Puslapio vaizdai

starved and ordered to speak no more. When, after only a few days, upon leaving the prison he resumed his blasphemy, he was again taken, and this time sentenced to die.

Of the other eleven who this midnight awaited their last dawn only the youngest was noteworthy. The murderers, the thieves, the traitors, and the fool who had milked the sacred white cow and given the milk, in the jeweled bucket of goid, to a beggar woman and her baby, all, however, had done deeds. in some way curious or violent or mad. They were men who had been without proper respect for the laws; they talked viciously, with many oaths; they drank deeply of the wine; they laughed and scoffed; they spoke of women with a strange blindness in their eyes; they told the most dreadful things. One man who had gone to sea and had been a pirate repeated for the last of many hundred times a tale at which even these others shuddered.

"I tell you, my brothers," said the fool, presently, "that men who have never lain together under the shadow of death and waited for the dawn to pour like blood along the sky do not know what life can hold. It is as well not to be afraid to milk the sacred cow."

"Come, boy," said another to the youngest, "talk. Amuse us. The night passes. Live again in words as well as in your dreams. All that is secret and incommunicable in life will go with us into our graves like shadows that God, the sun, himself could not banish. But the other things, the deeds, the crimes -come, talk. Share your secrets with friends whose tongues you may safely trust."

He laughed at this; they all did, except the youngest, who sat up suddenly, shook the sand from his hair, and spoke.

"I will tell you my secret, my crime," he said. They were surprised, he had been so reticent during his month among them. "I will tell you not to amuse you, for I will choke the man who smiles. I am very strong, really." He spread out his hands and looked at them as if examining a weapon. Then he resumed, smiling himself. "I will tell you because I must tell myself

[merged small][ocr errors]

He paused. The men lying in the sand stirred, and burrowed a little closer, making a smaller circle, drawing more intimately together, for his last words had come a little faintly. The silence held for a second. The palmtree against the stars (the queen's fan) stirred as if the queen had barely moved her hand.

"I am a boatman," the youngest prisoner continued presently, "but I was brought up in the household of a philosopher, and I know more, perhaps, of what has been taught and written by the wise than any of you here, unless it is you," he allowed, looking at the one who maintained that the sun was not God.

"Also I am a poet; I have made very beautiful songs. How I happened to be a boatman is not the story I shall tell you to-night. Indeed, it is not a story at all. The sister of the sun is very capricious. One night I saw some one standing on the white steps leading from one of the city gates down to the river, waiting, I thought, for a boat. rowed closer. I thought it was a young man, for although it was the queen herself, as I came to know, she wore the dress of a man. Her cloak was of white silk, very simple and without embroideries, but heavy and rich, and tied about her with a gold cord. And slung about her shoulders, held in place also by a gold cord that crossed the first, was the skin of a lion. It was exactly like the sky in color, for it was the hour of sunset, and you know what sunset is like on our river. Her legs were bare beneath her white cloak, but on her feet. and reaching half-way up to her knees, were curious shoes of scarlet leather laced about with silver. Her head was bound with a turban, not exactly like a man's turban; in fact, I have never seen anything quite like it. It was an invention of her own, I suppose, designed to hold up and conceal her hair. Her hair is a torrent when it ripples down her back; there is an enormous mass of it. It is very tawny; gold and red, like the lion's skin and the sunset on our

[ocr errors][graphic][merged small]

river. The turban was turquoise in color and showed most deftly the proud shape of her head.

"While I held my boat at the landing I could not speak for looking at her. It did not come to me instantly that it was a woman. It was only a dream I saw, until she spoke in a voice at once clear and low.


'No,' she said, 'I do not want a boat. I came out to look at the sunset. I must go back.'

"If you will come with me, sir,' I said, for since she pretended to be a man I did not falter at humoring her mood, 'I will row you down the river to a green hill where I myself often go to watch the sunset.'

'You will find me a poor passenger,' she answered. 'I have left my purse behind and have no money.'

" 'I will take the sunset's gold for my fare,' I said.


'Who are you?' she asked curiously.


'Only one of the river boatmen,' I told her.

"There was a slight pause. She was staring at me.

""Is the sunset more beautiful from any place in the world than from this gateway?' she asked, but more of herself than of me. However, I answered:

""The sunset is not more beautiful, perhaps, from my hill by the river than


[ocr errors]

from this gateway, but looking back, one can see the city shining in the afterglow. The river, too, as golden as a dagger-a curved dagger in the hand of the night. Then the white walls and the towers and the minarets seem to come loose from the land in the gradually growing darkness, and there is no more a golden city by a golden river, but a garden carved out of pearl, rising from purple shadows toward the first stars. When the gate-keepers hang out the red lanterns, which look like small dragons of fire, I return. But there is one wonder there on my hill by the river of which it is difficult to speak.' "I paused.

""The fragrance,' I explained; 'a fragrance of many strong, sweet odors that no one can describe. The early night winds, blowing in from the desert, bring the aroma of thousands of herbs pressed between the hands of the day and the night. And along the river the slopes covered with sweet grasses seem to awaken at the cool urge of the dew and send out of their soil a scentsomething like the scent of the earth after the first spring rains. From the groves of camphor-trees to the south, far to the south, the winds bring a faint, poignant odor more delicate and yet keener than that from the sweetgum-trees just beyond the city walls. Yet that is not all, for about one's feet

spring the lilies-of-the-valley-lilies-ofthe-valley that grow wild beneath the tangled purple heliotrope, which stands sometimes little short of my arm-pits.'

"Are there paths up this hill?' she asked. 'Can one find one's way in this dense wild garden of yours?'


"There are paths,' I said, 'that I have made myself, and kept clean with sand from the river-bank.' I told her of the paths, but not of my little house, or of certain treasures I kept there, locked behind a heavy door to which there was but one key-this one.” He held up a piece of metal that flashed in the starlight. For a moment he stared at it. "The key that once was the queen's jailer for a day and a night," he said quietly; then he put it back against his bare skin, beneath his soiled silk blouse. His blouse was of silk, the finest silk, though it had become sand-stained and torn. Then he resumed: "She stepped into the boat. I put off. She was silent, but I could not help singing.


'Sing that same song again,' she commanded when I had stopped. "I sang the song again.

""What is it called?' she asked when again I had finished.

"It has no name,' I answered. "From whom did you learn it?'

'From myself. It is my own song.' "She was quiet again.

"Presently I drew the boat up on the white sand of the river-bank, and she stepped out. The hill above us rose dark, like the dome of an impenetrable tree, against the long, phantom, radiant river of light flowing against the westcrn horizon. We ascended the white sand paths. We pressed our way forward against the reluctance of the flowers and foliage arching across the paths against our bodies. You might think that the fragrance would become intolerable, but it was not so. The light winds lifted it and bore it away just as it grew too heavily sweet, or just as it seemed about to lodge, with the paralysis of a drug, in one's brain, one's nerves. And the winds that came and went, remember, bore other odors more aromatic, lighter, less disturbing than that of the heliotrope mingled with the new keen

nt of the lilies-of-the-valley.

So we came to my little house; it is


[ocr errors]

a white plaster house, very small, and made entirely by my own hands.

"I thought all little houses were hideous and dirty,' she said as we stood on the roof, and she leaned against the wall, looking down at the heliotrope, flowering high, below. Then she sat on a rose and turquoise rug that I threw over some grass cushions for her, and drank the wine that I brought her from a jar which had hung suspended by a rope in a deep well. She drank from one of the most beautiful glasses in the world. I had it from the philosopher, but that would not interest you. Only she knew that it was beautiful; and when she had drunk the wine she held the glass between her eyes and the sunset, turning now and then to look up the river toward the city.


'Yes, this is the loveliest place in the world from which to see the sunset,' she said. 'How golden the city looks, and, oh, the river! It is a beautiful city, is it not?'

"From her tone she might have been a mother speaking of her child.

"That was the first of many sunset hours that brought the sister of the sun to my little house. Always she dressed herself as a man, for as a woman she could not have gone alone through the streets; and the queen likes to walk alone. She is a very lonely woman. I did not know that she was the queen, however, not then, and for a time I used to wonder. Sometimes her cloak was black instead of white; sometimes her turban was green instead of blue; but she always wore the skin of the tawny lion about her shoulders, and her tawny hair was always bound up under the turban. I could talk many hours, telling you of the things she said, of how she looked, of the emotion I felt; but I will tell you only the things that you cannot possibly understand, for I am talking to myself, and not to you." He paused. The fool groaned. The man who did not believe that the sun was God shivered. The others were quite still. Even the soldiers who had been pacing the wall were motionless against the sky, like figures carved from shadowy silver.

"The queen is a very strange woman," resumed the prisoner who had known

the queen. "But a woman should not be strange," he added quickly, with a certain violence in the words which died almost instantly. "A woman should be simple, and beautiful perhaps, if it pleases Heaven to make her so; and she should be easy to love, and even easier not to love when the spirit and the senses are worn. If I were God, I should know how to make a world of women, and make them all less mischievous and less capable of evil and disturbance than they are now. They should be all mothers and meek and all tender. I shall not try to tell you how strange a woman the queen is. She talks wisely and listens often to the talk of wise men, but she does many foolish things. She thinks a great deal in silence, but her thoughts lead her nowhere that she will let one follow. She is cruel and merciless, but to no one so cruel and so merciless as to herself. I think she lives from sheer pride. I know that she regards the dead not without envy. Her spirit is like an arrow drawn tight, but the bow of her desire is never unloosed. It is said that the queen has had many lovers. That is a lie. The queen has had no lovers. Sometimes she has gone disguised into brothels and sat among the men, terrible sailors and soldiers, and debauchees from the desert who have come into the city, and rivermen who have recently returned from the jungle. She has sat among them and listened to their talk and drunk deep of the wine that the keepers of such places flavor with a powder made from amber. You know, all of you?"

The men stirred.

"Yes, yes," they muttered.

"But she has gone forth sober of soul and chill of body. The queen has had no lovers, I tell you. The queen does not love love. Her eyes are the most beautiful things in the world. There is that look of light in them, and also that somber look of torture. You see it sometimes. When she is very unhappy, they are very luminous. The queen is a very unhappy woman. I think love is something that should be like sunlight. It should be waiting for one in the morning of one's life and go with him to the twilight. It should warm him, and


bring to growth all the flowers and fruit of his soul. It should be a very happy, easy thing, love. One should never love a strange woman-or queen. A queen can send one to death for merely having touched her hands in love. You expected a tale, and I am telling you none. I am saying things that you cannot possibly understand. I am telling you of a woman whose loneliness is a tragedy, who will not let herself have happiness, upon whom a curse has fallen-an intolerable holiness that makes her the priestess of an impossible dream; who refuses pleasure as a captious man refuses poor fruit; who looks upon life and knows its beauty, and yet puts it aside as a judge puts aside the testimony of a fool. And you expected a tale. Very well, listen."

He paused, sat erect, and then leaned forward, speaking as if seeing:

"The bazaar is stormed by a clamor of voices, all crying out at once. They are telling of the wars to the north. They are telling of the battles lost, of the truce made by the queen's councilors, of the victorious prince who will spare this land and all the queen's cities if she will take him as a husband. The rumor comes to the bazaar that the queen refuses; that she offers to assuage the anger of her brother, the sun, against her people by going without water or food or sword into the desert. That would have meant her death, certainly. Or she will lie down on a burning barge set adrift upon the river. And that would have been a death more terrible than one from thirst or hunger or wild beast in the desert. Or she would lock herself in the vaults of the temple and pray and fast until God heard her and took her as a sacrifice. One of these things the queen would have done for her people. And the sister who was homely from her childhood, or the one who was lame from birth, or even the brother who was born a little mad, would have been left to rule in her stead. But the populace would not have it so. They wished their queen to marry the strong prince who waited with his armies for her answer in the north. Night comes, and the queen's house is surrounded by fierce men and fiercer women, crying out to the sister

[graphic][merged small][merged small][subsumed]
« AnkstesnisTęsti »