to look on life as ! "

"They say that those who go that way lie wallowing in filth ! down there in the land of the dead."

"Hush, hush. Are you also still a barbarian? At death we are resolved into our elements.

Shall I accept birth and cavil at ! "

"Oh, I know, I know. But, Grandfather, do you really in your heart believe nothing of what is said about the gods and Those Below? But you do, you do. You are trembling."

"That's my disgrace. The body is shaking. I needn't let it shake the god within me. Have I not already carried this body too long if it makes such a fool of me at the end? But we are wasting time."

"Listen!" said I. "What's that?" For I was in a state to be scared by every sound.

"Horses," said the Fox, peering through the quick-hedge with his eyes screwed up to see against the rain. "They are coming to the great door. Messengers from Phars, by the look of them. And that will not sweeten the King's mood either. Will you ! ah, Zeus, it is already too late." For there was a call from within-doors, "The Fox, the Fox, the Fox to the King."

"As well go as be dragged," said the Fox. "Farewell, daughter," and he kissed me, Greek fashion, on the eyes and the head. But I went in with him. I had an idea I would face the King; though whether I meant to beseech him or curse him or kill him I hardly knew. But as we came to the Pillar Room we saw many strangers within, and the King shouted through the open door, "Here, Fox, I've work for you." Then he saw me and said, "And you, curd-face, be off to the women's quarters and don't come here to sour the morning drink for the men."

I do not know that I have ever (to speak of things merely mortal) been in such dread as I was for the rest of that day ! dread that feels as if there were an empty place between your belly and your chest. I didn't know whether I dared be comforted by the King's last words or not, for they sounded as if his anger had passed, but it might blaze out again. Moreover, I had known him do a cruel thing not in anger but in a kind of murderous joke, or because he remembered he had sworn to do it when he was angry. He had sent old house-slaves to the mines before. And I could not be alone with my terror, for now comes Batta to shear my head and Redival's again as they had been shorn when my mother died, and to make a great tale (clicking her tongue) of how the Queen was dead in childbed, which I had known ever since I heard the mourning, and how she had borne a daughter alive. I sat for the shearing and thought that, if the Fox must die in the mines, it was very fit I should offer my hair.

Lank and dull and little it lay on the floor beside Redival's rings of gold.

In the evening the Fox came and told me that there was no more talk of the mines ! for the present. A thing that had often irked me had now been our salvation. More and more, of late, the King had taken the Fox away from us girls to work for him in the Pillar Room; he had begun to find that the Fox could calculate and read and write letters (at first only in Greek but now in the speech of our parts too) and give advice better than any man in Glome. This very day the Fox had taught him to drive a better bargain with the King of Phars than he would ever have thought of for himself. The Fox was a true Greek; where my father could give only a Yes or a No to some neighbouring king or dangerous noble, he could pare the Yes to the very quick and sweeten the No till it went down like wine. He could make your weak enemy believe that you were his best friend and make your strong enemy believe you were twice as strong as you really were. He was far too useful to be sent to the mines.

They burnt the dead Queen on the third day, and my father named the child Istra. "It is a good name," said the Fox, "a very good name. And you know enough now to tell me what it would be in Greek."

"It would be Psyche, Grandfather," said I.

New-born children were no rarity in the palace; the place sprawled with the slaves' babies and my father's bastards. Sometimes my father would say, "Lecherous rascals! Anyone'd think this was Ungit's house, not mine," and threaten to drown a dozen of them like blind puppies. But in his heart he thought the better of a man-slave if he could get half the maids in the place with child, especially if they bore boys. (The girls, unless they took his own fancy, were mostly sold when they were ripe; some were given to the house of Ungit.) Nevertheless, because I had (a little) loved the Queen, I went to see Psyche that very evening as soon as the Fox had set my mind at rest. And so, in one hour, I passed out of the worst anguish I had yet suffered into the beginning of all my joys.

The child was very big, not a wearish little thing as you might have expected from her mother's stature, and very fair of skin. You would have thought she made bright all the corner of the room in which she lay. She slept (tiny was the sound of her breathing). But there never was a child like Psyche for quietness in her cradle days. As I gazed at her the Fox came in on tiptoes and looked over my shoulder. "Now by all the gods," he whispered,

"old fool that I am, I could almost believe that there really is divine blood in your family.

Helen herself, new-hatched, must have looked so."

Batta had put her to nurse with a red-haired woman who was sullen and (like Batta herself) too fond of the wine-jar. I soon had the child out of their hands. I got for her nurse a free woman, a peasant's wife, as honest and wholesome as I could find, and after that both were in my own chamber day and night. Batta was only too pleased to have her work done for her, and the King knew and cared nothing about it. The Fox said to me, "Don't wear yourself out, daughter, with too much toil, even if the child is as beautiful as a goddess." But I laughed in his face. I think I laughed more in those days than in all my life before. Toil? I lost more sleep looking on Psyche for the joy of it than in any other way. And I laughed because she was always laughing. She laughed before the third month. She knew me for certain (though the Fox said not) before the second.

This was the beginning of my best times. The Fox's love for the child was wonderful; I guessed that long before, when he was free, he must have had a daughter of his own. He was like a true grandfather now. And it was now always we three ! the Fox, and Psyche, and I !alone together. Redival had always hated our lessons and, but for the fear of the King, would never have come near the Fox. Now, it seemed, the King had put all his three daughters out of his mind, and Redival had her own way. She was growing tall, her breasts rounding, her long legs getting their shape. She promised to have beauty enough, but not like Psyche's.

Of Psyche's beauty ! at every age the beauty proper to that age ! there is only this to be said, that there were no two opinions about it, from man or woman, once she had been seen. It was beauty that did not astonish you till afterwards when you had gone out of sight of her and reflected on it. While she was with you, you were not astonished. It seemed the most natural thing in the world. As the Fox delighted to say, she was "according to nature"; what every woman, or even every thing, ought to have been and meant to be, but had missed by some trip of chance. Indeed, when you looked at her you believed, for a moment, that they had not missed it. She made beauty all round her. When she trod on mud, the mud was beautiful; when she ran in the rain, the rain was silver. When she picked up a toad

! she had the strangest and, I thought, unchanciest love for all manner of brutes ! the toad became beautiful.

The years, doubtless, went round then as now, but in my memory it seems to have been all springs and summers. I think the almonds and the cherries blossomed earlier in those years and the blossoms lasted longer; how they hung on in such winds I don't know, for I see the boughs always rocking and dancing against blue-and-white skies, and their shadows flowing water-like over all the hills and valleys of Psyche's body. I wanted to be a wife so that I could have been her real mother. I wanted to be a boy so that she could be in love with me. I wanted her to be my full sister instead of my half sister. I wanted her to be a slave so that I could set her free and make her rich.

The Fox was so trusted by now that when my father did not need him he was allowed to take us anywhere, even miles from the palace. We were often out all day in summer on the hill-top to the south-west, looking down on all Glome and across to the Grey Mountain. We stared our eyes out on that jagged ridge till we knew every tooth and notch of it, for none of us had ever gone there or seen what was on the other side. Psyche, almost from the beginning (for she was a very quick, thinking child), was half in love with the Mountain. She made herself stories about it. "When I'm big," she said, "I will be a great, great queen, married to the greatest king of all, and he will build me a castle of gold and amber up there on the very top."

The Fox clapped his hands and sang, "Prettier than Andromeda, prettier than Helen, prettier than Aphrodite herself."

"Speak words of better omen, Grandfather," I said, though I knew he would scold and mock me for saying it. For at his words, though on that summer day the rocks were too hot to touch, it was as if a soft, cold hand had been laid on my left side, and I shivered.

"Babai!" said the Fox. "It is your words that are ill omened. The divine nature is not like that. It has no envy."

But whatever he said, I knew it is not good to talk that way about Ungit.

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