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The White Leech
I woke one morning from a profound sleep, with one of my hands very painful. The back of it was much swollen, and in the centre of the swelling was a triangular wound, like the bite of a leech. As the day went on, the swelling subsided, and by the evening the hurt was all but healed. I searched the cave, turning over every stone of any size, but discovered nothing I could imagine capable of injuring me.
Slowly the days passed, and still the body never moved, never opened its eyes. It could not be dead, for assuredly it manifested no sign of decay, and the air about it was quite pure. Moreover, I could imagine that the sharpest angles of the bones had begun to disappear, that the form was everywhere a little rounder, and that the skin had less of the parchment-look: if such change was indeed there, life must be there! the tide which had ebbed so far toward the infinite, must have begun again to flow! Oh joy to me, if the rising ripples of life’s ocean were indeed burying under lovely shape the bones it had all but forsaken! Twenty times a day I looked for evidence of progress, and twenty times a day I doubted—sometimes even despaired; but the moment I recalled the mental picture of her as I found her, hope revived.
Several weeks had passed thus, when one night, after lying a long time awake, I rose, thinking to go out and breathe the cooler air; for, although from the running of the stream it was always fresh in the cave, the heat was not seldom a little oppressive. The moon outside was full, the air within shadowy clear, and naturally I cast a lingering look on my treasure ere I went. “Bliss eternal!” I cried aloud, “do I see her eyes?” Great orbs, dark as if cut from the sphere of a starless night, and luminous by excess of darkness, seemed to shine amid the glimmering whiteness of her face. I stole nearer, my heart beating so that I feared the noise of it startling her. I bent over her. Alas, her eyelids were close shut! Hope and Imagination had wrought mutual illusion! my heart’s desire would never be! I turned away, threw myself on the floor of the cave, and wept. Then I bethought me that her eyes had been a little open, and that now the awful chink out of which nothingness had peered, was gone: it might be that she had opened them for a moment, and was again asleep!—it might be she was awake and holding them close! In either case, life, less or more, must have shut them! I was comforted, and fell fast asleep.
That night I was again bitten, and awoke with a burning thirst.
In the morning I searched yet more thoroughly, but again in vain. The wound was of the same character, and, as before, was nearly well by the evening. I concluded that some large creature of the leech kind came occasionally from the hot stream. “But, if blood be its object,” I said to myself, “so long as I am there, I need hardly fear for my treasure!”
That same morning, when, having peeled a grape as usual and taken away the seeds, I put it in her mouth, her lips made a slight movement of reception, and I knew she lived!
My hope was now so much stronger that I began to think of some attire for her: she must be able to rise the moment she wished! I betook myself therefore to the forest, to investigate what material it might afford, and had hardly begun to look when fibrous skeletons, like those of the leaves of the prickly pear, suggested themselves as fit for the purpose. I gathered a stock of them, laid them to dry in the sun, pulled apart the reticulated layers, and of these had soon begun to fashion two loose garments, one to hang from her waist, the other from her shoulders. With the stiletto-point of an aloe-leaf and various filaments, I sewed together three thicknesses of the tissue.
During the week that followed, there was no farther sign except that she more evidently took the grapes. But indeed all the signs became surer: plainly she was growing plumper, and her skin fairer. Still she did not open her eyes; and the horrid fear would at times invade me, that her growth was of some hideous fungoid nature, the few grapes being nowise sufficient to account for it.
Again I was bitten; and now the thing, whatever it was, began to pay me regular visits at intervals of three days. It now generally bit me in the neck or the arm, invariably with but one bite, always while I slept, and never, even when I slept, in the daytime. Hour after hour would I lie awake on the watch, but never heard it coming, or saw sign of its approach. Neither, I believe, did I ever feel it bite me. At length I became so hopeless of catching it, that I no longer troubled myself either to look for it by day, or lie in wait for it at night. I knew from my growing weakness that I was losing blood at a dangerous rate, but I cared little for that: in sight of my eyes death was yielding to life; a soul was gathering strength to save me from loneliness; we would go away together, and I should speedily recover!
The garments were at length finished, and, contemplating my handiwork with no small satisfaction, I proceeded to mat layers of the fibre into sandals.
One night I woke suddenly, breathless and faint, and longing after air, and had risen to crawl from the cave, when a slight rustle in the leaves of the couch set me listening motionless.
“I caught the vile thing,” said a feeble voice, in my mother-tongue; “I caught it in the very act!”
She was alive! she spoke! I dared not yield to my transport lest I should terrify her.
“What creature?” I breathed, rather than said.
“The creature,” she answered, “that was biting you.”
“What was it?”
“A great white leech.”
“How big?” I pursued, forcing myself to be calm.
“Not far from six feet long, I should think,” she answered.
“You have saved my life, perhaps!—But how could you touch the horrid thing! How brave of you!” I cried.
“I did!” was all her answer, and I thought she shuddered.
“Where is it? What could you do with such a monster?”
“I threw it in the river.”
“Then it will come again, I fear!”
“I do not think I could have killed it, even had I known how!—I heard you moaning, and got up to see what disturbed you; saw the frightful thing at your neck, and pulled it away. But I could not hold it, and was hardly able to throw it from me. I only heard it splash in the water!”
“We’ll kill it next time!” I said; but with that I turned faint, sought the open air, but fell.
When I came to myself the sun was up. The lady stood a little way off, looking, even in the clumsy attire I had fashioned for her, at once grand and graceful. I had seen those glorious eyes! Through the night they had shone! Dark as the darkness primeval, they now outshone the day! She stood erect as a column, regarding me. Her pale cheek indicated no emotion, only question. I rose.
“We must be going!” I said. “The white leech——”
I stopped: a strange smile had flickered over her beautiful face.
“Did you find me there?” she asked, pointing to the cave.
“No; I brought you there,” I replied.
“You brought me?”
“From the forest.”
“What have you done with my clothes—and my jewels?”
“You had none when I found you.”
“Then why did you not leave me?”
“Because I hoped you were not dead.”
“Why should you have cared?”
“Because I was very lonely, and wanted you to live.”
“You would have kept me enchanted for my beauty!” she said, with proud scorn.
Her words and her look roused my indignation.
“There was no beauty left in you,” I said.
“Why, then, again, did you not let me alone?”
“Because you were of my own kind.”
“Of your kind?” she cried, in a tone of utter contempt.
“I thought so, but find I was mistaken!”
“Doubtless you pitied me!”
“Never had woman more claim on pity, or less on any other feeling!”
With an expression of pain, mortification, and anger unutterable, she turned from me and stood silent. Starless night lay profound in the gulfs of her eyes: hate of him who brought it back had slain their splendour. The light of life was gone from them.
“Had you failed to rouse me, what would you have done?” she asked suddenly without moving.
“I would have buried it.”
“It! What?—You would have buried this?” she exclaimed, flashing round upon me in a white fury, her arms thrown out, and her eyes darting forks of cold lightning.
“Nay; that I saw not! That, weary weeks of watching and tending have brought back to you,” I answered—for with such a woman I must be plain! “Had I seen the smallest sign of decay, I would at once have buried you.”
“Dog of a fool!” she cried, “I was but in a trance—Samoil! what a fate!—Go and fetch the she-savage from whom you borrowed this hideous disguise.”
“I made it for you. It is hideous, but I did my best.”
She drew herself up to her tall height.
“How long have I been insensible?” she demanded. “A woman could not have made that dress in a day!”
“Not in twenty days,” I rejoined, “hardly in thirty!”
“Ha! How long do you pretend I have lain unconscious?—Answer me at once.”
“I cannot tell how long you had lain when I found you, but there was nothing left of you save skin and bone: that is more than three months ago.—Your hair was beautiful, nothing else! I have done for it what I could.”
“My poor hair!” she said, and brought a great armful of it round from behind her; “—it will be more than a three-months’ care to bring you to life again!—I suppose I must thank you, although I cannot say I am grateful!”
“There is no need, madam: I would have done the same for any woman—yes, or for any man either!”
“How is it my hair is not tangled?” she said, fondling it.
“It always drifted in the current.”
“How?—What do you mean?”
“I could not have brought you to life but by bathing you in the hot river every morning.”
She gave a shudder of disgust, and stood for a while with her gaze fixed on the hurrying water. Then she turned to me: “We must understand each other!” she said. “—You have done me the two worst of wrongs—compelled me to live, and put me to shame: neither of them can I pardon!”
She raised her left hand, and flung it out as if repelling me. Something ice-cold struck me on the forehead. When I came to myself, I was on the ground, wet and shivering.