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chapter xxxviii

TO THE HOUSE OF BITTERNESS

IN the morning we set out, and made for the forest as fast as we could. I rode Lona's horse, and carried her body. I would take it to her father: he would give it a couch in the chamber of his dead! or, if he would not, seeing she had not come of herself, I would watch it in the desert until it mouldered away! But I believed he would, for surely she had died long ago! Alas, how bitterly must I not humble myself before him!

To Adam I must take Lilith also. I had no power to make her repent! I had hardly a right to slay her—much less a right to let her loose in the world! and surely I scarce merited being made for ever her gaoler!

Again and again, on the way, I offered her food; but she answered only with a look of hungering hate. Her fiery eyes kept rolling to and fro, nor ever closed, I believe, until we reached the other side of the hot stream. After that they never opened until we came to the House of Bitterness.

One evening, as we were camping for the night, I saw a little girl go up to her, and ran to prevent mischief. But ere I could reach them, the child had put something to the lips of the princess, and given a scream of pain.

"Please, king," she whimpered, "suck finger. Bad giantess make hole in it!"

I sucked the tiny finger.

"Well now!" she cried, and a minute after was holding a second fruit to a mouth greedy of other fare. But this time she snatched her hand quickly away, and the fruit fell to the ground. The child's name was Luva.

The next day we crossed the hot stream. Again on their own ground, the Little Ones were jubilant. But their nests were still at a great distance, and that day we went no farther than the ivy-hall, where, because of its grapes, I had resolved to spend the night. When they saw the great clusters, at once they knew them good, rushed upon them, ate eagerly, and in a few minutes were all fast asleep on the green floor and in the forest around the hall. Hoping again to see the dance, and expecting the Little Ones to sleep through it, I had made them leave a wide space in the middle. I lay down among them, with Lona by my side, but did not sleep.

The night came, and suddenly the company was there. I was wondering with myself whether, night after night, they would thus go on dancing to all eternity, and whether I should not one day have to join them because of my stiff-neckedness, when the eyes of the children came open, and they sprang to their feet, wide awake. Immediately every one caught hold of a dancer, and away they went, bounding and skipping. The spectres seemed to see and welcome them: perhaps they knew all about the Little Ones, for they had themselves long been on their way back to childhood! Anyhow, their innocent gambols must, I thought, bring refreshment to weary souls who, their present taken from them and their future dark, had no life save the shadow of their vanished past. Many a merry but never a rude prank did the children play; and if they did at times cause a momentary jar in the rhythm of the dance, the poor spectres, who had nothing to smile withal, at least manifested no annoyance.

Just ere the morning began to break, I started to see the skeleton-princess in the doorway, her eyes open and glowing, the fearful spot black on her side. She stood for a moment, then came gliding in, as if she would join the dance. I sprang to my feet. A cry of repugnant fear broke from the children, and the lights vanished. But the low moon looked in, and I saw them clinging to each other. The ghosts were gone—at least they were no longer visible. The princess too had disappeared. I darted to the spot where I had left her: she lay with her eyes closed, as if she had never moved. I returned to the hall. The Little Ones were already on the floor, composing themselves to sleep.

The next morning, as we started, we spied, a little way from us, two skeletons moving about in a thicket. The Little Ones broke their ranks, and ran to them. I followed; and, although now walking at ease, without splint or ligature, I was able to recognise the pair I had before seen in that neighbourhood. The children at once made friends with them, laying hold of their arms, and stroking the bones of their long fingers; and it was plain the poor creatures took their attentions kindly. The two seemed on excellent terms with each other. Their common deprivation had drawn them together! the loss of everything had been the beginning of a new life to them!

Perceiving that they had gathered handfuls of herbs, and were looking for more—presumably to rub their bones with, for in what other way could nourishment reach their system so rudimentary?—the Little Ones, having keenly examined those they held, gathered of the same sorts, and filled the hands the skeletons held out to receive them. Then they bid them goodbye, promising to come and see them again, and resumed their journey, saying to each other they had not known there were such nice people living in the same forest.

When we came to the nest-village, I remained there a night with them, to see them resettled; for Lona still looked like one just dead, and there seemed no need of haste.

The princess had eaten nothing, and her eyes remained shut: fearing she might die ere we reached the end of our journey, I went to her in the night, and laid my bare arm upon her lips. She bit into it so fiercely that I cried out. How I got away from her I do not know, but I came to myself lying beyond her reach. It was then morning, and immediately I set about our departure.

Choosing twelve Little Ones, not of the biggest and strongest, but of the sweetest and merriest, I mounted them on six elephants, and took two more of the wise clumsies, as the children called them, to bear the princess. I still rode Lona's horse, and carried her body wrapt in her cloak before me. As nearly as I could judge I took the direct way, across the left branch of the river-bed, to the House of Bitterness, where I hoped to learn how best to cross the broader and rougher branch, and how to avoid the basin of monsters: I dreaded the former for the elephants, the latter for the children.

I had one terrible night on the way—the third, passed in the desert between the two branches of the dead river.

We had stopped the elephants in a sheltered place, and there let the princess slip down between them, to lie on the sand until the morning. She seemed quite dead, but I did not think she was. I laid myself a little way from her, with the body of Lona by my other side, thus to keep watch at once over the dead and the dangerous. The moon was half-way down the west, a pale, thoughtful moon, mottling the desert with shadows. Of a sudden she was eclipsed, remaining visible, but sending forth no light: a thick, diaphanous film covered her patient beauty, and she looked troubled. The film swept a little aside, and I saw the edge of it against her clearness—the jagged outline of a batlike wing, torn and hooked. Came a cold wind with a burning sting—and Lilith was upon me. Her hands were still bound, but with her teeth she pulled from my shoulder the cloak Lona made for me, and fixed them in my flesh. I lay as one paralysed.

Already the very life seemed flowing from me into her, when I remembered, and struck her on the hand. She raised her head with a gurgling shriek, and I felt her shiver. I flung her from me, and sprang to my feet.

She was on her knees, and rocked herself to and fro. A second blast of hot-stinging cold enveloped us; the moon shone out clear, and I saw her face—gaunt and ghastly, besmeared with red.

"Down, devil!" I cried.

"Where are you taking me?" she asked, with the voice of a dull echo from a sepulchre.

"To your first husband," I answered.

"He will kill me!" she moaned.

"At least he will take you off my hands!"

"Give me my daughter," she suddenly screamed, grinding her teeth.

"Never! Your doom is upon you at last!"

"Loose my hands for pity's sake!" she groaned. "I am in torture. The cords are sunk in my flesh."

"I dare not. Lie down!" I said.

She threw herself on the ground like a log.

The rest of the night passed in peace, and in the morning she again seemed dead.

Before evening we came in sight of the House of Bitterness, and the next moment one of the elephants came alongside of my horse.

"Please, king, you are not going to that place?" whispered the Little One who rode on his neck.

"Indeed I am! We are going to stay the night there," I answered.

"Oh, please, don't! That must be where the cat-woman lives!"

"If you had ever seen her, you would not call her by that name!"

"Nobody ever sees her: she has lost her face! Her head is back and side all round."

"She hides her face from dull, discontented people!—Who taught you to call her the cat-woman?"

"I heard the bad giants call her so."

"What did they say about her?"

"That she had claws to her toes."

"It is not true. I know the lady. I spent a night at her house."

"But she may have claws to her toes! You might see her feet, and her claws be folded up inside their cushions!"

"Then perhaps you think that I have claws to my toes?"

"Oh, no; that can't be! you are good!"

"The giants might have told you so!" I pursued.

"We shouldn't believe them about you!"

"Are the giants good?"

"No; they love lying."

"Then why do you believe them about her? I know the lady is good; she cannot have claws."

"Please how do you know she is good?"

"How do you know I am good?"

I rode on, while he waited for his companions, and told them what I had said.

They hastened after me, and when they came up,—"I would not take you to her house if I did not believe her good," I said.

"We know you would not," they answered.

"If I were to do something that frightened you—what would you say?"

"The beasts frightened us sometimes at first, but they never hurt us!" answered one.

"That was before we knew them!" added another.

"Just so!" I answered. "When you see the woman in that cottage, you will know that she is good. You may wonder at what she does, but she will always be good. I know her better than you know me. She will not hurt you,—or if she does,——"

"Ah, you are not sure about it, king dear! You think she may hurt us!"

"I am sure she will never be unkind to you, even if she do hurt you!"

They were silent for a while.

"I'm not afraid of being hurt—a little!—a good deal!" cried Odu. "But I should not like scratches in the dark! The giants say the cat-woman has claw-feet all over her house!"

"I am taking the princess to her," I said.

"Why?"

"Because she is her friend."

"How can she be good then?"

"Little Tumbledown is a friend of the princess," I answered; "so is Luva: I saw them both, more than once, trying to feed her with grapes!"

"Little Tumbledown is good! Luva is very good!"

"That is why they are her friends."

"Will the cat-woman—I mean the woman that isn't the cat-woman, and has no claws to her toes—give her grapes?"

"She is more likely to give her scratches!"

"Why?—You say she is her friend!"

"That is just why.—A friend is one who gives us what we need, and the princess is sorely in need of a terrible scratching."

They were silent again.

"If any of you are afraid," I said, "you may go home; I shall not prevent you. But I cannot take one with me who believes the giants rather than me, or one who will call a good lady the cat-woman!"

"Please, king," said one, "I'm so afraid of being afraid!"

"My boy," I answered, "there is no harm in being afraid. The only harm is in doing what Fear tells you. Fear is not your master! Laugh in his face and he will run away."

"There she is—in the door waiting for us!" cried one, and put his hands over his eyes.

"How ugly she is!" cried another, and did the same.

"You do not see her," I said; "her face is covered!"

"She has no face!" they answered.

"She has a very beautiful face. I saw it once.—It is indeed as beautiful as Lona's!" I added with a sigh.

"Then what makes her hide it?"

"I think I know:—anyhow, she has some good reason for it!"

"I don't like the cat-woman! she is frightful!"

"You cannot like, and you ought not to dislike what you have never seen.—Once more, you must not call her the cat-woman!"

"What are we to call her then, please?"

"Lady Mara."

"That is a pretty name!" said a girl; "I will call her `lady Mara'; then perhaps she will show me her beautiful face!"

Mara, drest and muffled in white, was indeed standing in the doorway to receive us.

"At last!" she said. "Lilith's hour has been long on the way, but it is come! Everything comes. Thousands of years have I waited—and not in vain!"

She came to me, took my treasure from my arms, carried it into the house, and returning, took the princess. Lilith shuddered, but made no resistance. The beasts lay down by the door. We followed our hostess, the Little Ones looking very grave. She laid the princess on a rough settle at one side of the room, unbound her, and turned to us.

"Mr. Vane," she said, "and you, Little Ones, I thank you! This woman would not yield to gentler measures; harder must have their turn. I must do what I can to make her repent!"

The pitiful-hearted Little Ones began to sob sorely.

"Will you hurt her very much, lady Mara?" said the girl I have just mentioned, putting her warm little hand in mine.

"Yes; I am afraid I must; I fear she will make me!" answered Mara. "It would be cruel to hurt her too little. It would have all to be done again, only worse."

"May I stop with her?"

"No, my child. She loves no one, therefore she cannot be with any one. There is One who will be with her, but she will not be with Him."

"Will the shadow that came down the hill be with her?"

"The great Shadow will be in her, I fear, but he cannot be with her, or with any one. She will know I am beside her, but that will not comfort her."

"Will you scratch her very deep?" asked Odu, going near, and putting his hand in hers. "Please, don't make the red juice come!"

She caught him up, turned her back to the rest of us, drew the muffling down from her face, and held him at arms' length that he might see her.

As if his face had been a mirror, I saw in it what he saw. For one moment he stared, his little mouth open; then a divine wonder arose in his countenance, and swiftly changed to intense delight. For a minute he gazed entranced, then she set him down. Yet a moment he stood looking up at her, lost in contemplation—then ran to us with the face of a prophet that knows a bliss he cannot tell. Mara rearranged her mufflings, and turned to the other children.

"You must eat and drink before you go to sleep," she said; "you have had a long journey!"

She set the bread of her house before them, and a jug of cold water. They had never seen bread before, and this was hard and dry, but they ate it without sign of distaste. They had never seen water before, but they drank without demur, one after the other looking up from the draught with a face of glad astonishment. Then she led away the smallest, and the rest went trooping after her. With her own gentle hands, they told me, she put them to bed on the floor of the garret.

 

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