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Making a circuit of the castle, I came again to the open gates, crossed the ravine-like moat, and found myself in a paved court, planted at regular intervals with towering trees like poplars. In the centre was one taller than the rest, whose branches, near the top, spread a little and gave it some resemblance to a palm. Between their great stems I got glimpses of the palace, which was of a style strange to me, but suggested Indian origin. It was long and low, with lofty towers at the corners, and one huge dome in the middle, rising from the roof to half the height of the towers. The main entrance was in the centre of the front—a low arch that seemed half an ellipse. No one was visible, the doors stood wide open, and I went unchallenged into a large hall, in the form of a longish ellipse. Toward one side stood a cage, in which couched, its head on its paws, a huge leopardess, chained by a steel collar, with its mouth muzzled and its paws muffled. It was white with dark oval spots, and lay staring out of wide-open eyes, with canoe-shaped pupils, and great green irids. It appeared to watch me, but not an eyeball, not a foot, not a whisker moved, and its tail stretched out behind it rigid as an iron bar. I could not tell whether it was a live thing or not.
From this vestibule two low passages led; I took one of them, and found it branch into many, all narrow and irregular. At a spot where was scarce room for two to pass, a page ran against me. He started back in terror, but having scanned me, gathered impudence, puffed himself out, and asked my business.
“To see the princess,” I answered.
“A likely thing!” he returned. “I have not seen her highness this morning myself!”
I caught him by the back of the neck, shook him, and said, “Take me to her at once, or I will drag you with me till I find her. She shall know how her servants receive her visitors.”
He gave a look at me, and began to pull like a blind man’s dog, leading me thus to a large kitchen, where were many servants, feebly busy, and hardly awake. I expected them to fall upon me and drive me out, but they stared instead, with wide eyes—not at me, but at something behind me, and grew more ghastly as they stared. I turned my head, and saw the white leopardess, regarding them in a way that might have feared stouter hearts.
Presently, however, one of them, seeing, I suppose, that attack was not imminent, began to recover himself; I turned to him, and let the boy go.
“Take me to the princess,” I said.
“She has not yet left her room, your lordship,” he replied.
“Let her know that I am here, waiting audience of her.”
“Will your lordship please to give me your name?”
“Tell her that one who knows the white leech desires to see her.”
“She will kill me if I take such a message: I must not. I dare not.”
He cast a glance at my attendant, and went.
The others continued staring—too much afraid of her to take their eyes off her. I turned to the graceful creature, where she stood, her muzzle dropped to my heel, white as milk, a warm splendour in the gloomy place, and stooped and patted her. She looked up at me; the mere movement of her head was enough to scatter them in all directions. She rose on her hind legs, and put her paws on my shoulders; I threw my arms round her. She pricked her ears, broke from me, and was out of sight in a moment.
The man I had sent to the princess entered.
“Please to come this way, my lord,” he said.
My heart gave a throb, as if bracing itself to the encounter. I followed him through many passages, and was at last shown into a room so large and so dark that its walls were invisible. A single spot on the floor reflected a little light, but around that spot all was black. I looked up, and saw at a great height an oval aperture in the roof, on the periphery of which appeared the joints between blocks of black marble. The light on the floor showed close-fitting slabs of the same material. I found afterward that the elliptical wall as well was of black marble, absorbing the little light that reached it. The roof was the long half of an ellipsoid, and the opening in it was over one of the foci of the ellipse of the floor. I fancied I caught sight of reddish lines, but when I would have examined them, they were gone.
All at once, a radiant form stood in the centre of the darkness, flashing a splendour on every side. Over a robe of soft white, her hair streamed in a cataract, black as the marble on which it fell. Her eyes were a luminous blackness; her arms and feet like warm ivory. She greeted me with the innocent smile of a girl—and in face, figure, and motion seemed but now to have stepped over the threshold of womanhood. “Alas,” thought I, “ill did I reckon my danger! Can this be the woman I rescued—she who struck me, scorned me, left me?” I stood gazing at her out of the darkness; she stood gazing into it, as if searching for me.
She disappeared. “She will not acknowledge me!” I thought. But the next instant her eyes flashed out of the dark straight into mine. She had descried me and come to me!
“You have found me at last!” she said, laying her hand on my shoulder. “I knew you would!”
My frame quivered with conflicting consciousnesses, to analyse which I had no power. I was simultaneously attracted and repelled: each sensation seemed either.
“You shiver!” she said. “This place is cold for you! Come.”
I stood silent: she had struck me dumb with beauty; she held me dumb with sweetness.
Taking me by the hand, she drew me to the spot of light, and again flashed upon me. An instant she stood there.
“You have grown brown since last I saw you,” she said.
“This is almost the first roof I have been under since you left me,” I replied.
“Whose was the other?” she rejoined.
“I do not know the woman’s name.”
“I would gladly learn it! The instinct of hospitality is not strong in my people!”
She took me again by the hand, and led me through the darkness many steps to a curtain of black. Beyond it was a white stair, up which she conducted me to a beautiful chamber.
“How you must miss the hot flowing river!” she said. “But there is a bath in the corner with no white leeches in it! At the foot of your couch you will find a garment. When you come down, I shall be in the room to your left at the foot of the stair.”
I stood as she left me, accusing my presumption: how was I to treat this lovely woman as a thing of evil, who behaved to me like a sister?—Whence the marvellous change in her? She left me with a blow; she received me almost with an embrace! She had reviled me; she said she knew I would follow and find her! Did she know my doubts concerning her—how much I should want explained? Could she explain all? Could I believe her if she did? As to her hospitality, I had surely earned and might accept that—at least until I came to a definite judgment concerning her!
Could such beauty as I saw, and such wickedness as I suspected, exist in the same person? If they could, how was it possible? Unable to answer the former question, I must let the latter wait!
Clear as crystal, the water in the great white bath sent a sparkling flash from the corner where it lay sunk in the marble floor, and seemed to invite me to its embrace. Except the hot stream, two draughts in the cottage of the veiled woman, and the pools in the track of the wounded leopardess, I had not seen water since leaving home: it looked a thing celestial. I plunged in.
Immediately my brain was filled with an odour strange and delicate, which yet I did not altogether like. It made me doubt the princess afresh: had she medicated it? had she enchanted it? was she in any way working on me unlawfully? And how was there water in the palace, and not a drop in the city? I remembered the crushed paw of the leopardess, and sprang from the bath.
What had I been bathing in? Again I saw the fleeing mother, again I heard the howl, again I saw the limping beast. But what matter whence it flowed? was not the water sweet? Was it not very water the pitcher-plant secreted from its heart, and stored for the weary traveller? Water came from heaven: what mattered the well where it gathered, or the spring whence it burst? But I did not re-enter the bath.
I put on the robe of white wool, embroidered on the neck and hem, that lay ready for me, and went down the stair to the room whither my hostess had directed me. It was round, all of alabaster, and without a single window: the light came through everywhere, a soft, pearly shimmer rather than shine. Vague shadowy forms went flitting about over the walls and low dome, like loose rain-clouds over a gray-blue sky.
The princess stood waiting me, in a robe embroidered with argentine rings and discs, rectangles and lozenges, close together—a silver mail. It fell unbroken from her neck and hid her feet, but its long open sleeves left her arms bare.
In the room was a table of ivory, bearing cakes and fruit, an ivory jug of milk, a crystal jug of wine of a pale rose-colour, and a white loaf.
“Here we do not kill to eat,” she said; “but I think you will like what I can give you.”
I told her I could desire nothing better than what I saw. She seated herself on a couch by the table, and made me a sign to sit by her.
She poured me out a bowlful of milk, and, handing me the loaf, begged me to break from it such a piece as I liked. Then she filled from the wine-jug two silver goblets of grotesquely graceful workmanship.
“You have never drunk wine like this!” she said.
I drank, and wondered: every flower of Hybla and Hymettus must have sent its ghost to swell the soul of that wine!
“And now that you will be able to listen,” she went on, “I must do what I can to make myself intelligible to you. Our natures, however, are so different, that this may not be easy. Men and women live but to die; we, that is such as I—we are but a few—live to live on. Old age is to you a horror; to me it is a dear desire: the older we grow, the nearer we are to our perfection. Your perfection is a poor thing, comes soon, and lasts but a little while; ours is a ceaseless ripening. I am not yet ripe, and have lived thousands of your years—how many, I never cared to note. The everlasting will not be measured.
“Many lovers have sought me; I have loved none of them: they sought but to enslave me; they sought me but as the men of my city seek gems of price.—When you found me, I found a man! I put you to the test; you stood it; your love was genuine!—It was, however, far from ideal—far from such love as I would have. You loved me truly, but not with true love. Pity has, but is not love. What woman of any world would return love for pity? Such love as yours was then, is hateful to me. I knew that, if you saw me as I am, you would love me—like the rest of them—to have and to hold: I would none of that either! I would be otherwise loved! I would have a love that outlived hopelessness, outmeasured indifference, hate, scorn! Therefore did I put on cruelty, despite, ingratitude. When I left you, I had shown myself such as you could at least no longer follow from pity: I was no longer in need of you! But you must satisfy my desire or set me free—prove yourself priceless or worthless! To satisfy the hunger of my love, you must follow me, looking for nothing, not gratitude, not even pity in return!—follow and find me, and be content with merest presence, with scantest forbearance!—I, not you, have failed; I yield the contest.”
She looked at me tenderly, and hid her face in her hands. But I had caught a flash and a sparkle behind the tenderness, and did not believe her. She laid herself out to secure and enslave me; she only fascinated me!
“Beautiful princess,” I said, “let me understand how you came to be found in such evil plight.”
“There are things I cannot explain,” she replied, “until you have become capable of understanding them—which can only be when love is grown perfect. There are many things so hidden from you that you cannot even wish to know them; but any question you can put, I can in some measure answer.
“I had set out to visit a part of my dominions occupied by a savage dwarf-people, strong and fierce, enemies to law and order, opposed to every kind of progress—an evil race. I went alone, fearing nothing, unaware of the least necessity for precaution. I did not know that upon the hot stream beside which you found me, a certain woman, by no means so powerful as myself, not being immortal, had cast what you call a spell—which is merely the setting in motion of a force as natural as any other, but operating primarily in a region beyond the ken of the mortal who makes use of the force.
“I set out on my journey, reached the stream, bounded across it,——”
A shadow of embarrassment darkened her cheek: I understood it, but showed no sign. Checked for the merest moment, she went on:
“—you know what a step it is in parts!—But in the very act, an indescribable cold invaded me. I recognised at once the nature of the assault, and knew it could affect me but temporarily. By sheer force of will I dragged myself to the wood—nor knew anything more until I saw you asleep, and the horrible worm at your neck. I crept out, dragged the monster from you, and laid my lips to the wound. You began to wake; I buried myself among the leaves.”
She rose, her eyes flashing as never human eyes flashed, and threw her arms high over her head.
“What you have made me is yours!” she cried. “I will repay you as never yet did woman! My power, my beauty, my love are your own: take them.”
She dropt kneeling beside me, laid her arms across my knees, and looked up in my face.
Then first I noted on her left hand a large clumsy glove. In my mind’s eye I saw hair and claws under it, but I knew it was a hand shut hard—perhaps badly bruised. I glanced at the other: it was lovely as hand could be, and I felt that, if I did less than loathe her, I should love her. Not to dally with usurping emotions, I turned my eyes aside.
She started to her feet. I sat motionless, looking down.
“To me she may be true!” said my vanity. For a moment I was tempted to love a lie.
An odour, rather than the gentlest of airy pulses, was fanning me. I glanced up. She stood erect before me, waving her lovely arms in seemingly mystic fashion.
A frightful roar made my heart rebound against the walls of its cage. The alabaster trembled as if it would shake into shivers. The princess shuddered visibly.
“My wine was too strong for you!” she said, in a quavering voice; “I ought not to have let you take a full draught! Go and sleep now, and when you wake ask me what you please.—I will go with you: come.”
As she preceded me up the stair,—“I do not wonder that roar startled you!” she said. “It startled me, I confess: for a moment I feared she had escaped. But that is impossible.”
The roar seemed to me, however—I could not tell why—to come from the white leopardess, and to be meant for me, not the princess.
With a smile she left me at the door of my room, but as she turned I read anxiety on her beautiful face.