PART ONE Chapter Six
She's coming to her mind again," said my father's voice. "Take that side of her, Fox, and we'll get her to the chair." The two of them were lifting me; my father's hands were gentler than I expected. I have found since that a soldier's hands often are. The three of us were alone.
"Here, lass, this'll do you good," he said when they had put me in the chair, holding a cup of wine to my lips. "Faugh, you're spilling it like a baby. Take it easy. So, that's better. If there's a bit of raw meat still to be had in this dog-hole of a palace, you must lay it on your bruises.
And look, daughter, you shouldn't have crossed me like that. A man can't have women (and his own daughters, what's worse) meddling in business."
There was a sort of shame about him; whether for beating me or for giving up Psyche without a struggle, who knows? He seemed to me now a very vile, pitiable king.
He set down the cup. "The thing has to be done," he said. "Screaming and scrabbling won't help. Why, the Fox here was just telling me it's done even in your darling Greeklands - which I begin to think I was a fool ever to let you hear of."
"Master," said the Fox, "I had not finished telling you. It is very true that a Greek king sacrificed his own daughter. But afterwards his wife murdered him, and his son murdered the wife, and Those Below drove the son mad."
At this the King scratched his head and looked very blank. "That's just like the gods," he muttered. "Drive you to do a thing and then punish you for doing it. The comfort is I've no wife or son, Fox."
I had got my voice again now. "King," I said, "you can't mean to do it. Istra is your daughter.
You can't do it. You have not even tried to save her. There must be some way. Surely between now and the day - "
"Listen to her!" says the King. "You fool, it's tomorrow they offer her."
I was within an inch of fainting again. To hear this was as bad as to hear that she must be offered at all. As bad? It was worse. I felt that I had had no sorrow till now. I felt that if she could be spared only for a month - a month, why, a month was like eternity - we should all be happy.
"It's better so, dear," whispered the Fox to me in Greek. "Better for her and for us."
"What are you mumbling about, Fox?" said the King. "You both look at me as if I were some sort of two-headed giant they frighten children with, but what'd you have me do? What would you do yourself, Fox, with all your cleverness, if you were in my place?"
"I'd fight about the day first. I'd get a little time somehow. I'd say the Princess was at the wrong time of the month to be a bride. I'd say I'd been warned in a dream not to make the Great Offering till the new moon. I'd bribe men to swear that the Priest had cheated over the lots. There's half a dozen men across the river who hold land from him and don't love their landlord. I'd make a party. Anything to gain time. Give me ten days and I'd have a secret messenger to the King of Phars. I'd offer him all he wants without war - offer him anything if he'd come in and save the Princess - offer him Glome itself and my own crown."
"What?" snarled the King. "Be a little less free with other men's wealth, you'd best."
"But, Master, I'd lose not only my throne but my life to save the Princess, if I were a king and a father. Let us fight. Arm the slaves and promise them their freedom if they play the man. We can make a stand, we of your household, even now. At the worst, we should all die innocent. Better than going Down Yonder with a daughter's blood on your hands."
The King flung himself once more into his chair and began speaking with a desperate patience, like a teacher to a very stupid child (I had seen the Fox do it with Redival).
"I am a King. I have asked you for counsel. Those who counsel kings commonly tell them how to strengthen or save their kingship and their land. That is what counselling a king means. And your counsel is that I should throw my crown over the roof, sell my country to Phars, and get my throat cut. You'll tell me next that the best way to cure a man's headache is to cut off his head."
"I see, Master," said the Fox. "I ask your pardon. I had forgotten that your own safety was the thing we must work for at all costs." I, who knew the Fox so well, could see such a look in his face that he could not have done the King much more dishonour if he had spat on him. Indeed I had often seen him look at the King like that, and the King never knew. I was determined he should know something now.
"King," said I, "the blood of the gods is in us. Can such a house as ours bear the shame?
How will it sound if men say when you are dead that you took shelter behind a girl to save your own life?"
"You hear her, Fox, you hear her," said the King. "And then she wonders that I black her eyes! I'll not say mar her face, for that's impossible. Look, mistress, I'd be sorry to beat you twice in a day, but don't try me too far." He leaped up and began pacing the floor again.
"Death and scabs!" he said. "You'd make a man mad. Anyone'd think it was your daughter they were giving to the Brute. Sheltering behind a girl, you say. No one seems to remember whose girl she is. She's mine; fruit of my own body. My loss. It's I who have a right to rage and blubber if anyone has. What did I beget her for if I can't do what I think best with my own? What is it to you? There's some cursed cunning that I haven't yet smelled out behind all your sobbing and scolding. You're not asking me to believe that any woman, let alone such a fright as you, has much love for a pretty half-sister? It's not in nature. But I'll sift you yet."
I don't know whether he really believed this or not, but it is possible he did. He could believe anything in his moods, and everyone in the palace knew more than he about the life of us girls.
"Yes," he said, more quietly now. "It's I who should be pitied. It's I who am asked to give up part of myself. But I'll do my duty. I'll not ruin the land to save my own girl. The pair of you have talked me into making too much work about it. It has happened before. I'm sorry for the girl. But the Priest's right. Ungit must have her due. What's one girl - why, what would one man be - against the safety of us all? It's only sense that one should die for many. It happens in every battle."
Wine and passion had brought my strength back. I rose from my chair and found that I could stand.
"Father," said I. "You are right. It is fit that one should die for the people. Give me to the Brute instead of Istra."
The King, without a word, came up to me, took me (softly enough) by the wrist and led me the whole length of the room, to where his great mirror hung. You might wonder that he did not keep it in his bedchamber, but the truth is he was too proud of it for that and wanted every stranger to see it. It had been made in some distant land and no king in our parts had one to match it. Our common mirrors were false and dull; in this you could see your perfect image. As I had never been in the Pillar Room alone, I had never looked in it.
He stood me before it and we saw our two selves, side by side.
"Ungit asked for the best in the land as her son's bride," he said. "And you'd give her that."
He held me there a full minute in silence; perhaps he thought I would weep or turn my eyes away. At last he said, "Now be off. A man can't keep pace with your moods today. Get the beefsteak for your face. The Fox and I must be busy."
As I came out of the Pillar Room I first noticed the pain in my side; I had twisted myself somehow in my fall. But I forgot it again when I saw how, in that little time, our house had changed. It seemed crowded. All the slaves, whether they had anything to do or not, were walking about and gathering in knots, wearing looks of importance, chattering under their breath, too, with a sort of mournful cheerfulness. (They always will when there's great news in a house, and now it troubles me not at all.) There were many of the temple guard lounging in the porch; some temple girls sitting in the hall. From the courtyard came the smell of incense, and sacrifice was going on. Ungit had taken the house; the reek of holiness was everywhere.
At the foot of the staircase who should meet me but Redival, running to me all in tears, and a great babble pouring out of her mouth - "Oh Sister, Sister, how dreadful! Oh, poor Psyche! It's only Psyche, isn't it? They're not going to do it to all of us, are they? I never thought - I didn't mean any harm - it wasn't I - and oh, oh, oh . . . ."
I put my face close up to hers and said very low but distinctly, "Redival, if there is one single hour when I am queen of Glome, or even mistress of this house, I'll hang you by the thumbs at a slow fire till you die."
"Oh cruel, cruel," sobbed Redival. "How can you say such things, and when I'm so miserable already? Sister, don't be angry, comfort me - "
I pushed her away from me and passed on. I had known Redival's tears ever since I could remember. They were not wholly feigned, nor much dearer than ditchwater. I know now, as I felt sure then, that she had carried tattle about Psyche to the house of Ungit, and that with malice. It's likely enough she meant less mischief than she had done (she never knew how much she meant) and was now, in her fashion, sorry; but a new brooch, much more a new lover, would have had her drying her eyes and laughing in no time.
As I came to the top of the stairs (for we have upper rooms and even galleries in the palace; it is not like a Greek house) I was a little out of breath and the pain in my side came on me worse. I seemed to be somewhat lame in one foot too. I went on with all the haste I could to that five-sided room where they had shut Psyche up. The door was bolted on the outside (I have used that room for a courteous prison myself) and an armed man stood before it. It was Bardia.
"Bardia," I panted, "let me in. I must see the Princess Istra."
He looked at me kindly but shook his head. "It can't be done, Lady," he said.
"But, Bardia, you can lock us both in. There's no way out but the door."
"That's how all escapes begin, Lady. I am sorry for you and for the other Princess, but it can't be done. I'm under the sternest orders."
"Bardia," I said, with tears, my left hand to my side (for the pain was bad now), "it's her last night alive."
He looked away from me and said again, "I'm sorry."
I turned from him without another word. Though his was the kindest face (always excepting the Fox) I had seen that day, for the moment I hated him more than my father or the Priest or even Redival. What I did next shows how near I was to madness. I went as fast as I could to the Bedchamber. I knew the King had arms there. I took a plain, good sword, drew it, looked at it, and weighed it in my hand. It was not at all too heavy for me. I felt the edges and the point; they were what I then thought sharp, though a smart soldier would not have called them so. Quickly I was back at Psyche's door. Even in my woman's rage I had man enough about me to cry out, "Ward yourself, Bardia," before I fell on him.
It was of course the craziest attempt for a girl who had never had a weapon in her hand before. Even if I had known my work, the lame foot and the pain in my side (to breathe deep was agony) disabled me. Yet I made him use some of his skill; chiefly, of course, because he was not fighting to hurt me. In a moment he had twisted my sword out of my grip. I stood before him, with my hand pressed harder than ever to my side, all in a muck sweat and a tremble. His brow was dry and his breathing unchanged; it had been as easy as that for him.
The knowledge that I was so helpless came over me like a new woe, or gathered the other woe up into itself. I burst into utterly childish weeping - like Redival.
"It's a thousand pities, Lady, that you weren't a man," said Bardia. "You've a man's reach and a quick eye. There are none of the recruits would do as well at a first attempt; I'd like to have the training of you. It's a thousand - "
"Ah, Bardia, Bardia," I sobbed, "if only you'd killed me. I'd be out of my misery now."
"No, you wouldn't," said he. "You'd be dying, not dead. It's only in tales that a man dies the moment the steel's gone in and come out. Unless of course you swap off his head."
I could talk no more at all now. The whole world seemed to me to be in my weeping.
"Curse it," said Bardia, "I can't bear this." There were tears in his own eyes now; he was a very tender man. "I wouldn't mind so much if the one weren't so brave and the other so beautiful. Here! Lady! Stop it. I'll risk my life, and Ungit's wrath too."
I gazed at him, but was still not able to speak.
"I'd give my own life for the girl in there, if it would do any good. You may have wondered why I, the captain of the guard, am standing here like a common sentry. I wouldn't let anyone else do it. I thought if the poor girl called, or if I had to go in to her for any reason, I'd be homelier for her than a stranger. She sat on my knees when she was little . . . . I wonder do the gods know what it feels like to be a man."
"You'll let me in?" I said.
"On one condition, Lady. You must swear to come out when I knock. It's quiet up here now, but there'll be comings and goings later. There'll be two temple girls coming to her presently; I was warned of that. I'll give you as long as I can. But I must be sure of your coming out when I give the sign. Three knocks - like this."
"I'll come out at once when you do that."
"Swear it, Lady, here on my sword."
I swore it. He looked to left and right, did back the bolt, and said, "Quick. In you go. Heaven comfort you both."