Till We Have Faces Page 32

I looked again at his face - terrified, idiotic, almost an animal's face. A thought of comfort came to me: "Even if he lives, he will never have his mind again."

I went back and slept soundly.

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."

"What then?"

"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."

"The exercise?"

"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.

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