PART ONE Chapter Eighteen
Next day I went as soon as I was risen to the Bedchamber to take my first look at the King; for indeed no lover nor doctor ever watched each change of a sick man's breath and pulse so closely as I. While I was still at his bedside (I could see no difference in him) in came Redival, all in a flurry and her face blubbered, and "Oh, Orual," she said, "is the King dying?
And what was going on all last night? And who's the young stranger? They say he's a wonderful, handsome man and looks as brave as a lion. Is he a prince? And oh, Sister, what will happen to us if the King dies?"
"I shall be Queen, Redival. Your treatment shall be according to your behaviour."
Almost before the words were out of my mouth she was fawning upon me and kissing my hand and wishing me joy and saying she had always loved me better than anyone in the world. It sickened me. None of the slaves would cringe to me like that. Even when I was angry and they feared me, all knew better than to put on a beggar's whine; there's nothing moves my pity less.
"Don't be a fool, Redival," said I, shoving her away from my hand. "I'm not going to kill you.
But if you put your nose out of the house without my leave, I'll have you whipped. Now be off."
At the door she turned and said, "But you'll get me a husband, Queen, won't you?"
"Yes; probably two," said I. "I've a dozen sons of kings hanging in my wardrobe. But go."
Then came the Fox, who looked at the King, muttered, "He might last for days yet," and then said, "Daughter, I did badly last night. I think this offer to fight the Prince yourself is foolish and, what's more, unseemly. But I was wrong to weep and beg and try to force you by your love. Love is not a thing to be so used."
He broke off because just then Bardia came to the door. "Here's a herald back from Argan already, Queen," he said. "Our man met the Prince (curse his insolence) a great deal nearer than ten miles."
We went into the Pillar Room (my father's eyes followed me terribly) and had the herald in.
He was a great, tall man, dressed as fine as a peacock. His message, stripped of many high words, was that his master accepted the combat. But he said his sword should not be stained with woman's blood, so he'd bring a rope with him to hang me when he'd disarmed me.
"That's a weapon in which I profess no skill," said I. "And therefore it's barely justice that your master should bring it. But then he's older than I (his first battle was, I think, long ago), so we'll concede it to make up for his years."
"I can't say that to the Prince, Queen," said the herald.
Then I thought I had done enough (I knew others would hear my jibe even if Argan didn't) and we went orderly to work on all the conditions of the fight and the hundred small things that had to be agreed on. It was the best part of an hour before the herald was gone. The Fox, I could see, was in great pain while all these provisions were being made, the thing growing more real and more irrevocable at each word. I was mostly the Queen now, but Orual would whisper a cold word in the Queen's ear at times.
After that came Arnom, and even before he spoke we knew the old Priest was dead and Arnom had succeeded him. He wore the skins and the bladders, the bird-mask hung at his chest. The sight of all that gave me a sudden shock, like a vile dream, forgotten on waking but suddenly remembered at noon. But my second glance braced me. He would never be terrible like the old Priest. He was only Arnom, with whom I had driven a very good bargain yesterday; there was no feeling that Ungit came into the room with him. And that started strange thoughts in my mind.
But I had no time to follow them. Arnom and the Fox went to the Bedchamber and fell into talk about the King's condition (those two seemed to understand each other well) and Bardia beckoned me out of the room. We went out by the little eastern door, where the Fox and I had gone on the morning Psyche was born, and there paced up and down between the herb-beds while we talked.
"Now, Queen," said he, "this is your first battle."
"And you doubt my courage?"
"Not your courage to be killed, Queen. But you've never killed; and this must be a killing matter."
"Why, just this. Women and boys talk easily about killing a man. Yet, believe me, it's a hard thing to do; I mean, the first time. There's something in a man that goes against it."
"You think I'd pity him?"
"I don't know if it's pity. But the first time I did it - it was the hardest thing in the world to make my own hand plunge the sword into all that live flesh."
"But you did."
"Yes; my enemy was a bungler. But how if he'd been quick? That's the danger, you see.
There's a moment when one pause - the fifth part of the time it takes to wink your eye - may lose a chance. And it might be your only chance, and then you'd have lost the battle."
"I don't think my hand would delay, Bardia," said I. I was trying to test it in my mind. I pictured my father, well again, and coming at me in one of his old rages; I felt sure my hand would not fail me to stab him. It had not failed when I stabbed myself.
"We'll hope not," said Bardia. "But you must go through the exercise. I make all the recruits do it."
"Yes. You know they're to kill a pig this morning. You must be the butcher, Queen."
I saw in a flash that if I shrank from this there would at once be less Queen and more Orual in me.
"I am ready," said I. I understood the work pretty well, for of course we had seen the slaughtering of beasts ever since we were children. Redival had always watched and always screamed; I had watched less often and held my tongue. So now I went and killed my pig.
(We kill pigs without sacrifice, for these beasts are an abomination to Ungit; there is a sacred story that explains why.) And I swore that if I came back alive from the combat, Bardia and the Fox and Trunia and I should eat the choicest parts of it for our supper. Then, when I had taken off my butcher's apron and washed, I went back to the Pillar Room; for I had thought of something that must be done, now that my life might be only two days. The Fox was already there; I called Bardia and Arnom for witnesses and declared the Fox free.
Next moment I was plunged in despair. I cannot now understand how I had been so blind as not to foresee it. My only thought had been to save him from being mocked and neglected and perhaps sold by Redival if I were dead. But now, as soon as the other two were done wishing him joy and kissing him on the cheeks, it all broke on me. "You'll be a loss to our councils - " "There are many in Glome who'll be sorry to see you go - " "Don't make your journey in winter - " what were they saying?
"Grandfather!" I cried, no Queen now; all Orual, even all child. "Do they mean you'll leave me? Go away?"
The Fox raised towards me a face full of infinite trouble, twitching. "Free?" he muttered.
"You mean I could . . . I can . . . it wouldn't matter much even if I died on the way. Not if I could get down to the sea. There'd be tunnies, olives. No, it'd be too early in the year for olives. But the smell of the harbours. And walking about the market talking, real talk. But you don't know, this is all foolishness, none of you know. I should be thanking you, daughter. But if ever you loved me, don't speak to me now. Tomorrow. Let me go." He pulled his cloak over his head and groped his way out of the room.
And now this game of queenship, which had buoyed me up and kept me busy ever since I woke that morning, failed me utterly. We had made all our preparations for the combat.
There was the rest of the day, and the whole of the next, to wait; and hanging over it, this new desolation, that if I lived I might have to live without the Fox.
I went out into the gardens. I would not go up to that plot behind the pear trees; that was where he, and Psyche, and I had often been happiest. I wandered miserably out on the other side, on the west of the apple-orchard, till the cold drove me in; it was a bitter, black frost that day, with no sun. I am both ashamed and afraid to revive, by writing of them, the thoughts I had. In my ignorance I could not understand the strength of the desire which must be drawing my old master to his own land. I had lived in one place all my life; everything in Glome was to me stale, common, and taken for granted, even filled with memories of dread, sorrow, and humiliation. I had no notion how the remembered home looks to an exile. It embittered me that the Fox should even desire to leave me. He had been the central pillar of my whole life, something (I thought) as sure and established, and indeed as little thanked, as sunrise and the mere earth. In my folly I had thought I was to him as he was to me. "Fool!" said I to myself. "Have you not yet learned that you are that to no one? What are you to Bardia? as much perhaps as the old King was. His heart lies at home with his wife and her brats. If you mattered to him he'd never have let you fight. What are you to the Fox? His heart was always in the Greeklands. You were, maybe, the solace of his captivity. They say a prisoner will tame a rat. He comes to love the rat - after a fashion.
But throw the door open, strike off his fetters, and how much'll he care for the rat then?"
And yet, how could he leave us, after so much love? I saw him again with Psyche on his knees; "Prettier than Aphrodite," he had said. "Yes, but that was Psyche," said my heart. "If she were still with us, he would stay. It was Psyche he loved. Never me." I knew while I said it that it was false, yet I would not, or could not, put it out of my head.
But the Fox sought me out before I slept, his face very grey, and his manner very quiet. But that he did not limp, you would have thought he had been in the hands of the torturers.
"Wish me well, daughter," he said. "For I have won a battle. What's best for his fellows must be best for a man. I am but a limb of the Whole and must work in the socket where I'm put.
I'll stay, and - "
"Oh, Grandfather!" said I, and wept.
"Peace, peace," he said, embracing me. "What would I have done in Greece? My father is dead. My sons have, no doubt, forgotten me. My daughter . . . should I not be only a trouble - a dream strayed into daylight as the verse says? Anyhow, it's a long journey and beset with dangers. I might never have reached the sea."
And so he went on, making little of his deed, as if he feared I would dissuade him from it.
But I, with my face on his breast, felt only the joy.
I went to look at my father many times that day, but could see no change in him.
That night I slept ill. It was not fear of the combat, but a restlessness that came from the manifold changes which the gods were sending upon me. The old Priest's death, by itself, would have been matter for a week's thought. I had hoped it before (and then, if he had died, it might have saved Psyche) but never really reckoned to see him go more than to wake one morning and find the Grey Mountain gone. The freeing of the Fox, though I had done it myself, felt to me like another impossible change. It was as if my father's sickness had drawn away some prop and the whole world - all the world I knew - had fallen to pieces. I was journeying into a strange new land. It was so new and strange that I could not, that night, even feel my great sorrow. This astonished me. One part of me made to snatch that sorrow back; it said, "Orual dies if she ceases to love Psyche." But the other said, "Let Orual die. She would never have made a queen."
The last day, the eve of the battle, shows like a dream. Every hour made it more unbelievable. The noise and fame of my combat had got abroad (it was no part of our policy to be secret) and there were crowds of the common people at the palace gates. Though I valued their favour no more than it deserved - I remembered how they had turned against Psyche - yet, willy-nilly, their cheering quickened my pulse and sent a kind of madness into my brain. Some of the better sort, lords and elders, came to wait upon me. They all accepted me for Queen, and I spoke little but, I think, well - Bardia and the Fox praised it - and I watched their eyes staring at my veil, manifestly wondering what it hid. Then I went to Prince Trunia in the tower room and told him we had found a champion (I did not say whom) to fight for him and how he would be brought in honourable custody to see the fight.
Though this must have been uneasy news for him, he was too just a man not to see that we were using him as well as our weakness would bear. Then I called for wine that we might drink together. But when the door opened - this angered me for the moment - instead of my father's butler it was Redival who came in bearing the flagon and the cup. I was a fool not to have foreseen it. I knew her well enough to guess that once there was a strange man in the house she'd eat her way through stone walls in order to be seen. Yet even I was astonished to see what a meek, shy, modest, dutiful younger sister (perhaps even a somewhat down-trodden and spirit-broken sister) she could make of herself carrying that wine, with her downcast eyes (which missed nothing from Trunia's bandaged foot to the hair of his head) and her child's gravity.
"Who's that beauty?" said Trunia as soon as she was gone.
"That's my sister, the Princess Redival," said I.
"Glome is a rose-garden, even in winter," said he. "But why, cruel Queen, do you hide your own face?"
"If you become better known to my sister, she'll doubtless tell you," said I more sharply than I had intended.
"Why, that might be," said the Prince, "if your champion wins tomorrow, otherwise death's my wife. But if I live, Queen, I wouldn't let this friendship between our houses die away.
Why should I not marry into your line? Perhaps yourself, Queen?"
"There's no room for two on my throne, Prince."
"Your sister then?"
It was of course an offer to be seized. Yet for a moment, saying yes to it irked me; most likely because I thought this prince twenty times too good for her.
"For all I can see," said I, "this marriage can be made. I must speak to my wise men first.
For my own part, I like it well."
The day ended more strangely than it began. Bardia had had me into the quarters for my last practice. "There's that old fault of yours, Queen," he said, "in the feint reverse. I think we've conquered it; but I must see you perfect." We went at it for half an hour and when we stopped to breathe he said, "That's as perfect as skill can go. It's my belief that if you and I were to fight with sharps you'd kill me. But there are two things more to say. This first. If it should happen, Queen - and most likely it won't happen to you, because of your divine blood - but if it should happen that when your cloak's off and the crowd's hushed and you're walking out into the empty space to meet your man - if you should then feel fear, never heed it. We've all felt it at our first fight. I feel it myself before every fight. And the second's this. That hauberk you've been wearing is excellent for weight and fit. But it's a poor thing to look at. A trace of gilding would suit a queen and a champion better. Let's see what the Bedchamber has."
I have said before that the King kept all manner of arms and armours in there. So in we went. The Fox was sitting by the bedside - why, or with what thoughts, I don't know. It was not possible he should love his old master. "Still no change," he said. Bardia and I fell to rummaging among the mail, and soon to disputing; for I thought I'd be safer and more limber in the chain-shirt which I knew than in any other, and he kept on saying, "But wait - wait - now here's a better." And it was when we were most busied that the Fox's voice from behind said, "It's finished." We turned and looked. The thing on the bed which had been half-alive for so long was dead; had died (if he understood it) seeing a girl ransacking his armoury.
"Peace be upon him," said Bardia. "We'll be done here very shortly. Then the women can come and wash the body." And we turned again at once to settle the matter of the hauberks.
And so the thing that I had thought of for so many years at last slipped by in a huddle of business which was, at that moment, of more consequence. An hour later, when I looked back, it astonished me. Yet I have often noticed since how much less stir nearly everyone's death makes than you might expect. Men better loved and more worth loving than my father go down making only a small eddy.
I kept to my old hauberk, but we told the armourer to scour it well, so that it might pass for silver.