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The Persian Cat
I sat in silence and shame. What he said was true: I had not been a wise neighbour to the Little Ones!
Mr. Raven resumed: “You wronged at the same time the stupid creatures themselves. For them slavery would have been progress. To them a few such lessons as you could have given them with a stick from one of their own trees, would have been invaluable.”
“I did not know they were cowards!”
“What difference does that make? The man who grounds his action on another’s cowardice, is essentially a coward himself.—I fear worse will come of it! By this time the Little Ones might have been able to protect themselves from the princess, not to say the giants—they were always fit enough for that; as it was they laughed at them! but now, through your relations with her,——”
“I hate her!” I cried.
“Did you let her know you hated her?”
Again I was silent.
“Not even to her have you been faithful!—But hush! we were followed from the fountain, I fear!”
“No living creature did I see!—except a disreputable-looking cat that bolted into the shrubbery.”
“It was a magnificent Persian—so wet and draggled, though, as to look what she was—worse than disreputable!”
“What do you mean, Mr. Raven?” I cried, a fresh horror taking me by the throat. “—There was a beautiful blue Persian about the house, but she fled at the very sound of water!—Could she have been after the goldfish?”
“We shall see!” returned the librarian. “I know a little about cats of several sorts, and there is that in the room which will unmask this one, or I am mistaken in her.”
He rose, went to the door of the closet, brought from it the mutilated volume, and sat down again beside me. I stared at the book in his hand: it was a whole book, entire and sound!
“Where was the other half of it?” I gasped.
“Sticking through into my library,” he answered.
I held my peace. A single question more would have been a plunge into a bottomless sea, and there might be no time!
“Listen,” he said: “I am going to read a stanza or two. There is one present who, I imagine, will hardly enjoy the reading!”
He opened the vellum cover, and turned a leaf or two. The parchment was discoloured with age, and one leaf showed a dark stain over two-thirds of it. He slowly turned this also, and seemed looking for a certain passage in what appeared a continuous poem. Somewhere about the middle of the book he began to read.
But what follows represents—not what he read, only the impression it made upon me. The poem seemed in a language I had never before heard, which yet I understood perfectly, although I could not write the words, or give their meaning save in poor approximation. These fragments, then, are the shapes which those he read have finally taken in passing again through my brain:—
He turned a leaf and read again:—
Again he paused, again turned a leaf, and again began:—
A strange, repulsive feline wail arose somewhere in the room. I started up on my elbow and stared about me, but could see nothing.
Mr. Raven turned several leaves, and went on:—
Again I heard the ugly cry of feline pain. Again I looked, but saw neither shape nor motion. Mr. Raven seemed to listen a moment, but again turned several pages, and resumed:—
Once more arose the bestial wail.
“I thought some foul thing was in the room!” said the librarian, casting a glance around him; but instantly he turned a leaf or two, and again read:—
With a fearsome yell, her clammy fur staring in clumps, her tail thick as a cable, her eyes flashing green as a chrysoprase, her distended claws entangling themselves so that she floundered across the carpet, a huge white cat rushed from somewhere, and made for the chimney. Quick as thought the librarian threw the manuscript between her and the hearth. She crouched instantly, her eyes fixed on the book. But his voice went on as if still he read, and his eyes seemed also fixed on the book:—
At these words such a howling, such a prolonged yell of agony burst from the cat, that we both stopped our ears. When it ceased, Mr. Raven walked to the fire-place, took up the book, and, standing between the creature and the chimney, pointed his finger at her for a moment. She lay perfectly still. He took a half-burnt stick from the hearth, drew with it some sign on the floor, put the manuscript back in its place, with a look that seemed to say, “Now we have her, I think!” and, returning to the cat, stood over her and said, in a still, solemn voice:—
“Lilith, when you came here on the way to your evil will, you little thought into whose hands you were delivering yourself!—Mr. Vane, when God created me,—not out of Nothing, as say the unwise, but out of His own endless glory—He brought me an angelic splendour to be my wife: there she lies! For her first thought was power; she counted it slavery to be one with me, and bear children for Him who gave her being. One child, indeed, she bore; then, puffed with the fancy that she had created her, would have me fall down and worship her! Finding, however, that I would but love and honour, never obey and worship her, she poured out her blood to escape me, fled to the army of the aliens, and soon had so ensnared the heart of the great Shadow, that he became her slave, wrought her will, and made her queen of Hell. How it is with her now, she best knows, but I know also. The one child of her body she fears and hates, and would kill, asserting a right, which is a lie, over what God sent through her into His new world. Of creating, she knows no more than the crystal that takes its allotted shape, or the worm that makes two worms when it is cloven asunder. Vilest of God’s creatures, she lives by the blood and lives and souls of men. She consumes and slays, but is powerless to destroy as to create.”
The animal lay motionless, its beryl eyes fixed flaming on the man: his eyes on hers held them fixed that they could not move from his.
“Then God gave me another wife—not an angel but a woman—who is to this as light is to darkness.”
The cat gave a horrible screech, and began to grow bigger. She went on growing and growing. At last the spotted leopardess uttered a roar that made the house tremble. I sprang to my feet. I do not think Mr. Raven started even with his eyelids.
“It is but her jealousy that speaks,” he said, “jealousy self-kindled, foiled and fruitless; for here I am, her master now whom she would not have for her husband! while my beautiful Eve yet lives, hoping immortally! Her hated daughter lives also, but beyond her evil ken, one day to be what she counts her destruction—for even Lilith shall be saved by her child-bearing. Meanwhile she exults that my human wife plunged herself and me in despair, and has borne me a countless race of miserables; but my Eve repented, and is now beautiful as never was woman or angel, while her groaning, travailing world is the nursery of our Father’s children. I too have repented, and am blessed.—Thou, Lilith, hast not yet repented; but thou must.—Tell me, is the great Shadow beautiful? Knowest thou how long thou wilt thyself remain beautiful?—Answer me, if thou knowest.”
Then at last I understood that Mr. Raven was indeed Adam, the old and the new man; and that his wife, ministering in the house of the dead, was Eve, the mother of us all, the lady of the New Jerusalem.
The leopardess reared; the flickering and fleeing of her spots began; the princess at length stood radiant in her perfect shape.
“I am beautiful—and immortal!” she said—and she looked the goddess she would be.
“As a bush that burns, and is consumed,” answered he who had been her husband. “—What is that under thy right hand?”
For her arm lay across her bosom, and her hand was pressed to her side.
A swift pang contorted her beautiful face, and passed.
“It is but a leopard-spot that lingers! it will quickly follow those I have dismissed,” she answered.
“Thou art beautiful because God created thee, but thou art the slave of sin: take thy hand from thy side.”
Her hand sank away, and as it dropt she looked him in the eyes with a quailing fierceness that had in it no surrender.
He gazed a moment at the spot.
“It is not on the leopard; it is in the woman!” he said. “Nor will it leave thee until it hath eaten to thy heart, and thy beauty hath flowed from thee through the open wound!”
She gave a glance downward, and shivered.
“Lilith,” said Adam, and his tone had changed to a tender beseeching, “hear me, and repent, and He who made thee will cleanse thee!”
Her hand returned quivering to her side. Her face grew dark. She gave the cry of one from whom hope is vanishing. The cry passed into a howl. She lay writhing on the floor, a leopardess covered with spots.
“The evil thou meditatest,” Adam resumed, “thou shalt never compass, Lilith, for Good and not Evil is the Universe. The battle between them may last for countless ages, but it must end: how will it fare with thee when Time hath vanished in the dawn of the eternal morn? Repent, I beseech thee; repent, and be again an angel of God!”
She rose, she stood upright, a woman once more, and said, “I will not repent. I will drink the blood of thy child.”
My eyes were fastened on the princess; but when Adam spoke, I turned to him: he stood towering above her; the form of his visage was altered, and his voice was terrible.
“Down!” he cried; “or by the power given me I will melt thy very bones.”
She flung herself on the floor, dwindled and dwindled, and was again a gray cat. Adam caught her up by the skin of her neck, bore her to the closet, and threw her in. He described a strange figure on the threshold, and closing the door, locked it.
Then he returned to my side the old librarian, looking sad and worn, and furtively wiping tears from his eyes.