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A Strange Hostess
I travelled on attended by the moon. As usual she was full—I had never seen her other—and to-night as she sank I thought I perceived something like a smile on her countenance.
When her under edge was a little below the horizon, there appeared in the middle of her disc, as if it had been painted upon it, a cottage, through the open door and window of which she shone; and with the sight came the conviction that I was expected there. Almost immediately the moon was gone, and the cottage had vanished; the night was rapidly growing dark, and my way being across a close succession of small ravines, I resolved to remain where I was and expect the morning. I stretched myself, therefore, in a sandy hollow, made my supper off the fruits the children had given me at parting, and was soon asleep.
I woke suddenly, saw above me constellations unknown to my former world, and had lain for a while gazing at them, when I became aware of a figure seated on the ground a little way from and above me. I was startled, as one is on discovering all at once that one is not alone. The figure was between me and the sky, so that I saw its outline well. From where I lay low in the hollow, it seemed larger than human.
It moved its head, and then first I saw that its back was toward me.
“Will you not come with me?” said a sweet, mellow voice, unmistakably a woman’s.
Wishing to learn more of my hostess, “I thank you,” I replied, “but I am not uncomfortable here. Where would you have me go? I like sleeping in the open air.”
“There is no hurt in the air,” she returned; “but the creatures that roam the night in these parts are not such as a man would willingly have about him while he sleeps.”
“I have not been disturbed,” I said.
“No; I have been sitting by you ever since you lay down.”
“That is very kind of you! How came you to know I was here? Why do you show me such favour?”
“I saw you,” she answered, still with her back to me, “in the light of the moon, just as she went down. I see badly in the day, but at night perfectly. The shadow of my house would have hidden you, but both its doors were open. I was out on the waste, and saw you go into this hollow. You were asleep, however, before I could reach you, and I was not willing to disturb you. People are frightened if I come on them suddenly. They call me the Cat-woman. It is not my name.”
I remembered what the children had told me—that she was very ugly, and scratched. But her voice was gentle, and its tone a little apologetic: she could not be a bad giantess!
“You shall not hear it from me,” I answered, “Please tell me what I may call you!”
“When you know me, call me by the name that seems to you to fit me,” she replied: “that will tell me what sort you are. People do not often give me the right one. It is well when they do.”
“I suppose, madam, you live in the cottage I saw in the heart of the moon?”
“I do. I live there alone, except when I have visitors. It is a poor place, but I do what I can for my guests, and sometimes their sleep is sweet to them.”
Her voice entered into me, and made me feel strangely still.
“I will go with you, madam,” I said, rising.
She rose at once, and without a glance behind her led the way. I could see her just well enough to follow. She was taller than myself, but not so tall as I had thought her. That she never turned her face to me made me curious—nowise apprehensive, her voice rang so true. But how was I to fit her with a name who could not see her? I strove to get alongside of her, but failed: when I quickened my pace she quickened hers, and kept easily ahead of me. At length I did begin to grow a little afraid. Why was she so careful not to be seen? Extraordinary ugliness would account for it: she might fear terrifying me! Horror of an inconceivable monstrosity began to assail me: was I following through the dark an unheard-of hideousness? Almost I repented of having accepted her hospitality.
Neither spoke, and the silence grew unbearable. I must break it!
“I want to find my way,” I said, “to a place I have heard of, but whose name I have not yet learned. Perhaps you can tell it me!”
“Describe it, then, and I will direct you. The stupid Bags know nothing, and the careless little Lovers forget almost everything.”
“Where do those live?”
“You are just come from them!”
“I never heard those names before!”
“You would not hear them. Neither people knows its own name!”
“Perhaps so! but hardly any one anywhere knows his own name! It would make many a fine gentleman stare to hear himself addressed by what is really his name!”
I held my peace, beginning to wonder what my name might be.
“What now do you fancy yours?” she went on, as if aware of my thought. “But, pardon me, it is a matter of no consequence.”
I had actually opened my mouth to answer her, when I discovered that my name was gone from me. I could not even recall the first letter of it! This was the second time I had been asked my name and could not tell it!
“Never mind,” she said; “it is not wanted. Your real name, indeed, is written on your forehead, but at present it whirls about so irregularly that nobody can read it. I will do my part to steady it. Soon it will go slower, and, I hope, settle at last.”
This startled me, and I was silent.
We had left the channels and walked a long time, but no sign of the cottage yet appeared.
“The Little Ones told me,” I said at length, “of a smooth green country, pleasant to the feet!”
“Yes?” she returned.
“They told me too of a girl-giantess that was queen somewhere: is that her country?”
“There is a city in that grassy land,” she replied, “where a woman is princess. The city is called Bulika. But certainly the princess is not a girl! She is older than this world, and came to it from yours—with a terrible history, which is not over yet. She is an evil person, and prevails much with the Prince of the Power of the Air. The people of Bulika were formerly simple folk, tilling the ground and pasturing sheep. She came among them, and they received her hospitably. She taught them to dig for diamonds and opals and sell them to strangers, and made them give up tillage and pasturage and build a city. One day they found a huge snake and killed it; which so enraged her that she declared herself their princess, and became terrible to them. The name of the country at that time was The Land of Waters; for the dry channels, of which you have crossed so many, were then overflowing with live torrents; and the valley, where now the Bags and the Lovers have their fruit-trees, was a lake that received a great part of them. But the wicked princess gathered up in her lap what she could of the water over the whole country, closed it in an egg, and carried it away. Her lap, however, would not hold more than half of it; and the instant she was gone, what she had not yet taken fled away underground, leaving the country as dry and dusty as her own heart. Were it not for the waters under it, every living thing would long ago have perished from it. For where no water is, no rain falls; and where no rain falls, no springs rise. Ever since then, the princess has lived in Bulika, holding the inhabitants in constant terror, and doing what she can to keep them from multiplying. Yet they boast and believe themselves a prosperous, and certainly are a self-satisfied people—good at bargaining and buying, good at selling and cheating; holding well together for a common interest, and utterly treacherous where interests clash; proud of their princess and her power, and despising every one they get the better of; never doubting themselves the most honourable of all the nations, and each man counting himself better than any other. The depth of their worthlessness and height of their vainglory no one can understand who has not been there to see, who has not learned to know the miserable misgoverned and self-deceived creatures.”
“I thank you, madam. And now, if you please, will you tell me something about the Little Ones—the Lovers? I long heartily to serve them. Who and what are they? and how do they come to be there? Those children are the greatest wonder I have found in this world of wonders.”
“In Bulika you may, perhaps, get some light on those matters. There is an ancient poem in the library of the palace, I am told, which of course no one there can read, but in which it is plainly written that after the Lovers have gone through great troubles and learned their own name, they will fill the land, and make the giants their slaves.”
“By that time they will have grown a little, will they not?” I said.
“Yes, they will have grown; yet I think too they will not have grown. It is possible to grow and not to grow, to grow less and to grow bigger, both at once—yes, even to grow by means of not growing!”
“Your words are strange, madam!” I rejoined. “But I have heard it said that some words, because they mean more, appear to mean less!”
“That is true, and such words have to be understood. It were well for the princess of Bulika if she heard what the very silence of the land is shouting in her ears all day long! But she is far too clever to understand anything.”
“Then I suppose, when the little Lovers are grown, their land will have water again?”
“Not exactly so: when they are thirsty enough, they will have water, and when they have water, they will grow. To grow, they must have water. And, beneath, it is flowing still.”
“I have heard that water twice,” I said; “—once when I lay down to wait for the moon—and when I woke the sun was shining! and once when I fell, all but killed by the bad giant. Both times came the voices of the water, and healed me.”
The woman never turned her head, and kept always a little before me, but I could hear every word that left her lips, and her voice much reminded me of the woman’s in the house of death. Much of what she said, I did not understand, and therefore cannot remember. But I forgot that I had ever been afraid of her.
We went on and on, and crossed yet a wide tract of sand before reaching the cottage. Its foundation stood in deep sand, but I could see that it was a rock. In character the cottage resembled the sexton’s, but had thicker walls. The door, which was heavy and strong, opened immediately into a large bare room, which had two little windows opposite each other, without glass. My hostess walked in at the open door out of which the moon had looked, and going straight to the farthest corner took a long white cloth from the floor, and wound it about her head and face. Then she closed the other door, in at which the moon had looked, trimmed a small horn lantern that stood on the hearth, and turned to receive me.
“You are very welcome, Mr. Vane!” she said, calling me by the name I had forgotten. “Your entertainment will be scanty, but, as the night is not far spent, and the day not at hand, it is better you should be indoors. Here you will be safe, and a little lack is not a great misery.”
“I thank you heartily, madam,” I replied. “But, seeing you know the name I could not tell you, may I not now know yours?”
“My name is Mara,” she answered.
Then I remembered the sexton and the little black cat.
“Some people,” she went on, “take me for Lot’s wife, lamenting over Sodom; and some think I am Rachel, weeping for her children; but I am neither of those.”
“I thank you again, Mara,” I said. “—May I lie here on your floor till the morning?”
“At the top of that stair,” she answered, “you will find a bed—on which some have slept better than they expected, and some have waked all the night and slept all the next day. It is not a very soft one, but it is better than the sand—and there are no hyenas sniffing about it!”
The stair, narrow and steep, led straight up from the room to an unceiled and unpartitioned garret, with one wide, low dormer window. Close under the sloping roof stood a narrow bed, the sight of which with its white coverlet made me shiver, so vividly it recalled the couches in the chamber of death. On the table was a dry loaf, and beside it a cup of cold water. To me, who had tasted nothing but fruit for months, they were a feast.
“I must leave you in the dark,” my hostess called from the bottom of the stair. “This lantern is all the light I have, and there are things to do tonight.”
“It is of no consequence, thank you, madam,” I returned. “To eat and drink, to lie down and sleep, are things that can be done in the dark.”
“Rest in peace,” she said.
I ate up the loaf, drank the water every drop, and laid myself down. The bed was hard, the covering thin and scanty, and the night cold: I dreamed that I lay in the chamber of death, between the warrior and the lady with the healing wound.
I woke in the middle of the night, thinking I heard low noises of wild animals.
“Creatures of the desert scenting after me, I suppose!” I said to myself, and, knowing I was safe, would have gone to sleep again. But that instant a rough purring rose to a howl under my window, and I sprang from my bed to see what sort of beast uttered it.
Before the door of the cottage, in the full radiance of the moon, a tall woman stood, clothed in white, with her back toward me. She was stooping over a large white animal like a panther, patting and stroking it with one hand, while with the other she pointed to the moon half-way up the heaven, then drew a perpendicular line to the horizon. Instantly the creature darted off with amazing swiftness in the direction indicated. For a moment my eyes followed it, then sought the woman; but she was gone, and not yet had I seen her face! Again I looked after the animal but whether I saw or only fancied a white speck in the distance, I could not tell.—What did it mean? What was the monster-cat sent off to do? I shuddered, and went back to my bed. Then I remembered that, when I lay down in the sandy hollow outside, the moon was setting; yet here she was, a few hours after, shining in all her glory! “Everything is uncertain here,” I said to myself, “—even the motions of the heavenly bodies!”
I learned afterward that there were several moons in the service of this world, but the laws that ruled their times and different orbits I failed to discover.
Again I fell asleep, and slept undisturbed.
When I went down in the morning, I found bread and water waiting me, the loaf so large that I ate only half of it. My hostess sat muffled beside me while I broke my fast, and except to greet me when I entered, never opened her mouth until I asked her to instruct me how to arrive at Bulika. She then told me to go up the bank of the river-bed until it disappeared; then verge to the right until I came to a forest—in which I might spend a night, but which I must leave with my face to the rising moon. Keeping in the same direction, she said, until I reached a running stream, I must cross that at right angles, and go straight on until I saw the city on the horizon.
I thanked her, and ventured the remark that, looking out of the window in the night, I was astonished to see her messenger understand her so well, and go so straight and so fast in the direction she had indicated.
“If I had but that animal of yours to guide me,—” I went on, hoping to learn something of its mission, but she interrupted me, saying, “It was to Bulika she went—the shortest way.”
“How wonderfully intelligent she looked!”
“Astarte knows her work well enough to be sent to do it,” she answered.
“Have you many messengers like her?”
“As many as I require.”
“Are they hard to teach?”
“They need no teaching. They are all of a certain breed, but not one of the breed is like another. Their origin is so natural it would seem to you incredible.”
“May I not know it?”
“A new one came to me last night—from your head while you slept.”
“All in this world seem to love mystery!” I said to myself. “Some chance word of mine suggested an idea—and in this form she embodies the small fact!”
“Then the creature is mine!” I cried.
“Not at all!” she answered. “That only can be ours in whose existence our will is a factor.”
“Ha! a metaphysician too!” I remarked inside, and was silent.
“May I take what is left of the loaf?” I asked presently.
“You will want no more to-day,” she replied.
“To-morrow I may!” I rejoined.
She rose and went to the door, saying as she went, “It has nothing to do with to-morrow,—but you may take it if you will.”
She opened the door, and stood holding it. I rose, taking up the bread—but lingered, much desiring to see her face.
“Must I go, then?” I asked.
“No one sleeps in my house two nights together!” she answered.
“I thank you, then, for your hospitality, and bid you farewell!” I said, and turned to go.
“The time will come when you must house with me many days and many nights,” she murmured sadly through her muffling.
“Willingly,” I replied.
“Nay, not willingly!” she answered.
I said to myself that she was right—I would not willingly be her guest a second time! but immediately my heart rebuked me, and I had scarce crossed the threshold when I turned again.
She stood in the middle of the room; her white garments lay like foamy waves at her feet, and among them the swathings of her face: it was lovely as a night of stars. Her great gray eyes looked up to heaven; tears were flowing down her pale cheeks. She reminded me not a little of the sexton’s wife, although the one looked as if she had not wept for thousands of years, and the other as if she wept constantly behind the wrappings of her beautiful head. Yet something in the very eyes that wept seemed to say, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”
I had bowed my head for a moment, about to kneel and beg her forgiveness, when, looking up in the act, I found myself outside a doorless house. I went round and round it, but could find no entrance.
I had stopped under one of the windows, on the point of calling aloud my repentant confession, when a sudden wailing, howling scream invaded my ears, and my heart stood still. Something sprang from the window above my head, and lighted beyond me. I turned, and saw a large gray cat, its hair on end, shooting toward the river-bed. I fell with my face in the sand, and seemed to hear within the house the gentle sobbing of one who suffered but did not repent.