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The House of Death
The Mother of Sorrows rose, muffled her face, and went to call the Little Ones. They slept as if all the night they had not moved, but the moment she spoke they sprang to their feet, fresh as if new-made. Merrily down the stair they followed her, and she brought them where the princess lay, her tears yet flowing as she slept. Their glad faces grew grave. They looked from the princess out on the rain, then back at the princess.
“The sky is falling!” said one.
“The white juice is running out of the princess!” cried another, with an awed look.
“Is it rivers?” asked Odu, gazing at the little streams that flowed adown her hollow cheeks.
“Yes,” answered Mara, “—the most wonderful of all rivers.”
“I thought rivers was bigger, and rushed, like a lot of Little Ones, making loud noises!” he returned, looking at me, from whom alone he had heard of rivers.
“Look at the rivers of the sky!” said Mara. “See how they come down to wake up the waters under the earth! Soon will the rivers be flowing everywhere, merry and loud, like thousands and thousands of happy children. Oh, how glad they will make you, Little Ones! You have never seen any, and do not know how lovely is the water!”
“That will be the glad of the ground that the princess is grown good,” said Odu. “See the glad of the sky!”
“Are the rivers the glad of the princess?” asked Luva. “They are not her juice, for they are not red!”
“They are the juice inside the juice,” answered Mara.
Odu put one finger to his eye, looked at it, and shook his head.
“Princess will not bite now!” said Luva.
“No; she will never do that again,” replied Mara. “—But now we must take her nearer home.”
“Is that a nest?” asked Sozo.
“Yes; a very big nest. But we must take her to another place first.”
“What is that?”
“It is the biggest room in all this world.—But I think it is going to be pulled down: it will soon be too full of little nests.—Go and get your clumsies.”
“Please are there any cats in it?”
“Not one. The nests are too full of lovely dreams for one cat to get in.”
“We shall be ready in a minute,” said Odu, and ran out, followed by all except Luva.
Lilith was now awake, and listening with a sad smile.
“But her rivers are running so fast!” said Luva, who stood by her side and seemed unable to take her eyes from her face. “Her robe is all—I don’t know what. Clumsies won’t like it!”
“They won’t mind it,” answered Mara. “Those rivers are so clean that they make the whole world clean.”
I had fallen asleep by the fire, but for some time had been awake and listening, and now rose.
“It is time to mount, Mr. Vane,” said our hostess.
“Tell me, please,” I said, “is there not a way by which to avoid the channels and the den of monsters?”
“There is an easy way across the river-bed, which I will show you,” she answered; “but you must pass once more through the monsters.”
“I fear for the children,” I said.
“Fear will not once come nigh them,” she rejoined.
We left the cottage. The beasts stood waiting about the door. Odu was already on the neck of one of the two that were to carry the princess. I mounted Lona’s horse; Mara brought her body, and gave it me in my arms. When she came out again with the princess, a cry of delight arose from the children: she was no longer muffled! Gazing at her, and entranced with her loveliness, the boys forgot to receive the princess from her; but the elephants took Lilith tenderly with their trunks, one round her body and one round her knees, and, Mara helping, laid her along between them.
“Why does the princess want to go?” asked a small boy. “She would keep good if she staid here!”
“She wants to go, and she does not want to go: we are helping her,” answered Mara. “She will not keep good here.”
“What are you helping her to do?” he went on.
“To go where she will get more help—help to open her hand, which has been closed for a thousand years.”
“So long? Then she has learned to do without it: why should she open it now?”
“Because it is shut upon something that is not hers.”
“Please, lady Mara, may we have some of your very dry bread before we go?” said Luva.
Mara smiled, and brought them four loaves and a great jug of water.
“We will eat as we go,” they said. But they drank the water with delight.
“I think,” remarked one of them, “it must be elephant-juice! It makes me so strong!”
We set out, the Lady of Sorrow walking with us, more beautiful than the sun, and the white leopardess following her. I thought she meant but to put us in the path across the channels, but I soon found she was going with us all the way. Then I would have dismounted that she might ride, but she would not let me.
“I have no burden to carry,” she said. “The children and I will walk together.”
It was the loveliest of mornings; the sun shone his brightest, and the wind blew his sweetest, but they did not comfort the desert, for it had no water.
We crossed the channels without difficulty, the children gamboling about Mara all the way, but did not reach the top of the ridge over the bad burrow until the sun was already in the act of disappearing. Then I made the Little Ones mount their elephants, for the moon might be late, and I could not help some anxiety about them.
The Lady of Sorrow now led the way by my side; the elephants followed—the two that bore the princess in the centre; the leopardess brought up the rear; and just as we reached the frightful margin, the moon looked up and showed the shallow basin lying before us untroubled. Mara stepped into it; not a movement answered her tread or the feet of my horse. But the moment that the elephants carrying the princess touched it, the seemingly solid earth began to heave and boil, and the whole dread brood of the hellish nest was commoved. Monsters uprose on all sides, every neck at full length, every beak and claw outstretched, every mouth agape. Long-billed heads, horribly jawed faces, knotty tentacles innumerable, went out after Lilith. She lay in an agony of fear, nor dared stir a finger. Whether the hideous things even saw the children, I doubt; certainly not one of them touched a child; not one loathly member passed the live rampart of her body-guard, to lay hold of her.
“Little Ones,” I cried, “keep your elephants close about the princess. Be brave; they will not touch you.”
“What will not touch us? We don’t know what to be brave at!” they answered; and I perceived they were unaware of one of the deformities around them.
“Never mind then,” I returned; “only keep close.”
They were panoplied in their blindness! Incapacity to see was their safety. What they could nowise be aware of, could not hurt them.
But the hideous forms I saw that night! Mara was a few paces in front of me when a solitary, bodiless head bounced on the path between us. The leopardess came rushing under the elephants from behind, and would have seized it, but, with frightful contortions of visage and a loathsome howl, it gave itself a rapid rotatory twist, sprang from her, and buried itself in the ground. The death in my arms assoiling me from fear, I regarded them all unmoved, although never, sure, was elsewhere beheld such a crew accursed!
Mara still went in front of me, and the leopardess now walked close behind her, shivering often, for it was very cold, when suddenly the ground before me to my left began to heave, and a low wave of earth came slinking toward us. It rose higher as it drew hear; out of it slouched a dreadful head with fleshy tubes for hair, and opening a great oval mouth, snapped at me. The leopardess sprang, but fell baffled beyond it.
Almost under our feet, shot up the head of an enormous snake, with a lamping wallowing glare in its eyes. Again the leopardess rushed to the attack, but found nothing. At a third monster she darted with like fury, and like failure—then sullenly ceased to heed the phantom-horde. But I understood the peril and hastened the crossing—the rather that the moon was carrying herself strangely. Even as she rose she seemed ready to drop and give up the attempt as hopeless; and since, I saw her sink back once fully her own breadth. The arc she made was very low, and now she had begun to descend rapidly.
We were almost over, when, between us and the border of the basin, arose a long neck, on the top of which, like the blossom of some Stygian lily, sat what seemed the head of a corpse, its mouth half open, and full of canine teeth. I went on; it retreated, then drew aside. The lady stepped on the firm land, but the leopardess between us, roused once more, turned, and flew at the throat of the terror. I remained where I was to see the elephants, with the princess and the children, safe on the bank. Then I turned to look after the leopardess. That moment the moon went down. For an instant I saw the leopardess and the snake-monster convolved in a cloud of dust; then darkness hid them. Trembling with fright, my horse wheeled, and in three bounds overtook the elephants.
As we came up with them, a shapeless jelly dropped on the princess. A white dove dropped immediately on the jelly, stabbing it with its beak. It made a squelching, sucking sound, and fell off. Then I heard the voice of a woman talking with Mara, and I knew the voice.
“I fear she is dead!” said Mara.
“I will send and find her,” answered the mother. “But why, Mara, shouldst thou at all fear for her or for any one? Death cannot hurt her who dies doing the work given her to do.”
“I shall miss her sorely; she is good and wise. Yet I would not have her live beyond her hour!”
“She has gone down with the wicked; she will rise with the righteous. We shall see her again ere very long.”
“Mother,” I said, although I did not see her, “we come to you many, but most of us are Little Ones. Will you be able to receive us all?”
“You are welcome every one,” she answered. “Sooner or later all will be Little Ones, for all must sleep in my house! It is well with those that go to sleep young and willing!—My husband is even now preparing her couch for Lilith. She is neither young nor quite willing, but it is well indeed that she is come.”
I heard no more. Mother and daughter had gone away together through the dark. But we saw a light in the distance, and toward it we went stumbling over the moor.
Adam stood in the door, holding the candle to guide us, and talking with his wife, who, behind him, laid bread and wine on the table within.
“Happy children,” I heard her say, “to have looked already on the face of my daughter! Surely it is the loveliest in the great world!”
When we reached the door, Adam welcomed us almost merrily. He set the candle on the threshold, and going to the elephants, would have taken the princess to carry her in; but she repulsed him, and pushing her elephants asunder, stood erect between them. They walked from beside her, and left her with him who had been her husband—ashamed indeed of her gaunt uncomeliness, but unsubmissive. He stood with a welcome in his eyes that shone through their severity.
“We have long waited for thee, Lilith!” he said.
She returned him no answer.
Eve and her daughter came to the door.
“The mortal foe of my children!” murmured Eve, standing radiant in her beauty.
“Your children are no longer in her danger,” said Mara; “she has turned from evil.”
“Trust her not hastily, Mara,” answered her mother; “she has deceived a multitude!”
“But you will open to her the mirror of the Law of Liberty, mother, that she may go into it, and abide in it! She consents to open her hand and restore: will not the great Father restore her to inheritance with His other children?”
“I do not know Him!” murmured Lilith, in a voice of fear and doubt.
“Therefore it is that thou art miserable,” said Adam.
“I will go back whence I came!” she cried, and turned, wringing her hands, to depart.
“That is indeed what I would have thee do, where I would have thee go—to Him from whom thou camest! In thy agony didst thou not cry out for Him?”
“I cried out for Death—to escape Him and thee!”
“Death is even now on his way to lead thee to Him. Thou knowest neither Death nor the Life that dwells in Death! Both befriend thee. I am dead, and would see thee dead, for I live and love thee. Thou art weary and heavy-laden: art thou not ashamed? Is not the being thou hast corrupted become to thee at length an evil thing? Wouldst thou yet live on in disgrace eternal? Cease thou canst not: wilt thou not be restored and be?”
She stood silent with bowed head.
“Father,” said Mara, “take her in thine arms, and carry her to her couch. There she will open her hand, and die into life.”
“I will walk,” said the princess.
Adam turned and led the way. The princess walked feebly after him into the cottage.
Then Eve came out to me where I sat with Lona in my bosom. She reached up her arms, took her from me, and carried her in. I dismounted, and the children also. The horse and the elephants stood shivering; Mara patted and stroked them every one; they lay down and fell asleep. She led us into the cottage, and gave the Little Ones of the bread and wine on the table. Adam and Lilith were standing there together, but silent both.
Eve came from the chamber of death, where she had laid Lona down, and offered of the bread and wine to the princess.
“Thy beauty slays me! It is death I would have, not food!” said Lilith, and turned from her.
“This food will help thee to die,” answered Eve.
But Lilith would not taste of it.
“If thou wilt nor eat nor drink, Lilith,” said Adam, “come and see the place where thou shalt lie in peace.”
He led the way through the door of death, and she followed submissive. But when her foot crossed the threshold she drew it back, and pressed her hand to her bosom, struck through with the cold immortal.
A wild blast fell roaring on the roof, and died away in a moan. She stood ghastly with terror.
“It is he!” said her voiceless lips: I read their motion.
“Who, princess?” I whispered.
“The great Shadow,” she murmured.
“Here he cannot enter,” said Adam. “Here he can hurt no one. Over him also is power given me.”
“Are the children in the house?” asked Lilith, and at the word the heart of Eve began to love her.
“He never dared touch a child,” she said. “Nor have you either ever hurt a child. Your own daughter you have but sent into the loveliest sleep, for she was already a long time dead when you slew her. And now Death shall be the atonemaker; you shall sleep together.”
“Wife,” said Adam, “let us first put the children to bed, that she may see them safe!”
He came back to fetch them. As soon as he was gone, the princess knelt to Eve, clasped her knees, and said, “Beautiful Eve, persuade your husband to kill me: to you he will listen! Indeed I would but cannot open my hand.”
“You cannot die without opening it. To kill you would not serve you,” answered Eve. “But indeed he cannot! no one can kill you but the Shadow; and whom he kills never knows she is dead, but lives to do his will, and thinks she is doing her own.”
“Show me then to my grave; I am so weary I can live no longer. I must go to the Shadow—yet I would not!”
She did not, could not understand!
She struggled to rise, but fell at the feet of Eve. The Mother lifted, and carried her inward.
I followed Adam and Mara and the children into the chamber of death. We passed Eve with Lilith in her arms, and went farther in.
“You shall not go to the Shadow,” I heard Eve say, as we passed them. “Even now is his head under my heel!”
The dim light in Adam’s hand glimmered on the sleeping faces, and as he went on, the darkness closed over them. The very air seemed dead: was it because none of the sleepers breathed it? Profoundest sleep filled the wide place. It was as if not one had waked since last I was there, for the forms I had then noted lay there still. My father was just as I had left him, save that he seemed yet nearer to a perfect peace. The woman beside him looked younger.
The darkness, the cold, the silence, the still air, the faces of the lovely dead, made the hearts of the children beat softly, but their little tongues would talk—with low, hushed voices.
“What a curious place to sleep in!” said one, “I would rather be in my nest!”
“It is so cold!” said another.
“Yes, it is cold,” answered our host; “but you will not be cold in your sleep.”
“Where are our nests?” asked more than one, looking round and seeing no couch unoccupied.
“Find places, and sleep where you choose,” replied Adam.
Instantly they scattered, advancing fearlessly beyond the light, but we still heard their gentle voices, and it was plain they saw where I could not.
“Oh,” cried one, “here is such a beautiful lady!—may I sleep beside her? I will creep in quietly, and not wake her.”
“Yes, you may,” answered the voice of Eve behind us; and we came to the couch while the little fellow was yet creeping slowly and softly under the sheet. He laid his head beside the lady’s, looked up at us, and was still. His eyelids fell; he was asleep.
We went a little farther, and there was another who had climbed up on the couch of a woman.
“Mother! mother!” he cried, kneeling over her, his face close to hers. “—She’s so cold she can’t speak,” he said, looking up to us; “but I will soon make her warm!”
He lay down, and pressing close to her, put his little arm over her. In an instant he too was asleep, smiling an absolute content.
We came to a third Little One; it was Luva. She stood on tiptoe, leaning over the edge of a couch.
“My own mother wouldn’t have me,” she said softly: “will you?”
Receiving no reply, she looked up at Eve. The great mother lifted her to the couch, and she got at once under the snowy covering.
Each of the Little Ones had by this time, except three of the boys, found at least an unobjecting bedfellow, and lay still and white beside a still, white woman. The little orphans had adopted mothers! One tiny girl had chosen a father to sleep with, and that was mine. A boy lay by the side of the beautiful matron with the slow-healing hand. On the middle one of the three couches hitherto unoccupied, lay Lona.
Eve set Lilith down beside it. Adam pointed to the vacant couch on Lona’s right hand, and said, “There, Lilith, is the bed I have prepared for you!”
She glanced at her daughter lying before her like a statue carved in semi-transparent alabaster, and shuddered from head to foot.
“How cold it is!” she murmured.
“You will soon begin to find comfort in the cold,” answered Adam.
“Promises to the dying are easy!” she said.
“But I know it: I too have slept. I am dead!”
“I believed you dead long ago; but I see you alive!”
“More alive than you know, or are able to understand. I was scarce alive when first you knew me. Now I have slept, and am awake; I am dead, and live indeed!”
“I fear that child,” she said, pointing to Lona: “she will rise and terrify me!”
“She is dreaming love to you.”
“But the Shadow!” she moaned; “I fear the Shadow! he will be wroth with me!”
“He at sight of whom the horses of heaven start and rear, dares not disturb one dream in this quiet chamber!”
“I shall dream then?”
“You will dream.”
“That I cannot tell, but none he can enter into. When the Shadow comes here, it will be to lie down and sleep also.—His hour will come, and he knows it will.”
“How long shall I sleep?”
“You and he will be the last to wake in the morning of the universe.”
The princess lay down, drew the sheet over her, stretched herself out straight, and lay still with open eyes.
Adam turned to his daughter. She drew near.
“Lilith,” said Mara, “you will not sleep, if you lie there a thousand years, until you have opened your hand, and yielded that which is not yours to give or to withhold.”
“I cannot,” she answered. “I would if I could, and gladly, for I am weary, and the shadows of death are gathering about me.”
“They will gather and gather, but they cannot infold you while yet your hand remains unopened. You may think you are dead, but it will be only a dream; you may think you have come awake, but it will still be only a dream. Open your hand, and you will sleep indeed—then wake indeed.”
“I am trying hard, but the fingers have grown together and into the palm.”
“I pray you put forth the strength of your will. For the love of life, draw together your forces and break its bonds!”
“I have struggled in vain; I can do no more. I am very weary, and sleep lies heavy upon my lids.”
“The moment you open your hand, you will sleep. Open it, and make an end.”
A tinge of colour arose in the parchment-like face; the contorted hand trembled with agonised effort. Mara took it, and sought to aid her.
“Hold, Mara!” cried her father. “There is danger!”
The princess turned her eyes upon Eve, beseechingly.
“There was a sword I once saw in your husband’s hands,” she murmured. “I fled when I saw it. I heard him who bore it say it would divide whatever was not one and indivisible!”
“I have the sword,” said Adam. “The angel gave it me when he left the gate.”
“Bring it, Adam,” pleaded Lilith, “and cut me off this hand that I may sleep.”
“I will,” he answered.
He gave the candle to Eve, and went. The princess closed her eyes.
In a few minutes Adam returned with an ancient weapon in his hand. The scabbard looked like vellum grown dark with years, but the hilt shone like gold that nothing could tarnish. He drew out the blade. It flashed like a pale blue northern streamer, and the light of it made the princess open her eyes. She saw the sword, shuddered, and held out her hand. Adam took it. The sword gleamed once, there was one little gush of blood, and he laid the severed hand in Mara’s lap. Lilith had given one moan, and was already fast asleep. Mara covered the arm with the sheet, and the three turned away.
“Will you not dress the wound?” I said.
“A wound from that sword,” answered Adam, “needs no dressing. It is healing and not hurt.”
“Poor lady!” I said, “she will wake with but one hand!”
“Where the dead deformity clung,” replied Mara, “the true, lovely hand is already growing.”
We heard a childish voice behind us, and turned again. The candle in Eve’s hand shone on the sleeping face of Lilith, and the waking faces of the three Little Ones, grouped on the other side of her couch.
“How beautiful she is grown!” said one of them.
“Poor princess!” said another; “I will sleep with her. She will not bite any more!”
As he spoke he climbed into her bed, and was immediately fast asleep. Eve covered him with the sheet.
“I will go on her other side,” said the third. “She shall have two to kiss her when she wakes!”
“And I am left alone!” said the first mournfully.
“I will put you to bed,” said Eve.
She gave the candle to her husband, and led the child away.
We turned once more to go back to the cottage. I was very sad, for no one had offered me a place in the house of the dead. Eve joined us as we went, and walked on before with her husband. Mara by my side carried the hand of Lilith in the lap of her robe.
“Ah, you have found her!” we heard Eve say as we stepped into the cottage.
The door stood open; two elephant-trunks came through it out of the night beyond.
“I sent them with the lantern,” she went on to her husband, “to look for Mara’s leopardess: they have brought her.”
I followed Adam to the door, and between us we took the white creature from the elephants, and carried her to the chamber we had just left, the women preceding us, Eve with the light, and Mara still carrying the hand. There we laid the beauty across the feet of the princess, her fore paws outstretched, and her head couching between them.